The Clare Spark Blog

June 14, 2014

Is the US feminized? A Father’s Day blog

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Virginia_Woolf_PaintingThis blog is about the branch of feminism that focuses on fathers sharing child care responsibilities, unlike many of my previous blogs on feminism and sexual liberation (see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/04/links-to-blogs-on-feminism/).

I have been reading Louise DeSalvo’s Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sex Abuse on her Life and Work (Ballantine Books, 1989). The author is deeply influenced by the late Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller’s many recent books that relativize child-rearing practices, and also by Florence Rush, a feminist who, like Jeffrey Masson, chastised and rejected Freud as a traitor to his female patients when he substituted the seduction theory for the testimony of real sex abuse experienced by many of his female patients in Vienna. In other words, Freud was loyal to the fathers, uncles, brothers, and male friends who were guilty of everything from incest to less overt forms of harassment.

Although DeSalvo counts herself among the “race, class, and gender” contingent on the left, she writes about a bohemian family she classifies as upper-middle class (the Bloomsbury set), stating flat out that prior biographers of Woolf and her famous family, are guilty of a massive cover-up.

fathers-day-portland

Frankly, though I like much of what Alice Miller has to say about the need for echoing and mirroring in early childhood (so as not to confuse the child by imputing socially acceptable feelings to the developing toddler, against justified feelings of rage at being over-controlled by the parents), I am not certain that Miller, a practicing psychoanalyst, would have gone so far as to throw out Freud entirely. Practicing psychoanalysts of my acquaintance try to dredge up past traumas to evaluate their lingering effects into the present. The better therapists do not tell their neurotic clients that “it’s all in your head”.

DeSalvo’s book is sensational, with detailed readings of hanky-panky in the Bloomsbury set, some derived from Woolf’s writings. It is also repetitious and too long, even unreadable. It reminds me of other feminist intellectuals, who, untrained in the appropriate fields, deem themselves authoritative on any historical events derived from the urgent task to “rewrite women’s history,” even if it entails dubious inferences.

Which brings me to her major claim that I do agree with: early childhood neglect and parental authoritarianism is a recipe for lifelong emotional problems—-problems that may not be talked about frankly within families. Such loss of memory and silences are devastating to mental health and surely are responsible for apathetic depressed lives, and even sadomasochism.

But what do these feminists expect from men? How will well-intentioned [would-be] “feminist” men overcome a life of socializing into their positions as masters of the universe, and I refer not only to wealthy males, but to working class males who look forward to mastery in the home, if not the workplace?

pater-familias

I can answer that. Parents and schools must start paying attention to the emotions and to the irrational components of our nature. So called “liberals” and conservatives will resist these calls for massive curricular change, for their most cherished senses of who they are in the world could be challenged. Hence, I must conclude, that Louise DeSalvo, a creative writing professor, is utopian in her aspirations, and she is not alone.

Would we, as highly evolved women, not all prefer sensitive males who are more like us? I’m not holding my breath. As it stands, “metrosexuals” are mocked in conservative media as sissies and ‘homos’, latent or practicing.

Meanwhile, happy father’s day to all my readers who dare to look inside themselves and who resist idealizing the nuclear, father-led family. It is a long, hard slog for both genders.

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April 27, 2011

Film Noir, decoded

Cover art for audio version of unabridged Mildred Pierce

This is the analysis of James M. Cain’s popular novel Mildred Pierce, especially as interpreted by HBO this Spring (2011). I started by finding the lyrics to the song derived from Chopin’s Grand Valse Brillante, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (1917). This song is the leitmotif for both the HBO series and Cain’s book.

At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.

Chorus:

I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.

I have read the very wild and violent and strange James M. Cain original as adapted both in cinema and by HBO in a much touted and praised miniseries.  Briefly, Cain sees all women, especially those grown in Southern California, as monomaniacs, driven by unhealthy passions. The theme of mother-daughter incest runs throughout the novel, though Cain, born an Irish Catholic, is almost reserved on the subject. His last word on the Mildred-Veda dyad is the remark that she was a woman who loved her daughter too much, but there are insinuations and even graphic descriptions of a physical passion dotted throughout (and that HBO downplayed). I had suspected that the film noir or literary noir corpus was an assault on the idea of Progress (with its predecessor in the Terror Gothic genre that appeared in the eighteenth century and eventually became a staple of horror movies, for instance Frankenstein). But what I did not see was the full-blown assault on women as killers, serpents, and parasites on men and even on each other.

In Cain’s novel, Mildred is no laudable waitress-becoming-businesswoman, picking herself up as an entrepreneur and capitalizing on her capacity for hard work and talent in cooking artistic cakes and pies. She does cook brilliantly, apparently an inborn quality, just as Veda’s inborn musicality is prodigious, rare, and obsessive. Rather, after her husband’s fall in the early Depression, every move she makes is for the sake of Veda, her superior in every way, and whose love or classiness she can never gain. The HBO treatment of the novel does capture much of that, but not with the social history clarity of the novel, including the dialogue spoken in dialect that is un-PC, or the important original class difference between Mildred and her husband Bert Pierce, or their tenuous religious affiliations (Episcopalian vs. Methodist). The matter of class is crucial, for Veda resembles Bert, not Mildred, and seeks to restore or exceed his prior success.

Like other writers utilizing the realist tradition in literature, and infusing his tales with forbidden sex and violence to gain a popular audience, Cain has more than one agenda. In his case, his novel is not only about two crazed women, but about materialism, pride, and the failure of the American dream, a dream that is built on the theft of Indian and Mexican lands. The University of Maryland Special Collections (where his papers are stored) tells the researcher that Cain was interested in the lives and speech of the common man. They don’t say that he looked down on the lower-middle class; indeed his sociology in Mildred Pierce is very precisely delineated, down to the last detail of decor and clothing, but also the occupations of Mildred’s family and friends. The uppity Pierce home is decorated with paintings of cowboys and the West, with a hat tip toward the covered wagons and their pioneers. Later, the decayed patrician Monty Beragon makes light of his ancestors and their triumph over Mexicans in California. Mildred’s foolish overspending for the sake of Veda is described with the zeal of a bookkeeper, and of course this unrequited, very physical, passion brings her down and back to her first husband, who outclasses her throughout. Very little of this detail makes it into the HBO version, which condenses some of the most significant episodes in the novel, for instance the repeated image of the rainbow, first seen as a halo around the dead younger child in her coffin, Ray, who dies of a respiratory ailment early on in the tale, leaving Veda as the sole focus of Mildred’s life. The rainbow, traditionally a symbol of God’s benevolence after the Flood, refers to the American pursuit of happiness that eludes these characters who are stunningly devoid of self-knowledge, with the exception of Veda and Monty, matched, purposeful, and articulate cynics, unlike the comparatively wordless Mildred, whose untamed passions are mirrored in a winter storm that she fails to defeat, and whose temporary success is the result of the business-sense of others.

We should not underestimate the importance of the popular song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” as used in both the novel and the HBO series. Long ago, I interviewed Roger Angell on his fascination with baseball, and he said that the sport was really about the inevitable failure that we all experience. I called that radio program (a collage) “Play Ball, or The Aesthetics of Failure.” Chopin’s ravishing lyricism can be seen as romantic yearning. The noir genre, whether in literature or film, should be seen as a sign for the end of the line for humanity. This ideology is profoundly antidemocratic and anti-American. It does not deserve our sympathy, though James M. Cain’s novel is interesting as a reactionary artifact, and more skillfully written than I had anticipated.

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