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Eight Bites Do Not Satisfy Me

March 9, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

An unnamed narrator sheds weight but not her past in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Eight Bites.” After a gastric bypass surgery, old flesh is personified into a “body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth” that lingers in the protagonist’s house (165). Machado’s surrealist blurring of realities rejects the possibility for any universal ideals, including a woman’s thin frame as the standard beauty model.

In the story, the protagonist’s mother only consumed eight bites of any meal, regardless of her hunger or the food’s content. The extremity of the eating practice stresses that the characters’ conflicts with their size was one concerning their appearance and not their well-being, significant when popular culture disguises many of its beauty standards as health claims. With eight bites, the mother could maintain her slender frame and never risk social deviance, still able to “compliment the hostess” (152). The difference in body size between the narrator and her mother constructed a wall of dissonance and uncertainty between the two. Why didn’t the narrator inherit her mother’s restraint? Why could she not subsist off minuscule portions? Eight bites became a conquest, a mallet to shatter the wall isolating her from her mother.

The narrator blames the birth of her now-grown daughter, Cal, as the instigator to her weight gain. Unlike the protagonist’s nieces who support their mothers, Cal—a difficult, incomprehensible feminist—is the antagonist to mainstream ideologies and is hurt by her mother’s surgery. She shares her mother’s shape, and when her mother renounces her own body, she renounces her daughter’s. The narrator cannot see how she is passing down to Cal the same maternal dissidence she experienced and dismisses Cal’s anger as one more thing she cannot understand about her daughter. Of course, Cal’s body is imperfect, the narrator thinks to herself, but can’t she see how her youth grants her ample time to change? The protagonist, like many subjected to the repetitive frames dominating popular media, regards the thin body not only as preferable, but as the only legitimate body to have.

When the protagonist’s sisters decide on surgery, she joins them, not because she needs a superior body, but because she fears risking marginalization otherwise. When the initial sister underwent the surgery, rather than responding with envy, the protagonist feared her sister may be dying. But when sister two and three each followed and the bypass was explained, the narrator could not overcome her feelings of being left behind. To mark the death of her old shape, the narrator orders a last meal at Salt. While the location of her favorite restaurant remains the same, the restaurant itself is always changing, always improving, in parallel with society’s continuously elevated standards. At the newest spot, the narrator eats a platter of oysters, and one of them sticks to the shell. The narrator realizes the mollusks are alive: “they have no brains or insides…but they are alive nonetheless” (156). She believes if there were justice, she would be choked by the oyster, a symbol of the discarded parts of her body that too cling to their shell. Plate in front of her, the narrator “almost gagged, but then [she] swallowed” (156).

Post-surgery, all appears to go well; the neighbors notice her weight loss—an implied compliment—and when she makes a chicken dinner, she stops at bite eight. She has joined her mother and sisters, tossing aside the body that made her an outcast before. But she is not quite free. That body haunts her, appearing initially as an unseen presence, and then as a tangible form one night at the end of her stairs. At first, the narrator believes the shape, almost prepubescent, to be her daughter. Soon, however, she recognizes her [the shape] to be the body she had tried to abandon—her post-Cal body. She tells her body she is unwanted, violently kicking her, yet wishing she, like the oyster, “would fight back” (165). After that, the body stays out of the narrator’s sight, leaving behind trails of laundry and offerings of hard candy which let the protagonist know she “is around, even when she is not around” (167). No one else ever witnesses her, but the protagonist never wonders whether she is literal or imagined, ghost or dream. Because she does not spend time worrying about or even questioning the physicality of the form, the significance of the debate itself is subverted. In any encounter, the details we notice, the meanings we attribute to interactions, everything is shaped by the lens constructed by our backgrounds. Outsiders do not perceive the body because they have not lived the life required to see her.

In popular media, women’s sizes are hierarchized, bigger bodies assuming the pyramid’s bottom row, and the slim and often underweight forming the tiny triangle on top. Society justifies this hierarchy by framing the thin body as the image of health, a more objective sounding ideal than one based in beauty. In the story “Eight Bites,” it is neither the narrator’s physical discomfort nor her high regard of a thin body that motivates her to undergo the gastric bypass surgery, but her fear for marginalization had she not. Only in death, when her old body comforts her, reaching out to “touch her cheek like [she] once did Cal’s” (167), does the narrator recognize how she cut herself down for a society she was never going to fit. The problem had never been her body, but the culture that trained her to believe it was.

Machado’s ambiguity between reality and hallucination illustrates the fallacy in universal standards. The narrator may share her sisters’ blood and size, but her different experiences alter how she lives inside her body. Her post-Cal shape was a culmination of all her identities and adventures, including childbirth, and to dismiss the body is to dismiss the life that led to it. In her smaller frame, the narrator may have been able to stop at bite eight, but she was never full.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “Eight Bites.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017.

 

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Dante's Position

November 10, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's blog.

In an attempt to better understand how we orient ourselves in life, I turn to Dante.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante begins nearly every canto by determining his location. This works twofold as it locates the reader as well as the narrator. The reader first meets Dante in a dark wood where he is surprised by a scary and threatening creature. Afraid, he stands and explains, “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh.... I cannot rightly say how I entered it, I was so full of sleep at the moment I left the true way”. From the very beginning, the reader understands that this is not the average journey through rugged mountains, but something more existential, something personal and revelatory. This journey which promises to take Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven is a spiritual journey. In other words, Dante's internal path was lost and this is his attempt to find his better self.

I can absolutely see how, politically speaking, he had lost his way. Born in Florence in 1265, Dante participated in and witnessed the devastating results of political and religious factions that tore apart his community, family, friends and city. The Guelph faction supported the Pope, whereas the Ghibelline faction supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Guelph families tended to be aristocratic or wealthy, whereas the wealth of the Ghibelline party was focused in agriculture. Therefore, Dante was born into a great deal of political strife that ripped apart the seams of Florence, and medieval Italy. In this growing divide, he witnessed all manner of sin, even from those leaders who were sworn to pursue truth. Dante turned his growing disillusionment with politics and religion into The Divine Comedy in which he lambastes all sinners. Many of the people he places in hell are of high religious orders. He spares no one on this journey – himself included.

How does one locate the self within society? How do we find direction that comforts and guides us? Dante clearly relied upon the church – but the moral depravity of some church figures made him question his own leaders. It is in this state of mind that he enters the dark forest. Lucky for Dante, his idol Virgil comes to rescue him. Virgil has been sent, of course by Beatrice. First of all, I love the idea of the reverse fairy tale – Beatrice saves Dante and not the reverse. And second, I love that they physically lead him to Heaven through the use of dialogue and his own two feet. Though he regards Virgil and Beatrice in a highly idealized state, they do, for the most part, make him earn the light.

Of course, this virtual tour of heaven and hell comes with constant reminders about navigation. Dante orients himself by using: stars, terrain, height and depth, light and dark, and of course, Virgil and Beatrice. Location is of great importance to everyone in the work. Dante introduces each figure by understanding what region and family they are from. This technique, of course, would have resonated with his readers. There is a mathematical precision to his work which relies upon place, date, astrology, religion and symbolism.

Sight is of extreme importance in this orientation. Dante seeks approval before approaching shades (in the "Inferno" and "Purgatorio") and lights (those in "Paradiso"). Both Virgil and Beatrice make eye contact as a way of acceptance or rejection. The juxtaposition of eye contact is made stronger in the Inferno, in which people are often backwards, upside down or sumberged in some pit. In "Paradiso", Dante always looks to Beatrice for approval and receives it from her glowing eyes. She smiles often, unlike those in the painful regions below. As he reaches the highest realms of Paradise, joy also heightens, reflected in the constant orientation towards light. We see how this light acts as a compass in the following few examples:

“And now the life of that holy light had turned again to the Sun which fills it, as to that Good which is sufficient to all things. Ah, souls deceived and creatures impious, who from such Good turn away your hearts, directing your brows to vanity!

“And lo! Another of those splendors made toward me and by brightening outwardly was signifying its wish to please me. Beatrice's eyes, fixed on me as before, made me assured of dear assent to my desire.” (Par., Canto IX)

“[F]rom the heart of one of the new lights there came a voice which made me seem as the needle to the star in turning me to where it was” (Par., Canto XII)

“Let him imagine, who would rightly grasp what I now beheld (and, while I speak, let him hold the image firm as a rock), fifteen stars which in different regions vivify the heaven with such great brightness that it overcomes every thickness of the air; let him imagine that Wain for which the bosom of our heaven suffices night and day so that with the turning of the pole it does not disappear; let him imagine the mouth of that Horn which begins at the end of the axle on which the first wheel revolves – all to have made of themselves two signs in the heavens like that which the daughter of Minos made when she felt the chill of death; and one to have its rays within the other, and both to revolve in such manner that one should go first and the other after; and he will have as it were a shadow of the true constellation, and of the double dance, which was circling round the point where I was; for it is as far beyond our experience as the motion of the heaven that outspeeds all the rest is beyond the motion of the Chiana.” (Par., Canto XIII)

This last passage is particularly difficult for the modern reader unfamiliar with astronomy, mythology or medieval Italy. The notes supply the fact that Wain = Big Dipper, the Horn = the last two stars of the hornlike Little Dipper (Ursa Minor); the daughter of Minos was Ariadne whose crown was turned into a constellation; and finally, Chiana is a river in Tuscany.

In this short paragraph alone, we have a number of orientations that may challenge us. I wonder if these navigation points would have challenged Dante's contemporaries, or only those of us so far removed from the middle ages? In other words, is this work meant to challenge everyone, to unsettle and unseat us, make us uncomfortable with our own knowledge? Regardless of our astrological awareness, I think his point is that, even in connecting with the light, even after visiting with Virgil and Beatrice, forward movement requires a lot of self-evaluation. While it is easy to use GPS in day to day navigation, Dante reminds us how fruitful it can be to focus on points of importance. Our moral compass may depend upon the ways in which we search.

In The Divine Comedy, we are left with the shadow of Dante, much like the shadow of the Argo: “A single moment makes from me greater oblivion than five and twenty centuries have wrought upon the enterprise that made Neptune wonder at the shadow of the Argo. Thus my mind, all rapt, was gazing, fixed, motionless, and intent, ever enkindled by its gazing. In that Light one becomes such that it is impossible he should ever consent to turn himself from it for other sight; for the good, which is the object of the will, is all gathered in it, and outside of it that is defective which is perfect there” (Par., Canto XXXIII).

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Pessoa Constructs a Self

September 15, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The mind's dignity is to acknowledge that it is limited and that reality is outside it.”

Fernando Pessoa's The Education of the Stoic is a thought-project based on the construct of a fully rational self through the fictional persona of The Baron of Teive. From the beginning, the text unsettles the reader. In a book that attempts to define a self, it is also, ironically, difficult to know the narrator. In the text, the Baron writes short journal entries about random matters. In these 'conversations' he intends to discover what it is like to fully divorce emotion from reason. His journey begins with, “We've been devastated by the severest and deadliest drought in history – that of our profound awareness of the futility of all effort and the vanity of all plans.” This, to me, sounds astonishingly like J. Alfred Prufrock, as if that persona had moved past the moment of indecision and stepped into his futile future. In other words, this narrator is capable, but consumed by his own futility. He accepts his fate. It is also ironic to note that the future is devoid of plans, and yet the next one hundred pages discuss the Baron's plan to kill himself. While the future is admittedly bleak, still, this instance represents the first in a series of half-truths.

The Baron of Teive's mantra is something like, “teach nothing, for you still have everything to learn.” And that kind of attitude is admirable in that it puts one in the open mindset of learning. But it is also debilitating, as we see here, from the standpoint that all the teaching never leads to a satisfactory level of expertise. The Baron wants the ability to act, but never finds it. On the other hand, this short entry also does what it claims not to do: it simultaneously offers a teaching and presents something learned. Instead of taking a rational backseat to life, the Baron is making a point based on his own experience. Another piece of irony: Teive writes from experience, which is a fault he finds in other writers.

He condemns the success or failure of popular poets as further proof of his current dilemma. The Baron writes,

“[H]ad these poets sung directly of their baser troubles (for they are indeed base, however they may be used poetically), had they bared their souls in all their nakedness rather than in padded bathing suits, then the sheer violence of their sorrow's root cause might have yielded some admirable lamentations. This would to a certain extent have eliminated – by bringing everything out in the open – the social ridicule that, rightly or wrongly, attaches to these emotional banalities. If a man is a coward, he can either not talk about it (and this is the wiser course), or he can say point-blank, 'I'm a coward.' In the one case he has the advantage of dignity, in the other the advantage of sincerity; either way he escapes being comical, since in the first case he has said nothing and so there's nothing to discover, for he himself revealed his own cowardice. But the coward who feels the need to prove he isn't one, or to affirm that cowardice is universal, or to confess his weakness in a vague, metaphorical way that reveals nothing but also hides nothing – this man is ridiculous to the general public and irritating to the intelligence. This is the kind of man I see in the pessimistic poets and in all those who raise their private sorrows to the status of universal ones.”

This definitely describes the Baron's conundrum: his rational divorce from emotion leaves him unable to empathize with anything other than reason. To admit that one is a coward is unadvised, and yet, it would seem that his inaction is in part due to cowardice. To make the idea of cowardice desirable is even worse. While this is his judgment of others, the judgment also points a finger at himself (unwittingly or not, the reader is unsure). The Baron of Teive embodies cowardice, inability to act, a lack of connection and hesitation. So, instead of connecting with others based upon this shared territory, he creates a rational approach – that of distance.

The Baron claims that the ordinary is uninteresting and un-literary. While claiming to know something about universality, he remains aloof in individuality. That Teive comes to these conclusions as he nears death is as he would have it. He is orchestrating and narrating his own demise. What better way to meet the self than through its preparation for and encounter with death? Yet, it is a rational approach to death, which leaves the reader with a little less sympathy, empathy or connection to this character. And this, I surmise, is as Pessoa would have it.

In my copy of the book, the translator, Richard Zenith, wrote a few notes about the creation of a self after Pessoa's text. In order to better understand the mindset and narrative presented by Pessoa, Zenith describes the writing of the poem “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge. In this poem, a “man from Porlock” interrupts the stream of writing and inserts himself (like it or not) into the poem's narrative. Coleridge never gained the momentum to fully finish that poem, so the reader is left with a brilliant, unfinished fragment. We are left with questions such as: was there truly a visitor, or did the poet interrupt himself? Is this some extension of a conflict between emotion and reason? Do we, too, often interrupt ourselves? By extending these questions to ourselves, we can better identify with the experience – both of Coleridge's and Pessoa's Teive. Is the reader to understand that the brain might sometimes get in its own way? And if so, what does that even mean?

Fernando Pessoa's text is short and easy to read. It has many noteworthy passages and is well worth the short investment of time. It fits solidly into the Modernist literary tradition, which creates a wealth of comparisons. Feel free to post a comment if you have read it or written about it. We would love to hear from you!

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