Origins of “Sludge” in Lady Mary Wroth and Life, Essay 13 of #52essays2017

Almost exactly ten years ago, I had an unfortunate lapse in judgement of the sexual variety, which had at least one terrible consequence and one pretty good one: The terrible shall remain my secret, but the good I happily claim, namely, a song called Sludge, destined for my band gutter & spine. At that time, playing drums and singing in a punkity-rockity band represented a distraction and fun outlet from writing my dissertation and teaching. It is no coincidence that most of my other lyrics for gutter & spine songs (d’Orca, Ode to a Mofo) also have their origins in early modern literature. It may even have been that I was teaching Renaissance Poetry that semester, which is why, the morning after, feeling gross and hungover, I wrote the lyrics to Sludge with almost no revision–something that basically never happened before or since.

Portrait of Mary Sidney Herbert, circa 1590. Wikimedia.
Mary Herbert

I can’t remember if I had Wroth’s sonnet “When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove” open before I started, but I believe I turned to it while I wrote. The lyrics give voice to a time when bad life choices were so intermixed with good, that sludge seemed an apt existential state of being.

Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651/3) was born into a noble
and literary family. She was the niece of the famous Elizabethan poet and courtier Philip Sidney, and of Mary Herbert (Née Sidney), a poet in her own right and a great patron of the arts who encouraged and inspired the young Wroth in her literary endeavors. and although she enjoyed accolades from the great male authors in her lifetime, such as Ben Jonson, her poems (unlike that of her male counterparts) fell into obscurity. As the Longman textbook with which I used to warp young minds tells me:

The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania title page, 1621. Wikimedia.
Urania title page

“Appreciated by the finest poets of her time, her writing was neglected for the next 300 years, she has only recently been rediscovered as one of the most compelling women writers of her age. Her Pamphilia to Amphilanthus the first Petrarchan sonnet sequence in English by a woman, was first printed in 1621 but was not reprinted until 1977.”

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus provided me the fodder for Sludge in its first scorching sonnet:

When night’s black mantle could most darkness prove,

And sleep, death’s image, did my senses hire

From knowledge of myself, then thoughts did move

Swifter than those most swiftness need require:

 

In sleep, a chariot drawn by winged desire

I saw, where sat bright Venus, Queen of love,

And at her feet her son, still adding fire

To burning hearts, which she did hold above.

 

But one heart flaming more than all the rest

The goddess held, and put it to my breast.

”Dear son, now shoot,” said she, ”thus must we win.”

He her obeyed, and martyred my poor heart.

I, waking hoped as dreams it would depart;

Yet since, O me, a lover I have been.

[From Mary Wroth’s Poetry: An Electronic Edition, La Trobe University]

Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth, circa 1620, holding a theorbo. Wikimedia.
Mary Wroth

Although I stole a few key phrases, for instance the martyring of the heart, unlike Wroth, I address the song to the love-object (bastard), while Wroth is unconcerned with him, at least in this poem. However, we know that there is one, since the cycle is called Pamphilia (the all loving one) to Amphilanthus (the dual lover). In other words, the female speaker in the lyric loves completely one man while her lover is divided in his affections. Infidelity and jealousy preoccupy the speaker in the lyrics, as well as the women in Urania, the romance to which the sonnet cycle is appended. And yet, in this first poem, the lover is nowhere to be seen. Only love, the daughter and son team, shoot the already burning heart with more desire–eternal desire perhaps, and enclose it in the poor speaker’s breast.

In this first sonnet, the speaker hasn’t any obvious gender, however Wroth sets up the Petrarchan love sonnet cycle with a difference by having the woman (Pamphilia) write to the man (Amphilanthus). Typical Renaissance love poetry, written mostly by men following Petrarch’s model, presented the love object as the unattainable, idealized and silent lady.” But as the first essay in Re-Reading Mary Wroth suggests, Wroth reverses the roles by giving the silent lady a voice and goes even further than her male counterparts by paying little attention to their presence:

“She silences the male beloved even more completely than is usually the case with the Petrarchan lady, omitting many of the usual Petrarchan topics: there are no praises of his overpowering physical beauty or charms, no narratives of kisses or other favors received or denied, no reports of his words or actions, no blazons praising each of his parts, no promises to eternalize him, no palinodes or renunciations of love.”

Facsimile of Sonnet 1 "When night's dark mantle..." from La Trobe.
Sonnet one

Pamphilia does not bother to extol the virtues of Amphilanthus, because, for one thing he does not turn out to be virtuous, but rather inconstant–no surprise considering his name. It is also that, as in so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the interest lies within the psyche of the speaker/poet and not with the beloved. The beloved is but an impetus for shaping strong passions into poetry.

Perhaps that is where the speaker of Sludge offers the most affinity with her Renaissance counterpart. Although she takes some little time to denegrate the bastard that is her love object by indulging in a death-metalesque blazon of the unworthy scoundrel, she is more interested in her own feelings of shame that is the consequence of being dragged into the mire by an unworthy lover:

Up from the depths of the murky sludge,

You rise and stand in your glory, all thumbs

And metal, you look like some badass jesus

And you’ve come to martyr my poor heart today…

*This is essay 13 of #52essays2017. You can read #12 “Drinking Monarch Nectar” here*

 

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1984: Late to the Party Again, Essay 6 of #52essays2017

Menacing cover of a Czech copy of 1984In the year 1984, I was in sixth grade, a scholarship child in a private girl school. The eighth graders were reading George Orwell’s 1984 and had plastered the walls with images of our headmistress that read, “Big Sister is Watching YOU.” We didn’t know what it meant, but we understood that it was witty and smart and that that group of girls was particularly beloved by the teachers, headmistress and principle and could get away with such things. Our class, dominated by girls whose anger and sadness ruled their intelligence, was not, I understand now, so beloved.

Though I’d started having trouble seeing the blackboard back in fourth grade, it was not until sixth that I began having trouble reading print. One time in history class, which I loved, I was taking a pop quiz and stared at the purple ditto ink, astonished and afraid because I couldn’t make out a single word. I raised my hand and told Mrs. Clark in a nervous whisper that I wasn’t able to read it. She turned the paper over and there was the quiz! We laughed. I told that story many times in those years when my eye disease seemed merely an odd anomaly, a predicament that presented problems easily solved in a class of 40 with smart caring teachers.

It was also in sixth grade that I was presenting a book report with my friend (with whom I would in another year or two vandalize the school one night with shaving cream), reading notes we’d written with pale blue ink that I suddenly could not read, and I stumbled over my part of the presentation. She laughed and snatched the notes away. It was not mean-spirited. She simply took control of what I’d not been able to do. I stood, as I would so often stand through my teens and twenties, very still, mortified. It was my great shame not to be able to read anymore.

In earlier grades, I’d been a great reader, a cocky little reader who’d gleefully raise her hand to read aloud and took pride in reading ahead while my classmates labored. I’d show off the adult books I was reading, pilfered from my mother’s bookcase, Agatha Christie mysteries, Gone with the Wind.

Some of my favorite memories of childhood are of reading in special places. I remember finishing Little Women while sitting in the branches of a tree in the huge shared backyard of my grandmother’s apartment complex. I remember reading the end of Jane Eyre, tears rolling down my face in the window seat of the library on 9th Avenue, where I’d wait for my mother to get off work at the clothing boutique around the corner on Clement Street. And I remember reading Poe stories on the bus ride out to the SF Zoo to volunteer on Saturday mornings.

By the time I was in eighth Grade, and it was our turn to read 1984, reading was no longer a pleasure but a chore. I never finished it. I bluffed my way through. If I had good lighting, was not tired, and did not mind how slow it went, I could still read for another year or two, but mostly, the act of scanning words with eyeballs had a hole in it. Where the words should be, there was nothing.

I did not get into the fancy high schools of my peers. I went instead to my neighborhood public school, where my mother had gone before me. I received no help and my rebel self wanted none. I had my smarts and the classes were not challenging. They sucked and I hated it all except for ninth grade English Honors.

Mr. Davis squeezed a few more reads out of me–I remember being particularly engrossed by Green Mansions. He had us watch Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, which made a lasting visual impression on me though I could not read the subtitles. He also kept alive for a little while longer the pleasure I took in writing–I’d thankfully taught myself to touch-type the year before on my mom’s manual typewriter. For his class I typed up the last story I would write for a long time. It was about two girls who’d run away. They sat smoking in the McDonald’s on Powell Street. Only one had a pang of regret for the childhood lost and the certainty she’d never go back. I believe that was my last A until college.

Some paltry years of learning flew by, with little school attendance and much teenage debauchery. I cut classes and smoked cigarettes in a café down the street with my best friend–the best friend I still have and the only good take away from that school other than Honors English. I still fancied myself intelligent, a writer. I think I even sometimes dreamed of getting a doctorate someday.

But words and faces were slipping from me: wandering the used bookshop with my friends meant faking it. Looking in used record shops meant looking for recognizable covers with large print. Watching TV meant pretending to see what was going on if it were more than a few feet from me. I took it all in as shame and anger and nursed it with booze and candy.

Doctored newspaper clipping of Tony Randall handing RFB&D Achievement Award to GodinWhen I finally dropped out of high school, it was in order to move on to City College. High School was not working. Finally I got help. Finally I learned about an organization called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic from whom I would receive an achievement award upon my college graduation some years down the line, handed to me in a fancy ceremony in NYC by Tony Randall. Now RFB&D is called Learning Ally and students don’t have to wait for their digital downloads–blind kids are so lucky these days!–but back in the pre-digital stone age, they sent clunky blue boxes of recorded books on tape cassettes via snail mail.

The first book I remember listening to on the plastic companion cassette player was 1984, the aborted read from years earlier. I was completely hooked and listened to it over the course of a night. The best part about reading by listening is that you do not have to worry about your eyes getting tired.

But those little blue boxes were limited. It takes a long time to have people read books onto tape and to process them. It took time for them to arrive in the mail, a delay of one to three weeks. So that sometimes, by the time I received them, I’d forgotten what prompted me to order them. I could not borrow books from friends and I could not often even get ahold of those they were reading, but at least I could read some. Eating chips or smoking while listening to novels was my great escape.

It was wonderful to have access to books again, but there was shame in those blue boxes, shame in listening to books with my ears instead of reading with my eyes. I hid them away from my friends as much as possible.

Although I still listen to books, having them come to me in a digital file that I listen to in a ubiquitous and perfectly quotidian iPhone has changed everything. The shame is gone, or nearly so. There are so many books available to me through blind organizations such as Bookshare, or through universally available sources such as Project Gutenberg and Kindle, that I can get ahold of most everything I want to read quickly and easily. Others I can scan. In fact, I have so many books on my phone that it has, I’m afraid, made me a little more deficient in attention than I once was, but I’ll take the downside with the many upsides of being able to be current with my intellectual interests. And also able to keep up with what’s going on in the world’s intellectual meanderings, such as they are.

This time, when the call to read 1984 shot around the internet, I was able to download and start reading it immediately. Naturally I’m horrified and darkly amused by the ludicrous behavior of this president and his lackeys with their “alternative facts,” but in some ways I’m more concerned about the hypocrisy of so many of my peers who seem already to have forgotten the jokes and apathy that led up to the election. It is trendy to bash this sad sack in the White House but unthinkable to question one’s own culpability.

Honestly, I’ve shied away from the news since the new presidency. An avid listener to NPR since the Gulf War in 1990, last fall found me angry at my radio for the first time for taking Trump seriously on the one hand, and as just an impossible joke on the other. That so many people I knew felt mostly apathy before the election and have turned fanatical since also feels like a betrayal on the order of 1984 itself. “‘The only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don’t know with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories.'”

The connections between 1984 and the current state of affairs in politics that put the 68-year-old novel at the top of Amazon’s Bestseller list is obvious, but it ought to be recognized as complicated, as our hero Winston Smith is complicated. If Trump being in the white house suggests the regime of Big Brother, I think we ought to allow for the possibility that we are like the very flawed Winston who can in one breath cling to his humanity as the only weapon against the Party:

“‘If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.'”

And in the next throw away that humanity in the thoughtless acceptance of rebelling:

“‘You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases–to do anything which is likely to cause demoralisation and weaken the power of the Party?’

‘Yes.’

‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face–are you prepared to do that?’

‘Yes.'”

These words will come back to haunt Winston in the Ministry of Love even before the final betrayal, suggesting an irony that in the very act of rebelling he steps that much closer to those he is rebelling against, towards their destructive utilitarian philosophy that deems the most heinous acts worthy if they further the cause. To lose one’s humanity in the face of fear and anger is too easy and more dangerous if left unrecognized.

 

*This is essay 6 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Ylang-ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory here*

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Ylang-Ylang: Calming the Panic of Love & Memory, Essay 5 of #52essays2017

Cananga odorata illustrated in Francisco Manuel Blanco's Flora de Filipinas. 1800-1803?. Public domain from Wikipedia.When I first read about ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), I’d no smell associations, but I was intrigued because it is included in so many aphrodisiac blends. It is both relaxing and stimulating, which is a fabulous combination when you’re trying to get it on.

Then I smelled ylang-ylang out of a labeled essential oil bottle, and I realized I’d smelled it before. I was transported to the sexy time in my life when I could walk around unaided–no white cane, no guide dog, no boyfriend. I’d just arrived in New York City and I could see well enough to walk around without mobility help, but not well enough to read signs or see into shops.

I was a grad student at NYU and was visually impaired, but if you saw me walking around campus, you would not know that I was not like everybody else, unless of course you knew me and therefore knew not to be offended that I did not recognize you. If you recognized me from a class but did not know that I was visually impaired, you likely thought my lack of acknowledgement meant I was a snob. Anyway, in those days of wandering around enjoying the feel of walking if not the visuals that many peripatetics associate with the activity, I regularly got slapped pleasantly in the face by a smell that emanated from a large and bustling shop–perhaps a hair salon–that sat on the corner of Waverly and Sixth.

Each time I walked by, I would hesitate and want to enter, wondering what it was because that smell reminded me of an earlier scent memory. I’d coveted the brilliantly colored hair on the box of Salon Barbie, and her dyes–red, purple and black–smelled of what I now suspect to have been some kind of synthetic ylang-ylang. The smell stuck with me though any fun I may have derived from the oddly punk rock toy has completely evaporated.

That said, I was never a very olfactory-oriented person but rather a visual one. I can still see the photograph on the box of that damn doll with its perfect purple hair quite plainly in my mind’s eye. I still feel like a visual person, but I’ve not got the sensory inlets going anymore, only the imagination and the hallucinations.

The deprivation has finally led me to appreciate smell, and recently I find that I get a little depressed if I don’t have any around–pleasant ones I mean–those that I can control, or at least name and manipulate. The fakey-wakey smell of my cheap-ass Dove “cucumber” shampoo does not count.

Though I cannot, at present, afford to have everything be blessed by natural fragrances, I fantasize about a future wherein I will have complete control of my smellscape. I underline the word fantasize here, because though I long for the day when I can indulge in all the aromas I read about and lust after, having complete control over what enters the nose is of course impossible, as smells permeate all, and each person has their own. Sadly my smellscape could not be vacuum-sealed unless I had no desire to go out or have sex.

Godin brushing hair reflected in antique vanity mirror

Speaking of sex, let’s return to the heady floral scent of the tropics.Ylang-ylang, long admired in its native islands of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for its good effects on libido, skin and hair, grew commonplace in far-away England as Macassar Oil, which was so popular as a styling product for men, that doilies were soon required to protect the backs of upholstered furniture. As mentioned in Aroma Victoriana, the men and women of 19th century England were as mixed up and contradictory as any society, and so it is likely the sensual fragrance of ylang-ylang, reminiscent of bodies barely clad and warmed by the sun, was likely more than one kind of bother in the buttoned-up drawing rooms.

But ylang-ylang is more than an aphrodisiac, or rather, its effects on the libido result from its ability to relax and regulate extreme emotions and to calm the physical and mental effects of anxiety. As Peter Holmes remarks in Aromatica:

” In dealing deftly with intense emotions, Ylang ylang bestows a relaxing, softening, harmonizing and lightening grace over the energetic Heart – a function that is expressed in Chinese medicine as ‘nourishing Heart Blood.’ Its ability to transform dark negativity into lightness and positivity is perhaps unique. In opening us to the lightness of being, Ylang ylang is clearly a remedy for the soul as much as for the body.”

Jar of Yes Organic Ylang-ylang rose night cream on antique vanityLiving now as a vagabond, my essential oil collection has dwindled. Knowing this, my best friend and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, gave me a beautiful cream made with ylang-ylang and rose essential oils. I slather it on at night to smooth the wrinkles of face and psyche. The calming effects of ylang-ylang have been of particular interest to the latter, which has recently been subject to panic attacks.

I was a panic-prone person in my twenties, so I can’t blame it all on aging and blindness, but these two aspects combined with the recent casting off, has allowed the sleeping giant to rise. The first panic struck on the plane from NYC to Denver and hit me again in the bus from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque. In lesser forms, it hits me in each new house, where even the simplest cupboard or table can present a problem–one can be mired in a cul-de-sac no bigger than a public bathroom stall when one cannot see. As mentioned in Winter Wonder Maze, I’m terrible at being blind, and worse when I feel people’s eyes on me. So, putting myself in the position of being in the households of others, with their crap acting as constant reminders of my lack of freedom and control seems an odd place to be. Stupid maybe.

And yet. And yet, who is truly free? My dear friends with house and car payments, children and spouses may be free to walk about the cabin, but they are not completely free either. Freedom comes in degrees, independence a balancing act.

My mother wonders why I do not get another guide dog. “You used to care so much for your independence,” she opines. She does not know how hard-fought and lonely it was. She does not feel the memory weight of its superficiality, tethered as it was to anger and the need for a love that I wielded like a club.

She also does not believe that in these strange blind cul-de-sacs there is another freedom, and the only one that may yet transcend this mortal coil. I will, like all of you, grow feeble, if I am permitted to live, and this body will be but a sack of memories of a time when the body was free. But if the mind is free, there is movement in the soul, right? And, just as those ancients used scent to communicate with the gods, I use smell to transport me out of this body that fears each vase-clad armoire as if it were an on-coming bus, this body that shuffles about like that of a very old person, slowly, carefully, with embarrassing trepidation.

If my worth were measured in my tiny steps taken , my life, like Prufrock’s measured out in coffee spoons, I would surely collapse in a heap of self-loathing. But if I follow the scent of the Tropics to a place where I can learn and learn and continue to learn, I do not feel old or blind or feeble. Not useless. On the pleasant smelling days, I believe myself to be an organism still sucking life and pleasure, in and out.

The trick is to follow the nose up and up into the rarified air of the unforeseeable future.

The trick is not to panic.

The trick is to keep breathing, nostrils flared as if smelling a flower for the very first time.

 

*This is essay 5 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics here*

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Hannibal: From Acting to Aromatics, essay 4 of #52essays2017

Two winters ago, I got a call from my agent in LA to tape an audition for
Hannibal, and it led me on a journey from stars in my eyes to a brand-new appreciation of smell.

I was, as an actor, thoroughly green. I did not even know that for TV/film auditions you sit or stand still with the camera in your face and speak the lines with all the emotions your head can muster. You must have your lines memorized or virtually memorized. If you can see, you can bring in your sides and glance at them if necessary, but if you are blind, like me, you cannot rely on this visual blankie.

Speaking of blankies, I did not know that props are generally pooh-poohed, because I’d not yet read Marci Phillips helpful book The Present Actor until after the fact and learned that:

“Whatever people normally carry around with them is usually regarded as acceptable. A cellphone, iPod, blackberry, bottle of water, briefcase, bag, magazine, pad, pen, jacket, etc. are all fair game…. If you’re eating in a scene and you choose to bring actual food into your audition, make sure that you’ve given this a few trial runs at home first.”

I did not bring actual food into my audition coaching session but rather an eraser on a plate, which I mimicked eating like it, were pie with an actual fork.

It is difficult to say how terrible my self-tape audition would have been if my agent had not found me a professional coach with whom I could work for an hour (and film the self-tape) on the Sunday before the Monday when the tape was due. For those non-actors out there, I was lucky to get a couple extra days to memorize and rehearse because the call came on a Thursday night. As gently as possible the coach, Jonathan Hammond, took my eraser-plate away from me and told me that props came across as a little bit amateur.

I had received two scenes and both were familiar because I’d seen/heard the film Red Dragon many times, and read the novel at least twice when I received the call to audition. Reba McClane is one of the best blind characters ever to grace a novel, let alone a screen. Reba was created as a round and nuanced blind character–a rare and precious thing–by Thomas Harris in Red Dragon, the first of the Hannibal series, from which the films and then the TV series developed. Hence, I admit I was pretty excited and honored to be asked to audition. I tried not to think about how awesome a job Emily Watson did in the role.

The first scene I’d been given was the scene where Reba invites Francis Dolarhyde into her home, offers him pie, and tries to draw him out. It was different from the film. Reba’s memory of a cougar at the zoo reverted back to the original llama of the novel, but in each incarnation, the scene has a quirky charm driven by Reba’s rambling.

The second scene for my audition was totally different, scary. Dolarhyde has Reba tied up and she tries to understand his anger. Having done a little bit of theatre, I embarked on my home rehearsals by clinging and pleading melodramatically. Thankfully, Alabaster–who was helping me memorize my lines–told me to sit down and act tied up.

With rehearsals through the weekend about every couple hours, I had gotten it pretty good, but my real nervousness combined with the fact that Jonathan was a pro, took this scene to a level that gave me great insight into acting, and made me realize (once again) that I do not have the stomach for it.

Jonathan told me that the one who got the part would be the one who breaks the casting director’s heart. That was a revelation. I did it with him the second time to such an extent that I had to keep myself from crying after we were done. Alabaster had walked in and was like “wow.” It was so intense; I still remember the feeling of my heart pounding and the need to sob with wonder and amazement. I get why actors are fucked up. Feeling that intense for no reason does not feel any different than feeling that intense for personal reasons–the heartrate still skyrockets, and the body says fear or love or whatever. When it was over, I was confused. I’d never felt that intensely for something that was not a product of my own rumpled psyche. I suppose one taps into one’s own psyche to get there, but still, it was strange to feel that intensity while “acting”.

I can’t say that the taped third try was as good as that second one of memory, but for an untrained actor, I was proud to have pulled it off. In my own mind, I was working very hard to send a tape to my agent that was good enough for her to pass on to the casting director and not dump me. Just good enough to impress her. the idea of actually getting a part in one of NBC’s hottest dramas was impossible, though it’s hard after it’s all done to not have some stars in your eyes, and since I sent off my two scenes in the week before Christmas, I had three weeks to contemplate how the experience would change my life.

Poor Alabaster had to watch (and describe) the entire first season and part of the second of the horrifically graphic Hannibal. (The mushroom-feeding episode is one neither of us will ever forget.)

Also in those three weeks, I started thinking about and researching on-camera classes and found a super little school called MN Acting Studio. I read Matt Newton’s book and signed up for an on-camera class with Joseph starting the end of January.

And, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but this was also the time that started me Googling DIY beauty. I think it was that I thought if I had another audition, I should probably do a little more with the way I looked. My outfit choice for my first big audition was more about the character I knew from the books than what they were probably looking for in a supporting role–the love-interest of a starring serial killer. I don’t think I gave my makeup or hair much thought.

Cheap beauty tricks led me to DIY facials, which led me to discover essential oils. I started buying essential oils and was amazed how smells that I’d smelled before now suddenly had names.

I read the monographs–part historical, part botanical–with wonder and excitement. I calmed my heart with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and my allergies with German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). There is something quite powerful in discovering chemical constituents for fun light self-medication. The new-discovered enjoyment of naming ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) and putting a smell to the laurel (Laurus nobilis) of Apollo’s poets and prophetesses cannot be over-estimated.

It may be that reading through all the Hannibal books for the third time primed me for my smell explorations, as Hannibal Lecter is of course a olfactory -aesthete, but whatever the reason, reading about essential oils struck a nerve. Although two years is probably not enough time to gauge such things, I feel like this exploration has changed the course of my life.

I’m not saying that I plan on setting up shop as a serial killer, but I do appreciate the fact that Hannibal recognizes the beauty and importance of the oft-neglected sense–the fallen angel, as Helen Keller puts it.

Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella fragrance bar

In Harris’s novel Hannibal, we follow our favorite serial killer into the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, and relish with him the olfactory symphony:

“The air was music. Here were pale tears of frankincense awaiting extraction, yellow bergamot, sandalwood, cinnamon and mimosa in concert, over the sustaining ground notes of genuine ambergris, civet, castor from the beaver, and essence of the musk deer. Dr. Lecter sometimes entertained the illusion that he could smell with his hands, his arms and cheeks, that odor suffused him. That he could smell with his face and his heart.”

I did not get the part; they decided to go with Rutina Wesley (not blind) of True Blood fame. I can’t say I was not disappointed, but I’m happy to have been asked to audition, to be a part of a new and important entertainment revolution, to have people with disabilities represent themselves onscreen.

One of the dreams I nurtured during my three weeks of waiting was to go on talk shows and educate the public about the important but still nascent trend that will shape the face of entertainment as surely as it has been changed before. Soon having anything less than a deaf actor cast in a deaf role, or a blind person cast in a blind role or a wheelchair person cast in a wheelchair part will perhaps reveal itself to be as shameful and insulting as blackface. Until then, I open my nostrils to the tears of frankincense and the shy flowers of mimosa and imagine how sweet will be the revenge!

 

*This is #4 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Check out my previous essay The Voice of the Turtle here*

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A Blind Person’s Notes on Notes On Blindness and Touching the Rock

Notes on Blindness movie poster featuring John Hull with visual memories superimposed on his head
Upon entering the Film forum, where Notes on Blindness, an innovative documentary centered around the voice of John Hull recorded in the early years of his complete vision loss, is playing, I was offered a headset, but told that I should only wear it over one ear. It turned out that I could not mix the audio description track with the soundtrack. The only solution was to put the audio description on low in one ear and hook the other plush earphone–like the kind one uses for recording–around my head to rest behind the other ear. The contraption was a little tight and began to squish my brains after not too long, and I should say that I don’t have a very big head, at least not literally.

Though the system was not ideal, the audio description turned out to be quite pleasant. And yet I found sitting in my own little audio bubble to be a bit strange. Usually my head would’ve been resting on my boyfriend’s shoulder to facilitate his whispered descriptions. The sensation of separation was both cool and lonely, our only connection the shared bag of popcorn. As Notes on Blindness suggests, blindness is a paradoxical gift–not one Hull (or I) would have asked for, but still with unique compensations, one being the closeness that comes with occasional dependence, a closeness that can sometimes be awkward and other times charming.

 

I was excited to experience Notes on Blindness because I remembered reading Touching the Rock (John Hull’s recordings in book form) when I was new to New York and grad school. At that time, some of his observations resonated, such as the social difficulties of negotiating parties and bars, as well as the interesting, and not always unfortunate, adaptations one makes when one is forced to read books with one’s ears instead of eyes, such as the development of a good auditory memory and acute attention to the spoken word. But at that time in my progressive cone-rod dystrophy, I steadfastly existed as a visually impaired–not a blind person–and could not relate to the vast majority of Hull’s observations.

Twenty years later, I find that Hull’s words resonate more fully, but that his experience still differs from my own in some fundamental ways. For example, now I understand his sometimes strong desire “to hide my face from others” and wonder with him, “Is this a primitive desire to find some kind of equality? Since your face is not available to me, why should my face be available to you?” But I do not feel Hull’s “horror of being faceless, of forgetting one’s own appearance, of having no face.” I’m very aware, self-conscious even, of my face being present and vulnerable to the gaze of others. In this way, I believe my experience of blindness is colored by my experience as a woman, with all its attendant expectations of beauty.

Of course, Hull is but one individual who lived one path that included blindness. He was also a father, a husband, an educator, a deeply religious man born in a particular time and place, whose unique and philosophical observations ought to chip away at, rather than fortify, the monolith called blindness.

Hull alludes to the impossibility of speaking for all blind people in his preface “To the Blind Reader”: “Blind people differ from each other as much as sighted people do. I do not claim to speak for you, but only for myself. You do not need to know what blindness is like, because you are blind.” As a matter of fact, I am intensely curious to learn about his experience of blindness because it is, in many ways, very different from my own. I do not accept his assertion that I “know what blindness is” for anyone but myself.

In “The ‘Dark, Paradoxical Gift’” (first published in 1991 in The New York Review of Books and republished as a forward to subsequent editions of Touching the rock), Oliver Sacks writes, “There has never been, to my knowledge, so minute and fascinating (and frightening) an account of how not only the outer eye, but the “inner eye,” gradually vanishes with blindness; of the steady loss of visual memory, visual imagery, visual orientation, visual concepts,… into the state which he calls ‘deep blindness.'”

Sacks did not at first question hull’s assertion of “deep blindness”–where physical sight loss leads inevitably to a shutting of the inner eye. But almost twenty years later, in The Mind’s Eye he admits his mistake:

“I assumed that Hull’s experience was typical of acquired blindness, the response, sooner or later, of everyone who loses sight–and a brilliant example of cortical plasticity.

“Yet when I came to publish an essay on Hull’s book in 1991, I was taken aback to receive a number of letters from blind people, letters that were often somewhat puzzled and occasionally indignant in tone. Many of these people wrote that they could not identify with Hull’s experience and said that they themselves, even decades after losing their sight, had never lost their visual images or memories. One woman, who had lost her sight at fifteen, wrote:

“‘Even though I am totally blind … I consider myself a very visual person. I still “see” objects in front of me. As I am typing now I can see my hands on the keyboard…. I don’t feel comfortable in a new environment until I have a mental picture of its appearance….'”

Those words could have been written by me, so close are they to expressing my reliance upon and constant sense of the visible. Unlike Hull who loses his visual memories and the ability to create new ones, I, like the woman above, use the inner eye to map and remember my world as I encounter it. For example, although I cannot in any sense have been said to experience a recent dinner party–From the outfit I was wearing to the position of others at the table to the food on the plate in front of me–through my physical eyes, when I call it to mind, it appears as a vivid tableau, punctuated by conversation and smells, but occupying mental space just as those memories from before vision loss.

In the Mind’s Eye Sacks presents Hull’s concept of deep blindness in dialogue with alternate neurological responses to total vision loss .Sacks writes, “Had I been wrong, or at least one-sided, in accepting Hull’s experience as a typical response to blindness? Had I been guilty of emphasizing one mode of response too strongly, oblivious to other, radically different possibilities?”

Sacks goes on to relate the story of Zoltan Torey and others blinded, but retaining a strong sense of the lasting vitality of the inner eye. The experience of blindness reveals itself to be as complex as the experience of sight. Even though Hull’s experience of deep blindness is not my own, his philosophical and sociological grappling is fascinating and intellectually stimulating, as well as entertaining.

In Notes on Blindness, I found Hull’s considerable insights smothered by the family recreations and straining narrative–a narrative that is precisely flouted in Touching the Rock. Notes on Blindness seems not to be fueled by Hull’s wanting “to understand blindness” but rather by the more quotidian formula of overcoming blindness, his original conception of deep blindness barely alluded to. The movie attempts to shape the meandering thoughts of a very smart and philosophically-minded blind man into a domesticated docudrama, where Hull’s recorded meanderings project a bleak arc.

But, like most blind people I know, Hull has a lively sense of humor regarding himself and the sighted people he must deal with, which sparkle throughout Touching the rock that would have added much fun and insight to the film. For instance in a 1984 entry entitled “Does he take sugar?” Hull describes behaviors painfully familiar to me:

“This situation often seems to arise when I am getting in a car with a group of other people. ‘Will you put John in the back with you?’ ‘No, I’ll put him in the front with you.’ ‘All right, you put him in then.’ At this point, I interjected, crying out with an exceedingly loud voice, ‘John is not put anywhere, thank you very much. John is asked if he has any preferences about where he sits.’ At this, all my friends laughed uproariously and were covered with apologies and confusions. On a similar occasion recently, I shouted out, ‘Hey, you guys, don’t you talk about me as if I’m not here.’ This, again, brought shouts of laughter and a mixture of apologies, agreements and congratulations.

“It is, of course, very embarrassing for intelligent and sensitive people when they are caught out like this, in using the ‘Does he take sugar?’ approach to a disabled person. These people are all sensitive, and well aware of the humiliation which this approach implies. So the question arises, why do they do it?

“It is so easy to marginalize a blind person; indeed, in certain situations it is almost impossible not to.”

There is great pathos in the film, but I found the highly stylized and self-conscious metaphorics a bit much, though that could in part be a problem of translation–how many times can a person hear “fade to black” without feeling bored? The raining indoors (and without the family taking notice of it) also seemed needlessly artsy and contrived–not nearly as beautiful as Hull’s intricate description of the sound picture made by rain earlier in the film.

On the other hand, the filmmakers neglect what, to my mind, is one of the most outrageously visual scenes in Touching the rock. Perhaps they felt that a blind man stretched upon an enormous stone altar at the front of an abbey that he had learned by feel, incrementally, and alone in the dead of night, would be too weird or offensive. But it is precisely this image that expresses the whole body seeing that seems ultimately to offer Hull compensation:

“Every night I returned, to explore a little bit more. From pillar to pillar I would work my way, counting the steps, remembering the angles, always returning to the foot of the stairway.

“After several nights, I discovered the main altar. I had been told about this, and I easily recognized it from the description. It was a single block of marble. Finding one corner, I ran my fingers along the edge, only to find that I could not reach the other end. I worked my way along the front and was amazed at its size. The front was carved with hard, cold letters. They stood out boldly, but I could not be bothered reading them. The top was as smooth as silk, but how far back did it go? I stretched my arms out over it but could not reach the back. This was incredible. It must have a back somewhere. Pushing myself up on to it, my feet hanging out over the front, I could reach the back. I did this again and again, measuring it with my body, till at last I began to have some idea of its proportions. It was bigger than me and much older. There were several places on the polished surface which were marked with long, rather irregular indentations, not cracks, but imperfections of some kind. Could it have been dropped? These marks felt like the result of impact. The contrast between the rough depressions and the huge polished areas was extraordinary. Here was the work of people, grinding this thing, smoothing it to an almost greasy, slightly dusty finish which went slippery when I licked it. Here were these abrasions, something more primitive, the naked heart of the rock.”

I fear I may be criticized for having anything negative to say about a film that I should appreciate, perhaps, simply because it attempts to illuminate, in these dark times, a unique perspective, and even includes me, a blind movie-goer into the experience by offering audio description. I think it would be a fair criticism; I would not even feel comfortable writing about–even offering, in my meandering way, a review–on something that was not ostensibly accessible to my appreciation of it. So the opportunity is not to be squandered.

I used to love movies and have in my mind’s eye scenes, decadent visual images (several from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover, for example!), to remind me that filmmaking tends to be extremely visual, though many blind people I know get quite a bit from listening to movies. In other words, I am delighted to write about Notes on Blindness and thrilled to have had an afternoon at the movies to enjoy something that was made, at least in part, with someone like me in mind. I hope there will be more.

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Dying Into Being: Goethe and the corpse Flower

[This Distill My Heart about the infamous corpse flower and its unsavory pollinators is a little bit stinky creepy crawly, a little bit anthroposophical sweetness, and was first published at Quail Bell Magazine.]

 

Most people know Goethe as the author of Faust and other literary works. But Goethe was also a keen amateur botanist who was very proud of his scientific writings, despite the fact that they fell flat in his own time–both because he was not a member of the scientific community and because they seemed outlandish to his contemporaries. “Stick to poetry,” was the general consensus. His 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants was not fully appreciated until after Darwin’s theory of evolution established itself.

 

In their chapter on Goethe, the authors of The Secret Life of Plants (1973) present the poet-scientist against the backdrop of the cataloguing and classifying mania of the 18th and 19th centuries, and lament how that mania deprived the study of botany its vivacity:

 

“How many universities even now draw the parallel between the hermaphroditic nature of plants, which bear both penis and vagina in the same body, with the “ancient wisdom” which relates that man is descended from an androgynous predecessor? The ingenuity of some plants in avoiding self-fertilization is uncanny. Some kinds of palm trees even bear staminate flowers one year and pistillate the next. Whereas in grasses and cereals cross-fertilization is insured by the action of the wind, most other plants are cross-fertilized by birds and insects. Like animals and women, flowers exude a powerful and seductive odor when ready for mating. This causes a multitude of bees, birds, and butterflies to join in a Saturnalian rite of fecundation.”

Enter the corpse flower, the titan arum, whose Latin binomial, Amorphophallus titanum, refers to its giant (titanum), misshapen (amorpho), phallus-like spadix, which some say resembles more a French baguette.

 

In the past few weeks, the corpse flower has received a lot of attention as it has bloomed in the botanical gardens of three US cities: New York, Washington DC and Denver. My personal favorite, based on name alone, is Charlotte, the darling of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

 

In The Corpse Flower is Ready for its (Smelly) Close-up, published on August 2, the Washington Post warns:

 

“She took her own sweet time to unfurl the maroon cape that surrounds the central spike of the world’s largest unbranched flower. But that may be the only thing about Charlotte that is sweet. She opened at around 4 a.m. and by late morning was greeting visitors with odors that ranged from rotting cabbage to stinky trash and worse. Over the next few hours, and particularly Tuesday evening, her horticultural minders anticipate the flower to unleash the rotten flesh stink that gives it its common name.”

 

Amorphophallus titanum is a member of the angiosperm (flowering/fruiting) phylum, which is by far the most successful plant phylum with over 250,000 species. In terms of diversity, angiosperms are second only to the insect phylum, with whom they have flourished. In the push for genetic diversity, insects and angiosperms have been very cleverly doing the genetic mutation dance in tandem for about a hundred million years–remember that fun video of a bee humping an orchid?

 

As OpenStax Biology puts it, “Most flowers have a mutualistic pollinator, with the distinctive features of flowers reflecting the nature of the pollination agent. The relationship between pollinator and flower characteristics is one of the great examples of coevolution.”

 

This brings us to the corpse flower’s pollinators…

 

Sure, you can attract sweet-toothed bees and butterflies with nectar, but why compete with all those girly flowers? Corner the market on the smell of death, and the night’s creepy-crawlies are yours! The corpse flower bothers not with the masses but has rather made a name for itself in the niche-market that caters to flesh eating flies and beetles who come out at night for a snack and to lay their eggs in carcasses.

 

Instead of a slab o’ meat, these fellows find themselves trotting atop a giant flower, which, in addition to exuding convincing odor, generates heat in its Oscar-worthy portrayal of rotting flesh. Dazed and confused, the beetle or fly departs in search of the real thing and is (hopefully) foiled by another corpse flower, thereby delivering new genetic material for a new generation.

 

The corpse flower must open, attract pollinators and be pollinated all within a day or so, if it is not to have gone through all its work in vain. Allow me to reiterate the strangeness of plants, which, unlike most of us, possess both male and female organs. In other words, flowers can self-pollinate, though many, like the corpse flower open or activate their male and female sex organs in succession rather than concurrently in order to avoid this. The point is that flowering plants have developed ingenious ways of spreading their seed, and a marvelous diversity, foul and fair, has sprung from that evolutionary impulse.

 

The corpse flower is a member of the family araceae, which also includes the calla lily (Calla palustris). This is lucky for me, since I have never seen a corpse flower but have a very vivid visual memory of the sexy calla lily from my childhood backyard in San Francisco. I see quite clearly in my mind’s eye the large and elegant white spathe–what I would have called a petal–with its yellow finger-like thing sticking up out of it–I now know this to be called the spadix on which the actual flowers hang out. This is a good memory to have since all I have to do is enlarge the whole thing by several feet, color it burgundy and, ta-dah! Behold the titan arum. Please don’t pop my bubble if I’m wrong. I’m blind. Give me a break. Anyway, who gives a dam what the thing looks like? People don’t stand in long lines for the look of the thing. No. They flock to city botanical gardens in order to smell the stink!

 

But because the Titan arum reaches ripeness of stench in the middle of the night, visitors to botanical gardens featured in YouTube videos seem disappointed by the underwhelming gross-out quotient. Personally, living in New York City, where summer stinks abound, I felt not the least need to witness this smelltacular.

 

According to Titan arum’s Wikipedia page:

 

“Analyses of chemicals released by the spadix show the “stench” includes: dimethyl trisulfide (like limburger cheese), dimethyl disulfide, trimethylamine (rotting fish), isovaleric acid (sweaty socks), benzyl alcohol (sweet floral scent), phenol (like Chloraseptic), and indole (like human feces).”

 

Interestingly, I’ve run into this last before. Indole, despite its resemblance to poop, is a chemical constituent in some of the most beautiful-smelling flowers such as jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum, J sambac, etc.) ( and ylang-ylang(Cananga odorata), which are both used in perfumery and aromatherapy for their calming, alluring and even aphrodisiac qualities. As Perfumes: The A-Z Guide puts it:

 

“One of the many difficulties that nature has strewn in the path of perfumers is the vexed problem of indole. Indole is a small molecule made up of a hexagonal ring and a pentagonal ring fused together and containing nitrogen. It and its kissing cousin skatole are breakdown products of the digestion of food and are therefore found in feces. They are also found in large amounts in white flowers such as jasmine, ylang, etc., possibly to attend to the eclectic tastes of pollinating insects. In the textbooks, their odor is described as “fecal, floral in dilution,” which is nonsense: they smell like shit when in shit, and like flowers when in flowers. By itself indole smells like ink and mothballs; skatole smells like bad teeth and that wonderful tripe sausage called andouillette. What, you ask, is the problem? If you measure the amount of indole in, say, jasmine oil and make up a synthetic mix with the same amount of the pure stuff, it will smell of mothballs whereas the natural one doesn’t. Why? Nobody knows. But that is the main reason why white-flower reconstitutions seldom have the back-of-the-throat rasp of the real thing. Perfumers put in as much indole as they dare, but usually stop short of the full dose.”

 

I think nature touches upon the uncanny with this not-quite-rightness of an ostensibly monolithic good or bad scent. Disgusting scents have a little flower sweetness (benzyl alcohol) to make them especially awful, while beautiful ones need a little nasty indole to keep them from being cloying.

 

As mentioned above, besides producing um, fragrance, the corpse flower is thermogenic (heat-producing)–stink + heat = convincing carrion!

 

Other colorfully/odoriferously named thermogenic members of the araceae family are: eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus ), elephant foot yam (Amorphophallus paeoniifolius ), vvoodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum ), and dead horse arum lily (Helicodiceros muscivorus )–also stinky to attract flesh-loving flies.

 

The heat production takes a lot out of the plant, which is one reason why their bloom is so short. The corpse flower resembles a corpse more than a flower for much of its lifecycle.

 

After the corpse flower blooms and dies, a gigantic leaf–the size of a small tree–will rise from the corm. A corm is an underground modified stem used for energy storage that resembles a bulb or rhizome–the corm of the corpse flower is as outrageous as the rest of the plant, typically weighing over a hundred pounds. The leaf will work to store food-energy, then wither and fall off, leaving the giant corm to lie underground dormant for approximately four months, then the process will begin again.

 

The corpse flower’s contraction into the corm is a perfect segue back to Goethe, as his understanding of the lifecycle of a plant takes place in a series of expansions and contractions, each seeming entirely different from one another and yet all containing within them the potentiality of the whole plant.

 

So as we wave goodbye to the corpse flower bloom, I leave you with an anthroposophical flourish, found in Ernst Lehrs’ book Man or Matter; introduction to a spiritual understanding of nature on the basis of Goethe’s method of training observation and thought (1958):

“Compared with the leaf, the flower is a dying organ. This dying, however, is of a kind we may aptly call a ‘dying into being.’ Life in its mere vegetative form is here seen withdrawing in order that a higher manifestation of the spirit may take place.”

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