Friday, May 1, 2009

Reading Between the Lines

As much as I hate to admit it, the Odyssey is really the only classic epic poem that I had to read for high school. Also - I am even less proud to admit that I skipped most of it, finding it repetitive, violent, and boring. I also had the tendency in high school to read only novels written by Piers Anthony or Terry Goodkind (science fiction and fantasy), so you can see where my literary criticism skills were. It was really cool to see Professor Esposito-Frank use passages from the Iliad and the Aeneid to explore her topic: "Lines of Pain" this past Tuesday.

At first, I was wary. I knew that there was going to be a focus on these classics, and I was prepared to be bored. This is no reflection of Profesor Esposito-Frank, because she seems charismatic and bright. I just think about poetry in a very different way. My favorite poems come from much more contemporary sources for the most part. e.e. cummings, Lucille Clifton, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes - I have just tended to expose myself to poetry that seems to speak to me. I assumed that anything too ancient was bound to be somewhat irrelevant. The only book I've ever read all the way through that is anywhere near as old as the Iliad is the Bible, First and Second Testament. And we all know what a thrilling read that is. All the begetting and thou shalts don't exactly get me all worked up into a literary frenzy. Plus - these epic poems WERE about religion as much as anything else. Or so I thought.

As it turns out, the passages we read together from these epic poems were, for the most part, very valid in comparison to current pain imagery and displayed emotion. We discussed Priam begging for Hector's body back to give him a proper burial - which is something I know is still done today between warring factions or countries. We witness Hector's wife, Andromache, lament his death in three ways - as a foreshadowing, as a heart-broken widow, and as a pissed-off ex. We can certainly find timely ideals here. I now have a summer mission - to read some of these epics all the way through and find just how much ancient pain mirrors contemporary interpretations.

I have actually decided to do my honors thesis about contemporary coping with pain. This material could help me a lot in gaining some perspective.

As a side note - that Saba poem, "The Goat" - rocked me. I love all of the different translations, and I think it was a really fun way to end a kind of heavy lecture. That goat to me is a Jew, a Human, Humankind, the poet, and a Goat all at the same time. Brilliant.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Yankee Doodle's Response to C.S.A.

This film was amazing. I had no idea what to expect before I got to class. I thought it was going to be more of a narrative - but the format was actually much more like a History Channel special on American History. The Confederate States of America, that is.

The most offensive, painful (and therefore the most interesting and useful) parts of this film were actually the "commercials." Items like "Nigger Hair Cigarettes" seem horrifying, until you learn at the end of the film that this was an actual product. In the commercials there were suggestions about how to own your slaves - how to keep them from running away by drugging them. There were references to black slaves being treated by vets, as opposed to actual doctors. During these scenes, the entire room either giggled, or got uncomfortable. I think most of us were thinking how outrageous and preposterous this was.

But it isn't so far off. It isn't hard for me to believe that had the Confederacy won the Civil War, we could have very easily stayed a slave nation. Even worse - all of the richest countries in the world have slave trades - still to this day. Sex slaves and indentured servant-domestic workers exist in this country - it's just no longer sanctioned by law.

I thought it was really funny that this was supposedly a British television program (from the BBS, as opposed to the BBC) - because it gave both sides to the story. There was a very eloquent black woman (from Canada) who did some of the narration, and she made no secret of how f*cked up the Confederate system was.

I think this is an important film, and I know I will insist that many of my friends watch it. I think that it is, at times, offensive - but in a way that enables us to laugh, and also really think about race in this country. The pain of slavery is far reaching. Gigi and I discussed that upon leaving the classroom, we felt badly about ourselves. Not that Gigi nor I have ever owned slaves, black or otherwise, there is a terrible guilt that follows many conscientious or sensitive white Americans. I can't ever really understand what it might be like to deal with slavery as a black American, but I have to imagine it's probably more painful from that end. Films like C.S.A. make us all remember that our country was doing overtly racist things until, like, yesterday - and only now is trying bit by bit to make up for it.

Watching this film also makes me re-love Walt Whitman. I think I'll go read some Whitman now, as it is a sunny Spring evening and I've been thinking dark things for far too long.

Something Aesthetic

This is a painting that I photographed while in London this past summer. I can see a lot of pain in this image. It is interesting that it was done by a Brit - or at least I assume so. Would the painting seem different if it were done by an American? Or - going back to our discussion of 9/11 art - how do you think this would have fared?

Thursday, April 9, 2009


The amount of pain people suffer to complete an Iron Man Triathlon is completely beyond me. I feel like this has to become a complete obsession. I don't feel the same way about the sprints and shorter triathlons, even though the training for even a half Iron Man must be tough. I don't just think people do it for the title. There is something inherently masochistic about the rigidity of the training and the massive endurance challenge the Iron Man represents.

I love sports, but I don't really love professional sports. I like playing sports, or watching people actually having fun playing. There doesn't seem to be any fun in an Iron Man Triathlon. I may be wrong - but the footage we saw in class would certainly make that argument. Like I mentioned in class, many of the female Iron Man triathletes looked to me like AIDS patients. The bones all poking out - it was ghastly. Especially watching these corpse-like figures struggling to get up and go on after their bodies give out time and time again.

Now - I am all for shaking it off and playing. I've been hit in the eye with a softball hard enough to see stitch marks, and I kept playing. But the kind of pain a body must experience after eight hours or more of hard labor is on another pain plane entirely. I also wonder what effect this kind of race must do to a person's psyche. Obviously it's intense enough to convince women (and men too, I suppose) that they have to emaciate themselves for the cause. But what about the other issues inherent in competition? To battle for twelve hours or something, just to see yourself passed by someone older, or seemingly less fit - this sport seems to be about almost nothing BUT pain.

To me, I guess, it really boils down to limits. Our own - psychological and physical. I have no desire to prove myself on the Iron Man course in Kona, Hawaii - but I do set some pretty intense goals for myself. My own perfectionism in some areas of my life could be considered masochistic, too.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Feel the Burn

I was so surprised by Professor Claycombe's presentation this tuesday. When I thought of pain and performance previously, I had thought about only circumstances like in "Angels in America" - actors portraying a false or mimed pain. I was alarmed and perversely interested in the other pain performances he showed to us.

"Sick" represents many things that are hard for me to imagine. The artist's Cystic Fibrosis, for one thing. To me, this is one of those insidious diseases that I know causes incredible pain for the sufferer, and there is no way for me to adequately wrap my mind around that level of pain. However - some of these acts of masochism performed by Bob Flanagan helped me to get a better (if horrifying) idea of the amount of pain he suffers. Seeing the images of his beaten, torn, shit-smeared body, I feel closer to him than I probably have a right to. He lets us, the audience, into his pain - so we can wallow there with him.

There is also that element of showmanship. He is a performer, after all, and he is definitely "taking it like a man." Who cares if he never played lacrosse or ran a marathon - he is taking cigarette burns to all of his most delicate parts. I think it is particularly interesting that he refers in his poetry to "taking it like a man" - and yet he is a male who has completely humbled himself before his mistress, Sherri Rose. She even sodomizes him - which lends a very interesting twist to that phrase. He sure is taking it. We saw that in all of its glory.

For me, it was less disturbing (yet even more interesting academically) to see Ron Athey's performances - probably because his masochism was displayed so differently. He was more concerned with the true "art" of the pain - and his religious tableaus (such as him playing the pincushion St. Sebastian) are representing pain on more than one level. There is his own pain and illness (HIV), there is the pain of St. Sebastian, and also a representation of a kind of religious/corporeal ecstasy that is missing in Rob Flanagan's work. I see Flanagan's pain performance as necessary for him, but I have no real need to be a part of it. Athey's work, however, has a beauty (in my opinion) that transcends physical pain and tries to tell more of a story.

I don't know much about art, but I know what I like. I do tend to like representations of pain, but to me - Sue Williams taking her pain and turning it into incredible paintings is more my speed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


What a fantastic film. All around - the casting and acting were superb, and visually it was incredible to watch.

As much fun as it was to see Elijah Wood play such an uncomfortable character and to laugh at the goofy, adidas-wearing Alex, the most incredible character, in my opinion, was Grandpa Alex Baruch. At first, he was so inherently unlikable. The only character less likable was the generation between Alex and Baruch - he was just a bitchy Tolstoy look-alike. Grandfather was, to me, just a crusty miserable old man at first. I have seen such characters before - my own paternal grandfather was very much as ornery and unpleasant. I think the actor who plays the grandfather does an amazing job of slowly gaining the audience's curiosity, then warmth, and then ends his role so beautifully in his death "repose."

Of course, everyone in this film deals with some kind of pain in their past, or discovers pain on this "most rigid search." Even the dog was deranged. Although - if I lived with Alex's family, I might exhibit deranged behavior as well. Seriously, though - the writer and main character, Jonathan, obviously has a lot on his mind. His intense neatness and strange collection habits definitely suggest a tightly-wound young man. His relationship with his grandfather, though it was close when he was a child, was very stressful for a young man who had little idea of his progenitor's history. Jonathan's fanny-pack of plastic baggies was at once very cool and unbearably sad. This young man was so afraid of forgetting his past - even his present - that he bagged countless strange artifacts that sometimes only very vaguely had anything to do with his family. Fear is definitely pain - a kind of pre-pain pain. It can be paralyzing.

On another level, the lone woman from Trachimbrod was sadness incarnate. She was surrounded by the most beautiful tomb on earth - surrounded by the bones of her life, and countless sunflowers. However, she wasn't the character who made me cry.

Grandfather Alex Baruch stood out to me the most because of his guarded emotional delivery of pain. His pain was not overt, nor was it immediately understandable. I think I was not alone in assuming that Grandfather Alex was one of the soldiers who did the murdering at Trachimbord. When it became abundantly clear that he had been a victim, I became even more involved in his character. Did his pain derive from the fact that he had this awful, traumatic thing happen to him? Or was his pain worse for having neglected his heritage - and his people - for so many years? The depth of pain was so aptly portrayed, and that last shot of him in the tub - was transcendental.

Lemons to Art

I hate cliches, but I can't help but think of the old adage "if life hands you lemons, make lemonade" when I see the art and hear the story of Sue Williams. Her life was filled with so much pain - she suffered things on first dates that people don't usually face in war time. Her body was used and abused, and through this horror she has created such works of beauty. Not through, even. That's not the right word. Not "in spite of" either. It is truly as if the pain itself was a tool (or, dare i say, inspiration) for her incredible paintings.

Not that her story matters. I mean, of course it matters - but her giant calligraphic pieces are incredibly beautiful just as visual art. Her use of line and color are astounding. She really does represent a new abstraction, and it is so appealing. An interesting question might lie here: Would she be able to (or even want to) create this incredible art without the pain she had suffered?

I have a friend (who will here remain nameless) who suffered traumatic illness and surgery at a young age. Left with no colon and other, more grievous physical and emotional injuries - she has created some of the most interesting and radical art that I have had the luck to see first-hand. For her, the illness itself is definitely inspiration - she actually used to talk about being thankful that she was sick, because it gave her an artistic purpose. I can't help but wonder, though, if she would have even turned to art if she had never been so close to death. Also - in a bizarre twist - she is having trouble finding inspiration lately, mostly because she now knows that she will not die soon. She explained to a good friend of mine that she never expected to live this long, so she has no real idea of what to do.

We all know the cliched idea that without pain, there can be no pleasure in life, and that we all must take the good with the bad and the hideous. So much art, whether visual, auditory, textual, is borne from pain. One rarely reads a poem or hears a popular song that isn't about pain of some type. To create art, I assume one has to have something to say. Without a message (about life, technique, SOMETHING) art is kind of relegated to craft. I always been somewhat disappointed that I never excelled at visual art as a kid, and it wasn't something that I had a passion or real talent for. I wonder if my pain wasn't enough for art - or maybe my way of expressing that pain is just different from those who can paint it. It would be a tough choice to make - would I be willing to take a bullet to the lung to create the kind of abstract beauty of a Sue WIlliams? Or would I suffer through life with no colon to feel truly artistic?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Free Falling

I happen to think that the Falling Man is a beautiful representation of an ugly event. I don't see any inherent horror in finding beauty in something negative. I say, thank goodness for artists out there who are able to create something of aesthetic worth during a time as trying to the American people as 9/11 was. I definitely think there is a fine line with photography, though. On one hand, I absolutely see the necessity of having dedicated press photojournalists documenting important events, whether they be positive or overly negative. We often get mad at photographers, though. Many of us hate having our pictures taken, even when we look fabulous. I can't really imagine the disgust I might feel if one of these intrepid journalists took a picture of one of the members of my family - their body crushed and burnt, or falling through the air.

Those journalists on he day of 9/11 were doing their jobs, but we all know that alone is not really an excuse for everything. For example, should you really be worrying about lighting and composition when someone might be literally dying for your help? I cannot say what I would have done if I was in NYC on 9/11 - I would have probably beat feet to get the hell out of there as quickly as I could. The man who photographed "Falling Man" was brave enough to actually get CLOSER to the buildings - I have a nagging feeling like he should have done something other than documentation.

Eventually, however, I really think he deserves accolades and not derision for what he had done - as does the photographer behind that iconic photo of the napalm covered girl running, or even (in a lesser and almost vile way) those German soldiers who documented what occurred in their Nazi death camps. Without the imagery of war flickering on their TV screens, the American people might never have questioned the reasoning behind our sending young men to die in Vietnam. Unfortunately, I think that these days people are so desensitized to images of violence that many are not even appropriately horrified by the pictures and video from Abu Graib to question our military involvement in Iraq/Pakistan/Afghanistan.

Oh - and I loved that classical renaissance-feeling painting we looked at as a representation of 9/11. I admit that I would maybe feel differently if it was hanging in Taliban headquarters or something. However - no matter what its origin - I think that art is so important to human culture that it would be a damned shame to see censorship repress artists. Especially in a country that prides itself so much on individuality and self-expression.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Performance of Pain in Harold and Maude

I can vividly remember seeing the opening scene of Harold and Maude when I was young. There is the incredible build up with shots of Harold's feet - I know my patience with entertainment has suffered since I'd first seen this film, because I was getting antsy. I wanted the money shot. Because I knew what was coming, I relied on others' reactions for the surprise and alarm. Rich provided a fantastic gasp and a "What the hell?" More striking than the image of Harold hanging, though, is his mother's decidedly lukewarm reaction. Harold's elaborately wrought suicide "attempts" are obviously a performance of pain - although the pain he is expressing is emotional and psychological. Perhaps one of the most telling moments occurs when his mother is reading him the questions aloud for the computer dating service. As she becomes less and less interested in what Harold has to say (although I must say I don't think he speaks to his mother until the very end of the movie) he takes the pistol he has meticulously loaded, and points it at her. This is unexpected, but completely understandable.

Which leads me to: what a ridiculous character is the mother? I mean - every character in this film is a caricature, but she is so overbearingly unlikeable. Is she realistic? Is it important that she be? I guess that's part of what makes the film appropriate as a comedy. Without the laughs we get from the likes of the uncle and the priest, the tragedy of love and death could overwhelm the film. As it is, the film deals with the topic of death in such a way as to bring the viewer closer to the idea of their mortality, but in a comforting way. Harold's last "suicide" leaves that part of him in his past - as he is ready to embrace not just life, but his own mortality.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

the big V

I was lucky enough to get to see the Vagina Monologues this year - I caught the Sunday matinee with my boyfriend, sister, and her friend. There are so many ways in which I could connect vaginas and pain (specifically, the idea of birth makes me dizzy and need to sit down) but I think what struck me the most this year during the Monologues was the issue of female circumcision. In my mind, the idea that this happened to even one woman is horrifying, but the fact that it happens regularly to women in dozens of countries is just incomprehensible. In some places, only the clitoris is removed. In others, every outside part of the vagina is removed - clitoris, inner and outer labia. This truly renders a woman "a hole." Some of the excuses given for FC include the "fact" that women are inherently uncontrollable sexual beasts, and if they had their clitorises, society would fall apart. What kind of weird, archaic nonsense is that? The truth is that these surgeries are usually incredibly dangerous, and many times a woman is left with chronic pain. Other times, a fistula is formed, and a woman cannot control her bladder releasing. To me, this is not only a women's issue, but one of simple human rights. This kind of practice should be unequivocally stopped, in my opinion - to hell with tradition or religion.

On that note: I also hate the idea of male circumcision. I think that taking any body-part off of a person without their express permission is wrong on so many levels. Now - if we're talking about a tail or webbed feet - ok. Get rid of that shit. No kid needs to be tortured by classmates for their harelip or eleventh toe. Really, though - what use is it to get rid of the skin at the end of a penis? I have had this conversation before with many people that I see as being intelligent and humane, and most would agree completely about eradicating FC, but see no problem with young boys having their penises surgically altered before they have the right to assert themselves one way or the other. Circumcision is possible on older boys (I know of one young man who had it done at 14) so why mutilate a child? I use the word mutilate, realizing that it will probably provoke debate. Bring it. Also, I must admit that I have experience only with circumcised men, but that is surely because I am an American. Almost everyone here is chopped! Not so in Europe or Asia, and certainly not in South America. I cannot accept cleanliness as a reason for slicing the foreskin of a baby boy, because if your foreskin is keeping your penis dirty, chances are you're just dirty in general. Foreskin can be pulled back, and an uncircumcised penis can surely be effectively cleaned. So why, then, other than tradition, do we let this happen (and do it to our own children)?

As an end-note, I'd like to point out that I do not see male and female circumcision as the same thing. MC is to FC like ripping of a hang-nail is to amputating a hand. But although I see a difference in degree, I think there is an obvious similarity in kind.

Dr. Nick Ealy and Celestina

I realize that it's taken me forever to get to this. My apologies! The truth is, I absolutely loved this discussion. In fact - it's class sessions like this that make me want to hang out in academia forever!

It was certainly useful for Dr. Ealy to point out the stereotypes of the Dark Ages before he started in on Celestina. The idea that these "Dark Ages" were dark due to ignorance and superstition is fallacious. Instead, he pointed out, we can find plenty of enlightened philosophy, if we care to look further than stories of limbs rent, etc.

"The Romance" story was a new ethos, according to Ealy, and the best kind of fantastical glory now came from love, rather than war and the battlefield. In Celestina, we see an example of this unfulfilled erotic love become a kind of exquisite pain for the two main characters. "Love batters me, though no wound is visible." This unfulfilled love has transformative properties - becoming enobling and transcendental. We see this kind of love in so many love stories - where the lovers elevate each other to impossible heights, and there is inevitably a fall. Celestina does not disappoint - the heroine literally "falls" from her window, torn apart as she is from her requited yet impossible love - and of course Celestina herself is killed as a direct consequence of her meddling.

The problem in many love stories is that there is an obvious gap between fantasy and reality. When her lover comes to her, they both become confused when the physical expression of their "love" is less satisfying than the pain they felt apart. If looked at from a modern perspective (which, I guess, I cannot help but do) this story becomes more tragic than ever. I mean, truly - who ever had a satisfying, let alone transcendental time losing their virginity? OF COURSE it was disappointing. For these two, that was just the first step leading to their literary doom. Ealy said that her life was based on empty dreams, and I think that was probably true of many medieval people. Hell - it's true now! I know countless people who think that if they only had that jacket, those shoes, that house, that boy - they would be truly happy. It never works out that way. We love to want things! Ealy calls this "a fundamental unavoidable lack." This renders us human, and can be a positive force until we fallibly think that an object of our obsession is the "one true answer."

Ealy also posits that love cannot be "the answer" because there isn't an answer. "Life is a search; enjoy the journey."

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Constitutes a Rape Act?

During Nels' excellent lecture, even as I was paying rapt attention, my mind kept wandering back to the idea of a definition of "rape" or a "rape act."  There are non-sexual definitions of rape (i.e. plunder), but I am not interested in those.  I think I might like my own definition of rape, to then petition all 50 states to adopt my over-arching denotation.  In trying to find what I consider to be rape, I looked up plenty of others' efforts.

"the unlawful compelling of a woman through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse"  and "any act of sexual intercourse that is forced on a person" were the top two definitions on  The first obviously is gender-specific, and therefore nonsense, in my opinion.  The second is still not right - sexual intercourse cannot be the only act included in the idea of rape. has an extremely long definition (being medically inclined, I suppose).  They include the possibility of any gender being a rapist and/or the victim, and also include the anus in their category of "rape-able" orifices.  They discuss the important distinctions between regular "rape" and statutory rape - and also give date-rape a loose definition.

I think that the best place to start my definition of rape would be at the word's origin.  Rape is derived from the Latin word "rapere" - which means "to seize."  I think this is totally applicable, and would say that perhaps rape should be defined as any sexual act that is forced - any person who "seizes" anyone else's body part (vagina, anus, mouth) for their own sexual enjoyment (or general perversion) should be considered a rapist.  Those boys who ejaculated all over a sleeping girl's face?  Rapists for sure, in my book.  

I am really interested in what other people think about this definition in progress.  Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion - and I may work more on my definition as the semester goes on...