Feminism

https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-8724-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Turns Out My Comparison of the Kavanaugh Hearings to the Salem Witch Trials Was Actually Spot On

Earlier this autumn, I wrote a piece comparing our present political climate to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. It was an association I made because I happened to be in Salem the weekend that The Kavanaugh Affair was at its height. I was happy with the way the piece came out, but worried that my comparison might have been a bit strained.

Turns out I got it just right.

A Catholic priest in Washington recently performed a mass exorcism, meant to lift the hexes being put on Brett Kavanaugh by a coven of witches, mostly based in Brooklyn, using magic as a form of ritual protest against the patriarchy.

Welcome back to 1692, everybody!

Book Review: Frankenstein at 200

Frankenstein broke into my boyhood consciousness like a thunderclap. I read it over a series of August afternoons in my parents’ living room in Santa Fe where, in the high summer, each day begins in dry heat and sunshine and ends in a rumbling electrical storm that arrives at 2 or 3 p.m. Perfect weather to read a moody, romantic masterpiece with at least two big scenes that take place in similar conditions.

I came to the book for the horror and weirdness, which it delivered, but stayed for the larger world it opened up to me. It was the first Great Book I ever read that I had just enough outside knowledge to glimpse its greatness. After that first page, when we’ve gone from the day-to-day details of the narrators life to soar over the polar regions and into interplanetary space, I was caught in an enchantment which didn’t let up until the final page.

Rereading it now, that first page seems like a portal into science fiction for all of Western literature. It’s also the start of a tale within a tale, which links Frankenstein to Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights. As a boy, I knew none of this. I was interested in the way that alchemy and early electrical science show up in the story. After a span of nearly four decades, I was not quite as as transported or transformed as I was in my first reading. But I am still in awe of this book. Here’s why.

It is a myth. Like Dracula, She, Peter Pan, or Sherlock Holmes, this book endures because it taps into something primal, deeper than any reader or even Shelly herself could understand. It’s about depression, unintended consequences, guilt, the loss of innocence, and the cosmic tradeoff of consciousness and free will–all at once. You can’t intend to write a story like this. You have to channel it like a sibyl (or like the sibyl that opens Shelley’s other masterpiece The Last Man).

It is also a nightmare. [SPOILERS] According to Gestalt therapy, you are everybody in your dreams. This could be true of Frankenstein. In an anticipation of Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde, the creature is both a separate demon conjured by Victor the magician and also a projection of his own worst impulses. The monster is like a huge shadow of his creator, full of lust, resentment, and rage. Certain sequences feel like nightmares, like the time Victor spends in prison accused of murdering his best friend. I don’t know about you, but I can vividly remember dreams in which I know I’ve somehow committed a terrible crime, even though I have no memory of it.

It is beautiful. Some of the narrative events feel like forced set pieces. There is no real reason that Victor and the creature should end up arguing on a glacier in the Swiss Alps, racing through the steps of Russia, or in a crowded graveyard at night in Geneva. But it doesn’t matter because it’s all so deliciously brooding and Romantic. Take a look at pretty much any painting by Caspar David Friedrich or Eugene Delacroix and you’ll get the same sensibility. In one passage, the dead eyes of one of the hero’s loved ones are transformed, in Victor’s mind’s eye, into the watery grey eyes of the monster he’s created, and he’s surrounded by the echoing laughter of his creation, all as he’s kind of zoning out while looking at a twilight ocean off the coast of Northern Scotland. It could be an impressionistic sequence from a film.

It is fun without sacrificing complexity. [SPOILERS] You can read Frankenstein as a straight up horror story. It races along from location to location in short, punchy chapter. But if you pause over any of the major moments, you’re suddenly in a maze of ambiguities that quickly feels like real life. After Victor’s dying words, a speech worthy of any Romantic hero, you think you’ve got the perfect ending ringing in your ears. But then the creature shows up to get the final word, and you almost believe his side of the story, which calls into question everything you’ve read up until that point.

It is a treasury of smaller stories. The book starts out in epistolary form, narrated by a minor character named Walton, who feels as fully fleshed out as any of the narrators who succeed him. Thereafter, a series of villagers, servants, citizens of Geneva, faculty members of Victor’s University, and a few other characters show up, each replete with their own story. A later novelist, like Wilkie Collins (or modern horror maestro Justin Cronin, in whose books even the dogs get backstories) would’ve told every last story. But Shelley, like her contemporary Jane Austen, is a miniaturist who captures whole universes with economy and style.

It is short, but richly detailed. Somehow, Shelly understood that odd fiction can’t bear the weight of length. The whole section in which Victor furiously creates the monster is sketched out in perhaps 2-3 pages, but they are richly detailed enough that you feel as though you’ve read 20 or 30 pages. The entire book wraps up in just 216 pages. The best modern practitioners of uncanny stories, like Isak Dinesen, David Mitchell, Adam Haslett, and Cormac McCarthy also write in this highly compressed style. The same is true of all great science fiction. All of H.G. Wells’ most famous novels, for example, are barely 200 pages.

It hasn’t been tarnished by sexism or racism. [SPOILERS] Questions of race and gender show up and are given an enlightened treatment, even by today’s standards. The creature himself, as a narrative embodiment of enlightenment tabula rasa thinking, speaks to the idea that all consciousness is equal, regardless of the body it inhabits. In one scene, Victor’s dawning feminism leads him to shrink back from creating a female monster, even though the demon demands one. When he realizes there is no natural order that will make his female creation bound to the agreements made before her birth, he destroys his work. And the whole question of creating full-fledged intelligence from nothing, and of being careless what that intelligence learns from its human creators, is about to be relevant. We are perhaps ten years from true A.I. and already grappling with these issues. Will A.I. be our shadow or our savior? Shelley the sibyl somehow foresaw this dilemma.

Frankenstein turns 200 this year, and it is still as bright as beautiful as it was in 1818. Yet the Shelley family had no inkling of the novel’s lasting fame.

Shelley’s father hastily sold the rights to a theater production, cashing in while they could. Despite scribbling 2000 words of revisions into the margins of one printed copy of Frankenstein, she left it with an innkeeper as a gift, unsure there would ever be a reprint in where she could use them.

This year a number of books about Frankenstein are out, along with rewrites that use the story to examine our own moment, even the U.S.’s foreign wars in Iraq and elsewhere. Like the monster in the story, Shelley’s creation seems to have a size and strength its original creator could never have foreseen.

The Surprising Effectiveness of Gentle Public Shaming

Where would you put your money?

Leave it to the staff of one of my favorite lunch places to come up with a brilliant example of the persuasive communication.

What do I love about it?

It’s absolutely of the moment. It exploits identity to motivate us to action (We all want to express how we feel about Brett Kavanaugh because it says something about who we are). By seeding the tip jars the restaurant itself subtly expresses a point of view. It gamifies what is otherwise an obligation. It’s physical, and it has an implicit but clear call to action.

And what could be more American than monetizing political expression?

Shamed a bit by the tip jar, I pulled out my (electronic) wallet without a second thought and made a point of mentioning to the staff that I was putting my digital tip into the Matt Damon jar.

Bravo, guys. I’ll be back for lunch again tomorrow.

The Feminism of Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is lovable for many reasons (as its record box office performance demonstrates). One of them is how it effortlessly portrays a world in which women are the prime movers. The men in the story are either absent or seen in moments where women are center stage. The two scenes where we do encounter men only both pass a kind of reverse Bechdel test, in which the male characters are important enough to be named but their conversation is entirely about a woman.

It is in the traditionally female domain, the mahjong parlors, kitchens, high-end fashion boutiques, bedrooms, boudoirs, and garden pavilions of Singapore that the true stars of this film move like warring goddesses, dripping with jewels and clothed in a procession of jaw-dropping outfits. But these remarkable women are more than mannequins. It is their struggle to balance duty and love, to find peace with each other, and to keep alliances in an uncaring world that generate all the suspense and joy of this story. The men of the film are the objects that keep that plot moving. They are beautiful objects, but untransformed by the story. Like the jewelry which is so important to the plot, men are valued more in the exchange than the possession.

So much of the talk about Crazy Rich Asians has focused on its breakthrough status for minority representation in cinema, that its remarkable feminism has gone unremarked, perhaps because it wears it so lightly but so well.