Doctor Who made me think, of shame, disgust, beauty and phobia. I felt horror I had not felt watching the programme this century, and waking in the night had to find ways of making the renewed horror and fear less, so that I could go back to sleep.

“Praxeus” in the show is a virus which eats plastic within bodies, first of birds then of people. Scales grow across the human bodies, onto their hands and faces. As the camera lingered on Matthew McNulty’s face, looking sick and miserable, I felt my guts twisting with revulsion. In the night, I told myself repeatedly that he is an actor and imagined him peeling off the makeup and going for a drink with the rest of the cast. I thought of him in Deadwater Fell on Friday night, as a disgraced policeman launching himself across a room at former Doctor David Tennant who was playing a doctor, then chatting as friends on the side of the set. It’s fiction. It hasn’t wholly worked. I still feel perplexed distress, so decided to write it out here.

Silly right-wingers were irritated with Doctor Who being “woke” again, with Warren Brown as the McNulty character’s husband, and a plot around plastic pollution being a bad thing, but that pleases me. Doctor Who has shown sick people before, in Spyfall lying in bed surrounded by monitors, where the Doctor after a quick wave of her sonic comments that all their DNA has been rewritten and they’re not human any more. But they looked like people in comas and hardly bothered me. I have binged Pose recently, with Blanca in hospital with an AIDS related illness, and felt sympathy.

So if it is about illness, that’s not all of it. I like to think of people recovering. The human tends to health, healing injuries, fighting off infection. Here the scales grow over the face, and death seems remorseless, slow but certain. McNulty, who as a working class actor has a particular forte for incomprehending misery, has a strong TV career, so possibly as a good actor engaged my empathy and conveyed his character’s distress, and I think it was more than that.

I want to look beautiful. I see someone looking repulsively ugly so that I want to look away, and I imagine myself looking so ugly, so that others reject me. I can imagine myself like that, and it gars me grue. I have rarely felt beautiful. I do not feel repulsive, but others sometimes show their transphobia so that I know they are repelled, and that is a horrible feeling.

I loathe the idea of feeling disgusted by another human being in such a way as to break sympathy. That is a strong part of it, the fear of rejection which we suffer so much. I think the worst of it was the scales, a parasitic and destructive thing, were obscuring the face. I imagine something creeping over my face like that and am horrified. The humanity is obscured.

And the virus seemed effective, so that it would certainly kill. It didn’t, always, but the anticipation of death and being weak and powerless before it, is ghastly. I pause to think again of McNulty peeling off his prosthetic, giving the glue a quick wash off, and going to do something else. Stephen Moffat’s Doctor had moments of awe and wonder, and moments of triumph, but Chris Chibnall’s Doctor never seems to get anything better than exhausted relief, a slight respite from the grind before some other task starts. She’s still in control, but she seems to have to work harder. I liked Russell T Davies’ Doctors, when as soon as they started running you had the feeling that the monsters were left hopelessly behind, but with Chibnall they seem certain to catch up. The running seems exhausting, the long lines explaining what is going on delivered with misery and fear. I want more joy, more careless derring-do and panache. Even the delight of Missy in The Magician’s Apprentice, killing someone to make a point, is preferable to this.

Added: the end of the season, with the Master, shorn of all Missy’s character development, destroying the citadel of the Time Lords and turning all the Time Lords into cybermen who could regenerate, was so mean and nasty it may have put me off Doctor Who. At least while Chibnall runs it.

Ad Astra: Myth and Beauty

Ad Astra is utterly beautiful. Views of Neptune’s rings or the depths of space enchant me. It works as an adventure film, with a car chase in lunar buggies and a zero-gravity fight, but most of all it is a meditation on what it means to be a man, and how to be the best man you are. Brad Pitt is beautiful to look at, inhabiting the hero and expressing all of him, in facial movements and the way he walks.

It is a Man film, where men confront each other and do heroic things, and women are receptionists or an uncomprehended love interest, but two women are at decisive moments, the woman he loves yet cannot (at least at the start) communicate with, who leaves him, and the woman on Mars who issues the challenge he must face alone.

The film is gorgeous to look at. It starts with a tower so tall he needs a pressure suit to go outside, and has a view of Jupiter as his space ship passes by. It has Brad Pitt’s face, with thoughts and feelings flooding through it as he takes up his task, wanting to send a message to the woman he loves yet not having the words or knowing what to say.

Some of the space stuff stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. They appear to find reaching escape velocity easier than I understand it is. But on a mythic level, a solitary journey of seventy days to the farthest planet is moving, expressed by more shots of Pitt’s face, of him making his way through the ship, and of his ship receding, disappearing into the dark.

The man starts the film overshadowed by his famous father, following in his footsteps a long way behind, doing dangerous jobs in space out of a sense of duty, doing what his bosses instruct. They praise him as a good serviceman. His repeated psych evals show him to be well adjusted to this obedience. They give him a task: to send a message to his father, who may still be alive, but they draft the message which he must merely read out. For some reason or another he has to go to Mars to do that. Getting there involves adventure sequences threatening his life and that of those who rely on him, and an encounter with an old “friend” of his father.

The message has no answer (an answer would take at least eight hours). Then he speaks for himself, making a plea to his father from his heart. In giving his all to do what he decides for himself to make his goal, he becomes a mature man.

His father is also a Man, whose great task subsumes all other moral or practical imperatives, whose failure to find the result he wishes makes him wish for death. His devotion to an impossible dream makes him murderous.

All that matters is the task each has chosen freely, which each must complete though they die. Death is ever present, from the beauty and bleakness of the sun through a visor of a space suit in the opening shots to the encounter between the two men, the son sacrificed for his father’s life purpose and the father, a great explorer and also a failure, solitary for sixteen years. His failure is that he cannot accept that he cannot have what he wanted so much, cannot relinquish the task though further effort is futile.

The film shows a journey through challenge to freedom, maturity, and flowering as a real man, doing what the son must do and knowing and expressing his feelings, relating authentically to others. It works as myth.

Four Jews

Knowing I must act against antisemitism, but not sure how, I have been reading books by Jews. I will challenge antisemitism when I hear it, and with Amos Oz I draw the line at challenges to Israeli policy which would make the State of Israel’s continuation as a safe place for Jews impossible. So I cannot support a right of return for all Palestinian refugees. I see the reasons for the different names- if they are Palestinians, they are a small oppressed minority under the Israelis. If they are “Arabs”, they are part of the people who sought to destroy Israel immediately the UN voted to establish two states on the territory of the former British mandate.

I read Oz’s account of the siege of the Jewish area of Jerusalem in A Tale of Love and Darkness. He was eight. His cousin had been murdered in Auschwitz. He describes having a bucket of water per person, sometimes, sometimes not, and people he knew being killed by snipers. His seeking of that two State solution, his mourning of two oppressed peoples set against each other, inspires me.

I have been reading Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It has a vast cast of characters and a helpful list of them at the end. It includes Hitler, who ceases to be a great man as soon as his troops start losing, describing his thoughts and feelings and how his underlings see him. It includes a journey to the gas chamber from the moment of boarding the cattle truck, to the panic as people are packed into the dark room.

And it has the only account  of the joy and wonder of scientific discovery I have seen in a novel. Victor Shtrum has a conversation about politics with friends where they allow themselves to speak freely, and ever after the thought of that conversation tortures him. Is his friend’s brother an agent provocateur? Has he been arrested? But the free conversation leads to a moment of inspiration. There have been experimental results which have not fitted the current theory. Are the results merely anomalous? That evening he has a flash of inspiration integrating the old understanding with the new results, and over the following days he works on a mathematical proof of his theory.

Then he is denounced for polluting Soviet science with Talmudic speculation.

Grossman was a fearless journalist, telling the story of the troops at the front as they wished. He portrays a vile, corrupt Commissar, Getmanov, and loyal Communists interrogated in the Lubyanka. It is a brave book, suppressed under Khrushchev, surviving miraculously.

An Interrupted Life, the diaries of Etty Hillesum, are a mystic journey to service of God in love of all, including the German soldier as the Nuremberg laws bite, and a clear-eyed acceptance of reality. She describes her self-induced abortion and encounters with public spirited citizens challenging her presence in a pharmacy. Is it against the law? It is not, she explains, courteously.

And now I have started The Story of the Jews, by Simon Schama. He begins in 5th century BCE Elephantine, where Jewish soldiers serve the Persian occupation of Egypt, and are expelled when the Persian empire begins to fray. They built their own temple for sacrifice. Contradicting the Seperatist story of Ezra Nehemiah and Haggai, Schama tells another story of living in the company of neighbouring cultures, where it was possible to be Jewish and Egyptian, as after it would be possible to be Jewish and Dutch or Jewish and American, possible, not necessarily easy or simple, to live the one life in balance with the other, to be none the less Jewish for being the more Egyptian, Dutch, British, American.

These books which I love are eclectic, and I draw no conclusions from them about Jews as a whole; but I am more determined to be a good ally against antisemitism.

New Philosopher

A man, hiking, saw a bear, high above him in a field of bushes, and admired her gait and her light gold fur. Then he saw her again, following his path, only a hundred metres away. He realised she wanted to eat him.

I remember a distinct thrill of pleasure… as a matter of perspective. The feeling was tied most closely to relief. Every other thing I’d been worrying about that day, from whether I’d worn enough sunscreen to whether my partner really loved me, fell aside. I had one concern: to get away without being eaten.

It is an amazing thought, close perhaps to the “Rock Bottom” of alcoholics anonymous: the moment when you see everything entirely clearly and all your illusions fall away. We have various wants- to look good to ourselves and others, to achieve some possibility only if it is possible, not to pine for it if not- and they are gone, and mind, body and spirit are united in one purpose. After such an experience, all is changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.

The bear is shot by a park ranger, and the writer lives to share his insight with the New York Times, and go back to cursing at his phone while travelling in a car- “rolling across the Earth in 4,000 pounds of steel”. I hope he wasn’t driving. Yet something of the experience remains, of being part of the natural world… one cell in the great, breathing locomotion spreading from sunlight to leaves to root stems to bugs to birds to bears. All of us fragile, all of us fleeting, all of us prey.

I am not sure the writing entirely works. Would it instil the sense of wonder if you had not considered it yourself? Being part of creation is a standard spiritual experience, though I can remember the time before I had it. I still curse my smartphone, or gaze at it seeking validation which it gives unpredictably- perhaps does not really give validation at all. I love the thought of all worries falling aside, though. This is the important thing, Now.

I found it in New Philosopher magazine, a handsome quarterly on glossy paper whose only adverts are for subscriptions to itself. On the back, it says “For curious people looking for solutions to the fundamental issues faced by humankind”. I found it hideously bourgeois. The articles are about a thousand words, saying things I more or less knew, and that article on the bear was in the NYT in August. There are a few quotes, without context: Truly man is a marvellously vain, diverse, and undulating object, said Montaigne; But how can I be a logician before I’m a human being! asked Wittgenstein. It includes philosophers! But that does not make the target reader one.

Bourgeois- it would not challenge me, but confirm that I am an educated, cultured person. I could read it and refresh my sense that all is right with the world and me, if I were bourgeoise myself. It is mildly entertaining, but as I am looking for answers- even the heady feeling of knowing my one concern– I find it frustrating, promising yet withholding. I learn that 60% of mammals are livestock, 36% humans, and just 4% wild animals. I think to myself, that’s a bit like the proportions of dark energy, dark matter and baryonic matter, because I’m well read that way, and move on. It has that gorgeous image by Lucas Cranach which I had not encountered before. It irritates me that it is so consciously well-written.

There are occasional interesting moments. A man spots a teenage girl, alone. “Wow, you’re really beautiful, you know,” he says. If she ignores him, dismisses him, or accepts the compliment with grace and walks off, he knows she’s not his girl. But if she pauses, smiles shyly, fishes for more, he knows he has a victim. It’s an article on people trafficking. Being too bourgeoise for my own good, I had not thought of that.

Our brains make up only two per cent of our body mass but consume 20 per cent of our calories. Fascinating.

It loves encomia from readers, and after someone gushed “I feel like I have been waiting for this magazine all my life” printed that twice, on pages 7 and 124. It is entertaining, and I find it mildly disappointing. It would not have this shocking early 19th century portrait of a boy in girl’s clothes.

Northanger Abbey

A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

I did not understand Northanger Abbey in my mid-twenties. I had not then read Ann Radcliffe, or had any idea of Gothic novels. Now, having read The Mysteries of Udolpho, I enjoy it more. Catherine Morland, the heroine, travels with her friend to Bath with suitable quietness and uneventful safety. Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear, on Mrs. Allen’s side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless. Mrs Allen, a childless matron, has nothing in her head but the beauty of her own gowns.

I enjoyed Udolpho, but found its author often tells rather than shows, and some of the occurrences stretched my credulity. Now, I am laughing out loud- literally- at 200 year old jokes. Jane Austen was 27 when she completed the novel. Here is Miss Austen on the travails of the novelist: Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried… [novels are] work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

She is quite serious, and you dare not contradict her.

Contrast, She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can. Mr Thorpe, however, reveals his ignorance by his ridiculous boasting, none of which is credible.

I wonder what it was like to be her, so much cleverer than anyone she met. What might she be like to talk to? As a novelist, would she seek to discover the character of the other, so she could skewer it in a book?

Catherine’s heart was affectionate; her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind — her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty — and her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is. She says what she believes and wants to do right. She finds Mr Tilney’s attentions delightful, though he mock her a little, and Mr Thorpe’s repulsive, even though she might not immediately see how full of shit he is.

“Yes, my dear Catherine, it is so indeed; your penetration has not deceived you. Oh! That arch eye of yours! It sees through everything.” Catherine replied only by a look of wondering ignorance. Poor Catherine. She ends the novel happy, in the older sense of being blessed as well as in the sense of a feeling. I care about this ingenue. I am sad in her brief miseries, and delighted by her joys. People say things they do not mean, and poor Catherine is confused- as am I, sometimes.

The male gaze and trans women

We are animals, and pay attention to others we do not know with our most basic drives- are they threat, prey or sex-object? Seeing the person as a sex-object, only interesting as a potential partner rather than a whole human being with gifts and qualities, is the basis of the objection to the “male gaze” at women, in films and television. Women are devalued and objectified.

If we are sex-object, that may be a threat, as trans panic defences are still argued. In Gwen Araujo’s first trial, the jury deadlocked: the murderers had had intimate relations with their victim, and claimed that when they found she had a penis they “flew into a rage” or “shock provoked them into a heat of passion” fitting manslaughter not murder. The defence is based on “dominant norms of hegemonic masculinity” and so harmful; but people still think that. A conviction is no compensation to the victim.

But we may also be seen as prey, as a matter of sexual competition. The hegemonic male sees the trans woman as an inadequate man, and proves his own manliness (to himself, at any rate) by humiliating her. That pointed scrutiny may indicate a man about to bully you.

In film and TV, however, trans women are not the victim of this as younger cis women are. Feminists complain that female actors are portrayed for the pleasure of the male viewer. Trans characters tend to be portrayed sympathetically. Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl is an interesting character in an interesting situation, not a sex object or a matter for derision: she is portrayed as embarrassed and frightened at being seen, and as a victim (when dressed male) of gay bashers.

This is a blog, not a news site. Often I think things through as I type here.

That scene. Yes, it happens, that people are read as gay and victimised. We might object to the story- we don’t want just to be seen as victims having a ghastly time, but as people making our way in the world. Watching the scene, I saw what was going on before Lili starts to flee. Is that because of the way the camera dwells on her? Or the muggers? Or the music- there are ways to portray such a thing. I feel the audience’s sympathy would be with Lili, and the film-makers’, as well-

I don’t feel anyone who would want to see the film would think “Good, the pervert got what was coming”. And- now I have the concept of the “gaze”, I wonder whether there is something objectionable.

What of Maxine Conway in Wentworth Prison? There are main characters which are more or less sympathetic, and Maxine is allied with the more sympathetic ones. She is large, with a male figure: the makers chose a character who was obviously trans. Well, many of us are, and how can I say that does not make me ridiculous while complaining at Maxine being ridiculed just for that?

I am not here making a clear distinction between gaze, the way the camera dwells on an actor, and the whole way we tell stories about trans people. I never watched Boy meets Girl, but it is comedy about a man and a trans woman being romantically involved, starring a trans woman. The Daily Mail hated it, as an instruction manual about what to say, think and feel about sex changes. The trans woman gets read, but those who don’t sympathise with trans women won’t like the show.

Can the viewer identify with a character? There are so many action films where we are invited to identify with a male action hero, Jason Bourne or John McClane. In The Danish Girl it seems easier to identify with Gerda Wegener, Lili’s wife.

I was asked about this one. I am not a film critic, but have an eye for composition. What do you think?

Kevin Williamson

Kevin Williamson is an angry transphobe. So what? He was recently appointed as a columnist for The Atlantic. Yes, a centrist magazine can have a few conservative writers: does it matter, that he is a transphobe? Content warning: I quote him.

Laverne Cox is not a woman, he wrote in 2014. Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. That goes beyond opinion to personal attack and mockery. Speculating on whether she has had treatment is designed to ridicule. Yes, the article was only relevant because Laverne Cox was in the news, but that does not mean he should be cruel like that.

Williamson uses male pronouns throughout. He writes about the difference between objective fact and perception or desire. To him, sex is objective fact. Sexual orientation isn’t- our neat little categories of sexual orientation are yet another substitution of the conceptual for the actual, human sexual behavior being more complex and varied than the rhetoric of sexual orientation can accommodate. Some people are entirely gay, and bisexual people are still subject to prejudice even from gay people. If Williamson is right, the “neat little categories” arise from homophobia. Yet the neat little categories of sex which he upholds would not be elastic enough to include me as a woman, because Williamson himself is uncomfortable with that. Only his neat little categories are acceptable.

That first quote I got from Michelle Goldberg in the NYT. She calls it “demeaning”, and it is the most clearly demeaning sentence in the article. She calls it cruel, too: sometimes she enjoys cruelty, and then is “prompted to uncomfortable self-recognition”. It makes her mend her ways. I would say Williamson is irrelevant. “Cox is not a woman!” he shouts. Well, if your definition is so important to you- but that is not the question. The question is whether she should be treated as a woman, accepted as a woman, whether that makes our society more flexible and able to help all members flourish. If Cox is not a woman, so what? How should she behave, how should others behave? Times being what they are, we might even offer our indulgence. He might even treat her as a woman, but not yet- see those pronouns.

So I despise him. His offer of “indulgence” makes it worse, actually: if he were honestly outraged or disgusted, his vituperation might have some excuse, as we excuse a person overcome by emotion. But he keeps his cruelty in, even though he sees a better way. What would the “indulgence” mean? Not celebrating her talents, as that is what roused his ire. Bare toleration, perhaps. People have been tolerating trans women since forever, and he can go along with that- but he objects to her being celebrated as a talented individual who has achieved a lot against severe difficulties. He wants to look down on her, and for everyone else to, as well. The indulgence only lasts as long as she is kept down, fearful of those like Williamson. When her talents are celebrated he needs to pull her down, and calling her “he” is the obvious way. He reminds me of a small boy trying to explain the method of a magic trick a far more charismatic child used to entertain the adults.

Brett Stephens, also in the NYT, misstates the charge against Williamson. It is not that you believe sex is a biological reality and that gender should not be a choice. Well, no, it is that he is personal and abusive. Stephens calls that “guilt by pull-quote”- three sentences out of “hundreds of thousands of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary”.

The New Republic points out Williamson is “gratuitously cruel” and dissects his comparison of a black boy to a “primate”. Mother Jones, from the left, says his guilt is not sufficient, from two pull-quotes: that word “primate” and Williamson’s suggestion that abortion should be treated as homicide. He tweeted that women should be hanged. Stop worrying about him per se, argue against what he writes. He is “provocative, engaging, stylish”, as well as “unpredictable” and “energetic”. Entertainment is what matters. “Give tolerance a chance” wrote the National Review.

We won’t get everyone who makes a jab at trans people silenced ever after. Which is a shame. We are a tempting target for bullies, being weak and unusual, so easily mocked. Bullying is not stylish, and sites which publish bullies are demeaned.

Self respect VI

Self-respect is toughness, moral nerve, character, a certain discipline to defer gratification, do the honourable thing, seek a goal with open eyes knowing its price, and the odds of success. It might manifest itself in English formal dress in the rain-forest

(hold on! what about all that fiction showing the Empire-builders’ civilisation mere window-dressing over weakness and hypocrisy!)

a symbol of values inculcated long before

(in some people, perhaps).

It is to have the courage of ones mistakes and sins- to commit adultery then accept the result

(I thought earlier it was about honour)

It is to know yourself, take your own measure, and make peace with that

(when honour is not possible. Becky Sharp had self respect.)

It never keeps you safe, but safe enough

(my summary, not in her words)

and does not proceed from certain charms such as clean hair and fingernails, the child’s passive virtue of good manners and a good IQ score. To believe that is all you need is a kind of innocence, before you realise those child’s virtues are not enough.

You cannot deceive yourself.

(Um. I feel I always did; I ferreted out the lies I told myself, beginning with the lie “I lie to myself because I want to see myself as a Good person”. Perhaps she saw herself more clearly, only needed  one “does not compute” moment before the scales fell from her eyes.)

Without self-respect, you see all your failings in turn, the hurtful words, the things done wrong, both real and imagined.

(I seek to let go of Perfect me, the me that does all that I expect of myself, without undue effort, showing up the physical Clare with all her failures. Perhaps this is a similar idea.)

The person without self-respect is bound to try to please all of the people, all of the time, to be unable to say no except by not turning up, or not answering the phone.

(This begins to worry me. I am withdrawn from society. It has always been my way.)

We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.

(I may have a gift for empathy, but this is really frightening me now.)

That is alienation from self.

This is a summary of Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect, first published in 1961. I don’t agree with it all. Possibly I don’t understand it all. My feeling that I do could be the Dunning-Kruger effect, which one could never recognise in onesself so is the perfect source of paranoia- Omigod, I am an idiot, everyone’s laughing at me and I could never know- but again, I am sure enough. It talks of good things, seeking your own goals, living by your own sense of honour, which might be derived from the group, such as the colonial overlords, or purely idiosyncratic, knowing the cost and the odds.

And throughout it has wonderful sentences. It has weight and power:

character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs. That “is”! She exhibits such certainty that I am tempted to make her my guide and role-model.

It has a bracing acknowledgment of the darkness and difficulty:

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

Joan! Explain to me, that I may understand! No, you feel this viscerally or do not get it at all:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.

I like how each of her two final sentences is in two balanced halves, like verses of the Psalms, a rhetorical trick I use myself, but they convey so much: rich promise, coupled with an image of terrifying insignificance, Heaven and Hell in two sentences.

To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

I share paintings by women, but here is Peder Krøyer’s picture of his wife, a completely different femininity from her self-portrait:

Why I write II

In cases of profound and permanent unhappiness, a strongly developed sense of shame arrests all lamentation. Every unhappy condition among men creates the silent zone alluded to, in which each is isolated as though on an island. Those who do escape from the island will not look back. -Simone Weil

A hard hitting essay in The Boston Review- too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it– and I wonder if it condemns me entirely. All my personal reflections here: are they too thinking about some stuff then thinking about some other stuff that kind of relates to the original stuff you were thinking about but not really, like that of Durga Chew-Bose, into whom the reviewer Merve Emre sticks the boot into so enthusiastically?

The tag at the top gives me a way out. “Feminism”. Aha, this is women resisting patriarchy and refusing “femininity”, first kicking the feminine essayist who reveals her feelings then praising the more muscular feminists who follow, and their insistence that we disentangle ethics from empathy…[which] We see in Weil’s “painful clarity”: her simple, yet brutal, prose style that stressed concrete detail over abstraction in her descriptions of factory work, and thus extended neither sympathy nor empathy to laborers but a far greater form of compassion: attention and intellectual honesty.

Mary Gaitskill: I think this is the reason every boob with a hangnail has been clogging the courts and haunting talk shows across the land for the last twenty years, telling his/her “story” and trying to get redress. Whatever the suffering is, it’s not to be endured, for God’s sake, not felt and never, ever accepted. It’s to be triumphed over. And because some things cannot be triumphed over unless they are first accepted and endured, because, indeed, some things cannot be triumphed over at all, the “story” must be told again and again in endless pursuit of a happy ending. To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life. Am I one of those boobs? I would love nothing more than getting on a talk show, my essays are in print celebrating my Feelings- often resentment, anger, fear and sadness, caused by circumstances which I lament as a toddler does, loudly demanding someone remove them.

There is one more problem humans, and writers, have: we live in a world of illusory shared experience, ready-made identities, manipulation, and masks so dense and omnipresent that in this world, an actual human face is ludicrous or “crazy.” Every human experience is pretense, and most attempts to write it down,or  to explain it to yourself or others, are continuations of that pretense. Not all: the best art illuminates the cracks in our inexhaustible social performances, lighting our way through “the maze of personality and persona” so that we may, if only for a brief and fragile moment, forget who or what we are playing at.

Unless I am Simone Weil or Virginia Woolf, there is no point in writing at all.

I appreciate the aims of these women, and they are not mine. I treasure a compliment from 2014: I also like this writing. There’s something Proustian about it. If you can get through the thirty pages on a goodnight kiss without throwing The Way by Swann’s across the room, you might suffer through the boredom of the narrator’s paranoid speculation about Albertine’s lesbian affairs. It is him, in his wrongness and humanity, his petulant childish idiocies stripped of all masks. This is me, attempting to understand, or self-justify, or formulate so I may communicate, or cover things up because I find them too frightening.

I am still tempted to read Merve Emre’s essay for rules on writing, so that I might obey them, and evade her criticism- though even if I obeyed them to her satisfaction, someone else would find my writing wanting. The only way forward is to do what I do, and keep doing it- or to do other stuff- in fact the way will be as it will, exploring and excavating, not necessarily a way forward at all. I write because I want to, and find it worthwhile.



Anyone who watches thrillers sees a lot of torture scenes, on film or TV. This is a good thing, enabling writers to examine characters under duress, and real confrontations in a fantasy setting. I don’t watch the kind of drama where it is merely for shock value. My first was in Genesis of the Daleks, when I was eight. It is played straight: the Doctor is interrogated, while his companions are strapped to a machine which induces pain. Shortly after I saw my first satirised torture scene, the Vogon poetry reading.

People confront each other in real life all the time. Sometimes, one desires to crush the other- sometimes they succeed. You can be in a position where backing off or running away is impossible. Instruments of torture make the cruelty and destructiveness explicit, and often there is a consoling ending: the character tortured recovers. The torture scene enables us to contemplate such encounters at a safe distance, before we meet them in real life.

In Casino Royale (2006), James Bond is whipped in the testicles. He responds by acting as if the pain is some benefit. This is a useful technique with pain, to see good coming of it, which makes epilation easier. And the Hero, as always, refuses to back down or give up, though his situation appears hopeless- I love such stories, of human beings overcoming all odds, they are reassuring. My radical feminist friend loathes men’s action movies, where the Hero is in a series of unlikely situations, achieving his goals by shooting or beating up a series of mooks, getting away when the chasers crash and burn, etc. Well, they can be samey, they have a small repertoire of scenes, but there can be humour and creativity in the execution, just as Burns did so much with Standard Habbie.

Maybe I do watch for shock value.

In The Transporter TV series, there is a woman who threatens to remove fingers with secateurs, smiling delightedly as if she loves the game of it. The amputations happen off screen, but the fantasy element of it- I giggle nervously, and say “Ooh! Gross!“- is a way of distancing the viewer from the situation, enabling us to approach destructive confrontation. It is like a lurid, brightly coloured cartoon, showing a real facial expression.

In Versailles, M. Marchal usually kills his victims. He is the quiet, imperturbable policeman, getting on with the job, doing what he needs to do to preserve his master’s rule. I loved defiance in some, and the abject terror of the Chevalier de Lorraine, who was not chastened after, at all. People, confronting an irresistible force, not backing down.

In Cardinal, there is some exploration as to why the torturer might want to torture another. Why does he induct his apprentice? He says, because once she has done this no-one will be able to oppress her. He enjoys the teacher’s role, getting her to stand in the middle of the road with her arms out and legs spread. Make yourself as big as possible. His teaching works- she graduates to cutting off a finger with secateurs. Cardinal is full of people whose jobs do not use their talents- the torturer is just one such. Some resent it and act up, in self-destructive ways; Cardinal himself, the detective, just gets on with the job.

I was sitting in the yard when a kite flew overhead, and I saw its action silhouetted against the sun. A haiku:

Red kite nibbles at
the morsel in its talons
adjusts tail, flies on