Monsters and Men Part I: Gaston, Trauma, and Toxic Masculinity

!Spoilers for Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast follow!

Gaston rears his fist back, he’s intent on striking the man in front of him, Belle’s father, who has just said that Belle will never be with him. This is the most glaring example of his raging temper up to this point in the narrative.

But LeFou is there, stepping between them, holding his hands up as one might approach a snarling lion, shushing the beast that is the object of his affection. His voice is calming. “Remember the war, the blood, the bodies, the explosions,” he says.

Gaston pauses, emotions track across his facial features, his fist lowers as fury is quelled, replaced by a spreading maniacal smile on his face.

***

Out of all the moments in Disney’s new live-action remake of the classic animated Beauty and the Beast (1991), this is the scene that stayed with me, tossing around in my head over and over long after I left the theatre. It wasn’t the moment where the film made a tongue-in-cheek nod to drag, or the three seconds of screen time where LeFou dances with another man in the film’s much-hyped, historic “gay” moment. No, it’s a strange scene that presents a clearly disturbed and traumatized war veteran in a moment of mindless rage.

Now, I do not bring this up to come to Gaston’s defense and claim that he’s an upstanding fellow. He has certainly been a chauvinist pig in previous iterations (the original Disney animation, the musical), embodying all the baser points of toxic masculinity. He is self-obsessed and cruel, driven by violence and a need to dominate. He has served to normalize unacceptable destructive and possessive behavior behind the guise of the “man’s man.” Gaston has never been a “good” guy. But Disney’s re-make creates a backstory for Gaston that complicates both his character, and the film’s statements about trauma and mental illness.

Gaston is more sinister in his villainy this time around, going so far as to tie Belle’s father, Maurice, up in the forest and explicitly leave him there for the wolves to eat so that Maurice will not stand between Gaston and his pursuit of Belle. When Maurice survives this ordeal and returns to town, Gaston plots behind LeFou’s back and prepares to cart Maurice off to an insane asylum. He goes so far as to force LeFou to lie on his behalf to the townsfolk about his behavior toward Maurice. Then, after tossing Belle into the cart with her father as a response to her rejection, he whips the villagers into a frenzied mob and heads to the castle.

By this point, even his faithful sidekick cannot bear the level of evil that Gaston has stooped to; during the song that ensues on their journey to the castle, LeFou acknowledges that Gaston has become the monster in this story, staring side-long at the man he once called friend. This plummet into monstrousness by Gaston is directly opposed by The Beast, who moves from a place of blind rage and reactionary behavior, “monstrosity,” to a place of humanity and compassion over the course of the film (more on The Beast next week).

***

There is a distinct difference though, between this version of Gaston and those that have come before: this Gaston has explicitly seen warfare, gruesome warfare involving “explosions,” and “blood,” and “bodies.” While the original animated Gaston is portrayed as a hunter, he is not a war veteran. In this new version of the film, Gaston’s experiences with the war clearly shape his behavior and responses toward the people around him.

Gaston’s behavior in the previously mentioned scene demonstrates several clear behaviors linked to individuals suffering from PTSD. First, Gaston enters a blind rage, a state of emotional hyperarousal. His emotional response happens suddenly and to a level not commiserate with the events of the moment. Additionally, he resorts to physical violence in an attempt to reassert control over the situation. His response mimics a threatened animal that chooses to fight instead of flee. LeFou recognizes Gaston’s fit of rage as behavior related to his war experience and uses iconic moments from the war to remind his friend that they are no longer on a battlefield. It is only after LeFou is able to bring Gaston back from his moment of reliving war-like conflict that Gaston sinks into a rather manic state of non-violence. His strange smile in the end of the encounter highlights this still-anxious state of emotional hyperarousal even though he has curbed his rage. [i]

Gaston is a man caught in the past, shaped by the traumatic experiences of the war in which he participated. Returning from battle, he has no ability to successfully reintegrate with his community. Instead, he depends on his homosocial bond with LeFou, forged during their time in the war. The praise lavished upon him by his companion, grants Gaston worth and meaning in the space of the village. His continues to hunt because his value to the village lies in his ability to commit violence. It is this attachment to violence that dooms him. Gaston is unable to step away from the violence of warfare, consistently seeking out an adversary, from his near fistfight with Maurice, to his final pursuit of The Beast. In the end, he meets his match in the castle of The Beast where he plummets from a tower to his death in the recreation of the classic fight scene.

After he falls, Gaston disappears from the story entirely. LeFou’s decision to change sides during the final battle necessitates that he not mourn for his villainous friend after the battle has ended. Indeed, no one in the castle so much as mentions him after he falls. But as a viewer, the death of Gaston didn’t leave me with the resolution that hovered over the castle in the end of the film. Instead, it left me conflicted and pondering. No matter how wicked Gaston might be, there is reason behind it, method to the madness. Gaston is no longer simply the arrogant chauvinist from classic cartoon, the villain I could easily hate and dismiss. Instead, he is a deeply troubled character who cannot escape from the war and toxic masculinity that has structured his identity and behavior. He inspires both empathy and revulsion in equal measure. This new film makes spaces for nuance in both monsters and men.

Next week: Monster and Men Part II: Healing Toxic Masculinity, Disney’s new Beast

[i] For information on PTSD symptoms and treatment related to war trauma, see https://www.ptsd.va.gov/


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

“Blindspots” and Bright Spots

I’m very excited to see Disney’s new Live-Action Beauty and the Beast, and not just because it was my favorite animated Disney movie growing up. Allow me to explain:

***

            The girl who takes my fast-food order has conspicuous miniature band-aids over her dimples, raised away from the skin by the dermal jewelry they cover. Her nose has a hole with no stud. Her cuticles are stained black where the nail-polish remover didn’t penetrate. She smiles brightly, her extended hand holding my change, each finger sporting a ring.

The retail worker who helps answer my questions about pre-order bonuses for Mass Effect Andromeda has long-sleeves on. When he reaches for a top shelf, his right sleeve pulls back. His arm is covered in vivid scales, the sweep of a Koi-fish revealed for just a moment before he tugs the sleeve of his shirt back into place. I’ve seen work like that before, hundreds of dollars and hours spent under the needle. The lanyard that holds his name badge has a pin with koi-fish in swirling water.

My friend meets me for coffee. She’s changed her hair since the last time I saw her. The hot pink streaks in her blonde hair have been covered over with a chocolate brown that matches her roots but make her look pale and tired. The medical monopoly that runs all the hospitals in the area insists that their nurses have “natural” hair colors. Her fingernails where she holds her Cappuccino are bright pink.

***

Particular ways of seeing, or rather, not seeing, manifest themselves with vehemence in Toledo, Ohio. All of these moments, instances that wouldn’t have fazed me before I lived in Syracuse, now strike with precise and disquieting force as I visit my hometown during spring break week. A few hours away, in New York, these bodies are allowed to exist in the public spaces. The waitstaff and retail workers sport tattoos and piercings and bright hair colors. They paint their faces with startling hues and ornament their unique bodies. Non-normative people exist, and insist on their existence in public spaces. I’ve only been gone from Toledo since August, but it was a shock to the system to return.

It is a particular brand of cognitive dissonance that maintains the normative through the repression of non-normative bodies. It maintains equilibrium by enforcing blindspots through the control of Capitalist structures. These young people working in food services and retail, these thirty-somethings serving in the medical field, all need these jobs in order to survive. Yet, these jobs act as a powerful normalizing force against them. Keep your piercings out or you can’t take burger orders. Cover your tattoos or you can’t answers questions about video games. Dye your vibrant hair a “natural” color or you can’t possibly administer life-saving medication and care. Remain “professional.”

The Midwestern “normal” functions through the creation and maintenance of purposeful blindspots that deny the existence of alternative forms of expression. “Blindspots” only remain viable so long as non-normative bodies are forced into invisibility and silence. This silence does not actually remove their existence, but instead denies them space within the discourse of normality. If piercings must be removed, tattoos covered, and hair dyed, then alternative modes of self-expression will continue to be absent from professional settings. These alternative bodies must find voice on the fringes or not be voiced at all, relegated to the silences within discourse that Michel Foucault describes in his History of Sexuality.

***

My reflections on queer existence in our present political moment from my post last week (which you can read here: https://metathesisblog.com/2017/03/10/facebook-and-uncanny-identity/) no doubt primed me for noticing these “blindspots” during my trip home (in fact, the use of body modification by the queer community for self-expression makes this censorship of non-normative bodies all the more relevant for me, see Victoria Pitts’ article “Visibly Queer: Body Technologies and Sexual Policies” in The Sociological Quarterly). It was actually discouraging to see the ways that these non-normative forms of self-expression were being systematically crushed by structures within Capitalism. I recognize that this happens in the back of my mind constantly, but seeing it physically manifested in front of me was difficult.

Cue Disney’s new release of Beauty and the Beast. The Internet has been all atwitter since the announcement a few weeks ago that the character of LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick, will be portrayed as openly gay. First came the initial excitement over representation of an LGBTQIA+ character by a major motion picture. Then came fear about what that representation might look like (yet another queer villain, a gay man who is uncomfortable with his own sexuality, etc.). Regardless of the problems that may arise surrounding this character, it is the first openly gay character that Disney has put in one of their films, a historic moment of representation.

Not long after this announcement, demands for censorship started to roll in, the carefully crafted mode of cognitive dissonance deeply disturbed by representations of a gay man in a film about a love story between a beast-animal creature and a young woman. It is impossible for queer and non-normative bodies to remain invisible and non-existent in the minds of the majority if their entertainment represents these lives. In order to maintain this normative silence, LeFou had to go.

For a moment, my heart sank. After all, this is the same company that changed a male Tibetan character into a white Celtic woman in order to maintain profits for Doctor Strange abroad. The power of Capitalism over the film industry functions powerfully to reinforce hegemonic ideals of the normal within their representations. I thoroughly expected to start reading reports of censorship by Disney of LeFou and the films touted “gay scene” in order to maintain their profits. That was why it was such a joy to see this article (http://www.nbc26.com/news/national/disney-delays-release-of-beauty-and-the-beast-in-malaysia-after-gay-moment-cut-from-film) from NBC, stating that Disney will not remove the scene from the film even if it costs them profits. In fact, the company has chosen to pull the film from Malaysian theatres rather than remove LeFou or his scenes.

By no means is this an ultimate victory or a complete solution. Often, these systems are so powerful and deeply entrenched that it doesn’t seem that there will ever be hope for representation for non-normative bodies and identities in our mainstream culture. Yet, this film is a moment of encouragement, a bright spot, further proof that systems can be changed over time. The service industry workers in New York can have further autonomy over their modes of identity constructions. They can have bright green hair, and septum piercings, and chest tattoos, and LeFou can be hot for Gaston.


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

Facebook and Uncanny Identity

I’m sitting in a meeting at the LGBT Resource Center. It’s Monday night, a few weeks past now. They have a large comfy couch, free pizza, brightly colored artwork on the walls, posters for other events. It’s only six in the evening, but I’m exhausted. Not the I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep-because-coursework kind of tired, but the soul-weary exhaustion that has been my constant companion since November. I’ve tried to put it into words, what I’m feeling. There’s spoon theory, or empathy overload, but neither of those encompasses what I’m feeling now. I’ve dealt with chronic depression and anxiety my entire adult life, and it’s never been like this before, not to this extent and not for this long. So I’m sitting in a meeting for Queer-folk and allies on campus, hoping that being around some other humans where I don’t have to appear fully competent and on top of things will help.

They ask us to share a rough spot and a bright spot from our week. Rough spot, for the first time in a while, is a quick answer for me. Usually, it’s been a toss-up between any number of novel and horrifying developments, but this week it’s simple: The rough spot was turning on my phone and seeing the repeal of bathroom protection for Transgender students. I cried, staring at my phone, at the headline that one of the default news apps decided to plaster across my unlock screen. I cried for the teenagers who will face even more bullying in their school halls, I cried over the lives that will be lost because it’s not really about bathrooms but about basic humanity and decency, I cried over the level of ignorance and hate that would drive someone to make such a ruling about a group of marginalized young people who we should all be working to protect. When I shared my sadness, the faces in the room mirrored back what I imagine mine looks like now on a daily basis, weary sadness.

Finding a bright spot has become incredibly simple for me over the past few months. Did I get out of bed? Did I make it through the ten minutes of time I allot myself each morning to check out my social media and news apps to see what latest violence has been done against marginalized groups? Did I feed myself? Did I attend or teach class? Those actions are a bright spot each day, moments when I didn’t let despair sit on my chest like too-deep water. These moments of caring for myself, for my queer body in this hostile environment, are small, empowering moments of radical resistance in my day-to-day. I showed up. It’s my bright spot. There are nods and half-smiles in response.

As we circle the room, the concerns change: several foreign students are concerned about the attitudes toward LGBTQIA+ individuals in their home countries. What might it mean for them to be denied a job in the U.S. after completing their degree? Another student is struggling with a family member who purposefully misgenders them and says that they will always be their dead gender (I can’t help but hear the rhetoric surrounding the bathroom bill echoing through my head). Another student is concerned about the example of Gay-ness presented by Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulus, the virulently hateful and, allegedly, pedophilic poster-child for acceptable Alt-Right Queerness. The concerns are different. The exhaustion is the same.

Each person in this room is exhausted, emotionally empty, rattled and just a few moments from tears. But why?

***

I’ve been trying to sort it out since late-December, reading the think-pieces and the status updates from my friends, attending rallies and marches and poster-making sessions. The sadness and tired hangs everywhere, but I still couldn’t figure it out. So I did what so many academics do, I compartmentalized it, allowed that part of my mind to fill up with pertinent data, waited for a late night “Ah-hah” moment when it finally clicked. It didn’t. I moved on, left it to simmer in some back part of my brain, focused on reading theorists, and grading essays, and getting out of bed in the morning. I left the sadness and its answer for a different day.

I started listening to musicals. I’ve been a bit behind the curve, so Hamilton was a new and heart-wrenching beauty in my life. I wept the first time I listened to the soundtrack. It was good to cry.

Next, my brother suggested I listen to the soundtrack for Fun Home. (He blessedly warned me that it might hit close to home in some ways. He was right.) I listened to Alison Bechdel’s coming-out story about her life again, this time accompanied by music instead of the panels of the graphic novel where I first encountered it. I remember watching a video of Bechdel creating one of those panels, taking Polaroid pictures of herself to use as reference. The time and effort that went into each panel was astonishing. The music from the play recreated that experience of her writing and drawing the graphic novel, that astonishment and awe. I was hooked.

After spending the majority of late-January and February listening to the soundtrack on repeat, a question popped into my head. What was it like for Bechdel to see her own life played out on stage in front of her? Luckily, Alyssa Abbott asked the same thing of Bechdel shortly after the show’s first performance in 2013 in an interview for The Atlantic (which can be found here. Two statements from Bechdel struck me as she described her experience of seeing the show: she described seeing her own life on stage as “very strange and surreal” and also described the experience of seeing the show with her brother’s and aunt—“There were no words. We just let it wash over us.” I couldn’t peg down why those statements struck me as particularly important, but I stored them away in the random bits of knowledge part of my brain that may one day make me a Jeopardy star.

***

Their importance came a week ago, when discussing a project for one of my classes involving the subject of the uncanny. Stephen King describes terror as “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.” This description has been used by Lucy Hunter, a contributing editor for Critic magazine out of the Otago University Students’ Association, in her article “Journey into “The Uncanny Valley”” (which you can visit here). When discussing experiences of the uncanny, Hunter describes the “Uncanny” as “the sensation of something being both strange and familiar. It helps explain the reason why some things scare us, while others just creep us out. The uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre, or frightening: it involves a kind of duplicity (both in likeness and deception) within the familiar. A disturbance of the familiar.”

Finally, with this idea of the uncanny bouncing around in my head, it all clicked. Alison Bechdel’s statements about watching the play of her life had hit me because she described it as “very strange and surreal,” and experience that had to “wash over” her and her family. These were moments when the familiar elements of her life has been disturbed, replaced by the interpretation of the playwright and the actors and the musicians, a strong resemblance, but not the same. This was my every day experience looking at the headlines on my phone or the posts on my Facebook wall. The headlines identified me: “Millennials say ‘Not My President’,” “Trump Repeals Obama-Era Transgender Protections,” “Radical Left Professors Poison University Campuses.” These were terms I had used for myself, modes of constructing who I was, but they had replaced me in the narrative. These headlines had walked into my house, taken me out and left a replica in my place, an ill-informed idealist, a supposed predator, a target for hate and ire.

They came so quickly, these stories of horrific ignorance and self-centered greed, invading every moment of my life, from my Facebook wall, to my classroom discussions, to chats with colleagues and mentors in the halls. Me, who I had thought of myself as, was existing out there somewhere, an uncanny version for people to then assign back on to me with the same words I had used as a method of empowerment and self-realization. But these things that they said were not me. I may be an empathic idealist, but I pride myself in remaining informed, I am not a predator, I am kind and compassionate, I am not a rabid automaton of Leftist-rhetoric set on indoctrinating young minds in my classroom, I am a hard-working teacher who values pedagogy and the success and growth of my students. These headlines made a straw man of me, dressed it in my clothes, and trampled it to bits with their rhetoric, and I could not stand as my own witness. I could only offer my testimony in noxious comment sections and wait for the flame-war to ensue.

I was left to feel the weight of these events, so far outside my realm of immediate influence, wash over me with no time to process. Every event comes now in a rapid fire stream, so many executive orders, and bills before Congress, and life-shattering decisions tossed about like pawns in a game of Chess, meant for sacrifice and violence.

***

 The night at the LGBT Resource Center provided some very essential insight for me.

The media available to me for self-expression had been insufficient. Posts about my experiences on social media were met with affirmations from my colleagues and friends, who felt the same way, and virulent declarations of degradation from others; I should “grow up,” my life “sure must have been easy if this Presidential election is enough to break [me],” and “I sure hope you never have to face any real hardship in your life.”

My attempts to witness about the trauma of existing in this moment felt hollow. How do you provide testimony about a violence that exists not in blood spilled but in existence denied? Laverne Cox put it so much more pointedly than I had been able to when speaking about what the bathroom bill meant for transgender people on MSNBC: “When trans people can’t access public bathrooms we can’t go to school effectively, go to work effectively, access health-care facilities — it’s about us existing in public space,” she said. “And those who oppose trans people having access to the facilities consistent with how we identify know that all the things they claim don’t actually happen. It’s really about us not existing — about erasing trans people.”

I felt not only useless to witness for myself, but useless to help those who are without voice in this moment. Not all trauma is equivalent. I am in a place of privilege where my white skin, my social class, my vocation, my regional location, and even my ability to still pass as female in public spaces has granted me protections that are not available to so many others who exist in a far more marginalized space than myself. I want to make space for them, to open the floor and hold the haters at bay and let them scream out their truths about themselves, witnessing to their own trauma and terror in a country that has robbed them of their right to humanity and existence.

In this political moment, there has been both erasure and replacement of me as a non-binary, trans, millennial in the education field. And until that night at the LGBT Resource Center, I had had no way to witness about it in a way that felt real, to talk to others who had the same expressions on their faces that greeted me in the mirror before I plastered a smile on my face each morning. But in that room, it started to come together, the kernel of knowledge in the swirl of emotion and struggling thoughts. In that room, I could hold space for others, I could be the listening ear that is so essential for those testifying about their experiences. In that room, I could witness while others held space for me.

***

So what does it all mean? I’m living in a strange world where my life is related back to me and my value and identity determined by people in rooms hundreds of miles from me, and then blasted out over the media that permeates my life. It’s uncanny, and terrifying, and emotionally exhausting, yes, but I’ve got a framework for it now, a way of understanding where this feeling comes from, for me at least. And for me, as a scholar, having that framework to understand is usually my first step to finding a solution.


Hillarie ‘Rhyse’ Curtis is a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University where she studies (and occasionally writes about) queer narratives, masculinity, trauma, war, and fan fiction, among other things. 

Clark’s

I’m at a local beer place. They have three dozen beers on draft and a menu that consists of roast beef, roast turkey, pickled eggs, and maybe sometimes beef stew. I am tired, I am breaking my alcohol fast, and I am trying to revise a shitty document into something less shitty so that when I meet with my adviser tomorrow I can look him in the eye without this defensive lump in my throat.

There’s a guy I can hear out by the bar. He sounds like he knows everyone here, but I’ve never seen him.

I haven’t written anything new in a couple hours. I’ve watched some car reviews instead. I ate my sandwich. I’ve had two beers which, because of my fast, feel like four. Maybe I’ve overshot it.

The loud guy sees my local sports team apparel. He initiates local sports team chant at point blank. There is no one around to help me, it’s just me alone, and this man needs a response. I want to oblige. I repeat local sports team chant but am quiet about it. He tries again. I am again quiet about it. Another time; I laugh mumble something about being worn out. He punches my arm and says “I didn’t know they made introverts in Buffalo” before taking a seat with some people who said they would be leaving in four, not five minutes.

The guy making my beef and cheddar says, “You hiding upstairs?”

“Yeah.”

“WiFi?”

“Mostly Word.”

“Work?”

“Yeah.”

“Cheers.”

I have watched four different car reviews: Honda S2000. Ford Focus ST. 1991 Honda CRX Si. Corvette C7. There’s a whole YouTube channel of these things that takes each of these cars as a case study in American masculinity. I cannot tell if any of this ironic. I am pretty sure it is, but I think if it isn’t, I probably still like these videos. I wonder what the loud guy drives.

My Word document reads:

“My project will argue

The Questions my project will answer are”

~ ~ ~ ~

In a year’s time the local beer place will have closed already, suddenly. I’ll be there on its final night sitting with colleagues and friends, new puppy getting passed around the table like a peace pipe. We’ll be sitting outside on some crappy metal chairs that will soon be sold off at a discount to pay the bar’s debts. The weather will still be warm and nobody will have that overworked look yet.

There are conflicting reports about the reason for the bar’s closure. The owner is getting too old for the restaurant game, the renovation of our downtown theater hasn’t driven as much traffic as expected, the space is too big, downtown parking is a pain in the ass, constant construction put a dent in their summer clientele, etc. I get the feeling, drinking a beer there outside, that this place just got tired. Thought it had gotten in shape after a long hiatus, went for the comeback, and found that our city had moved on. The mixed signals are unfortunate – it seemed like everyone was excited for the grand opening, buzz was solid, and the pickled eggs were good. I go in to order another drink; there are only a few taps left alive. A little ways down the bar from me a couple middle aged guys talk over their wives about how this all makes sense even though it’s a shame. They confess to the bartender that they didn’t get down here often enough. He shrugs, starts talking about a six-pack of craft beer from Vermont he recently got a hold of and talks about moving somewhere else. A different guy hands me my beer, puts it on my tab and I head back outside.

There have been a string of new restaurant openings here in the past year. Leihs downtown, a place called the Evergreen, Aster, The York; each one starts up with the energy of a gauntlet thrown, daring our city to let another establishment die off. Their menus are complicated and sporadically local. Utica greens and chicken riggies. None of them have wi-fi and a quiet corner to watch a YouTube man crack dirty jokes about Nathaniel Hawthorne and Lee Iacocca, which makes sense. That seems like it was a bad business model all along.

I’m nursing a stout that I don’t like very much because it’s all they have left. There aren’t any more beef and cheddars, no stew, no pickled eggs. Some people show up with take out Chinese, stay for a few minutes and move on back home after petting the pup.

~ ~ ~ ~

For now though, this place is open. My Word document currently says things like:

“Methodologically, I intend to approach this dissertation with feet firmly planted in that most traditional of literary practices, close reading.”

and

“I wonder, briefly, if Lara has misgivings about her short shorts.”

and

“Video games are the textual lingua franca of a networked society.”

I am throwing half cooked spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks. Loud local sports guy has left, it’s almost midnight. Some dudebros downstairs are arguing about how they would rank the Star Wars films in terms of quality. I suggest that The Force Awakens was way less fan servicey than the most recent Star Trek films and for that should be commended. They don’t agree and I go get a third drink before packing in my computer for the night.

The best thing about this local beer place is its ring toss game. In the dining room there are two brass hooks mounted to two different posts. A heavy metal ring hangs from a bit of string above the hooks. The goal here is to swing the ring in such a way that it settles into place on the hook instead of glancing off with a clang. It’s the perfect drunk game. There’s a sweet spot you have to feel out as the night goes on where you’re just tipsy enough to really feel the weight of that ring in your hand, but not so drunk that you can’t line up your shot. After the third beer I check to see where I am. First shot, miss, second shot miss, move to the other post, hole-in-one.

I feel good. Think, the fact of this place proves this city isn’t all bad. Think, as long as this place stay open there’s a chance I’ll finish this degree. It’s cold outside, it’s January. The temperature gives me hiccups as soon as I step outside. The tables have been put away because who wants to sit outside on a night like this?


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

The Rhythms of Limitation: Learning about Self-Care in “Stardew Valley”

It’s six in the morning, on the dot, and Pabu wakes like a cuckoo, leaping out of bed, suspenders already clipped on, to face the day. It’s windy outside. Leaves of orange, red, and yellow are dense in the air and Pabu makes his way from his modest front porch to the neighboring coop, almost as big as his own home though it houses only a few chickens. Their names are Lady, Sweetie, and Mama; they each laid one egg in the overnight. The brown egg is enormous – double the size almost of the others. Pabu greets each chicken like a friend. The chickens regard him affectionately and seem happy. He leaves the coop, opens the chicken sized door beside the human-sized one, and heads out into the rest of the day, maybe to dig in the mines, maybe to fish on the coast, maybe to check in on his friend Leah who he has come to hope thinks of him when she makes her charming, if provincial, paintings.

Pabu has lived in a hidden away corner of the world called Stardew Valley, just outside the small fishing village of Pelican Town for almost a year. Fall is winding down, and despite his recent arrival, his spread of crops, jams, and gems from the mine took second place at the Harvest Festival, just behind Pierre the local shop owner who struggles to stay afloat in the face of a new mega-chain grocery in town. Not long ago Pabu worked a futureless office job, cliched in its anonymity and deadening effect on the soul. Desperate for an out Pabu reached for envelope from his grandfather, like a lapsed Baptist reaching for a disused Bible, and found therein the deed to a dilapidated farm. Feeling himself sinking in the malaise of American corporate rhythms, Pabu took hold of his grandfather’s lifeline and departed for the old, out of shape farm that was his birthright.

Pabu is a character in Stardew Valley, a video game made by a single developer that released almost exactly a year ago. More to the point, Pabu is a character in my game of Stardew Valley, no one else’s. I chose his swoopy hair, gave him and his dog, Naga, names from my favorite TV show, and dressed him in suspenders that he never, ever takes off. Details on Pabu are sketchy. At the outset of the game I knew nothing about him other than his dissatisfaction with life in the big city and his relative inexperience with agrarian work. Like many, many other games character customization helped forge a slim bond between myself and Pabu, but the rich inner life that I have come to know in Pabu comes from sharing in his pastoral rhythms for dozens of hours. These rhythms are mundane and restrictive and yet evoke a broad sense of possibility with each new sunrise. Stardew Valley transforms restriction into freedom, such that despite its limited scope – there are no cataclysms to stop, no world ending villains to defeat – it can feel daunting in its openness.

This is because the only hard limits Stardew Valley puts on you, the player, are in the form of time and exertion. While you can play Stardew Valley forever, continuing to develop your farm and your relationships to the people of Pelican Town for decades, each day lasts only a certain amount of time. No matter what, Pabu always wakes up at 6 am. The latest Pabu can go to bed is 2 am at which point if I haven’t gotten him back to bed he’ll simply pass out where he stands. Ideally, I try to get Pabu to bed between 11 and midnight so he has enough sleep to get him through the next day. This sleep schedule means that each day only has a limited number of hours with which to work. Alongside those limited hours Pabu is further constrained by his own limited reserves of energy. Almost every action in Stardew Valley uses up your character’s energy, such that no matter how quickly I move from place to place, there is a hard limit on how much Pabu can accomplish. Sleep replenishes that energy, but it only fills back up if enough sleep has been had. If Pabu works too hard, he’ll collapse of exhaustion and wake up sheepishly in his own bed the next morning with a letter of admonishment from a kind passerby who got him home.

These hard limitations are part of what gives Stardew Valley its profound sense of rhythm. The passage of time and the depletion of energy operationalize in clear, unambiguous terms our own limits as people, laborers, and friends. If I push Pabu too hard the game simply says “stop.” Because of this I know Pabu’s limits exactly. I know when it is ok to dig down just one more level in the mine and when to call it a day and head to the saloon. Stardew Valley trains you to be attentive to the needs of your character, to remember their humanity, and to filter your own relationship to the farm and Pelican Town through your character’s capacities instead of your own. Simple though they may be, the daily structure and limited energy of Stardew Valley are profoundly humane game mechanics that force us to recognize the people for whom farms, food, and labor are for. What, after all, is the point of abandoning the coprorate world if the pastoral is unable to bring any peace?

Self-care has become a somewhat contentious buzzword in the year that Stardew Valley has been available. Self-care is a way to talk about how to make sure that in the midst of your work, your relationships, and your politics you do not forget the borders of your own body. Some have argued that self-care is nothing more than the indulgent entitlement of millennials who don’t want to work as hard as their forbears. Stardew Valley teaches us otherwise. When Pabu wakes up in the morning after a fresh seven hours, energy meter replenished, watering can in hand, the day stretches before us in all its rich possibility. I know that though we can’t do everything today, we can do some things, and those things will be good and worthwhile. They are worthy because I have chosen to do them. Among many other options I have chosen to fish, or to talk, or to wander and forage instead of something else. Knowing Pabu’s limitations as I do means that every choice is consciously made. Even the decision to do not much, to, for instance on a rainy day, simply pay Leah a visit and maybe give her a flower from Pabu’s garden, is an attentive one. And if the day slides by without any tangible production, Stardew Valley refuses to punish you. It simply says, “go to sleep, and see what the new day brings.” For Pabu, there is always work to be done, but none of the work exhausts because it is all work that he knows he can do, he knows he has time for, and he knows he has chosen for himself.

For sure, parts of Stardew Valley are escapist in their nostalgia. At first glance it seems to long for a bygone nowhere of rural America and its retro pixel art aesthetic evokes an innocent time for video games when we were children yelling at each other for a turn on the controller, not doxxing feminists on Twitter. But Stardew Valley is careful to puncture those nostalgic tableaus. Not all is well here. Penny must bear with her verbally abusive alcoholic mother, living conspicuously in the only trailer in town. Harvey, the town doctor, worries constantly about his own job security and his inability to integrate socially with his peers. Clint the blacksmith sometimes stays in the Saloon until 1 am, sitting by himself, because he both cannot bear to talk to Emily who he loves and cannot bear to not talk. Pastoral though it may be, Stardew Valley refuses to offer the farm life as the panacea to postmodern ennui, and instead points to carefully cultivated, humane attention to the needs of people, whatever they may be. This is what self-care means, and this is why, I suspect, Stardew Valley has been so well received in a year where everyone has found themselves exhausted and exasperated by their world. The rhythms of Stardew Valley are not really about crops or livestock. They are about staging a “revolt against the homilies of this world.”[1] They are about breathing, listening, and what it means to live another day.

[1] “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather

HIGH ENERGY: Political Feeling on /r/The_Donald

[A Gulf of Feeling]

A while back a woman named Kellyanne Conway took to the airwaves to explain why the man she works for, President Donald J. Trump, began his administration with an easily verifiable lie about the size of his inaugural peni-I mean crowd. Her interviewer, Chuck Todd, asked why the president would choose to initiate his official relationship to the public and the press with such an apparently petty moment of self-aggrandizement. What followed was a defining moment of national incredulity when Kellyanne suggested that the press had one set of facts and spokesperson Sean Spicer gave the world some of his own “alternative” ones.

Except not everyone was incredulous. As has been the story for much of last year’s election and the first month of Trump’s presidency, there is an enormous gap in feeling between Trump’s supporters and his detractors on the things he says. I say “feeling” because the distance between the pro- and anti-Trump camps is primarily a sentimental one. Kellyanne’s alternative facts are divisive not because they are in and of themselves outrageous, but because they have failed to inspire a universally incredulous response from the electorate. One common criticism of the left as it exists in the United States is that it lacks imagination for the future – since the sixties it has had a hard time seeing political possibility outside the confines of global capital and centrist organizing. Trump’s win has highlighted a different failure of the left’s imagination, however: a failure to imagine how someone – anyone – could be ok with the Donald as president.

To be clear, there have been many, many attempts to explain the Donald’s continuing and often mystifying support. You’ve likely encountered some of these explanations: the growing legitimacy of white supremacy as public discourse, the rising tide of authoritarian fascism, electoral meddling by foreign powers, the backlash of a disenfranchised white working class against a global economy that has passed them over, the failure of feminism as an intersectional project, etc. etc. There is good reason to spend time considering each of these lines of argumentation, and it seems likely that to a certain extent, they each help us understand why Mr. Trump won the election. Where they do not help us, however, is in understanding what sustains the intense support the Donald still enjoys from a certain subset of his online constituents despite what has been by virtually all accounts a disastrous first month in office. President Trump rides on communities of support whose defining attributes are not a shared set of ideological tenets but a carefully cultivated mélange of highly motivating feelings expressed through a sophisticated, fluid, and often arcane vocabulary.

What follows then is an attempt to use one of the more prominent gathering places for Trump supporters online – reddit.com/r/the_donald – to think about that seemingly unbridgable affective gap between “us,” the incredulous ones, and “them,” the hardcore “centipedes”[1] that have for nearly a year given rabid Trumpish fandom pride of place on one of the Internet’s most frequently visited destinations. A couple quick caveats. First, I do not believe that the folks on /r/the_donald represent the majority of Trump voters, and I am uninterested in trying to forge that connection. Trump’s popularity has always been driven by a hardcore minority and a relatively passive bunch of hangers-on who either out of Clinton-phobia or belief in the dogmas of “business sense” went along for the ride. Minority or majority, either way, their high visibility, high impact discursive tactics have always been the driving source of Trump’s reactionary brand of populism, and therefore warrant our attention. Second, this piece is in no way an attempt to build a bridge across that gap of sentiment. There are more than enough white liberal dudes already calling for the abandonment of “identity politics” in order to recapture the centrist voter, as though we must accept institutional racism and misogyny as the cost of doing business in democratic governance. Instead, by exploring and accounting for the affective economies of Trumpish Internet communities, I hope to help us understand the limits of reasoned debate in our political climate, the emptying of language in the era of the Donald, and the seductive appeal of belonging to hype.

[NSFC: Not Safe For Cucks]

CUCKOLD

NOUN: the husband of an adulteress, often regarded as an object of derision

VERB: (of a man) make (another man) a cuckold by having a sexual relationship with his wife. (of a man’s wife) make (her husband) a cuckold.

Of the unlikely linguistic phenomena surrounding Trump’s ascendency, the resurrection of cuckold, or “cuck,” out of the Chaucerian haze to prominence might seem the most baffling. And yet on /r/the_donald, cuck has become a crucial tool for managing the affective relation between themselves and the rest of the world. To talk about cucks in the Donald’s world is to apply the shame of being un-manned to those who have not yet realized the glorious truth of God Emperor Trump[2]. To be a cuck is to be a dupe; it is to be made a bitch of by those you trust. Cuck is the opposite of woke or red-pilled. If you are a cuck you cannot be trusted in even the most basic cognitive or social tasks and you are probably a degenerate yourself – why else after all would you fail to secure your own wife? Must be because your dick doesn’t work, or worse, because you are a faggot.

Cuck collapses a rather run-of-the-mill political accusation, that your opponents are easily manipulated and blind, into a broader ecosystem of hypermasculine sexual prowess. Nowhere is this clearer than in the tagging system for posts on /r/the_donald. Reddit uses tagging to inform users about the content of a link before they click it, and moderators of individual subreddits are empowered to create their own sets of tags that cater to the specific needs of that community. One of the more popular tags on /r/the_donald is NSFCucks: Not Safe For Cucks. This, of course, plays on the widely used acronym NSFW (Not Safe For Work) which generally denotes pornographic material that your workplace might find objectionable. Like pornography, which purports to tell a naked truth, NSFCucks material offends by violating the norms that guide a cuck’s belief system. Material tagged NSFCucks is material the community deems to be “triggering,” like this post where a member of the community brags about firing seven employees who participated in this week’s #DayWithoutImmigrants protests. [Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/The_Donald/comments/5uk6md/i_fired_7_employees_across_3_different_states/%5D This is the second marker of the cuck: misguided empathy. Community member TrumpIsAHero asserts his non-cuck status by brushing off the tears of his newly fired employees with one word: “SAD!”

The many flexible applications of “cuck” have the added effect of securing a tight loop of mutual re-affirmation. To frame gullibility as emasculating shame is to ensure that a community never allows itself to be put in a position of admitting wrong. The intellectual superiority of /r/the_donald is secured not by strength of argumentation or even repetition of dogma, but by an emotional ecosystem built around expelling, deriding, and exposing the cuck in all his embarrassing nakedness. This is why trolling has been an essential tool of the online Trumper – it ensures at all costs that the cuck stays outside of their midst while soliciting moral and intellectual indignation that confirms the in-group beliefs about how cucks behave. You can see this commitment to trolling the cucks as a foundational community ethos as easily as organizing /r/the_donald by all-time upvoted posts, all of which were therefore visible on /r/all, the website’s public facing front page. The vast majority are simply pictures of Donald Trump’s face with headlines like “CAN’T STUMP YOUR PRESIDENT TRUMP” or “Hey admins, we found a picture of your wife’s boyfriend’s president!”

Finally, this discursive economy causes /r/the_donald to have some strange and surprising infatuations in apparently unrelated arenas. For instance, the recent disputes between popular YouTuber PewDiePie, Google, and Disney has made quite a stir on /r/the_donald. [Link: https://www.reddit.com/r/The_Donald/comments/5u6nro/pewdiepies_channel_just_pretty_much_red_pilled/] After PewDiePie’s recent “Death To All Jews” stunt for his Youtube channel, Google and Disney cut official ties with the entertainer, a move that folks at /r/the_donald believe exposes their own cuckishness to millennials who now will see social justice issues for what they are: shallow, meaningless political correctness enforced by oversensitive SJWs that can’t take a joke.

[WINNING]

It isn’t all negative affect and insults in Trumpland, however. In fact, much of /r/the_donald can only be described as HIGH ENERGY, yet another of the subreddit’s many content tags. And as effective as cuckoldry is at conjuring the feels of a strong community, it is this notion of high energy that goes the farthest in explaining why you might feel a little mad like I now do after spending some time visiting these communities online.

HIGH ENERGY describes the momentum of the movement. It speaks to a kind of manifest destiny that underwrites communities like /r/the_donald who see their rise to power as a sort of karmic reckoning for the accumulation of wrongs perpetrated by SJWs, the liberal media, and the corrupt Democratic establishment. HIGH ENERGY always smacks of inevitability. It can also be a sort of community resource to be shared among like minded movements, as in “Brexit, take my HIGH ENERGY,” and in this way HIGH ENERGY signifies the broader linkage of authoritarian, xenophobic movements across the globe. Your post might be HIGH ENERGY if it gets to the top of Reddit by gaming their algorithm. Your post might also be HIGH ENERGY if it screenshots a particularly zesty tweet from the new Commander-in-Chief.

HIGH ENERGY posting asserts victory before it happens, and in the assertion, brings victory into the present. It’s not so much an act of faith as of radical prophecy. Trust in the Donald because he has already won. You can see that he has already won (and will continue to win) by how much the community asserts that winning in the now. You can see already the way this inverts the cuck, whose emasculation at the hand of feminists and identitarians have left him with low energy, while loyalty to Trump promises a pathway to recaptured virility. This is what is meant by Make America Great Again. As long as America is low energy, as long as it has been cucked into submission by things apology tours and Black Lives Matter, it will languish, impotent and frail. HIGH ENERGY is the prescription. It is winning by fiat, and it is why Bill Maher’s brand of platform-providing liberal discourse can never counter a movement like the Donald’s. It is why we did not in fact share a moment of national incredulity at Kellyanne Conway’s interview. It is why for many in the center and on the left this entire election has felt so jarring, like they don’t recognize the world they live in anymore. Where we might want to think of policy and governance as a question of facts, argumentation, clash, and money, places like /r/the_donald wash all of that away with a seemingly unassailable network of feeling.

To belong on /r/the_donald you don’t need to hold any particular policy position at all. Holding policy positions is simply a strategic error to the online Trumper because it exposes you to a world of argumentation and a mode of knowledge production that works for the cucks. Much better to model your communities on Donald’s own style of debate, which is to say, not a style of debate at all, but a relentless assertion of supremacy. There was no shared moment of national incredulity because there has been a sea change in what politics consists of. There is a gulf of sentiment because one group, the incredulous ones, believes they derive feeling from reason, and the other asserts, prima facie, the feeling as ground zero. If there is to be a sustained resistance, and if it is to be at all effective instead of ending in yet another splintering of the leftists, liberals, and centrists of our country, we have to begin with some assertions of our own.

[1] A self-assigned designation for Trump supporters online. Derives from episode 4 of the Can’t Stump the Trump Youtube series.

[2] One of many favored designations for President Trump on /r/the_donald


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

Things you think about when you’re in the ICU holding your dad’s hand and he’s still under anesthesia from open heart surgery but he opens his eyes for the first time

NoteWhen I agreed to write for Metathesis this month I planned on starting off with something strident, political, and sharp. I had this series all planned out about football and fascism, “third way” pro-lifers, and Stardew Valley in the age of Trump. Maybe I’ll revisit these before months’ end, but I did not count on how tired I would feel by the first few weeks of our new regime, nor how acutely I would sense the Internet’s saturation with thinkpieces on yet another new advancing horror to resist. These last several weeks have felt inhumane to me in a vague way, not because of any great suffering on my part, but because the relentless grief and anger that the rise of white nationalism to our country’s highest offices inspires has a deadening effect on the senses. In that spirit, I want to share something that, at least in the reading, feels more humane to me.


That it makes sense why they need to lower a person’s body temperature to 92 degrees for such a major surgery but it still feels awful holding his frigid hand.

~ ~ ~

That his hands and feet are swollen, so swollen the skin feels stretched like a cheap water balloon.

~ ~ ~

A conversation you had in the days leading up to the surgery. You didn’t talk much — he wasn’t too forthcoming about his feelings and your attempts to solicit anything from him felt trite and obvious.

How are you feeling? Well I had a heart attack and doctors are about to break my sternum open, run all my blood through an external pump while my heart gets cut up, so pretty bad I guess.

So you don’t have that conversation, and instead, after a while, you ask him something more open-ended and he tells you that it’s weird to be on a hospital bed surrounded by family so soon after burying his own dad. You think about both scenes. With his dad, there were no father/son conversations at all. Grandpa’s shallow breaths were slow and quiet; everyone in the room traded stories in hushed, laughing tones about the shared violence of their childhoods. Snow piled up on the deck furniture outside the sliding doors of his hospice room. Different with your dad. There is a lot of worry, a little self reflection, and a lot of middling conversation that helps stave off the heaviness of futurity and risk. Not like with grandpa who was practically already gone. Your dad’s well enough to make the waiting hurt. With your dad, the room is smaller, and there’s a roommate who’s a lot older and has just had the same surgery your dad is going to have. The roommate dies overnight.

~ ~ ~

You think his trimmed beard doesn’t look that bad at all and that his chin is way less recessed than your mom says it is.

~ ~ ~

The thing about your dad is you feel like if you had lived his life you’d have a lot more to share with your kids when they visit.

~ ~ ~

His eyes open and you get the sense that maybe they shouldn’t open yet. His eyes bulge. You think he looks confused. When your mother cries he looks concerned, maybe a little guilty. You wonder about your own cholesterol and look at your wife. One of your sisters starts to cry too though not the one you expect.

~ ~ ~

You think about that breathing tube.

~ ~ ~

You don’t feel regret but an adjacent feeling about not talking to him more before the surgery. You wonder when the last time was that you both had an extended conversation about something you mutually felt was important and that was not triggered by a family crisis. You’re both people who like to argue, like to be right, but you’ve stopped arguing with any regularity, in part because it stresses your mom out, but also because it’s hard work and makes you feel a little depressed. You always get the sense that he thinks you’re patronizing him. But when the arguing went away, so did the sense of intimacy. You figure the last conversation like that must have been five or so years ago in Canandaigua at a bar you had been to once with some old friends from high school. They have good dark beer on tap which gets dad tipsy fast but makes him feel good because its darkness signifies legitimacy. It’s about forty minutes from where you live and forty minutes from where he lives. Feels more like neutral ground than most places. You initiated under the pretense of catching up, which was true, but also because you had two things to disclose, one religious and you thought minor, the other academic and you thought more serious. He saw it the opposite way. You disagreed but didn’t feel angry. You felt respected and friendly.

~ ~ ~

There was that time — it comes back now, flies by unsolicited — when you were a kid, who knows how old, young, and were getting ready to play in the snow outside (a loop forward to that hospice room). It was a process and dad was helping out. Sweatpants. Wool socks over sweatpants. Flannel. Sweatshirt. Snowpants, zip, clip, clip. Jacket, go Bills. Gloves. Here you got hung up. Your fingers won’t go into the right spot. They kept slipping into a space between the glove’s shell and the fuzzy lining and you were hot and whiny already, itching to get outside, climb the hill from the plow, make angels, play with next-door-neighbor Sarah. Sisters already outside. Dad’s trying to help, shoving, pulling, telling you to push. Then you’re crying and dad yells, incredibly, “be a man.” You remember him saying be a man a few times but it might just be echoes in the remembering. You cry harder, say, I’m just a kid not a man.

~ ~ ~

Think about how bad it feels to have come so close to losing dad and not given him a grandkid yet. Think about what a bad reason that is to have a kid. Think about futurity in the academic sense, the bad politics of the nuclear family, and dysfunction, but still you consider bargaining with God about letting dad pull through if you both would just make a kid finally.

~ ~ ~

Why you remembered the incident with the glove.

~ ~ ~

An uncanny, happy intensity when he squeezes back in response to your squeeze.

~ ~ ~

Think about kissing him on the forehead, remember you performed the same ritual for his dad as he lay on his deathbed, and then again in his casket. Decide not to here. Superstitious.

~ ~ ~

Mostly just you wanting. Want him to be comfortable. Want him to feel ok again. Want him to not die. Want him to have to face the fallout of his choices. Want to be able to yell at him. Want him to be honest with you. Want your relationship with him to be less angsty. Want him to not have to feel bad about the stuff you think he should probably feel bad about. Want to recapture a common ground. Want to not put your own partner through this mess of tubes and numbers and sutures. Want to not have to talk to people about this experience. Want to leave. Want to not cry. Want him not to die. Want and want and want.

~ ~ ~

The nurse talking about fluids and temperatures and involuntary twitches due to the sedation starting to wear off.

You think about what it means that he looks beautiful.

 

Thanks to Charles Matthew Petrie, Rachel Elizabeth Arrieta, and John Stadler for their invaluable feedback.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D candidate at Syracuse University where he writes about video games and other things.

Coda: Converting Art — Literature During Political Repression

I went to the Early Modern Conversions Symposium at the Folger Shakespeare Library with a hypothesis about the role of conversion in some of my own research. In the process of reading for my qualifying exams, I’ve noticed that Mary Magdalene keeps showing up in Early Modern literature — especially poetry or devotional prose written by men who had experienced some kind of religious conversion in their lives. Before they wrote about Mary Magdalene, some — like Henry Constable — converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, while others — like the Protestant Henry Vaughan and the Catholic Robert Southwell, S.J. — underwent intra-denominational conversion, wherein they reformed their professional and literary aspirations in order to sharpen their focus on the divine.

On the face of things, Mary Magdalene’s recurrence throughout decades of English literature is not an unexpected fact: biblical subjects were popular ones in Early Modern poetry on both sides of the Reformation. What renders this a curious fact is the history of Mary Magdalene’s representation in earlier English literature. Before the English Reformation, Mary Magdalene was the star of the famous and often-produced Digby mystery play fittingly called Mary Magdalene.

As I wrote earlier, Elizabeth banned the production of any religious subjects on stage, let alone mystery plays, which once had been one of the most essential ways of communicating Catholic religious principles and traditions to a mass, generally illiterate, audience. It’s not surprising that Mary Magdalene’s story had been a popular one to stage: in a conflation of a few gospel narratives, Mary Magdalen was a prostitute who extravagantly repented of her sexual sins by washing Christ’s feet with her tears and hair and anointing him with expensive perfume; having transferred her love for sex to love for Christ, she appears as one of the women who remains with Christ at his crucifixion, and she weeps at the tomb when she sees that her beloved’s corpse has gone missing. Her narrative is highly visual, full of erotic tension, and contains just the right amount of inspiration porn to urge a religious audience to convert their hearts like Mary.

Domenico Tintoretto’s The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1598, a painting depicting a half-naked woman praying amid reed mats, a skull, a crucifix, a book, and a bowl. Her brown curls are fabulous.]

“Thank you, God, for a good hair day today.”

Without the legal means to stage truly biblical conversion stories like these, Elizabethan and Jacobean literary artists necessarily had to find other media in which to work. A genre like poetry or devotional prose offered an interesting advantage over the essay or the sermon: they had connotations of intimacy, not publicity. Published collections, if they were published in the author’s lifetime, were often prefaced by long, exaggerated declamations of humility insisting that the author’s friends or a sense of duty had made them publish it against their own great reservations — not because they had designs on exposing the masses to a Catholic aesthetic. Even Southwell (who, as a Jesuit missionary, did have designs on converting the hearts of his audience) declared in the dedication of his devotional prose work “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears” that he wished to “alter the object” of men’s “[p]assions … and loves” — a perfectly nondenominational desire to reform (sexual) desire.

Political restrictions on public expression also impacted how writers conceived of their private faith, shifting their attention to the interior experience of spiritual self-reformation over its external manifestation — no sackcloth and ashes here, but rather serious reflection on what it means to have conformed one’s heart to God’s will, a thought process often articulated in literary words. The Mary Magdalene depicted in these converts’ writing is not the same Mary Magdalene of the mystery plays. Yes, she converts herself from sex worker to saint, and her desire for Christ supplants her lust for flesh, but as a convert her personality doesn’t really change: her affection for Christ is still highly eroticized as she longs for his resurrected body, and she still has a predilection for the sensory and sensual. Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s conversion is not dramatized precisely because, to these Early Modern converts concerned with what makes a convert, the elements of interest in her story do not reside in the spectacular outward gestures of her conversion — her tears and perfumes and kisses — but rather her interior motivation to make these gestures and to convert her soul.

Titian’s Noli me tangere, c. 1512, a painting depicting a bearded man, trying to hold his shroud on with one hand with a staff in his other, as a woman in red and white crawls toward him, her right hand raised; a village on a hill and farmland are in the background.]

But “Noli me tangere” brings new meaning to “No touch-y.”

Indeed, in contrast to the transfiguration fulfilled in the body of the risen Christ, Mary Magdalene undergoes an internal metamorphosis with no impact on her body. In his poem to her, Vaughan exclaims, “How art thou changed!”, before observing that “thy beauty doth still keep / Bloomy and fresh” (my emphasis). The idea that she can be changed, while still looking exactly the same, speaks to an understanding that profound conversions do not always have visible consequences. Instead, Mary Magdalene’s conversion changes her interiority: marveling at the profound effects that her love for Christ has on her character, Southwell asks, “Can it thus alter sex, change nature, and exceed all art?” — even the art of theatrical representation.

In a complex way, Early Modern political repression of certain artistic genres helped change not only which art was most useful to understanding one’s faith but also how artists used that art to understand their political and spiritual conditions. Elizabethan and Jacobean artists still did not have much choice about how they wrote, as not even poetry was completely safe: the Jesuit Henry Walpole was run out of England for writing a poem celebrating Edmund Campion, a Jesuit martyr, and the poem’s printer infamously had his ears cut off for publishing it. But even under repression, artists find ways to capture the changing world.


Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

Legalizing Repression: “Muslim Registries” and English Recusants

On my last day at the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium — blissfully unaware that nazis were meeting just down the Washington Mall — I spent part of my lunch break with the Folger’s rare books and manuscript collections. I didn’t have long to submit my request the afternoon before, so I did a quick catalogue search and picked documents almost at random authored by the Surrey Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants, an organization I knew nothing about but whose name held promising keywords. Not until I sat down in the Paster Reading Room and pulled the manuscripts from their grey envelopes did I realize the history I was holding in my hands. These sixteenth-century documents contained lists of indicted recusants, sent to local and national English authorities for the purpose of tracking and condemning religious and political treason.

As the threat of “Muslim registries” continues to linger after American lawmakers announced their support for such a tracking database, a number of writers have traced the connection of this desire for legalized discrimination/preemptive criminalization to other moments in recent history: the Bush administration’s NSEERS program, the Japanese internment, and the Holocaust. Each of these campaigns relied heavily on information processing, especially the collection of personal data which the state then weaponized against a domestic population. Modern computerized data processing certainly facilitated repression in these cases, and still promise to in the case of “Muslim registries,” but the roots of counting and criminalizing a whole class of people stretch much further back in history.

The Post-Reformation English state expended a great deal of resources on identifying, harassing, and condemning those who had failed to convert to, or had converted from, the state religion — the Church of England. Attendance at Church of England services was mandatory, and tracking attendance was one of the chief means of tracking non-conformists, including Anabaptists, Arminianists, Familists, but chiefly Catholics. Failure to attend resulted in fines, and also raised suspicions (as did too-frequent refusal of communion). Other religious transgressions were considered high treason: harboring a priest, facilitating the celebration of mass, or simply being a priest within England’s borders. High treason carried the death penalty and the forfeiture of property which would have benefitted one’s living descendants. Authorities could conduct raids on a household at any time in search of priests, vestments, and nonconformist texts and paraphernalia; the household would have to pay the authorities for the cost of the search.

Because there was no difference between the English church and the English state, transgression against the Church of England was transgression against the whole nation. Catholics were vilified as devilish foreign agitators, automatic enemies of the English people determined to replace the English monarch with the Whore of Babylon (otherwise known as the pope); other non-conformists were similarly foreignized and othered, in spite of their being born in English territory.

welshman

Welshman who claimed he was Christ, tho.

 

The documents I looked at in the Folger’s collection show how the English state orchestrated the tracking and regulation of religious nonconformity at every level. In Surrey, the Commission Concerning Jesuits, Seminaries, and Recusants recorded the indictments of local residents who failed to appear in church. One severely damaged handwritten document from 1572 describes the early days of the Commission, when it was formed at the express order of the Privy Council (Elizabeth’s inner circle, a kind of cabinet), and the bureaucratic tracking measures put in place in order to regulate and eliminate their impact on the security of the Protestant English state.

Image One.jpg

Another handwritten document (L.b. 241), on a sheet of parchment folded into its own envelope, was a 1581 arrest warrant for Jane Honyall, who had been a recusant for four years and was a suspected Catholic. This was one of a series of three documents pertaining to Hornyall; the other two (L.b. 199 and L.b. 208, respectively) concern the vicar and churchwardens of Egham, who were compelled to be witnesses to her years-long absence and also confirm that there were “no other recusants, massing priests or Jesuits in the parish” — lest the queen’s authorities suspect a cell of rebel Catholics was growing under the churchmen’s noses. Hornyall’s warrant includes three signed seals, quite literally officially sealing her fate.

Image Two.jpg

Later, in a 1582 document (L.b. 219), the fully-fledged Commission listed in handwritten columns of indictments who had been convicted or released through the intercession of the Privy Council, and who had been imprisoned or “conformed” (officially repented and returned to church).

Image Three.jpg

Other documents in the More Family of Losely Park, Surrey, collection — from which the above documents come — include official descriptions of the finances of different recusants and their ability to pay the fines levied against them.

That’s because this kind of tracking and regulating of minorities is never really about “domestic security” — hardly so. “Domestic security” uses an imaginary threat of foreign (or foreignized) “others” to mask policies that socially and financially benefit an elite few — usually, the financially and ethnically elite, although in England’s case religion came to operate as a kind of ethnic identity which conversion never truly erased. By inventing an overwhelmingly generalized set of policies, the elite secure the participation of the majority of the population in executing and sustaining those policies, even if only the elite continue to benefit from them. Before Nazi Germany legislatively stole property from Jews, the US from the First Nations and Japanese-Americans, and Israel from Palestinians, Elizabethan England systematically deprived English Catholics of their stake in England. Serial fines could slowly drain Catholic families of their financial resources, and a family member convicted of treason could deplete a family of everything all at once. John Gerard, an English Jesuit who survived to write about his mission work in England, described how many poor Catholics were dependent on the charity of the remaining property-owning Catholics who had so far escaped retribution. The property of persecuted Catholics of course would have gone back to the use of the Crown, not the people.

US Muslim-tracking policies — whether their targets are new immigrants who have to periodically check in with federal authorities or lifetime citizens covertly observed at their local university or place of worship — troublingly echo the technological and ideological systems of repression that supported the imprisonment, impoverishment, and death of minorities in our national and global history. Though the medium may have been different — handwriting instead of digital text, personal witness rather than metadata tracking — the method is nothing new.

Photos of manuscripts appear courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

A row of stage crew and actors in eighteenth-century-style costumes stands on a stage; an actor stands in front of them reading from a small piece of paper; the shadowed heads of audience members are visible in the foreground.]

Persuasive Performance: Theater and Conversion

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” — Brandon Victor Dixen

On the Friday night after our first full day of the Early Modern Theatre and Conversion symposium, I did quite possibly the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done: from my hotel room near the Capitol Building, I spent an hour calling my representatives in support of the Affordable Care Act and against Jeff Sessions, and turned on the original cast recording of Hamilton.

At the same time, in our nation’s original capital, New York City, a very special performance of Hamilton was underway — the performance attended by the recently-declared Vice-President Elect Mike Pence. There, in the Richard Rodgers Theater, was everybody’s least favorite advocate of gay “conversion” therapy. Theater, and conversion.

The coincidence wasn’t lost on any of us attending the symposium. I spent the night constantly refreshing my Twitter feed, watching the NYC audience react emotionally — applauding when Rory O’Malley’s King George sang “Do you know how hard it is to rule?” in Pence’s direction, chanting “Immigrants: we get the job done” with the cast, and cheering when Brandon Victor Dixon’s Aaron Burr implored Pence to “uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.” Other colleagues watched the outraged and troubling reaction from Trump and Pence (respectively) on loop in the morning news in the hotel exercise room. Back at the Folger, we started the next day with the Conversion Project’s Stephen Wittek (McGill) reminding us of the increasing importance and timeliness of our research on the peculiar power of theater — its ability to bind together strangers in a common visceral experience and convert their hearts.

Theater is a powerful phenomenon, both for the Early Moderns and for us today. It combines words and flesh live on the stage to lead an audience through a physically unmediated and very immediate communal experience. Because of its power to affect and effect, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theater was heavily regulated. Anti-theatrical commentators like William Prynne and Philip Stubbes argued that theater’s ability to create lifelike verisimilitude in representing the murder of kings and the seduction of maidens helped stir audience members to wrath and lust, leading them to commit acts of treason and to join after-show orgies. Elizabeth I wasn’t quite as suspicious of theater as these writers, but she still ensured that a limited number of performances licenses were distributed to cautiously censored texts, preventing audiences from getting too many ideas about regicide or, crucially, schismatic beliefs.

Representation of Christianity — whether of biblical narratives or of wedding rites — was outright forbidden on the Early Modern English stage. Partly, this was meant to suppress the performance of mystery plays: once involving entire towns in their production as an act of worship, they were made illegal as too idolatrous or just too Catholic to allow lest they facilitate communities’ ideological schism from the Church of England. Partly, representation of the thing on the stage was thought to make possible the thing itself in the real world. If Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was reported to conjure real demons at one of its performances, performing England’s Catholic past threatened to make that ideological past the reality of the present. As religious-studies scholar Torrance Kirby (McGill) observed in his paper on the rhetorical theater of St. Paul’s Cathedral sermons, by the turn of the seventeenth century, one’s religion was no longer determined by “sacrament” or heritage, but rather one’s susceptibility to a “culture of persuasion.” The theater was too powerful a persuader to remain unregulated if the crown wanted the Church of England to remain the church of state.

Perhaps, when Trump demanded that addresses like the Hamilton cast’s “not happen” and Pence intimated that the theater wasn’t an “appropriate venue” for Dixon’s speech, their subconsciouses understood that theatrical power to persuade; perhaps that’s why they would have theater censored in their respective ways. But for those of us who value free speech and the powerful world of (in Dixon’s words) “different colors, creeds and orientations” that the production of Hamilton imagines, the theater is one especially important setting that will still endeavor to convert hearts in the new administration.


Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.