Ifigenia I

Teresa de la Parra, Ifigenia

Teresa de la Parra’s Ifigenia: Diario de una señorita que escribió porque se fastidiaba gives us women’s writing twice over: not only is de la Parra herself a woman writer, so is her protagonist, María Eugenia Alonso. Indeed, almost the entirety of the book is presented as María Eugenia’s writing, in diverse genres, the first section being a letter from Venezuela to her friend, Cristina de Iturbe, whom she last saw in France. Or, as the section heading has it, it is “a very long letter in which things are told as they are in novels” (3). Which, however, interestingly distinguishes protagonist from author: if Teresa de la Parra is writing a novel, her heroine by contrast writes something that is (only?) like a novel. She is, in short, a woman writing but perhaps not really a “woman writer” or “author,” someone defined by and recognized for what she writes. As the novel’s subtitle suggests, writing is important and yet also somehow only a phase for María Eugenia: she is a “young lady who wrote because she was bored.” This indicates that writing is some kind of psychological escape or relief. But on the other hand, if she had not been bored, perhaps she would not have written; and the use of the past tense implies that she no longer writes. In short, the novel offers the possibility of an investigation into why (Latin American) women write, and why they don’t, and what stops them from becoming “writers” or authors (authorities?) in the fullest sense of the term.

María Eugenia opens her long letter to her friend by apologizing for the fact that she has not written. Her first line is: “At last I’m writing to you,” as though writing were the culmination of a lengthy process, here much delayed. She then refers immediately to a long letter that she had “thought to write you from Paris, and which I already began to draft in my head” (3). So the letter we’re reading is a delayed compensation or replacement for a letter that was never written (except in its would-be author’s head). In lieu of that letter, Cristina has so far written no more than postcards–and it’s clear that for María Eugenia, these don’t really count; we certainly have no idea what they may have said. We do, however, have a sense of what an earlier letter might have contained: if she had written while she was still en route between Paris and Venezuela, it would have been full of the optimism she felt at the time. And though María Eugenia claims she doesn’t know how to lie when she writes, arguing therefore that writing is somehow more honest than the spoken word, an optimistic letter would have been profoundly deceptive.

For the surprising truth that María Eugenia has discovered on her return home to the land of her birth is that her riches and privilege were all illusory: everything has been spent and/or stolen; she is dependent on the generosity of her family; and she finds herself practically confined to her grandmother’s house in Caracas, her only possible salvation a good marriage to an eligible bachelor. This is the situation she has now to confess through writing, though she also recognizes that there is something entertaining about the tale of her decline and fall: it’s “not so much humiliating as picturesque, interesting, and somewhat medieval” (3). In short, her life has come to approximate a Gothic romance: a classically feminine (and often derided) genre in which defenceless damsels routinely find themselves incarcerated in an unfamiliar environment, hoping for a dashing young man to save them. María Eugenia can write the story of her life as though it were a novel because there is now something novelistic about it. It is as though she were acting out a script, something that has already been written down, and yet the disappointment of economic distress is tempered, if not redeemed, by its aestheticization, by the fact that her plight can at least be represented and recorded, albeit in a derivative language and structure, borrowed from popular culture.

A Murder Neither of You Quite Remember

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

It may sound strange to say of a thousand-page novel, but Infinite Jest ends abruptly. Most if not all of the various plot threads remain loose, untied, and incomplete or ambiguous at best. Hence there’s an entire cottage industry (especially, of course, on the Internet) devoted to trying to discern what happens next and even what happened before. A small army of close readers have combed the book for clues and put together the fragments with diverse results. Fittingly perhaps, the redoubtable Aaron Swartz contributed one of the most complete and convincing conjectures. But there is little in the way of consensus. Suffice it to say, for instance, that the mystery of the opening scene–which by now we recognize is in fact, chronologically, the last scene–is unresolved and subject to much debate. Why is Hal apparently tongue-tied in his college interview? Is it because of drugs, either Pemulis’s DMZ or some natural variant his own body has synthesized? Is it because he, too, has now watched the “Entertainment”? Or is he even tongue-tied at all? Meanwhile, other more or less major questions include: Is Hal’s brother Orin dead or alive? Was it Orin who was responsible for distributing the Entertainment, Is Joelle disfigured or not? Did Gately survive to dig up the Master cartridge with Hal, supervised perhaps by Quebecois agent John Wayne? Was President Gently’s regime brought down by the separatists? Is the ghost of Orin and Hal’s father real? Is he in fact Hal’s (or even Mario’s) father at all?

No wonder then that so many of those who make it to the end of the book are compelled almost immediately to turn back to the first page. Significant numbers feel the urge to read the whole thing again. Is this because the novel is so satisfying or, by contrast, because there is something so fundamentally unsatisfying about the way it ends that we are convinced it must be our fault, that there are clues out there that we have somehow missed on a first reading? And so the reading becomes infinite (for some, Infinite Jest is its own addiction), and perhaps the jest is that no definitive conclusions can be drawn. But even if we don’t reread the full thousand pages, it has become clear that the book is fundamentally circular–“annular,” if you prefer, like the “annulation cycles” that pervade the background throughout. The novel’s “real” opening is in media res: page 17 to be precise, when someone “blue-collar and unlicensed” is imagined asking Hal “So yo man then what’s your story?” And so as well as beginning and middle, this line is also the novel’s (chronological) endpoint. Hence the circularity.

Sierpinski Gasket

Or if not a circle, a fractal: Foster Wallace once reported that the book was “structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal.” And one of the things about a Sierpinski Gasket (or Triangle) is that it has no center. And even where it is densest, full of interconnections, close observation reveals an increasingly delicate filigree of lines pervaded by pockets of space. So if this is a book about being in the middle of things (and I think it is), that’s not to say that one can ever be at the center of it all. Indeed, by the time the novel ends it’s no longer quite clear who, if anyone, is the central character–I had long been assuming it was Hal, but it could plausibly be Don Gately or perhaps the spectral Jim–or even what we might describe as the main plot, and what the subplot or plots. Precisely because things don’t fully converge at the end (however much the various strands do increasingly resonate with and contaminate each other) there are still as many spaces or gaps as there are links and connections. Oddly perhaps for a book that’s in part a critique of insincerity and hollowness (for the trouble with Hal is that “inside [him] there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows” [694]), in some ways Infinite Jest has no heart.

What a circle and a fractal have in common is repetition: a fractal simply repeats in rather more complex ways. We are in the middle because, Foster Wallace seems to be suggesting, we need to learn to master (more or less) infinite repetition. We need, in the Alcoholics Anonymous cliché (and what is a cliché but a phrase that has been itself endlessly repeated?), to “keep coming back” (270), to “Hang In and keep coming” (350) until the routine has become engrained in the body as a new habit that can replace the old habits (the old, dangerous repetitions) of addiction and denial. Gately’s moment of realization is the point at which he understands that he can no longer think of the endpoint, or rather the fact that there is no endpoint, that the repetitions will never end. This is an insight that first comes from Joelle, who compares the wrong way of coming off drugs to a leap by Evel Knievel over an ever-increasing number of cars: “As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. [. . .] And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them. [. . .] Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?” (859). The answer, instead, is to think only about the present day, the present hour, “the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time.” Trying to sustain his massive post-operative pain without narcotics, Gately sees himself abiding in “an endless Now stretching in gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. [. . .] It’s a gift, the Now: it’s AA’s real gift: it’s no accident they call it The Present” (860). Living with repetition and in repetition, “one endless day” (860), Gately discovers that “no one second of even unarcotized post-trauma-infection pain is unendurable. That he can Abide if he must” (885).

There are, however, other forms of repetition that are toxic, and unfortunately for the novel many of them are marked by gender. Women get short shrift in Infinite Jest: however much the novel presents a critique of Orin Incandenza’s treatment of them as “Subjects” (by which is meant quite the opposite of endowing them with subjectivity), too often the novel indulges in the same treatment itself. The only real exception is Joelle van Dyne / Madame Psychosis. Her importance arises from the way she joins up many of the threads between the various narratives, thanks in part to the fact that she has long been subjectified/objectified by a sequence of characters from her “own personal Daddy,” who refuses to countenance her as a growing woman, to Orin and even Jim Incandenza himself, who places her at the centre of the (quite obviously) male gaze by repeatedly pointing his camera at her for his movies. One could then argue whether the novel provides Joelle with any restitution: on the one hand, it (quite literally) keeps her faceless; on the other, it grants her the agency to withdraw and leave us all guessing. But the shortest shrift of all is given to Orin’s (and maybe Hal’s and Mario’s) mother, Avril Incandenza.

As in Hamlet, mothers draw a short straw, and for a reason that is perhaps clarified during one of Don Gately’s fever-dreams. Here, he is visited by Death, “Death Incarnate,” who turns out to be a woman for it “is a woman who kills you and releases you into the next life. [. . .] This is why Moms are so obsessively loving, [. . .] why there’s always a slight, like, twinge of selfishness about their obsessive mother-love: they’re trying to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember, except in death” (850). And this, finally, is also (film theorist Molly Notkin tells us) the essence of the “Entertainment,” Infinite Jest (V or VI), in which Jim has cast Joelle / Madame Psychosis as “the Death-Mother figure [. . .] explaining to the camera as audience-synecdoche that this is why mothers were so obsessively, consumingly, drivenly and yet narcissistically loving of you, their kid: the mothers are trying frantically to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember” (789). Indeed, the “Entertainment” would seem to be a fever-dream whose moral is to distrust motherly love, to sense a conspiracy of silence behind the mother-child bond. No wonder then that the end of the book (the physical end, at least: the last page before the footnotes begin) should comprise a strange kind of rebirth, courtesy of a rather fearsome gangster, immeasurable violence, and a great deal of drugs, in which Don Gately is left on the shore “in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out” (981). Infinite Jest gives us new respect for the power of objects, the importance of the body, and the construction of habits as a dance with repetition. It proposes self-regeneration through self-forgetting, an eternal present without past or future. I only wish it did so with fewer sacrifices and, frankly, less machismo.

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

Charlotte Perkins GilmanCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is preoccupied above all with the secret and mysterious life of things. It’s concerned with the human and the non-human, and the surprisingly porous line between them. The narrator takes for granted that things have what she terms “expression.” Her only surprise is that, in the circumstances in which she finds herself, they turn out to be more alive than ever: “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (3). Yet immediately after declaring that the liveliness of things is an open secret, that “we all know” that they have expression, she backtracks somewhat by suggesting that perhaps she is more attentive to their mysterious vitality than most: “I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store” (3). In part, then, the plot turns on this uncertainty: is the narrator a special case, abnormal, perhaps insane? Or is she simply telling us something we all know, to some extent or another: that things are more like us and we are more like things than we care to admit. Then there is a third possibility: that the “we” she invokes is general but not universal. It may be that there are some, particularly women, who can sympathize with things and know what it is to be treated as a thing. And that there are others, above all men, whose sense of subjectivity depends on marking (exaggerating?) their difference from things, and on asserting their superiority over the objects around them.

From the outset of the story, the narrator has a sense that things are not quite right. The house that she and her husband are to rent for the summer is, she intuits, perhaps “haunted”–though she doesn’t want to say this outright, for fear she may be accused of “romantic felicity” (1). Is this her (supposed) problem, that she is too much of a romantic, too easily affected by her surroundings? Still, she “proudly” insists, as though to defy any such insinuations, that there is “something queer” about the place. But by contrast, her husband John won’t admit to any such intimation: he is “practical in the extreme [. . .] and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (1). But is his problem perhaps that he in fact takes too little interest in what can be “felt and seen.” For we soon observe that the narrator focuses intently on the sensible, on her senses and sensation. For all her misgivings, she eagerly describes the house, for instance, and describes its garden as “delicious,” as though she could physically taste it. Her conviction that there is “something strange” is confirmed by her senses: “I can feel it.” Her husbands responds that what she “felt was a draught, and shut the window” (1). So begins the confinement.

Encouraged to rest, forbidden from working or writing, stuck in a room with barred windows at the top of the house, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper that lines the limits of her seclusion. It provokes, from the start, intense feelings: “I never saw a worse paper in my life. [. . .] The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow” (2). But equally, from the start, it is described as though it had a strange (if self-destructive) will of its own: its “lame uncertain curves [. . .] suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (2). Over time, the narrator elaborates on the contradictions that she perceives in the paper, perceiving faintly “a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then” (3). Eventually, she comes to conclude that “it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about the pattern. I don’t like it a bit” (5). And ultimately, the tensions in her own situation, that of a frustrated woman writer, hemmed in at all sides by a husband who dismisses her sensations as hysteria, come to parallel and merge with the strains that she perceives in the patterns around her. She tears at the paper, grasping at the presence she perceives within it: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled” (8).

None of this is really about identification. The narrator has written herself into her surroundings, which in turn have opened up to her. It’s best to think of this as a production–better still, a co-production–of an expansive subjectivity immanent to the things of this world. Against the authoritative (and authoritarian) airs of her doctor husband, the narrator makes the whole world tremble and vibrate. And in the end, her particularity, her singularity, affects him, too, when he falls down in a faint upon entering the room that she has made her own by abolishing the distance between subject and object, human and inhuman. She has become part of it, and it finally becomes her.

reassembly

Ursula Biemann’s Performing the Border is an exploration of the gendered space of the high-tech maquila zone on the US/Mexican border. It focuses particularly on the murders of young women committed in and around Ciudad Juárez, arguing that this serial sexual violence is of a piece with the serialized assembly work performed within the factories themselves.

The film also examines the notion of the border and the ways in which it is represented. It opens with the notion that the border is portrayed as a wound that has to be sutured, not only by the construction of physical obstacles (fences, walls, and so on) but also through constant electronic surveillance. Yet the film further suggests that were it not for its perforations, the multiple crossings to and fro, then the border would not exist as such: it would be no more than the sum of its physical obstacles.

Hence the notion of the border’s performativity, by which Biemann means a conjunction between material space and discursive space, as well as the tension between the two. The border as metaphor depends upon and is in some sense parasitical upon the gendered bodies that traverse it.

The space of the border is highly gendered in that it draws and exploits a migrant female labor force that works either in the factories, or in domestic employment, or in prostitution. For Biemann, these three placements of female labor and sexuality are complementary, not least in that the low wages paid in the factory system practically compel many women to turn to prostitution to supplement their income, but also more generally in the highly sexualized spaces of entertainment (bars, nightclubs) that have sprung up around and about.

Ironically, some of this sexualization is a result of the ways in which the maquilas’ remapping of gendered relationship allows also for the expression of women’s desire in new ways: it is women who are now the bread-winners of the family, or these are women who have been disconnected from the families that they have left behind in the migration north.


Overall, Biemann suggests that in the border zone a series of fundamental distinctions become blurred: the boundaries between self and other, subject and space, city and country, inside and outside, nature and artifice are also questioned as robotic, repetitive assembly work fragments women’s bodies, making them disposable and marketable components.

Finally, these are the conditions in which a new kind of serial killing emerges. Serial murder is traditionally connected with industrialization and urbanization. It echoes the repetitious dehumanization typical of the assembly line. Biemann implies that this new mode of postmodern industrialization, outsourced to the fringes of the nation state, also enables a new type of serial murder in which the killer is as anonymous and interchangeable as the object of his violence. There is no one serial killer in Ciudad Juárez; there are many, perhaps a majority of whom have themselves killed only one women but who insert themselves into a standardized pattern established for them by an economic and technical logic of outsourcing.

In the border zone, as all boundaries are in flux but gender is insistently performed and gender relations brusquely refashioned, dispossessed men who find that their identity has been reduced to statistical quantity, or to the simulation of patriarchy, violently seek to demarcate the one fundamental difference that remains, that between man and woman.

YouTube Link: the film’s opening few minutes.