It has become, I'm not sure how, something of a tradition to paint Coptic mummy portraits on New Year's Day. In the crystalline sunlight, in a quiet house, after the debris of our party the night before has been cleaned up and our family settles into tranquil indoor recreations with Dad making successive rounds of cappuccinos; then I take out our book of mummy portraits from the Met Museum, and replicate in acrylic some deceased person who lived centuries ago, and who looks in many cases like someone I might know, or recognize... This year's portrait dates from the AD 60's, from Roman Egypt under the reign of Emperor Nero. In a delirious melding of cultures, we listen to my parents tape of Greek opera all the while...
LIVING MY GAP YEAR
In 2014, when I was a High School senior and wispy seventeen year old, I worked for a brand called Vince: it was my third modeling job and my first overnight in the Ford model apartments in New York City. It was actually a rather turbulent two days: I was alone and so agonizingly shy that the attention funneled at me while on set brought me, each morning and always surreptitiously, to tears. This fall, three and a half years later, I returned to Vince for a few days to shoot their pre-fall web content. This time the shoot was in Bushwick. This time I spent the night(s) with a former classmate, from that very same high school, who now has a midtown apartment, and this time I knew the ropes of my profession and felt no more out of place on set than anyone lending their body to a group of creative and marketing-minded strangers necessarily feels. In fact, not all of the people on set this time were strangers—both of the in-house photographers had shot me when I was that wispy new face, when we were in a Manhattan office and I was acutely disoriented. So I very much enjoyed the days I spent at Vince for this job, and the friends I made there and the collection we shot, a few pieces of which I already have my eye on. I very much enjoyed completing a full circle of sorts, in a superficial industry so unconducive to symmetry and resolution of a personal nature. I enjoyed, ultimately, the linking of past with present, and the evidence, logical but somehow surprising still, that I grew up in the interim.
Top Row: 2014 Vince. Bottom Row: 2017 Vince.
Medieval Lit, December 2017
The Old Man in the Pardoner’s Tale is a mysterious, vacuous character that stands out in a text otherwise crowded with rich and highly developed personalities. Serving the catalytic purpose of directing the three “riotoures” in The Pardoner’s Tale to their death, the Old Man appears only briefly, but in what Alfred David describes as “a passage that seems to demand a symbolic interpretation. One feels that there is a mystery about this old man, that something is being left unsaid” (David 39). Gudrun Richardson relays that the tale which Chaucer’s Pardoner tells to his fellow pilgrims is a rendition of earlier Italian and German texts in which the Old Man appears as a nondescript hermit. In rejecting the hermit portrayal, “Chaucer endows the Old Man with a character in his own right, giving him a centrality which can only mean that he has a particular point to make. What that point is, however, has eluded critics over the years” (Richardson 324). The demand for symbolic interpretation, though, has hardly gone unanswered. Over the years, scholars have identified the Old Man with a comprehensive catalogue of allegorical and scriptural figures ranging from Death and Old Age (“Elde”) to the Wandering Jew, Noah, and Judas (Kittredge 215, Richardson 324, Bushnell 450). The problem with such symbolic interpretation, Richardson explains, is that “as with any stereotyping, this inevitably narrows the perspective, preventing an analysis of the true scope of this complex figure” (324). David chimes in with an assertion that the “notion that we are obliged to choose only one of several symbolic interpretations, none of them entirely satisfactory” is “mistaken” (40). On the contrary, David explains that a recent movement to understand the Old Man in polyvalent terms, and to contextualize him in relation to his creator, the Pardoner, provides a more wholesome view of the character (41). I would extend David’s logic and suggest that the notion, apparent in the uniformity of existing criticism of the Old Man, that this character is best illuminated by reference to the allegorical and scriptural material of which he appears to be comprised is also “mistaken.” Rather, our understanding of the Old Man, especially as he relates to the Pardoner, can be greatly enhanced by comparison with other Creator and Creation duos of English literature, perhaps the best known example of which is Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. This scientist and his creature, conceived by Mary Shelley in the nineteenth century, obviously exerted no influence on Chaucer’s rendering of the Old Man. Yet the choice of Shelley’s Frankenstein as a framework through which to examine this most enigmatic of Chaucer’s figures can indeed yield important insight, and affirms the symptomatic nature of the Old Man. This character, mirroring Shelley’s Monster in his supernatural existence and miserable condition, also mirrors the Monster in the fact that this very existence and condition are expressions of his Creator’s actions and attitudes.
The parallels between the Creator and Creation duos of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale and Shelley’s Frankenstein are abundant, and instrumental to me in linking these texts is the analysis of the Old Man provided by Gudrun Richardson. Most notable about the portrait which Richardson paints of the Old Man is that it succeeds in shedding new light on the Pardoner, and much of this light reaches the character of Victor Frankenstein with equal force and clarity. The fundamental correlation of these two texts concerns the emotional and ethical attrition which occurs within the Creator figures and the multitude of implications this has for the Creations. This is manifested primarily in the fact that as Creators, and hence fathers, both the Pardoner and Frankenstein fail to provide for the beings, corporeal or conceptual, which they have authored. Specifically, these Creators deny their creations access to the asset that they are themselves primarily sustained and nurtured by.
The Pardoner makes a living by granting people authorized religious pardons in return for donations to the Church. In Medieval society these transactions were a popular means of “reduc[ing] the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after death (Peters 13), and Chaucer immediately establishes that the Pardoner earns a comfortable income by them:
“of his craft, fro Berwik into Ware, / Ne was there swich another pardoner / For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer / Which that he saide was Oure Lady veil…He hadde a crois of laton, ful of stones, / And in a glass he hadde piggies bones, / But with thise relikes whan that he foond / A poore person dwelling upon lond, / Upon a day he gat him more moneye / Than that the person gat in monthes twaye.” (General Prologue 694-706)
This passage, from the Pardoner’s portrait in the General Prologue, demonstrates that the Pardoner is so skillful a salesman that he can convince uneducated peasants and laypeople that his pigs bones and pillow cases are genuine holy objects—and that these peasants should part with far more money than such frauds are worth. It also attests to Medieval society’s hunger for spiritual resolution and for a clean passage from life, a hunger which the Pardoner handsomely benefits from.
The Pardoner withholds, however, this resolution and this passing from the character of the Old Man. In the Pardoner’s tale, the Old Man thus accounts for his appearance of “greet age”: “I ne can nat finde / A man, though that I walked into Inde, / Neither in citee ne in no village, / That wolde chaunge his youthe for myn age…Ne Deeth, allas, ne wol nat have my lyf” (Pardoner’s Tale 439). From this explanation we learn that the Old Man feels trapped within a life that he no longer wishes to live and of which his author, the Pardoner, will not relieve him: “thise riotoures r[u]n” off (PT 480), the narrative follows them, and the Old Man is abandoned permanently to wander in his unresolved condition. L.O. Purdon interprets this condition as the “second death,” a judgement theory expounded by Saint Augustine that defines a state of being not “after” nor “before” death (Purdon 343). Purdon demonstrates that the enigmatic statement that death will not take his life tells us simultaneously that the Old Man is not dead and that he is not either alive: obviously if death rejects him he is can not be dead, and yet this inability to die defies the very premise and defining characteristic of life—that is must end (Purdon 344). Purdon reasons: “if he is neither dead or ‘after’ death, nor living or ‘before’ death, then it must follow he is…dying or…in the state of being ‘in death’…suffering the grievous second death Saint Augustine says is not good for anyone” (344). The Old Man, then, resides eternally “in death” when all he desires is for his “bones to been at reste” (PT 445). He is denied, indefinitely, closure and release by a man whose occupation it is to provide these things.
Like the Pardoner, Shelley’s Frankenstein also creates a supernatural character, his in a scientific laboratory rather than a Christian exemplum, and like the Pardoner, Frankenstein denies his Creature access to the source of his own empowerment. Frankenstein is enabled to become the magnificent scientist he is thanks to the care of his family; though he primarily educates himself, Frankenstein’s parents provide him with the opportunities and resources necessary to do so. Of his upbringing Frankenstein rhapsodizes:
“with [a] deep consciousness of what [my parents] owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me.” (Shelley)
Frankenstein here illustrates the pivotal role tenderness played in educating him, and it is evident he highly esteems this method of child-rearing when he notes that “when I mingled with other families I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was” (Shelley) in possessing such gentle and encouraging parents.
Frankenstein denies such care and guidance, however, to his creature. On the dreary November night when his Monster comes to life, Frankenstein experiences “breathless horror and disgust…Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room” (Shelley). Thus abandoning his Creature, Victor compels the clueless being to learn from experience the sensations of hunger and thirst, the rhythms of nature, human customs and language. Frankenstein’s second refusal to furnish his Creature with love and companionship comes when he abandons his efforts to create the partner which the Monster so desires. It is in his improvised laboratory in Scotland, at work on his Creature’s bride, that Frankenstein definitively sentences his beast to solitude:
“I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew.” (Shelley)
Thus we see that both Frankenstein and the Pardoner withhold from their Creations the resource to which they owe their successes. For Chaucer’s pair, this source is Christian faith, while for Shelley’s pair it is companionship.
These resources, however, somehow become intolerable to the two Creators who benefit by them, and at the time that we are first introduced to both the Pardoner and Frankenstein, they have rejected, and are living in estrangement from, God and society, respectively. The Pardoner’s disillusionment with faith is obvious in his marketing of false, blasphemous absolution. Richardson, however, imagines the Pardoner having once held true faith: “the passion with which he delivers his sermon and subsequent plea to his audience argues for him retaining, or at least once having held, some belief. He would not argue so cogently, nor mock so viciously, if he had no emotional involvement with the issue” (330-31). At the time he makes the Canterbury pilgrimage, though, the Pardoner is alienated from God because, Richardson asserts, he “perceives himself to be beyond redemption…If he cannot be redeemed it does not matter how many more sins he perpetrates because his fate of damnation is already sealed” (331). This fear of being spiritually beyond help is perhaps reasonable, considering some of the more chilling deeds the Pardoner claims authorship of. For far worse than his mercenary approach to Catholic indulgence, the Pardoner exhibits a malicious indifference to all lives but his own: “I wol have moneye, wolle, cheese, and whete, / Al were it yiven of the pooreste page, / Or of the pooreste widwe in a village— / As sholde hir children sterve for famine. / Nay, I wol drinke licour of the vine / And have a joly wenche in every town” (PT 159-63). Thus the salvation he provides, enacted with bogus relics, not only fails in its formal purpose of redeeming, but also implicitly defies some of the most basic tenets of Christian morality, as the Pardoner claims to lie, to actively injure those who come to him for help, and to debauch himself on the profits. And while the Pardoner’s boasts demonstrate a sneering contempt of the parishioners who’s blind faith he takes advantage of, the fact that he boasts of his misdeeds at all suggests an even greater contempt of self that prompts him recurrently to draw his companions’ attention to his flaws, even amidst the relative strangers with whom he makes the Canterbury pilgrimage. Punctuated with repeated assertions of his own avarice like a refrain (133-34, 139-40, 144-45, 171), the Pardoner’s entire prologue to his tale seems to be directed by this self contempt. We witness the struggle between his need to verbalize the burden that oppresses his conscience and his need to preen and pitch his services to an audience of potential repenters: “By God,” he exclaims, “I hope I shal you telle a thing / That shal by reson been at youre liking; / For though myself be a ful vicious man, / A moral tale yit I you telle can” (169-172). Richardson argues that the Pardoner does not confine his exposition of self to his prologue and epilogue alone, but that this unburdening continues in his actual tale—via the Old Man himself. As Richardson puts it, “the Old Man is a personification of the Pardoner’s ‘within’. As the Pardoner’s Tale is placed within the frame of prologue and epilogue, which extend the audience’s knowledge of the Pardoner on one level, so this is mirrored by the Pardoner’s revelation of his inner self through the medium of the Old Man” (332). If we accept this, we accept that the Old Man is a product of his Creator’s rejection of the Catholic faith which is the source of the Pardoner’s physical sustenance—his livelihood—but also at this juncture the cause of his spiritual desolation. Arguably if the Pardoner had never become disillusioned with the Church and abandoned hope of ever achieving the redemption he sells, the Old Man as the “Pardoner’s inner self” (Richardson 332) would not exist.
Likewise if Frankenstein had stayed within the fold of his family, friends, and teachers, and not distanced himself from them to work alone and out of contact with reason and reality, his Monster might not have come into being. For just as the Pardoner rejects the faith which facilitates his way of life, so Frankenstein secludes himself increasingly from the family who raised and taught him, and the friends who would advise and care for him. This is evident in the fact that once Frankenstein discovers renewed passion for chemistry at Ingolstadt, he sequesters himself in his laboratory away from the society of others. Three years pass in this manner, during which Frankenstein never once returns to Geneva to visit his family and hardly writes to them. His work on the Monster so consumes him that it
“caused me…to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time. I knew my silence disquieted them…but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment…I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.” (Shelley)
In distancing himself thus from kith and kin, Frankenstein also distances himself from the tempering perspective they might offer concerning his grotesque project. He suffers the consequences when he finds himself ill prepared for the responsibilities of fatherhood which he has recklessly brought down about his shoulders. The ultimate consequences he suffers, though, arrive with the Monster’s bitterly vindictive campaign against Frankenstein: in retribution for Frankenstein’s refusal to provide him with kin of his own, the Monster deprives the scientist of one family member after another, plunging Victor into a “despondency and solitude” (Shelley) to rival the Creature’s own. Such a reprisal forces Frankenstein to pit his desire to protect his loved ones by humoring his Creation (and giving the Monster a loved one of his own) against his desire for damage control, or to protect “the species of man” from the potential “daemon” race which might issue from a Monster coupling (Shelley). Essentially, this dilemma penetrates the pith of Victor’s renunciation of family, for in choosing not to create a companion for his creature so as not to risk becoming what he imagines such a concession might make him—a “pest…whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the…whole human race” (Shelley),—Frankenstein renounces his family in the most permanent way he can, condemning them to perish at his Creature’s desperate hands. Thus the darkly ironic effect of Frankenstein’s exclusion of his family from his life is their irreversible removal from his life, presumably to that state Augustine describes as “after” death.
Thus we can see that the characters of both Chaucer’s and Shelly’s Creators, in abandoning the good and nourishing elements in their lives, stray into godless and friendless despair. The curious byproducts of these degenerations are Creatures who, embodying their Creators’ errors, also represent their Creators’ futures. Richardson notes that the Old Man in his search for godless annihilation “anticipates the Pardoner’s fate if he were to die in his current state of mind” (332). For the Old Man’s search for death feels markedly un-Christian: he explains to the rioters that
“on the ground which is my modre’s gate / I knokke with my staf bothe erly and late, / and saye, ‘Leve moder, leet me in…Moder, with you wolde I chaunge my cheste / That in my chambre longe time hath be, / Ye, for an haire-clour to wrappe me.” (PT 441-48)
The Old Man’s characterization of his deathly desire is thus bound up in pagan and macabre symbolism derived from his appeal to Mother Earth, rather than the Virgin Mary, and his longing for a winding sheet (“haire-clour”) that recalls ancient funerary rights (Richardson 326). Just such an un-Christian death must indeed await the Pardoner if he persists in his moral dereliction. On the other hand, Frankenstein’s Monster in his desolate friendlessness anticipates the bereft state in which Victor will find himself towards the end of the novel. Once the Monster has murdered Frankenstein’s brother, bride, and best friend, Clerval, and indirectly caused the deaths of Justine and Frankenstein’s father, Victor is as utterly alone in the world as his Creature has been all along.
Neither Frankenstein nor Pardoner, however, take steps to reclaim, or be reconciled with their initial sources of empowerment, as the Pardoner shows no interest in mending his ways, but on the contrary launches immediately back into his wiles upon concluding his tale. Not skipping a beat, he appeals to his fellow pilgrims: “But sires, oo word forgat I in my tale: / I have relikes and pardon in my male…If any of you wol of devocioun / Offren and han myn absolucioun, / Cometh forth anoon” (PT 631-37). We here see the Pardoner persisting in his avarice, even in the face of an audience to whom he has just revealed his guile and deceit. For his part, Frankenstein, once he has heard the wish of his Creature but before he has fatefully denied it, withdraws further from his family. We see the scientist take himself repeatedly into the wilderness of the Swiss Alps, and take himself abroad to Scotland, in an attempt to “exempt my family from the danger of [the Creature’s] machinations” (Shelley). Frankenstein’s ultimate act of isolation, of course, occurs when he sets out alone to pursue his Creature in “a destructive and almost endless journey across the mountainous ices of the ocean” (Shelley), deserting civilization altogether, for the last time.
In this persistence in denying themselves and their Creatures the assets that enable, or once enabled them to flourish, the Pardoner and Frankenstein commit themselves to lives of perpetual agitation and dejection, and confine their Creations to insatiable searches, the one for death and the other for affection. In the very wretchedness of their existence both pairings of characters again articulate an Augustinian theory concerning the soul’s “death in life.” Richardson links the Pardoner and the Old Man with a state Augustine describes in his City of God: “we ought not to say that a body is alive if the soul resides in it, not in order to make it live, but to make it hurt” (Augustine qtd. in Richardson 331). For indeed the Pardoner seems to exist not for the sake of any personal evolution “but for coveitise. / Of this matere it oughte ynough suffise” (PT 144-45); the Old Man purely because he cannot die; Frankenstein because he is animated by “nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within [his] heart”; and the Monster similarly to “satisfy [his] everlasting hatred” (Shelley). All four of these anguished characters are thus united in their soulless, or death-like, existences: whether wandering the English countryside perpetuating a cycle of sin and self-loathing, wandering through “Flandres” seeking “Deeth”, or wandering the ice floats of the Arctic in pursuit of retribution, all wallow in, and are ultimately defined by, their anguish.
Such a grim outcome suggests a didactic function to these two vastly distinct texts. Chaucer, writing in the fourteenth century, cautions against greed and corruption, and Shelley, writing in the nineteenth century, against pride and recklessness. Both, however, make an essential point about the danger of short-sighted and self-serving behavior, and it is the unique dynamic which can only be fostered between a Creator and his Creation which brings the point forcibly home. For this relationship evokes the primal resonance of parenthood, of the generation and conduction of existence itself, and as such inevitably implicates all living things. By packaging their cautionary messages within an archetype of such primordial power, Chaucer and Shelley alike endow these messages with a weight that amplifies their impact and effect. Likewise, in analyzing the Old Man through the medium of this archetype, we amplify our potential impressions of him. For, contrary to an interpretation accessed by way of the allegorical and religious figures to whom the Old Man is usually, and most logically, linked, an analysis of this character within a progenitorial framework is not limited to a specific era and culture. Rather, the dynamics of a Creator/Creation relationship apply to all eras with equal intimacy, and admit “an analysis of the true scope of this complex figure,” which Richardson objects the more traditional comparisons do not. Thus while this relationship assists Chaucer and Shelley in making their instructive points about human nature, it also assists modern readers, who have the benefit of access to both these texts, in understanding the true identity and purpose of the Pardoner’s Old Man figure—that the Old Man, whatever allegories he represents or references, exists first and foremost as the conscience and the crime, the soul and the soullessness of the unsatisfied character who imagined him.
So it is that the Old Man’s similitude with Frankenstein’s miserable Monster is as productive as it is penetrating. The Old Man is liberated from this likeness, however, in one important aspect. While the Monster kills in an attempt to extort Frankenstein to give him companionship, the Old Man kills in a fulfillment of the revelers’ request of him. Pleading for a partner, the Creature cautions Frankenstein: “do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends” (Shelley). This threat demonstrates the coercive nature of the Creature’s murderous spree; it is evident that in killing the Frankenstein clan he hopes to compel his Creator to grant his wish. The Old Man, however, sends the rioters to their demise by simply and truthfully supplying them the information they ask of him: “Thou speke right now of thilke traitour Deeth,” they remark. “Tel wher he is, or thou shalt it abye” (465-68). The rioters, indeed, proceed to find death at the place the Old Man directs them to; all three of them breathe their last under the “ook” (477) before nightfall. Hence one Creation murders innocent life in an attempt to get what he wants; the other is forced to kill in order to give others what they want. The Old Man does what neither Frankenstein nor the Pardoner do for their own Creations and grants the request of another pleading being. This twisted and ironic empathy on the part of the Pardoner’s Old Man indicates that perhaps the Pardoner is not so irredeemable after all, that perhaps, if he avoids making any irreversible decisions such as Frankenstein makes concerning his Creature’s bride and his sacrifice of his own family, perhaps he might yet rescue himself from perdition, rescue his Creation from the second death, furnish them both with the resolution and clarity that pervades the Pardoner’s every day but eludes him so absolutely. Perhaps in this he might allow the Old Man to finally find death. Perhaps in this he might allow himself, ultimately, to find life.
Bushnell, Nelson Sherwin. “The Wandering Jew and The Pardoner’s Tale,” in Studies in Philology 28, 1931. pp. 450-60.
Chaucer, Goeffrey. “General Prologue.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 243-64.
———. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 310-25.
David, Alfred. “Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale.” College English, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1965. pp. 39-44. www.jstor.org/stable/373708. Accessed Dec 2, 2017.
Kittredge, George L. Chaucer and His Poetry. Harvard U. Press, 1915. p. 215.
Peters, Edward. A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching. Hillenbrand Books, 2008, p. 13-15.
Purdon, L. O. "The Pardoner's Old Man and the Second Death." Studies in Philology, vol. 89, no. 3, 1992, pp. 334-349. EBSCOhost. Accessed Dec 2, 2017.
Richardson, Gudrun. "The Old Man in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale: An Interpretative Study of His Identity and Meaning." Neophilologus, vol. 87, no. 2, 2003, pp. 323-337. EBSCOhost. Accessed Dec 2, 2017.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Project Gutenberg, 2008 [EBook #84], www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap16. Accessed Dec 15, 2017.
Medieval Lit, November 2017
As I write this paper, not a day passes that does not yield a new story about sexual misconduct in the workplace. An October 2017 investigation by the New York Times into Harvey Weinstein’s predatory history raised a floodgate of sorts that had for years suppressed a deluge of sexual harassment accounts so sensitive, and so toxic, that they could no longer be contained. Though chilling and to a certain degree eye-opening, the stories were not so shocking in content: the weaponization of sex, far from being a new blight, has persisted for centuries, appearing in many of the foundational texts on which modern society rests. These include religious texts, such as the Old Testament, and non-religious texts like the legends of King Arthur, folkloric material which originated in medieval England and France and whose peculiar power and timeless appeal have woven it firmly into the very fabric of Western culture as we know it. Issuing from a variety of sources written over a few centuries, the Arthurian legends feature some of the most grotesque and violent sexual offenses to appear in literature since. According to the Arthurian Vulgate, for example, Merlin’s conception is achieved when one of Satan’s demon’s, hell-bent on begetting a half-human child, kills an entire family to break the “resolve” of one pious daughter, whom he proceeds to rape once she’s fallen, heartsick, to sleep (Story of Merlin 170). In other gruesome sequences, an adolescent Arthur makes love to his half sister without her consent or knowledge (she believes him to be her husband, King Lot), and therewith begets his malevolent son Mordred (Story of Merlin 237), and a similar trick is played on Ygraine by Uther Pendragon in the siring of Arthur himself (204). There are, however, subtler, more ambiguous sexual manipulations to be found in these legends, too. These are far less violent and duplicitous than the rapes that produce Merlin, Arthur, and Mordred, and hence can be overshadowed by their grosser counterparts, and overlooked by the romantic reader. The actions of Guinevere in Marie de France’s Lanval and Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are examples of such ambiguous sexual confrontations. In each case a lady attempts to elicit sexual intimacy from a knight, and in each case she is unsuccessful. Hence it is easy to construe the scenes as instances of frustrated seduction. I contend, however, that the advances which Guinevere makes on Lanval and which Lady Bertilak makes on Gawain constitute legitimate sexual harassment. Furthermore, the very trait which renders the abusive status of these acts so ambiguous also qualifies them for a greater rhetorical purpose. The fact that the forced seductions are committed by women complicates our perception of these sexual transgressions and simultaneously suggests that they are not featured in their respective legends simply for their value as catalytic plot points, or even as a way to denounce sexual misconduct, but rather for their insidious ability to demonize women.
In seeking to define and identify sexual violence we must appeal to the domain of psychology. Behavioral researchers Barak, Pitterman and Yitzhaki tell us that intrinsic to the study of sexually predatory patterns is the assaulter’s motive, and provide an overview of theories regarding the role of power differential in determining this motive. The type of power differential to which this study refers, and which I see operative in Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is an “organizational power position (status)” (Barak et al 512) held by only one of a pair of individuals within an insular hierarchy, such as a company, industry, or community. Guinevere evidently occupies an organizational position over Lanval within the hierarchy of Camelot, as she is queen of the land and confidante to Lanval’s overlord. Lady Bertilak, on the other hand, is not ostensibly much higher-born than Gawain, nephew of Arthur. Nonetheless she wields more power than Gawain, or the reader, originally suspects, for she is a key player in a conspiracy that the knight is powerless to influence. Acting in consort, then, with a mighty sorceress and a king, Lady Bertilak functions as a vessel through which the power, both organizational and physical, wielded by these others is channeled.
Additional factors that contribute to determining sexual harassment are known as moderator variables. These are qualitative traits such as sex, age, race, or marital status that influence the likelihood of a certain behavioral pattern occurring, and predict under what conditions it is most likely to occur (Baron and Kenny 1174). In the context of Barak et al’s research, the behavior in question is of course sexual harassment, and moderator variables that the researchers study are those that modify, or describe, the victim of harassment. Specifically, Barak et al comment on the moderator variables of “victim's personal vulnerability and response strategy [which] are thought to have a significant impact on experiences of sexual harassment” (Barak et al 499-500). This means that a victim of sexual predation is expected to have a more intense sense of violation if s/he struggles with an existing personal vulnerability, or feels that s/he has few options for escape. ‘Personal vulnerability’ and ‘response strategy’ may be moderator variables that shape the assault experiences of our two knights explicitly: I will show how Lanval, recovering from his unpopularity at court, can be supposed to be ‘personally vulnerable,’ while Gawain, confined as a guest in a complex chivalric quandary, can be seen to struggle with ‘response strategy.’
The first of these scenarios occurs in Marie de France’s lai Lanval, in which the eponymous character, a knight who is conducting a clandestine affair with a fairy, attracts the notice of Guinevere, queen of Camelot. After observing Lanval from her window, the Queen orchestrates a private confrontation with the knight and tells him directly of her desire for him. She prefaces her solicitation with an insinuation of what she perhaps views as her entitlement to Lanval’s compliance, reminding the knight: “I have shown you much honor” (Lanval 263). Lanval’s response (“My lady, let me be!” 269) would likely not have been peacefully tolerated if Guinevere had been a man soliciting sexual favors of a woman. And it’s not exactly tolerated in this case either, although it is met with menacing words rather than outright violence. Her unwelcome suit having been rejected, Guinevere’s retort smacks of blackmail: “Lanval, she said, I am sure / you don’t care for such pleasure; / people have often told me / that you have no interest in women. / You have fine-looking boys / with whom you enjoy yourself…my lord made a bad mistake / when he let you stay with him” (276-85). These dual insinuations of homosexuality, and more pointedly of pedophilia, amount to what is doubtless a most damning accusation from the lips of a queen. The possibility that such “noise” might get around Camelot, or jeopardize Lanval’s favor with Arthur, cannot be appealing to the knight, who has only recently gained popularity among the knights of the Round Table (and who may be willing to do anything to keep it). Wounded and menacing, Guinevere can in this exchange be seen applying pressure that could bully Lanval into submission.
Indeed, his outcast past is a factor that could in its own right disadvantage Lanval, as this history, which may be seen to correspond with Barak et al’s “personal vulnerability,” might single the knight out as an exposed target for manipulation. It is observed of Lanval at the start of this lai that “Arthur forgot him, / and none of his men favored him either” (Lanval 19-20). Aside from making him “depressed and very worried” (34), this also means Lanval is financially stressed, “for the king gave him nothing” (31). But when Lanval receives riches from his lover and generously shares them with “stranger and friend” alike (213), he comes into sudden esteem among his fellow knights and things seem to be going his way at last. Lingering psychological patterns, however, like an inferiority complex or personal insecurity, could render Lanval thrall to the slightest display of approval or interest on the parts of his superiors. Guinevere is not shown to explicitly prey on this vulnerability, but the changeable nature of Lanval’s status is one of the defining traits of this lai, and could be seen as defining the man, too, and informing his actions and interactions. Uncharacteristically, then, this agglomeration of circumstances allots to a female the capacity to coerce and take advantage.
Lanval, however, does not yield to his temptress, even after Guinevere thus insults him. Instead, in a heated defense of his love life, the knight informs the queen that he has a mistress of such beauty and refinement that “any one of those who serve her, / the poorest girl of all, / is better than you, my lady queen” (298-300). In so exposing his supernatural mistress, Lanval betrays her, and quickly comes to regret it. For this reply gains him only a court date and a pending death penalty, on the fabricated grounds that he propositioned the queen: “the men the king sent / arrived and told [Lanval] / to appear in court without delay: / the king had summoned him / because the queen had accused him” (352-56). In court Lanval denies having made advances to Guinevere, but admits to insulting her, and when Arthur’s barons withdraw to determine a verdict they exhibit an understandable desire to please the king on whose protection they rely:
“many wanted to condemn [Lanval] / in order to satisfy their lord. / The Duke of Cornwall said: / ‘No one can blame us; / whether it makes you weep or sing / justice must be carried out. / The king spoke against…Lanval; / he accused him of felony, / charged him with a misdeed— / a love that he had boasted of, / which made the queen angry. No one but the king accused him…if one were to speak the truth, / there should have been no need for defense, / except that a man owes his lord honor / in every circumstance.” (431-48)
It is not, of course, true that “no one but the king accused” Lanval, for it is the queen who has supplied Arthur with his defamatory material on the knight. The capacity of the queen to manipulate her victim is thus further demonstrated, to a sinister extent. After placing his life in the balance, she very nearly succeeds in turning the king and his barons against Lanval in retribution for his denial of her sexual demands. Perhaps the legitimacy accorded to Guinevere’s accusations is also due to the fact that the queen’s inverted version of events is more believable in many ways than the truth is: it is indeed women who often find themselves in the place of sexual victim as it is typically women who hold positions of lower power than men in physical or organizational frameworks. This comprises a typology that Guinevere is shrewd enough to tap into with her accusation: though the queen’s femininity proves a disadvantage to her in the majority of Arthurian legend, overriding her royal status in her treatment by narrators and fellow characters alike, perhaps here it works to her advantage. For Guinevere uses her femaleness, and the perceived inability of a fair damsel to pose any legitimate threat to a knight, to nearly bring about Lanval’s execution.
A second instance of female sexual predation occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while Gawain is staying at Bertilak’s castle. The hero is on his way to deliver himself to the dreaded Green Knight, unaware that his host and his nemesis are one and the same. On the last three mornings of Gawain's sojourn at Hautdesert, Bertilak’s wife creeps “most quietly and craftily” (SGGK 1188) into Gawain’s bedchamber after her husband has gone out to hunt and watches the knight until he wakes. The lady proceeds to flirt with and flatter him, and Gawain, recently come into this region and this company, is uncertain what to make of it. When he first spies her entering, “the knight felt nervous” (1189), and feigns sleep to buy himself time to “[turn] over in his mind…where the lady’s unlikely visit might lead” (1196-97). Among her first words when Gawain opens his eyes are “You’re tricked and trapped! But let’s make a truce, / or I’ll bind you in your bed, and you’d better believe me” (1210-11). When Gawain begs to rise and dress, the lady responds “Not so, beautiful sir…Bide in your bed—my own plan is better. / I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner, / then playfully parley with the man I have pinned” (1222-25). Such rhetoric, spoken by a man, would undoubtedly be perceived as predatory. Why should it not be likewise when it issues from the lips of an imposing woman? Gawain and Lady Bertilak banter back and forth, he “graciously…on guard” (1282) and she undeterred, until at last she arrives at her proposition, “you’re free to have my all, / do with me what you will. / I’ll come just as you call / and swear to serve you well” (1237-40) and he “counters [her] case by case” (1262). Lady Bertilak repeats these visits to his bed on the following two mornings, but only ever succeeds in compelling Gawain to accept from her a series of courtly (albeit ardent) kisses and an enchanted girdle.
Though the physical threat Lady Bertilak poses to Gawain is slight, the social dynamics in this interaction are for Gawain most harrowing. Occupying the position of trusted hostess, the lady clearly abuses her advantage over this knight when she presumes to enter the chamber, and even the bed, which she has lent to him, and which she might ostensibly rescind if her good will were to sour. And as a guest, the burden of courtesy and gratitude rests on Gawain’s hands, a debt which dictates that he do his utmost to honor, or at least humor, his host and hostess’ whims and requests. Hence this bedside exchange, too, distinguishes itself among medieval scenes by granting a woman the rare chance to intimidate a knight.
In addition to this, another force constrains Gawain in his defense against Lady Bertilak: the knight must act within the tricky parameters of chivalric code. Lee Tobin McClain explains that “Gawain's symbolic pentangle showcases the impossibly conflicting rules faced by chivalric knights who must be outwardly courteous and inwardly dedicated to religious values…Gawain must be chaste to maintain his religious values and do right by his host, whose wife tries to seduce him; but he must also be courteous which means he may not reject her openly” (195). We see this paradox operating in Gawain’s circuitous and contorted efforts to extricate himself from his predicament, and hampering him at every turn. For it is in the name of chivalry that Lady Bertilak first obliges Gawain to kiss her: “‘A good man…the embodiment of courtliness…could never have lingered so long with a lady / without craving a kiss, as politeness requires’” (SGGK 1297-1300). And though Gawain is often “maddened and amazed” at her gall, it is “his breeding [which] forbade him rebuking a lady” (1660-61). Ultimately this cultural cynosure of politeness nearly forces Gawain to yield his body to Lady Bertilak, as it is remarked that the “princess pushed him and pressed him, / nudged him ever nearer to a limit where he needed / to allow her love or impolitely reject it” (1770-72). Is there a double entendre within this “pushing and pressing,” another sense to this “limit”? Whether her pressure of Gawain was purely verbal or involved physical contact, the knight somehow succeeds in “tiptoe[ing] through this tortuous situation in fine courtly style” (McClain 194), but not without unsettling consequences: as McClain explains, the contradictory nature of the code of chivalry “can cause the breakdown of an individual who tries to meet all [its] demands perfectly” (194). Later in the story we do indeed witness Gawain’s “breakdown” when he is informed of the test his hosts have put him to. At this juncture his ‘cowardly’—and uncharacteristic—acceptance and concealment of the enchanted girdle is revealed. Mortified, Gawain dramatically labels the episode “my downfall and undoing,” lamenting that “dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts / meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot / the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow. / And now I am found to be flawed and false, / through treachery and untruth I have totally failed” (2378-83). Until this point in the tale Gawain has acted with unwavering transparency and sincerity; the drama of green girdle, a symptom of his confrontation with his hostess, indelibly taints this record. The chivalric code can thus be understood as a hindrance to Gawain’s free will, and another advantage that Lady Bertilak exploits in pressuring the knight to yield her his body. It can also be viewed as the moderator variable of “response strategy”: by drastically limiting the knight’s potential responses to his assaulter, chivalrous code amplifies Gawain’s experience of a sexual advance he could physically have warded off with ease.
Such detailed inspection, then, reveals these two scenarios to be fairly straight-forward instances of sexual manipulation via the abuse of an organizational power differential. Their appearance in Arthurian literature serves to assert the oft-overlooked brutality embedded in the very same culture that devised courtly love. As one scholar put it, “the erotic and aggressive impulses in human nature…provide the primary motivation for most behavior in all the best and most characteristic Medieval romances” (Mandel, 243), and these two scenes of fraught sexual confrontation provide perhaps one of the most vivid intersections of the aggressive and truly erotic impulses to be found in the legends of Arthur.
These particular scenarios also, however, play a strategic role in the tale. This becomes clear when we examine what occurs after the knights are pressured for sex. Like most victims of sexual harassment, Lanval and Gawain sustain emotional damage in their encounters with sexual predators. Unlike standard assault victims, however, the knights’ specific complaints have little to do with the actual sexual overtures they suffer. Rather, the knights’ anguish (Lanval’s over his betrayal of his lover and fear of losing her and Gawain’s over his shame concerning the girdle) stems from their own actions, from their own responses to being propositioned, from, ultimately, the fact that they each break a promise which comprises the premise and fundamental tension of the entire poem. Simply put, Lanval would not have suffered the anguish he suffers after his encounter with Guinevere had he not impulsively revealed his lover’s existence in an earnest attempt to defend himself, thus defecting on his vow to conceal his fairy mistress’ existence. This betrayal seems to cause Lanval more woe than the fact that Guinevere goes on to litigate for his life: he is so dejected about his lover that “[Arthur’s barons] could have killed him for all her cared” (Lanval 358). Likewise Gawain would not have suffered the bitter shame brought on by the discovery of the green girdle on his person had he not succumbed to understandable fear of the Green Knight’s axe and accepted a safeguard to his life, consenting to conceal the gift from his host. Hence, the one by revealing, and the other by concealing, violate the agreements they have sworn to honor. This violation has the potential to deprive the knights of happiness and honor, respectively, but also of their very lives. For while Lanval faces death as retribution for refusing his seductress, Gawain will face death if he submits to his seductress: in his “game” with his host-nemesis, Gawain is unwittingly defending not only his name but his neck as well when he proves at the end of each day that he has remained chaste. After the reckoning at the Green Chapel, the Green Knight explains to Gawain that his three failed swipes at Gawain’s neck reflected the three mornings that the knight was wood by Lady Bertilak. He asserts that this “was only fair / in keeping with the contract we declared that first night…twice you were truthful, therefore twice I left no scar… The third time, though, you strayed / and felt my blade therefore” (SGGK 2346-57). This implies that had Gawain accepted more from his temptress than a girdle he would have received more from the Green Knight than a nick under the ear.
Though the ladies’ advances catalyze this disintegration of the knights’ certain and ordered existence, this is not equivalent to saying they cause it. As we have seen, the distress experienced by Lanval and Gawain originated from the knights’ own spontaneous, poor judgements. This distinction, however, is not reflected in the blame that is dealt, and, because the ladies have already been demonstrated to be deceitful and manipulative characters, such warped distribution of guilt may not be immediately perceived. Hence the way things work out for the knights post-assault might be seen as an attempt to frame women for corrupting men; a continuation of the tradition, originated in Genesis’s Eve, of vilifying feminine morality.
This misogynistic enterprise places Guinevere and Lady Bertilak in the company of numerous other Arthurian women who are yoked to villainous roles in numerous other Arthurian legends, including Bisclavret’s wife, who forces her husband to live as a werewolf, and the Lady of the Lake, who traps Merlin in a tomb and abandons him there to die (Post Vulgate 247). The general attitude towards these contemptible females is summed up near the ends of both poems. When Lanval’s mistress arrives in court to exonerate the knight, she declares “I don’t want [Lanval] to suffer / for what he said. You should know / that the queen was in the wrong” (Lanval 618-20). In this statement the enchantress, like the narrator, effects a partial dislocation of guilt from its proper source. If we can safely assume that the primary suffering Lanval experiences stems from his belief “that he’d lost his love” (Lanval 335), and that in his paroxysm of sorrow over this loss “it’s a wonder he didn’t kill himself” (Lanval 346), it naturally follows that primarily responsible for this suffering is the knight himself. Lanval alone made the disclosure he now so rues, in a defense of his pride which he could perhaps have achieved by means of a more prudent argument.
For his part, Gawain, when he discovers the trick Lady Bertilak has played on him, blames his blunder on
“womanly guile— / it’s the way of the world. Adam fell because of a woman, / and Solomon because of several, and as for Samson, / Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David / was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief. All wrecked and ruined by their wrongs; if only / we could love our ladies without believing their lies.” (2415-21)
Here we see precious page space given over to the condemnation of all manner of women who have deceived men—we see an extreme reaction to a moderate assault. The antifeminist bent of this scene is compounded when the Green Knight reveals that he and his wife were put to their duplicity, most conveniently, by another woman: “Morgan le Fay, / so adept and adroit in the dark arts…guided me” (2446-56). By casting women in the positions both of mastermind and instrument of this scheme, the author assists Gawain in all the more easily ensnaring the entire female sex in the culpability, ultimately, of one spiteful sorceress.
Perhaps the true danger of these two poems lies in the fact that the offenses committed by Guinevere and Lady Bertilak are indeed genuine wrongs. Sexual harassment is a crime that should not be made light of, whether you’re a big shot movie producer in the twenty first century or a fictitious noblewoman in the Middle Ages. Given that ridicule of these ladies is initially justified, it becomes harder to tell exactly when the severity of the condemnation begins to outweigh the severity of the crime. For it is precisely in the crossing of this threshold, the tilting of this balance, that Guinevere and Lady Bertilak are transformed into tools for projecting slander and infamy onto all womankind. We as readers are responsible for recognizing this threshold, and taking care not to let our credence follow the narrators’ hurtling logic over it. For, just as the assaulted knights should own responsibility for the errors they make, the ladies who woo them are answerable only for their own transgressions, and not for any one else’s, whether man or woman, Biblical or contemporary. That is their limitation; it is their deliverance, too.
Barak, Azy, Yael Pitterman and Rivi Yitzhaki. “An Empirical Test of the Role of Power Differential in Originating Sexual Harassment.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 17, no.4, Dec. 1995, pp. 497-517. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?url=http:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=7348127&site=ehost-live.
Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. “The Moderator-Mediator Variable Distinction in Social Psychological Research: Conceptual, Strategic, and Statistical Considerations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1986. pp. 1173-1182.
Lanval. Marie de France. Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante,The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 154-67.
Mandel, Jerome. "Constraint and Motivation in Malory's 'Lancelot and Elaine'." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, vol. 20, no. 3, 1984, pp. 243-258. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login? url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1984024270&site=ehost-live.
McClain, Lee Tobin. "Gender Anxiety in Arthurian Romance." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, vol. 38, no. 3, 1997, pp. 193-199. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1997065956&site=ehost-live.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Simon Armitage, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 186-238.
The Post Vulgate, Part 1: The Merlin Continuation. Trans. Martha Asher, in Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Norris J. Lacy, Gen. Ed., vol. 4, Garland, 1996, pp. 246-248.
The Story of Merlin. Trans. by Rupert T. Pickens in Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Norris J. Lacy, Gen. Ed., vol. 1, Garland, 1993, pp. 167-172, 237-38.
Medieval Lit, October 2017
The place of God in Beowulf has long puzzled scholars, and has been a subject of profuse debate among scholars of the last two centuries (Irving 175-7). In his insightful discussion of the meshing of pagan and Christian elements in Beowulf, Edward Irving writes that “God is truly felt as a living presence only at those moments when we feel the surges of heroic power in Beowulf. In this special sense the hero is indeed God’s agent, for he is the only way we can be aware of God and of how he acts in the world of men we know” (186). Though Irving acknowledges that the Christianity of Beowulf is “distinctly limited” (186), his characterization of God’s presence in battle presents a problematic generalization, and an exaggeration of God’s modest involvement in the poem. I would like to dispute this claim by using Judith, hero of the Old English poem by that name which appears in the Nowell Codex beside Beowulf, as a foil to show what hero as ‘god’s agent’ really looks like, and to demonstrate that Beowulf is not such.
An overview of the deities featured in Beowulf and Judith shows us a fundamental dissimilarity in their extent of engagement. While Judith’s God protects his heroine, Beowulf is protected less by divinity than by physical forces, such as his armor. The narrator of Judith, for example, specifies that when Holofernes prepares “to violate / the bright woman with defilement and with sin[,] The Judge of glory…would not consent to that, but he prevented him from that thing” (J 58-61)). In Beowulf, by contrast, it is noted that “the son of Ecgtheow would have surely perished / had the strong links and locks of his war-gear / not helped to save him” (Beowulf 1550-53)). While we see Judith speaking to, and instantly receiving guidance from, her God (J 77-98), we never see Beowulf directly address his deity, and the only guidance his God provides is reported in the form of awkwardly attached prosaisms (Beowulf 1553). As a result we experience Judith’s God as a tangible figure and Beowulf’s rather as a figure of speech. Robert Hosmer even regards the Beowulf poet’s references to God as “little more than rhetorical commonplaces” (67), and this idea is corroborated in the writing of F.A. Blackburn, who notes that “the vague and colorless Christianity of these passages becomes very apparent if for the word God or equivalent epithet we substitute fate…No further change is needed in many of the passages…to remove the Christian tone and make them entirely heathen” (216-17). This is an effective demonstration of how gossamer the veil of divinity is that drapes the Beowulf narrative.
Disparities also arise between the characters of Beowulf and Judith. We witness Beowulf accept a myriad of rewards for his victories, in the forms of celebration, praise, status, and expensive gifts, while Judith accepts scarcely any reward. Rather, upon her triumphant return to Bethulia, the heroine does not dwell on her victory but conveys only as much of it as is necessary to rally her people (J 183-186), remarking that it is they who will receive the glory (196). Judith shows herself consistently content to win glory for others when it is concluded that “she did not doubt / in the reward which she had long yearned for. For that be glory / to the beloved Lord for ever and ever” (345-47). This egoistic distinction between Beowulf and Judith is not insignificant to the qualification as of God’s agent: as we learn from a comparison of these two poems, Beowulf’s ego comes between him and his god; Judith’s humility bonds her to hers.
Status as God’s agent, however, can perhaps be best gauged by the warriors’ motives for engaging in battle, and the ways their conflicts are resolved, and explained. In Judith, on one hand, we see that the heroine does not lay a finger on her opponent until she has first consulted her God and received his direct encouragement:
“Then [Judith]…took a sharp sword…and drew it from the sheath / with her right hand. She began to call the Guardian of Heaven by name…and said these words: / ‘God of creation, Spirit of comfort, / Son of the Almighty, I want to beseech you / for your mercy on me in my time of need…Give me, Lord of Heaven, / victory and true belief so I might cut down this bestower of torment / with this sword. Grant me my salvation, / mighty Lord of men: I have never had more need / of your mercy than now. Avenge now, mighty Lord, / eminent Bestower of glory, that which is so grievous in my mind, / so fervent in my heart.’ Then the highest Judge / inspired her immediately with great zeal, as he does to each / of the dwellers on earth who seek help from him / with reason and with true faith. Then she felt relief in her mind, / hope was renewed for the holy woman.” (77-98)
This spiritual transaction complete, Judith is motivated to action and proceeds to “seize the heathen man” (98) and behead him. Important to note is the fact that Judith asks God not only for success in her endeavor, but also for “true belief;” this and the emphasis on worshippers receiving help if they appeal to God with “reason and with true faith” (emphasis added) demonstrate all the more vividly just how inherently Judith’s execution of Holofernes is fused with her religious convictions.
As a consequence, Judith’s success that night is referred to as a gift from God (“Judith had won illustrious glory / in the battle as God, the Lord of heaven, / granted it so when he gave her her victory” (122-24)) and also as guidance from God (Holofernes’ severed head serves “as proof / to the citizens of how she had been helped in battle” (174-75)). Later, we see that such divine assistance is not confined to Judith; when the Israelite militia takes arms against the Assyrians, “the Lord God, the almighty Lord, / helped them generously with his aid” (299-300). Interestingly, the commencement of that army’s combat, like Judith’s private one, awaits God’s sanction, which appears here in the form of a sunrise, as Judith instructs the soldiers to “hasten to battle, as soon as the God of creation, / that glorious King, sends his radiant beam of light / from the east” (189-91). This shows the extent to which Judith’s God infuses the poem’s structure, and imbues even its most quotidian incidents with sublime purpose.
To gain any accurate impression, then, of piety’s place in Beowulf’s combative routine, we must measure each of his three motives and three outcomes of battle in turn against the pattern Judith sets for divine affinity. We see some general tendencies that apply to all the intentions and all the results of Beowulf’s fights, namely that the warrior’s motive always includes a longing for self-aggrandizement, and that the responsibility for each battle’s resolution is attributed to God and to forces other than God by seemingly equal iterations, with the tally of remarks which suggest divine intervention less than or equal to explanations entirely omitting divinity. Often, these two conflicting proposals follow one on the heels of the other, so that in a single breath the poet gives credit both to God and to the autonomous hero, or even to one of Beowulf’s physical traits. A pattern emerges of an indecisive poet, or of a God who demands independent aptitude as a prerequisite, or qualifying condition, for his aid, as if the Almighty won’t get involved unless he knows his hero has a winning chance to begin with.
Looking beyond these abiding themes and into the distinguishing dynamics at play in each of Beowulf’s three battles, we find that it is in Beowulf’s first confrontation, against Grendel, that the warrior most resembles Judith in her venture. The two warriors’ motives for taking up arms are in this case nearly congruent: both enter battle to do their God’s work—in Judith’s case to protect God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and their religion from the Assyrians with their Satanic captain, and in Beowulf’s to eliminate a monster descended from Cain and therefor an affront to God’s ordered world. On the surface, Beowulf undertakes Grendel’s demise in order to save the Danes from the fiend’s nightly terrors, just as Judith undertakes the murder of Holofernes to save her city of Bethulia from plundering and destruction. In a different sense, however, they enter battle for antithetical motives: Judith to gain glory for others (God, and her people), and Beowulf to gain glory for himself, to “prove [himself] with a proud deed” (637) and establish an international reputation. In this sense we see Beowulf’s first, and mildest, deviation from the model of humble service that Judith exemplifies in her separate text.
If Beowulf’s motive in confronting Grendel only partially resembles Judith’s motive in confronting Holofernes, the nature of Beowulf’s victory only partially resembles that of Judith’s. Unlike the “holy maiden” (Judith 56), whose aspiration and achievement both stem from God, Beowulf emphasizes his own importance in the proceedings by expressing his “complete trust / in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor” (Beowulf 669-70), and observing that the Divine Lord will “in His wisdom grant the glory of victory / to whichever side He sees fit” (686-7). This last remark sounds almost like a boast, as if Beowulf is implying that God’s assistance is contingent upon some standard of moral (or perhaps bodily) fitness which the hero is eager to prove himself meet to. Further instances of the poet juggling his divine with his earthly explanations for Grendel’s overthrow can be seen in the contiguity of two seemingly conflicting sentences at 696: “the Lord was weaving / a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats. / Through the strength of one they all prevailed,” and also in the narrator’s later assertion that “mindful God / and one man’s daring” (1055-56) put an end to Grendel’s murderous rampages. In these remarks the warrior’s strength and the warrior’s courage, respectively, are placed on a par with God’s will as equally responsible for the events at Heorot, and in the end it is “Beowulf’s doings,” not God’s, as is the case in Judith, that “were praised over and over again” (B 855-56). Our resulting faint impression of God as a deciding figure in Beowulf’s combat with Grendel stands in contrast to the predominance of Judith’s God, of whom, as we have seen, it is clearly stated he “gave her her victory” (Judith 124).
Perhaps most interesting among the ambiguous god-references surrounding the battle with Grendel are those in which God is credited with involvement, but on behalf of the wrong party. “As long as God disallowed it,” the poet says of the Geats who slumber in Heorot, “the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne” (B 706-7). This declaration implies that God holds some influence over the monster, prompting the questions, how much influence? And could He have used it to check Grendel before the fiend became the “corpse maker” (276) we know him as? The prospect of God being responsible for Beowulf’s foe as well as for Beowulf crops up again in something Hrothgar says upon Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot (“God can easily / halt these raids and harrowing attacks!” (478-79)), and in a comment Beowulf makes post-conflict in which he credits God with “allowing” Grendel to slip free of the warrior’s death-grip and slink back to his lair, mortally wounded but living (967). From such passages we learn that whatever the extent of God’s influence in the Grendel battle, it is not exclusively exercised in the hero’s favor, whereas Judith’s God is responsible solely for the Isrealites’ interests and intervenes decisively for their benefit.
In Beowulf’s subsequent two battles, the pretext of his spiritual service becomes less apparent before it is finally lost altogether. The warrior’s motive for engaging Grendel’s Mother in conflict is divinely purposeful in the same way his first battle was. By her shared blood with Grendel, Grendel’s Mother poses a like threat to Christendom, and Irving’s characterization of Hrothgar’s attitude towards Beowulf vis a vis the Grendel battle can also apply here: “it is here that the pious Hrothgar thanks God for sending his champion in the person of Beowulf” (Irving 186, referring to Beowulf 927-28). But if Beowulf enters battle once more to police God’s creation, he enters now with the added burden of maintaining his exalted image, of keeping “his glory…secure” (Beowulf 1646). And when he confronts the monstress, we see ‘God’s champion’ slipping from the solid ground of his Christian purpose and teetering further into his personal purpose, his self-glorification. This becomes evident when Hrunting, Unferth’s gifted sword, “refuses to bite” Beowulf’s scaly opponent, and “Hygelac’s kinsman kept thinking about his name and his fame: he never lost heart” (1529-30). Strikingly apparent here is the contrast between Beowulf’s method of coping with adversity and Judith’s, as one draws encouragement and reassurance from thoughts God (Judith 95) and the other from thoughts of himself: the heroes’ egoistic distinction widens.
As for what power is credited with orchestrating Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s Mother, the liturgy of clues are of the same mixed bag as those that described Grendel’s overthrow, with one elemental difference. Here, emphasis is placed more on Beowulf’s war-gear and weaponry than on the warrior’s strength or the warrior’s God or any other deciding force: we learn more about the intricacies of Beowulf’s “keen, inlaid, worm-loop patterned steel” sword (Beowulf 1532) than about his faith. Midway through the skirmish “the mesh of chain-mail / on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life, / turned the edge and tip of the [monster’s] blade” (1547-49), and when prospects look grim for the warrior and he feels “daunted” (1543), he suddenly “saw a blade that boded well” (1557) and which succeeds in piercing the demon’s skin. Thus we come to understand that Beowulf owes his survival of this underwater episode to chain-mail, and that an ancient blade portends Beowulf’s triumph as opposed to God-sent sanction in Judith.
Our faint impression of God’s authority only grows fainter over the course of this battle. In an instance where the sovereign’s role is confidently asserted, it is immediately followed by a statement casting doubts on God’s categorical ability to influence events: we are told that “holy God / decided the victory. It was easy for the Lord, / the Ruler of Heaven, to redress the balance / once Beowulf got back up on his feet” (1553-56). The phrasing here implies that the omnipotent Creator as envisioned by the Beowulf poet relies on Beowulf’s own independent fortitude and gumption to level the odds before He can exert any real influence on the battle field. Such passages paint Beowulf’s God as a rather feeble and marginal figure, who, in addition to sometimes muddling his loyalties, also wields stunted powers. While we see Judith, as a demonstrable agent of God, enjoying a productive and communicative alliance with her all-powerful sovereign, we find Beowulf’s relationship to his God seeming far less coordinated, and far less functional.
Lastly, in his third and fatal battle, Beowulf’s motive no longer bears any trace of the divine purpose that was built into his earlier conflicts as an effect of the Cain connection. As Irving notes, “the final fight with the dragon is never put in symbolic terms like these” (Irving 186), for the dragon poses not a spiritual threat but rather a witlessly physical one, that of a vicious pest infesting his land. As a result, we see Beowulf entering battle now solely to satisfy his ego: the warrior states, “I shall pursue this fight / for the glory of winning” (2515) and the narrator chimes in with the assertion that, “inspired again / by the thought of glory, the war-king threw / his whole strength behind a sword stroke” (2677b-79). In the exhibitionist nature of this last endeavor Beowulf offers the starkest contrast we’ve seen yet to Judith’s humble service, a contrast which is sharpened by Beowulf’s insistence on confronting the dragon by himself. While Judith is described in one breath as both “daring” and “prudent” (Judith 333-34), Beowulf shows himself possessed of too much daring and too little prudence in proclaiming that it is not up to “any man except me / to measure his strength against the monster / or to prove his worth” (B 1534-35). Approaching the dragon with all these pompous ambitions, Beowulf widens the gulf between himself and his God, and, in the process, between himself and Judith too.
The explanations for the result of Beowulf’s third battle are consistent with their mixed predecessors, only now it is fate we see playing a new and larger role. Of the reckoning with the dragon the warrior remarks, “when I meet the cave-guard, what occurs on the wall / between the two of us will turn out as fate, / overseer of men, decides” (2525-27). And unfortunately fate this time is not in his favor. As Beowulf fights, “fate denied him / glory in battle” (2574-75), and at the hero’s death “his fate hovered near, unknowable but certain: / it would soon claim his coffered soul, / part life from limb. Before long / the prince’s spirit would spin free from his body” (2421-24). God is absent from the active sequences of this skirmish, but is conjured after the warrior’s death in phrases characterizing the permanence and breadth of this new development (Beowulf 2857, 2874).
Beowulf’s death itself brings a new perspective on the hero's remoteness from God. Referring to Beowulf’s dying appeal to “gaze my fill” of the dragon’s treasure (B 2748), Irving explains that the hero’s final moment is ethically mislead enough (from a Christian standpoint) to null the hero’s previous pagan and ethical virtue. He quotes E.G. Stanley: “[Beowulf] is a pagan, virtuous, all but flawless. His flaw being this, that ignorant of God, he, in the hour of his death, could think of nothing other than pelf and a cenotaph; avarice and vainglory” (182-83). On a congruent note, Colin Chase demonstrates how the unjust results of Beowulf’s just career locate the king in a tradition of frustrated heroes: “we hear from the messenger what the people are to expect as a result of [Beowulf’s] death: the renewed warfare of Franks and Frisians and Swedes…Beowulf’s courage and generosity are to yield a harvest of bitterness and suffering. As with Oedipus, and as with Hamlet, the tragic effect lies precisely in the gap between intention and result” (190). This gap of which Chase speaks presents an appealing motif. Since we see no discrepancy between Judith’s intent and result, which both unfold according to her and her God’s plan, we may reasonably interpret this ‘gap’ as the egoistic distinction that cleaves Beowulf from Judith, and likewise as the distance that separates Beowulf from God, the vacuum where his ego has inserted itself, against the warrior’s best intentions, to warp and mislead his results. It is, perhaps, the very pith of his ineligibility to be God’s agent.
All this goes to show that Judith and Beowulf furnish to the reader of the Nowell Codex two antipodal types of hero, and, by extension, two antipodal modes of being. Their contrasting spiritual dynamics bring to the manuscript as a whole a sense of the boundless capacity of the human mind for faith, alongside a sense of the unimaginable potential of the body for might. Perhaps Beowulf’s inadequacy as an agent of God serves a purpose in the Codex, offering a contrapuntal perspective on the dissociation of religious faith from virtue to rejoin Judith’s fervent synthesis of these. Perhaps, too, to rejoin the saturated Christian discourse of a recently-converted isle. Whatever the purpose, if any, of Beowulf and Judith’s union in the pages of this remarkable manuscript, the spiritual interactions within them and between them speak volumes, ultimately, of the power and the beauty of determination.
Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 41-108.
Blackburn, F. A. “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf.” PMLA, vol. 12, no. 2, 1897, pp. 205–225. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/456133. Accessed 27 Oct 2017.
Chase, Colin. “Beowulf, Bede, and St. Oswine: The Hero’s Pride in Old English Hagiography.”Beowulf: Basic Readings, edited by Peter S. Baker, Garland Publishing Inc., 1995, pp. 181-93.
Hosmer, Robert Ellis, Jr. “‘Beowulf’ and the Old English ‘Judith:’ Ethics and Esthetics in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” University of Massachusetts, University Microfilms International, 1985, pp. 67-79. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.
Irving, Edward B, Jr. “Christian and Pagan Elements.” A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, University of Nebraska Press,1997, pp. 175-92.
Judith. Translated by Elaine Teharne. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 110-117.
My first byline, this piece was published this month in Issue 6 of Unconditional, the magazine perhaps I admire most in the fashion and art realms. It was accompanied by a shoot of Nicolai and I, photographed by Will Davidson, Styled by Ilona Hamer, Hair by Hollie Mills, Makeup by Mariel Barrera, Overseen by Alexandra Nataf. Thank you a million times to everyone who helped this project into being, it is the best opportunity modeling has given me yet and Nicolai and I will treasure it for ever and ever and ever <3
My first byline, this piece was published this month in Issue 6 of Unconditional, the magazine perhaps I admire most, and it was accompanied by a shoot of Nicolai and me.
My brother’s a better woman than I. There’s no question about it, at least where traditionally feminine qualities are concerned: Nicolai wears make up many days and paints his nails while I quail at the very thought. He wears belly shirts; I’m loath to expose the merest wisp of midriff. My brother styles his hair every morning while I haven't run a comb through mine in months; he knows the follicle-enriching properties of various hair products while I never used conditioner until last year, when a month walking the Spring/Summer runway shows of the ready-to-wear circuit put dread locks on the back of my head. I never would have worked through them had it not been for my brother’s compendium of haircare hacks, and Aveda Damage Relief.
But these are all superficial features. What I as a woman most lament not possessing are the more inborn of Nicolai’s ephemeral traits—his infallible sense of design, for example, an instinct for aesthetics and artistry that manifests itself in the pictures he paints, the graphic art he designs, the fashion shoots he styles and photographs. He’s vested too with refined social capacities, thriving in and positively electrifying any gathering he joins, while I hew to the contrary stereotype of silent mannish reticence. Case in point: I’m twenty years old and alone at home right now in a suburb of New York, writing an article on a Friday night when most everything else with a pulse and a good pair of shoes is out on the town—and that’s the way I like it. Cause at the root of it all, my brother has the ease in himself to flaunt his femininity. I don’t quite know what to do with mine.
It’s a rather new dichotomy, and one that still sometimes surprises me. He’s eighteen and just recently come out, via an Instagram photo of he and another boy kissing in Santiago, Chile, which communicated throngs of truths despite going cheekily uncaptioned. A gay, effeminate, beautiful high school senior, Nicolai is by default always dressed to impress. I, on the other hand, fit the bill for none of the above—not gay, nor straight, nor any sexual label that I’ve established so far, not exactly feminine, but not tom-boyish either by any stretch of the imagination. Just careless, dreamy, geeky me, a fashion model who by most accounts should feel confident and validated by the very existence of my career but who in reality feels rather envious of my brother’s rapid personal evolution. Why can’t I be as effortlessly myself as he? As certain of my identity as he? I guess I could just wake up tomorrow and decide to set up a personality I want to don, but that would likely prove a catastrophe in the long run: if I've learned anything in my twenty years of existence it's that we as people aren’t meant to get anywhere in our spiritual lives by shortcuts. Cliché as it sounds, it’s the arduous and sometimes tedious process, the circles we run and the desperate cluelessness we feel that conspire to make the final outcome—the fully-actualized self—all the more rewarding.
I’ve often wondered what all the recent gender fluidity talk means. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the expanding social power to choose and transform gender as we feel impelled, I just don’t think I entirely grasp how it all works. But I think perhaps of late I may venture to guess that it boils down to one thing, and that is a certain individualizing conviction. Maybe it means this: the courageous deconstructing, or the dismissing, devalueizing, of an inherited definition (male/female), and the subsequent freedom to decide, to invent, or to intuit who you are when that boundary is removed. I’m almost positive it’s not a two-step process as simple as 1) Discard your gender definition and 2) Discover your actual sexual stance, but maybe it’s something along those lines?
In fact it sounds like a thing we should all be trying, straight and gay and all the rest alike. Because if it’s the journey that makes the arrival more triumphant, the search that makes the discovery sweeter, the question that makes the answer more meaningful, then why, why aren't we all searching that search and asking that question! If it makes the knowledge we have of ourselves that much more comprehensive, we should all go about sampling new gender identities before we settle on anything. Not disrespectfully; not mimicking as sport other people’s selves and lives, no. But by being curious in our minds and our ideas, receptive in the ways we consider ourselves and others as well as act towards ourselves and others. And if we come right back to the same conviction we set out with that’s just fine: now we know for sure and are not just towing the line of convention.
There are many themes to weed out and ponder here. It’s something I could discuss at length, and with more attention to truly what it means to be female or male; to how deeply we engage—or don’t engage, in my case—with our genders; to how gender stereotypes shape us (such as Nicolai’s act of wearing nail polish making me see him as feminine. That in itself is a stigma in action. But is it really so unreasonable an assumption to make? I don’t always know).
For now, I’m writing simply to say that I’m amazed at my brother’s refined sense of self. I’m amazed at the process that brought him to find such a self in what seems to me a vast candy shop of potential selves. For now, I’m trying to do the same, to find some self I can be equally sure of and proud of. I’ll be thrilled if I can learn anything from my brother, even if it’s the politically correct way to talk about these sexuality and gender things, or better yet, the smallest tidbit of advice about finding my own identity in the Personality Candy Shop. Or about fashion sense, or belly shirts. Conditioner. God knows I could use all of the above.
Photography by Will Davidson, styling by Ilona Hamer, Hair by Hollie Mills, Makeup by Mariel Barrera, Overseen by Alexandra Nataf. Thank you a million times to everyone who helped this project into being, it is the best opportunity modeling has given me yet and Nicolai and I will treasure it for ever and ever and ever <3
A Coruña is the city on the Northern coast of Spain where Zara has their headquarters. Overlooking the brusque Atlantic, it is known as the City of Glass thanks to the unique windows on all the buildings there--featuring an inordinate number of glass panes. The dense townhouses lining the beach form a glaring surface that reflects the sun and the light of the sea. I spent a week in A Coruña in July, working at Zara, and took many evening walks to admire these windows. Brilliant, breezy, blank. It was an enchanting city.
While I was painting this I saw two cars in the parking lot beside me nearly back into each other. Then there was a lot of honking, some leaping onto the pavement and hollering at each other, and one of them quickly drove away. The noises scared me but my portrait managed to remain looking stoic. Watercolor on paper.
Temples. Canals, marshes, swamplands: the voluptuous words for what I see when I fly low over Thailand. I’m landing in Bangkok after a twenty hour trip from New York. All is grey and flat and hazy, and I am nervous. I’m here for a job unlike any other I’ve ever done in my career, a job I spent months auditioning for in the strangest ways. I’m here for a perfume campaign—and not just any perfume campaign, but one that involved acting on video. And not just any type of acting, but dancing! Let me say that again. Danc-ing.
Allow me to explain why this was such a big deal. If you know me at all, you know I don’t dance. You know I’m the contented onlooker at parties, that one clumsy, self-conscious, geeky guest at every event who perniciously avoids moving, avoids people who are moving, avoids attention. I’ve filled this role at every party since middle school. Then I got a call last winter from my agent to inform me that the French luxury house Hermés had expressed interest in me for an upcoming fragrance campaign. The first request they made of me was that I send them a video clip of me leaping delicately from one foot to another like an imaginary fairy on imaginary stepping stones in an imaginary garden. Ok, I can leap well enough, no problem: I had my mom film me one afternoon on my iPhone hopping around my backyard with arms akimbo in a gesture I hoped evoked etherealness, like wings or gauze trailing behind me. (I was wearing jeans and a pilled sweater).
The next request came a few months later, when Hermes asked to see a video of me skipping rope. Ok, I can skip rope well enough, no problem: I had my agents film me jumping in New York’s Madison Square Park one afternoon with a rope we borrowed from the 24 Hour Fitness below the agency. A week or two later, while on a shoot in Mexico City, I got word that the director of the upcoming ad wanted a brief interview, to be conducted over Skype. Ok, I can interview well enough, no problem: in my hotel room that night I received the director’s call, perched on my queen-sized bed, and in our half-hour conversation I was briefed on the concept of the commercial and asked if I wouldn’t terribly mind taking a video of myself dancing for three minutes, to a favorite song of mine, and sending it over that evening. This is where my heart gave out—until now I had felt qualified to meet each of the challenges I’d been dealt, but when I was asked to dance, to just “let loose” and jam out to my heart’s content, I came up against one major stumbling block: my heart was content to not dance, to sustain that state at any cost. And there was the issue of song: I couldn’t wisely follow the directive to dance to my favorite song, cause at the time that was some Mozart concerto which I put on habitually while doing homework, and which would hardly have made for a groovy clip. My family thought it hilarious, I thought it lamentable, and I made sure my agent understood that if booking this job depended on my, Zuzu’s, dancing abilities it was as good as moot. It was almost worth abandoning here, without humiliating myself. But I gave it a go. After knocking back a margarita from room service.
In my hotel room in Mexico alone in the night, I opened my laptop and googled “good dance song.” I took the first entry Google gave me, some dated Beyonce song, and videoed, danced, sent, deleted. And then went out to have real Mexican quesadillas.
But somehow here I was, hovering over Bangkok, and these marshes and temples, on my way to the filming of that perfume commercial. You’re no less baffled than me as to why. There was no way of explaining my phone ringing in Barnes & Noble while browsing books with my mom over Christmas break, no reconciling my agent’s voice saying “Did you see the email?”
“You got it!”
“I don’t, uh, get it…”
“You’re confirmed for Hermes.”
My nervousness, then, may be imagined. But upon reaching Thailand I realized my dancing abilities (or fearful lack thereof) were the least of my worries. My true nemesis on this trip, it became increasingly clear, was the sun. The heat. The equatorial humidity. For each day registered temperatures between ninety and a hundred degrees fahrenheit, which on its own wouldn't be awful but became so when compounded by migraine-inducing moisture levels. We were filming outside with no recourse to an indoor studio between dawn and dusk and only an armada of fans to keep our tents cool. And I was designated to appear in an outfit comprised of long skinny jeans and a cashmere sweater. For the entire two day shoot.
We were stationed in Thailand for a total of four days, two days of rehearsals in the chilled tranquility of the hotel conference room, and two days of filming on an open-air set in the flatlands an hour outside of Bangkok. There were eight models in all, and on our first day filming outside, two of them were taken to the emergency room, at different times and for different ailments. That night I myself felt unnervingly ill, couldn’t stand up, felt fuzz in my head, saw fuzz in my eyes, forgot what I was doing when I went to brush my teeth. I almost called a doctor, but called my mom instead, who urged me to drink gatorade for its electrolyte content. I bribed a bellboy to “violate hotel policy” and leave the Le Bua State Tower to make an external purchase, of three jugs gatorade. His knock ten minutes later woke me from a deep and vermillion sleep.
The next day all eight of us models, in varying shades of red, were on set, which was an unbelievably large and realistic replica of a particular street corner…in Paris. Complete with crosswalks, lampposts, and awnings, the intersection of the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré and Rue Boissy d’Anglas was reconstructed here in Thailand because filming is prohibited on the original site, which abuts the American Embassy in Paris but is home to the storied Hermés flagship store. Determined to locate their ad in and around this store, Hermés sought out places and ways of replicating the street: building the set in studio was ruled out in favor of natural sunlight, and among the places on this planet with guaranteed sunlight Thailand won the bid because, even after business-class airfare to convey the whole Hermés administrative and creative teams and production and talents halfway around the world, filming in Bangkok was still immensely cheaper than filming in, say, Los Angeles, due to things like unions and labor laws. This conglomeration of circumstances, arbitrary as it seems, awarded me the unexpected opportunity to visit a nation I probably would never otherwise have laid eyes on. After nearly four years of modeling this is why I still stick around: because an endeavor in the fashion world rarely proceeds directly, but rather by roundabout and puzzling machinations that produce the most engaging and serendipitous of side effects, like my discovery that banana dumplings, fried on street corners in Bangkok, are not actually as gross as they look. They're rather satisfying.
As serendipity, then, would have it, when the fragrance ad was released a few days ago I discovered that not much dancing is included in its final cut. Dancing did take place, however; nerve-wrackingly and scrutinizedly it was enacted, there on the faux Parisian corner surrounded by cameras, tents, people with parasols, water-bottles, monitors and walky-talkies beneath the equatorial sun. Each of us eight girls had a solo dance to improvise on the spot, no less, but I will never know what my solo looked like, since little of it is included in the final cut and I wasn’t too eager at the time to stand in the sun the extra moments it would have required to watch the playback (and not too eager to watch myself dancing, either)! I have to imagine, though, that it was a little awkward, a little confusing to witness, that it maybe sometimes coincided with the rhythm. I have to hope so. And I have to try as mightily as I can to hold this all close to me for a moment, to absorb and store up as much of this bizarre and unbelievable Hermes adventure as I can—because adventure, really, is what this whole perfume thing proved to be about. The adventure lay in my challenging myself, the adventure lay in the strange banana and raw egg dumplings I saw fried on the streets of Bangkok, the adventure lay in jumping rope with my agents in Madison Park, in illicitly procuring gatorade one midnight, and, yes, in observing temples, canals, marshes, and swamplands from a plane shuddering low over a foreign landscape. The adventure lay in humbling myself, stretching myself, and waiting, expectantly, to see what came of it. It was all grey and hazy, and I had butterflies.
Queso Tetilla, I discovered, is Spanish for “tit cheese.” Before I’d set eyes on the thing I wondered, isn’t all cheese tit cheese, by nature of it’s origin? Once I’d seen the cheese, however, on a pedestal at the hotel breakfast buffet specially labeled “Regional Foods of Galicia,” I understood its title; queso tetilla, it transpires, is shaped like a tit. And it is traditionally eaten in this part of Spain paired with membrillo, a quince paste of varying amber or maroon color that is manufactured in blocks to be easily sliceable on a cheese platter at dessert, or the breakfast of the nH hotel in A Coruña.
A Coruña is a small, dense coastal city in the Spain's Northern region of Galicia, and I was there this past month to shoot for Zara, whose headquarters are located a few kilometers outside the town in a huge and high-tech warehouse complex. The complex, and Zara itself, belongs to Inditex, a Spanish clothing company and the largest fashion group in the world. Inditex’s “fast-fashion” business model has redefined the clothing market, flooding it with affordable, high-end knock-offs produced by eight subsidiary brands. Over the course of my five days in the fortress (all blank walls and glassy floors and stillness) I glimpsed the owner of Inditex himself, a native of A Coruña and the richest man in all Europe, sitting at an identical desk to the hundreds of broad desks scattered over the vast, football-field-sized floor that housed the Women’s division of Zara. Lunch break lasted an hour and was taken in a canteen like an upgraded school cafeteria where food was plated by white clad lunch-ladies and -gents presiding over reservoirs of tuna salad, roasted chicken, rice and gazpacho. The owner, Mr. Ortega, could be seen some days sitting at a table on his own, eating dry potatoes and rice pudding from a tray like the rest of us, only he was worth $84 billion.
I was excited to be at Inditex. I’ve always admired Zara's online imagery: this relatively young brand has gained wide recognition for its immaculate presentation, characterized by rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling, and, most interesting to me, distinct models. Zara ecommerce has, quite improbably, become an arbiter of taste not only in the fashion industry but in the modeling one as well. I was dying for a view behind the curtain of this coveted production.
And what I found, in the studios on the Women’s floor of Zara in the complex of Inditex in the province of Galicia, Spain, was that Zara’s ecommerce shoots proceed like a well-oiled machine: during my stay there seven or eight models came to work every day and five studios functioned simultaneously, each furnished with a stylist, art director, photographer, model, and hair and makeup artist, wending their collective way through the racks of pre-styled outfits allotted to them to shoot each day. I discovered, too, that the days were very long—there was no end to these racks. Finish one and another will roll into the room, for merchandise is boundless and the turnaround from memory card to Zara.com lightening-paced. This rhythm was interrupted solely by the punctual, 2:00 excursion to the cafeteria to eat, rest my feet, check my phone, get to know the people I was working with: those trivial but essential transactions that signify being human. I found that besides this pause, all other moments were scoured from the husk of the day in the relentless pursuit of an unquantifiable quota. I found, really, that I couldn’t wait to get away from Inditex.
Each evening when I was restored to my hotel by a company car, weary and glad, I visited a small market across the street and bought ridiculously cheap groceries from which to cobble dinner; if I had plans to go out with the hair & makeup artists I’d purchase simply a massive 2 liter bottle of this fancy brand of water called Cabreiroá—for .65 euros! These would cost six dollars had it been the US, and, enthralled by my discovery, I consumed a whole bottle each night. I was reading Silent Spring, about pesticides and how they accumulate in and kill earthworms, birds, fish, cows and humans alike when sprayed on crops or roadside shrubs, and I wasn’t sleeping because jet lag has a uniquely severe impact on me. Nightfall in my hotel-room meant confinement, desperate or bored; brought with it a certain strandedness that stemmed from the fact that in this conservative Spanish town things closed early, retracted, darkened, folded with sundown into sighing, seaside silence. Stifled in an impotent wad of bedsheets, I was dry-eyed, wide-eyed, unyielding: myself, a water bottle, and pages of pesticides.
What does it take to convince oneself of a thing’s realness, to make oneself believe a step in one’s life is truly in motion? I wonder often when I’ll realize that this, this here existence, this lonesome night in a hotel or jostling plane ride or wasted hour haunting Instagram or vigorous day on set—this is actually a part of my larger life, a constituent in the compilation of memories I’m gathering from this earth that all hold equal legitimacy, that will all be equally irretrievable and divine in hindsight? As I near the close of my fourth year of modeling—an occupation I never foresaw or fathomed for myself—I find I quite often wonder how one knows when one stage of life is over, depleted, and when one should propel oneself into the next.
On my last evening in Spain I climbed the Mount of San Pedro, a hill to the West of the central A Coruña. I made the ascent with Jane Moseley, a model I’d met that week at Zara, and with abottle of Cabreiroá. At the peak stood an old WWII bunker overlooking the Atlantic, and Jane and I sprawled on the grass beneath a weathered green cannon with its snout craning out to sea. Stuck in the grass was a sign that read, “El Parque del Monte San Pedro No Utiliza Pesticidas.” The Park of Mount San Pedro Does Not Use Pesticides.
That day photos were already appearing on Zara.com from our week of work. There I was, seeing myself through a Zara lens: that signature rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling. Seeing myself as one of the models I'd deemed "distinct," when I felt on the contrary most prosaic. What I did not see in those photos was my tiredness and jet lag, the torturous slowness of the clock as I waited for it to indicate 2pm, the clothes racks to my right that always stayed full. Nor did I see my room in the nH hotel with its twin beds and intermittent doubts. For nights in A Coruña gave me plenty of time to attempt what I’ve attempted these four years since I started modeling: to rationalize this career as my reality, to reconcile my self with my work. With each renewed attempt, I find myself a little more desensitized to the exquisite and ludicrous juxtaposition I generate with the function I perform; I find myself forgetting how unlike me it all seemed at first.
The next day I flew home, via a stopover in Madrid. By that time I was able to fall asleep at the appropriate hour--had finally adjusted to the time change--and with more rest under my belt held a much sunnier outlook on the world. Still I was glad to be going home, as I was glad to have witnessed at last the Zara phenomenon in action. I was glad, too, to have a place in this bizarre business I currently call my own, even if I keep my distance from it: modeling, though a cakewalk compared with countless other jobs, is hardly ever as glamorous as the pictures it produces. Its value, I think, lies in the life experience it provides. For the opportunity to spy on billionaires and pick up Spanish curse words and taste wild blackberries on a hillside crowned with cannons. For making friends in glorified cafeterias. For tit cheese.
Whether I’m out for a day in New York, Paris, or the hilly little city of A Coruña on the Northern coast of Spain as I am today, I like to have a soft and capacious purse on hand to accommodate the melange of curiosities I insist on dragging everywhere with me. Recently I received Elleme's versatile and quaintly titled 'Raisin Bag' (elleme.com, $535), and it has lived up to my peculiar portaging demands this week while I shuttle to and from work at Zara's headquarters with enough trinkets and projects in my bag to entertain an army. Bumping off one shoulder on any given day and on any given side of the globe you may depend on finding:
—A book (currently “POND” by Claire Louise Bennet, Fitzcarraldo Editions £10.99)
—A journal (currently a nice big leather thing I got at Anthropologie ages ago and which is by now thoroughly faded, stained, and tattered from inumerable trips and only has two remaining blank pages)
—A poetry journal (Moleskine, $9.95), little unlined "cashier" paperbacks that I buy in bulk and fill almost monthly. These are for the little half-formed thoughts and disembodied lines of free verse that flicker by when one is on the subway, in an elevator, brushing one's teeth
—Multiple pens to meet all these scribal needs (Muji .38mm, $1.50)
—A highlighter, cause it feels smart to carry a highlighter
—Weleda chapstick (Weleda $7); a tasteless, scentless, healing beeswax salve that I with my perpetually peeling lips survive by
—A yellow plastic finger puppet, which I photograph in each new place I visit. In this line of business, after all, you never know when you'll be walking by one of the seven wonders of the world
—A sleep mask (in this line of business, after all, you never know either when you'll be hopping on a plane, and beauty sleep is paramount).
—a disposable camera, because apparently film is the new iPhone
—a collection of coffee shop “loyalty” cards, in varying degrees of achieving a free latte
—a collection of metro cards that I lose and find on various days and in varying rotations. I have to buy multiple for each city I stay in, and lost or found, my ways to get around are ever changing, depending on the day, the weather, my mood. As are the contents of my bag. These objects I carry, these ways to remember things, learn things, and forget things all lie collected in their assorted forms in my purse wherever I roam so that depending on the day, the weather, my mood, I may meet each experience, the modeling life and the traveler's mind, and ingest it as seems fit.
Good poetry gives / the gift of bafflement. Good / poetry gives covetousness / and makes me jealous.
Unfortunately, the sun does not hit / this side of the building. / I would never get an apartment if / the sun did not hit its / side of the building / in the mornings.
I was scared of being bitten, but getting pooped on never occurred to me. By the end of the evening I’d fallen victim to both. I was standing in a thin and sparkly gold summer dress on a lawn in Chelsea, NYC, and I carried a parrot on my arm—a Poicephalus parrot, to be precise, that was small and pink and bore the misleadingly sweet appellation of Rosy.
This was the Stella McCartney Resort ’18 presentation, and while presentations are a method of debuting a collection generally more casual and unconventional than a full-blown fashion show, this presentation landed beyond the pale: this presentation was a party.
Tonight there was no slippery catwalk, no solitary strutting under numbingly loud music and austere, distant rows of seated onlookers. On the contrary, tonight there was just mingling, mulling, loafing about in the temporarily-tropically-themed garden of the Theological Seminary on West 20th street. Tonight there was a live reggae band headed by none other than Bob Marley’s second-youngest son, an open bar, pineapple bowling (is that a thing? I’d never seen it until now), and tonight, of course, there were parrots.
My job, and my fellow models’, was delightfully simple: we were to convey Stella’s pieces, on our silent, graceful, expensive frames, among the party guests with their tropical cocktails in hand and precarious heels on the lumpy lawn. This format promoted interaction between the guests and the clothes they were here to view, and also between the guests and the models ourselves, for after an hour had lapsed and it was judged that all the editors and bloggers had had sufficient time to conduct a detailed surveillance of the collection, we models were all allowed to get drinks and explore the garden and dance and, if anyone could figure out how, do some pineapple bowling. And it proved an eventful evening, as work goes. Over the course of the next two hours and one and a half margaritas I quite randomly:
—was given a booklet of Ginsberg poetry and a kiss on the hand by Michael Avedon, grandson of Richard of that name
—was introduced to Terry Richardson, by David Bellemere
—got mammoth blisters on my pinky toes that have taken two weeks to heal
—was posed with by Lily Collins (in my capacity as relevant Stella-branded prop)
—was shaken hands with by Chris Rock (didn’t know who he was until the model I was with excitedly explained he was the goofy voice behind Marty in Madagascar)
—was pooped on by a parrot
—was bitten by a parrot
—admired the back of Alec Baldwin’s head from the bamboo pedestal where I was standing while my feet were photographed by the New York Times…
How did an unremarkable girl from the suburbs end up here? How can it be that the modeling contract I signed while still in High School and shy as a mouse wound up working out, wound up being anything more than the scam I expected it to be, a joke? I’m not usually one to feel star-struck or impressed by a lot of famous names in one place, but tonight, I had to admit, I felt a wee bit incredulous.
Taking Off over the Sea of Marmara:
There's sunlight on stray hairs / and the tip of my nose. / Being tugged back in my seat / is a good feeling / by the starting of the plane / and thank god I'm not throwing up any more.
A rough rendition of my view from the doorway of Blue Bottle Coffee where I stood in line for my Latte Tuesday morning on the sidewalk of Jessie St, Theatre District, San Francisco. Beautiful sky, white buildings, the smell of a Colombia Popoyán roast, a soaring sense of self and work to report to in a moment... After, of course, a coffee, and the savoring of a gap in a day.
Two Enlightening Days in San Francisco...
San Francisco has perhaps the most stark, and startling, economic disparity of any city I’ve traveled to in my itinerant years as a model. Well, I take that back...visiting the world's biggest mall which was built by near-slave labor in Dubai probably takes the prize. But San Francisco had the greatest disparity I've seen in any American city. I was shocked to arrive there this week, on a searing blue day, and check into a boutique hotel with a high-tech gym and refined Danish-modern furniture after having driven past block upon block of homeless, shirtless, weathered men and women, sitting, sleeping, pacing the sidewalks. This may have been especially evident to me because my hotel was located on the frontier between Nob Hill, one of the most ritzy residential neighborhoods of the city, and the Tenderloin, an area known for being a sort of hobo jungle, a homeless headquarters of the West Coast and possibly the nation.
The name “Tenderloin” can be traced back to the 1890’s, and, as one legend has it, was derived from the fact that officers assigned to patrol the area were able to afford quality meat cuts (like tenderloin) because they received “hazard pay” for working in such a violent area. Or so the old story goes. I heard a number of such rumors about the Tenderloin while in San Francisco: Uber drivers were chatty. One alleged that New York non-profit organizations working to alleviate homelessness in the Big Apple had started buying homeless New Yorkers one-way tickets to San Francisco. Another asserted that many of the homeless residing in the Tenderloin were war vets, and that their presence there had begun in earnest after Vietnam. Another driver claimed that one particular block in the Tenderloin, on Turk street, had so much violent crime that parking had been banned on both sides of the street in an effort to discourage the problematic drug transactions that are made possible by sheltered spaces.
In addition to hearing rumors about them, though, I also had a fair number of encounterswith the homeless of San Francisco. On the day I worked for Everlane here this week, we shot in a studio in the Mission District of San Francisco, just a few blocks south of the Tenderloin. Upon arriving at the studio, with photo equipment and garment racks in tow, we discovered we couldn’t use the elevator because a homeless man had moved into it and was at that moment attempting to scale the elevator shaft. By the time we had heaved all our supplies up the staircase, the police and fire department had arrived with ladders and pellet guns, and soon the man was extricated, handcuffed, and lead, shouting hoarsely, to a squad car. He wore a hot pink Hawaiian shirt and jeans, backwards.
That evening after work I was walking past Saks Fifth Ave (far off Fifth!) when I heard a violent shout close behind me and two security guards exploded from the store’s main entrance in furious pursuit of a large and wooly young man clutching a shiny plastic package under his arm. They cornered him on either side of a lamppost and he threw down the box. Was it a perfume? A Kylie lip kit? On the first floor they usually only sell jewels and cosmetics.
I wasn’t disconcerted by the homeless people themselves as much as I was by their staggering numbers. Here was intense destitution concentrated smack dab in the middle of a progressive, tech-centric metropolis, of one of the most expensive cities in the world (did you know SF recently eclipsed Manhattan in cost of living?)! And the Tenderloin seemed like such a commonplace phenomenon, like a banality to those who live here and know the situation and accept it as part of this city’s reality. Not that it shouldn’t be accepted; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a municipality incorporating into its culture, identity, and legacy a constituency which by definition exists separate from the city, living physically within its bounds but not contributing to nor partaking of its collective economical and political endeavors. Nothing wrong with living amidst or alongside this unorthodox village…but perhaps something wrong with not spearheading, and offering, an alternative? I’m no sociologist or political scientist and I don’t presume to know what should or could be done, but simply from the casual position of one human thinking of other humans I feel perplexed that this severe situation exists at all, and wonder that nothing has been successfully implemented to alleviate it. I am perplexed by the scale of this population of dispossessed and displaced people, perplexed by its coexistence with the multi-million dollar townhouses no more than six blocks northward, perplexed by its apparent permanence.
There I was, enjoying the glee of simply being in California which a novice East-coaster necessarily experiences on her third and still dreadfully brief encounter with the spacious, the relaxed, the innovative West. I'd become a California enthusiast, though due to the shortness of my visits, only on a regrettably superficial level: I know little of actual life here, but am enamored of the açai bowls, the perpetual sandal weather, the easy pace, the yoga studios, clichés, the direct, earnest sun. And there, in the midst of my aesthetic, pretty lifestyle-y hoopla, in the midst of the things I expected of California, I found a really un-pretty lifestyle, I found a thing I did not expect of California. It was another of those revelations of the road, a reminder that human society, no matter where or when, is a slapdash arrangement at best, and that it almost always leaves someone out. Many someones, it seems.
I left San Francisco after one day of work there and one of leisure, and returned home glad to escape the flagrant smell of urine on the sidewalks but dismayed to give up the beaming sun drenching those white Mission District facades. I departed feeling full of good coffee, full of good luck, astoundingly privileged. I left with an increased appreciation of elevators and with a tiny gold chain at my collarbone, which I’d bought at Saks, on the first floor. I left with disparity on my mind, and the vast chasms that can exist between the realities of humans who are after all so fundamentally alike. California, like all points on this globe, has its helping of stench and suffering along with its juice bars and ocean breezes. But the streets of mild San Francisco, I realized, may not be the worst streets to call home. They're the least artificial paradise I know.
And there will be days, / days enough for you's and I's to / take the mornings open-eyed / with hair outstretched across the pillow. Beginnings / measured in sun slants.
Sun in windows is what I wake up early for. Seven AM weekends and weekdays alike I'm up and ready to admire, to worship the domestic beauty, the ordinary glory, the continuity of life summed up and expressed in a silent beam thrown between my curtains. Ah, mornings...