Only a Being of Senseless Existence: The Continuing Story of Josiah Spaulding, Jr.

Metathesis

Josiah Spaulding outlived almost everyone in his family by many years. He was about age 81 when he died, and at that time had been put on display at the Deerfield Poor Farm, where admission was charged to see him. Massachusetts journalists traveled to the area to view Josiah and write articles about him, but the reality was that no one really knew much about his early life. There was no one in his family left to ask, and the villagers probably had little idea of what had happened back in 1812 when Reverend Spaulding caged his son, as it was an event that occurred behind the closed doors of the parsonage. Popular perception and belief in 1866 was that psychiatrically disabled people were “lower than brutes,” were insensate, and of course, not at all intelligent. One reporter however, wrote that he was surprised upon viewing the elderly Josiah Spaulding, who…

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Weekly Rant: A Letter to the Students of McGuffey High School

In case you missed it, McGuffey High School in Claysville, Pennsylvania, has entered the national news as a result of a group of students hosting an “Anti-Gay Day,” which involved, according to reports, calling out LGBTQI peers on various social media platforms, pasting Bible verses to their fellow students’ lockers, and even allegedly hanging a noose from a flag pole.

Well, as a person who spent the first seven years of his life just outside of Claysville, whose mother and aunt graduated from McGuffey, and who would have gone there had I not moved to West Virginia when I was eight, I have a few things to say to the students of that high school.

To the LGBTQI students who suffered this harassment, I can only say this:  disregard these redneck assholes and their intolerance-parading-as-religious-piety.  As you no doubt already know, religion is all too frequently used as an excuse to justify hatred and bigotry.  You and I both know that you are better than that.  I won’t spout platitudes at you and say, “It gets better.”  Because you know what?  It might, and it might not.  I’ve seen a lot of change in our region in the last 10 years, but as this incident demonstrates, there is still a long way to go.  I will say, though, that it is important to not give up hope, and to know that there many of us that support you, even if we no longer live around there.

And to the bullies who perpetrated this homophobic ugliness, I have several things to say.  I hope you realize how much pain you have caused those around you, how your little game, or whatever you thought you were doing, has very real emotional consequences for those who still struggle to gain acceptance every day.  I’m sure you can rest easy, now that your fragile egos have been bolstered by attacking those who occupy a weaker social position than you do.

You may like to think that your Bible verses and your shield of Christian moralism grants you the moral high ground, but in fact it does exactly the opposite.  It makes you look like exactly what you are:  bigots parading around with the flimsy excuse of religion.  Even if you truly believe what you say you do (and I find this kind of disgusting behaviour ironic, given that Christians are supposed to be forgiving and all of that), do you really think it’s your responsibility/right to throw your faith in other’s faces?  Or, to be blunt, to use it as a weapon?  Surely, surely, you are better people than that.  I want to believe that to be true, but your actions make that very challenging.

But most importantly, I just want you to know that your way of hatred and bigotry is slowly fading away.  It sucks that when people think of Appalachia they still think of people like you, but gradually your particular brand of backwardness will fade away, replaced by exactly those kinds of people you went out of your way to victimize.

And you know what, leaders of “Anti-Gay Day”?  I feel sorry for you.  Because you have successfully earned yourself the ire of those who strive every day to make a safer world for all of us.  But in a way, I’m glad that you did what you did, because at least you gave us a face (or several of them) to put with the hatred.  Knowing who you are makes it that much easier to fight against your brand of hatred.

So keep on fighting your battle, bullies, but know that it’s a losing one.

We’ll be waiting for you when you finally realize that.

Oh, and P.S.  Flannel?  Really?  Could you be any more cliche?

P.P.S.  Just FYI:  Gays where flannel, too.

“Show me a good time”?: Madonna, Drake, and Police Brutality

Metathesis

If you’re fortunate enough to have the self-control to avoid at least moving your cursor over the “trending” links on Facebook: apparently, Madonna kissed Drake at Coachella, and to paraphrase Drake “it was it was [sic] not the best.” I base that reading on Drake’s body language: stunned immobility, a wide what is happening gesture, and then hands on his lips, hunched over. Expertise in affect theory seems a bit unnecessary, here; his response could hardly be more overt.

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I’m interested in this kiss not for the celebrity gossip, but because I see it an important piece of the current conversation about racism in the United States—and most importantly, as an important site for thinking about how to think through the intersectionality of oppression.

Walter Scott’s murder two weeks ago should ameliorate any reticence about the reality of violence against black men. As I listened to the NPR story…

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Reading History: “Lady of the Eternal City”

Lady of the Eternal City

I have been following the writing career of Kate Quinn since her debut novel Mistress of Rome caught my eye at a local Wegman’s.  I’m always hungry for a new historical novel about ancient Rome, particularly one in the vein of I, Claudius and other delicious costume dramas that explore the sexual and viscerally violent politics of ancient Roman life.  Luckily for me, Kate Quinn never disappoints, and her newest novel, Lady of the Eternal City, is a riveting drama that highlights the latter years of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, through the eyes of the tale’s four heroes:  Vix, Hadrian’s reluctant bodyguard; Sabina, Hadrian’s headstrong wife; Sabina’s illegitimate daughter Faustina; and Hadrian’s besotted lover, the young Antinous.

Picking up where Quinn’s previous Roman-centered novel, Empress of the Seven Hills, left off, the novel follows the ways in which the lives of these four extraordinary individuals continue to intertwine with one another and the larger fate of the Roman Empire.  In one way or another, each of the four main characters finds his or her fate tied to that of the unpredictable and often volatile emperor.  The characters, in typical Quinn fashion, are likable yet irascible, individuals not afraid to take what they want and do what they want, the consequences be damned.  Most exemplary, however, is the emotionally resonant way in which Quinn manages to bring to life one of the ancient world’s most touching and tragic love stories.

It is not every author who manages to capture the vibrant, visceral intensity of same-sex attraction, and it is especially rare among historical novelists writing about the ancient world.  Mary Renault and Madeline Miller are two that come to mind, and both of them wrote about ancient Greece, wherein male same-sex attraction operated according to different logics than its Roman counterpart.  Indeed, it would have been easy for Quinn to paint the love between Hadrian and Antinous as one-dimensional, or just another aspect of Hadrian’s deranged character, a way of him manipulating the younger man into a sexually diseased relationship.  Instead, what emerges from her words is a haunting and evocative portrait of two souls who find absolute completion in one another.  Antinous, the epitome of youthful purity and a paradoxical worldly innocence, tames the baser and more dangerous aspects of Hadrian’s character, and they both benefit from it.

However, Quinn doesn’t shy away from pointing out the ways in which the relationship between these two men raised not only eyebrows, but the ire of many of Rome’s elite, who saw the greatest amount of shame and decline of Roman virtue in this relationship.  Indeed, it is precisely this relationship, and Antinous’s acquiescence to it, that leads to his death (I won’t reveal anything, so those who haven’t read it won’t have one of the novel’s central mysteries solved too early).  Quinn manages to solve one of the ancient world’s most puzzling and saddening mysteries in a way that allows the reader to feel both vindicated and yet also saddened at the course of events that led up to the ending of a truly beautiful relationship.

If the love of Antinous and Hadrian is, as we know, doomed to tragedy, the fate of Vix and his wife Mirah is equally fated for tragedy in the form of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and its aftermath.  Quinn does a masterful job of showing us the very real and very human consequences of one of antiquity’s bloodiest and most brutal conflicts, one that would shape the fate of the Jewish people for centuries to come.  Here, we come to understand that this conflict had very real, human costs, and that entire families were torn apart by the suppression of the revolt.  The fact that we never definitively know what happened to Mirah makes this particular section of the novel all that much more gut-wrenching.

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mentioning the central triad of Sabina, Vix, and Faustina.  These three characters are in some ways the moral and narrative center of the entire story, and though it remains mostly focused on their personal lives, it also shows the ways in which the personal can become quite political when one is the wife of an emperor, the bodyguard of an emperor, and the beloved of a future emperor.  When you have three intensely powerful characters, it’s easy to see how their lives, hatreds, and loves can come to shape the fate of an empire and the world in which they live.

All in all, Lady of the Eternal City is the strongest offering yet from one of today’s finest and most consistently talented historical novelists.  This is a story that is full of violence and tragedy, the joy and the anguish of love, and the cruel and merciless machinations of time and politics.  While Quinn has not yet announced her next novel, one can but hope that it will continue to follow the eventful life and actions of the fiery Faustina, an empress who was not immune to the taint of scandal (she was rumoured to have consorted with gladiators, an all-too-common slur hurled at many an empress by those seeking to discredit her).

Quinn once again proves herself an adept at showing us what life might have been like for those living in the ancient world, a world where life and order were far more uncertain than we assume is the norm today.  Just as importantly, however, Quinn also continues to showcase the types of strong women whose presence in the historical record, particularly for ancient Rome, is spotty at best and nonexistent at worst.  Let us hope that she continues to bring these extraordinary women to such vibrant and compelling life.

Screening History-“300: Rise of an Empire”

With a special focus on the villain, Artemisia, in honor of “The Great Villain Blogathon.”

The inimitable Eva Green as the fierce warrior Artemisia.

The inimitable Eva Green as the fierce warrior Artemisia.

300:  Rise of an Empire sort of had its work cut out for it.  Released long after the political and aesthetic furor over the original film had died down, with only some of the cast from the first returning (for obvious reasons), and with the signature aesthetics of its progenitor having become rather old hat, what could it have to offer spectators?  Well, the politics are significantly toned down, the aesthetics are a little more polished and smooth and, fortunately for this blog, there is one key villain who steals the show and makes the film worth watching:  Artemisia.

Played by the inimitable and sultry Eva Green, Artemisia has what most of the villains most problematically lacked in the first film:  a justified reason for hating Greeks and wanting to gain a measure of vengeance upon them.  As the film makes clear, her desire for revenge is well-founded, for her family was raped and murdered by marauding Greeks, while she was taken as a sex slave and ultimately left for dead.  It was only through adoption by a Persian (the emissary so memorably pushed into the well in the first film), and his ruthless training in the arts of the sword, that she was able to gain a measure of control over her own life and eventually rise through the ranks of the Persian army.

Indeed, she rises so high that she becomes one of the Persian army’s highest officials, and she even gains the admiration of the Persian king Darius (one of the few characters, incidentally, who looks anything like what Persians of the period might have looked like).  This is clearly a woman who knows what she wants out of life and is determined to do whatever it takes to ensure that she is not rendered a victim again by the world men in which she finds herself.

Indeed, as the film progresses she even comes to outperform the crown Prince Xerxes, who even falls into a deep pit of self-doubt after the death of his father.  It is only at the urging of Artemisia that he is finally able to come out of his stupor and set out on the path that will strip away his humanity and leave him the God-King.  It is also Artemisia, and not Xerxes, who does what is necessary, slaying anyone in the palace who might pose a threat to his burgeoning power and his desire to lead an army against the Greeks responsible for the ignominious death of his father.

Artemisia getting ready to unleash her fury on the Greeks.

Artemisia getting ready to unleash her fury on the Greeks.

As this brief description might clear, in many ways it is Artemisia that is the engine of the narrative, driving everything forward and providing a reason for what happens.  It is also Artemisia who serves as the foil for the rather unexceptional Greek hero Themistocles (portrayed competently if unimaginatively by Sullivan Stapleton).  Indeed, throughout the film she emerges as a character that does things, that makes things happen, while Themistokles often just responds to what happens.  Thus, while he is positioned as the ostensible hero of the film, it is really Artemisia that I found myself cheering on as the movie went on.  She was, in fact, one of the most interesting parts of an otherwise unexceptional film.

Part of this also has to do with the particular brand of screen presence exuded by Eva Green.  In the wide variety of roles that she has taken on, she has consistently managed to gather around herself an aura of dangerous yet powerful sexuality, as a woman who knows how to use he body in a way that does not necessarily undercut her empowerment.  Artemisia emerges as a woman powerful and secure enough in her military and physical prowess to not feel that sex in any way demeans her.  Although Themistocles turns down her advances, she doesn’t pine and weep, but instead vows to continue her efforts to bring down the Greek fleet and attain the military victory that she so desperately desires.

As with any morality tale, however, the villain must ultimately be defeated, and so it turns out in this film.  Lena Headey’s Gorgo coming in to help Themistocles save the day.  Yet even Headey’s scenery chewing (which I dearly love) doesn’t take away from what has come before, and even she pales in comparison to the power wielded by Artemisia during her time in the film.  (If anything, part of me wished that the two women would just join their forces and turn against the men, but that, of course, was a futile hope).

300:  Rise of an Empire may not have been as politically inflammatory as its predecessor, but it does actually do a great deal, perhaps despite itself, to show us the ways in which women of the ancient world were often at the mercy of the men in their lives, who often had possessed all of the political and sexual power.  While it was originally supposed to showcase the rise of Xerxes and his path to his status as the God-King of Persia, Artemisia ended up stealing much of the spotlight and the result is, I think a stronger film because of it.  Now, if only we could get an epic film centered solely on a woman (perhaps Olympias, the powerful and Machiavellian mother of Alexander the Great?) then I would truly be a happy consumer.  And who knows?  Maybe someday I’ll get my wish.

Fifty Seven Years in a Cage: A Story of Psychiatric Disability from the late Puritan Era

Metathesis

My historic work is not about famous able-bodied men, battles or presidents as many think of when they think of history; it is about women, epidemic disease, art, slavery, mental illness, reform and disability. It is about those were marginalized, the ones lost to history whose stories have been long forgotten or never told. The medieval anchoresses who lived in little rooms, those kept in towers, in prisons, in asylums, those who were physically or socially incarcerated. As a genealogical researcher in North Syracuse, I worked primarily with a collection of one hundred and forty four letters written by four generations of Massachusetts women in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth centuries, which centered my work on Puritan New England. The collection had been long forgotten until its discovery about four years ago in an Arizona attic. Within the still pristine letters, preserved by dry heat, was the story of the…

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Screening History–“A.D.:  The Bible Continues”—“The Tomb is Open” 

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In which it turns out that a queer agnostic CAN enjoy a straightforwardly biblical tale. 

I have to admit to some degree of skepticism when I saw that NBC had greenlit A.D.:  The Bible Continues. Biblical films and television series can be quite a chore to watch, even for those, like me, with a sensibility that allows me to take them straight rather than ironically. All too often, their seriousness slips into the ridiculous.

While A.D. Does suffer from this malady in some places, the first episode actually does a passable job conveying a sense of what it might have been like to have lived in Judaea during the early days of Christianity.  Indeed, to my surprise, the High Priest Caiaphas emerges from this tale as a man caught in an impossible position, struggling to make sure that the people over whom he watches are not stamped out by the brutal boot of Roman imperialism.  Seen in that context, his decision to execute Jesus emerges not just as some mindless malice motivated by his Jewish identity (I’m looking at you, The Passion of the Christ), but instead by a pragmatic desire to avoid an armed conflict that he knows his people cannot win.  His wife underscores this point, reminding both Caiaphas and Joseph of Arimathea that the Jews have survived as long as they have, often the rule of various empires, by being able to adapt, by being pragmatic enough to realize that armed resistance and revolution will only lead to oblivion.

While I’m not entirely sure that the series wants us to take it this way, her words do bring home to contemporary audiences what life must have been like for all sorts of people living in the early ages of the Common Era, when Roman military might had made much of Europe and a portion of Africa and Asia part of a vast imperial possession.  In such a context, it should come as no surprise that the Jews of the time, long used to oppression and often destruction by foreign powers, should do everything in their power to survive, even if it meant putting one of their own to death when he posed a challenge to the might of Rome.

If there’s one weak spot, it’s unfortunately the very thing that should, ostensibly, be the strongest, namely the “protagonists.”  The series’ most compelling and interesting characters are the villains:  Pilate and Caiaphas not have more depth as characters; they are more interesting.  As it is, watching Peter and the other Disciples agonize over whether Jesus will return or not feels a bit slow, and the actors just don’t bring enough zeal to the scenes to allow for a powerful engagement with their obvious crisis of faith.  Hopefully, the writers have given these main characters more to do in subsequent episodes, at least within the rather narrow confines of the story (which, as we know, has some rather foregone conclusions).

Likewise, it would have been nice to get a little more understanding of Jesus as a man driven not just by his sense of his own divinity, but also by the political and social ramifications of his message.  The only sense we as the audience get of these is through characters talking about him, particularly Pilate (who sees his kingly status as a threat to Roman supremacy), and Caiaphas (who sees him as a threat to Jewish security and well-being).  Both characters give us  some really punch dialogue that reveals their political investments, such as when Pilate says he wants Jesus to be remembered as a pile of rotting meat on the floor, but Jesus, and his Disciples, don’t really give us that much.

But then, perhaps that would serve to undercut the entire point of the series, which is to suggest that the challenge he poses is precisely to the established ways of thinking about the world and even, perhaps, to the concept of history itself.  Jesus becomes Christ and thus is timeless; one need not worry about the past nor the future, but simply live in the eternal present that is the essence of this burgeoning worldview.

Overall, A.D. is a competent drama, not nearly as bad and chintzy as it could certainly have been in less capable hands.  While it may not have quite the gritty realism of Game of Thrones (it was touted as a cross between that HBO powerhouse and Netflix’s hit House of Cards), it does nevertheless have enough politics to sate the desires of those who want like to watch that sort of thing (and I certainly do!)  The stage is certainly set for the kinds of conflict, between Jews and Christians, between Jews and Romans, between Christians and Romans, that could make for some genuinely rich and resonant drama, if the writers will give themselves the change to stretch their talents and allow us to get a more complex picture of Early Christianity and its struggles to survive in a very hostile, and volatile, Roman world.

Screening History: “The Sign of the Cross”

Welcome to my official entry in the Pre-Code Blogathon!  Today, I will be focusing on Cecil B. DeMille’s (in)famous classic The Sign of the Cross (1932).  Released just prior to the implementation of the Code, this film utilizes that freedom to paint the ancient Roman world as full of dangerous yet pleasurable sexuality and violence.  The film tells the story of the virtuous Christian maiden Mercia (Elissa Landi), and the pompous, brutally masculine Roman soldier Marcus Superbus (Frederic March) who falls in love with her.  Their fraught relationship emerges against the backdrop of the reign of the villainous, corpulent, and childlike Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) and his lascivious wife Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), who plots against Mercia in her attempts to claim Marcus for her own.

If all of this sounds like a dangerously merry romp through ancient Rome, it is.  There is something sinfully delightful about this film, in keeping with DeMille’s penchant for combining the flagrantly sexual with a supposedly uplifting moral message.  There are points in the film, however, that definitely veer more toward the former than the latter, such as the infamous seduction scene in which Marcus convinces a famous courtesan named Ancaria to perform a lewd song and dance number.  Naturally, Mercia resists, but this moment highlights the film’s investment in showing ancient Rome as a place where sex remains inextricably intertwined with power and manipulation.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

Ancaria attempts to seduce the humble (and virtuous) Christian Mercia.

This all pales, however, in comparison to the arena scene, which serves to highlight the violent depravity of the ancient Romans and their attempts to squash the burgeoning Christian faith.  DeMille throws everything he has at the viewer, including a highly suggestive moment in which a gorilla assaults a vulnerable Christian maiden, much to the jeering and excited delight of the crowd.  Such scenes invite us as contemporary spectators to join in the fun, to relish the carnal nature of the Roman past, even as it also invites us to disavow that enjoyment, to remind ourselves that are (supposedly) live in a more civilized, order, and disciplined present.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

The infamously suggestive gorilla scene.

As far as the characters go, Marcus and Mercia nicely complement one another, with Marcus providing the masculine hauteur that must gradually be tamed by the patience and everlasting virtue of the Christian maiden.  What sets this film apart, however, is the very incompleteness of Marcus’s conversion.  Even at the end of the film, when he decides go with Mercia and her fellow Christians into the certain death of the arena, he states that he will be saved not by faith in Christ, but instead through Mercia herself.  His excessive pagan masculinity can only be tamed and channeled into appropriate Christian morality through the body and soul of the Christian maiden, and even there it remains startlingly incomplete.

I have to admit that, before I first watched this film, I was a little skeptical of Claudette Colbert as the sultry and sensuous Poppaea.  I had already seen the 1951 Quo Vadis (based on the same source material as Sign), and was very much taken with Patricia Laffan’s heavy-lidded and sensuous depiction of the character.  However, Colbert managed to surprise me, though she is much more of a coquette than a traditional femme fatale (she would later adopt a similar persona for her interpretation of Cleopatra in DeMille’s film of the same name).   She pales, however, in comparison to Laughton’s delightfully corpulent Nero, who emerges her as a slightly pathetic man unable to control his own fleshly appetites and tempers.  As he later would in Spartacus–in which he portrayed the world-weary and hedonist Senator Gracchus–Laughton’s own pudgy physique lends Nero a certain child-like essence that makes him a study in pop Freudian psychology.

While seemingly uplifting, the end of the film is actually rather pessimistic in its worldview.  Unlike the 1951 Quo Vadis (in which the two main characters are saved by the arena and end up sparking the revolt that topples Nero from his throne), the two main characters meet their presumed deaths in the arena, the film fading to black as both Marcus and Mercia walk to their deaths.  Salvation, the film suggests, can never take place on this sinful earth, but must instead be achieved in the some other realm.

Like many other representations of antiquity, ancient Rome here is a world obsessed with the promise of death, though it takes on very different valences for the pagan Romans and the Christians.  For the former, death can be both combated and embraced by feverishly indulging in the pleasures of the flesh (Poppaea’s ass’s milk bath and seductive gestures toward another female bather is a case in point) and by watching the tortures of the arena.  For the Christians, however, death is a not a thing to be warded off nor to be encountered only through sublimation, but instead embraced as the escape from the confines of the flesh, the body, and the pagan Roman world.

Given the intensity of the images in this film, it’s small wonder that it was severely edited for its subsequent re-releases (one of which featured a brief introduction featuring soldiers fighting in World War II against fascist Italy).  However, the trends that it set, especially its visceral depiction of the ancient world, would re-emerge after World War II in renewed force.  Beginning with Samson and Delilah in 1949–yet another film directed by DeMille–the world of antiquity in all of its violent, splendid glory would come to reign supreme at the box office throughout the 1950s.  A golden age, indeed.