Over the past month of towering blizzards which passed over my house (and knocked out my power for a few days there), I find myself increasingly contemplating milder weather, lakes, light, openness, speed, smell of jasmine. Oh to be somewhere swimming...
LIVING MY GAP YEAR
Vignettes of New Mexico
It felt a little bit like doom to check into The Lodge in Cloudcroft in December. Perhaps this was because a ghost is rumored to live in that hotel, or because I knew I had to get up for work the next morning at 3 am, just a few fitful hours from now. Perhaps it was because the woman at reception asked, when I handed her my passport, what it was. She’d never left the state, let alone the country, despite the unshakeable presence, three hours down Route 54 from here, of the Mexican border and Chihuahua. This was New Mexico and there was a fake fire in The Lodge just like at inns in New York and also many things decidedly not like New York. A notice outside a local restaurant read: “Concealed Handguns are welcome on premises. Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises. In such cases, judicious marksmanship is appreciated.” I chose to find dinner elsewhere.
Maybe my arriving felt ominous because I knew the pervasive cold that awaited me in the desert before dawn, and the fierce heat after noon. Maybe because I knew the peculiar sunburn that comes of exposure to sun from above and reflective sands below. For I had been to this same patch of the Southwestern United States no more than two weeks earlier, to the arid Tularosa Basin where the first ever nuclear weapon was detonated by the Manhattan Project at 5:29 am one summer morning in 1945. The guns were only the beginning of the auguries that this was no New York: so few people lived here that on a Friday evening at seven o’clock the nicest restaurant in town was entirely vacant save our party of eleven. The community of people who did make their home out here under all this sky did not do so for the fine dining: their raison d’etre, the campfire about which they gathered in the famously cold desert night, was US Military base Fort Bliss. Everything that took place around here was suffused with military sobriety, obedience, and reticence; everything that mattered around here belonged to Fort Bliss or the White Sands Missile Range.
Casey Wayne Hupp, hired by the New York producer to assist with New Mexico logistics on our shoot—location scouting and providing Alamogordo handymen to carry some glass cubes I would pose on and renting two Mercedes panel vans and a GigaTent for changing outfits in public—was himself an army vet. He was still under forty and still working “part time” to fill odd needs at Fort Bliss—needs of the base and, I think, of his own. The rest of the time he operated a tanning salon, which was a thing you could surmise after one look beyond his Aviator sunglasses at his bronze face and blond-highlighted bangs. Howie, driving one of the vans one morning, didn’t specify how he had been affiliated with the army, but he looked back on this affiliation as a proud time in his life. Now he owned a storage complex near the Texas border. Space: in the Tularosa Basin, it seemed the only resource to speak of.
Amid the army holdings and the Taco Bells and Applebees’ which comprised the primary gastronomical scene here, there was one other presence in Otero County and this is the one that drew me to New Mexico twice in the span of two weeks. White Sands National Monument is a vast park consisting of 275 square miles of gypsum sands, a fine white mineral whose versatile uses range from mortar (it can be found holding together the pyramids of ancient Egypt) to foot cream to coagulant in tofu. In its raw form here, though, gypsum provides an excellent extraterrestrial backdrop for edgy fashion shoots. In 1976 David Bowie shot parts ofThe Man Who Fell to Earth here, and White Sands is precisely the sort of place where you expect to blink and find Bowie wavering, in sequins, on a nearby dune.
My two trips to White Sands were for different jobs: incredibly, two brands had the same vision which combined me and pastel spring trends and this specific glinting setting for advertising material to be released the coming year. These two trips remain my only experience of New Mexico. It took a day to reach White Sands and a day to return home: the journey involved a succession of clipped domestic flights bridging the states between New York and El Paso, Texas, which were followed by a three hour drive into New Mexico. Four times I passed, on Route 54, the security checkpoint where officers requested to see our passports and peered into the backs of our vans: we were close enough to the Mexican border for them to suspect us of bearing illegal immigrants, and just far enough from the Mexican border for them to suspect that any searches they conducted would come, at this advanced phase in a dash towards the American dream, as a “surprise.” Looming up out of the plane, the big grey building which straddled the highway was an uncomfortable sight, even to me with my arbitrarily inherited American citizenship. It seemed especially somber since the fates and dignity of immigrants all over the nation were being toyed with that month in a capital felicitously removed from the desert sun.
My night in Cloudcroft became increasingly less ominous once I got to my room. My shower was soothing, even if I’d forgotten conditioner and emerged with my hair more than usually unmanageable. Dinner was satisfying in the dining room downstairs where the whole team of this Bloomingdales shoot convened. The restaurant, like much else in this hotel, was named after its resident ghost: Rebecca’s. She was supposedly a chambermaid at The Lodge until she was murdered by her lumberjack lover who, according to a plaque mounted prominently in the lobby, “thought that he owned Rebecca, but she was a free spirit that nobody owned.” Was this the sort of town in which it was necessary to enunciate such a platitude? To assert (the obvious,) that nobody has rights over any being but themselves?
The gypsum was cold under my bare feet in the Park the next morning at dawn. Too cold to bear, almost; it felt for all the world like the snow it resembled, and numbed my toes as I stood in a white suit and swayed and squatted and spun before the camera. At high noon, however, when the sun scorched everything else, I came to appreciate its persistent, damp chill. All day long we rolled a lurching rack of clothes through the dunes with us. I changed my outfits most times in the Giga tent so as not to waste precious daylight on the walk to the parking lot with the RV that was home base. Lunch was brought to us by the Lodge—by Rebecca’s—and we ate at white-draped tables under tents. There was a strong wind snapping our tents and table cloths at our heads, our open eyes, open mouths. There was creamed corn and corn bread and lots of saucy brown meat dishes in tinfoil trays. I think I ate a sweet potato I had carried, wrapped also in tinfoil, from home for a need like this.
We shot until the sun set, racing on the silent plain against the coming of dark. As the sky colored pink and violet, so did the gypsum sands, and then blue, and then grey, and at last indigo. That night back at the Lodge I was so tired I could hardly keep my balance for the duration of a hot shower, and dinner with the photo team downstairs at Rebecca’s was out of the question. Rather, I brought some vegetables up to my room and watched an episode of Bojack Horseman in bed. The show’s about the superficial and isolated life in Hollywood of a cynical horse living off his increasingly faint celebrity, and the next thing I knew it was time to descend again to Rebecca’s for breakfast with everyone, and to clamor into the panel vans for the two and a half hour drive back to El Paso International Airport. I was looking forward to getting back home. Looking forward to leaving behind the dark wooden resort, the concealed weapon restaurants, the deserted streets after seven. Leaving behind Rebecca and the prominent plaque distinguishing Rebecca as “not the Hollywood kind of ghost who goes around scaring people or being vengeful. Rather, like almost all country inn ghosts, she is a mischievous, playful ghost, not in the least sense macabre.” Because country inns, I think, wouldn’t advertise macabre ghosts.
Gazing out the window as we sped towards Texas, nursing a subdued sunburn, I thought about Bojack Horseman and wondered how superficial and isolated my own life in Fashion is, how cynical I may have become since I began modeling and traveling enough for me to forget to appreciate it. Unlike the receptionist in Cloudcroft, I have seen a passport. I have a passport. And it is filled with stickers and visas and stamps from border crossings into more countries than I can count on two hands. I have come of age on airplanes and in front of cameras, and that is a uniquely exciting way to come of age. But also an isolating way. And superficial, for all of my work involves me being someone other than me, and all my time off involves me worrying about superficial—surface—traits of mine (am I swimsuit ready). As I embark on my day of connecting flights dotting the map between El Paso and New York, I am uniquely excited to spend the weekend wearing my own clothes, not being seen, not being moved places. And, for the time being, not being anyone other than me.
So farewell Tularosa Basin, farewell gypsum that I might someday encounter again, in making gesso to plaster a panel for an icon, in toothpaste or in tofu. Farewell missile range, 1945 nuclear moment, shrubs, dunes, and vast blue sky. Farewell ominousness and beautiful, breathtaking, spaciousness. Hello familiar urban bubble. Hello me.
On Conflict, Camels, and Seeking Something Sacred
I wouldn’t tell my mom about driving through the West Bank, I decided. She was nervous about my being in Israel in the first place; she didn’t need to worry about me being in the volatile territory, wedged between Jordan and Israel, that was ceded to the Palestinian Authority under the second Oslo Accord of 1995. Mom’s parting words when she left me at the entrance of JFK had been an exhortation not to do anything foolish or put myself in danger’s way, both of which I considered driving through the West Bank might constitute.
But it felt safer there than I expected. And we were careful about it, peeing at the last rest stop under Israeli domain before pursuing highway 90 onwards through the blinding white sands of Palestinian territory, so that we wouldn’t have to stop in the wrong areas. I didn’t make eye contact with any drivers we passed in the West bank, only with a camel. From my sun drenched passenger seat I felt that if anyone registered that we were there, Western infiltrators to a world we did not understand and which did not understand us, they might show us hostility, a shaken fist perhaps, or I don’t know what, but I didn’t want to find out—or to be found out. For I felt like I didn’t belong on this nerve center of a strip of turf, and truly I didn’t—exactly who does belong on this land is a topic that polarizes scholars and politicians all over the world and fuels ongoing local violence. It was the cantankerous question of belonging that was to punctuate much of that day, and to reveal a truth about the young nation of Israel: that every moment and every movement here is permeated by that conflict sparked by this country’s will to exist, that every moment is permeated by the persisting need to guard this existence.
We’d worked up enough courage by the time we passed the camel to stop the car, and we did get out and admire him beside the busy marketplace where he was tethered. The market was a sort of Arab equivalent to the suburban New York strip malls around my home, but occupying tents and selling, in addition to nail polish and dishsoap, dates and the granular green spice called za’atar. It was nondescript enough a place not to feel politically charged, to feel safe, or normal at least. But Noa made sure to only speak English. Not, at this time, her native Hebrew.
Noa made sure to only speak English too when we had gotten into Jerusalem an hour later, after we’d passed back into Israel through a checkpoint where soldiers peered through the sunshine into our car. Exultant and relieved to reach our destination without incident, we parked at Mamila to enter the Old City of Jerusalem on foot at the Jaffa Gate. We were looking for a Russian icon at my insistence, me with my peculiar secular obsession with the art, the artifice, of human faith. And it was going to be a lucky venture, Noa told me, because the man I bought fresh pomegranate juice from at the Jaffa Gate gave me correct change. Noa was touched by his honesty; it didn’t even dawn on me to expect otherwise. Symptoms of our cultures, American me and Middle Eastern she, I thought. Starting the day with such a miracle as a straightforward transaction, though, couldn’t be anything but a good portent. And indeed, we happened unwittingly to have entered directly into the Old City’s Christian quarter, conveniently opposite a Christian Information Center that was dark inside with a priest and a nun perspiring in black muslin. For an authentic religious icon they directed us to an Armenian Christian store at the fourth station of the cross, the place where it is said Jesus encountered his mother along his way down the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion. We set out with a hand-drawn map, feeling touched with luck.
Our luck faltered, however, when we found ourselves obliviously sauntering through the Arab quarter of the city, of which I knew nothing but which Noa explained to me was an uncertain place for an Israeli to be, especially an Israeli soldier as she, at the time, was. Now again I’m only speaking English, she told me as she found my hand and clutched it between us. We’re just tourists, she said. We proceeded down the winding stone pathways of the Old City to pass through an archway or tunnel of sorts, a tight stone corridor. In it, like in most of these alleys, there was heavy pedestrian traffic, Arab men walking in one direction and, all of a sudden, a phalanx of Israeli armed police walking in the other direction, pushing against the tide of bodies, pushing us all to one wall so they could sidle through the passage with loud black boots on the cobbles. Then the Arab men standing in front of us were muttering menacingly among themselves. Then they were muttering menacingly to the Israeli soldiers. Then a soldier, close up in the face of an Arab man in his path, sneered “move it,” and then there was dread in the air thick enough to slice. I looked on puzzled; Noa, understanding the Hebrew exchange I could not, experienced a dry-mouthed expectation of something she knew to be routine, ugly, a nearly-forgone conclusion. We couldn't move, really, it was a jam of warm bodies in white robes and us in our most modest warm-weather garb and the officers in their blue suits and bulletproof vests.
Maybe it was the greatest manifestation of our luck, actually, that prevented anything violent from erupting in that passageway just then. I learned since of the frequent stabbings that occur in this quarter of Jerusalem, commonly of Israeli police like those we encountered by irate Arabs. But the volatility of that particular confrontation subsided harmlessly and we shuffled on, white robes and blue suits and meticulous, neutral tourists all tracing our respective paths out from the breathless archway.
When we came to the Armenian store, called the Hamaedian Gallery for the wealthy local family who owns it, we found dozens of icons…old icons, real icons, vibrant hand-painted wonders. Here in a large low basement I set eyes on a beautiful orangey panel of Madonna and Child with muddied, chipped faces and I knew that I would not depart from this room without unburdening my wallet of a fair amount of money. It was a mortifying realization, and thrilling: I couldn’t believe my luck in this discovery, I couldn’t pick one icon to buy, I couldn’t imagine leaving any behind. So overwhelmed was I by the abundance of beauty around me that the baby-faced Mr. Hamaedian who was attending us, and who explained he was the store owner’s son, remarked that among his multitudes of clients (which included, he said, Putin’s wife), he had never seen anyone so genuinely excited about icons as he saw me then. I was crouched on the floor, hugging my knees, swaying.
After one hour, a phone call to my parents and a number of soul-searching conferences with Noa, I at last settled on one large icon of a woman robed in black against a blank, ivory-colored background. The painting was an estimated 250 years old, of Russian origin, and its subject was Saint Eudokia of Heliopolis, of whom I’d never heard but who, I discovered once I returned to wifi and Wikipedia, was Lebanese and lived in the first century. Supposedly she was visited by a vision of Saint Michael prompting her to convert to Christianity, which she did and which she convinced many others to do after her, but for which Roman officials beheaded the lady in the year 107 CE. It was the first sentence of the brief Wikipedia article, however, that contained the most colorful and engaging detail about the subject of my new icon: “she was a very beautiful pagan, and garnered her wealth by attracting wealthy lovers.” I have to admire and appreciate a woman who dared not only to defy the Roman Emperor and take her spiritual development into her own hands, but also to harness her beauty to her more superficial benefit—the last, at least, I can relate to. That she is identified first and foremost by her feminine wiles is satisfying to me as a young woman in a way much Christian hagiography is not. Eudokia was only sainted, of course, for her eventual renunciation of these practices and these suitors; in a subversive twist of fate, however, what has endured of Eudokia, in her most immediate mainstream iteration today, is her sensuous femininity, the very shrewdness of her unchristian ways.
I bought the icon and the young Mr. Hamaedian bought me and Noa lunch at his friend’s Armenian restaurant nearby. Famished and worn out from our exhilarating day of choices and chances, risks and rewards, we were relieved when the rotund, twenty-something salesman left us deferentially in the hands of his wizened restaurant friend, commanding us to order what we willed, it was taken care of. Two lemonades, a tangle of red cabbage, hummus, eggplant and a few pitas later, we made our contented way back out into the goldening afternoon and were just turning down the Via Dolorosa when young Hameadian came lurching towards us, panting. He had something for us, he said, and when we stepped back into the dim Hamaedian Gallery he presented Noa with the gold and green ring she had been coveting in his jewelry case all the long while I was agonizing over my icon selection. He had marked her patience, he told her with glinting eyes, and this was his reward to her for being such a devoted friend. I couldn’t have repaid her better myself. His reward for me, he revealed, was another large icon, its background scraped down to the pale gesso like the one I’d just purchased. He had taken it out of storage especially for my perusal, he announced—he’d sell it to me at half price. I contained my mirth and politely deflected his pitch; the free lunch and ring strengthened his suit but I was determined to have just one icon from Jerusalem: flying home with a trunkful of them would diminish their importance to me, the value of this purchase as a reminder forevermore of this experience and this country…
The way home from Jerusalem was more comfortable than the way to it. We drove across the thin waist of Israel between its Eastern border, where we could gaze down at the de facto Palestinian capital of Ramallah, and its Western coast, where Tel Aviv embraced the sea. In an outlying Tel Aviv neighborhood there stood home, home for Noa and her boyfriend and their rapacious dog Apa, and home for me for one night more, on the couch with the fleece blankets which it was too warm for. As I packed my suitcase that evening, with the new icon swaddled in shirts and bathing suits, I wondered at the staggering coexistence of such spirituality and such animosity and in one location, and in the name of one cause. For Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, functions as an intersection of the three largest of world religions: the Old City that I visited is home to the most sacred of sites for Christians and the most holy site, a few hundred yards away, of Jews. A site holy to Muslims too, second only to Mecca, is located in the same square. But despite the humility and devotion that these sites attract, and the values of tolerance and love that the Abrahamic religions ostensibly promote, the city of Jerusalem, as I experienced first hand, is continuously convulsed by resentment and strife. How is it that the intersection of faiths coincides here with the intersection of the astounding human capacities for worship and for hatred? Does their entanglement say something about the propensity of religion to cloud reason and blight brotherhood? Or indicate a human propensity to pervert even the most sacred and peaceful of institutions for self-servitude? I know little about these things, which are mysteries even to those who have devoted lifetimes to their study. But I can’t help feeling that these forces of piety and hostility, which seem so mutually exclusive, could not coexist and inflame each other as they do if religion in practice did not in some way fall short of its ideal iteration, the purest vision of itself.
I left Israel wistfully, I’d had an astounding introduction to this country and the plane seat was crushing my knees. It was ironic, as I took off over the splendid geography of the Middle East, that I worried about the safety of an icon in my bag while musing on the contradictions inherent in spiritual institutions around the world. It was like a poem I’d read by Robert Hass, about lagunitas or lacunas: the small spaces between things, gaps. When compared to each other, the way I’d feared the West Bank and the uneventful reality of our car ride through it (the grinning camel) formed a lacuna; so did Eudokia’s sainthood and her beguiling means of acquiring wealth; Noa masquerading as a tourist and the Israeli soldier that she really was. These were the gaps between the appearances of things and their truths, between the enchanting symmetry of a religious icon and the skewedness of religion. It was not until I got home that I could begin to distinguish the truths from the appearances, and it may yet be years before I know which of the two I prefer. The icon is beautiful on my kitchen wall.
Last week I wrote a piece for Lullavie, an encompassing, jack-of-all-trades culture blog by Adriana Huang. Running through my mental catalogue of bizarre and extravagant memories from my past years as a model was humorous and breathtaking in equal measures... It's not often we pause to take stock of the time that has passed and the things we've lived--of the people we were and the people we've become. Thank you Adriana!
It has become, I'm not sure how, something of a tradition in our house to paint Coptic mummy portraits on the first day of the year. In the crystalline sunlight that floods an empty living room once the debris of New Years Eve has been vacuumed and rubbed from it, my family settles into tranquil indoor recreations. Dad makes successive rounds of cappuccinos. Then, in these doldrums, I take out our book of mummy portraits from the Met and replicate in acrylic some deceased person who dwelled in Egypt 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 folk music all the while.
Assaulting Men, Slandering Women
Written for 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 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 her suit 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 explain that sexual predation cannot be understood without first identifying the assaulter’s motive. They provide an overview of existing theorizations of 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, institution, 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 higher-born than Gawain, who is Arthur’s nephew. 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. For one thing, Lady Bertilak occupies a position of domestic power within the ‘organization’ of the Hautdesert household. For another, she acts throughout the poem in consort with a mighty sorceress and a king, thus functioning as a vessel through which is channeled the power, both organizational and physical, of these other figures.
Additional factors, Barak et al explain, 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. When Barak and his coauthors speak of moderator variables, they are referring to the various traits attached to a victim of a sexual offense. Specifically, they refer to “victim's personal vulnerability and response strategy” as moderator variables that are “thought to have a significant impact on experiences of sexual harassment” (Barak et al 499-500). This suggests that a victim’s sense of violation varies depending on how vulnerable they already are, and on how free they are to reject an assault or out-maneuver their assaulter; to consider alternatives. ‘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 audience with the knight and tells him directly of her desire for him. She prefaces her actual proposition 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 to the queen’s solicitation (“My lady, let me be!” 269) would likely not have been heeded if Guinevere had been a man soliciting sexual favors of a woman. It is heeded here, however, as the queen makes no further advances on Lanval; but this does not mean the knight escapes unscathed. Having been rebuffed, Guinevere lashes out at Lanval with a retort that 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 this popularity). Additionally, in observing that Arthur “made a bad mistake when he let” Lanval serve him, the queen reminds Lanval that he enjoys a position at court which the King might easily revoke, perhaps even at the queen’s behest. Wounded and menacing, Guinevere can thus be seen undertaking to bully Lanval into submission.
Such an undertaking is almost unnecessary, however. Lanval’s outcast past is a factor that could itself so destabilize the knight to social pressure as to render any blackmail on Guinevere’s part superfluous. Lanval’s history of isolation and poverty, which may be seen to correspond with Barak et al’s “personal vulnerability,” singles the knight out as an easy target for manipulation. It is observed of Lanval at the start of the 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 enchantress 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 social insecurity, could render Lanval thrall to the slightest display of approval or interest on the parts of his superiors. Guinevere’s bullying does not explicitly mine 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 levels such accusations at him. Instead, in a heated defense of his heterosexuality, 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 mistress, Lanval betrays her, and quickly comes to regret it. 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 a pragmatic inclination 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 degree. After bringing a romantic suit to him, she now brings a legal suit against him, leveraging her status as queen not only to place Lanval’s life in the balance, but to ensure that the barons who settle Lanval’s case will feel predisposed to favor her, and hence unwittingly to advance Guinevere in her crusade for retribution.
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. Indeed, women more often find themselves in the place of sexual victim than do men, 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 royalty in the eyes of 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 demise.
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 and is 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. She watches the knight until he wakes, then 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). With her first words to Gawain when he opens his eyes, Lady Bertilak makes clear that wherever her visit does lead, she is definitively at the helm this morning. “You’re tricked and trapped!” she begins, “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 injunctions make use of the imagery of combat (trap, truce, parley, pin), and, despite being delivered by a Medieval lady, exude dominance. Gawain and Lady Bertilak banter back and forth, he “graciously…on guard” (1282) and she undaunted and persistent, 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.
While the language of Lady Bertilak’s actual proposition is no longer that of dominance (“do with me what you will”), and while she poses little physical threat to the expert knight Gawain is known to be, Bertilak’s wife yet exercises one formidable power over Gawain: she is a lady, and his host, and both of these dictate that the knight must show her utmost respect and even devotion. Lady Bertilak overtly exploits these positions. She abuses her rights as hostess when she presumes to enter the chamber, and even the bed, which she has lent to her trusting guest, and which she might ostensibly rescind if her good will were for some reason to sour. And she abuses her entitlement, as a woman in the tradition of courtly love, to a warrior’s flattery and adulation when she offers Gawain “her all.”
Lee Tobin McClain writes of the harrowing demands of Medieval chivalric code. He 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 thwarting him at every turn. It is in the name of chivalry that Lady Bertilak first obliges Gawain to kiss her: she remarks that “‘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 although Gawain is frequently “maddened and amazed” at her gall, he submits to her flirtation because “his breeding forbade him rebuking a lady” (1660-61). Ultimately this cultural cynosure of politeness nearly forces Gawain to yield his body to Lady Bertilak, and this fact is nowhere more evident than in the remark 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 in 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) and evading his hostess’ ardor.
Like Lanval, however, Gawain does not leave this encounter unscathed. McClain explains that 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’ 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 the primary advantage that Lady Bertilak weaponizes in pressuring the knight to yield his body to her. It can also be viewed as the moderator variable of “response strategy”: by drastically limiting the knight’s potential responses to his assaulter, chivalric 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 and misogynistic role in their respective tales. This becomes clear when we examine what unfolds 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 overtures they are submitted to. Lanval suffers over his betrayal of his supernatural lover and fear of losing her, and Gawain over his shame concerning the girdle. Far from originating in the sexual propositions, the knights’ respective regrets stem instead from steps the knights take themselves after they have been propositioned, steps they take in response to being propositioned. The knight’s woes spring from the fact that they each break a promise which comprises the premise and fundamental tension of these two Arthurian poems. Simply put, Lanval would not have suffered the anguish he suffers after his encounter with Guinevere had he not impulsively revealed the existence of his lover. The disclosure constituted Lanval’s earnest attempt to defend himself, but it also constituted a violation of his vow to his mistress that he would at all costs conceal their relationship. This betrayal seems to cause Lanval more distress than the fact that Guinevere goes on to litigate for his life: before he is notified of the queen’s accusations against him, Lanval “called on his love, again and again, / but it did him no good…from time to time he fainted; / then he cried a hundred times for her to have mercy / and speak to her love. / He cursed his heart and his mouth; / it’s a wonder he didn’t kill himself” (Lanval 339-346). 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 reasonable fear of the Green Knight’s axe. When he accepted a safeguard to his life, he also consented to conceal this safeguard from his host, thus violating the terms of their arrangement to exchange their winnings at the end of each day that Gawain stayed with them.
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, 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. The “game” which Bertilak proposes he and Gawain play during the knight’s stay at Hautdesert appears to be a straightforward trial of Gawain’s honor, a test to see if the famed knight will honestly disclose the gifts he receives while Bertilak is out hunting. We eventually discover, however, that 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 wooed by Lady Bertilak and accepted, for the most part, nothing from her. The Green Knight 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 suggests 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 that they cause it. As we have seen, the distress experienced by Lanval and Gawain originated from the knights’ own hasty judgements. The ladies who assault these men, however, have already been demonstrated to be deceitful and manipulative characters, and hence it is all too easy to assign them all the guilt. This is exactly what these texts go on to do. 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 Lanval suffers primarily from his belief “that he’d lost his love” (Lanval 335), and that this belief causes him such sorrow that “they could have killed him, for all he cared” (358), 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, wastes no time in dislocating guilt for his acceptance of the girdle to the woman who offered it to him. After initially rueing his own “cowardly doubts” (SGGK 2379), Gawain’s tone changes and he starts blaming his embarrassment 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 (imagine a scribe laboriously taking quill to velum for a sense of just how precious) given over to the condemnation of all manner of women who have deceived men. We see an extreme reaction to a moderate assault. As if to make this extreme reaction more credible, it is revealed that the Green Knight 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.
Taking this misallocation of guilt into consideration, 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 tricks her husband into living as a werewolf, and the Lady of the Lake, who woos Merlin with the purpose of trapping him in a tomb, where she abandons the wizard to die (Post Vulgate 247).
Perhaps the unique danger of the two poems at hand, however, lies in the distressingly plausible nature of the offenses which Guinevere and Lady Bertilak perpetrate. Unlike werewolf heists and dark love spells, sexual harassment is all too real. It is especially real to the modern reader, in the current context of the #metoo movement. 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. And hence the poets of Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are initially justified in their ridicule of these ladies. This initial consonance, however, makes it much harder to detect the subsequent inconsonance, 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 ought to 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.
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 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 nights 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 an assembled variety of strangers necessarily feels. However, 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 un-conducive 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.
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
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, 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
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.
A Coruña is the city on the Northern coast of Spain where Zara has their headquarters. Overlooking the blustery Atlantic, it is known as the City of Glass thanks to the unique windows on all the buildings there, which contain an inordinate quantity of glass panes. The dense townhouses lining the beach form a glaring surface that reflects the sun and the glinting 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. Sunglasses are advised; it was an dizzying city.
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 amber color that is manufactured in blocks to be easily sliced on a cheese platter at dessert, or at 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 of 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 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 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 shoddy film is the new iPhone
—a collection of coffee shop “loyalty” cards, in varying degrees of achieving 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 I may meet each experience, the modeling life and the traveler's mind, and ingest it as seems fit. Depending on the day, the weather, my mood.
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 morning.
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.