13 March 2018
Amuro, Book Review, Char, Comics, Federation, Fraw, Giant Robots Fighting, graphic novel, Guest Author, Gundam, Interview, Joshua Jammer Smith, Kunio-Awara, Leopardon, Manga, Michael Greenhale, Mirai, Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, O'Neil Cylinder, Sayla, science fiction, terraforming, The Comics Classroom, women in comics, Women in Manga, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Zeon
I’m the sort of person who, when asked if I would like to participate in a back-and-forth text-based dialogue dedicated to intellectualizing and examining a genre-defining manga with a former college classmate my immediate response is: Hell fuckin’ yeah that sounds fucking amazing. I’m fortunate enough to have friends who suggest such amazing enterprises, and so when my friend Michael Greenhale saw through my regular GoodReads-Facebook posts that I was reading the first volume of Mobile Suit Gundam The Origin, he proposed this dialogue in what I assume was a melodic tone. I’m honestly not much of a fan of the Manga genre of comics (it’s the uniformity of the artwork that nerves on me), but at the same time I try open myself to new ideas and new art-forms,and so this back-and-forth exchange seemed a chance to open my doors to Manga once more.
I asked Michael if he would mind if I published our exchange here on White Tower Musings and he magnanimously said yes. Michael began by asking me to compose five questions about the series Mobile Suit Gundam, and these questions were designed to get the conversation going about the series, as well as to determine “where I was” in terms of my knowledge of the series and the genre. He answered each of these questions, demonstrating his capacity to reveal intellectual insight into almost anything, and also making me realize I should have added a few more three-syllabic words in my questions. What follows then is the first half of our exchange of Volume 1. Please enjoy, and please also forgive my woefully pathetic responses. Michael’s the true genius here and it should probably become apparent.
Also before my reader objects, yes I’m publishing my correspondence as content here. The end of the letter-based, paper-based communication strategies has created a desert for future historians to understand how people communicated and so I’m doing my part for the future scholars. What are you doing with your Instagraming and Face-timing? Huh? Answer me that.
1. It seems that the story largely follows the struggle of a “post-Earth” society warring mostly through animatronic suits. A kinda of uber-Iron-Man mechanization. Why is the size of these suits so significant? Or put it another way, why does the technology have to increase the body so that it becomes greater.
ANSWER: I think one of the neat things within the Gundam UC (Universal Century) setting is that while, yes there are mobile suits such as Gundams and Guntanks and similar tools, there are also what could be classified as ‘conventional’ space-ships. There are also the units such as the RB-Ball unit ships, right? These things are big spheres with arms and thrusters, they look like something more closely related to what you might see in today’s space construction operations. I think part of the idea within the setting is that war has different tools for different jobs, although the book we’re talking about, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin #1 obviously has the highlight be, surprise (!), the Gundam unit. Still, there is obviously a tremendous amount of ship-to-ship combat, along with conventional land-based vehicles being used against mobile units, etc…
So, I’ll mention something about the ‘size’ issue in a meta and then a non-meta manner. In terms of the nature of the story, back when this series was first made in the 70s, manga robot stories were inspired by, I am dead serious, Marvel comics. There was a Spider-Man giant robot called Leopardon that aired in 1978/79. Gundam came about in 79/80, so some of the convention about the issue of size, I think, was that Tomino and Yatate wanted to capitalize on something fun. I mean, look, there are things you do because they ‘make sense,’ and there are things you do to make a story interesting. Aserious story with space colonies and war will sell better and be more interesting to watch if, hey, they have giant robots. Gundam was an anime first and a manga second, so the initial idea always revolved around making something that young kids and teens would want to watch.
Gundam: The Origin is a very beautiful kind of ‘HD Remix’ of the original Gundam story from the 70s. While there are a lot of superficial changes, the idea is still the same and the plot is ‘the same, but expanded,’ if that makes sense? Think of it as the Deluxe Game of the Year Edition, with all the narrative DLC packs installed so you get the Char Backstory DLC, the Zeon/Federation Lore DCL, etc… So, in a ‘meta’ sense, there are these things called Minovsky Particles which are mentioned but not explained thoroughly until later in the manga. They’re sort of an answer to the idea that, if you’re in space, why would you want to let yourself be targeted by long range missiles or lasers? Minovsky Particles jam radar and disable ‘lock on’ technology. The meta answer to why these things exist is because Tomino said there’d be no reason for giant robots to exist if there could be long range weapons that worked all the time. Mobile suits, in a ‘meta’sense, exist to fill a combat role where there is 1) no ability to have tracking weapons that are reliable and 2) where you’re dealing with vehicles that need to transition from a zero-g to gravity impacted environment. The design being based around a human, I believe, helps facilitate a ‘human’ flow to combat between mechs. You need a multi-terrain capable weapon delivery system that can, feasibly, traverse artificial mountains or barriers, go inside and outside ships and colonies, and also be suitable to repair and salvage operations. The issue of size is more that, to accommodate the supposedly ‘large’ power cores these things carry, they’re around as big as a modern tank in terms of mass, but they walk upright to accommodate the mobility that bipedal legs affords.
2. The art seems to balance between a kinda of realism and cartoony elements. Is this just because of the manga elements?
ANSWER: I am not sure what you might mean by ‘cartoony,’ exactly, but I’ll pick two examples of what I believe purpose is. There are instances where, say, characters make exaggerated faces or sort of ‘devolve’ into more comical moments. Fraw has some of these early on, as does Bright. One thing to keep in mind is that Gundam The Origin isstill an adaption of the original Gundam story which was a 1970s genre anime. Tomino was very sure that kids were his target audience, but that didn’t mean he was going to ignore older audiences. There are a pack of kid characters in the anime who are extremely, uh, ‘cartoonish,’ but that is also because young kids were watching. The idea of exaggerated faces is a holdover from early animation anime needing to produce lots of results on short budgets and limited time, this it was just easier to show characters with stylized, exaggerated expressions and faces so audiences could know ‘oh, ok, that character is happy’ or ‘that character is being comical.’
I also think that life can be a mixture of things which are both lighthearted and serious, so the narrative’s ability to keep the levity that some characters bring to the story, like Bright’s attitude sort of showing he’s a young officer not suited to the situation he is put into, contrasts with the ‘real life’ nature of what, I argue, makes Gundam an enduring story.
3. The character Char is a bit of an oddity and I worry he fits the cliché model of a manga villain. He sees traditionally handsome in a European sense, and he often acts aloof, hidden by a face mark thus allowing a mystery element to him. Is his introduction a satisfactory opening, or does it reek of the traditional manga narrative model?
ANSWER: I think answering this brings up another issue where, in a way, the 1970s story needs to be commented on. Back when Gundam was a TV series, and this was before I believe many of the more conventional anime trends had cooled into ‘genre habits,’ you could think of Char as one of the first prototype ‘handsome villains.’ I am loath to call Char a ‘villain’ since he is as much the heart of the Gundam story as Amuro, but I get why he’d be called such since he antagonizes White Base and the Gundam for a large part of the first manga volume. In a sense, the clichés you might be concerned about are more than likely due to other villains over the decades copying trends set by Charhimself. I am only going to keep things to the first volume since that’s the story we’re talking about, but the idea of a masked enemy character is not really an oddity, I’d think, it’s just a style. A cliché might be what a masked villain would tend to do, and those things are not what Char really does. Consider his actions throughout the manga, for example and consider who and what he is.
Char’s a young character surrounded by grizzled, older war vets or those younger than himself. His superiors like Dozle are part of an upper-crust society, and there are also side figures like Gadem (blink and you’ll miss him, that’s how unimportant he is). Most of the top Zeon fighters who appear later are two Char’s age, so he’s a character who is meant to be more relatable to young boys and girls. He is threatening to Amuro since he is older and more experienced, yet he is young enough to not be leading the Zeon in battle. His looks also sort of serve as an aesthetic thing, right? Who is more likely to be ‘BAAAAAD,’ a scared up, scowl-faced dude with a cape, or Char? I think his looks are meant to make you wonder why somebody handsome and charismatic would beworking with Zeon. Sure, there are a few other characters on the Zeon side who are attractive and young (one in particular is important because is Char’s age), but again: Char is young and his ‘non-grizzled’ appearance in contrast to virtually EVERY other Zeon character makes you at least say ‘hey, what’s his deal?’ I would argue he is the actual star of Gundam Origin because, compared to Amuro anyway, he has a far more interesting history and ‘story.’
I would also put forth that Char sets a lot of bars which many anime villains, and even Western ones, don’t follow. Char is formidable, but he isn’t stupid. He knows when to fight and when to leave. I won’t spoil anything, but keeping just with his actions in Vol. 1, he is certainly less interested in ‘defeating his enemy, Amuro,’ than he is doing to his job. He has a lot of missions to complete and he is actually less concerned with revenge as he is either doing his duty or winning in the way that is most efficient.
As for the mask, he removed it quickly enough, so you know there are other reasons perhaps for wearing it. I know what they are and readers who stick with the story will learn in time, but I think his removal of the mask in Vol. 1 when confronted is sort of proof that he isn’t above taking it off and showing his face. I think that is more interesting than, say, him never removing it at all. If he is using the mask as an aesthetic, does it play into the fact that he is a young up-and-comer in the Zeon ranks and is being flashy? Is it misdirection?
I think Char is great because he doesn’t twirl a mustache or brood. He has arrogance and he is prone to playing with his enemies, but he also actually tends to be the best combatant in all confrontations he engages in so … there is a lot of ‘proof’ in this villainous pudding. He laughs, he gets annoyed, he worries, he thinks his way out of bad situations and he acts very human. I don’t think enough manga or anime villains act like Char, and what tends to get copied is the aesthetic alone, the idea of custom weapons or uniforms or masks being enough to make a villain effective. Char is actually a rare kind of character.
4. The notion of terraforming and “off-world” living is a common sci-fi thread, however Mobile Suit Gundam is rather fascinating for the way it presents the terraforming very much in a domestic fashion. The story emphasizes the fact that human are terraforming, rather than trying to explain how the technology works. Does this make it a successful Sci-fi manga or does this actually work against the plot?
ANSWER: I was VERY fortunate to have gotten to hear Tomino speak at the University of Houston back in the mid 2000s, around 2005 when I worked for ADV Films. One of the questions he was asked was what inspired him, and he said NASA and the state of modern technology was deeply ingrained in him and his work. He presents space stations that are using what is called an O’Neil Cylinder design, and (if we assume time is based on the Gundam universe advancing from when Tomino plotted the universe) the date is (in our terms) 2158 AD. In a sense, Tomino wrote a universe that was 179 years in the future back in 1978/1979. He was trying to think of how far we’d come, but that out advances would still be limited to conventional issues relating to things like a Lagrane Point, etc… Nothing in Gundam is actually unfeasible, save for the power units of Gundams and mobile suits which are nuclear, and the Minvosky particles themselves. Much of the technology in Gundam doesn’t have to be explained because it’s based on conventional theories that have already been established to work, we’d just need time to get things together. So, the story says ‘shoot, let’s just skip ahead a few decades and say this stuff works so the REAL story can get going.’ I think it is no different than the way the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series worked, for example.
5. The women in the story are very different, creating a split personality almost. One the one side there is the blonde bombshell who is a clean-cut stoic military figure, while on the other there is a ditzy brunette. Do these women seem to have a personality, or do they just follow the more traditional manga gender constructions?
ANSWER: I think limiting the dynamic to just Sayla and Fraw does a disservice to Mirai, who sort of helps set up a good ‘three part’ model of female heroism alongside the male trinity which would be Amuro, Noa and Char. Sayla and Char are older, more confident characters because they’re in that age range where they’re experienced enough to take command and be confident, yet still young enough to not be ‘unrelatable’ to the target reading audience. Sayla, a medic, speaks her mind the same way Fraw does, but she also isn’t a teen. Fraw’s emotional responses to Amuro’s attitude or the horrors of war seem fitting when you consider her age. Sayla, obviously, as a medic, would have seen some STUFF so it would be weird to have her and Fraw behave in the same way. Saya is supposed to be 17 while Fraw is 14 or 15.
You then have Mirai, a confident younger woman who would be a few years older than Fraw and is also older than Sayla. I think she is 18 or 19, thereabouts. She is a character who is as professional as Sayla, but more well suited to the military. She is less open than Sayla or Fraw, but she is also a foil for Noa, who is her parallel. They’re the same age, but she is more assured and emotionally stable than him.
All three women have enough personality that we can tell who they are by their actions. Fraw is a kid who frets and fusses over her friend’s attitude, but who also cries and laughs and acts like a very young teen. Sayla is a more confident character who totallypulls a gun on Char and who slaps ignorant dudes. Full stop. Sayla is awesome, but that isn’t to say she is ‘better’ than Fraw or Mirai. Mirao and Sayla both pick up the slack on White Base and hold their own while poor Bright is just trying to keep his head on. I pity Bright, but he also grows into a great character on his own because he has very confident women civilians serving on White Base to make the whole operation function.
If we consider what other kinds of female anime clichés were being cultivated in the 70s, Tomino could be said to have been pioneering a class of very strong female characters who were also human. Believe me, Sayla isn’t all guns and bad-assitude, she has her own share of emotional issues, but it isn’t without logic. Mirai, for example is uniquely meant to come from a Japanese family, while characters like Sayla and Fraw are not, thus their attitudes and mannerisms are different.
Michael Hale is currently a PhD Candidate for the University of Texas at Arlington. He publishes for Comicosity through the Comics Classroom column series.
If you would like to read more work by Michael, and I most certainly recomend you do, you can find many of his essays by following the link below:
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
What do you mean, who am I? I write, run, and operate this shitty blog all the time. Jeez thanks for noticing…and thanks for not coming to my birthday party. Jerks!
[Author leaves in a huff slamming the door behind him]
"I am no Man!", Betty Friedan, Butch, Butch Lesbian, Dyke, Eowyn, fantasy, Female Masculinity, Feminism, Gal Gadot, gender, Gender Inversion, Good vs Evil, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jack Halberstam, Literature, Miranda Otto, Novel, Queer, Queer Theory, Return of the King, Stephen King of the Lesbians made an appearance in this essay, The Feminine Mystique, The Lord of the Rings, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Witch King of Angmar, Women in drag, Women in Tolkien, Womyn
Don’t tell me not to live
Just sit and putter
Life’s candy and the sun’s
A ball of butter
Don’t bring around a cloud
To rain on my parade.
Don’t tell me not to fly
I’ve simply got to
—Don’t Rain on My Parade, Barbara Steisand
Don’t tell me how to live my life, I am a headstrong, independent, wo-man!
—The writer’s wife
With the exception of M. Knight Shamylan’s The Village, watching films with my mother is a pleasant experience. This is due in large part to the fact that she, like myself, can become passionate while watching a film and is prone to speak up while watching a movie. I can always tell when Mom is enjoying herself because she will often begin to rant about “[X] shouldn’t be doing that because she doesn’t realize that [Y] is a catch,” or perhaps it might go, “Boy [Z] is going to be mad when he finds out [C] is a bitch.” These moments and statements are usually built upon by my little sister and I eventually have to pause the movie so that the symposium can continue. Still, these moments are fantastic and remind me how much I love my family and all its oddity.
To this day however The Lord of the Rings films hold a special place in my heart, largely because they shaped my perception of reality for close to six years, but also because Mom would always cheer when Eowyn killed the Witch King of Angmar with what is to this day oneof the finest executed lines in cinema history. The reason is largely because of the line in question:
Witch King: [taking Eowyn by the throat] You fool. No man can kill me. Die now.
[Merry stabs the Witch King from behind; the Witch King shrieks and falls to his knees. Eowyn rises and pulls off her helm, her hair falls down over her shoulder]
Eowyn: I am no man.
[she thrusts her sword into the Witch King’s helm and twists; he shrieks and implodes]
Mom would usually yell out, “YES!” and punch the air as the Witch King would crumple and implode into nothing and I would always laugh. This laughter would usually hide the fact that I was right alongside Mom on this one, Eowyn was a badass and didn’t take any shit from anybody.
This scene also, for the record, remained the moment of pure female badassery until Gal Gadot stepped into our lives and became goddess supreme as Wonder Woman.
Having finished The Return of the King for the first time in my life, and possibly the last time unless I need something to do during retirement besides count my money and regrets, I realized that there was no other character or element in Book 5 of the Lord of the Rings that I wanted to write about more. The reason for this is probably apparent to any regular reader of this blog: Eowyn is obviously a pre-op transexual using Post-Modern Anti-Patriarchal Drag Performance to disestablish the cultural construction of gender of Rohan society in order to establish a working PostModern, Post-Marxist, Post-Deconstructionist Model of Masculine Femininity.
That was a joke, even I’m not that pretentious.
However, Eowyn is a woman wearing drag in order to find some sort of agency in a culture and society that is relentlessly patriarchal and seeks to keep her confined in the home. So, I’m afraid there is something terribly queer, and terribly feminist in her decision to dress up as a man. Or at least it seems so.
Eowyn is a woman who is a sort of “lady of court,” a female individual who is responsible for numerous social tasks around the castle, namely making sure that food is ready, that the fires are lit, that there is ale or drink should anyone require it, and to make sure that the beds of the great halls are clean and ready for the men when they return from their fighting or outings. It is the stuff of feminist nightmares, but again, because Tolkien was often writing from direct inspiration from works like Beowulf this responsibility and social role is not outside the source material, or source inspiration I should say. Now as for Tolkien himself there is some issue with calling the “old Professor” a feminist by any means. Having grown up during the early decade of the 20th century, and having fought in the first World War it’s difficult to say whether the man harbored what would be considered a more progressive view of women, or whether he bought into the ideaof patriarchal masculinity. It’s almost certainly the latter case, but without having read more about the man personally I can’t say. Whatever the case the women in The Lord of the Rings rarely assume any sort of personality, and while Lady Galadriel assumes a pressing spiritual importance to the over-all plot, Tolkien’s work tends to reinforce traditional gender types rather than etching out new territory to work with. I’m not in the interest of defending patriarchy, and I much prefer the fun-bits that involve queering shit up. Therefore Tolkien’s feminism, or lack of feminism really, seems to become apparent in the character of Eowyn because her motivations and actions reek of a desire for real agency.
Early in the Return of the King Aragorn is speaking with Eowyn about the attack, and her role in the larger logistical structure. Eowyn begins to express her dictate for her role and the pair have a brief exchange:
‘Your duty is with your people,” he answered.
‘Too Often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But I am not of the House of Eorl, a sheildmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’
‘Few may have that honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until the lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.’
‘Shall I always be chosen?’ she said bitterly. ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?’
‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘when none will return. There there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deed that are done in the last defense of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are upraised.’
And she answered: ‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Earl and not a serving woman. I can ride and weld blade, and do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ He asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’ (767).
There is without doubt a feminist message and conviction in this passage, but before I get to it I feel the overwhelming need to nod gently to myself and sigh, for it feels, as of this writing, that I feel more and more like I am caught in a similar position. There is this compulsion towards the desire for something, even if I am not sure what that something actually is. In all likelihood this sensation, the “burning desire” as Bono once so beautifully put it, is just part of getting older and feeling that life might still “owe” me something for my efforts.
But my own wandering aside, the previous quote is really the key to Eowyn’s character, while at the same time part of the larger problem. Eowyn as a woman cannot expectanything in terms of real agency because the society of Rohan is very much medieval England. Women are expected to be romantically and sexually focused on their husbands, while also managing the day-to-day upkeeps demands of the home. This is to say nothing of their own desires and needs. It is a world where men go out and fight, often dying and leaving women to manage the home, the children, the farm, before dying themselves without having lived a life of their own volition.
And considering this, and because I am the kind of nerd who likes to find connections between things, reading this passage I was reminded of a book that I have not actually read to it’s completion, but it is a book I know by reputation. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is a book that is considered a landmark feminist text, if not an outright cultural event in Western Society. And before my reader begins to complain I should cite the passage:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of twentieth century in the United Started. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” (1).
Now of course I anticipate the reaction: Rohan women are not American women. That’s a stupid argument. Period.
This is a fair rebuttal, though the punctuation at the end of the sentence really makes the “Period” comment rather unnecessary. Still this is a fair consideration, and as I wasdoing some initial research for this essay, and talking to friends who I consider Tolkien resources, the general summation was usually the same. Tolkien as an author really isn’t a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s fair to say, Tolkien really doesn’t have much use for women in his books. What women exist tend to be sidelined characters who are either part of the “Deep-Time” aesthetic, or else they tend to be marriage fodder: women who exist solely to be married to the protagonists. Whether it’s Rosie Cotton, who wore ribbons in her hair, Lady Galadriel, who gave three of her hairs to Gimili, or Arwen, who oddly enough has no real description of hair so she could be bald for all we know, these women are not really there at all.
Eowyn assumes a character in the story, and this passage is, to note, the most substantial voice a woman has in the plot of the novels. Her struggle is not solely that she is threatened by Sauron, Saruman, and the endless legion of orcs that want to destroy her and Middle Earth. Eowyn is a woman fighting both the enemy, as well as the paradigms of her own culture. And so faced with a life of servitude she knows she cannot live, she performs an act of rebuttal and disguises herself as a man to fight in the great battle of Pelennor.
And, to the woman’s credit, she kicks ass. It’s not enough that she fights with honor alongside the Muster of the Rohirrim. Eowyn fights the Witch King of Angmar, the greatest of the Nazgul and the virtual leader of both Sauron’s black army, as well as the souls monsters that hunt the ring with unwavering obsession. After the creature hasmore-or-less dispatched King Theoden Eowyn stands between the Witch King, his literally flying bat-dragon-monster, and threatens to kill him if he should touch Theoden, offering up the line that made both me, and my mother, fist-bump.
‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. (823).
Some scholars, notably Michael Drout, observe that this subversion of the Witch King’s threat of “No man can kill me” is reminiscent of the prophecy in William Shakespeare’s MacBeth when the Wyrd Sisters warn the ruined king to “Beware the man not born of woman.” And as much as I would love to say Tolkien was attempting to go another path, it feels far more likely that Tolkien was ripping off the bard rather than future secondwave feminists.
Eowyn’s defiance however does seem to fall in line with my previous argument about Tolkien’s system of Good and Evil. The Witch King doesn’t laugh or threaten Eowyn after her defiance. It pauses. The silence following this declaration reveals not just doubt on this creatures part, but a continuation of the idea that evil in the Tolkien universe is not about personal identity issues, it’s defined by a real absence of essence. The Witch King is nothing, whereas Eowyn is a woman who has created a new persona to be who she wants to be.
There is some desire on my part to argue that this constitutes a feminist argument for the Lord of the Rings as a text, but the problem with this argument is that the text immediately negates my argument. Eowyn fights the Witch King and defeats him, but only with the help of Meriadoc (a man) and afterwards becomes ill and must be tended to before she falls in love with Faramir the son of the Stewart of Gondor. Rather than return to her home land a warrior, Eowyn falls in love with Faramir and the two wed retiring to the Ithelian where she becomes a wife and mother. This isn’t just a negation of the dreams and ambitions she has been speaking about throughout her entire character arc, it’s almost a violent jerk back into the home she spent so much time complaining about.
And here of course I have to dig into my bag of queer tricks because, well dear reader, it’s me.
It’s difficult calling Eowyn’s action of dressing in drag a queer act because there’s nothing really sexual about it. There is also little real gender reconstruction or re-imagination about it. Eowyn is donning a man’s clothes, not because she wants to be a man, not because she doesn’t identify with the gender that was assigned her at birth, not because she desires to recreate the gender modes and roles of her culture and society, not because she wants to sleep with women, and absolutely not because the pant sizes areeasier.
If my male reader didn’t understand that last one ask any woman anywhere and they’ll explain.
Dressing in men’s clothes isn’t a queer act in any real sense of the term. It’s merely a means to an end, and Eowyn is not the first woman in literature to don men’s clothes for the sake of plot. William Shakespeare regularly relied on such a trick in such works as As You Like it or Twelfth Night. The transvestite is a character that actually is pretty recurring throughout most of the tradition of Western Literature and Tolkien’s use of it here seems to follow a pattern. A woman is allowed to dress like a man, but only, and I mean only when there is an understanding that she will return to her place in society. If she does not then she is a female hermaphrodite, a dangerous creature.
As Jack Halberstam notes in Female Masculinity:
The female Hermaphrodite was considered a freak of nature with an enlarged clitoris who desired to penetrate other women who might be drawn to her ambiguity. (55).
What’s worse than a woman wearing pants? A woman who might have a penis. And if a woman has a penis then she’s some sort of inverted, or deviant man. And that, dear reader, would be really, really gay.
After considering all of this I don’t believe then that Eowyn’s character arc has any real element of feminism to it.
But then again I am not a woman, and sometimes it’s best to actually consult a woman. Being married to one allows me then another side of things, and when I asked my wife about Eowyn’s arc she said simply, “As long as it is her choice to become a wife and mother, then that is feminism.”
Tolkien does make any of this easy, because as I’ve noted over and over and over again (to the point my reader has probably bailed and is now perusing an instagram account run by a very, very handsome chimpanzee named Bert) his women are not really women at all. They’re these atmosphere pieces that exist largely to inform either the deep time or else a man’s character arc. But Eowyn does offer the reader a real character. She’s a real woman with desires, faults, ambitions, eccentricities and so she is able to assume some kind of real arc. Tolkien may, by the end of the book, throw her back into the home and the hall where she’ll cook and tend to her husband and family, but if this act is her choice then who am I to argue against it? And even if she never again achieves such a courageous act as facing down the Witch King, at least that moment exists.
Eowyn is difficult, but that’s what makes writing about her so fun. I have no idea if I was able to really unearth any sort of queer or feminist qualities to The Lord of the Rings, but I can rest assured that my mother and I will continue to fist-bump every-time Eowyn takes off her helmet and plunges her sword into the black abyss of the Witch King’s face.
All quotes cited from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were taken from the Mariner paperback edition. All quotes cited from The Return of the King film were taken from IMDb. All quotes cited from Female Masculinity were taken from the paperback Duke University Press edition.
It should be noted that the only reason I stated that my mother is not fun to watch The Village with is sort of an inside joke. I could tell you what happened but then it wouldn’t be an inside joke and she already hates it when I divulge personal or embarrassing information about her. I know as a son I’m supposed to do that anyway, but my mom was actually, and still is actually, a pretty cool individual and so I would prefer not to embarrass her more than I already have. Love you Mom.
I’m a man writing about feminism. This isn’t a problem, but it is. Because I do not possess a vagina, and the unending wisdom of all creation that comes with having one it’s important to question my arguments and, far more importantly, listen to the arguments of people who have vaginas when they comment or argue about characters that have vaginas. As such, I’ve compiled a small list of articles where some writers have discussed the films and books of The Lord of the rIngs, specifically Eowyn and her presentation. Enjoy:
Because I love you all, please enjoy this animated adaptation of Eowyn confronting what I can only figure is The Witch King of Ang-mar if he was cross breeded with Skeletor. Enjoy:
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I’ll never forget the wall of vibrators. When facing a wall of pink and purple and black fake rubber cocks one has either to erase the experience from one’s mind, or else one has to realize you’ve pushed yourself past the point of no return and now you’re actually considering purchasing a vibrator or a dildo. I have my wife to thank for this experience however, since she was the person who took me to my first sex-shop.
Open Minds is a store that is labeled “Tyler’s Best Kept Secret,” a nickname that reveals the fundamentalist mentality of the town, not to mention the two-faced nature of my hometown. People like to fuck and masturbate but nobody likes to admit to it. Having grown up in Tyler my whole life I was shocked when my wife, then girlfriend, informed me that there was a “sex-shop” in town. Painful as it is to admit I was still virginial in my world-view, and believed sex-shops were something one only found or experienced in major urban cities like New York or Amsterdam. Sex-shops were gross, creepy places manned by sexual deviants who peddled blow-up dolls and leather gear for serial killers, or at least that’s what television and Sunday-school had taught me. That’s hyperbole obviously, but the sentiment is still true. Tyler was a sex-starved city and the thought that there might actually be a store where one could buy sex-toys and pornography was shocking, and slightly unbelievable. Nevertheless my wife insisted and, curious to see it for myself, she and her roommate took me to Open Minds and altered my world forever.
I found, after walking into the place, that the store was actually non-threatening. Yes there were dildos everywhere, but they were sold as aids for personal pleasure. There were shelves of “flavored” lube which could be opened and “sampled” without fear of catching STIs. The staff, who were eccentric in their personality but queerly normal at the same time, were happy to show us products, put batteries in the vibrators to give us demonstrations of the “levels,” and even offered us personal opinions about the varieties of lubes on display. I left the store feeling comfortable, satisfied, and most importantly, with a feeling that I had done something both for my relationship with my wife and for myself.
Ever since then sexuality is something I approach, not as a taboo, but just something people do, and I guess that’s what led me to Buzz.
Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy by Hallie Lieberman was a book I discovered on Amazon during one of my endless searches for new materials about human sexuality. I’d love to be able to say I discovered the book at my local Barnes & Noble or the PeaPicker, but alas, as I noted before, Tyler is not really “that” kind of town. I can’t remember what I was searching for, but for whatever reasons the word vibrator or dildo was in the search bar and Buzz was the first book to appear. The cover struck me immediately. A labia-pink parenthesis held the the vertical title which hovered below another pink asterisk which was an obviously play on the lay-out of the vulva.
Any book which was willing to use punctuation to create yonic imagery (stuff that looks like vaginas) is a must own and so I hit “add to cart” immediately.
Reading Buzz I recognize that I went into the experience with a bit of bias. I am a feminist, and I am a philosophical defender of the practice of masturbation. Anyone who would argue against the physical merits of self-love are either asinine zealots or just people who just hate their body. Obviously I’m biased in this matter, some might argue because I’m a man and therefore my masturbation is far more obvious and less complicated, but in my time I’ve observed that the paranoia which surrounds masturbation is just something of a fallacy. The idea that masturbation could lead to anything other than personal satisfaction is just ludicrous, and Lieberman’s book tries to ultimately follow the same point.
One of the earliest and most potent examples involves a woman who was arrested simply for selling sex-toys:
After I’d returned home later that night, I looked up the story my mentor had told me. I learned that the arrested woman had not been some left-wing free speech advocate but a forty-three-year-old churchgoing Republican mother of three named Joanne Webb. Local police had responded to rumors that Webb was selling sex toys by setting up a sting operation. Two officers posing as a couple went to Webb’s husband’s construction business where she worked the front desk and asked to buy some sex-toys. […]
For her violation of Texas’s anti-sex-toy laws, Webb faced a possible year in prison and up to $4,000 in fines, all for selling a couple of vibrators. Passion Parties started a Joanne Webb Defense fund and raised more than $10,000 for her legal team. Webb’s charges were eventually dropped, but not before she spent thousands on legal fees. And, perhaps even worse, Webb was shunned in the community. (6-7).
This story for me personally is one of the many instances in which I have to shake my head and shudder and remind myself that as much as I love my home state of Texas, there are times that I just shudder from the level of stupidity. What’s important about this passage however is not just that the incident took place, but that the actual arrest took place in 2004. It’s easy to forget or believe that society is at a point in time where someone selling vibrators or dildos would be free to do so without legal recourse, but a book like Buzz reminds the reader that that mental acclimation is due largely the hard labor, and often pain, of a number of individuals who turned the sex-toy industry into the common-place staple that it is today.
Buzz is not a book simply about the way that dildos and vibrators have been made or used over time. In fact the book is largely an exploration of the sex-toy industry during the 20th century, the economics of the industry which often was a turbulent non-stop legal battle, and ultimately how vibrators crafted a difficult feminist philosophy that often reverted back to the same question: are vibrators a replacement for men?
When it came to vibrators, there was some reason for men to be concerned. Their fear was nor completely unfounded. As one customer wrote to Eve’s Garden, “P.S. My lover is afraid a vibrator will replace him—he may be right!”
Did vibrators cause women to end their marriages? At least one letter to Dell Williams points to yes. Can the vibrator be solely to blame? Probably not. As Louis C.K. says, “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.” But vibrators may have offered the push to get women to open their eyes to another world of sexual possibility. Vibrators did change women’s lives for a very simple reason: they gave women the first orgasm of their lives. These weren’t teenagers either; they were women in their thirties and forties. A first orgasm is memorable at any age, but to have one after years of sexual relationships is even more profound. These women began to question why, after decades in a relationship, they had never felt sexual satisfaction. And they began to wonder what else their lives had been lacking, which led them to question the gender roles that had defined their lives. (182).
A piece of phallic shaped silicon with a little motor embedded inside could help an individual person reevaluate their entire life. It almost sounds ridiculous were it not for the fact that there are mountains of testimony to the contrary.
This passage is significant to the reader however, because it is a point that is repeated several times throughout Buzz, and Lieberman’s intentionally repeating this point for effect. The ongoing charge against sex-toys, specifically vibrators, is that they divorce people from real sexuality, and instead promote an artificial sexual reality where people can just pursue pleasure rather than form lasting relationships. Most of this criticism is founded in patriarchal and religious speakers who see masturbation in women as a distraction from women’s “traditional role” as mothers, baby-makers, and wives. The vibrator is a real feminist challenge to this position because if a woman discovers that sexual satisfaction can be found by simply masturbating, rather than sexual intercourse with another man, she may not be so inclined to settle down with a man who “might” give her an orgasm.
She might also consider lesbianism, but that’s for another essay.
And this is difficult for me because, while I am a feminist and I do believe women have every right to own and use vibrators without fear or guilt, as a man the vibrator honestly scares the shit out of me. The defining trait of masculinity is the ego; which is another way of saying men like to feel important and powerful. This ego is especially heightened when it comes to sexuality, as men are typically reared on action films like Commando,Predator, and The Expendables where powerful men solve problems through fighting, blowing shit up, and of course delivering women to outstanding orgasms.
The reality however is that most women fake orgasms (I know right, alert the media), and often it’s the case that vibrators are the only way they are able to get off. In my own marriage my wife and I have come to an happy understanding about our sexuality, but because I suffer from depression, and because I’m always denigrating myself emotionally and sexually the vibrator for me is often a problem. Why would a woman ever want to be with me sexually if she could just buy a vibrator? This is a question I’ve never found a satisfactory answer to, and whenever I ask my wife this question she usually tells me that I need to stop worrying and that she loves me. Because my brain is dysfunctional however, the paranoia still lingers.
The reader may question me then, why then would I take the time to read a book like Buzz? If vibrators leave you intimidated and worried about the sexual health of your relationship, why read an entire book about them? That just sounds like masochism.
To this I respond that, even if I do have my own hang-ups about vibrators I still am an ardent defender of masturbation as an act, and as a mode of personal discovery. The first time I ever masturbated the experience changed me forever, and I felt that my body was no longer what it was before. My first ejaculation was the moment in which I began to recognizethat I was a person with agency, and that my body could make me feel wonderful whenever I wanted it to. If I am allowed that privilege, so is anybody else, and no one should have to fight to masturbate.
Lieberman notes then that to the feminist movement, vibrators weren’t just a challenge to patriarchy, they were a philosophical weapon for personaland political liberation. A woman who used a vibrator, and had an orgasm for the first time in her life, discovered herself and discovered that she could be who and what she wanted to be. Once a woman was in control of her own body, she could then assume agency in other areas of life as well.
Lieberman observes this as she discusses the book Liberating Masturbation by Betty Dodson, an important and recurring woman through Buzz who began workshops for women where they could masturbate and discover themselves:
Liberating Masturbation was one of the first books about Masturbation ever to be written by a woman. Merely writing this book was a political act, but the message inside it was also explicitly political. Women should masturbate, Dodson argued because “sexuality and economics” are inextricably intertwined. “Ultimately [sexuality and economics] are not separable—not as long as the female genitals have economic value instead of sexual value for women. Saving sex for lover/husband was my gift to him in exchange for economic security—called “meaningful relationship” or”marriage,” she said. Women lost in this exchange because married sex was usually unsatisfying as it was routinely missionary style, and women rarely had orgasms. Many women were faking orgasms for financial stability. Basically, Dodson was reframing an older feminist argument that marriage was aform of prostitution. Although the kernel of the argument wasn’t new, the solution to the problem was: masturbation. (145).
Buzz is a book that really digs into the complicated past and philosophies that have governed the sales, ownership, and usage of sex-toys over the twentieth century, and the fact that as a society we’re still discussing them hints at their lasting potency. People have seen concrete realities in vibrators that range from the liberating to the depraved and each person has their own experience and personal story. For myself it was going to Open Minds with my wife and seeing that wall of pink plastic cocks and discovering that, rather than be intimidated or shocked, I found myself comfortable. And looking at the closing passage of Buzz, Liberman comes to more-or-less the same conclusion.
Sex toys can’t change the world on their own. But the people making them, selling them, using them, and talking about them can. At the end of the day, I realized my obsession with sex toys wasn’t just about the technology itself, but it was about the meaning of it. Sex toys can mean so many things to so many people, and not all of these things are good. They can be used to promote monogamy or polygamy,repressive gender roles or female independence. Sex toys can be used to help handicapped people have better lives and to help women have their first orgasms. To me, sex toys symbolize hope because what I see when I look at a sex toy is the people who I profiled in this book, the people who woke up one day and wanted to change the world. And they thought to themselves that a dildo was the way to do it. I am one of those people. And I am no longer embarrassed. (292).
It may seem to the reader a ridiculous belief to see something in vibrators anything other than sex. But to this point I would remind the reader that human beings, apart from our arrogance as a species, are defined by our imaginations and our will to create meaning. Whether it was lightning bolts or earthquakes, humans fashioned pantheons of gods to explain natural phenomena, out of the stars in the sky humans developed constellations and astrology, out of animals human beings made totems to explain personalities, and out of our sexualities humans have crafted stories, myths, statuary, art, and even sex toys. Human beings are a meaning-making species, and no level of our culture is immune from that.
Dildos and vibrators are part of the larger narrative of human sexuality, and while it may be an artificial sexuality, it’s just a sign of the changes taking place in our culture that have origins to our earliest biological origins. Lieberman notes from the start that animals have been found to use sex-toys, and some of the earliest human tools discovered were dildos and butt-plugs. Sexuality and procreation is at the core of every technological innovation and Lieberman is yet another in a long line of historians and writers taking note of how humans have used sexuality to explore and expand their economics and philosophy.
The vibrator in your girlfriend’s sock-drawer may seem intimidating at first, but take heart in the fact that its probably just a feminist tool to overthrow misogynist patriarchal orders reinforced by bad pulp-fiction erotic novels that reinforce negative stereotypes about female sexuality in the post-modern period. And, just for the record, it’s also there to give her an orgasm, so don’t take it too personally.
All quotes taken from Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy were cited from the Hardback, first-edition Pegasus Books edition.
I’ve found and provided links to several articles concerning the arrest and release of Joanna Webb. If the reader would be at all interested please feel free to follow the links below:
I’m a firm believer in supporting local business. The retail economic system is steadily imploding as giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are able to mass produce and outsell even massive chains like Walmart and SEARS. That’s why, if the reader is able to find the book at their local bookstore or library I would encourage them to read the book there. But if you can’t here’s a link straight to the book.
I recognize that I am not the ONLY source on the internet telling people to read books. I would to be able have that Monopoly because then it would give me more time to write, but alas I am not a solipsist and I recognize that multiple opinions are important. As such I’ve provided several links to articles about Buzz: A Stimulating History of the Sex Toy below. Please Enjoy:
"There's this old joke", A Brief History of Time, Albert Camus, Alvy Singer, Annie Hall, comedy, death, Diane Keaton, existentialism, Film, film review, Happy Birthday, Humor, If a woman is upset it's not because she's on her period it's because you're being a dick, Imaginary Time, Joshua Jammer Smith, Literature, Lobsters, Marshal McLuhan, Philosophy, Prime Numbers, reflection, romance, Romantic relationships, Science, Stephen Hawking, The Myth of Sisyphus, White Tower Musings, women wearing men's suits, Woody Allen, Writing
I’m told it’s best to start things off with a joke. But keep your eyes open for the one at the very end.
There’s this joke. A man works for five years writing for a blog, and after five years he remarks to himself, boy, this is really terrible. I spend hours and hours of my time and energy worrying and thinking about a bunch of writing that really hasn’t made any impact. I’ve also spent hundreds of hours that could have been spent on exercise, cooking, spending time with my wife, taking my pets for walks, masturbating,volunteering in my community, or learning a musical instrument to help me seem interesting. All in all there’s been a lot of time spent producing a handful of essays that, really, nobody seems to care about and haven’t brought me one real iota of long term happiness. To which the writer responded to this thought, “Yeah, and the worst part is there’s still so many damn essays I need to write.”
Well, that seems to be my lesson. Writing for five years, and publishing my work to little or no praise is miserable work, filled with nothing but suffering, misery, and agony, and it’s passed by far, far too quickly.
This is also, for the record, a cheap rip off of one of my favorite films Annie Hall, which also happens to have a character who happens to be a writer. His opening monologue is one which I have never forgotten, because it was one of those moments in life when one recognizes the voice that perfectly sums up what you believe and think perfectly:
Alvy Singer: [addressing the camera] There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.
I’m not being cute or coy or hipster when I say this opening left me forever altered. Much like when I first listened to Slipknot’s first album, watching Annie Hall and listening to Woody Allen’s monologue was like discovering a voice I had always been looking for. Although Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese were gods to me, Woody Allen came in and gave me an actual working model to move forward. Alvy Singer was the character I more or less was, not so much what I wanted to be, or at the very least he was a voice that I thought I could be in terms of my writing.
I’m a rather gloomy, depressive, self-depreciating, neurotic asshole, and here was a gloomy, depressive, self-depreciating neurotic asshole.
It may seem pathetic, but the earliest truth of writing was write what you know. I wasn’t a gangster like Joe Pesci or a nameless Samurai-blade wielding warrior named Beatrix Kiddo, I was a nervous and depressed moody teenager dealing with a lot of self-deprecation that would eventually become a staple character trait.
My writing really started to mimic Alvy Singer, and Woody Allen in general, and so the character and voice began to form. That was about 12 years ago, and after about a decade of writing, five of which took place on this blog here, I’m still amazed by that opening and in many ways still paying tribute to Woody Allen who started it off with a joke.
But five years is half a decade to get over this self-depreciation crap and so I’ve been forced to reconcile the fact that dumping on myself and my contributions to humanity are simply going to be part of my aesthetic. It drives my mother crazy, it makes my wife mad, and at least three of my friends are planning on ways to kick my ass if I continue to annoy them with my bemoaning. I’m working on improving this condition, but habit dies hard damn it, and the case for mental instability.
All this lead in has actually been for a purpose however, so I’m going to attempt something novel: I think I might have actually done something. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think I’ve done nothing with these essays. I’ve just done a little. I haven’t wasted my time, or my reader, with my work, and while it’s not a grand demonstration of self-worth, life has taught me in recent months that it is the small, little, everyday gestures that build up into the larger narratives.
And unlike Alvy, I’m going to try and join, and stay, in the happy club, because life is far far too short.
It wasn’t fun watching Annie Hall the first time. In fact it was physically painful. I was moaning through most of the film, wondering how much longer I actually would have in it. I remember my mother and little sister in the kitchen talking, possibly working on homework, while I labored through the film.
Every few seconds I would lift the remote and hit the “info” button which would spring the title, time, channel information, and various other options like setting up closed captions and recording it to a DVR we didn’t actually own at the time. It seemed like the seconds were literally infinite as Alvy whined about death or accused Annie’s emotional state to her menstrual cycle.
One such moment was an actual animated scene and provides such an brief snippet of Alvy’s sentiment:
[Alvy fantasizes being in love with the Wicked Queen from Snow White]
Wicked Queen: We never have any fun any more.
Alvy Singer: How can you say that?
Wicked Queen: Why not? You’re always leaning on me to improve myself.
Alvy Singer: You’re just upset. You must be getting your period.
Wicked Queen: I don’t get a period. I’m a cartoon character.
At some point my whining got rather loud and I said in my pathetic and obnoxious adolescent voice, “When is this movie going to be over.”
My mother to her credit suggested, “If you’re not enjoying it, just change the channel.”
Common sense is an easy trait to recognize unless it’s coming from someone else. I can’t remember if I offered a rebuttal, but whatever the case I shut up, muttering under my breath about the intolerable quality of the film until the final ending sequences when I really paid attention and ALvy offered up a beautiful quote:
Alvy Singer: You know you try to make things come out perfect in art, because they rarely do so in real life.
The sensation of being young is discovery, because as you age you encounter people and ideas that, in truth, have been expressed over and over again throughout the entirety of human history. There’s nothing really novel in Alvy’s quote here, but when I wasthirteen that statement might as well have been made by Shakespeare or Socrates. They hit me in such a way that I was stimulated and I began to think about what art was, what it could be.
Of course my response to begin writing a novel about a group of angsty artists living in a nameless city who did nothing but talk about art. It was absolute shit, but it was the first push man. After that I was determined. Life was going to be made perfect in my art, because my life wasn’t anywhere near that term.
Writer’s never seem to be happy people and I’m not sure why that is. We tend to spend all of our time thinking about writing, and occasionally more time talking about writing. There’s much time and energy spent worried about words and their meaning andwhether or not we’ve really done something with them. And occasionally, after the third cup of coffee, in mid-afternoon, when our spouses and children are out shopping or playing, or just generally enjoying life while we’re worrying about similes and articles, a thought appears that just feels perfect.
And even after that perfectly expressed thought is made there is a deeper dissatisfaction because I know I’m never going to get another sentence that perfect ever again.
Alvy seemed to offer me something of a reconsideration of this fact however, as he was taking Annie to a bookstore.
Alvy Singer: I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’remiserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.
A friend of mine recently committed suicide and I’ve spent much of the last month or so just recovering from that miserable bullshit. Learning more and more about Savannah’s personal life, and dealing with my own reaction to her suicide is something of a revelation, a word that I worry grows more and more meaningless with each new essay I write. But it’s fair in this case to use that word, because suicide is something I have spent a significant amount of time worrying about.
Though I should be honest, I also spent a serious amount of time joking about it. Suicide was a real compulsion, and often I would think about taking my own life. After a while it just got to be normal. I would picture my friends and family reacting to my death, wondering who would and wouldn’t care about my sudden absence. And this confession itself is it’s own sort of exercise because it demonstrates a real truth about depression which is namely that it is a form of narcissism.
I didn’t really want to die, I just wanted people to care about me. I wasn’t considering suicide to really think about the implications and the real world affect.
Albert Camus to my mind provided the most realistic explanation of suicide in his great work The Myth of Sisyphus:
There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that the philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect. (3).
Camus came to the conclusion that life is worth living, and my friend did not. She was a frequently miserable person, and I’m not sure I could, I know I could not have done anything to stop her. And it’s a shame to me, because I never got to watch Annie Hall with her and see what she would have thought about the film.
I’m pretty sure she would have thought it was shit, but still, I would have liked to have been disappointed with her response.
Stephen Hawking died shortly before I started writing this year’s “Happy Birthday essay,” and before I get to that I want to address the fact that there are “birthday” essays. It seems like I’m trying to create a new genre of essays, which is ridiculous I’m really only inventing new titles. Anyone who think that they’re creating anything really new is so full of shit. I mean there’s only so many letters, so many words, and unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien or the dude who made Cling-On you really haven’t made anything new in terms of language. An essay is a fucking essay end of story, I’m just reflecting year after year and trying not to bore people.
But anyway, Stephen Hawking is dead now, and at the Tyler Public Library we had a small display set up to remember him and his work, and while I was walking back and forth helping patrons I kept spotting a documentary titled A Brief History of Time. It was based on his book of the same title and I took it home having a moment of sublime inspiration.
There is this idea of Imaginary Time and it has revolutionized the very way I see the universe, time, history, reality, and everything in between. In essence the notion of time being something that just moves forward constantly until it ends has been, not rejected, just reevaluated.
Looking to the actual book then, Hawking explores this concept and, as always, manages to make what is quite possibly the most difficult concept for a layman to feel approachable, and, far more importantly, understandable:
However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started—it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. (146).
Though of course this brings me back to Annie Hall, for the film starts with Alvy’s childhood, and one scene in particular feels terribly relevant.
Doctor in Brooklyn: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker.
[Young Alvy sits, his head down – his mother answers for him]
Alvy’s Mom: It’s something he read.
Doctor in Brooklyn: Something he read, huh?
Alvy at 9: [his head still down] The universe is expanding.
Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?
Alvy at 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business?
[she turns back to the doctor]
Alvy’s Mom: He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy at 9: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
Doctor in Brooklyn: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here!
It’s far more likely that this latter argument will have more relevance to the reader. Beginnings and endings are what life are all about. Life begins, life ends. Relationships begin, relationships end. The concept that reality just is, and that it always will be regardless of our place in the universe is a concept that doesn’t sit well with people because stories are the foundation of everything. It’s how we reconcile the beginnings and ends of our own lives. One day my life will end, but at least so will everything else.
Alvy’s doctor almost assuredly never read the writings of Stephen Hawking, but he did at least give me a concept to work with as I wondered about whether or not it was worth it to write these essays down in the first place.
Five years. Five years writing and worrying and fretting and laboring over a series ofwritings, musings, philosophies, etc.. And to add to all of that it seems like more and more these essays seem less and less about myself. I can’t see myself in these writings as much as I used to. They seem more to be about my ideas and thoughts about great books and films that I appreciate.
Annie Hall is a film that has changed for me as the years go by however. It’s a film that I still love and appreciate, but five years on I no longer see it as this great, impressive font of wisdom. Woody Allen has, in recent years, become a bit of a creep and every time I discuss the film I have to acknowledge that the man is a real creep and the conversation usually stops there, which is unfortunate because the movie is beautiful on its own. What’s changed is that I’ve stopped looking to Alvy’s voice as a source of inspiration, or at least not as much as I used to.
Life is worth living. Not just because I’ve lost a friend. Not just because I’ve recognized my depression for what it is. Not just because I could be a father within the next year or more. Not just because life has begun to assume real shape for me. Life is worth living because it’s worth living.
I’ve assumed the mantle of the man who wants to experience the world and the life he’s living because I enjoy being alive. There’s books to read, coffee to drink, orgasms to experience, and of course there’s even more essays to write.
This blog, as I said at the start, does not always give me what I want, which, to be honest, I’m sure what that actually is. There’s satisfaction in finishing an essay, and having one more work up on the site. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that writing these every week I’m getting something of myself on the page. That knowing, that satisfaction is its own rewards. It’s an irrational feeling, but Alvy offers me one more anecdote for that:
Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.
I myself haven’t been eating eggs in the morning anymore, but I am now calling Sunday my writing day. It involves sitting at my laptop typing away for most of the afternoon drinking my own weight in coffee and at the end of the day thinking about next week’s work.
Thank you for five years dear reader, and thank you as always for reading.
AND NOW THE PUNCHLINE…
I’m told it’s best to end on a joke. My wife pointed out to me that I started this blog the year we were married and so White Tower Musings is in fact only four years old.
If that isn’t a testament both to the sort of woman I married and my piss-poor inability to do basic math I don’t know what is.
Happy Fourth Birthday White Tower Musings.
All quotes cited from Annie Hall were provided by IMDb.com.
All quotes cited from The Myth of Sisyphus were quoted from the paperback Vintage edition.
"Butt-Piracy", "Elder Gay", A House Divided, A Modest Proposal, Anthony Bourdain, Calypso, Chester Benington, David Sedaris, Deadlands, Elder, Essay, Essay Collection, Get your credit score and work on gathering reliable assets, Happiness, Homosexuality, Humor, Joshua Jammer Smith, Kate Spade, Literature, Longview Pride 2018, Masculinity Studies, Philosophy, Pride, Satire, Self-Effacement, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, suicide, Surviving, The Myth of Sisyphus, The One(s) Who Got Away, Writing
I mean the dude was just killing it. He didn’t have spectacular abs, I thank whatever fortune I possess in this life for that, but his body was clearly one that he worked on. He had short blond hair and a great ass and he just twerked it wearing by now just a pair of khaki shorts, knee high socks and some kind of sport-tennis shoes. I was wearing my Mad Hatter socks, my fingerless lace gloves, glitter nail polish, my little red “pimp-hat,”and of course my ultikilt. Some artist came on, someone who’s five years younger than me probably could have identified, and I watched this young guy twerk and just kill it on the dance floor while the rest of the young people around him cheered him on. I was sitting with some friends on the edge of the venue just watching him wondering if I had any real desire for him, or if I was just impressed by his dance moves. He was just so free and gay in the ways that I wasn’t and I realized, at that moment, that I was something the kids are referring to as an “elder-gay.”
An “elder gay” as far as I can tell, is a someone from previous generations who identifies as some variety of Queer. The way my friend Alia uses the term one would suspect that an Elder Gay is something out of Dungeons and Dragons, some mystical being who possess knowledge of the organisms and energies that exist in the spaces between dimensions. Likewise the sage would almost certainly possess the knowledge of what is the best way to score a bank loan for that B&B you’re dreaming of starting up in Dallas.
An “Elder Gay” is someone who has survived and managed to stay “cute” and queer and not let the straight superstructure complex of heterosexuality break you down and force you back into the closet. The term implies a level of strength, wisdom, and integrity and so I’m a little fretful to use that term on myself because, looking at the path my sexuality has taken, I’m not really sure I can use that term for myself.
Then again I looked up the word “Elder” on Urban Dictionary and aside from the smutty implications it has for Mormons there was a definition that read: “Gay men who prefere[sic] to take cock from behind.” This definition was followed by the various refining elements that read: #fudge packer, #rump roaster, #fag, #gay, #butt pirate. I’ve never honestly considered “butt piracy” because I’ve no idea whether that job comes with any sort of real benefits, and at this stage of my life and career working without health insurance just isn’t an option. I do like the idea of taking cock from behind though so perhaps I will allow myself the title of “Elder Gay.” It sounds like something I could put on my resume.
Watching that kid dance, and sitting next to my friend Alia Q and her boyfriend however, I felt a wonderful sense of place. Even if I didn’t want to dance, and I found myself fine and dandy just sitting on the bench blowing bubbles and watching the younger queerkids have fun, the moment had a real sense of purpose and joy. It was my first official Pride Event. There had been one or two such events in my hometown of Tyler, but they were small affairs that didn’t have the same level of teeth to them. Attending this event, even if it was during the last two hours of the official day, was a chance to be out, to really be out, and be happy. And if nothing else, realize that I really was an “elder gay.”
Suicide has been haunting me more and more lately. Not that I’m seriously considering taking my own life, I’ve promised three of my friends that I wouldn’t, and while I know that sounds like a soft promise these three women are the sort of people who would hold a severe grudge against me and I’m almost positive all of them would immediately consult necromancy just to bring me back and kick my ass. Though I’m sure in fact my punishment would be something far more benign like being forced to watch insurance seminar power-point presentations and therefore all the more cruel.
But as my regular reader might remember, just a few months ago I lost my friend Savannah Blair to suicide. Not long before this Chester Bennington had decided to take his own life by hanging himself. Having recently begun reading all of William Shakespeare’s plays I began a book entitled The Medical Mind of Shakespeare and discovered there was an entire chapter dedicated to Suicide. And just in the last week of writing this essay Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have both killed themselves. This series of losses all seemed to be one long endless reminder of the disease of depression, and so on the morning before the actual Longview Pride festival I decided to sit down and finish reading David Sedaris’s latest book Calypso. Sedaris is one of my favorite authors and is consistently funny and so I thought it might be a great way to have a laugh and prepare myself for the days festivities. I opened the book, started reading, and discovered several passages of the book dealt with the recent suicide of his sister Tiffany.
I heaved a heavy sigh, muttered the sentiment “fucking really?” and read the book in one long burst. I can’t say that by the end I’d come to a better place, but I had become sadder because I realized that I would probably never have the gumption to feed one of my eventual tumors to a snapping turtle.
Calypso is a book that, like the rest of Sedaris’s oeuvre, is about observing the absurdity of everyday existence, while also managing to find some human statement in our faults. Sedaris doesn’t just acknowledge that he has selfish or cruel thoughts about other people, he simply writes them down turning them into the narrative of everyday life. And this honesty over time just becomes part of the sarcasm, satire, and the general method. His prose is always self-effacing while also managing to be self-promoting, and by the end of just one of his essays the reader has almost always come to some kind of conclusion that Sedaris is doing his best to stay one step ahead of the joke he’s turning himself into.
But Calypso felt different from his other books because it possessed a sharper bite that I suspect comes with growing older, and also perhaps from losing a sibling to suicide.
In one of the essays, A House Divided, Sedaris describes walking down a beach near a house his family was renting out, and talking about their sister when others sister Lisa mentions the mode of death. She’s interrupted briefly by a woman walking a dog and then casually mention that Tiffany took her own life with a plastic bag. Asphixiation is supposed to be one of the miserable ways to go, I know this because my wife tells me things like that all the time. She reads essays and Reddit posts by doctors and scientists and supposedly strangling is unbearably painful. Sedaris doesn’t mention this but he notes something about the tool used to take hissister’s life:
It’s hard to find a bag without writing on it—the name of a store, most often. Lowe’s it might read. SAFEWAY. TRUE VALUE. Does a person go through a number of them before making a selection, or, as I suspect, will any bag do, regardless of the Ironic statement it might make? This is what was going through my mind when Lisa stopped walking and turned to me asking, “Will you do me a favor?”
“Anything,” I said, so grateful to have her alive and beside me.
She held out her foot, “Will you tie my shoe?”
“Well…sure,” I said, “But can you tell me why?”
She sighed, “My pants are tight and I don’t feel like bending over.” (62-3).
This gave me something to think about because my pants are often tight at work and I own almost no laceless shoes, yet I always stoop down to tie them if they become unlaced. This terrifies me as there is a set of stairs at the library that I’m sure is going to kill me. But after this I think about what kind of plastic bag I would use if I decided to asphyxiate myself and this becomes a problem. Almost all of the plastic bags in my possession are ones my wife has brought home after one of her endless shopping trips and these tend to usually be from Hobby Lobby. Its may sound vain on my part but there would be nothing so gosche as to kill myself and then be found with a Hobby Lobby bag wrapped around my head. The people who find me may suspect I support the corporation’s philosophy of denying birth control coverage in employee health insurance, or else that my sex-life was so awful and/or nonexistent that I had to take up a hobby to fill the time. I think if I had to use any sort of bag I would want it to be from someplace like Half Price Books or Barnes & Noble, that way the medical examiner would think I was cultured, or at least a reader, or at least someone who spent their time around books which is something I suspect at least most people would like to appear to be.
I know it’s morbid, but suicide is still to me one last means of controlling my fate in this universe. Since I have no use for religion, and because my wife refuses to take up ballroom dancing with me, the only real means I have of staving off the inevitable realization that my life has no meaning is to dwell on death, and this in part tends to push me to thoughts, or considerations of suicide. Before Louis C.K. was rightfully skewered by the #MeToo movement I did watch him pretty regularly and he had a sentiment that was best expressed, “You don’t have to do anything, because you can always kill yourself.” This sentiment was one that made me laugh, but I realized that it was one that had alsoappeared before in Albert Camus’s book The Myth of Sisyphus.
He begins his book by noting:
There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that the philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts thee heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect. (3).
Suicide is, ultimately, about survival. The people that one sees moving about, shopping for groceries, urinating on public busses, picking their nose when they think no one is looking, and giving their boyfriends hand jobs in the far back corners of a public library, are ultimately people who survived past the impulse to kill themselves. It’s absurd, and ridiculous, but each person has found some conclusion that amounted to, “No, I need to keep living today.”
My reason tends to be coffee, books, movies, Deadlands, and orgasms. Each of these brings me a tremendous amount of pleasure, and if I’m being honest I’d like to have more experiences with them before I finally shuffle off this mortal coil.
Calypso is a book that, while reading it, I kept thinking about because, ultimately, it seems to be defined by a recurring theme of being a survivor. Sedaris writes about the frailties of his body, the problematic dynamic he has with his father, suffering a gastro-intestinal virus during a book tour, having a tumor removed, losing his sister to suicide, and finally just surviving to the age he has lived to.
Looking at a later passage in The One(s) Who Got Away Sedaris asks his partner Hugh how many men he slept with before they settled down together. As Hugh counts men up well past the number fifty Sedaris observes his jealousy, the difference in their physical attractiveness, but then also the fact that both of them are still there. He writes,
By what miracle had neither of us attracted AIDS? How had we gotten away? I don’t just mean later, when people knew to be safe, but back in the days when it didn’t have a name and no one understood how it spread. One of the men Hugh had lived with—a professor he had his first year of college—had died of it in the late eighties, and surely there were others, on both my side and his. Yet for some reason we’d escaped, had prospered, even. Now here we were, the shadows lengthened, our spaghetti growing old, as he hit the half-hundred mark, then blithely sailed beyond it.
It is nothing compared to living with a man for several decades and scoring up an impressively sluttish roster of former lovers, but as I sat at the Pride Event next to my friend Q who was clapping and regularly saying, “Yes queers you DO IT!” I was struck by the fact that we were both survivors, Q more so than I. She had been far closer to Savannah that I was. I couldn’t tell you her favorite film while she was alive, nor her favorite book, nor could I even tell you her fucking birthday, and yet over the last few months I’ve had the audacity to label her as a friend. What I suppose connected us wasour mutual associations and our working together, and I suppose Gay Movie Night. But what I find, what I return to over and over again is that both Sav and I were, until her end, mutually suicidal. The only difference is Sav stopped finding a reason to go on, whereas Q and I had.
Reading this short passage again I realized David Sedaris very much qualifies for my previous definition of “Elder Gay,” because along with the previous work another of his essays in Calypso titled A Modest Proposal he tackles the development of Gay Marriage in the United States. Sedaris is honest about the fact that he’d never considered marriage. He writes:
The Supreme Court ruling tells every gay fifteen-year-old living out in the middle of nowhere that he or she is as good as any other dope who wants to get married. To me it was a slightly mixed-message, like saying we’re all equally entitled to wear Dockers to the Olive Garden. Then I spoke to my accountant, who’s as straight asthey come, and he couldn’t have been more excited. “Fox tax purposes, you and Hugh really need to act on this,” he told me.
“But I don’t want to,” I said. “I don’t believe in marriage.”
He launched into a little speech, and here’s the thing about about legally defined couples: they save boatloads of money, especially when it comes to inherited property. My accountant told me how much we had to gain, and I was like, “Is there a waiting period? What documents do I need?” (125).
Words like equity, inheritance, benefits, insurance, and escrow are words that are steadily becoming more and more relevant to my day to day existence. They suggest, I suppose, a worldliness or at least that you have a head on your shoulders and that you know where you’re “going” in life. I need to know that I’m going to have at least few bucks in my bank account before I can apply for a loan, I need to have a credit score, and I need to have something for collateral. These realizations are not epiphanies, they’re just day to day realities that come with surviving.
Watching that young man while I adjusted my silk gloves and straightening the hem of my kilt, I saw someone who wasn’t wondering about whether or not his dad “accepted” his lifestyle, I didn’t see a young man who was wondering how he was going to “survive” a miserable biological assault on the homosexual community, and I didn’t see a young man struggling to make sense about whether his gender identity and sexuality meant there was something morally wrong with his very existence. I just saw a young man possessed by music and having a fucking blast. And while I blew my bubbles and watched his butt wiggle about I was happy for him. I wanted him to be happy, happy in the ways I hadn’t been but wanted to be when I was younger. Happy in the ways I wish my friend Sav could have been during her life. His body and mind hadn’t yet been afflicted with the realities of things like the development of tumors, low bank funds, or the suicide of a friend.
And so maybe as I think about it, perhaps I need to adjust the working definition of what an “elder gay” actually is. Getting older, surviving to become older, is in someways a mix of resentment and fondness for youth. It’s the desire for the ones that come after you to have fun without fear of personal or societal retribution, while at the same time hating them for having so much liberty. Being a queer man who stayed in the closet until he was 26 I envy this next generation of young queer people who hopefully, if I make my life something that matters, won’t be afraid to come out and live their sexuality as they so chose. I envy that their survival won’t be as afflicted with the struggle to justify or explain their desire to a warring camp of people who would rather they just didn’t exist in the first place. I hope for a generation of young queer people who treat marriage the same way straight people do, just something you do when you stop dancing at parties and instead sit off to the sides blowing bubbles wondering if you’re supposed to go to work on Monday and whether or not you should have really spent $50 on rainbow buttons and flags instead of a savings bond.
Surviving can be a drag, but at least there’s the chance to have a few more orgasms, and maybe feed one of your tumors to a snapping turtle.
All quotes cited from Calypso were taken from the First Edition Hardback edition published by Little, Brown & Company. All quotes cited from The Myth of Sisyphus were provided care of the paperback Vintage International edition.
I’ve provided a link to the definition of “Elder” provided to me care of Urban Dictionary. I had no idea that Mormons were such a kind bunch, I guess you learn something new everyday. Yet another reason to prolong my life if only to understand further the intricacies of mormon sexuality. Anyway, enjoy:
I really wanted to start this essay out with the following statement: “I attended my first “real” Pride Parade with a Llama, a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in my backpack, and wearing a kilt.” It was a lovely sentence that was completely true, but technically, like I said before, I had been to an actual parade in my home town already. Still, I at least got some great photographs.