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
LIVING MY GAP YEAR
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
While I was painting this I saw two cars in the parking lot beside me nearly back into each other. Then there was a lot of honking, some leaping onto the pavement and hollering at each other, and one of them quickly drove away. The noises scared me but my portrait managed to remain looking stoic. Watercolor on paper.
Temples. Canals, marshes, swamplands: the voluptuous words for what I see when I fly low over Thailand. I’m landing in Bangkok after a twenty hour trip from New York. All is grey and flat and hazy, and I am nervous. I’m here for a job unlike any other I’ve ever done in my career, a job I spent months auditioning for in the strangest ways. I’m here for a perfume campaign—and not just any perfume campaign, but one that involved acting on video. And not just any type of acting, but dancing! Let me say that again. Danc-ing.
Allow me to explain why this was such a big deal. If you know me at all, you know I don’t dance. You know I’m the contented onlooker at parties, that one clumsy, self-conscious, geeky guest at every event who perniciously avoids moving, avoids people who are moving, avoids attention. I’ve filled this role at every party since middle school. Then I got a call last winter from my agent to inform me that the French luxury house Hermés had expressed interest in me for an upcoming fragrance campaign. The first request they made of me was that I send them a video clip of me leaping delicately from one foot to another like an imaginary fairy on imaginary stepping stones in an imaginary garden. Ok, I can leap well enough, no problem: I had my mom film me one afternoon on my iPhone hopping around my backyard with arms akimbo in a gesture I hoped evoked etherealness, like wings or gauze trailing behind me. (I was wearing jeans and a pilled sweater).
The next request came a few months later, when Hermes asked to see a video of me skipping rope. Ok, I can skip rope well enough, no problem: I had my agents film me jumping in New York’s Madison Square Park one afternoon with a rope we borrowed from the 24 Hour Fitness below the agency. A week or two later, while on a shoot in Mexico City, I got word that the director of the upcoming ad wanted a brief interview, to be conducted over Skype. Ok, I can interview well enough, no problem: in my hotel room that night I received the director’s call, perched on my queen-sized bed, and in our half-hour conversation I was briefed on the concept of the commercial and asked if I wouldn’t terribly mind taking a video of myself dancing for three minutes, to a favorite song of mine, and sending it over that evening. This is where my heart gave out—until now I had felt qualified to meet each of the challenges I’d been dealt, but when I was asked to dance, to just “let loose” and jam out to my heart’s content, I came up against one major stumbling block: my heart was content to not dance, to sustain that state at any cost. And there was the issue of song: I couldn’t wisely follow the directive to dance to my favorite song, cause at the time that was some Mozart concerto which I put on habitually while doing homework, and which would hardly have made for a groovy clip. My family thought it hilarious, I thought it lamentable, and I made sure my agent understood that if booking this job depended on my, Zuzu’s, dancing abilities it was as good as moot. It was almost worth abandoning here, without humiliating myself. But I gave it a go. After knocking back a margarita from room service.
In my hotel room in Mexico alone in the night, I opened my laptop and googled “good dance song.” I took the first entry Google gave me, some dated Beyonce song, and videoed, danced, sent, deleted. And then went out to have real Mexican quesadillas.
But somehow here I was, hovering over Bangkok, and these marshes and temples, on my way to the filming of that perfume commercial. You’re no less baffled than me as to why. There was no way of explaining my phone ringing in Barnes & Noble while browsing books with my mom over Christmas break, no reconciling my agent’s voice saying “Did you see the email?”
“You got it!”
“I don’t, uh, get it…”
“You’re confirmed for Hermes.”
My nervousness, then, may be imagined. But upon reaching Thailand I realized my dancing abilities (or fearful lack thereof) were the least of my worries. My true nemesis on this trip, it became increasingly clear, was the sun. The heat. The equatorial humidity. For each day registered temperatures between ninety and a hundred degrees fahrenheit, which on its own wouldn't be awful but became so when compounded by migraine-inducing moisture levels. We were filming outside with no recourse to an indoor studio between dawn and dusk and only an armada of fans to keep our tents cool. And I was designated to appear in an outfit comprised of long skinny jeans and a cashmere sweater. For the entire two day shoot.
We were stationed in Thailand for a total of four days, two days of rehearsals in the chilled tranquility of the hotel conference room, and two days of filming on an open-air set in the flatlands an hour outside of Bangkok. There were eight models in all, and on our first day filming outside, two of them were taken to the emergency room, at different times and for different ailments. That night I myself felt unnervingly ill, couldn’t stand up, felt fuzz in my head, saw fuzz in my eyes, forgot what I was doing when I went to brush my teeth. I almost called a doctor, but called my mom instead, who urged me to drink gatorade for its electrolyte content. I bribed a bellboy to “violate hotel policy” and leave the Le Bua State Tower to make an external purchase, of three jugs gatorade. His knock ten minutes later woke me from a deep and vermillion sleep.
The next day all eight of us models, in varying shades of red, were on set, which was an unbelievably large and realistic replica of a particular street corner…in Paris. Complete with crosswalks, lampposts, and awnings, the intersection of the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré and Rue Boissy d’Anglas was reconstructed here in Thailand because filming is prohibited on the original site, which abuts the American Embassy in Paris but is home to the storied Hermés flagship store. Determined to locate their ad in and around this store, Hermés sought out places and ways of replicating the street: building the set in studio was ruled out in favor of natural sunlight, and among the places on this planet with guaranteed sunlight Thailand won the bid because, even after business-class airfare to convey the whole Hermés administrative and creative teams and production and talents halfway around the world, filming in Bangkok was still immensely cheaper than filming in, say, Los Angeles, due to things like unions and labor laws. This conglomeration of circumstances, arbitrary as it seems, awarded me the unexpected opportunity to visit a nation I probably would never otherwise have laid eyes on. After nearly four years of modeling this is why I still stick around: because an endeavor in the fashion world rarely proceeds directly, but rather by roundabout and puzzling machinations that produce the most engaging and serendipitous of side effects, like my discovery that banana dumplings, fried on street corners in Bangkok, are not actually as gross as they look. They're rather satisfying.
As serendipity, then, would have it, when the fragrance ad was released a few days ago I discovered that not much dancing is included in its final cut. Dancing did take place, however; nerve-wrackingly and scrutinizedly it was enacted, there on the faux Parisian corner surrounded by cameras, tents, people with parasols, water-bottles, monitors and walky-talkies beneath the equatorial sun. Each of us eight girls had a solo dance to improvise on the spot, no less, but I will never know what my solo looked like, since little of it is included in the final cut and I wasn’t too eager at the time to stand in the sun the extra moments it would have required to watch the playback (and not too eager to watch myself dancing, either)! I have to imagine, though, that it was a little awkward, a little confusing to witness, that it maybe sometimes coincided with the rhythm. I have to hope so. And I have to try as mightily as I can to hold this all close to me for a moment, to absorb and store up as much of this bizarre and unbelievable Hermes adventure as I can—because adventure, really, is what this whole perfume thing proved to be about. The adventure lay in my challenging myself, the adventure lay in the strange banana and raw egg dumplings I saw fried on the streets of Bangkok, the adventure lay in jumping rope with my agents in Madison Park, in illicitly procuring gatorade one midnight, and, yes, in observing temples, canals, marshes, and swamplands from a plane shuddering low over a foreign landscape. The adventure lay in humbling myself, stretching myself, and waiting, expectantly, to see what came of it. It was all grey and hazy, and I had butterflies.
Queso Tetilla, I discovered, is Spanish for “tit cheese.” Before I’d set eyes on the thing I wondered, isn’t all cheese tit cheese, by nature of it’s origin? Once I’d seen the cheese, however, on a pedestal at the hotel breakfast buffet specially labeled “Regional Foods of Galicia,” I understood its title; queso tetilla, it transpires, is shaped like a tit. And it is traditionally eaten in this part of Spain paired with membrillo, a quince paste of varying amber or maroon color that is manufactured in blocks to be easily sliceable on a cheese platter at dessert, or the breakfast of the nH hotel in A Coruña.
A Coruña is a small, dense coastal city in the Spain's Northern region of Galicia, and I was there this past month to shoot for Zara, whose headquarters are located a few kilometers outside the town in a huge and high-tech warehouse complex. The complex, and Zara itself, belongs to Inditex, a Spanish clothing company and the largest fashion group in the world. Inditex’s “fast-fashion” business model has redefined the clothing market, flooding it with affordable, high-end knock-offs produced by eight subsidiary brands. Over the course of my five days in the fortress (all blank walls and glassy floors and stillness) I glimpsed the owner of Inditex himself, a native of A Coruña and the richest man in all Europe, sitting at an identical desk to the hundreds of broad desks scattered over the vast, football-field-sized floor that housed the Women’s division of Zara. Lunch break lasted an hour and was taken in a canteen like an upgraded school cafeteria where food was plated by white clad lunch-ladies and -gents presiding over reservoirs of tuna salad, roasted chicken, rice and gazpacho. The owner, Mr. Ortega, could be seen some days sitting at a table on his own, eating dry potatoes and rice pudding from a tray like the rest of us, only he was worth $84 billion.
I was excited to be at Inditex. I’ve always admired Zara's online imagery: this relatively young brand has gained wide recognition for its immaculate presentation, characterized by rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling, and, most interesting to me, distinct models. Zara ecommerce has, quite improbably, become an arbiter of taste not only in the fashion industry but in the modeling one as well. I was dying for a view behind the curtain of this coveted production.
And what I found, in the studios on the Women’s floor of Zara in the complex of Inditex in the province of Galicia, Spain, was that Zara’s ecommerce shoots proceed like a well-oiled machine: during my stay there seven or eight models came to work every day and five studios functioned simultaneously, each furnished with a stylist, art director, photographer, model, and hair and makeup artist, wending their collective way through the racks of pre-styled outfits allotted to them to shoot each day. I discovered, too, that the days were very long—there was no end to these racks. Finish one and another will roll into the room, for merchandise is boundless and the turnaround from memory card to Zara.com lightening-paced. This rhythm was interrupted solely by the punctual, 2:00 excursion to the cafeteria to eat, rest my feet, check my phone, get to know the people I was working with: those trivial but essential transactions that signify being human. I found that besides this pause, all other moments were scoured from the husk of the day in the relentless pursuit of an unquantifiable quota. I found, really, that I couldn’t wait to get away from Inditex.
Each evening when I was restored to my hotel by a company car, weary and glad, I visited a small market across the street and bought ridiculously cheap groceries from which to cobble dinner; if I had plans to go out with the hair & makeup artists I’d purchase simply a massive 2 liter bottle of this fancy brand of water called Cabreiroá—for .65 euros! These would cost six dollars had it been the US, and, enthralled by my discovery, I consumed a whole bottle each night. I was reading Silent Spring, about pesticides and how they accumulate in and kill earthworms, birds, fish, cows and humans alike when sprayed on crops or roadside shrubs, and I wasn’t sleeping because jet lag has a uniquely severe impact on me. Nightfall in my hotel-room meant confinement, desperate or bored; brought with it a certain strandedness that stemmed from the fact that in this conservative Spanish town things closed early, retracted, darkened, folded with sundown into sighing, seaside silence. Stifled in an impotent wad of bedsheets, I was dry-eyed, wide-eyed, unyielding: myself, a water bottle, and pages of pesticides.
What does it take to convince oneself of a thing’s realness, to make oneself believe a step in one’s life is truly in motion? I wonder often when I’ll realize that this, this here existence, this lonesome night in a hotel or jostling plane ride or wasted hour haunting Instagram or vigorous day on set—this is actually a part of my larger life, a constituent in the compilation of memories I’m gathering from this earth that all hold equal legitimacy, that will all be equally irretrievable and divine in hindsight? As I near the close of my fourth year of modeling—an occupation I never foresaw or fathomed for myself—I find I quite often wonder how one knows when one stage of life is over, depleted, and when one should propel oneself into the next.
On my last evening in Spain I climbed the Mount of San Pedro, a hill to the West of the central A Coruña. I made the ascent with Jane Moseley, a model I’d met that week at Zara, and with abottle of Cabreiroá. At the peak stood an old WWII bunker overlooking the Atlantic, and Jane and I sprawled on the grass beneath a weathered green cannon with its snout craning out to sea. Stuck in the grass was a sign that read, “El Parque del Monte San Pedro No Utiliza Pesticidas.” The Park of Mount San Pedro Does Not Use Pesticides.
That day photos were already appearing on Zara.com from our week of work. There I was, seeing myself through a Zara lens: that signature rich lighting, elongated photograph angles, artsy crops, inventive garment styling. Seeing myself as one of the models I'd deemed "distinct," when I felt on the contrary most prosaic. What I did not see in those photos was my tiredness and jet lag, the torturous slowness of the clock as I waited for it to indicate 2pm, the clothes racks to my right that always stayed full. Nor did I see my room in the nH hotel with its twin beds and intermittent doubts. For nights in A Coruña gave me plenty of time to attempt what I’ve attempted these four years since I started modeling: to rationalize this career as my reality, to reconcile my self with my work. With each renewed attempt, I find myself a little more desensitized to the exquisite and ludicrous juxtaposition I generate with the function I perform; I find myself forgetting how unlike me it all seemed at first.
The next day I flew home, via a stopover in Madrid. By that time I was able to fall asleep at the appropriate hour--had finally adjusted to the time change--and with more rest under my belt held a much sunnier outlook on the world. Still I was glad to be going home, as I was glad to have witnessed at last the Zara phenomenon in action. I was glad, too, to have a place in this bizarre business I currently call my own, even if I keep my distance from it: modeling, though a cakewalk compared with countless other jobs, is hardly ever as glamorous as the pictures it produces. Its value, I think, lies in the life experience it provides. For the opportunity to spy on billionaires and pick up Spanish curse words and taste wild blackberries on a hillside crowned with cannons. For making friends in glorified cafeterias. For tit cheese.
Whether I’m out for a day in New York, Paris, or the hilly little city of A Coruña on the Northern coast of Spain as I am today, I like to have a soft and capacious purse on hand to accommodate the melange of curiosities I insist on dragging everywhere with me. Recently I received Elleme's versatile and quaintly titled 'Raisin Bag' (elleme.com, $535), and it has lived up to my peculiar portaging demands this week while I shuttle to and from work at Zara's headquarters with enough trinkets and projects in my bag to entertain an army. Bumping off one shoulder on any given day and on any given side of the globe you may depend on finding:
—A book (currently “POND” by Claire Louise Bennet, Fitzcarraldo Editions £10.99)
—A journal (currently a nice big leather thing I got at Anthropologie ages ago and which is by now thoroughly faded, stained, and tattered from inumerable trips and only has two remaining blank pages)
—A poetry journal (Moleskine, $9.95), little unlined "cashier" paperbacks that I buy in bulk and fill almost monthly. These are for the little half-formed thoughts and disembodied lines of free verse that flicker by when one is on the subway, in an elevator, brushing one's teeth
—Multiple pens to meet all these scribal needs (Muji .38mm, $1.50)
—A highlighter, cause it feels smart to carry a highlighter
—Weleda chapstick (Weleda $7); a tasteless, scentless, healing beeswax salve that I with my perpetually peeling lips survive by
—A yellow plastic finger puppet, which I photograph in each new place I visit. In this line of business, after all, you never know when you'll be walking by one of the seven wonders of the world
—A sleep mask (in this line of business, after all, you never know either when you'll be hopping on a plane, and beauty sleep is paramount).
—a disposable camera, because apparently film is the new iPhone
—a collection of coffee shop “loyalty” cards, in varying degrees of achieving a free latte
—a collection of metro cards that I lose and find on various days and in varying rotations. I have to buy multiple for each city I stay in, and lost or found, my ways to get around are ever changing, depending on the day, the weather, my mood. As are the contents of my bag. These objects I carry, these ways to remember things, learn things, and forget things all lie collected in their assorted forms in my purse wherever I roam so that depending on the day, the weather, my mood, I may meet each experience, the modeling life and the traveler's mind, and ingest it as seems fit.
Good poetry gives / the gift of bafflement. Good / poetry gives covetousness / and makes me jealous.
Unfortunately, the sun does not hit / this side of the building. / I would never get an apartment if / the sun did not hit its / side of the building / in the mornings.
I was scared of being bitten, but getting pooped on never occurred to me. By the end of the evening I’d fallen victim to both. I was standing in a thin and sparkly gold summer dress on a lawn in Chelsea, NYC, and I carried a parrot on my arm—a Poicephalus parrot, to be precise, that was small and pink and bore the misleadingly sweet appellation of Rosy.
This was the Stella McCartney Resort ’18 presentation, and while presentations are a method of debuting a collection generally more casual and unconventional than a full-blown fashion show, this presentation landed beyond the pale: this presentation was a party.
Tonight there was no slippery catwalk, no solitary strutting under numbingly loud music and austere, distant rows of seated onlookers. On the contrary, tonight there was just mingling, mulling, loafing about in the temporarily-tropically-themed garden of the Theological Seminary on West 20th street. Tonight there was a live reggae band headed by none other than Bob Marley’s second-youngest son, an open bar, pineapple bowling (is that a thing? I’d never seen it until now), and tonight, of course, there were parrots.
My job, and my fellow models’, was delightfully simple: we were to convey Stella’s pieces, on our silent, graceful, expensive frames, among the party guests with their tropical cocktails in hand and precarious heels on the lumpy lawn. This format promoted interaction between the guests and the clothes they were here to view, and also between the guests and the models ourselves, for after an hour had lapsed and it was judged that all the editors and bloggers had had sufficient time to conduct a detailed surveillance of the collection, we models were all allowed to get drinks and explore the garden and dance and, if anyone could figure out how, do some pineapple bowling. And it proved an eventful evening, as work goes. Over the course of the next two hours and one and a half margaritas I quite randomly:
—was given a booklet of Ginsberg poetry and a kiss on the hand by Michael Avedon, grandson of Richard of that name
—was introduced to Terry Richardson, by David Bellemere
—got mammoth blisters on my pinky toes that have taken two weeks to heal
—was posed with by Lily Collins (in my capacity as relevant Stella-branded prop)
—was shaken hands with by Chris Rock (didn’t know who he was until the model I was with excitedly explained he was the goofy voice behind Marty in Madagascar)
—was pooped on by a parrot
—was bitten by a parrot
—admired the back of Alec Baldwin’s head from the bamboo pedestal where I was standing while my feet were photographed by the New York Times…
How did an unremarkable girl from the suburbs end up here? How can it be that the modeling contract I signed while still in High School and shy as a mouse wind up working out, wind up being anything more than the scam I expected it to be, a pipe dream? I’m not usually one to feel star-struck or impressed by a lot of famous names in one place, but tonight, I had to admit, I felt a wee bit incredulous.
Taking Off over the Sea of Marmara:
There's sunlight on stray hairs / and the tip of my nose. / Being tugged back in my seat / is a good feeling / by the starting of the plane / and thank god I'm not throwing up any more.
A rough rendition of my view from the doorway of Blue Bottle Coffee where I stood in line for my Latte Tuesday morning on the sidewalk of Jessie St, Theatre District, San Francisco. Beautiful sky, white buildings, the smell of a Colombia Popoyán roast, a soaring sense of self and work to report to in a moment... After, of course, a coffee, and the savoring of a gap in a day.
Two Enlightening Days in San Francisco...
San Francisco has perhaps the most stark, and startling, economic disparity of any city I’ve traveled to in my itinerant years as a model. Well, I take that back...visiting the world's biggest mall which was built by near-slave labor in Dubai probably takes the prize. But San Francisco had the greatest disparity I've seen in any American city. I was shocked to arrive there this week, on a searing blue day, and check into a boutique hotel with a high-tech gym and refined Danish-modern furniture after having driven past block upon block of homeless, shirtless, weathered men and women, sitting, sleeping, pacing the sidewalks. This may have been especially evident to me because my hotel was located on the frontier between Nob Hill, one of the most ritzy residential neighborhoods of the city, and the Tenderloin, an area known for being a sort of hobo jungle, a homeless headquarters of the West Coast and possibly the nation.
The name “Tenderloin” can be traced back to the 1890’s, and, as one legend has it, was derived from the fact that officers assigned to patrol the area were able to afford quality meat cuts (like tenderloin) because they received “hazard pay” for working in such a violent area. Or so the old story goes. I heard a number of such rumors about the Tenderloin while in San Francisco: Uber drivers were chatty. One alleged that New York non-profit organizations working to alleviate homelessness in the Big Apple had started buying homeless New Yorkers one-way tickets to San Francisco. Another asserted that many of the homeless residing in the Tenderloin were war vets, and that their presence there had begun in earnest after Vietnam. Another driver claimed that one particular block in the Tenderloin, on Turk street, had so much violent crime that parking had been banned on both sides of the street in an effort to discourage the problematic drug transactions that are made possible by sheltered spaces.
In addition to hearing rumors about them, though, I also had a fair number of encounterswith the homeless of San Francisco. On the day I worked for Everlane here this week, we shot in a studio in the Mission District of San Francisco, just a few blocks south of the Tenderloin. Upon arriving at the studio, with photo equipment and garment racks in tow, we discovered we couldn’t use the elevator because a homeless man had moved into it and was at that moment attempting to scale the elevator shaft. By the time we had heaved all our supplies up the staircase, the police and fire department had arrived with ladders and pellet guns, and soon the man was extricated, handcuffed, and lead, shouting hoarsely, to a squad car. He wore a hot pink Hawaiian shirt and jeans, backwards.
That evening after work I was walking past Saks Fifth Ave (far off Fifth!) when I heard a violent shout close behind me and two security guards exploded from the store’s main entrance in furious pursuit of a large and wooly young man clutching a shiny plastic package under his arm. They cornered him on either side of a lamppost and he threw down the box. Was it a perfume? A Kylie lip kit? On the first floor they usually only sell jewels and cosmetics.
I wasn’t disconcerted by the homeless people themselves as much as I was by their staggering numbers. Here was intense destitution concentrated smack dab in the middle of a progressive, tech-centric metropolis, of one of the most expensive cities in the world (did you know SF recently eclipsed Manhattan in cost of living?)! And the Tenderloin seemed like such a commonplace phenomenon, like a banality to those who live here and know the situation and accept it as part of this city’s reality. Not that it shouldn’t be accepted; there’s nothing inherently wrong with a municipality incorporating into its culture, identity, and legacy a constituency which by definition exists separate from the city, living physically within its bounds but not contributing to nor partaking of its collective economical and political endeavors. Nothing wrong with living amidst or alongside this unorthodox village…but perhaps something wrong with not spearheading, and offering, an alternative? I’m no sociologist or political scientist and I don’t presume to know what should or could be done, but simply from the casual position of one human thinking of other humans I feel perplexed that this severe situation exists at all, and wonder that nothing has been successfully implemented to alleviate it. I am perplexed by the scale of this population of dispossessed and displaced people, perplexed by its coexistence with the multi-million dollar townhouses no more than six blocks northward, perplexed by its apparent permanence.
There I was, enjoying the glee of simply being in California which a novice East-coaster necessarily experiences on her third and still dreadfully brief encounter with the spacious, the relaxed, the innovative West. I'd become a California enthusiast, though due to the shortness of my visits, only on a regrettably superficial level: I know little of actual life here, but am enamored of the açai bowls, the perpetual sandal weather, the easy pace, the yoga studios, clichés, the direct, earnest sun. And there, in the midst of my aesthetic, pretty lifestyle-y hoopla, in the midst of the things I expected of California, I found a really un-pretty lifestyle, I found a thing I did not expect of California. It was another of those revelations of the road, a reminder that human society, no matter where or when, is a slapdash arrangement at best, and that it almost always leaves someone out. Many someones, it seems.
I left San Francisco after one day of work there and one of leisure, and returned home glad to escape the flagrant smell of urine on the sidewalks but dismayed to give up the beaming sun drenching those white Mission District facades. I departed feeling full of good coffee, full of good luck, astoundingly privileged. I left with an increased appreciation of elevators and with a tiny gold chain at my collarbone, which I’d bought at Saks, on the first floor. I left with disparity on my mind, and the vast chasms that can exist between the realities of humans who are after all so fundamentally alike. California, like all points on this globe, has its helping of stench and suffering along with its juice bars and ocean breezes. But the streets of mild San Francisco, I realized, may not be the worst streets to call home. They're the least artificial paradise I know.
And there will be days, / days enough for you's and I's to / take the mornings open-eyed / with hair outstretched across the pillow. Beginnings / measured in sun slants.
Sun in windows is what I wake up early for. Seven AM weekends and weekdays alike I'm up and ready to admire, to worship the domestic beauty, the ordinary glory, the continuity of life summed up and expressed in a silent beam thrown between my curtains. Ah, mornings...
This is just to say / I don't think I'll ever / touch food again / cause hunger is delicious / so sweet and / so cold / and nourishment is cloying.
The Power of Elusion in The Handmaid’s Tale
In her futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood constructs a dystopian world in which the United States have been overthrown in a military coup and supplanted by a theocracy called the Republic of Gilead. Under this new state, individuals are reduced to a function and assigned a specific utility to the greater good of society; to act, and interact, outside of one’s prescribed station is unnecessary and suspicious, and may even be punished by torture, execution, or banishment the chemical wasteland known as ‘the Colonies.’ In an attempt to salvage a dwindling population in the face of direly low birth rates, the regime of Gilead allots the responsibility of reproduction to a class of women called Handmaids, who exist to be impregnated by and bear children for Commanders, who with their often infertile Wives constitute the elite of Gileadean society. Identified by the name of the Commander to whose household they’re posted plus the possessive prefix “of,” Handmaids are just that, possessions “of” the man they serve, valuable only as long as their ovaries are viable.
The protagonist of Atwood’s novel, called Offred, narrates her experience of indoctrination into and life as a Handmaid in the early days of Gilead. The theocracy has only existed for a few years, and Offred retains poignant memories of her husband, daughter, and friends from ‘the time before,’ which she threads through her more immediate account of her existence in the house of a high-ranking Commander in what was formerly Massachusetts. No part, however, of her narrative is completely contemporaneous: though she narrates in the present tense, we discover in the effectual epilogue of the book that her tale exists as a spoken recording on a series of cassette tapes that she can only have had access to after she has escaped Gilead, or has at least gone into hiding in wait of escape.
This revelation about the context of Offred’s narrative has a seismic effect on our reading of the story. In addition to unexpectedly framing the preceding tale, Atwood’s concluding fictional ‘Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale’ provoke a multitude of questions—most of which go unanswered. In addition to prompting the reader to reconsider the motive for a narration that was evidently composed with the altered perspective that comes with remove, the ‘Notes’ make us question the identity and nature of our narrator herself. The contextualizing effect of this section confirms a niggling sensation in the reader that we have never really known Offred as a narrator rather than a character, as a host who has guided us through her vulnerable and intimate past experiences but not allowed us to assemble even the most rudimentary awareness of her present self and state. The realization of Offred’s elusiveness as a narrator dawns on the reader conjointly with the realization of the elusiveness of her narrative motive, and it is through Offred’s insistence on authorial unavailability that her tale’s narrative form, as much as its content, underscores the novel’s eerie warning that the revoking of a society’s right to interpret and wonder, and the supplanting of it with singleness of perspective are the first and foremost weapons of autocracy.
The ‘Notes’ rattle our perception of The Handmaid’s Tale by showing us the unexpected truth of Offred’s assertion that “this is a reconstruction” (Atwood 225). Being as such a version of events inevitably approximate and colored by retrospect, an inquiry arises into just what hue the events have taken on since their actual occurrence, in the narrator’s eyes and hence in her readers’. How does Offred reconstruct her tale, and to what end? Though she does weave certain diegetic clues into her narrative, they yield no consistent theme. As Marta Dvorak points out, these clues arise when Offred “calls attention to the fabricated nature of her story…and repeatedly [disscusses] the procedures of her own narration” (Dvorak 449). Indeed, at one point Offred acknowledges: “[i]t’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it is, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, chances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many” (Atwood 134). While a quote such as this, treating as it does of the manipulative properties of reconstruction, could be expected to divulge something of Offred’s narrative intent, this passage offers only the general assurance that Offred is indeed deliberately story-telling, and aware of it. It does not reveal the purpose of this story-telling, or what, if any, “half-colors” she has endowed her reconstruction with.
If Offred’s narrativepurpose seems uncertain to us, it is perhaps because we are made to feel uncertain by the very structure of her narrative, the very mind-style of our story-teller. Barbara Garlick observes that the opening segments of the novel are the most straightforward of the book, “seemingly framed in an almost classically correct way for fantasy” (Garlick 163), with Offred describing in snapshots her various settings of the ‘present’ moment (which we later learn is not actually that) and its preceding phases. Here “the emphasis is on certainty of perception and realistic descriptions of the Red Centre and the Commander’s house” (Garlick 169), but with the advent of the second ‘Night episode,’ the narrative becomes marked by “unreliability and deliberate prevarication” (Garlick 169). The straightforwardness of Offred’s valiant counter-memory falters, and the ‘certainty of perception’ that we as readers generally rely on in a text becomes increasingly unstable. This mounting uneasiness peaks, and meets its ultimate realization, at the end of the novel with our discovery that we have indeed been duped all along by our narrator: Offred is not there, before us, speaking or writing to us from where she has lead us to believe she is speaking or writing. Her voice, we are informed, is not conclusively the voice we’ve come to know; that familiar one is rather the “guesswork” arrangement of her “unnumbered” tapes by self-satisfied male academics who are so far from empathizing with Offred’s story—putting themselves in her place—that they can flippantly crack jokes about it (Atwood 302; 301, 305).
We are made to feel that we have never really had access to Offred, or indeed to any sovereign narrator at all. To revisit Barabara Garlick, the scholar points out that “The ‘Historical Notes’…deliberately deny all possibility of establishing an identity for the narrator. She is like the first African Eve, evidently there—we have a consciously arranged version of the story told on the tapes—but without a clearly identifying face or name; it is only possible for Pieixoto to postulate a figure on the basis of the identity of the Commanders with whom she was associated” (Garlick 165). Offred the narrator is as remote from the telling of her tale as Offred the character is central to its content. We know her thought processes and motives as she navigates the Gileadean world, but we are excluded from the thought processes and motives of the Offred who is recording this story orally, who is enunciating from somewhere—we can only guess where, for this too is real-time information she does not grant us. And so the elusiveness of her diegetic intent becomes entwined with the elusiveness of her diegetic identity—the identity of an Offred who succeeds that Offred we know from the narrative, but is in fact the only Offred we have ever been exposed to.
Again, clues are dispersed throughout the text that may portend to reveal what we seek, in this case an authorial presence, but which also prove ultimately unyielding. One particular passage, embedded in Offred’s meditations of a solitary evening in Gilead, extends a gleaming hint: “This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here—Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here” (Atwood 134). Upon first reading, we may imagine this to refer to Offred lying in her bedroom in Commander Fred’s house reviewing her reality in her stream-of-consciousness way, and acknowledging our presence as a conjured listener in her head. After having read the ‘Historical Notes,’ however, we may return to reconsider this passage and now construe it as referring to the narrator’s immediate moment of actual recitation from her hiding place—perhaps a hiding place with a ‘single bed’ to lie ‘flat on.’ But such a revised reading is in turn revised by the following passage, in which Offred continues: “When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove” (Atwood 134). Does Offred here depict her Handmaid self anticipating her narrator self and the recording she will do ‘in the form of one voice to another’ if she can slip the noose of the regime’s control? The multitude of distinct, time-warping readings that branch out from this single excerpt conclusively extinguishes the hope of gleaning any omniscient authorial commentary here.
We cannot, then, locate the intent of a narrator who herself cannot be located. But we may guess at it. Some have suggested Offred’s narrative was a form of resistance, with the scholar Hilde Staels perceptively aligning Offred’s narrative act with that of resistance to an imposed theocratic discourse: “Offred crosses the boundaries of accepted meaning by giving voice to an alternative perspective and an alternative discourse that continuously cut through the rigid logocentric texture of the superstructure” (Staels 233). Staels traces this logic in its literal manifestations: the regime tells Offred she is better off as a Handmaid and must forget the past; Offred recalls and relives ‘the time before’ constantly in her tale. The regime tells her she is “a thing…a made thing not something born” (Atwood 66); Offred insists “I feel,” “I want,” “I don’t want,” attesting to the existence of an inner life outside of that which the regime recognizes and permits (Staels 231-32). And though Staels’ claim is undeniably true of the majority of the novel, I believe the ‘Historical Notes’ invalidates it: being committed in hiding or somehow outside the periphery of the ‘rigid logocentric…superstructure’ it is said to ‘cut through,’ does Offred’s narration still qualify as the substantive resistance Staels designates it?
I would not characterize Offred’s narrative purpose as resistance—not substantive resistance, at least. Her narration is neither an attempt to assimilate to nor to defy the reality of her world. Rather I believe it’s the aspiration to a consciousness in between these poles, a delicate balance, that ultimately emerges as the function of The Handmaid’s Tale. For while Offred’s act of narrating her Gileadean experience is an effort to commemorate it—and her existence as a Handmaid—it is simultaneously an effort to protect herself from being overwritten by this experience, an effort not to yield her consciousness of her own individuality to it. This balance between pre-Gilead selfhood and Gileadean selfhood is a critical one: over-emphasis of either could result in the loss of life, or of hope. Were Offred to fall irrevocably into pre-Gileadean self, as a fellow Handmaid did once at the Red Center, she might never resurface and never escape the regime. At the Red Center when Janine wakes one morning in a trance in which she relives her daily interactions as a waitress in the time before (“Hello…My name’s Janine…Can I get you some coffee to begin with?”), it takes a slap from Offred’s friend Moira to bring her back to the present: “Get back here, [Moira said]. Get right back here! You can’t stay there, you aren’t there anymore…Don’t you know what they’ll do? You go too far away and they just take you up to the Chemistry Lab and shoot you” (Atwood 216). Though a relapse into the past—a “slipping over the edge” (Atwood 217)—would not be as dangerous for Offred, ensconced presumably “in [an] attic or cellar” (303), as it was for Janine, who was in danger of discovery and punishment by the Aunts at any moment, a relapse would be equally detrimental to her chances of survival, as it would render her incapable of a cautious, stealthy escape. But total submission to her imposed Gileadean identity, on the other hand, would defeat the purpose of escape at all: why risk your life and the lives of others in an effort to flee if you no longer have any objection to living as a Handmaid, no longer cling to your former memories and no longer resent the humiliation and subjection that a Handmaid’s existence entails?
Offred’s orchestration of this balance can be seen in a passage in which she contemplates the importance of names to personal identity: “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried” (Atwood 84). Here Offred shows that she can preserve contact with her past (I have another name), while not allowing this contact to endanger her current position (I think of this name as buried). She narrates in the hope of conducting herself safely towards that ‘one day’ when she can dig up her old life, her treasure.
It is as much through this balancing act as through her authorial elusiveness that we can view Offred as cultivating a layering of consciousness. Offred’s power lies in her ability to generate multiplicity: while in the regime’s view this amounts to her capacity to be fruitful and multiply, for Offred it takes shape in the deliberate proliferation of meaning, in the “heterogeneity [which] manifests itself…in non-calculable musical effects” (Staels 229). In fact, in this generative power of our narrator we can identify a different sort of resistance than the type which Staels indicates. If her vagueness creates the possibility of ‘heterogeneity,’ it does so through its allowance of independent interpretation and conjecture. Such allowance, I believe, is an agent of individual and societal freedom; its restriction functions as a restriction of freedom, and in extremity facilitates oppression. By perpetrating elusiveness, then, Offred fights what twentieth-century philosopher Antonio Gramsci terms ‘the fight of position,’ “in which aggrieved populations seek to undermine the legitimacy of dominant ideology, rather than just a ‘war of maneuver’ aimed at seizing state power” (Gramsci paraphrased in Lipsitz 146). A unique form of resistance, the very unavailability of Offred’s narrative form undermines Gilead’s ideology by its criminal vagueness, rejoining the regime’s discourse of certainty with her private legitimation of uncertainty.
In an age when “alternative facts” abound, we are not in immediate danger of losing polyvalence in perspective. But with the ruling figure of the United States constantly clamoring to discredit the press—in deference to his own version of events—we find our nation uniquely ripe for the receiving of Offred’s warning. Both the content and the structure of her tale demonstrate how the denial of alternative discourses and alternative narratives denies the existence of certain populations, of certain lives and emotions and memories. Heterogeneity, Offred whispers, is worth fighting for.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books, 1998.
Dvorak, Marta. “What is Real/Reel? Margaret Atwood’s ‘Rearrangement of Shapes on a Flat Surface’ or Narration as Collage.” Etudes Anglaises, Vol. 51, Call No. PR1.E85, Accessed May 8 2017.
Garlick, Barbara. “The Handmaid’s Tale: Narrative Voice and the Primacy of the Tale.” Twentieth-Century Fantasists: Essays on Culture, Society, and Belief in Twentieth-Century Mythopoeic Literature, edited by Kath Filmer, McMillan Press 1992, 161-171.
Lipsitz, George. “The Struggle for Hegemony.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 75, No. 1, 1988, pp. 146-150. www.jstor.org/stable/1889660. Accessed May 8 2017.
Staels, Hilde. “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Resistance Through Narrating.” English Studies 76, no. 5,1995. pp. 455-468. Accessed May 3 2017.
Satan and the Creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein
In Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelly frequently alludes to, and elaborates on, themes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Throughout the novel she casts her characters in different roles from that great epic, exploiting the moral and philosophical significance such associations necessarily effuse to develop characters and intensify their relationships, specifically that of Creator to his Creation. The most obvious translation of Miltonic figures into Frankenstein is the association of Victor with God—though that scientist failed dismally in the duties which Milton’s God performs for his offspring—and his Creature with Adam. More noteworthy, however, andconstant, is Shelley’s similizing of the Creature with Satan, a connection she draws both explicitly, in the words of the Creature himself, and implicitly, through the evolution of his actions. In this nameless, beleaguered character, Shelly resurrects Milton’s Satan, and revises him. In the Creature she justifies Satan, and renders him the blameless, understandable antihero he couldn’t be in the didactic verses he sprang from.
Shelly wrote Frankenstein at a time when Milton’s legacy was enjoying revived popularity among writers, philosophers, and artists (Schock 2-3). The poet was lionized by proto-Romantics and Romantics to such an extent, in fact, that Shelly’s own mother in 1787 eloquently declared: “I am sick of hearing of the sublimity of Milton” (qtd. in Craciun 699). Particularly, Romantic-era literati had a fixation on Milton’s rendition of Satan: as Peter Schock explains, “Milton’s Satan assumes in the Romantic era a prominence seen never before or since, nearly rivaling Prometheus as the most characteristic mythic figure of the age. A more active and ambiguous mythic agent than the bound, suffering forethinker and benefactor of humanity, the reimagined figure of Milton’s Satan embodied for the age the apotheosis of human desire and power” (3). The historic origin of the “Satanist position” (Wittreich 816) of identifying with and celebrating the Devil is unclear, but Joseph Wittreich explains that a portion of contemporary Miltonists locate its inception in Lord Byron and Percy Shelley while another portion objects to perceiving these poet’s notions as explicit Satanism at all (816). Wittreich explains, “This is the tenor of their argument: taking as gospel Satan's preachments in hell, the Romantics, who read Paradise Lost with indecent haste, have succumbed to his temptation; their unguarded admiration invests in Satan an unqualified sympathy and embraces him as a thoroughly admirable moral agent. Thus Blake, Shelley, and their contemporaries are depicted as intellectually irresponsible, morally derelict, and critically impoverished” (Wittreich 828). Regardless of whether recognizable Satanism originated in these Romantic poets or elsewhere, Wittreich expresses something valuable in the idea that by viewing Satan as a hero Milton’s reader is ‘succumbing to his temptation.’ Stanley Fish writes at length about this temptation in the first chapter of his groundbreaking book Surprised by Sin. As Fish describes it, Milton purposely portrays Satan as magnificent and inspiring in the expectation that his reader will sympathize with the demon, and then turns on the reader and, speaking now through the narrative voice of the epic, condemns him for fulfilling this very expectation (9). Fish interprets Milton’s poetic chide for us: “I know that you have been carried away by what you have just heard; you should not have been; you have made a mistake, just as I knew you would” (9). For to Milton’s mind Satan, who has committed unprovoked a supreme act of blasphemy, deserves every “affliction and dismay” (Milton 1.57) Hell has to offer.
By this logic it is indeed “intellectually irresponsible, morally derelict,” as Wittreich puts it, to view Satan in a sympathetic light. Not so, however, if one removes the inaugural culpability that felled the character in the first place. This is just what Mary Shelley does in Frankenstein when she replicates Satan’s development in the unlucky but fundamentally blameless Creature. The similarities between these characters abound; the divergence characterizes the two reading experiences with entirely antithetical emotions.
The links that Shelley draws between Satan and the Creature of her text center on the most emblematic feature of these two characters: their criminality. Each of the two is introduced to the reader in a state that is wretched and pitiable, and which ignites within each a thirst to be avenged on his creator and to inflict suffering such as that which has been inflicted on himself. This ambition catalyzes the main events of both Paradise Lost and Frankenstein, positioning Satan and the Creature as the driving force, and the crux, of their respective texts.
When we first glimpse Satan, he has been cast off by God and lies “vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe” of hell (Milton 1.52), and when we meet Frankenstein’s Creature he is waking in a dim laboratory to behold his creator fleeing his presence, filled with “breathless horror and disgust” (Shelley). Both figures at the time of their creations are pure and good, and become evil when they are prompted to doubt the affection of their creators. In Milton’s epic, Satan initially ranks “of the first, / If not the first Arch-Angel, great in Power, / In favour and præeminence,” but waxes evil when he conceives a jealousy for god’s newly-begotten Son, whose supreme claim on the Father’s love he “could not beare…& thought himself impaird” (Milton 5.659-661, 664-655). Infuriated by this perceived ebb of love for him in his Creator, Satan challenges God and is subsequently banished to Hell. Similarly, Frankenstein’s Creature was created naive and mild, deriving pleasure from such trifles as the singing of a thrush and the clandestine gathering of firewood for ‘his cottagers’. “I was benevolent,” he explains at one point to his skeptical progenitor; “my soul glowed with love and humanity” (Shelley). He transgresses only after he learns from Victor Frankenstein’s diary of his creator’s abhorrence of him. It is this knowledge, combined with multiple rejections from other humans, which incites him to do what those rejections alone had not, and murder innocent William Frankenstein.
Both characters arrive at a crossroads of sorts a third of the way through their respective texts that rears the possibility of redemption and reform but serves conversely to spur each down a path to irredeemability and absolute villainy. At this crossroads, which hinges on Book Four of Paradise Lost and Chapter Seven of Frankenstein, both characters yearn to be included in mankind, but, learning that they are barred from it, determine instead to ruin it in belligerence towards their Creators. For Satan, this moment arrives when he understands how utterly he is excluded from the joys and privileges of God’s universe, embodied for him by the nascent human race, “whom [his] thoughts pursue / With wonder, and could love” (Milton 4.362-63). As he views Paradise for the first time, he is overcome by sensations of “envie” but also of earnest remorse, and he exhorts himself “O then at last relent: is there no place / Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?” (Milton 4.115, 79-80). It is Satan himself, however, who rejects the idea of reform because, he reasons, even if he “could obtaine / By Act of Grace [his] former state…ease would recant / Vows made in pain,” and he would sin again (Milton 4.93-98). This projected recapitulation of corruption is, like all events, already “known” by God, “therefore as farr / From granting hee, as I from begging peace” is the conclusion of Satan’s fleeting consideration of repentance (Milton 5.103-104).
Hence Satan never delivers a request to his Creator; Frankenstein’s Creature, on the other hand, does. The Creature’s opportunity for reform arrives when he asks Frankenstein to engineer him a companion, vowing that his lost “virtues will necessarily arise when [he lives] in communion with an equal” (Shelley). And while God can preempt the outcome of Satan’s unproposed proposition, Frankenstein cannot know what might follow the fulfillment of his Creature’s request: not having seen these previous virtues first hand, he doubts the Creature’s good intent. Thus the scientist denies his Creature in ignorance the redemption God would have denied Satan in wisdom, both to the same effect: Satan’s “evil be thou my good” is echoed in the Creature’s “I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear” (Milton 4.110, Shelley). Subsequently the one commits himself to further evil via the ruination of Adam and Eve and the other via the the ruination of the extended Frankenstein family.
To understand the operative distinction Shelley fashions between her Creature and Satan, we must consider their acts through a lens of context and motivation. As cultural anthropologist Francois Flahault explains, malice can best be comprehended through an investigation of “the historical, social, ideological, organizational and other conditions which can trigger the logic of destruction and set it in motion” (qtd. in Butchart, 177). A look at these ‘conditions,’ especially the social one, in the lives of our fiendish characters provides insight into their fundamental principles, the underlying intentions where their vital difference lies. Satan, we learn from Raphael’s conversation with Adam, as well as from his own admission in Book Four, first acted evilly in reaction to an imagined lack of love for him in his creator, while Shelley’s Creature first acted evilly in reaction to a real lack of love for him in his creator. The one was purposeless, unprovoked; the other purposeful and legitimized. Later this disparity asserts itself in the objectives undertaken by the characters’ second evils, that genuine malice which is brought about through the deliberate decision expressed by each at his ‘crossroads’ moment. Here, Satan sins hopeless of any benefit proceeding from his crimes, other than perhaps the momentary gratification of causing pain in his creator. As he meditates on the act he is about to commit, the fiend admits that he does not “hope to be my self less miserable / By what I seek, but others to make such / As I” (Milton 9.126-128). The Creature, on the other hand, is driven to evil for its capacity of extortion, its utility in achieving a desired end. And what he hopes his malice will achieve, essentially, is his happiness in the existence of a companion, and arguably his creator’s happiness as well, for, as David Marshall explains, the eighteenth-century concept of sympathy suggested “putting oneself in the place of someone else, taking someone else's part—a general condition or act, related to the modern word ‘empathy,’ of which pity, compassion, and commiseration are only specific examples” (qtd. in Hustis 848). Bringing happiness to the Creature would then bring happiness to Frankenstein, if the scientist were truly ‘putting himself in the place’ of his creation. But of course he is not, and “the monster’s transformation from failed Adam to fallen angel to malignant devil is the result of the neglect of his all too ungodly creator” (Lewis 280). By replicating Satan without this innate ill-intent of his, and with the desire for serenity and virtue which he wholly lacked, Shelley resolves for the sensitive reader that moral dilemma Fish observes in Paradise Lost. It is by this subtraction and addition, this amendment to the “conditions which…trigger the logic of destruction” in Satan, that she truly justifies the antihero and renders him, incarnate in the Creature, worthy of the acclaim he receives.
This exquisite interaction between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost lends to the whole of Mary Shelley’s novel an oppressive air of tragedy, for the Creature, like Satan, is left at the close of the text with imminent doom looming over his head. Readers at the time would have been aware of the extended Satanic analogy Shelley has drawn, and noted the uncomfortable distinction it produces at the end of the novel: while the prospect of Satan’s punishment at “the Judgement” (Milton 10.81) is a welcome remediation to our lingering sensitivity to the demon’s offense, the Creature’s professed intent of suicide (“I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame”) elicits doubt and even disappointment. For if “Milton forces us to acknowledge the personal relevance of the Arch-fiend’s existence” (Fish 22), Shelley brings that existence yet a degree closer to our experience by making the Creature pitiable, perhaps even lovable. Are we, as readers, lead to feel dissatisfied with Shelley’s promotion of sympathy the way we are with Milton’s prohibition of it? Having sympathized with the Creature in the full Romantic understanding of the word, and put ourselves in his place, are we not then doomed along with him, bound to feel about the course of Shelley’s plot the regret which the Creature feels about his string of ruthless murders? In mourning the fact that in fate, as in inception, the Creature mirrors Satan, we find ourselves mourning the perversion of innocence by hardship. Ironically, the perversion of innocence is Satan’s cardinal offense; in addition, then, to being a reiteration of Satan, the Creature also becomes a victim of the arch-fiend, or of what he stands for. It is the Creature’s stirring regret, in the face of this victimization, that serves to redeem him minutely in the reader’s eyes, and grants the character a rare opportunity for individuality: his expression of ambivalence and remorse over his blasted innocence occurs in the first scene in which the Creature appears in real time, through the narrator’s eyes and not those of his Creator, who is now dead. Freed for a moment here from his likeness to Satan, and from the conflict with Frankenstein which occupied so much of his existence, he appears to us suddenly an “apotheosis of human desire and power,” to repurpose Schock’s characterization of Satan’s heroic appeal. The Creature shows his “desire and power,” however, not solely through his significant malice, but also through his yearning for a happier life, his furious, undying ambition. In his own right, he too is an antihero.
Butchart, Garnet C. “Malice by François Flahault, Liz Heron.” Cultural Critique, no. 63, 2006, pp. 177–181, www.jstor.org/stable/4489251. Accessed April 13 2017.
Craciun, Adriana. "Romantic Satanism and the Rise of Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry." New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, vol. 34, no. 4, 2003, pp. 699-721, EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?url=http:// search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2004395003&site=ehost- live. Accessed April 8 2017.
Fish, Stanley E. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. U. of Calif. P, 1971.
Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the "Modernity" of Mary Shelley's Prometheus.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2003, pp. 845-858. www.jstor.org/stable/462510. Accessed April 15 2017.
Lewis, Paul. "Victor Frankenstein and Owen Warland: The Artist as Satan and as God." Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 14, 1977, pp. 279-282. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu: 2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1977107587&site=ehost-live.\. Accessed April 8 2017.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The John Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth U. www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/pl/book_4/text.shtml
“Romanticism: More Satanic Than Satanism: Part 3 of 3.” thesatanicscholar.com, March 22 2017. thesatanicscholar.com/category/romantic-satanism/#fn16. Accessed April 8 2017.
Schock, Peter A. Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley, and Byron. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. panOpen, 1818 ed. sunyrockland.panopen.com/reader#/courses/1570/books/4197/chapters/ 2003c9d2f39c8/pages/e00712fc-6452-4d11-91f4-e6de7a1aa524/paragraphs/ 1HpHHIyw8C3WdBFmzJPigpIAdPo-Aa4jTo6eFAYu6tdw_47?_k=y2sn0n. Accessed 17 April 2017.
Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. “The ‘Satanism’ of Blake and Shelley Reconsidered.” Studies in Philology, Vol. 65, No. 5, Oct., 1968, pp. 816-833, www.jstor.org/stable/4173623. Accessed April 9 2017.
A Photo Journal of the Ludicrous, the Lavish, the Lyrical
In mid May I spent three days on the West Coast, in which I visited three cities and worked for three clients. Wednesday was Nordstrom in Seattle, Thursday Dior in LA, and Friday Everlane in San Fransisco. I lucked out with beautiful weather all three days, familiar faces to work with, and thrilling locations to do that work on (as well as an abundance of sedatives to get me to sleep on the two hour flights between each destination). Here are some of the highlights:
—Seeping well in the Seattle Marriott. Like, SOO well. I think I have to go back there just for that bed. No sleepless in Seattle for me!
—Los Angeles acai. This was only my second time in the city of angels but my third time eating at Backyard Bowls, a cafe devoted entirely to acai bowls and which provides the perfect place to refresh, relax, and, if you’re me and confronting the end of the spring semester that week, to finish a term paper on The Handmaid’s Tale.
—The Dior Cruise show. After my acai bowl we all rode a bus an hour out of LA to the Calabasas area, and specifically to a nature preserve called the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon, which was mostly arid hills with dry brown grasses that were home to tarantula-sized spiders and, to uproarious effect, rattle snakes. When we models lined up in the grass for photos, hired men stood around us just out of frame, wearing thigh-high boots and wielding clubs to fend off rattlers.
—Sketching backstage at the Dior Cruise show in Las Virgenes Canyon. Having finished my paper at the hair station (just hours before it was due), I was free to move on to my next homework assignment--from W Magazine. A writer there had asked me to create a brief sketch log of Dior Cruise for them, much like the one I did for French Vogue last year, and this was due the next day. Perched in an un-airconditioned tent on a dry and baking hill surrounded by unsettling wild animals and models (sometimes synonymous), I dashed off a few images from my trip, the full versions of which you can see here.
—Dior afterparty: the Dior Cruise show took place in a fire ring/gypsy camp encircled by tents with "DIOR" blankets and cushions for the guests, and immediately afterwards the tents were converted into food stalls circulating mini servings of salad, tacos, hamburgers and ice creams--and, of course, alcohol. They had these fascinating cocktails that were a mix of green juice (kale and cucumber etc) and vodka, and which were surprisingly tasty, dangerously tasty, and so bemusingly Los Angelan.
—While during the show, music was provided by a live band on African Drums, at the afterparty it was supplied by none other than Solange, robed in white gauze and stationed at the center of the paddock dreamlike with her backups. After she performed, my friend Amanda and I got a picture with her, just cause she happened to walk by, and we were feeling our green juice.
—Amanda scored one of the Dior blankets by kissing its owner on the cheek. An hour later he walked by with another blanket over his shoulder. We tried to snag one for me but as the night wore on guests wised up to just how coveted their new blankets were, and even in the thick of the dance floor in the main tent revelers clung to their rolls like they were security blankets rather than exclusive monogrammed Dior wool throws. That night Amanda and I returned to our room at midnight, and I spent an hour on the shower floor clawing hair extensions off my scalp, pounds and pounds of them. At one am I had to let what glue remained on my head alone and nab a few hours of sleep before my alarm would wake me at 4:30 am for my journey to the next and final city.
—Working literally on the road: During my ride to LAX at 5 am on Friday morning, I conducted a quick interview with my liaison at W Mag. At my gate I painted a quick watercolor of the Las Virgenes Canyon. On the flight I snoozed, and in San Fransisco two hours later I rode an Uber to work, to Everlane studios to get my hair and makeup done.
—That day with Everlane, we shot at the beach outside San Fransisco. It was Friday and beautiful and clear and when we descended the rocky hill to the shore we encountered…a whale. A humpback whale, spouting and breaching and smacking in the surf! I didn’t get pictures, I was too in awe to look away and find my phone. It was the good start of a good shoot, and we were finished by five pm and only slightly sunburned.
—Partner in crime on the Everlane shoot, the angelic-and-impish-in-equal-parts Dilone :)
—Waking the next morning in my San Fransisco hotel, feeling the weight of my term paper, my sketch diary, and my busy week’s schedule lifted off me. And feeling the sunburn, too. But only a little bit :)
—That morning, my last on the West Coast, I met a friend of mine from high school for an avocado toast reunion, the best kind if you ask Marie and me, before catching my flight back to New York, and home.
There were so many surreal and riveting moments on this trip, as there are on all trips, regardless who you are or what you're doing, and I can fairly say that a few of these "highlight" points here will live on beyond this blog and after this career as anecdotes I'll one day tell my grandkids. The mission of the Dior blankets definitely will; the whale greeting will; the rattlesnakes... If nothing else the hair extensions are guaranteed a place in my future, even if it's only because the hair glue won't come off and is still clinging in places to my scalp. These days reminded me why I do what I do. These days reminded me, once again, of the power and the poetry of travel.
A Sketch Diary
Commissioned by W Mag, this story was posted online in May as coverage of the Dior Cruise 2018 show, and included some interview material on me for some reason... See full story here. Thank you Katie Cusamano for making this happen (and writing something such delightful things)!
On Easter morning every year I wake up early—usually to walk to a spring in a gritty red hillside near my house and splash cold water on my face, my head, walk home. This year, though, I woke up early to catch a plane. To Tokyo.
On Easter morning this year JFK was deserted, my flight on Japanese Air was under-booked, and I got to curl up across two adjacent seats while furiously typing away at a Frankenstein paper due that week for my Literature class. I was headed to Japan for Dior’s reshowing of their Spring ‘17 Couture show— it’s customary, I hear, for big luxury brands to take their collections on the road in Asian markets, where many have lucrative client bases. This particular reshowing was of the show I'd already walked in Paris, and was to occur on the roof of a new Dior boutique in a high-end district of Tokyo called Ginza.
But that was still two days away. First came fittings, which afforded us a few nights to (attempt to) adjust to the 13-hour time difference and explore Tokyo, and which felt for all the world like summer camp. A luxurious camp, of course, cause we were all—models, designers, atelier, casting, hair and makeup—put up in the Grand Hyatt in Minato, where our buffet meals in the French dining room were covered by Dior and our fittings took place in a conference room now overgrown with studio lights and racks of taffeta gowns. For three days I shared meals, and a room, with fellow models, and spent my mornings with a pair of other American models wandering the streets of quirky Shibuya and commercial Harujuku. One morning we went to a gallery of cat statues painted on by various artists, and for $15 bought and painted our own plaster cat figures on the spot. Another morning we went to “Kiddyland,” a five-story toy store fabled among Japanese pop-cultural enthusiasts for the unfathomable softness of it’s stuffed pillow-creatures and unprecedented variety of HelloKitty gadgetry. Yet another morning, I went to the National Art Center to see a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s painting, garish and lonely and polka-dotted. That wasn’t with the American girls but with a Dutch model—a comment, perhaps, on the distinction between the European and American ways of seeing a place?
But this place, what a place it was. Japan was fantastical and bizarre and inventive. I went there doubtful that I would enjoy it (I’ve always been enchanted by Europe and the Mediterranean; by Asia never), but I left somewhat under Tokyo’s spell. The city was crowded and bustling, but in an impeccably organized, tranquil way: subway platforms were patrolled by stewards who directed us and helped us on and off trains; crosswalks soared above streets on pedestrian overpasses, allowing traffic to move below; and on escalators all the Japanese stood to one side to leave a lane clear for those in a hurry, a practice I find New Yorkers perpetually disregard.
Fascinating was the artificiality of many aspects of the culture (I found a profusion of plastic surgery clinics, diet pills in cucumber-print sachets advertised as “New Yorker’s Superfood Diet,” arcades of photo-booths offering filters to brighten your skin, blush your cheeks, enlarge your eyes). Equally notable, however, was a contrasting authenticity, a quirkiness and idiosyncrasy which made Japan unlike any country I’ve traveled to yet, and which made it surprisingly endearing. Drug stores sold plastic Totoro molds to shape sticky rice in kid’s lunch boxes, and city buses had eyes painted on them. Starbucks peddled cherry-blossom lattes, grocery stores stocked green-tea-flavored Reeces, cantaloupe KitKats, Borsch-flavored Lays. It seemed to me that Japan thrived on a fusion of the high tech with the whimsical: all was aesthetically designed, modern, high-quality and, above all, surprising, imaginative.
When at length the day of the show arrived, that imaginative spirit was not absent. Night had fallen by the time all Dior’s guests were seated on the benches looping around the maze of catwalk on a rooftop commanding a sweeping view of Tokyo. A strong wind had risen and the hair-stylists were mourning the instant demolition of their handiwork as the show soundtrack thundered up from the bowls of huge speakers stationed around the rooftop and we filed out into the warm gale like birds or lilies being torn at and billowed and flung on the night. Needling my way into the wind wall and along the roof’s perimeter, I could see the winking city below me and feel my gown streaming behind me, and the six minutes it took me to complete the circuit were enchanting and exhilarating and made me worry I would lose all my layers of taffeta or be swept into the audience in a dropping purple wad like an iris after a rain. The music boomed, the wind battered, the view glittered and the sky was vast and vehemently mauve. Moments like this, when all your senses are overwhelmed, are filled and roaring with magnificence, are like being removed, existing externally for a moment from your body and seeing time swell around you. Like standing on a pedestrian overpass and watching the traffic stream by.
At the airport on my way out of Tokyo I stocked up on sweet mochi filled with bean paste and some children's origami sheets that I’ll never use but that looked adorable. It was a few days after Easter and I had turned my Frankenstein paper in, and walked for Dior for a second time in my career. I’d walked a show as imaginative and unusual as the city it occurred in, I’d seen artifice and authenticity and how each was equally valid to the identity of this culture and this experience. I’d been enchanted by Tokyo, and it was a few days after Easter. Who knew bean paste could taste so sweet?