Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cure

Let's say you're a woman at the turn of the 20th Century. Further, you've got a working brain, and you've spent the first 25 years of your life doing what everybody else wanted. Now you've been married for six years, you've had a kid, or several, and suddenly you're looking at the world going, "Is this it?"

Yes, my dear, this is it. You're going to grow old, surrounded by your children and grandchildren, caring for their needs, making your husband happy, and reading the latest issues of Godey's Ladies' Book. You're done. You have fulfilled your function. You have exhausted your creative enterprise. Now what are you going to do?

You're going to wack out, that's what. "Hysteria," which comes from the same root word that gives us "hysterectomy," was a common complaint among women around the time of the first world war. Denied any healthy outlets for their intelligence and creativity, and stuck in many-child households with little help, many women took to their beds with nervous complaints that we now recognize as depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Physicians at the time just put it down to having a uterus. If you've got one of THOSE, then you're mentally unstable, end of discussion.

In its mild form, hysteria was just Mama spending a few afternoons in bed with the blinds drawn. But in its more vicious form, Mama was completely debilitated, and her doctors would prescribe "the rest cure."

The rest cure amounted to total isolation. Women with hysteria were removed from all stimulation -- no books, no visitors, no responsibilities, no nothing -- and allowed to fester. Why this was supposed to cure them is anyone's guess, but it's not too surprising that the creator of this regimen was a man, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, pictured at right.

The rest cure was, without a doubt, a form of torture. Some women were restrained and not even allowed to turn themselves over in bed. Mitchell himself explained it thusly, "..to lie abed half the day and sew a little, and read a little, and be interesting and excite sympathy, is all very well, but when they are bidden to stay in bed a month, and neither to read, write, nor sew, and to have one nurse—who is not a relative—then rest becomes for some women a rather bitter medicine and they are glad enough to accept the order to rise and go about when the doctor issues a mandate which has become pleasantly welcome and eagerly looked for.”

In other words, restrict all their activity, punish them for being anxious and depressed, and then they'll be happy NOT to be in bed taking the cure. No wonder they were "cured." We might note that one of the things that led to Virginia Woolfe's suicide was the thought that she might have to go through the rest cure AGAIN. Admittedly, this was not the only factor, the impending second world war being a larger one, but it underscores the brutality of ennui.

Interestingly enough, the rest cure only applied to relatively wealthy women. Poor women -- those who worked, held responsibilities, and were considered equal to their spouses -- were supposedly immune to the disease because they were tougher. In reality, they didn't have time for nervous complaints, or the money to pay for expensive restrictions on their liberty.

So why did anyone do it? Because women trusted Weir Mitchell; he got results. Dr. Mitchell and his ilk believed that women were under the total control of their reproductive organs, not their brains. Hormones drove women mad, and before you laugh and mention PMS, put yourself in that locked room with nothing to do, no music, no friends, nothing but your lonely, depressed brain, and see how you feel, hormones or no. No one was actually studying brains and how they work; all of the energy was focused on glands. At one point, glandular theory was thought to be responsible for everything from religion to criminal behavior.

Science eventually put a stop to the rest cure. Psychoanalyists like Freud and Jung began looking at brains as the root causes of anxiety and depression, and thus the isolation and torment of women fell out of favor, at least as a "cure." Doctors recognized that everyone wants to have a purpose, and wants to be self-directed. The focus of mental health shifted from something that was imposed from outside -- the cure -- to work done on the inside -- analysis.

Before that happened, though, we have Charlotte Perkins Gilman writing "The Yellow Wallpaper," about a woman driven bats by the rest cure. Gilman actually sent a copy of her story to Dr. Mitchell, who, rather typically, didn't respond to her. He DID say of himself, however, "I urged, scolded and teased and bribed and decoyed along the road to health; but this is what it means to treat hysteria.”

Trust me. I'm a doctor.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

So the Storm Passed and Everyone Was Happy

Look at the picture on the left, please. Really look at it. What kind of woman is this? Ignore the hair for a second and focus on her expression. This is Kate Chopin, the woman who rocked polite society with The Awakening and then slammed it again, posthumously, with "The Storm." Does she look like an "unnatural" person? What IS an "unnatural" person, anyway?
If you're William Dean Howells, and you should probably be thankful that you're not, since he's been dead for 90 years, you believe that a woman should be too high-minded to think about sex, much less write about it. The Puritan influence has dropped to nothing and the European influence has won. That means, among other things, that sex is bad again, and well-bred people pretend it doesn't exist.
The best word we can think of for 19th Century fin de si├Ęcle society is "repressive." People had buttoned themselves up and down. "Nice" women put little panties on their pianos, lest the sight of piano legs drive male members of the household into a lust-crazed frenzy. (You think I'm kidding? Go check.) People didn't even say the word "leg." It was a "limb," which might as well be something out of a tree. A lot of time was spent in avoiding "coarseness," which meant anything to do with the body. The epitome of this, and I mean it in the worst, most vicious way, was Virginia Woolfe, who ate sparingly because she could not bear the vulgarity of eliminating waste.
In the middle of all this "niceness," all this denial of the body and its animal functions, Kate Chopin wrote a novel, The Awakening. It was published amid a furor, because it is about a woman who leaves her husband and children because they stifle her, takes a lover because she wants to, and is forced to kill herself because she doesn't fit anywhere in her world any more. We can pretty much bet that neither Kate nor her heroine, Edna Pointellier, covered up their piano legs, but they did understand the power of the physical body.
And that, said Howells, proved Chopin's "unnaturalness." Women weren't supposed to talk about sex, adultery, and abandoning the family for a life of one's own. (Men could do this, although they were expected to reaffirm the mainstream values in the end.) Howells didn't believe that women were stupid -- he published many stories by women writers -- but he DID believe that they should remain innocent, even after marriage, and preserve those core values of marital fidelity and maternal fecundity.
Chopin totally flouted all that, bringing down on her beautifully coiffed head the wrath of men and women alike. Some of this wrath was just ordinary brainless outrage at anything outside the cultural norms, but some of it was the outrage of the intelligent, who saw in her a crack in the dam, threatening to wash away the foundations of American society, or at least move them around some.
Even now, as witnessed in our class discussion, we are indignant, even angry, at Calixta in "The Storm." How dare she? What kind of idiot would suggest that a woman could commit adultery and not suffer at all? It begs the question, and I am asking it, what are Kate Chopin and her amoral characters still threatening to do?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oogie Boogie Fever: Henry James and The Turn of the Screw

In the novella The Turn of the Screw, Henry James brings us a little creepfest that may be hard for you to appreciate in the installment the class read. (And if you're not an AmLit student, go online to Project Gutenberg and read the whole thing. It really is good, and maybe your hair standing on end will keep you warm. )

Here's the quick plot summary: (SPOILERS for the haven't-read-it-yet folks.) A mysterious narrator tells the story of someone he knew -- a governess -- who had a horrific experience while working for two orphaned children. She was hired by the children's uncle to care for them in a large, country house, but forbidden to contact him concerning them. (Cue dramatic music.) The children, Flora and Miles, are a little weird, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, seems to be Not Telling Something in a capital-letters kind of way.

The governess eventually discovers that, 1. Miles has been expelled from his boarding school for something mysterious and probably horrible; 2. Miles and Flora see dead people, and talk to them every chance they get; 3. Flora resents the snot out of the governess for interfering with the aforementioned conversations; and 4. the dead people are the former governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, the butler Peter Quint, who died apparently because everybody associated with Flora and Miles kicks the bucket sooner rather than later.

The governess decides it's her duty to protect the children from the ghosts, although it's unclear what the threat actually is. It's important to realize that ALL her information about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, including suggestions that they, while alive, had an unsavory influence on the children, comes from Mrs. Grose. The governess never questions this information, but instead takes on the "moral" job of saving the children's souls from Jessel and Quint. In the course of trying to shield them, however, she makes Flora so mad, the girl goes to live with her disinterested uncle. In trying to protect Miles from Peter Quint (who appears to be standing outside the window, which wouldn't be all that scary, except that it's on the second floor), something happens to the child and he dies. Eventually the governess dies, and this account of the story comes down to the narrator in all its creepy sophistication.
Here are some questions about it for us to ponder right here, in lieu of class, and these are questions that have kept James scholars busy for generations, so don't be too glib with your answers.
First, where do we locate the real evil in this story? Is it in Flora and Miles, the ghosts, the governess? The answer to this question hinges on what we believe about the efforts to corrupt, or protect, the children, and on the answer to another big question . . .
. . . Is the governess a reliable narrator? If we take her at face value, she is protecting two innocent children from soul-stealing ghosts. If we start to question her motives, or her sanity (after all, she's the one who admits to seeing Peter Quint and Miss Jessel), then a new picture can emerge. She could also be the credulous dupe of Mrs. Grose, who might have some supernatural axe to grind herself. It's all so COMPLICATED.
That, of course, leads us to wonder who is sane in this story, and who is delusional. Go ahead and wonder that in the comments box, but again, don't be too quick to make the call, and ALWAYS offer evidence from the story to back yourself up.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bierce the Jolly Rogue

If you read a literary biography of Ambrose Bierce, you might think that he was the finest fellow to ever grace the halls of American journalism. You would learn that he was a "proponent of civil rights and religious freedom," and that he wrote "many humorous stories." You would find out that his education came from his father's private library, and his moral philosophy from the First Congregational Church of Christ in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio.

And after you found all this stuff out, you would happily bootle off to read "Chickamauga" or "The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," or even The Devil's Dictionary, (which Bierce was forced to call The Cynic's Word-Book), expecting somebody like Mark Twain. The resulting experience can be compared to being attacked by a riding lawn mower driven by a rabid goat: maybe the wounds will heal, but the humiliation will leave scars.

Ambrose Bierce was the tenth of thirteen Bierce children, all of whom had names beginning with the letter "A." By the time they got to him, Ambrose's parents discovered all the good names had been taken, and that probably tells you everything you need to know about them. They practiced a particularly hellfire form of religion and lived for a while in a religious commune. Ambrose's cynicism developed early, despite attempts on the part of charitable religious types to beat it out of him. (Apparently no one knew yet that cynicism is like meringue -- it gets tougher the more you beat it.)

As soon as he could, he left home and went to work as a gofer in a print shop, a trajectory not unlike Ben Franklin's. Like Franklin, Bierce worked his way up through diverse channels to official journalist, but unlike the optimistic and friendly Ben, he spent the rest of his life picking fights, making friends and just as quickly making them furious, and generally being a social misfit. He even managed to seriously annoy the usually gracious and forgiving W.D. Howells.

Bierce's fiction, particularly his Civil War fiction, is the literary equivalent of a blunt instrument. His criticism is like a scalpel, (wielded by an enraged bull with a toothache and a hangover). He spent the later years of his life as a newspaper editor, whose editorials attacked the usual targets -- politicians, clergymen, local governments -- but also anybody else who stuck their heads up above his horizon -- women, children, other writers (particularly poets), and, weirdly, anarchists.
The trouble with being a pit bull in a suit is that your incessant barking stops having an effect after a while. Attacking people occasionally gives you a reputation for intellectual honesty. Attacking everybody, all the time, just makes you a nuisance. By the second decade of the 20th Century, Bierce's contentiousness had cost him his marriage, his relationships with his children, his relationships with other writers, and a chunk of his reputation as a journalist. In addition, two of his children had died (does this sound familiar?), and he began to hear that small voice of regret in the back of his brain.
In 1913 he decided to go to Mexico, possibly to report on the massive civil unrest there. His last letter, dated December 26, 1913, indicates that he's on his way into the Sonoran Desert with Pancho Villa, of all people, and that is absolutely the last anyone ever hears from him. Oh, people looked, because he was a public figure, and it's not polite to just let those disappear without a trace, but they never found, well, a trace. He wandered off into Mexico and vanished completely. His presumed date of death is sometime early in 1914, but nobody really knows.
Why are we bothering about him now, almost 100 years later? Because Bierce gave voice to a sentiment that will increase to a crescendo after WWI -- the happy ending of fiction is fiction; real life is brutal and likely to remain that way until it ends. The optimism that characterized Emerson has faded faster than a Bierce friendship, in the face of stunning economic, educational, and employment inequalities. It will be a while (think 50 years) before a light begins to glimmer, and even then, we will not regain those lofty Transcendental heights, where the world was beautiful and everyone was good.