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I am thinking about my last boyfriend, who inspired a world of numinous solitude much amplified by the self-soothing I learned as an only child, and about the boyfriend who inspired my Old Hell Freezes Over Friend (OHFOF) to get into girls.

There is a tipping point, in geriatrix dating, where powerfuckers — of career, money, or girth, the space you take up — can change your gender as well as your class identification. Susan Sontag, in a little noted phrase, said that at some point in her middle age, men stopped fancying her and Lesbians were the only people who made eye contact. The Guardian got her on the record, denying, by the way, that she and Annie Liebovitz were an item:

She will talk about her bisexuality quite openly now. It’s simple, she says. “As I’ve become less attractive to men, so I’ve found myself more with women. It’s what happens. Ask any woman my age. More women come on to you than men. And women are fantastic. Around 40, women blossom. Women are a work-in-progress. Men burn out.” She doesn’t have a lover now, she lives alone.

I’m not sure that men burn out; Eddie Said’s Late Style indictates that it is possible for a philosophical and stoic (git your Montaigne yayas out) man to become hotter than ever as he shrivels. I met one such man in the garden section of Lowe’s the other day, an old Chicano with a Yorkshire terrier in the child’s seat of his grocery cart. Those teeny teacup dogs are the Baby Girls of all the scariest Hispano gangsters here. You see 400-pound Breaking Bad narco terrorist XXXtras stomping down the street with five pound Chihuahuas on a leash. This Yorkie’s brown eyes were as calm and alert and playful as Don Juan’s own. You don’t often see a two-pound meat loaf dog carrying herself with gravitas; you do here, and it may be the finest thing about the Land of Enchantment. (There are also a lot of Hispano guys resurrecting shelter pit bulls with fringed cartileges into lovebirds.)

Columbia professor Said throws a stone at an Israeli guard house.

Maybe white men in the chattering classes Sontag was cruising burn out. Maybe men of color who live to be old are hotter. I proffered the back of my hand to the Yorqui Princesa to sniff, and we talked a little. He said she helped him in the garden. I said I bet she did.

Clearly I’m not into girls.

Well, about the man who inspired my OHFOF to give up white boys. He was “separated” from his wife? Or, come to think of it, not. One way the dating pool of white boys grows skanky for the geriatric dater. He was married. He was Catholic, and always would be married. God was forcing him to cheat. But, as amenable as he and his rusty gentlemen’s pneumatics were to my OHFOF’s liberated sexual mores, there was one thing he would not do. He would not come. It kept him faithful to his wife. The minute OHFOF stopped counting the ill-gotten Monopoly money of his amazing stamina, she flipped the fuck out. And went out and procured herself butch blue collar Catholic girls twenty years her junior, frighteningly smart tranny dominatrixes whose loving lashes did not assuage Ms. Tran’s paranoia about getting a passport. Lack of European travel finally put the kibosh on loving women. OHFOF was truly courageous and went back to boyz after a while not just because women are poor, and trannies have this problem with papers, but because — well. As one happy femme bisexual explained it to me once, while girls may be the only ones who rilly know how to do it, they don’t have anything to do it with.

I’ve known of another Catholic cheater with the something like the same ontological problem as the gender-shifter, and this loser — who could also not afford a dirty weekend away, or flowers, or dinner out — kept another geriatrix dater friend of mine in sexual torment for months. (Part of the geriatrix dating deal is, erhm, patience.) My friend was afraid to confess this to me. As well she should have been. I was mean. I said to myself, Wait. He’s married? He’s broke? And he can’t get it up? MARRY THIS ONE.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

Lena Dunham’s Girls has been on the tom toms for about a year, I think, with spreads on the actresses in the ladies’ magazines and Gen Y buzz based on Dunham’s indie film success with Tiny Furniture.*

Alessandra Stanley, who has had her own Carrie Bradshaw life in Manhattan, comments wonderfully on the differences and similarities between the Sex and the City generation and the Girls generation. Men haven’t changed since Haight Ashbury, she points out, which revolution was withered by Stokely’s observation that the only place for women in the movement was prone. Joan Didion, Stokely’s equally conservative sidekick, quoted somebody as saying the whole ’60s phenom was about Hippie chicks fuck. For Carrie Bradshaw’s generation, coming up just behind the boomers and before Gen X, one could still reasonably maintain expectations of a satisfying sexual encounter, a satisfying career, and summers in the Hamptons.

Author and star of Girls, the Gen Y Sex and the City, Lena Dunham.

She writes, “Sex and the City,” which began in 1998, when its heroines were already in their 30s, placed boy trouble in a satiny frame of glamour, cocktails and pricey real estate. On “Girls,” the women are in their 20s, and boy trouble comes with cramped apartments, S.T.D.’s and dead-end volunteer jobs.

I’d like to pause here briefly, and think about the thrill of subscribing to The Observer and reading Candace Bushnell’s original SATC columns in the 90s. The Observer, like the Financial Times, was a peachy pink color. It had all the news I wanted to know, including a wonderful column hitting the hi-lo, mandarin/Lawn Guyland realms that only Ron Rosenbaum, the last true downtown Village Voice flaneur, could discern. I mean who knows as much about the iambics of Horace, the incarnations of Hitler, J. D. Salinger, Sid Vicious and Joey Buttafuoco as Rosenbaum? What other beat is there?

Sex and the city is the other beat. The idea that people from St. Augustine to Gogol through Flaubert to Mishima go to the city to get some, and that sex — not the dark Satanic mills or storming the Bastille — is what makes life on the sidewalks the very center of revolution and modernity itself had kind of escaped me. And the anthropology that my friends, our mothers, our grandmothers had been discussing, as Bushnell’s girlfriends do, in the kitchen within the 100 years of living memory I can claim direct knowledge of, had finally hit the front page of a newspaper. Candace Bushnell and her girlfriends, like Seinfeld, worked the taxonomies out around the Formica tables of midtown coffee shops. She said it, based on her own experience and that of her clever and adventurous field workers, that there were modelizers and Peter Pan men and that men treated women ruthlessly as a matter of course. How the gay television auteur Darren Starr changed SATC into far more a feral cruising narrative (and, I believe, ripped off Bushnell in the process) would be, should be, just another anthropological field study of men for fans of the Bushnell column. She once said she strove to be Edith Wharton; while Wharton’s nearly Marxist critique of woman’s lot is a worthy and plausible aim, I think the only equivalent of her ’90s SATC columns,is Kingsley Amis’ misogynist masterpiece, Jake’s Thing. Certainly the phallic emphasis later limelighted by Darren Starr stripped Bushnell’s narrative of its more Whartonian affectional and social critique.

Candace Bushnell marries Charles Askegard, 2002.
Photograph by Jodi Hilton.

Now comes Lena Dunham. I am very interested in how it’s going for Gen Y, because it strikes me that’s how it’s going for the boomers, and how it started for the boomers. The point which struck me in Stanley’s review which made life easier for us boomers was that men — and women — were still grateful for, and not entitled to, sex in those days. Stanley writes:

Adam lets her visit his apartment for sexual gratification — his own — and ignores her desires; most of his sexual fantasies seem borrowed from video games and porn videos. He is just as callous about her feelings, grabbing her stomach rolls and asking why she doesn’t lose weight.

Those sex scenes are shocking not because they are graphic, though they are, but because the sex is so unsexy: they are as clinical and coldly funny as the seduction scene of Dottie in McCarthy’s novel “The Group.”

I am grateful that never happened to me. And I am grateful for the compliments I just remembered, reading this piece, and will not be writing down here or making a movie about, compliments that even the most worthless or chemistry-free boyfriends were dishing out to the body St. Francis (and I)  called Brother Ass. They liked him a lot and were grateful and said so. I married somebody because I was grateful, and because he could dance. For about six years I went nowhere without being spooned into that man. That’s the truth.

I also ended the war and invented rock and roll, civil rights, jobs for women, free love, Gandhi, pantyhose (those miniskirts were hell), and smoking marijuana. I feel it happening, as if Gen Y and the boomers are uniting against the truly joyless generation, Gen X. Irony, like Charles Manson and speed, kills.  Be grateful. And if you are, you will storm the Bastille and turn this bad time into a counterculture worth giving up heaven for.
*[This reminds me of nothing so much as what it felt like, graduating from college into a world which didn’t hire girls and sent your boyfriend to Vietnam, watching The Graduate.

[Not to be a boomer buzz kill, but that’s a different post. Someone on Jezebel has just been complaining about boomers bitching about not being able to retire. You try looking for work with an oxygen tank, little missie. And forget about a rent-free berth on this fucking ice floe. You want to bitch about boomers? You can do it on Medicaid. If you’re lucky. Note to self: post on the rise of intergenerational meal-ticket nut-cutting.]

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved

Art historians argue, with ample documentation, that perhaps the most revolutionary assertion of the Renaissance was that Christ himself was a man.

Leo Steinberg has made a moving life’s work studying this specially frank way a picture is worth 10,000 words. I can think of no image of the adult Jesus’ genitals. (There are reasons for this, among them, apparently, that Adam had no penis until he had committed the Original Sin; therefore Jesus had no penis either, until the 15th century, at which point his fully erect member could be discerned under the usual loincloth in depictions of the Crucifixion. Or, he only had a penis after the resurrection.) But the genitals of Jesus as a child are freely depicted — with the Madonna lifting his tunic to reveal them, or the baby Jesus himself flashing his cherubic parts, with all sorts of people pointing to them, and Magi looking at them — starting in the Renaissance, as proof that Jesus was not the shape-shifting spirit of the Gnostic gospels or a magic trickster. Among the theologies asserted by the Renaissance depiction of Jesus’ genitals was that the first blood he shed for us, predicting the crucifixion, was his circumcision — which is a covenant with God. Making the baby Jesus’ genitals the cynosure of all gazes helped all the enterprises of the Renaissance claim that we are born in God’s image and likeness. He looks like us. He speaks Italian.

Tolerance for the proud Renaissance assertion that God is human, and fraternal, comes and goes, with a bronze loincloth that is applied and stripped and re-applied as, over 500 years, popes decide whether or not the public may gaze on Jesus’ genitals as depicted in marble by Michelangelo. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak noticed the loincloth on The Risen Christ — who along with the acquisition of genitals, has been healed of his stigmata — in a 2000 piece in the London Sunday Times:

The next time I visited Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, I was astonished to see that Michelangelo’s Christ had acquired a miraculous bronze loincloth that stayed up with no fastenings, baroque style. It was a ridiculous object. Michelangelo was a sculptor in marble. Cheap bronze loincloths were not his thing. His decision to display a naked Christ had been central to the intended effect of this prickly sculpture. Nowhere in the gospels does it say The Risen Christ sported a tiny loincloth. Yet this is what the priestly authorities of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva had insisted upon. By so doing, they had ruined The Risen Christ as a work of art. The papacy of John Paul II was acquiring its unmistakable flavour.

I later learnt that the ghastly loincloth was manufactured many popes ago, and that it came on or off depending on the prevailing Catholic reading of Michelangelo’s work. Today, the artist’s 500-year-old vision is again considered too progressive and shocking for the modern worshipper. The fake loincloth has been slapped back on. Michelangelo’s Christ has had ersatz sweetness thrust upon him.

Michelangelo's Risen Christ, with genitals covered by a subsequent loincloth.

It seems to me, as someone with a modicum of study of the images of children in extremity, that the photographs of dead babies, like those of the Duggars’ miscarried daughter, or the narrative of the death of Gabriel Santorum, by his mother, the wife of the former Presidential candidate, are informed by the pro-life movement’s graphic rhetorics employing images of what they claim are fetuses. The aim of the pro-life movement in using these photographs of children in extremity is the opposite, it seems to me, of the Renaissance artists’ incarnation of Jesus through his genitals. I think what is being asserted by the pro-life photographs is similarly a religious rhetoric, but going in the opposite direction. The Duggars’ photographs, the pro-life fetus photographs, Karen Santorum’s disturbingly graphic portrayal of letting her children “cuddle” the baby’s corpse, are asserting not that these unviable babies are human, but that they have immortal souls. Which should not be aborted.

Photograph, by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, of the Duggars' dead baby, featured on their website.

There are many other tropes being asserted in the trend of photographing and telling the story of your dead baby — “remembrance photography” as the people who photographed the Duggars’ dead baby have called it (warning: that is a website full of triggering images).

It interests me that the smallness of the corpse’s hand is emphasized, both in the supposedly private photographs of the Duggars’ baby taken by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a company which specializes in baby funerary photography, and in the carefully conceived sales object which is a book cover — a book on the subject of the long struggle and death of a prematurely born baby.

What is asserted in these two images, by emphasizing the smallness of the child’s hand with the touch of the mother’s hand, is the agency of the mother not only to lead the child out of a fatal illness, but to resurrect her, to immortalize the child — by never forgetting her, by photographing her, by asserting and naming the significance of her immortal soul as someone whose life was not pointless or in vain.

The connection between the Renaissance impulse to incarnate Christ by depicting his genitals, and the 21st century impulse to incarnate unviable babies by photographing and describing their dead bodies is one I haven’t thought entirely through, except to the point that each is an acceptable theocratic political argument, whose political graphic seems to be unacceptably outrageous in its frankness about bodies. More transgressively,  it is very bad voodoo in its pimping out public iconography of what almost everybody thinks of as deeply private and intimate. God’s genitals and unviable dead babies are not anything anybody wants to look at without violating serious taboos and experiencing deep shame.

I’m having two thoughts here — as you will appreciate, when bodies are politicized and trophies taken, civility is of the utmost value in determining the truth of things. The first is that my favorite pro-lifer, a six-foot Irish girl from Dundalk, MD who used to press fetus key chains on me and argue with me for hours at a time in my days as an abortion clinic escort, once summed up the entire discourse of months by saying, But Jeannette! They’re immortal souls! As if I disagreed with her. As if abortion killed immortal souls. As if either of us had any agency whatever in the lives and deaths of immortal souls.

The second is that the ghoulish sensationalistic narcissism of promulgating the images and narratives is something I can’t get over, even as I understand the deeply mythogenic pathos in the drama of a mother’s grief. Our best and deepest mysteries — the Eleusinian — come from the rape of Persephone and the grief of her mother, the earth goddess, in whose fidelity to the memory of her daughter, and non-sexual obsession, the very type of unconditional love is perceived. Mother love!

Unconditional it is not. The condition is that Mother accrues to herself the agency of God. To confer life and death. To wreak havoc on the seasons, our food supply, and the universe itself if she does not get her way. Is birthing really so important? Or has God given the power to worms? Is parenting something God forks his power over to you to do? The foremost Bible scholar of our time points to a Christian thread started by St. Paul and moving through the monastics, the Cathars and the Shakers, that a true Christian doesn’t reproduce at all.  In the back of my head, I always hear, concurrently, when the ultimate power of the matriarchy is asserted, the ultimate power of the patriarchy. The threat of the sexually abusing father, the torturer of animals. I made you. God gave me dominion over you. And I will do with you as I wish.

I will snatch you, my creation, from the jaws of oblivion and make your most private body immortal by making its vulnerability a spectacle.

Nonconsensual nonimmortality.

Let us return, as it is always instructive to do, to Persephone’s isle — the place from which she was snatched — Sicily. They know, in Sicily, who is in charge. Here is Waverly Fitzgerald describing Mary Taylor Simetti’s tale, from On Persephone’s Isle: A Sicilian Journal, of the Easter ritual in the stoniest of Demeter’s redoubts, an old, old, old agricultural town called Castelvetrano:

Simetti describes as Easter Sunday enactment of the first meeting of Mary and Jesus on Easter Sunday as performed in Castelvetrano. In a crowd of onlookers, Simetti and her husband watch as two large statues, one of Mary and the other of Jesus, are carried into the piazza from two different directions. While the two statues are still out of sight of each other, the little angel statue that accompanies Mary and is borne by a dozen young boys, dashes across the piazza to sway at the feet of Christ, then darts back to Mary, as if carrying the good news. “Three times this polychromed plaster ambassador is hurtled back and forth across the piazza, faster and faster as the delighted crowd urges the runners on to greater and greater effort,” writes Simetti.

Then the bigger statues begin moving, slowly, shuffling forward, hesitating, as if experiencing doubt and disbelief. When they come within sight of each other, the pace quickens, the bearers break into a run and the two statues fly towards each other, almost colliding. At the very moment when they come face to face, Mary’s black cloak falls away to reveal a brocade mantel beneath and releasing a number of white doves that wheel and circle in the sky above. Both Simetti and her husband are moved to tears. Simetti writes, “The emotion that was released together with the doves was so intense, the longing for just such an encounter so palpable. Mary and Jesu, Demeter and Persephone, black-veiled mother and murdered child, release from mourning.”
— Waverly Fitzgerald, Easter packet

We all want to be human. We all want to be immortal souls. We all want to be resurrected and forgiven. And so, without even being very good, or lucky, or chosen, we are. By one another, if no one else.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

Anna Dorfman over at Door Sixteen has an interesting post today for those of the digital magpie Pinterest generation. Dorfman, a top flight book cover designer hired by Simon and Schuster straight out of art school some 15 years ago, is one of the most stylish DIY reno bloggers and a punk ethicist — vegetarian, upcycling, city-loving.

She is often asked what serves her for inspiration. Her response is everything. And then she addresses advice to Generation Y:

….[Because of the visual stimulation of the city] inspirational stimulation can easily become overwhelming for me. I’ve never had an inspiration board/mood board/whatever board—I find them oppressive. Aside from the pressure of influence, I dislike the act of stripping context from another person’s work. And yes, I do do that here on this blog sometimes—but I cannot have it around me when I’m in “design mode.” I show up, and I get to work. OK, most of the time. Sometimes I’m an amateur.

So here are my lessons for artist/designer types, as inspired (oops) by Chuck Close:

Not every decision you make has to be crowdsourced beforehand. Trust your gut and keep it to yourself while you follow through.

It’s OK to strive to accomplish things that may never lead to financial reward. More than OK, actually.

Try to put a limit on the amount of time you spend searching for and cataloging images for the sake of inspiration. Think more about appreciating these things for what they are, and not just how you can apply them to your own work.

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.
— Chuck Close

I read this after twenty-four hours of idly thinking about Karen Santorum and the power she accrues wielding the dead body of a baby, as others wield pictures of the bodies of their dead babies.

Dead babies are a very powerful symbol, as I have written extensively in my work on children as the icons of genocide. I’m not well versed on what they symbolize to Catholics, or pro-lifers, or to their mothers, but I can tell you what they represent to genocidaires and to artists who are the first to try to wrap their heads around the numeracy and finality of genocide. War trophies. Big medicine. The Khmer Rouge strung dried fetuses up around the eaves of one jungle headquarters. There’s more and worse; it’s all about magic.

A lot of it is to be seen in Save the Children ads. I once had a murderous discussion about the unapologetic exploitation by doers of good of images of children in extremity in their fundraising literature. The art historian Anne Higonnet was among the first to note the particularly ruthless exploitation of children’s images by women beginning in the 20th century.

Anne Geddes does Celine.

I want to ask you to think about pictures of dead babies as the Karen Santorum mood board. As inspiration. As precedent what do they command of your today and your future? As guideline for moral action, female empowerment, spiritual elevation, the narcissistic need for endless sympathy, pro-life politics or goddess shamanism?

Saturn devouring his son, by Goya, who helped define the age of revolution, and modernity itself, with this image.

What, explicitly, is the grief transaction that goes on when you publicize pictures or written images of your baby’s body? The usual psychological suspects are:

  • If I take my eyes off the photograph or narrative of your dead body, forget you, you really will die. Your soul is immortal only as long as mortal memory, a photograph, a tombstone, the curiously numinous void that is the Internet, enshrine it.
  • As your mother/goddess I can a.) pre-empt God and karma who have authorized or permitted your death and b.) keep you and your immortal soul alive only by mourning you forever.
  • My sins have caused your death, the death of an innocent, or failed to prevent it. I must work off my guilt by etc. etc. etc.

Giotto's Massacre of the Innocents, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Massed and disarrayed bodies are an early and persisting symbol of the numeracy and contempt of genocide.

At what point, not to put too fine a point on it, does God say You are powerless over the life and death of innocents and, Innocence has nothing to do with it, and, This whole motherhood/madonna/goddess power trip is not what you think it is and Your guilt is blasphemous and This is one of my mysteries and If you actually believe in me, you need to suck it the fuck up?

At what point does God say to Karen Santorum, the mood board is oppressive? Proscriptive? It accrues to yourself powers of life and death that are not yours to take? Yesterday I pointed out the mood board of the dead babies is iconic, the worship of which is something God explicitly forbids straight off the bat. Isn’t it possible that the handling of the dead baby might be the accrual to one’s self of the shamanistic power of a blood thirsty pagan God to bring you to your knees in fear?

Molech-Leviticus 18:21
And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.

William James, the father of American pragmatism, took note of such a God and his uses to the citizens of a democracy as the 20th century dawned in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James, the subject of a magisterial new biography which sets him at the center of American philosophy and one of the inventors of modernity, writes:

Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on the contrary, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials. They positively recommended him to men’s imaginations in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were relished.

I haven’t checked the latest Biblical scholarship on what Leviticus’ fairly direct edict against the idea that sacrificing your children, your Isaacs, your Astyanaxes, your Jesuses, to God earns you Brownie points — oh, do let’s go there — means to the 21st century.

I think it still means something like, don’t throw your babies into the fire of propitiation and self-regard. I could be wrong.

Once again, as with the first commandment we discussed yesterday, either God means what he says, or he doesn’t, and he’s just kidding when he says the sacrifice of children is abomination. You choose.

Pyrrhus beats Priam to death with his own grandson, Astyanax.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

One of my worst internet experiences was back a while. I was reading this young couple’s house reno blog, and scrolling back down through several years of posts I picked up that they were pregnant. I quickly scrolled by a pic of a baby, propped up and looking very unwell. I scrolled back to find out what was up.

What was up was that the baby had been stillborn. They dressed his body and photographed it and posted the picture to the internet on their blog.

I can understand that people all over the world take pictures of the dead and love them and look at them. What I do, which is cremate you within seconds of your last breath, and sprinkle you on the Gulf Stream, I understand others find sociopathic.

But whoah.

Reading the big profile of Rick and spooky Karen Santorum in the NYT — they brought their extinct baby home, so his brothers and sisters could say goodbye. I can understand that.

Then she wrote a children’s (?) book about it. It is sort of the major plank in his anti partial birth abortion bill. Not to mention Karen’s, a non-practicing lawyer’s, six-figure medical malpractice suit against a chiropractor who treated her for an injury related to the birth. The suit netted the Santorums, struggling to survive on his senatorial salary, taking cash from his parents, $75,000.

The next day, they took him home. ”Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!” Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero. ”Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness. Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, ‘This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.’ ”

Whoah. As she cuddled you? Forgive me, I’m not the biggest Christian in the world, but isn’t there something somewhere about thou shalt have no other Gods before me? Like dead bodies kind of thing? And what about the graven images thing? I do understand a body’s being an axis mundi, the rent in the veil through which eternity is pouring, honest I do. But that is an illusion. The axis mundi is you (or God in you).

I’m a big fan of the Catholic Encyclopedia ’cause they work this first commandment stuff out with real sophistication:
The Supreme Law-Giver begins by proclaiming His Name and His Titles to the obedience of the creature man: “I am the Lord, thy God. . .” The laws which follow have regard to God and His representatives on earth (first four) and to our fellow-man (last six).
•Being the one true God, He alone is to be adored, and all rendering to creatures of the worship which belongs to Him falls under the ban of His displeasure; the making of “graven things” is condemned: not all pictures, images, and works of art, but such as are intended to be adored and served (First).

As I said, I’m not the biggest Christian on the planet, but either God means it about the first commandment or he doesn’t. And if God is just kidding about idolatry, the Catholic Encyclopedia certainly is not.

But this is getting close to those diva realms in which people think tragedy makes them better than you and me. I can’t imagine for what other reason such a private consolation — perhaps the Santorums tell their children consoling things about the first commandment that they know aren’t quite true — would be made public.

Um. No. It is the Victorian fallacy Des Pres refutes for eternity in his study of the concentration camps.

Suffering refines no one.

The Gnostic gospels, ruthlessly repressed by the Catholic church apparently for reasons of male hegemony on apostolic succession, have Jesus laughing on the cross. You read it here first.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, 2012-2017, all rights reserved.

Jacob Bernstein, who is, I believe, the son of Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, has written in the best tradition of his parents’ candor the story of the suicide of Bob Bergeron, a Manhattan therapist who wrote a book about the bright side of gay life after 40.

Bottom line is, if you have made your way through life as a beauty, or, even if you haven’t and yet were granted the privilege of the good-looking, there is a point in life when it goes away.

Peoples’ eyes slide off you. Dinner party invitations — unless work-related or you are part of a couple — slide off too. New friends are hard to make; you get stood up for the first time in your life. And that’s all at age 45, before the invasion of the skin tags, the hearing aids, the night guards as well as anaphrodisiacs such as inflamed toenail beds and contempt for the young and their narcissism. (I actually had someone, a practicing, tight-lacing femme who was grinding her teeth in her sleep to the degree she was loosening their roots, filing off the edges of her molars, and scalloping her tongue, say to me about night guards: But are they feminine? My answer: rather more so than no teeth.)

The last rat-fuck I went to was an enormous soccer-related cocktail party. I walked through the crowd of 200 from end to end looking for friends; and became aware of serious eye contact. It was coming from one of the professional soccer players in a far corner, and it was laser-sharp and as aggressive and hostile a sexual gaze as I have seen. Of older women, it is written, on the walls of urinals, They don’t swell, they don’t tell, and they’re grateful as hell.

I was not surprised when he was later arrested for rape.

The encounter reminded me just how sexualized the universe is, how American social events are now held together by sexuality, how interest in conversation is mistaken for sexual interest rather than an entirely disinterested separate category of art, and how mostly unaware of it I had been until I stopped being cute. Here I flash on the dinner parties of my childhood in South America — at the Yugoslavians’ house where we girls stamped grapes with our perfect little feet. All three generations lived around the courtyard. One big table in the courtyard; grama at one end, grampa at the other, and everyone else in the universe in between. Candlelight, politics, the stars — all discussed by everyone. My mother plays the guitar.

There is a point — Germaine Greer wrote a whole huge book about menopause when somebody laughed at her when she took her clothes off — when somebody says something to you about wearing a miniskirt which you had thought was just a skirt. Your clothes stop suiting you. A stranger calls you on it. At a friend’s 60th birthday party, we touched upon some of these things until one of the ladies said, rather bitterly, But if you weren’t good-looking to start with, it’s not anything like a blow. So. You can fall on that sword early. Or late.

That sense of not being in your own body is the killer, I think. The proof is that it works the opposite way as well. I remember some epic hangovers and other traumata in which my body did not betray me. Looking at myself in the mirror and saying, Jesus, I feel like a typhoid-bearing barnacle on the underside a garbage scow in the Ganges, when it is going to show? When I dream about myself, I’m always about 30 years old and in fighting trim.

Erving Goffman, the great sociologist, wrote a book about the management of spoiled identity, including race and handicap, identifying status markers and society’s gatekeepers, among many other fascinating guideposts. I think it was the poet Alexander Pope, whose spine had been deformed by TB, who said it took him 20 minutes of talking to people before they forgot his hunchback. Virginia Woolf, the scion of three generations of women famous for their beauty, said society was exhausting because you had to put all your energy in your face — and not, presumably, your genius or your pants. Ralph Ellison famously wrote, of being black,

Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
Invisible Man

There is a way, as Ellison documents, that lack of eye contact becomes soul murder.

I remember the belly rush I got, as a lady of a certain age, meeting a celebrity for lunch and discovering he was unfortunate in the face department. I was feeling anomalous about the post-cigarette weight. (Quitting your vices, along with the miniskirt, and investing all your disposable income in your teeth, is what Nice People do in their forties.) He’s ugly!, I thought, and my stomach plunged as if I were on a roller coaster ride. It was a huge relief. And an unprecedented ambush of an emotional transaction which still embarasses me. I felt something like it the other day when I walked into the senior center to get my taxes done. Somewhere, someplace, I remember a sociable and attractive octogenarian saying he could only “emerge” — put on his beautiful, well-chosen clothes as well as his unrapeable, unkillable social personna — and leave the house about once every three days.

Far from being a matter of vanity, to sustain the gaze of one’s fellow humans is a matter of life and death. Terrence Des Pres writes that one survivor technique in the concentration camps was literally to become unkillable by working to remain “recognizably human”. People who stopped washing and mending their rags and polishing their blistering wooden clogs with carbonized motor oil simply died; all the survivors noted that when somebody stopped washing themselves, they’d soon be dead.

There’s no mystery as to what the solution is. Wash. Polish. Oxytocin detox. Self-soothing. Generativity. Altruism. Spirituality. Pull on jeans. A tailor. A gym with nobody in it under 50.

(c) 2012  Jeannette Smyth. All rights reserved.

Spring cleaning menu #2:

Barley Salad
Not beautiful, but neither would you be if buried in a glacier for 10,000 years.

Part of spring cleaning is to eat everything in the freezer and the cupboards. Yesterday we had corn pudding and cluster beans amandine with Ötzi upside down cake.

Today, barley.

Barley is the mother of all stodge. Cut it with a very bright citrus vinaigrette and lots and lots of well-caramelized sauteed mushrooms.

Barley salad, with mushrooms, leeks, kale and an orange-lemon vinaigrette

1 c unhulled barley
2 c boiling water, with a vegetarian bouillion cube
1 T butter (or olive oil, for salad)
(1 hour, plus up to 30 mins in 375 oven, tightly covered. After one hour, keep checking it and tasting it until all the liquid is absorbed and the kernels are tender.)


1/3 c orange and lemon juice, plus zest of one orange (one orange, 1 1/2 lemons)
Hot sauce, a sufficiency
Whisk in 2/3 c olive oil, saving some 4 T for sauteeing veg
Plenty of salt and freshly ground pepper


8 oz Crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (next time I will do 1 lb.)
2 leeks, washed and sliced
Saute, stirring, in hot reserved oil until mushrooms have given up their juices and the juice has reduced away so the mushrooms can brown, and add to the large bowl into which you have put

8 oz. kale, ribs removed, rolled into cigars and cut into 1/4 inch slices (chiffonade)
Boiled for 10 or so minutes, drained well and all water pressed out.

Add the vinaigrette and the hot barley to the cooked veg, s + p, toss. Serve at cool room temp.

This is a riff on Alton Brown’s adventures in barley.……

And this stew from Bon Appetit which sounds kind of dreary:…

(c) 2012, Jeannette Smyth. All rights reserved.

Honey badger did. Honey badger don’t care.

And so did

Who Survived the Winter?
Honey rock spirea

Who Survived the Winter?
Honey pink penstemon

Who Survived the Winter?
Honey sore-eye poppy

Who Survived the Winter?
Honey creeping Jenny

Who Survived the Winter?
Honey licorice mint

Who Survived the Winter?
Honey zebra grass

Who Survived the Winter?
Honey rosa glauca

Our seedlings are started:
Seedlings in Jiffy Starter

And hardening off to go out and play:
Hardening Off Seedlings

This year’s garden problem shall be what goes in the planters?

Who Survived the Winter?
To the left and right of the picture window. Honey bird of paradise bush also survived the winter.

Right now I’m thinking of some classic aesthetic like this: one heaven, one middle earth, one cascade:

….except with chartreuse spikes, grassy sedgy blue middle earth, and orange cascades. All drought and shade tolerant, hah. Perhaps with hanging planters over the top.

I think it’s going to be chartreuse New Zealand flax (phormium Apricot Queen), blue hostas, Mexican thread grass and…red honeysuckle?

Sap's Rising!
You can call this resin from the Ponderosa pine and cut it down, as my neighbor did, so it wouldn’t mar her BMW, but I call it the gold at the end of the rainbow.

Femme studies continue. The French are famous for femme, which is their word. Theirs is the femme fatale and the belle a suicider, chic, courtesan, the institutionalization of polyamory through the establishment of royal mistresses – Pompadours. Ladies, start your backcombs.

In pursuit of this I have read three books, one called How French Women Do It, one called Almost French, and the most recent authoritative biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette.

Fatale: How French Women Do It

Fatale: How French Women Do It is a bad book, wildly padded, with a few snippets of history for whose accuracy I can’t vouch, and with precisely one interview with an actual French woman. The one thing I brought away from it is that the institution of the royal mistress was completely public in France, with a separate court growing up around the favorite. She makes the point that mistresses in France are financially established by their lover. Whether or not this is true, I don’t know. If it is true, it’s a great system for women who do not wish to bear children, or who wish to have time to themselves for whatever purpose. Show me the money.

Almost French

The effect of this monetized French polyamory on women’s daily lives is touched upon in Almost French, an excellent autobiography by Sarah Turnbull, an Australian TV journalist, who falls in love with a Frenchman in Bucharest, and follows him home to Paris. Once there, she is completely ostracized by his friends and family, who literally look through her when she turns up, as his fiancee, and then as his wife, at friendly dinner parties and family occasions. One of the women is so rude to her it changes Turnbull’s life. At one such dinner party, she tries to make polite conversation in French with this woman throughout the entire meal. The Frenchwoman answers desultorily, without making eye contact. Finally, when there is a lull in the conversation — it is a table of 20 people — the Frenchwoman yells down the table to Turnbull’s fiance,“So, how’s your little girlfriend’s French coming along?”

She works hard for two years to make some French girlfriends. At another dinner party — she is now a wife — the wives of the other guests are “stony-faced.” They resent her. She asks her husband afterwards if they were weird. He says yes. She says, what am I doing wrong. He says, “In France, that’s how it is between women.”

She discusses this with all the other expat girls, women from all over the world. They agree. Frenchwomen treat them all the same.

Finally, she gets to know the French wife of an Australian well enough to ask her what the fuck is up. Sophie tells her Parisiennes do not see other women as potential friends. They see them as rivals. Rivals in looks, intelligence, interest to men. Foreign women are threatening because they are exotic. There is no sisterhood in France, and professional Frenchwomen pride themselves on telling Turnbull that there is no Anglo-Saxon feminism in France. And moreover, “Your Anglo-Saxon style feminism doesn’t belong here.” This is the late 1990s we’re talking.

Turnbull reveals herself as a radical ditto, by the way, by drinking more than a half a glass of champagne at a dinner party. And having beer as an aperitif.

There is no revolution in France for women, she writes. There has been no women’s movement. Frenchwomen did not get the vote until 1944, and until the 1960s were required to get their husbands’ permission to get a passport or open a bank account.

France had fewer women in government, in the late 1990s, than Kazakstan. French women, it is argued, haven’t had to fight for their rights, according to socialist Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, because there is harmony between the sexes in France, and women have traditionally been treated with respect.

Turnbull presses her French girlfriend on the topic of the French women’s rivalry. Why? “Because,” says Sophie, “they don’t feel good in their shoes.”

Writes Turnbull,

I would go further and say they don’t feel secure. And this insecurity has to come from somewhere….Take this country’s cult of beauty, for example, which means women’s appearances…are subject to intense scrutiny. The French are very free with advice and criticism and it’s quite okay to admonish a girlfriend for putting on weight….Add to that the incredible emphasis on la seduction, which encourages women to define themselves in relation to men. Then there’s the great Gallic myth of extramarital affairs — I say ‘myth’ because a recent study revealed that adultery is only fractionally more common in France than in the supposedly puritannical United States….les francaises, more than their husbands or boyfriends, seem to live with a deep-seated fear of their partners being unfaithful.

At another dinner party, two Frenchwomen — one a lawyer and the other a psychiatrist — agree that they never tell jokes or try to be funny in the presence of their husbands, for fear the husbands would think it was trop mec — too blokey. When they travel abroad, they look at the hated Anglo Saxons as pas tres sexe — appallingly masculine.

Three more reasons Turnbull is looked through at family gatherings — xenophobia. The patriarch of her husband’s extended family, in the middle of a huge picnic, looks at her and shouts that the Australians are shitty. It is the first time he has addressed any word of any kind to her, and it is a comment on Australia’s protest of French nuclear tests on a nearby South Seas island — after the French secret service blew up a Greenpeace boat anchored in Australian harbor which was about to sail to the island to protest the tests. Her husband’s longtime friends ignore her at their parties, because, they say, when she presses them later, French people grow up together, attend the same schools, and already have enough friends. Finally, one must be commanding with servitors. There’s a term for that too, and it’s called rapport de force. Linked to old ideas of power and class, underdogs must be rude to prove they are not inferior. France is still a hierarchical society, and women, while doing half the work and paying half the rent, are doing all the housework. Except pouring the wine. They’re not allowed to do that, and when Turnbull did, in the late 1990s, the appalled thirtysomethings cringed back from her as if she had done something blasphemous.

Obviously these are middle-class married women. The mistresses, the femmes fatale, the belles a suicider, are not the people Turnbull would be meeting. But it is clear — for example, given the interview Madame Claude, the premier post-war procurer, would give her A-list courtesans — that for French whores of the well-brought-up class, the standards are the same if not even more rigid.

Madam Claude, the Immortal French Pimp, and Monetized French Polyamory: Commercialized Femme

Here in its entirety is a November 8, 1987 interview by James Fox, of the Chicago Tribune, of French madam Fernande Grudet, entitled Madame Claude’s Call-Girl Service Was Almost an Extension of the French State

Fernande Grudet, better known as Madame Claude, France's premiere pimp

Candidates would go up for examination in her office in the Rue de Marignan behind the Champs Elysees, where Madame Claude would sit behind a desk. She would ask first about their education. “Often they would lie,” said Madame Claude. So she had some nasty trick questions up her sleeve, like who was the wife of Louis XIV, what is the chemical formula for water, and which is the longest river in Europe. Having humiliated and rattled the candidate so far, Madame Claude would ask her to pass her handbag across the desk. She would turn this upside down and take out its contents-the shortcut to a character reference. “Ah, this question of the handbag,” said Madame Claude. “You would be amazed by how much dust accumulates. Or how often women’s shoe heels are scuffed.” She examined their teeth, according to one Claude girl, and finally she would make them undress.

“That was a difficult moment,” said Madame Claude. “When they arrived they were very shy, a bit frightened. At the beginning, when I take a look, it’s a question of seeing if the silhouette and gestures are pretty. Then there was a disagreeable moment. I said, ‘I’m sorry about this unpleasantness, but I have to ask you to get undressed, because I can’t talk about you unless I see you.’ Believe me, I was embarrassed, just as they were, but it had to be done, not out of voyeurism, not at all. Sometimes it can be deceptive, you know, you see a pretty girl, a pretty face, all elegant and slim, well dressed, and when you see her naked it is a catastrophe.”

They called her Tantine-Auntie. She would arrange for cosmetic operations, against their future earnings. She would inspect their flats and sometimes move them. She would send them to a shop called Rety in the Rue St. Honore, which specializes in clothes for aspiring “Dynasty” wives.

She sent them to the coiffeur for their hair. One of the girls insisted that she was obliged to change her color three times in one day. The girls would be sent to the same doctor each week for medical inspections. There was, as Madame Claude said, so much to be done.

The “new girls” in Madame Claude’s exclusive finishing school would be tried out by a select group of “essayeurs”-men she knew and trusted. “I could judge their physical qualities,” she said. “I could judge if she was pretty, intelligent and cultivated, but I didn’t know how she was in bed. So I had some boys, good friends, who told me exactly. I would dig them up and say, ‘There’s a new one.’ And afterward they’d ring back and say, ‘Not bad,’ ‘Could be better,’ or ‘Nulle.’ Or, on the contrary, ‘She’s perfect.’ ” “A pleasant assignment,” I said. “Oh they paid,” replied Madame Claude.

And there was some problem. “Often at the beginning they had an ami de coeur, in other words, oh, a journalist, a photographer, a type like that, someone in the cinema, an actor, not very well known. As time went by it became difficult because they didn’t have a lot of time for him. The fact of physically changing, becoming prettier, changing mentally to live with milliardaires, produced a certain imbalance between them and the little boyfriend who had not evolved and had stayed in his milieu. At the end of a certain time she would say, ‘I’m so much better than him. Why am I with this boy?’ And they would break up by themselves.”

It was widely believed, and in Paris still is believed in retrospect, that for the right price, and through the offices of Claude, a secret liaison could be arranged with almost anybody, however famous and beautiful. The names of several French actresses were attached to this idea at this time.

Marie-France said, “It is true that if there was someone prepared to pay $10,000, we could find someone for him, once and for all and exclusively.” But many of the girls did it for sheer pleasure. “Remember,” she said, “this was instant elevation.

For most of them it was a dream existence, provided they liked the sex, and those that didn’t never lasted long. A lot of the clients were young and didn’t treat them like tarts but like someone from their own class. They would buy you presents, take you on trips.”

— James Fox, 11/8/87, Chicago Tribune, “Madame Claude’s Call-Girl Service Was Almost an Extension of the French State”

Colette’s Left Breast: Femme Performance

I live in a spiritual world, and an epoch, which sprang full blown from the forehead of a Frenchman, Descartes. I live in a country whose revolutionary values were formed by Rousseau and the Enlightenment, and in Washington, D.C., an Utopian city planned by a Frenchman. As I pace the grid and diagonals and through the circles, I think about French painters. I think about their way of seeing nearly every day. Today I am wearing my favorite color combination, which comes straight out of Bonnard: orange and purple.

I read Flaubert as a teenager and was repelled by the same over-analyzed and obsessively parsed amorality, a kind of tortoise-like, unblinking, limbic, motiveless, pulling-the-wings-off-flies brutality I see in Colette. Fitzgerald is our French master: flawless perfection in technique, architecture, form, and atrocious at heart. Since Flaubert and his colleagues and forebears are the primers from which the French learn French, without knowing anything more about French literature one could argue that this atheistic, stoically-dissected, recipe for sensuality is a literary mannerism.

I don’t think so. Or if it is, literary mannerism is the way the French fight for their lives. In the concentration camps, writes Kogon, the Austrian survivor of Buchenwald and “official” chronicler of the camps, the underground did not trust the French because they never stopped arguing with each other. They never stopped talking and never turned outward from their barracks — where inmates were ghettoized according to nationality. The French never made an attempt to penetrate the only possible resistance movement the camps offered. They were famous for this, Kogon writes, in all the camps. Kogon says the French “suffered more from the hardships of camp life than other groups.” They were individualistic, sickly, intellectual, and created “avoidable difficulties” with other prisoners. This deprived them of connections others enjoyed. The French were politically impossible to unite “in order to make them more capable of resistance, to increase their value to the prisoners….Only the minority group of the French Communists had close contact with the camp underground at Buchenwald. Like their German comrades, they never mustered the strength to purge their ranks of politically camouflaged criminals….The preponderant majority of the Frenchmen in the camps were helplessly exposed to every hardship….”

I have since reading Madame Bovary, a profoundly sexist, sadistic, and misogynist manifesto, tried to get a toehold in French literature and failed. The discovery of a bondage fetish in the land of the free — Degas’ voyeurism, Gauguin’s pedophilia — was one of the fundamental nauseas of my youth. Sardou, the Belle Epoque playwright and author of the story of Tosca, was asked what to do when the attention of his jaded audience wandered. “Torture the women,” he replied. Hitchcock and Spielberg have both built careers on this Flaubertian sleight of hand.

To make up for it, I read about France and the French. I read the Larousse Gastronomique because, like the French, I love dictionaries and all the beady-eyed adjudication they entail. Knowing that foie gras was invented in the stone-hearted land of the Cathars, barricaded against the pope high atop their mountain redoubt, the fortress of solitude, in the Languedoc, speaks volumes to me. Larousse Gastronomique is as meticulous with the location of every peasant specialty in France, complete with maps for each region, as it is with the true story of Vatel, who killed himself because le grande conde’s sole was not delivered a la minute. High/low culture? You could call it post-modern, but that would be wrong. It’s revolutionary.

Right now my reading about the French is about how Cambodia — and other places — sprang full-blown from the forehead of oh let’s say Henri Parmentier, the architect whose team excavated Angkor Wat, which Parmentier bogarted from the possession of Thailand for the purpose, for the Ecole Francais d’Extreme Orient.

Colette, 1907, appearing in La Chair, exposes her left breast on stage

What now remains is to place Colette in this context for all French women of unrelenting poverty and unrelenting war, a pressure of French republican and communist history against women and feminism so unrelenting that women — from Marie Antoinette to Marie Curie – while being educated at the expense of the “egalitarian” state to bear more babies (Howard), simply do not appear in the most recent “authoritative” history of the French nation (Jones). It remains to join Kristeva in placing Colette at the forefront of 20th century writers (Wilson) – Claudine’s prose is the foremother of Proust’s in A la recherché des temps perdu (Harman) — and to define her definitively masterful and definitively French version of Femme.

Neither Colette, nor her mother, Sido, had dowries. Sido, an orphan, was sold by her brothers to an old, wealthy, promiscuous, homicidal and hallucinatory alcoholic whose relatives were conspiring to keep him from being declared insane. Sido was married in 1857, the same week Flaubert went on trial for not condemning the adultery of his heroine, Madame Bovary (Thurman). Sido was 22. “When a young girl is without fortune or profession,” writes Colette, “…what can she do but hold her tongue, accept what is offered, and thank God for it?”(Ibid..)

This husband soon died. Before he did, Sido took two lovers. Colette’s father was the second lover and last. He was a Zouave captain who had lost his leg in an an 1859 battle mounted by Napoleon III to help rid Italy of Austrians.

French zouaves of the Italian campaign, 1859

By the time Colette was marriageable, her parents were poor. Colette too had to marry someone for whom a dowry was not important. She loved Willy; whether or not he raped her is a matter of controversy. What is certain is that his mistress had committed suicide, leaving him with a toddler son who needed caring for. His prosperous parents did not attend the wedding and, because Colette was the daughter of penniless provincials, fired their son from his job in the family company and reduced his financial interest to 100,000 francs’ worth of non-voting stock (Ibid.,). Colette and Willy were married in 1893. Colette was 20, and wore a white satin headband “a la Vigee-LeBrun” – Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter.

Vigee-Lebrun, self-portrait with daughter

Colette and Willy spent their wedding night in Sido’s house. When the bride came down early the next morning, she found her mother – “le personnage principal de toute ma vie” – still dressed in her black party dress. She was making the morning chocolate with a look of silent, near animal, sadness on her face (Ibid.,).

Colette at 20 resembled, in Willy’s imperialistic impresario phrase, “la Tahitienne avant l’arrivee du missionaire”. She might possibly, as she claimed, have had a black ancestor from her family’s sojourn as spice traders in Martinique. This “natural,” Edenic, tropical island, Tahitian state of sexuality previous to the arrival of the serpent or religion was much on the minds of the French. Gauguin had famously reject French society in 1891, two years before Colette’s marriage, for a life of painting and underage girls in Tahiti. This Tahitian state of sexaulity was the foundation stone of the reputation on which Colette, the dowerless bride, made a living for nearly two-thirds of a century. She wrote 80 books over the next sixty years, exploiting the same lust for exotic flesh which found its counterpart in French colonial activities from Tahiti to Angkor Wat to Mozambique and Algeria. She prided herself on her anti-feminist, natural feminine voice – feminism being, as we shall see, as loathsomely unFrench as Jews themselves. When the French do not excoriate feminism as Anglo-Saxon, it is called Jewish, and the “feminist” reporters of Colette’s youth, at the heart of Decadent fin-de-siecle Paris, were the first to do it.

But Colette always likened her task as a writer to that of a French peasant. A writer’s task, Colette wrote – quite possibly as a riposte to her exquisite friend and rival Proust – is to milk the cows as the armies of Vercingetorix and Jeanne d’Arc come and go. Or to meet them as an heroic unruffled bourgeoise much like her mother, single-handedly facing down the Boche invasion of the village she was born in, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Colette’s father, Captain Colette, by then a tax-collector, hobbled out on his crutches to meet the Germans. He made a heroic speech, Sido recalled, which might have prevented them from pillaging the town. Sido herself encountered one armed soldier. “I went home,” she told Colette, “and buried the good wine, not without pride. The wine that dated from my first husband. Chateau larose, chateau lafite, some chambertin, chateau d’Yquem….” (Ibid.. ).

Tahitienne or French resistance heroine? Both were poses, part of her Femme performance.

Becoming Colette

One is not born a Tahitienne, one becomes one. Just how that process naturalized a woman born in 1873 in the still center of backwater France, unchanged since the 14th century (Tindall), is the subject of new scholarship. The definitive 1998 biography, Colette – with new information and insights from French scholars Francis and Gontier – emphasizes how Colette’s “femininity” and “naturalism” were not the products of her Edenic upbringing. She wrote in detail of her mother’s beloved garden at Saint-Sauveur, of plants and flowers, and it has often been noted how she is a naturalist or a Darwinian categorizer of pleasure. “She could identify the plants, insects and scents of a Breton August with the same precision,” writes one critic, that “she used to delineate nine types of “perverse” love in her 1932 book The Pure and the Impure” (Emck).

Hers was not an unlettered sauvage childhood spent topless in a garland of pandanus leaves. Her mother viewed Colette’s beauty and vitality as her own; she continually noted how much alike they were, and washed the baby’s magnificent golden-auburn hair – “my masterpiece” — in rum and yolk of egg (Thurman). Colette learned to read by the age of three, according to Sido’s standards, and she learned the alphabet, the scales, and how to embroider as well. She learned Sido’s encyclopedic knowledge of botany, housekeeping, and her atheistic credo of natural and untrammeled passion, based on a 19th century theoretician of Utopian socialism and pleasure, Charles Fourier. The study of Fourier may have been Sido’s rebellion against her fate as marriage chattel; the influence of Fourier on Colette while acknowledged has yet to be fully traced.

This Fourier doctrine – the “femininity” and “naturalism” of Colette’s — flowered in city soil as it had in Sido’s provincial life. The Paris social circle to which Colette came as a bride was the heart of the Decadent movement. Francis and Gontier argue persuasively that the Aesthetics’ belief – Mallarme and Wilde’s – that art had nothing to do with morality, politics, or finance, was at least as influential in forming Colette’s personna as a writer as any peasant upbringing. Art was to be erotic and iconoclastic (Emck). This dovetailed neatly with Sido’s advanced Utopian teachings of free love and gastrosophie — eat what you want and nothing else — far more than actual peasant pieties, which tend to be Catholic, communist, or both (Ibid..).

Far from being a simple country girl in the big city, the 20-year-old had married the leading Decadent critic of his age. Willy was the editor-in-chief of the house organ of the Decadents, at the center of the Parisian avant-garde, and introduced his Tahitian child bride to a society which included everyone from Debussy to Oscar Wilde. While Willy pursued the infidelities which were his right, the child bride was taken around Paris brothels and opium dens by a walker — the richest reporter in town, the celebrity journalist Jean Lorrain.

Jean Lorrain, reporter

A homosexual friend of the richest and rowdiest courtesans of the Belle Epoque, Lorrain taught Colette how to dress (Ibid..), how to get out of what she called “those dresses worthy of their village.” Curiously, Lorrain and most of the Decadents were anti-Dreyfusards; the ineradicable pairing of racism and sexism with sexual liberte needs always to be kept in mind when speaking of the French.

Lorrain wore powder and kohl – Colette used it to enhance her grey-green eyes — and served ether with his tea cakes (Thurman). He died of an overdose in 1905.

Years later, writing of her apprenticeship, Colette said Lorrain was “the figure of a real man. Never, even at the end, did Jean Lorrain renounce the right and the desire to be a warrior and even a brawler…..[He] gave me pleasure.”(Ibid.,168).

Colette’s Anti-Feminism, Anti-Semitism and Nazi Collaboration

Her pose as the wild Tahitian girl of Saint-Sauveur – which matured into the earth mother over the next 60 years – was perhaps not so calculated as her pose as French resistance heroine, along the fatalistic and quixotic lines Sido suggests. It was feminism, and not the Nazis, she resisted, the one French political position at least as traditional, bourgeois, and commercial as the other.

One recent anti-feminist, Mona Ozouf, was received in 1996 with the adulation public intellectuals in France bask in. She ennobles her position by tracing it back to revolutionary street credibility — Rousseau’s Julie. Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise, published in 1761, was perhaps more influential with the proletariat than his 1762 Social Contract, because it is a love story written colloquially. Two centuries later, Ozouf claims Julie as her role model, and that of her non-feminist heroines, because, like the French peasant in the national imagination, Julie is fatalistic. Like Sido and Colette, Julie holds her tongue, accepts what is offered, thanks God, milks the cows as Genghis Khan passes through, and grows where she is planted (M. Higonnet).

Every French person likes to believe he is natural, a peasant, and Colette – though she never lived in Saint-Sauveur again – exploited this connection to la France profonde in her work. Aside from the clarion modernity of the prose which may well have inspired Proust to copy it, the four novels in the Claudine series were traditional. They looked back half a century to Madame Bovary, a naturalist’s account of sexual life in the provinces. To epater the bourgeois and the church, while also institutionalizing the bourgeois, nationalist love of the country – hot teen country girls — was an irresistible combination. In 1900 Claudine at School was one of the first best-sellers of the 20th century.

If Colette became a Tahitienne rather than being born one, her gifts as a heroine of French resistance are more deeply ingrained. She resisted feminism, as the French have done since they guillotined the author of the Rights of Woman, Olympe de Gouges, in 1793. The Napoleonic Code banished what women’s rights the Revolution had emplaced. “Madame,” Napoleon told Sophie de Condorcet, “I do not like women to busy themselves with politics.” Replied the immortal Sophie, “General, you are right. But in a country where women have their heads cut off, it is natural that they should wish to know why” (Kobak). While the conqueror of Europe had silenced French women for two centuries, the question remains.

Colette was strongly influenced by anti-semitic feminist reporters of the Decadents era. And she stoutly wrote throughout the Nazi occupation for publications so pro-Nazi their editors were imprisoned as traitors afterwards. She wrote Gigi, her most famous fiction, for the Vichy journal Present. This may have been because her then husband was Jewish.

And it may not have been. While Colette’s upstairs neighbor, a young shop assistant, stepped up to the plate and offered to hide this Jew in her tiny apartment, Colette continued to write for the Vichy and Occupation press. Her anti-semitism was, a close friend noted, “native” (Thurman). Her reputation as a sell-out to the Nazis is one of the imponderable questions of the sphinx-like nature of which she was so proud, and upon which she capitalized in her music hall career. She prided herself on never smiling for a camera. “I was born,” she wrote, in “Bella-Vista,” in which the narrator witnesses crimes she doesn’t stop, “under the crime of passivity.” To a friend during the Occupation, she wrote “Save your aggression for your work. For the rest of your day-to-day life, passivity suffices” (Thurman).

For this, at the end of the war, in 1945, when all her old editors and music hall friends were going to prison or having their heads shaved for collaborating with the Nazis, Colette was elected to the Academie Goncourt. It was the most prestigious literary prize in France; the terms under which it was endowed were that neither women nor Jews were eligible. Colette would be the exception.

Her resistance to feminism was completely in the bourgeois mainstream of French history.

Colette As Lodestar of Femme Nation

As her position as a master of 20th century prose now consolidates, Colette’s place as avatar of the hegemony of French anti-feminism must be made crystal clear. More than French, Colette is the lodestar of Femme nation, the inventor of the language of female pleasure. She wrote the book. And her fatalistic tolerance for anti-semitism and sexism, whether ingrained or learned as part of Femme performance, took her straight to the top of sexist and racist French publishing society and placed her in its sexist and racist Pantheon of intellectual immortals. It has kept her there for more than a century, as French society today expresses itself in no uncertain racist and sexist terms. She is politically correct.

Whether this success in racist and sexist publishing society is political agency or the rejection of political agency, whether it is the assumption of the Aesthete’s apolitical mantel as political strategy, or social climbing, or Femme performance, or traditional Femme passivity and secession from political life, may perhaps be unanswerable. But it is the question: Should Femme nation have political agency? Be feminist? Stand up for Dreyfus the Jew? Resist the Nazis? Colette’s answer, throughout a long life in interesting times, repeatedly, was a resounding non. And her influence is incalculable.

Colette’s resistance to feminism was completely in the bourgeois Republican mainstream of French history. I’d like to survey recent literature on this venerable French prejudice, and tie in the particular expression which most influenced Colette.

Winegarten, in Accursed Politics: Some French women writers and political life, 1715-1850, writes about the only political agency available to French women, who were in 1944,as we have seen, the last women in Europe to get the vote. There were no female politicians; their scarcity in French parliaments today is still exceptional. The political agency of women, Winegarten decides, was as mistress to the great. In her 2003 book, she profiles six politically and sexually dextrous women from Alexandrine de Tencin, mistress of an abbot she helped become prime minister, to Claire de Duras, who slept with and invented the writer-politician Chateaubriand. Each of the six ran a salon, and set herself up as the gate-keeper of information while serving a political apprenticeship. When challenged, they were shamed by political rivals and fell to lying. De Tencin was exiled on a sea of disingenuous prose, Manon Roland beheaded in mid-polemic against the sins of women writers, and de Stael, who alone had her own immense fortune, wrote, “It is right that women should be excluded from public and civic affairs….For a woman, fame itself could only prove to be a shattering bereavement of happiness.” (Kobak).

Manon Roland

This idea, that the Femme tradition of salons gives French women their political agency, is a touchstone of the idea that the French don’t need feminism. Elisabeth Guigou, one of the 1997 socialist ministers, was appointed justice minister a few months after she wrote, “The very specific history of France, which excludes women from a political role while granting them a well-recognized place in society…has created a unique situation between the sexes. If women have not felt totally inferior, it is because their right to speak out has been consistently recognized, bring them a certain role and power.” (Turnbull)

Elisabeth Guigou, French socialist minister, anti-feminist

One can see, in Colette’s mother Sido, and in Mme. de Sevigne – another famously possessive French mother, whose salon helped mould the modern spoken language, and whose letters are even better than Sido’s – this trope of pouring all one’s intellect and ambition into one’s lover, or one’s child.

 The New Woman, Femme Performance and Anti-Semitic Anti-Feminists

Colette and her “whips”, aged 15, c. 1888

Colette arrived in Paris just as the “New Woman” – invented in 1894 by a British woman reporter — made her appearance in France. Roberts, in Disruptive Acts: The New Woman in fin-de-siecle France, argues that “personal beauty is the distinctive feature of French feminism. Beauty was a political act” (Tunstall). The French instinctively believed the New Woman to be Anglo Saxon, lesbian and Jewish. She smoked, rode bicycles and was, in a word, ugly. Pas tres sexe. Not very sexy.

Most Americans have become Americans, and built America, by walking north from Guatemala City or riding a raft up the Mississippi or driving the freeway at night. The French became French and built France by staying in the same place since 950,000 B.C.

It is hard to imagine how ugly the French think strangers are. In the Berry, George Sand country, when the railroad surveyers came in the 1840s, the people thought they were necromancers. It was a countryside where the residents of Chassignoles objected to the widening of the footpath which had been, for 10,000 years, the only way to get into town. Oxcart tracks, like roads and railroads, brought people to town who ate your food. The peasants feared everything – the legacy of unrelenting poverty. Writes Tindall, in her enchanting book, Celestine: Voices From a French Village:

That ‘something’ [to fear] , conceived of as the visitation of a spirit or a neighbour’s evil spell, was in reality famine, sickness, absolute want, recurrent realities for those who still worked the soil. Until well into the second half of the nineteenth century, most of those who dwelt in the countryside were on the perpetual edge of poverty, entirely vulnerable to a bad harvest, an extra-cold winter, a chance stroke of personal misfortune.

They could remember bad years when serfs ate frozen grass. They themselves often had nothing to eat in a lean winter but chestnuts.

There were fairies and spirits. Le Grande Bissetre was an ogre who hovered over ponds. Itinerant strangers – whether the charcoal burner of the great forests or the peddler, with a printed farmers’ almanac which contained spells for the beasts and crops – could easily be in league with the wolves who still emerged from le grand Villemort, in the misty dawn, to bear off lambs. The shepherds – girls and boys who worked alone – were unable to stop them. The Berrichon were not literate, since the Catholic church did not insist they read their Bibles. They still spoke a Latin-based Roman soldier French called the langue d’oil. They were barely Christian, and celebrated saints’ days by decorating the rich peoples’ oxen and dancing around a bonfire. There were no schools. There was no piped water until 1962. So the lifetime of a woman like Celestine Chaumette, born in Chassignoles in 1844, died 20 miles away in 1933, telescoped six centuries of progress – from eating frozen grass to listening to her grandchildren dance to the tune of a gramophone in the medieval village square (Tindall).

So with the ugly New Woman when news of her arrived in Paris in 1894. Roberts’ important book, published in 2003, traces the process by which this feminist figure was given an extreme makeover, notably in the all-girl newspaper La Fronde (circ. 50,000). She profiles its publisher, Marguerite Durand, as an essential French Femme, who declared, “Feminism owes a great deal to my blonde hair. I know it thinks the contrary, but it is wrong” (Tunstall). Durand employed female typesetters who earned the same wage as men, and championed single motherhood. Roberts calls her “condescending and narcissistic”.

Publisher Femme Marguerite Durand and her young lion, Tigre

French anti-semitism was linked to the New Woman in the Femme performance of three of the great woman journalists of the day, Durand, Severine and Gyp. All three were New Women; Durand and Severine were Dreyfusards. But the fascinating and talented Gyp (Comtesse de Martel de Janville) made her name excoriating Dreyfus as well as other rootless cosmopolitan and unFrench ideas. A correlary pejorative, the feminization of Jews, as opposed to the Judification of feminists, has been noted elsewhere (Doneson in Loshitzky).

This national raising of consciousness took place in the heyday of Sarah Bernhardt, Femme performance master and Jew, who travelled with 250 pairs of shoes and was the toast of pansexual Paris. Roberts writes carefully about Femme performance and mimicry, and argues persuasively that Bernhardt’s vaunted eccentricities were parodies of conventional femininity – love of animals, Manolos. Theatricality is the key concept in Roberts’ book – she reportedly hews to the post-modern party line that performance “had a liberating potential for women who discovered they could put on a performance of femininity and thus expose it as a role, a choice rather than an essence or an ineluctable destiny” (Tunstall).

Thus, arguably, did Durand’s blondeness become a political act. Roberts’ examination of Durand’s buccaneer anti-feminism explores the frontier where Femme performance clears the way for political agency — real sabotage of the patriarchy. In the case of Gyp, at least, the price was anti-semitism. How market viability — that is, selling your newspaper or yourself as a reporter — cut the ladies’ conscience to the fashion of the day is an unavoidable question for women everywhere, whose poverty and marginality, as well as the illness or starvation of their children, is always nearer to hand than men’s.

While this may have been the Femme performance at the end of 19th century, little seems to have changed in France since. A cartoon in the French dailies a few years ago shows a woman taking off her glasses, undoing her bun and shaking her hair loose. The caption: “My God, Miss Kristeva, you’re…intellectual!” There are two ways of seeing it. In the first, Kristeva seduces the male establishment into believing she’s an intellectual. In the second, Kristeva has only been performing femininity to succeed, and now that she’s powerful she may broadcast her real feminist message. Either way, if Kristeva were unattractive, it wouldn’t work (Tunstall). How much feminism owes to the black eyelashes of Kristeva, the Bulgarian rose — or indeed the black eyelashes of Bernard-Henri Levy, who is even prettier and not anti-semitic — is a question I think can be set aside with some assurance.*

Pomo Femme Kristeva

Colette and Willy

It is far too easy to find anti-semitism and its corollary in racism, anti-feminism, flourishing at every level of French society, and to make these the crushing dialectic of too linear a French history. It should be emphasized that it was the revolution, the Napoleonic Code, and the Republics which are anti-feminist. One 18th century revolutionary argued that popular prejudice against women necessitated that they not be extended civil rights. The success of the revolution depended on excluding women.

Joan Wallach Scott argues, in her 1997 book, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French feminists and the rights of man, that the 1789 Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man

… deliberately ignored the existence of deep economic, social and religious differences within nations and political communities. As Karl Marx argued in his essay On the Jewish Question of 1843, the paradox implicit in the notion of citizenship set forth by the Constitution of 1791 was that it turned into a universal ideal what was in fact a particular human type: the egoistic bourgeois individual of capitalist society.(Fontana on Scott)

It declared the rights of capitalists, in a word, who are self-evidently male. Science had proved men were the human template, and women’s anatomy, which had just recently acquired names for its parts, was a variation of men’s. Scott explains

… while Enlightenment culture offered rather diversified views on women’s political potential, the line that prevailed among French legislators sanctioned the identification of the citizen with the male individual: The political individual was taken to be both universal and male; the female was not an individual, both because she was nonidentical with the human prototype and because she was the other who confirmed the (male) individual’s individuality. (Ibid..)

Two French feminisms developed, one of difference and one of equality, which now, even in France, have been declared out dated.**

Women were denied the vote in France, and a wage equal to men’s, until 1945, allegedly because the generals and social-climbing shopkeepers who led the Republics feared women would vote for right-wing Catholic candidates (Fontana).

At the same time, systems of unsurpassed education, universal health care, subsidies for stay-at-home mothers higher than the state-suppressed “female wage”, and state-supported child care, polished French women to a standard never equalled elsewhere while keeping them at home.

Birthrates in France fell throughout the 19th century as they burgeoned in England and Germany, a trend which much concerned the losers at Waterloo, the landlords of Europe’s most blood-soaked real estate. One feature of this egalite in education, unsurpassed state-sponsored women’s literacy, was unrelenting “health” education emphasizing patriotism — the maternal feminist duty to reproduce for the Republic (Mary Lynn Stewart, For Health and Beauty: Physical culture for Frenchwomen, 1880s-1930s, 2001). This “maternal feminism” is widely seen in France.

Colette’s time was framed by these strictures. Her marriage to Willy and the Dreyfus affair occupied the same decade, during which she became the toast of Decadent Paris. The venue in which she did this was the salon system, which for Colette was, in fact, as such Femme historians as Ozouf claim, the safe space in which women could address men as equals and exert what political agency the Republic denied them. Hannah Arendt has argued Jews – and every other outsider — assimilated in the salons of the Belle Epoque (Thurman). This is a delusion, that cultural agency is assimilation, or even that the paying of taxes for 800 years obliges your country to protect you. Unfortunately, this liberte of the living room was not enough to prevent a reported 90,000 French Jews from being exterminated by the Nazis fifty years later, and an estimated 10- to 15,000 European homosexuals.***

Femme Historian of Mistresses and Salons, Mona Ozouf

In this delusory free space did Colette, arguably, find herself, and her work itself can be seen as a salon — a recreation of a place where no winds of war blow. In addition, her remarkable music hall and commercial career — imagine if Toni Morrison showed her tits on MTV, followed when she grew too old to do so by ads for Mattress Discounter, Virginia Slims, and Irish Spring — marked Colette as the very social-climbing capitalist the revolution was launched to empower. Her career as a consumer — of attention, sex, food, money — was launched in the same era department stores opened, French patriarchs of sociology like Taine began to worry about controlling the appetites of the crowds of shopping women (Parsons), and the Art Nouveau image of woman as half-locust, half bare-breasted Gibson girl expressed precisely her appetites.

Femme Pestilence: Lalique Hat Pin chosen as Icon of Art Nouveau Exhibition

The issue of the salon, a place of cultural agency in which a democracy forbidden in politics flourishes, goes to the heart of Femme and punk politics. What are the advantages, and disadvantages, of secession from political agency?

Or was Colette’s power as a capitalist — a shill for Lucky Strikes — and as a self made woman, an icon of French culture — a chevaliere of the Legion of Honor — precisely that which prevented the Nazis from coming after her, and her Jewish husband? What was it that made some 7,000 people — mostly women, nearly silent — show up to leave flowers at her coffin? Was it that in the salons she found the story she wanted to write — of Eden? And the sadness of exile?

It is said that while the coarse, the unshaven, the Birkenstock-wearing, the appalling MacKinnons and Dworkins were establishing the existence of sexual harassment in the Supreme Court, French feminists were far too intelligent to soil themselves with mere political agency. They were deconstructing the idea of woman — good salon conversation, the product of 200 years of education for women. They enjoy complete cultural and consumer agency, without the civil right to guardianship of their own children. Revolutionary indeed:

As Nancy Miller was later to put it, if American feminists of the period were presumed to wear the boots of pragmatism, then French feminists were the wearers of the high heels of theory. (Fallaize)

So the mail has brought me my Colette Studies care package. There’s My Mother’s House and Sido, with an introduction by her coarse American biographer, Thurman, the anthology of girl zine work, the granddaughters of Colette’s erotic femme language, and Women’s Words: Essay on French Singularity by the distinguished French Uncle Tom, Mona Ozouf, with her stiff silver bouffant and silk blouse, her long career as an historian and literary journalist, her position as director of research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique.

This might be the place to point out that the majority of the French people, millions of them, collaborated with the Nazis. One review of recent books on the resistance notes there are

… three major views on collaboration: that which saw it as a means of strengthening France; that which accepted it as inevitable; and that which, with some suspicion, saw it as an expedient, something which could be useful in the short term. Thus we have a population that veers between hope, scepticism and resignation. But whatever the attitude, the fact was that millions of French people went along with the Government’s policy of collaboration. Several hundred thousand worked for the occupiers or sought work.
(Johnson on Cremieux-Brillhac and Burrin).

It is well to keep in mind that it was not the Republicans who formed the backbone of the French resistance, but Communists and Catholic aristocrats, and that 50,000 children of German soldiers were born to French women (an admittedly anomalous statistic).

This sleeping with the enemy is what Femme Nation is most often accused of, of collaborating in some way with the patriarchy, if only to rip it off, in tropes well-established enough to be sanctioned and regulated by religion and the state in the contract of marriage. It is the confrontation with the collaboration issue that has earned Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon completely undeserved obloquy from third wave feminists. In this confrontation with men, sex, and slavery did Colette spend her long writing life, as ferocious and contemptuous of men, sex, and slavery as Dworkin herself. Colette’s denial of political agency is delusory — and a national pledge of Femme allegiance — to a degree which calls into question her — and France’s — entire authenticity. As a revolutionary society, an egalitarian, a libertine, a democratic.

Colette was aware of this; she thought of herself a “a mental hermaphrodite” (Thurman in My Mother’s House intro, Farrar Straus, 2001). This is as good a description as any of what the rigorous French education system does to women. They are granted cultural agency — paid maternity leave, free medical care and day care —  no other women possess. They are forbidden political agency, and continue to insist, like the talented, powerful, appalling Ozouf — if they want to keep that job as research director, and literary critic of the Nouvelle Observateur — that French women do not need it and do not want it.

If the French think feminists are lesbian man-hating Jews, Colette qualifies. She found her freedom from Willy, his expropriation of the byline and the royalties of the Claudines, with a lesbian lover in lesbian society. (This lesbian society was, not coincidentally, wealthy, aristocratic, pacifist and politically active. Colette was, above all, like the Republican shop keepers for whom the Revolution was fought, for sale.) Colette was eloquently contemptuous of men and sex. She did not quite know what to do with the fact that her grandfather — “the ginger-colored gorilla” – was apparently black. She was at her happiest married to a Jew. More than this, her nausea on the subject of sex is positively Dworkinesque. Break of Day is not about the dawn of sex, but that free-at-last feeling you get when it is over. Her lesbian friend and mentor Natalie Barney noted, “Torn between the desires of her two contrary natures, to have a master and not to have one, she always opted for the first solution.”(Ibid..)

And that, arguably, is the problem of existence for the Femme feminist. One is a slave. Is it better to act like one, or not to?

Colette, with Dworkin, is one of the foremost feminists of the 20th century. Her adventures as a reporter alone (her second husband was like the first an influential editor) show her confronting matters of justice and injustice for women, degrading jobs, brutal marriages. The journalism alone belies her Femme camouflage. It is the French way to deny loudly that one is doing what one is doing. “Me, a feminist?” she said, in 1910. “I’ll tell you what the suffragettes deserve: the whip and the harem.”

As Thurman is not too coarse to note, Virginia Woolf was enacting her ascetic Quaker heritage when she opined that what it took to be a feminist was only 500 pounds a year and one small room of one’s own. What it takes is thousands, a country home, three husbands and lesbian lovers, weighing 180 pounds, and whether you earn it on your back, showing your tits at the Folies Bergere, or collaborating with the Nazis, no one shall stand between the natural force that is Woman and her elegant, cream-laid, blue writing paper.

Slave, Femme, Nazi Collaborator: Colette in Old Age

In the safe space Colette bought with such relentless and amoral gallantry, she wrote of the nausea. Her most optimistic and famous work, Gigi, celebrates old age and the end of sex, the deep peace it brings, the obscene transaction entailed in preparing a spirited and independent young girl for submission, her erotic fate, and – nearly without precedent in Colette’s enormous ouevre — the intervention of a happy marriage.

This Colette wrote at the height of the Nazi occupation. She sold it to a Nazi magazine. And I take it as the message in the bottle: Secede. The Femme world – one’s vegetable garden, one’s writing table, one’s dressing table, the bedside lamp shaded with the blue writing paper, the jewelry an old whore shows her protégé — this is what we fight for. It is what the equally fierce Anglo Saxon, Jew-loving, lesbian Virginia Woolf called for in Three Guineas, her anti-fascist polemic — an outsiders’ society. Get off the grid. As Hitler approached the coast of Sussex, in 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide. Colette too seceded. In this world, she wrote, and the next, that is all there is.

When she was old and paralyzed and dying, the manager of the restaurant she lived over in the Palais Royale sent a lark pie up to her apartment (Thurman). Larks sing. They’re also all there is to eat, besides the frozen grass, in the lean winters in the heart of paleolithic France (Tindall).


*Kristeva’s tenuous collegial connection to the notorious anti-semitic post-modernist, Paul DeMan, as well as her own work in Powers of Horror, (1982)have been branded anti-semitic. “That book looks like an apology for Celine’s anti-Semitism,” says Juliet MacCannell, UC Irvine professor emerita of literature, who reviewed the book in the journal Semiotica. Kristeva’s study “is very anti-Semitic itself. A chapter of Kristeva’s is titled ‘Ours to Jew or Die’; in it, the author repeats Celine’s anti-Semitic discourse in detail: that the Jew is ‘a fecalized, feminized, passivated rot.’ De Man singled out these sections of the book for praise, calling them ‘indispensable readings’ and ‘illuminating and of general interest.'”

**In their stead, non-gendered philosophy has been posited by such materialist feminists as Michele Le Doeuff, ( Hipparchia’s Choice, 1991), Christine Delphy (editor of the journal Nouvelles Questions Feministes), and Colette Guillaumin, who works in the congruent problems of racism and sexism. Samples of this thinking were collected in 2002 in Kelly Oliver’s French Feminist Reader. The French still deny French feminism exists (Fallaize).

***Though no statistics on the number of homosexuals killed were kept, the French government rounded up their Jewish and homosexual citoyens and deported them to the extermination camps. Recent histories on French women during World War One (Margaret H. Darrow, 2001) and in the Resistance (Margaret Collins Weitz, 1996) have emphasized the ruthlessness with which their contribution has been excised from the official histories. As we have seen, Du Plessix Grey reports official Gaullist school book histories of World War Two simply did not mention that the Americans had any role at all in the liberation of France.

Originally posted 2004. (c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

I am reading Voices From the Farm, reminiscences of the founding and early years of the major persisting hippie commune. Founded in about 1970 by Stephen Gaskin and a couple hundred fellow refugees, and followers, of Haight Ashbury, the Farm persists to this day mainly because they made everybody get an outside job and tithe a serious proportion of their income to the Farm in the early 1980s. One refugee of what they call The Change Over was the Stanford graduate who returned penniless to San Francisco, and was appointed the first director of the WELL by Stewart Brand himself. The hippie toolie aspects of Hashbury, the Internet, Burning Man, are the important things to keep in mind — how important, I was recently reminded by the influence of the San Francisco Zen Center on the restaurant business, locavoreism and slow food, a topic to which I shall return when I’ve completed note taking.

Meanwhile, hundreds of hippies who literally turned all their worldly goods over to the Farm made a go of it in Tennessee.

It is very interesting and puzzling to think of — well, they’d have to be millenarians, I think — Americans voluntarily giving up running water, electricity, heat, sewers, and food other than soybeans and tortillas to live under Third World conditions in backwoods Tennessee. At least in the Third World there’s pineapples and stuff to eat growing wild.

They were regularly wracked with diseases of shit-contamination, including hepatitis. No one ever checked the oil on the communal vehicles, with the result that they frequently blew up when the one lawyer, for example, on the premises was due in Tennessee state supreme court to argue that their guru should not be cut from the eligible voter list on account of his serving time for growing marijuana. Whenever they got the chance to leave the farm in one of the vehicles, on farm business, the hippies would skim from the top of the petty cash they had been given for their business and binge on Coca Cola and candy bars. The vehicles would be returned to the motor pool with wrappers and cans ankle deep on the floor.

The Farm was a magnet for prisoners on parole, mental patients, runaways, and girls attracted by the anti-abortion midwives’ invitation to come have your baby free on the farm and leave it here with the hippies. Until you want it back. No provision was made for the care of these fragile and dangerous people, including the foster children whose merry-go-round lives, as their junkie slut mothers collected them and dropped them off at the farm, prevented their being sufficiently educated to work or to stay clean.

Mental patients regularly went off their medication — I can’t determine whether or not this was a policy of the Farm, which, as I understand it, grew marijuana but forbade alcohol and cigarettes — and were contained, barely, at the gate house with companion hippies called “trippers”. At least one was restrained by trippers and relieved, raving, of his large sharp knife. At what point, if any, these people graduated the gate house and penetrated to the visitors’ tent, where they were put to work and sheltered and fed, badly, but for free, is never quite made clear. Mental patients, male violence with impunity, “starry-eyed Germans”, and jobless, gigolo PhD. rockstars, if not parolees, also feature heavily in Roberta Price’s well-written and unflattering memoir, Huerfano. You can see in these memoirs how Manson was not an aberration, only a matter of degree.

Loners were taken in, people who could only get by in group homes or co-housing. When their caretakers left, the married couples they’d bonded with, or the dorm mates, the loners disintegrated. One sensitive and spacey man turned his inheritance over to the Farm, and when the couple which had taken him into their family departed, he departed too, without prospects. A blind woman committed suicide during the Change Over. Her mother told the hippies she’d always been depressed, washing her own hands and the hippies’, too, of the suicide.

Henry Goodman said they killed themselves taking care of the mentally ill, the prisoners, the hundreds of unwed mothers, without ever having their own infrastructure of decent living in place. For example, the one and only outhouse cleaner would take days off to be a tripper with the mentally ill at the gate house. One can hardly blame him.

Many of the Farm residents had come from San Francisco in the Whole Earth Catalogue, Stewart Brand, hippie toolie tradition to build sustainable infrastructures. Far from this vision, Goodman and his housemates needed linoleum for the kitchen floors so the kids wouldn’t get sewage-borne giardia from crawling around on uncleanable raw plywood. The men of that particular household undertook an outside job and worked overtime, outside the Farm, nearly two months of Saturdays to earn the money to get new linoleum and correct the fly-breeding swamp outside caused by their hippie ass plumbing. They got a “nice check”. Gaskin announced that it would be collectivized, explicitly from the anti-Marxist capitalists who had worked so hard to earn it  — for some such project of his as sending the band in which he played to tour Europe, or to install cable TV, the major production of which was Gaskin’s own Sunday sermons. Meanwhile, the children’s bill at the hospital mounted up and went unpaid.

In short, every medieval demon from cholera to schizophrenia bedevilled the Farm, in addition to the persisting belief that a completely unsuccessful, virtually gigless, rock and roll band was required, and privileged to financial support, to spread the message of the Farm.

Mind control on a slender thread of credentials — Gaskin was a kind of Buddhist, and (I have to check this) there is an ominous sentence quickly passed over about a financial connection to the San Francisco Zen Center of scandalous repute — was the ethos. Hints of how it turned into persecution are permitted in the memoir; and how it left the many very vulnerable people under its edict to fend for themselves. At the end of the book Cynthia Holzapfel says, “We had formerly preached a philosophy of self-reliance, pulling yourself up by your boot straps. What we learned is that there are people who have no boot straps.”

It sounds pretty ruthless, actually. With nothing to eat — no fruit or real vegetables, they write about how delicious were condiments to their soy bean diets — the bean sprouts, the kosher pickles, processed by somebody’s great uncle, an ancient deli counterman they’d sprung from a nursing home (for his money, I suspect).

What’s haunting is the squalor and the power hierarchies: mounds and mountains of shit, the parolees, the unmedicated mental patients, the privileged men who went touring with the band, and Gaskin’s sucking up to the local sheriff like the former Marine he was. The hippies thought it was genius.

(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.

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