Welcome to Stanville

Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner’s new novel, “The Mars Room” is set in The Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in Central Valley, California, the prison made famous by the Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black”.

An excerpt entitled “Stanville” (New Yorker, February 12 issue) gives a glimpse into the novel’s heart: the imprisoned are human beings, social beings, who don’t need to be saved, but to be recognized as ordinary people, stowed away in the darkest belly of the United States by design.

Prison acquires a metaphysical connotation in the story by being referred to as the “caged” world. The world outside is the “free” world.

The main character in “Stanville” is Gordon Hauser, a graduate school dropout, an obvious liberal, who believes that he can save the inmates from themselves by teaching them how to read, write and think critically. He thinks “If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged.” In other words, Gordon is blinded by his liberal view to the fact that encagement is a structural problem, not a moral one. Teaching the classics won’t help, really.

The story perhaps looks askance at a practice that’s gained popularity in recent years: spreading enlightenment among prisoners so they can be “better” people.

As is evinced by the story and by thoughts expressed by Kushner on the prison system in America, ( in an interview to the New Yorker), the inmates are people already, if not always good specimens of humanity. Crime is not a byproduct of poor choices made by weak character that can be transformed by enlightenment. As Kushner says in her interview:

If crime were a matter of character, then I could say ‘it’s my character that keeps me out of prison. But that would be a lie.

I’m curious to know what gets people into prison according to Rachel Kushner. I’m thinking that “The Mars Room” holds a key to her insight.

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On the Edge of an Ecological Crisis

As Professor Curt Stager, a scholar of Natural History at Paul Smith College in Northern New York writes, humans are used to viewing insects as nuisances, despicable and deserving of death.

Bugs bug us. Flying insects are stuff of horror movies.

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote about birds dying as a result of insecticides. In Carson’s “Silent Spring”, the killing of insects is a marginalia compared to the disappearance of birds, which are more glamorous and loved as a species than (flying) insects are.

But flying insects are indeed dying, foreboding an ecological crisis, as “insects represent the vast majority of all animal species. Because they are pollinators and a vital part of the food chain, their absence would strike deep at the roots of life on earth.”

Again,

An across-the-board decline in flying insects […] means that an entire sector of the animal kingdom is in trouble, representing an immense diversity of life-forms, from butterflies and beetles to hoverflies and damselflies. The eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, who has spent much of his life studying ants, has warned: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.

Unfortunately, as Professor Stager states, there is not much interest in the study of this impending crisis, because grant money isn’t forthcoming to support research in this area.

Additionally, the awareness of the drop in the population of flying insects, has been deliberately stilted by the scientific community.

Most scientists today live in cities and have little direct experience with wild plants and animals, and most biology textbooks now focus more on molecules, cells and internal anatomy than on the diversity and habits of species. It has even become fashionable among some educators to belittle the teaching of natural history and scientific facts that can be “regurgitated” on tests in favor of theoretical concepts.

So, the hope of resuscitating interest in the study of flying insects lies in resurrecting natural history as an important subject matter and in wishing that there is a rebirth of amateur field naturalists like Linnaeus, Darwin and Humboldt.

 

 

 

Wit

Margaret Edson’s one-act play “Wit”, a 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winner, is about a woman who contracts late-stage ovarian cancer. The play’s setting is the hospital; the theme is a paradox: as the woman, Vivian Bearing, says, it’s not the cancer that takes her to death’s door but the treatment of it.

But there are complex subtexts at play as well. Vivian Bearing is an accomplished scholar of seventeenth-century Metaphysical poetry, particularly John Donne. She is a woman of exquisite language, as is John Donne.

The Metaphysicals were famous for dissecting life (and death) with a linguistic scalpel. In his “Holy Sonnets”, John Donne tames the specter of death, which is also the love of God, with metaphysical “wit” or intellectual dexterity. “Death be not proud” are the remarkable opening lines of the sonnet; with these thoughts Donne scales down the magnitude of death to that of a “comma,” instead of an exclamation mark or a semi-colon. A comma is a temporary cessation, a simple stop. In other words, Donne conquers death by refusing to stage it hyper dramatically.

Armed with Donne’s wit, Dr. Bearing enters the hospital, confident that she too will tame death with a comma. But the dehumanization she suffers in the medical space and the sheer physical pain she has to endure as a result of the “treatment”, makes her realize that death in the visceral sphere, outside of language, is a “fucking hell.”

By the play’s end Vivian Bearing abandons wit and revises the punctuation in Donne’s “Holy Sonnets.” She announces to the world as she dies, death is followed by a semi-colon and/or an exclamation mark.

Kay Sera Sera

The Steven Spielberg-directed film, “The Post” is a very good film.

It is about an era in America when journalists were an intrepid tribe loyal to representing “facts” and “truths” with as much objectivity as they could.

The New York Times and The Washington Post are the heroes of the film, as they were the heroes of 1966 and thereafter, when both papers attempted to publish classified documents, The Pentagon Papers, leaked by the State Department military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg. The documents exposed the United States’ 30-year involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

However, the historical context notwithstanding, “The Post” is less about a vanished era of courageous journalism in the United States, and more about Katherine Graham, the Post‘s publisher.

Katherine Graham was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper; this historical nugget assumes a central place in the film. The narrative of her life is like the narrative of everywoman, minus the wealth, in a man’s world. The film begins at a moment when the Washington Post is in a crisis; it’s losing money in the market and investors are not happy with the Post‘s performance. But what investors are really not happy with is the specter of a woman at the helm of affairs.

The Post was owned by Graham’s father, who passed on the leadership mantle to her husband. Graham tells her daughter that at that point she thought that was the way things were–a man running the business. If Graham had a male sibling, the paper may have passed on to him.

The film emphasizes, in subtle shades of anti-patriarchal grays, that women can, if given an opportunity, make decisions, run businesses and demonstrate exemplary leadership. The Post’s old guard comprises of men who believe that the family should loosen its control over the paper, meaning thereby that Katherine Graham should stand in the back burner of its daily operations so the trusted old boys club could take control. Dithering and frazzled at first, Graham finally finds her own voice in the film when she takes an enormous risk of incarceration and beyond to preside over the paper’s publication of the Pentagon Papers.

The film in totality is about an intrepid woman; this is evidenced by the scene when Graham is shown to walk out of the Supreme Court, and women, young and old look up to her in awe and admiration. It is no coincidence that she walks amidst a throng of women. She is illuminated as a female role model.

I think the film should have been named “Kay” (Katherine Graham’s nickname) instead of “The Post” as it resonates well with the current cultural imperatives of the #MeToo moment.

 

Feminine Mystique Blasted

There is no Betty Friedan-esque feminine mystique in AMC’s forthcoming series, “Dietland,” but a lot of feminist angst and my favorite thing–revolution.

“Dietland” is the story of the self-awakening of a character played by actress Joy Nash, an overweight young woman who works as an advice columnist at a glamorous magazine. She dispenses advice to women who experience body-image issues.

Eventually, the heroine leads a revolution that addresses deeper aspects of women and their perennial troubles with the shapes, weights and texture of their bodies.

The message that emerges from “Dietland” is that women should shed patriarchy not pounds.

A feminist jihad in the offing?

Inter-Species Romance

Pisces

Having recently seen the celebration of romance between a woman and a sea-creature in Guillermo Del Torro’s “The Shape of Water,” I am intrigued by the popularity of cross-species love in pop culture today.

What accounts for such popularity? In her review of Melissa Broder’s novel, “Pisces,” which tells the story of love–mostly sex–between a woman and a merman, Jia Tolentino claims that “people don’t have sex with sea creatures unless the world has failed them.”

But does inter-species romance have to be contingent on being rebuffed by the “world?”