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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Passionate Rebel: Colette's Ode to Life

Last Thursday's Philosophy Club paid tribute to a woman who lived life according to her own rules whilst simultaneously writing about that life in a manner that broke with literary convention. If a key task on this third session of our current six-week series was to learn what we could about the trope of the female rebel through the life and writings of French novelist, memoirist, actress and journalist, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), an equally important task lay in getting to the bottom of what made Colette's prose revolutionary. To do this work, we had to step away from how we had understood the term, revolution, in relation to Mary Wollstonecraft - that is, as a large-scale political and social movement - and turn inwards instead.

Here, Julia Kristeva's notion of "revolt" as a creative energy sweeping through an individual and triggering a kind of re-birth proved helpful: enabling us to distinguish between writing that provides a mindful kind of plaisir and writing that provokes a stab of bodily jouissance; highlighting for us the difference between Wollstonecraft's pursuit of a world for women organized around rational thinking and reasoned response, and Colette's apolitical commitment to playful paradox and bodily sensation. And just as our chosen method for getting to know Mary Wollstonecraft - 'deep thinking' - was a 'fit' with that particular rebel's philosophical take on the world, this week's exploration of earthy 'child of nature' Colette found us taking the cue from our bodies.

Coming into the session we had each read an excerpt from Judith Thurman's 1999 biography, Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette; selected pages from Colette's 1920 novel, Cheri; and a summary of Colette's writing about love, as discussed by Julia Kristeva. What was it, we asked ourselves - warming to this somewhat unorthodox methodological approach - to read with one's body? to think with one's body? to come to know with one's body? to look for one's body - or the body of someone else, for that matter - in a given text? What exactly did Colette mean, we asked ourselves, when she stated: "When my body thinks...all my flesh has a soul"?

Kristeva, as it happens, is particularly interested in where bodies lurk in our thoughts, in the language we use, in the texts we write and read...And Colette, for Kristeva, is one of the few writers who manages to successfully infuse words on the page with the body. By 'the body,' what Kristeva means is the bodily drives - the body's vitality and energy. When words come alive on the page, when they spark off each other and we as readers find ourselves riding a breathless and seamless wave between what the text is saying and the bodily sensations accompanying what is being said, then what is happening - according to Kristeva - is that the bodily drives are being discharged by the musicality of the prose - by the prose's very rhythms and tones. Here, of course, we were returning to old terrain examined in salons past: to our explorations of poetry and photographs, respectively, as art forms that can be 'read' in a bodily way; to our look at the highly gendered representational systems at work in the symbolic world of heraldry.

For her part, Kristeva goes to great lengths to point out the difference between bodily drives as represented in a text and bodily drives as discharged through a text - the latter being what Colette manages to achieve as a prose stylist, and wherein lies the "secret" to what makes her prose revolutionary...an explosion of "phonetic rapture" that "writes the relation between 'meaning and feeling,' and between 'sense and sensation." For our part, we workshopped this difference between representation of the body and an active evocation of it through a series of inter-related group exercises: looking first at representations of Colette's much-photographed body in search of 'cultural readings' of the prevailing themes that constituted her life and her oeuvre; delving next into a set of recipes penned by Colette which contained far more signs of life, if you like, than your average chicken casserole. As voluptuous women with names like Veronique and Juliette sallied forth out of our 'readings' of these recipes, we reflected on the "marvelous commonplace" that was Colette's natural dwelling place, on the voracious appetite for life that she possessed, and on her writerly ability to "infuse passion into words" and in so doing, transform an everyday recipe into a highly charged sensual experience.

Of course, in addition to examining Colette's stylistic acrobatics, a good part of the evening was spent becoming familiar with the scandals that dogged her as a result of her unconventional love affairs and her daring stage performances; with the criticisms that greeted her as a result of the company she kept and the causes (including militant turn-of-the-century suffragist-style feminism) that she eschewed; with the mix of scorn and admiration that she attracted as a result of her staunch refusal to be anything other than true to herself in an age when women where expected to be true to the needs and wishes of everyone but themselves.

As for Colette earning a place in our Rebel Hall of Fame, we were unanimous that she indeed deserved to be there...Less united in our appreciation of the qualities that got her there. What all of us did feel is that Colette gave us a taste of freedom that was intoxicating, and a hunger for the simple bodily pleasures of life. In her embracing of a hedonism that celebrated female passion and rewrote the way that women, young and old, lived their sensual proclivities, what Colette gave us is an early example of sex-positive feminism. In her ability to pique the interest of others (an endless stream of biographers have attempted to 'capture' Colette!) whilst remaining strangely elusive - a free spirit in life as in death - what the 'self-interested' Colette teaches us is that paradox, if perturbing, also has the power to excite and endure. As we head into our fourth session of the series this Thursday, it will be interesting to see how the "creative contradictions" inherent in the "marvelous commonplace" that also describes the surrealist world of rebel-in-exile artist and writer, Leonora Carrington, compare to those that defined the free-spirited rebel realm of Colette.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Gift: The Art of Giving and Taking

Last Thursday evening's salon took on the seemingly benign topic of “The Gift.” Warm and fuzzy feelings were few and far between, however, as we set off on this particular foray into the realm of give-and-take. Instead, we found ourselves on prickly ground as we navigated the highly gendered history of gift exchange, and struggled to come to terms with our own positioning as gift-givers and gift-takers.

The conversational forms around which the evening's exploration was organized were “the quote” and “the cliche”: gift-related examples of the former serving as 'thinking prompts' in the various group exercises dotted throughout the evening; spontaneous eruptions of the latter - “Never look a gift-horse in the mouth!” - leading us to question from whence these “metaphorical flat tires” had sprung, and to query the 'common-sense' assumptions they promoted and perpetuated.

A quick survey of the group established early on that most of us – though happily, not all – felt more comfortable giving a gift than getting one. That said, the terminology associated with being on the receiving end of the transaction did have an impact on how we experienced this discomfort...Taking and Getting – both derived from active etymological roots – causing greater unease amongst many of us than the more graciously passive business of Reception. If, as we were fast discovering, there is a whole etymological minefield underlying the 'art' of giving and taking, we were also learning that the personal politics involved in everyday gift exchange in Montreal 2012 have their roots in those dynamics of competition and rivalry, of losing face and saving face, that have characterized gift exchange since time immemorial.

For starters, the very word exchange signals trouble at mill – deriving, as it does, from the Latin, cambire, which means 'to barter,' which in turn traces its etymological roots to the Old French word, barater, which means 'to cheat.' Yes, that's right: before we even got to French social philosopher Marcel Mauss's seminal 1925 text, The Gift, and his discussion of the crucial link between gift exchange and the establishment of kinship lines and social systems, we knew that we were in for a corruptible ride in an uneven playing field.

And that was only the beginning. For how about the word gift itself?...A word which, whether you were an Old Norse seafarer or a High German scribe or an Olde English knight had but one universal meaning – “payment for a wife.” True, the gift's etymological equivalent – the word,
'dowry,' from the Latin dos (gift) – did morph at some point along the way from a gift made by a man to his future bride's parents, to the money or property or goods promised alongside the woman to her future husband at marriage. The principle, however, remained the same...Women, as feminist theorist Gayle Rubin (1975) has argued, were part of the "perishable wealth"
which, along with other produce such as yams or pigs, were "trafficked" back and forth between men, and ultimately converted into "imperishable prestige."

As might be expected, this knowledge that historically-speaking we women had been the bounty, not the barterers, did influence our subsequent working of Marcel Mauss's assertion that "gift exchange allows people to oppose each other without slaughter and to give without sacrificing themselves to others" (our emphasis). It also informed our reading of Mauss's interpretation of society as "arising from the exchange between subjects" – asking ourselves just where our subjecthood lay in a society where we were also the object of the exchange. Paying special attention, as Mauss had, to the mechanics of giving and taking inherent in the North American Native Potlatch ceremonies, we wondered (as Mauss hadn't!) whether women fared better in a gift exchange economy based on giving away more than you got back, or in a market economy with a tit-for-tat mentality. Reflecting, finally, on Mauss's main argument that "there are no free gifts" – that gift-giving, though ostensibly a voluntary act, in fact creates an endless cycle of obligation and hence, obligatory ties, between individuals and groups – we pondered the shift women in Capitalist societies seem to have made from being the primary currency of exchange to the primary purchasers of gifts.

It was a shift that took us away from Mauss's traditional kinship systems with their emphasis on the “preservation and enhancement of face,” towards more familiar forms of 'facing-off' in an arena of exchange: to existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre's public park, for example, where the “gift” of the grass's lush greenness is “stolen” when Hell arrives in the guise of Other People; to cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss's restaurant in the South of France, where two diners who are strangers and seated opposite each other use the “gift” of a glass of wine to “substitute a social relationship for a spatial juxtaposition.” If, in each of these cases, the “gift” in question is still inextricably tied to some form of reciprocal arrangement between Self and Other, the kind of gift that the latter part of our exploration revolved around relied not only on a dissolving of that distinction between 'I' and 'You,' but equally, on a relinquishing - a giving up, if you like - of one's own subjectivity. From the gift as a strategic unit of exchange, we were moving on to the gift as the felicitous by-product of an unexpected encounter.

Not surprisingly, much of this re-thinking around the gift comes from feminist and post-structuralist camps. On this particular evening, it was French writer and fierce proponent of l'ecriture feminine, Helene Cixous, who had pride of place at our salon bonfire.
Contrasting Cixous's concept of the feminine 'Realm of the Gift' to that of the masculine 'Realm of the Proper', we saw how the former's “libidinal economy of spontaneous generosity” created an opening to difference, to the Other, and not least, to “a giving without thought of return.” Such an opening, we could see, was just not afforded within a value system organized around the Proper (as in “one's own”) with its emphasis on acquisition of personal property and its striving towards self-aggrandizement. Yes, Cixous's “cosmic” 'Realm of the Gift' with its offer of a “deconstructive space of pleasure and orgasmic interchange with the other” was a far cry from what we had encountered by way of the gift up until that point – evoking in some of us a somewhat startled "huh?"; in at least one of us the desire to just "get some of that cosmic interchange for myself!”

Over tea and culinary gifts from our members – Kathy's gingersnaps and Bernice's chocolate toffees – we discussed the phenomenon of, and etiquette around, re-gifting. Then we brought the evening to a close by penning, individually, a quote that wrapped up – in words rather than paper and ribbons – our respective feelings about “the gift.” The results were profound and inspiring, and felt like small exquisite gifts offered up to ourselves and to each other. We want to thank all of you who participated in this challenging and stimulating salon evening, and we look forward to seeing our members again on May 10th when we come together for the last time in this Spring 2012 salon series, step up on those soapboxes, and pay tribute to the female rebel.