Archive for September, 2008
I am not the world’s most prudish person, to say the least. And I don’t have a lot of patience with the sort of person, either of the right-religious or the left-feminist persuasion,, who just can’t stop clucking over how short skirts are or how brazen girls are or…well, any of those things.
But I think it is safe to say that the first sign of civilization is a basic, society-wide acceptance that there are some things that are so fundamental, and so private, that they do not appear in public, ever. Representations of them may appear–think of all those Greek statues setting the standard for male competitiveness forever afterwards–but each human being kept his or her own private parts private. The act of revealing them to another person was the sign of deep and important intimacy, a declaration of willingness to be open and vulnerable, even if only for the length of a one night stand.
Of course, this sort of privacy was more the province of women than of men, but most men don’t go waving the flag indiscriminately either. To be caught with your pants down is embarrassing. To be caught with your labia flashing is more than embarrassing, because there is something about it that seems to reduce the woman involved to a hole between her legs.
Go look at the pictures in Hustler‘s “Beaver Hunt” sometime, if it still exists. That’s the feature where guys send pictures of their girlfriends taken with their legs spread as wide open as possible. There was a time in my life when I was fascinated with “Beaver Hunt,” because the expressions on the girls’ faces were all just miserable. They were worse than embarrassed. They were shamed, and that in spite of the fact that they had probably grown up far from the strictures of Fifties femininity.
Paris Hilton was not shamed, not that time, and not the time or two after that she did it again. Then she was followed by a host of Pop Tarts, “going commando” in miniskirts, flashing the world as they climbed out of limousines. We’re not talking about little glimpses here. we’re talking about spread shots so wide they could serve as illustrations in medical textbooks.
So what does this mean, and what is it about these young women that makes them apparently unconcerned with this sort of exposure? And, maybe more to the point, why do so many people go on following their every move, lining up to see them in movies and concerts,?
Back in the Forties, a nascent movie star named Carmen Miranda was accidentally photographed up her skirt, when she wasn’t wearing any underwear. The pictures were successfully repressed, but she never worked again.
It’s hard not to think that we don’t see these young women as actual human beings–and maybe that they don’t see themselves as actual human beings.
One of the first things cultures do as they evolve into civilizations is to separate the human from the merely animal, to distinguish what is special, and specially in need of protection, about the human being.
That sense of specialness is something must of us have without even thinking about it. It’s what made those young women in Hustler so ashamed, even though most of them probably had neither the raw intelligence nor the education to understand that shame in an substantive way.
So the first reason I wrote Cheating At Solitaire was this: I wanted to get inside the heads of people who did not think of themselves as uniquely human, as important enough to protect and defend.
What does it mean when somebody reaches the point where she can expose herself–literally, and not just figuratively–to everybody in the world, and not care about that at all?
Every once in a while I get asked to speak at writer’s conferences, and when I do, I invariably get asked (after the two thousand demands for the phone number of my agent) how somebody goes about writing a detective novel.
The thing is, I don’t know how “somebody” does that. I only know how I do that, and my way may not be the kind of thing other people do.
When I write fiction, I always start with character–with a person I want to understand better, or a group of people who seem to form a constellation around an issue or a problem. It’s people I’m interested in, not plot. My sons take me to superhero movies and I fall asleep in the fight scenes.
Cheating at Solitaire started with my fascination not so much with a person as with a group of people, all young women, who seemed to have a lot in common and yet not a lot that made much sense. For those of you who have read the book already, this should be clear by now. I wrote about the “pop tarts,” as they get called a lot, the girls who seem to be more famous for how often they get drunk in public than for anything else they do, who are considered newsworthy because they’re supposed to be “celebrities.”
Now, I find a lot of things fascinating about this group of people, including that odd circumstance where they buy friends rather than have them, but what finally brought me around to trying to write about them was the fact that, for all their silliness, they have an enormous effect on the students I teach.
I ought to be clear here that I teach only part time, on the “college level,” and that a solid majority of my students are from the inner city. I started doing this about ten years ago, and the one fact that has remained unshakable ever since has been this: this is a group of people so culturally isolated as to comprise practically a separate nation, unlike the one you and I are used to.
I’ve read a lot of nonsense about “minority students” and “lower income students” over the years, not the least being that those two descriptions are identical, but the fact is this: my students are by and large very bright; they’re by and large very hard working; they’re by and large not addicted to the chains, piercings and tattooes version of ghetto chi.
What they are is drowning in a world where they have no context whatsoever to explain themselves to themselves, or their lives to the wider world. in fact, they know little or nothing about the wider world.
These are people who have never heard of the novel “1984,” but if that was the only kind of thing they had trouble with, their situation wouldn’t scare me so much.
Consider the following incident: I was teaching poetry to a freshman Intro to Lit class, and we read Langston Hughes’ “Theme For English B.” I asked my students what they could learn about Hughes’s life from the poem, and one of them ventured that we could tell that Hughes was poor, because he was living at the Harlem YMCA, and not in the dorm at Columbia, where he was going to college.
I pointed out that it was much more likely that Hughes was living at the Y because, being black, he wouldn’t have been allowed to live in the dorm–and was greeted with stunned, incredulous shock. Not allowed to live someplace because you were black? But that would be against the law!
It’s not that my kids have never heard of the civil rights movement. It’s that they don’t understand enough about history to put itin any kind of context. They know it happened, and maybe that it had something to do with lynchings, or possibly drinking fountains, but the whole episode is hazy,
They live, in a way, in an eternal present. Everything is as it has always been, and will probably always be the same way. People get rich when they win the lottery or get a record contract, or sometimes they go to “college” and become lawyers, or something. It all sort of drifts off into a fog.
And some of them die in that fog, if not physically, intellectually and morally. They fall back into a sea of passivity I’ve never been able to figure out how to get them out of.
Others, though, want desperately to “make something of themselves,” to live a better life than the one they’re used to–and that’s where the Pop Tarts come in.
A middle class kid comes to class knowing that the Pop Tarts are not normal, and not real. An inner city kid knows this, too, but he has no counterexamples to help him chart a different course. There are the people he knows from his neighborhood–the good people ground down to nothing; the junkies; the gangs–and what he sees when he turns on MTV.
The idea that it is possible to develop a sense of oneself that is not dependent on the admiration of other people, that it is possible to be admired for things that do not concern either the money you have or your willingness to sexualize every aspect of your identity, is beyond them.
It’s not just that they don’t know what 1984 is, or what was going on that we needed a civil rights movement to correct.
It’s that they’ve never met Elizabeth Bennett, or even Becky Sharpe. And they really don’t know anything about Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” or Edith Stein’s death in Auschwitz or Sara Teasdale and Amy Lowell trying to change the face of poetry in a world where all “real” poets were men.
We tend to think of civilization as something we have. Well, here we are, born in America at the beginning of the 21st century–this must be Western Civ.
But civilization is not something we have, it’s something we do, and any one of us can just not do it. For many of my students, they don’t do it because they don’t know it’s there to be done.
They do know how to get the TV turned to VH-1, though.
And when Paris Hilton flashed her vagina at the cameras that first night on the red carpet, they were probably watching.
This is the very first post on this blog. Sorry I couldn’t think of a more imaginative title for it, but considering how much procrastinating I’ve been doing getting this started, it’s not bad.
A few things about what you’re going to find here.
1) My name is Jane Haddam, and I write detective novels. I’ve written 23 of them or so, published most recently by St. Martin’s Press. You can find my work on Amazon and in Barnes and Noble and in a lot of other places. I’ve been nominated for every mystery writer’s award in the US but not won any of them. I’ve published in a lot of magazines over th eyears, including Parents, The Nation and Skeptical Inquirer.
2) So a lot of what I’m going to write about is writing. Writing detective novels. Writing about crime. But also things connected to that, like ideas of good and evil, and…well, everything, because everything is connected to that.
3) There’s a comments board that will let you say stuff if you register first. You have to register because the last time I had a comments board, it was pretty well destroyed by avalanches of spam, sometimes as many as two or three hundred a day. I didn’t have the time to keep up.
4) Still, I don’t moderate otherwise, so say what you want, including how awful I am. But I DON’T promise to respond to anything. I may, or I may not. It depends.
5) This blog is called Hildegarde, after Hildegarde von Bingen, who was a Benedictine abbess in the Middle Ages and the author of most of what we know think of as “Gregorian chant.” She also ran one of the largest agricultural establishments of her time, and had more authority, and more control of property, than the vast majority of the men of her era, including many men who were theoretically her “social superiors.”
6) She could also read and write when very few women could, and she wrote theology when very few women did. You can find out more about her here:
which is I hope a link that works. I’ve got no idea if I’ve done that right.
7) Anyway, she was a remarkable woman who did things, and she’s a reproach to every idiot out there who declares that the Middle Ages were a theocracy not much better than the present Islamic Republic of Iran where women were chattel and science dared not speak its name.
8) By all that, it must be obvious that one of my absolutely favorite things is the Middle Ages in Europe, which is true. I also really love harpsichords. Someday, I’m going to be able to afford a Peter Redstone harpsichord, but the way things are going that may take a while. Peter Redstone has a web site here
which has lots of wonderful pictures of harpsichords. If you want to hear what a harpsichord should sound like, I suggest you try any music by Gustav von Leonhardt. He’s got a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations which is really excellent.
9) So that’s where I am here, plus cats, Portuguese literature, what’s wrong with college students, and that kind of thing.
10) But I’m going to start with a book I wrote, just out this year, called Cheating at Solitaire. A lot of people seem to be mad at me about it, and part of me doesn’t blame them, but…