05 September 2013

Unmaking the Man

I'm listening to a recording of Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

On the walk with the youngest child to school (actually on the way back home) I made my way uphill past a pavilion where two women appeared to be preparing to run or at least do some kind of exercise--there were two full water bottles for a "clue."  One was fully clothed and even seemed overly covered, the other was basically in what we call "athletic gear" that would easily be comparable to beach wear.  Her bottoms were painted on and were kind of a mint ice cream color with some white streaking.

It struck me finally that I was staring at a form, a thing, a visual/sexual aesthetic (?), and that when I came to awareness this section of chapter 3 of Herland was being spoken into my ears:

   The most prominent sensation was of absolute physical comfort. I was lying in a perfect bed: long, broad, smooth; firmly soft and level; with the finest linen, some warm light quilt of blanket, and a counterpane that was a joy to the eye. The sheet turned down some fifteen inches, yet I could stretch my feet at the foot of the bed free but warmly covered.

   I felt as light and clean as a white feather. It took me some time to conscientiously locate my arms and legs, to feel the vivid sense of life radiate from the wakening center to the extremities.

   A big room, high and wide, with many lofty windows whose closed blinds let through soft green-lit air; a beautiful room, in proportion, in color, in smooth simplicity; a scent of blossoming gardens outside.

   I lay perfectly still, quite happy, quite conscious, and yet not actively realizing what had happened till I heard Terry.

   "Gosh!" was what he said.

   I turned my head. There were three beds in this chamber, and plenty of room for them.

   Terry was sitting up, looking about him, alert as ever. His remark, though not loud, roused Jeff also. We all sat up.

   Terry swung his legs out of bed, stood up, stretched himself mightily. He was in a long night robe, a sort of seamless garment, undoubtedly comfortable -- we all found ourselves so covered. Shoes were beside each bed, also quite comfortable and good-looking though by no means like our own.

   We looked for our clothes -- they were not there, nor anything of all the varied contents of our pockets.

   A door stood somewhat ajar; it opened into a most attractive bathroom, copiously provided with towels, soap, mirrors, and all such convenient comforts, with indeed our toothbrushes and combs, our notebooks, and thank goodness, our watches -- but no clothes.

   Then we made a search of the big room again and found a large airy closet, holding plenty of clothing, but not ours.

   "A council of war!" demanded Terry. "Come on back to bed -- the bed's all right anyhow. Now then, my scientific friend, let us consider our case dispassionately."

   He meant me, but Jeff seemed most impressed.

   "They haven't hurt us in the least!" he said. "They could have killed us -- or -- or anything -- and I never felt better in my life."

   "That argues that they are all women," I suggested, "and highly civilized. You know you hit one in the last scrimmage -- I heard her sing out -- and we kicked awfully."

   Terry was grinning at us. "So you realize what these ladies have done to us?" he pleasantly inquired. "They have taken away all our possessions, all our clothes -- every stitch. We have been stripped and washed and put to bed like so many yearling babies -- by these highly civilized women."

   Jeff actually blushed. He had a poetic imagination. Terry had imagination enough, of a different kind. So had I, also different. 

In Carlyle's Sartor Resartus it is literally the clothes that make the man and here it seems this is the beginning of the interlopers' education, or "unmaking."


I will note (stealing the idea from Douglas Crase in Amerifil.txt) this bit of comparative literature.  Also published in 1915 on the opposite coast of this nation and to much less fanfare then and now (we should note that Perkins Gilman was a popular and respected author), this, from possibly my favorite modernist poet, Mina Loy, "Love Songs."  These (1-4 of the songs that would come to be included in the sequence "Songs to Joannes") were published in The Others the poetry journal started by Alfred Kreymborg and frequented by Williams (and occasionally edited by him).

The pagination matters here and I can't find an easy way to reproduce it so if you simply go to this page at The Modernist Journals Project you can find a facsimile of the original journal.  And here also, quite wonderfully, is a handwritten ms image.


Spawn of fantasies
Sitting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
" O n c e upon a t i m e "
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucous membrane
I would an eye in a Bengal light
Eternity in a sky-rocket
Constellations in an ocean
Whose rivers run no fresher
Than a trickle of saliva
There are suspect places
I must live in my lantern
Trimming subliminal flicker
Virginal to the bellows
Of experience
Colored glass.


The skin-sack
In which a wanton duality
All the completions of my infructuous impulses
Something the shape of a man
To the casual vulgarity of the merely observant
More of a clock-work mechanism
Running down against time
To which I am not paced
My finger-tips are numb from fretting your hair
A God's door-mat
On the threshold of your mind.

We might have coupled
In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment
Or broken flesh with one another
At the profane communion table
Where wine is spilled on promiscuous lips
We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings.

Once in a mezzanino
The starry ceiling
Vaulted an unimaginable family
Bird-like abortions
With human throats
And wisdom's eyes
Who wore lamp-shade red dresses
And woolen hair
One bore a baby
In a padded porte-enfant
Tied with a sarsanet ribbon
To her goose's wings
But for the abominable shadows
I would have lived
Among their fearful furniture
To teach them to tell me their secrets
For I had guessed mine
That if I should find YOU
And bring you with me
The brood would be swept clean out.

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