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Churning through the pages

Behold I am reading up a storm! Fluttering pages in an ecru foam of erudition!

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Woolf

A major work in feminist literature, it’s kind of astonishing to realise this book was first published twenty years ago. Truefax – check Wikipedia. Most of the book could have been written in the past five years, except you’d notice the absence of references to Twitter and the whole stripping-as-exercise-no-really-this-is-what-empowerment-looks-like movement. The general thrust of this solid and stimulating tome is the Beauty Myth theory: as women have become more socially, economically, politically and sexually liberated, our approach towards women’s appearances and bodies has shifted in order to re-establish control and maintain the status quo of repression. While judgment of women’s appearances and punishment for failure to comply have been an element of life for a long time, the rise of women’s power has seen an accompanying but disproportional rise in the standard to which women are held, as well as in the punishment that women are subjected to for failure to comply. Woolf discusses the ways in which the Beauty Myth finds expression and opportunities for repression: through clothes, diet, makeup/cosmetics/cosmetic surgery and weight. I loved this book: I found it not too enraging (a risk with reading up on any feminist — no, any human rights — issues: you exhaust yourself in fury), but sobering and brain-feeding. It stimulated me and challenged me to keep challenging the world we’re all trying to waddle through.

The important thing to remember is the Beauty Myth isn’t some grand conspiracy (“Those pesky dames want the vote, eh? Let’s invent bulimia! MUAHAHA!”) but a social force that needs to be looked at squarely and consciously rejected. By having your attention drawn to it, you’re well positioned to start noticing and challenging the Beauty Myth, which is really the only way our culture will ultimately defeat it. And, frankly, once you notice it, you’ll notice it everywhere. That sounds a little ominous, but once you get your jaw off the ground and realise how crippled women can be by the way others claim jurisdiction over their appearance, you can start rolling your eyes, making comments, and enjoying a glass of wine with similar-minded folks. Thank Christ for that.

In full disclosure, I knew about the underlying theory of The Beauty Myth before reading and so was already kind of in agreement with Woolf’s ideas as I understood them. Reading the full text did nothing to change that. The book concludes with a square and uplifting chapter (square as in a solid-footed, direct eye-contact, listen-up kind of attitude) that incites people, women especially, to band together and counteract the Beauty Myth with the third wave of feminism. I’m a bit fuzzy on my feminist history, so I’m not sure what wave we’re up to,  some twenty years later: but it’s not hard to see that despite some changes, we’re still snagged by the Beauty Myth. It still handicaps the women’s rights movement, and you still hear women — especially, I’m sad to say, young women in their late teens and early twenties — saying they aren’t feminists, largely because there’s a lingering fear of being considered unwomanly, humourless and, worst of all, ugly. But that doesn’t mean the feminist movement has abated: the Internet may sometimes seem like a petrie dish of misogyny at times, but I’ve learned more about sexual diversity, acceptance, sexual rights, the lie of gender roles, and feminism/sexuality rights through the Internet than through any other medium. It’s my belief that the boom in communication the net offers is leading to a boom in seeing things from others’ perspectives, but also a boom in folks matching up ideas — folks who might not get a chance to talk to one another otherwise are suddenly matching their ideas up and this is generating momentum with the potential for wonderful social change.

Where was I? Oh, right: The Beauty Myth. Delicious brain fodder and, hopefully, a stimulus for changing the way you see our fallible Western culture.

The Consolations of Philosophy – Alain de Botton

De Botton is one of my favourite authors. I love his writing: he is funny, candid, moving and articulate. Makes me think and challenges the way I see the world. I cannot recommend The Art of Travel enough. Oh, and Status Anxiety — corking good reads, both of them. One of the biggest strengths of de Botton’s writing is the way he structures his books: he uses chapter and subchapter groupings as a way of keeping his books focused and ordered. Consolations is divided into six chapters, each targetting a particular ill of life (heartache, inadequacy, difficulties, and so on) and then matching a sample of a single philosopher’s work to it. This way, he proceeds through the works of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He keeps each chapter brilliantly concise and that’s what I admire most about his work: focus and brevity. He doesn’t attempt to go into too much detail with each philosopher, just enough to give historical context and a wee bit of characterisation, and then enough of that philosopher’s work to address the topic of the chapter. So this isn’t necessarily the book to turn to if you have to write a graduate thesis on Seneca’s attitude to grapes: but it is the book to turn to if you haven’t read a lot of philosophy, or if you’re the kind of person who assumes philosophy is some kind of ivory tower wankers’ hobby (honestly, the next person who tells me that philosophers don’t deal with real-world problems is getting a lecture about the way pro sportspeople are isolated from reality and then a freaking fork to the eye). You can really treat each chapter as a sample of that philosopher’s work, a jumping-off point.  The whole book is fun, interesting and stimulating. It’s also triggered an unexpected itch to read Nietzsche.

Original Bliss – A.L. Kennedy

So I was having a funky day the other day. I’ve hurt my hip running, so I was limping and feeling pretty sorry for myself. I’m glad it started raining — pathetic fallacy — while I hobbled to my happy place: the library near work. If there’s anywhere you can indulge in the kind of slow sidling walk which was an enormous relief on my sore leg, it’s between the shelves of the library. I was still burning for de Botton, so I was hunting for a copy of How Proust Can Change Your Life and my eye was caught by the vivid orange cover of Original Bliss. There were a few other Kennedy books on the shelf that I picked up as well, but Original Bliss is where it starts. It tells the story of the relationship between Mrs Brindle and Mr Gluck. She’s an abused, insomniac housewife in a crisis of faith and he’s a genius psychologist with an obsession with fringe pornography: she is fascinated by his work and thinks he might be able to help her find her faith, and he is in turn inspired by her and thinks she might be able to help him overcome his obsession. From this starting point, deep and complicated feelings emerge. It’s a really good read, but there are a couple of weaknesses. First, the awesomes: the dialogue is rich and real. There’s not a lot of it, because this is a novella about growth, challenge and private obstacles and so there’s a lot more discussion of what’s going on inside the characters, as expressed through their activities and internal descriptions. But the dialogue that does appear is rich, clear and catches you. Secondly, I loved the scenes with Mr Brindle. His actions are altogether despicable, but very well written. Thirdly, I loved the character of Mr Gluck (his first name — and Mrs Brindle’s) emerge as the novella progresses and you become more intimately acquainted with them). He’s real and lively and interesting and someone I’d like to meet. I didn’t have the same immediate magentism to Mrs Brindle, and it took me a little while to get into where she was coming from, but I liked her all the same. Fourthly, this book felt real. The people and settings felt real, clear and sharp and, as a reader, that really squeezes my toothpaste.

There were a couple of things I had to think about. I’m not sure if these are weaknesses in my understanding or weaknesses in the writing, but I want to talk about them. The thing about Mr and Mrs Brindle’s relationship is that I’m not sure how she wound up there and what kept her there. She doesn’t come across as a cringing victim, too frightened to move; she comes across as tired and, having lost her faith, a little hopeless but patient. I think there’s a close bond between staying with her abusive husband and losing her faith — perhaps there’s an element of self-punishment in the ritualised demanding cooking and cleaning, as well as the unpredictable violence.

I also had a problem with Gluck’s pornography addiction. The addiction itself was pretty interesting, although I was initially a little defensive about it because I don’t subscribe to the assumption that liking S&M porn makes you a damaged deviant. Later Gluck makes it clear he gets off on porn because he knows it isn’t real; that he is sickened by real-life sexual violence, but then, I’m a little annoyed that he had to say that: it’s not like a character who loves action movies has to remind the reader that he’s doesn’t really like beating people up, ya feel me?  But the “cured by love of a good woman” motif gave me pause. I’m oversimplifying that, of course. He was cured because he wanted to be and she provided the motivation, but it’s still a theme I’m wary of. I think it runs the risk of being a little glib. Similarly, I’m a bit unsure about Mrs Brindle’s actions towards the end of the book: I don’t want to give away anything here, but I’m not sure I fully understood the motivations that lead to her gambling with her life in the way she did. On the whole, I think the story works really well. The characters are flawed and interesting, and it plays with themes of crisis and resurrection and love in a mature and thoughtful way. As I mentioned, I borrowed a couple of Kennedy’s other books and I’m looking forward to having a chew on them as well. I like the way she writes and I like her characters. Good stuff: worth reading.

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