Dissertation Days (19): Weasel Words

Today, I worked a lot in Chapter 3, making sure that I cut out some of those pesky weasel words upon which I rely far too often. Words like “indeed,” “furthermore,” “as a result” are my bane, and I’ve been on the lookout for them as I work through these sections of the chapter. Removing them has really streamlined my prose.

I also deleted numerous other things that were basically written clutter. I do have a tendency to clog up the flow of my prose with extraneous bits and pieces that really don’t do much to advance the argument, and I am making a concerted effort to trim more of those out with each reading I do of this chapter. I’ve now reached the point where I’m taking stuff out, and this brings with it its own form of writing pleasure (particularly since there is a large part of the queer section that needs writing).

I also managed to get rid of more couplets (seriously, you would not believe how many of them appear throughout my writing). I have largely either cut out one of the pair or, alternatively, I have changed to a different grammatical construction (typically deleting one term and transforming it into a modifier for the other). I know that it’s another crutch, but it’s at least a bit of stylistic variety in my writing. I will say, though, that I have always tended to rely too much on adjectives, so I’m trying to focus more on using more verbs and nouns. As my adviser astutely pointed out some time ago, relying on those forms gives one’s writing a stronger, more active energy.

I also managed to get some of Chapter 4 done today, and I’m pretty happy with what I was able to produce. I not only worked on some of the theoretical section–admittedly not very much–but also on my close reading of Cleopatra. I think that will be my favourite part of the chapter, though I also want to make sure to give some love and attention to Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The real struggle there will be finding something to say that is a genuine contribution.

I’m afraid another hiatus is in the offing. I’m traveling again tomorrow and Friday, but I hope to return to the schedule on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully next week will be even more productive.

Good times.

Dissertation Days (18): Increments

Well, I finally returned to the semi-normal writing schedule. Today, I mostly worked on a read-through of Chapter 3, finessing some of the prose that has been rather clunky. Of course, I made sure to clip out a few of those pesky couplets that are such a troubling part of my prose (gods I hate those fucking couplets). There are still a couple that have resisted all efforts to get rid of them, but I’ve been successful for the most part.

I managed to make it to page 20 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with the way that this first section looks. I’ve had to really hard to make sure that the section has allusions to what happens later, so that it’s clear from the beginning how the context that I’m laying out relates to the parts that come later. I think, at least in a dissertation chapter, that you want to have a number of signposts so that your reader can keep the bigger picture in mind.

Tomorrow, I hope to get through another 20 pages, and then I should just about be ready to get back into that section on Nero’s queerness. I am really struggling to get that section to fit into what I’ve written before, but I’m confident that I can at last corral everything into a coherent whole.

I also managed to write 500 words of Chapter 4, almost entirely in the historical context section. Gradually filling that out allows me to clarify what it is that I’m trying to accomplish with the chapter as a whole. The conceptual framework is still a little hazy, but I’m inching closer to a coherent argument. If I can manage to eke out a draft, no matter how rudimentary, by the end of July I will be happy.

Tomorrow is definitely going to be a busy day. I’m going to try to keep up the momentum with Chapter 4, as I don’t want to lose sight of that. It’s very easy to let my wheels start spinning in the midst of the revisions on Chapter 3, with the result that I can’t really accomplish anything else. Now that the end of Chapter 3 is (I think) at last in sight, I should be able to resume concerted work on the final chapter. (Can I just say how glorious it is to write that final sentence).

Tomorrow is going to be a glorious day.

Reading History: “Mary, Called Magdalene” (by Margaret George)

Since finishing The Confessions of the Young Nero, the most recent literary outing from historical fiction author Margaret George, I’ve found myself possessed of the desire to re-read her entire oeuvre, beginning with the two novels of hers that I haven’t read. So, I started with Mary, Called Magdalene. 

In another life, I was passionately interested in the history of early Christianity, and I even entertained the notion of pursuing graduate work in that field. Since I opted out of that, I am very happy to see that works like George continue to bring to light the lives and experiences of those women who have been largely left out of the larger historical narratives concerning the genesis and birth of Christianity. Fortunately for me and those like me, Margaret George is right there to bring to light what it might have felt like to walk in the shoes of one of Jesus’s earliest converts.

Having combed through both the canonical gospels as well as numerous other ancient sources, George has managed to construct a plausible idea of what Mary’s life must have been like before, during, and after her membership in the circle of disciples that follow Jesus. While she begins the novel as a traditional Jewish wife and mother of the 1st Century CE, things begin to change when she is possessed by a number of demons, vengeful spirits that have grown angry at their dispossession. Ultimately driven nearly mad, she is only saved when she encounters Jesus at the River Jordan, after which she joins his ministry, following him until his death and even afterward.

George ably captures the contradictory position that women occupied in ancient Israel, and Mary consistently chafes at the limits imposed upon her by both her own family–who constantly criticize her for her willfulness and ultimately disown her after her decision to follow Jesus–and even by her fellow disciples. In refusing to bow down to the imperative of respectability, she also sacrifices her place in society. While this means that she must also give up her access to her daughter Elisheba–a sacrifice that haunts Mary throughout the novel–she never regrets her decision to follow Jesus and subscribe to the dictates of his ministry.

George also ably demonstrates the troubling sense of doubt that Jesus’s disciples must have felt as they struggled to accept a message and a man that went beyond anything that they had been raised to understand. All of them see in Jesus and his message something that helps them make sense of the world, and it is precisely in this multiplicity that George situates Mary and her own interpretation of Jesus. She sees in him both a possible romantic connection (ultimately dashed) and something more, something that is a message that is not based in empty ritual but instead on spiritual fulfillment. She sees in Jesus not a political messiah but instead someone who can, indeed, bring about a very different kingdom, one of the spirit rather than the flesh.

The world that George paints is one poised on the edge of a great conflagration. Increasingly embittered as a result of their subjection under the yoke of Rome, the Jewish people yearn for someone to deliver them. For some, Jesus promises an escape from their dilemma, while for others–most notably the leaders of the Temple–he represents a very real threat to their political alliance with Rome. Mary, as a prosperous Jewish woman, finds herself caught up in this conflict, even as she attempts to understand Jesus’ message and her relationship to it.

The novel is peopled by a variety of characters from all walks of life, from fisherman to tax collectors to zealots, all of whom see in Jesus something slightly different. It is for this reason that Mary fits in with them, though she does have moments of conflict. Most notably, she finds herself in several terse interactions with Judas, who is both the most like her and the one most prone to his own inner demons and despair. She also finds herself in something of a competition with Peter, with whom she vies for the position of being closest to Jesus.

While the entire novel is compellingly readable, it’s the last portion that I found to be the most moving. Here, we are given a close-up perspective of the gospel that Mary has begun to compose, for she comes to understand that Christianity as a faith increasingly diverges from its Jewish origins and that there are those in the fledgeling communities who desperately yearn for the words and testimony of those who were with Jesus while he still walked the earth. As time continues its inexorable march forward, Mary finds herself a key part of the history of a religion.

Yet the most heartbreaking thing is the fact that Mary is not reunited with her daughter until it is too late, after she has died as a result of injuries she sustains as a result of her casting down of idols in the city of Ephesus. It is only then that her daughter finally comes to see her, and she erects a memorial testifying to her affection. This sense of being too-late adds a further layer of emotional resonance to Mary’s story.

The core of Mary’s narrative and personal dilemma is her awareness and recognition that despite his earth-changing message, the historical world moves on, even though her own life has irrevocably changed. Tormented by the visions that she has of the future, she bears the heavy weight of historical and spiritual responsibility. With its privileging of her perspective–almost the entire novel is related either in third person limited or first person–Mary, Called Magdalene gives us a unique perspective on the presence of the feminine at the root of Christian thought and history.

Currently, I’m hard at work on George’s other novel about a famous Mary, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It’s quite a large work, so it will take me quite a while to finish but worry not. Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on that book as well.

Dissertation Days (17): Headaches

Much as it pains me to admit it, this has not been a very productive day on any front. I managed to eke out some progress on Chapter 3, though I did nothing at all on Chapter 4. I had a bit of a pet emergency (Beast, my kitty, had an asthma flare, so a large part of the day has been spent fretting over here; she’s doing much better, thankfully). I also developed a splitting headache, so that ruled out a lot of work progress this evening.

Still, I did manage to do some copy and paste from earlier drafts of the chapter, so the section on queerness, Nero, and Quo Vadis is starting to slowly take shape in a coherent form. I’m still struggling to bring together the strands of queerness, colour, and the terrifying nature of history, but I think I have the avenue I need.

I’m trying to avoid a huge theory info-dump right in the middle of the discussion. I think I’m going to have to just winnow out any theoretical references that aren’t directly relevant to what I’m doing, and relegate the others to a footnote. I also have to find a way to bring together my discussions of queer theory in general and the queer film theorists that I’m also working with.

I think that I need to focus on just the queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton and her notion of the queer child and Lee Edelman’s notion of jouissance and the death drive. Now, if I can only make sure that they mesh with both my arguments about chromatic history, I think I’ll have something significant to say about how this film imagines history (I also have to make sure that it fits in with the preceding discussion of S&D and D&B). Lots of balls in the air. I do like a challenge.

Sigh.

Unfortunately, more work is probably not in the offing tomorrow, as I have more family obligations. Sometime, probably early next week, I should be able to get back into something of my normal groove.

Until then, I fear that the installments of Dissertation Days will be as sporadic as the actual progress I’ll be making on my chapters. Still, I’m going to carve out each piece as I can, and that will have to be good enough for now.

In my book, any progress is good progress.

Dissertation Days (16): Chapter 4!

In keeping with my promise of last night, I did indeed manage to do a bit of work in Chapter 4. At this point, I’m still sketching in the broader outlines of the historical context, because I think that doing so will help me to get a stronger sense of what it is that I am trying to argue in the chapter as a whole. I’m still doing some of the primary research that I need, but I do think that I have enough basic material to make a solid start in my close analysis of the films.

I’m really trying to work out the tension I see between the spectacle of imperial zenith and the narrative patterns that inevitably connect such splendour with immanent and imminent decline. I’m looking at this phenomenon through three of the final films of the postwar cycle: Cleopatra, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Bible: In the Beginning. I’m not sure how well this is going to hold together in the final analysis, but I do think that are some interesting things to argue and say about the utopian longings for a more stable political world that can never really be attained.

Produced in a world that was increasingly full of political doubt and philosophical instability, these films express a form, I think, of imperial melancholy. They mourn a world that was never actually brought into being, a world that is always subjected to the relentless forces of historical change and the inexorable forward movement of time.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get as much work done on Chapter 3 as I would have liked. Family commitments intervened in those attempts, though I hope to get some bits of it done tomorrow. I would like to highlight this particular bit, though, which I think nicely sums up what I’m doing with Nero’s queerness: “He is, in other words, the embodiment of all the terrifying power of history writ large on the great stage of the cinema.”

Tomorrow looks like it’s going to be another day that’s rather tied up with obligations, so who knows how much I’m going to actually be able to get done. Hopefully, though, I can manage to get through some more portions of Chapter 3. If I keep on as I am, it should definitely be ready by the end of next week. Then I can just edit.

On we go.

Dissertation Days (15): Three Outta Five Ain’t Bad!

I know it’s been a while since I posted a dissertation update. My Parents and I lost a furry member of our family, so we’ve been grieving. Today, though, I knew I had to get back in the swing of things. And here we are.

So, this chapter of my dissertation has basically five complete sections: context (historical); context (theoretical); close reading of Samson and Delilah; close reading of David and Bathsheba; and close reading of Quo Vadis. There is also, of course, a very brief conclusion.

So far, I’ve managed to finish three out of those five, especially since I managed to finish up my close reading of David and Bathsheba. It’s a little briefer than the one about Samson and Delilah, but that’s okay. It’s basically meant to be a complement to that earlier reading, an elaboration of the many ways in which the historico-biblical epic engages with the question of desire and history.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way that this section turned out, and I think I’ve added some nuance to the ways in which scholars have already talked about the film. I really think that thinking about colour adds a new layer of understanding to the way in which the film engages with the question of history and desire. David and Bathsheba may not have attained quite the canonical status of some other epics of the midcentury period, it does, I think, deserve more critical consideration than it typically receives.

Tomorrow, I’ve got to get deep into the weeds on the section of Quo Vadis. I’ve thought about excising it from the chapter, but have opted not to. I do think there is a strong case to be made for the way in which queer desire in the film operates at the level of form, and it makes a compelling counterpoint to the question of female desire raised by the other films discussed. So, it stays in for right now.

I was planning on submitting this chapter later this month, but since I’ll be traveling for quite a while, I’m going to submit it around the middle of June. However,  I going to continue working on Chapter 4 (which I fully intend to do tomorrow, in addition to my other work).

There is still a lot of work, but I think most of it will be done this week.

It can be done.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Big Daddy” (S1, Ep. 23)

Since its been ages since I published a post about The Golden Girls, and since I needed something to distract me from some personal grief, I thought I’d write another one. In today’s episode, we meet Blanche’s father “Big Daddy” who, unbeknownst to her, has sold the family mansion and taken up a career as a country singer.

While Big Daddy will appear in another episode, this iteration is a rather earthier, more homespun charmer than his later incarnation. It’s clear that Blanche has a very close relationship with her father, yet it is equally true that she cares just as much about the dignity of the family name (for anyone who is from the South, this should sound and feel quite familiar). Unfortunately, as the episode progresses, she finds that her interest in maintaining the latter conflicts with the former.

There are truly some golden comedic exchanges, as when Big Daddy asks Dorothy to promise him that she won’t “fret none.” Dorothy, with her typical dead-pan delivery, says she would so, only she doesn’t know what “fret none is.” Of course, part of the humour in this situation arises from Dorothy’s ever-present skepticism and indeed dismissal of the peculiarities of southern culture.

Despite the episode’s focus on the personal relationship between Blanche and her father, there is also an ever-so-slight feminist element that springs from the conflict between the women and their cantankerous neighbour who refuses to repair the damage done by his tree.

Feeling the Affects

Metathesis

To some degree, all of our posts this month have flirted with affect. Whether it’s waking up dazed in confused in graduate school or exploring the significance of melancholia, memory, and reverberating energies, all of these topics point to a larger picture of attempting to understand and read feeling in texts and our daily lives. This week, we’d like to revisit how we’ve engaged with discourses of emotion and feeling in the past. In the following post, Noelle will give a brief overview about [SOMETHING ABOUT VICTORIANS BEING ANXIOUS ABOUT FEELING], and Tyler will focus on [SOMETHING ABOUT HUMANS AND MATERIALS]. Together, these posts reveal how two graduate students attempt to navigate trying to understand what we feel, how/if texts feel, and what we can attempt to say about it.

Mechanics of Victorian “Nervousness”

As a Victorianist, I spend a lot of time talking about nineteenth-century, and specifically Victorian, anxieties…

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Dissertation Days (14): Sometimes I Love What I Do

Today was one of those glorious day when the pieces at last started to fit together. It was a truly productive day, and I managed to finish the section of the chapter devoted to Samson and Delilah. 

finally found a coherent way of talking about the ways in which the terror and chaos of history is expressed through Samson and Delilah‘s emphasis on costume, fabric, and tactility. If you’ve ever seen the film, you can see the ways in which it expresses a very disruptive and chaotic form of desire, one that cannot be entirely contained by the conventions of narrative.

I really do think that I’m making a contribution with this line of argument, for I’m trying to work against a dominant strand of criticism that tends to see Delilah as little more than an object of the gaze, a femme fatale who is the screen onto which men project their fantasies and fears about women. To me, the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s is far too fractious and unsettled for that to be the whole story, and when you think about both the terrors of modern history and the essentially unruly nature of color as a formal element of cinema, you get a very different picture of the epic films of the period.

I didn’t get to finish my section on David and Bathsheba, alas, though I did hash out the thesis of that section so that it’s a little more clarity, so at least I accomplished that. There isn’t quite as much to do with that section as S&D, since it was always a bit clearer.

That just leaves the last section on Nero and Quo Vadis, and that is definitely going to take a couple of days to both write and make sure that it fits with the rest of what I’ve already been doing. Still, with grit and determination I know this can be done. I know it.

At the rate I’m going, I should be ready to submit this revision before the end of the month. That basically means I’ll have taken about a month and a half to make some pretty significant revisions, so I’m okay with that. Even if it needs another round, I think that the next bit won’t take as long.

Once it’s done, I’m on to Chapter 4. Onward and upward, friends.

Onward and upward.

 

TV Review: “Feud”–“You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”

So, we come at last to it, the finale of the first season of Feud. I’m still not sure that the series needed all 8 episodes that it got in order to get to this point, but I do think that it told a good story, solidly acted, and beautifully shot. It may not go down in history as one of the greatest TV series, it is nevertheless a solid part of the Murphy oeuvre, a testament to his ability to imprint his vision on Hollywood history.

Whereas earlier episodes showed Lange’s Crawford slipping into moments of high-strung histrionics, this episode sees her bowing out with a measure of pathos-drenched grace. This is the Joan whose body has begun to fail her, first in the rash of dental problems that are the result of her having molars extracted in her youth to give her cheeks a more carved appearance, and then when the cancer that will take her life starts to take its toll. She gradually withdraws into her apartment, determined at the last to maintain a measure of dignity despite everything else (this becomes an especially acute issue after a photo that she deems unflattering sees the light of day).

The episode makes no secret that Joan’s career was definitely the one that fizzled out much more ignominiously than Davis’s. (While you wouldn’t know it from this episode, Davis would actually go on to have several more notable film appearances, even costarring with Lilian Gish in The Whales of August). One cannot but feel sorry for Joan, that one of the giants of the screen should be reduced to playing in a film such as Trog. Even there, though, the series does show that she continued to be a consummate professional, working with all of her considerable skills to bring an element of craftsmanship to this inglorious position. She faces every new humiliation with aplomb, even though she is truly working in less-than-ideal conditions.

The highlight of the episode is, of course, a fever dream in which Joan sees Hedda, Jack, and Bette gathered in her living room. There ensues a conversation  in which Bette and Joan at last say the things to each other that they never said in life. As with the rest of this episode, the moment is laden with ambiguity, a potent and pathos-laden incident in which we are treated to a world that might-have-been. It’s a moment when both Bette and Joan are restored to their former glamourous glory, and they can at last be honest with one another.

Of course, the fantasy cannot last, and the scene abruptly shifts to Joan sitting alone in her dark living room, her long hair askew. The fantasy has been punctured, and the revelation that Joan died shortly thereafter makes the scene all the more poignant. When Bette responds to the death with a cruelly offhand remark, we’re left wondering if she does it out of a residual sense of bitterness, a lack of feeling one way or another, or just because by this point it’s what she’s expected to do.

The last scene is one that is also laden with ambiguity, as we are shown a scene in which Bette and Joan, on the first day of shooting for Baby Jane, both think that is the beginning of a beautiful new friendship. But, of course, the past 8 episodes have shown us that that is a hope that remains unfulfilled, that the dark forces of male Hollywood will always come in between them. This sequence ultimately raises more questions than it answers: Is this a flashback to what actually transpired on the first set of the film, a moment of utopian longing for a friendship that could have been? Or is instead just that, a utopian figment, a figment of the imagination, a cautionary tale about the dangers of Hollywood feuding (and, by implication, our complicity in consuming this narrative?)

And of course the last shot is the most heartbreaking of all, as the two actresses, both of them larger than life, both of them outshining many of the stars who would come in their wake, go to their separate dressing rooms. It’s a moment laden with a melancholy significance, as we in the audience are left to mourn a friendship that never was, just as we were left to contemplate the tragedy of Joan’s final delusion, in which she imagines a rapprochement that never took place but which we wish might have, as it would have offered both of them an opportunity to unite against the system that worked so stridently to keep them apart.

In the final analysis, I think Feud is a thoroughly good show. Is it one of the greatest or even great on its own terms? I don’t think so. It tends to rely too much on cleverness and surface, and there are some questionable historical choices (and even more questionable accuracy). As with so many Ryan Murphy projects, it tends to be better in concept than in execution. Still, as a student and amateur historian of classic Hollywood, I’m excited that it was made, and I’m glad that it has brought such increased visibility to a period that has only recently begun to get the respect and attention that it deserves.

If I have one major complaint about the series, it’s that it tends to focus too much on Joan at the expense of Bette. This wasn’t as noticeable early in the series, but as it went on it was very clear that Murphy was more invested in her side of the narrative than Bette’s. She gets to have more of the tender moments–particularly in this last episode, where we see her visibly touched by the love of one of her daughters–whereas Bette is always seen as the tower of strength. That by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it does tend to skew the series in Joan’s favour.

Overall, I’m glad that Feud was made, and I am very glad that I stuck with it to the very end. While I tend to fall of the wagon with Murphy’s series, for once he made it worth sticking with him.

Long live Bette and Joan.