The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) currently is hosting an exhibit entitled “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” composed of many rooms filled with artifacts many of which have been discovered by oceanic archeologists led by Franck Goddio. The cities, which turn out to be one large cosmopolitan metropolis, are Thonis and Heracleion, and the exhibit is terribly impressive. I’ve just spent time going through the rooms with two friends and marveling at the scope of what has been found and by the sheer magnitude of this undertaking. There are statues rising 17 feet into the air, some perfectly in tact, others missing an arm or part of a leg, yet others pinned together because found in fragments at the bottom of the sea.
As usual at such exhibitions, there comes a point for me when I can’t concentrate on each isolated object and so I begin to browse amongst the show cases, stopping only when something strikes my fancy. This stage of my observations in museums always interests me because it casts light on my own attitudes and approaches to life’s infinite variety. So I want to talk about two pieces from the MIA show because they claimed my full attention as I saw them and they linger in my mind’s eye now that the experience is over.
One is mammoth while the other is infinitesimal. The mammoth item is a life-size statue of a bull called Apis, made from a stone native to Egypt called dionite. There is not a single blemish or sign of wear or tear. Rather the figure commands his room in the museum much as he must have done in his original shrine. The story of Apis appeals to me because it involves a culture’s assigning huge spiritual importance to a creature not from the human realm. It seems that the people worshiped Apis and so always had a single stunning bull to fill this iconic role. Once the current bull died, there would be an elaborate process of finding the next one, akin to what happens in some Eastern cultures when the head lama dies. The particular animal made into the statue I witnessed is stunningly beautiful, exuding contained energy in his flanks and torso. After I’d stared as close to the figure as the exhibit allowed me to do, I moved to stand before his face and suddenly the icon took on an entirely different mien. The eyes are soft and inviting, the nose downright aquiline. And his little head is topped with a few strands of intricately curled hair above which is a mirror-like crown denoting his importance. Finally, standing facing this giant creature, I notice that his right hoof is poised like a ballerina who is about to move weightlessly ahead. The sheer delicacy of the hoof itself reinforces the sense of delicacy and grace. I was in awe of the sculptor’s ability to give me such oppositional feelings depending on where I stood in relation to Apis.
The other item that drew and kept me so long I’m sure people wondered if I’d fallen into a momentary trance. Perhaps I had done. What I was glued to was an amulet the size of a child’s “pinky” fingernail, as my friend suggested. Mounted on the thinnest of metal sticks with its own, small circular magnifying glass, the object depicts in minute detail the Eye of Horus or wedjat eye. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus and Hera. It seems Horus’ uncle, Seth, god of Chaos, gauged out Horus’ left eye as they fought over the throne of Osiris. The god Thoth restored most of Horus’ eye and Horus promptly offered his eye to his father, Osiris, to restore him to life. These little amulets came to symbolize body wholeness and health, associated with the moon that recovers its wholeness over fourteen days of waxing. Appropriately, then, when Osiris died, his corpse was cut into fourteen pieces to help him achieve wholeness. It seems these finger-nail sized tokens were offered for thousands of years and somehow the archeologists managed to find the one I gawked for so lons (and one other in another room of the exhibition) unharmed by centuries of being submerged in sea water. If I try to fathom why this particular bit of culture fascinated me so completely, I just come up with how we humans can put so much meaning into such small packages sometimes. My friend likened the little amulet to netsukes, those similarly tiny figures held in such high regard by Japanese worshippers.
So, my time at the MIA, ambling through this impressive example of passionate attention to the detailed work of archeological discovery and recovery has rewarded me with at least two memories I can reclaim any time I look back on the morning in the gallery rooms. And I will feel closer to those Egyptian worshippers when next I am my own church filled with its art objects reflecting awe over something ineffable but powerfully attracting over centuries of contact.
My last blog was a poem about my being robbed years ago and some words about all invasion of our privacy by technology. One of my frequent readers has asked me to say more about privacy rights here as opposed to in European countries, so here goes. As of May 2018, countries in the European Union (EU) are functioning under strict laws aimed at protecting individual’s privacy. There are strict fines attached if Internet companies or other commercial entities collect or sell your information without your consent. These laws will mean it will be harder for entities like Facebook to collect, store, and sell such information. They also make it easy for groups of individuals to file class action suits if the laws are not obeyed. In my last post, I argued that one reason European countries might be trying to monitor who knows what about all of us might be that they are a lot older than the United States and so have experienced what can happen if people we don’t know know lots about us.
If you Google “bright shiny objects,” you find that there is a formal syndrome by this name. What I know about such objects is they fascinate chickens. There are endless stories of people who play with or even try to train their chickens by tossing things like metal keys or little shards of brightly colored substances at the chickens. The fowls will immediately dash to the newly tossed item, demonstrating what the syndrome describes as multiple distractions. While this is amusing on a farm or in an urban back yard, it bothers teachers or employers who need their students or workers to concentrate so as to be the most productive. What I think about these days are all the rapidly appearing new ways to use smart phones and other electronic devices to let us act remotely. There’s a clever ad I see on television in which two young men approach a dark house or garage, only to hear a voice in space greeting them, followed by a literal bright light’s coming on and an alarm’s going off as the would-be robbers flee. This is all made possible by the home owner’s have an APP that lets her/him “see” what’s going on at their home while they are miles or even countries away. Or the newest hiding place for cameras in one’s eye glasses. Today’s consumers seem like those chickens in that we are quickly fascinated by the latest invention that gives us information or pleasure. The only problem is most of those inventions become available only after we have allowed yet another invisible company know all sorts of personal facts about us. And, of course, there are the stories that have become legion about parents or college admissions committees and employment officers who find out their child who is now a potential student or employee has sent friends some picture that never goes away and so haunts the sender, sometimes with decidedly negative consequences.
I’m not the only person worried about all the addictive distractions coming onto the market. Yuval Harari, the Israeli futurist philosopher recently published a book detailing just how dangerous all these fast-moving gadgets can be, not only to individuals but to the very idea of democracy itself. He believes that we are being lured into mindless consumption that dulls the brain and empties the pocketbook. As for the growing use of robotic workers, Mr. Harari predicts the creation of a literally “throw-away,” useless class of people in the not-s0-distant future. His personal way of resisting is to spend two hours a day in complete silence.
So what’s one to do about this conundrum that is spreading into more and more facets of our lives? Well, those sites that explore the shiny objects syndrome advise several obvious things, e.g., slow down and think about the consequences of engaging in or owning the latest technological “breakthrough.” Or at least ask basic questions about the storage and sharing of personal information before giving it away with the click of a key. For me, there is a simpler if potentially old-fashioned course of action (or rather inaction, as it turns out): I ask myself if what the new bright thing promises will have staying power, or it if really is just a shiny distraction that will need replacing by its technological cousin. And it seems more people are thinking about this loss of privacy as giant corporations like Facebook are having to admit that they exercise far too little control over what they collect and distribute. Maybe we are maturing faster than we might have thought possible as we try to keep up with the barrage of new “shinies.”
As this country embraces more and more computer-based programs and devices that register and maintain personal information about all of us, I find myself thinking about privacy rights. Recently I heard a program on MPR about how much more seriously such rights are taken in European countries than this one. As I pondered this fact, I thought about the difference in ages of North America and France or Italy or Germany. Their collective memories are so much older than ours, which means they’ve witnessed and paid the price of invasions of privacy more often. Maybe we are just too excited by new shiny objects like glasses that can tell us how fast our heart is beating.
But surely anyone who has had their home robbed feels acutely just how invaded a person can feel. Many years ago, I had gone to my professional meeting, always held right after Christmas. My then lover had volunteered to go to my house twice a day to feed my kitty, so I thought all was well. As I exited a taxi at my front door, I saw her standing just inside it, looking distinctly worried. Her first words were “Toni, you’ve been robbed.” Initially I was just relieved that my companion animal was safe, but when I went through the living room, up the stairs, and into my bed room, a feeling of fear engulfed me and stayed with me for weeks. When I’d get home from work, I’d look under my bed and inside all closets, go down the basement steps with a flashlight, and still feel unsafe and like I needed to take extra showers.
Finally, I decided to write a poem and see if that might help. It did. I was finally able to go back to feeling safe in my story-and-a-half “nest.” Recently I came upon that old poem and was propelled right back to that overwhelming sense of dis-ease and uncenteredness, so I decided to revise my lines and share them here.
6 charms and 8 scarabs
strung on golden wires,
links I wear around my wrist,
part of my circumference–
ripped away by giant hands
that leave an acrid stench all through my space
8 records of a woman playing Chopin
in themselves irreplaceable–
a gift from my mother at 15
a mantle cleaner than I left it,
minus a bronze bull fighter statuette–
a gift from my sister at 35
My bed was handled, pillow thrown askew,
naked with no case.
That case now holds droppings from my life
stolen from pockets of my rooms;
seen without permission,
lost without recourse
By 1928, Virginia Woolf had established herself as a leading novelist experimenting with both form and content. Rejecting Victorian plots that were linear explorations of characters’ lives, Woolf had published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925 and To the Lighthouse in 1927. Both of these instant masterpieces utilized what would become known as “stream-of-consciousness,” a literary technique that insisted that our lives and thoughts do not proceed from year to year but rather jump around from past to present and even into future time. Perhaps she was exhausted from the effort it had taken to break so completely from the traditional ideas of novels, so she sought release in fantasy, for surely Orlando, her next creative achievement, was seen as pure fantasy. The title character begins life as a most definite “he” as we learn in the opening words of the novel: “He–for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” The “time” in question here is the late 16th century in England: Elizabeth I has been on the throne a long time though Orlando is only seventeen as the story begins. His swash-buckling behavior is inherited, since the Moor’s head was severed from its dark brown body by Orlando’s father (or perhaps grand-father as our narrator tells us, giving us a clue at the outset that time will not be calculated in the usual fashion in this novel). That ancestor was in Africa fighting “barbarians” in his undoubtedly racist understanding of the black inhabitants of that continent. The adolescent Orlando catches the aging Queen’s eye and so begins a remarkably fast-moving life of courtly service and love-sick fascination with a young Russian girl whom he sees skating on a frozen pond. Woolf wants us to understand the force of gender roles in her own world in writing about this scene because she says “When the boy, for alas, a boy it must be–no woman could skate with such speed and vigour–swept almost on tiptoe past him, Orlando was ready to tear his hair with vexation tha the person was of his own sex, and thus all embraces were out of the question.” But Woolf is all about gender confusion in this romping tale, so she continues the scene this way: “Legs, hands, carriage, were a boy’s but no boy ever had a mouth like that; no boy had those breasts; no boy had those eyes which looked as if they had been fished from the bottom of the sea.” Then this tantalizing skater stops and Orlando sees the truth: “She was a woman” with whom he can safely fall in love, so he does.
For Woolf’s own audience in 1928, this kind of playfulness about gender identification and presentation surely came as something of a shock. Reviews of the book didn’t know quite what to make of it. Reviewers had expected another novel in the same serious experimental vein of Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, though many reviewers of these novels hadn’t known what to make of them either. But the grounds of confusion in the previous cases were solid because they concerned narrative method; here this burgeoning woman novelist was presenting a world in which sex and gender were slippery and elusive. As Orlando moves through the 17th century, he matures into a handsome young man about town who keeps having feelings that don’t “fit” with his outward presentation. Then, about a fourth of the way into the story, the young handsome lad falls strangely ill into trance that lasts over a week. As doctors try to determine the cause of his malady, Orlando is visited by three female voices who perform a typical 17th century masque. The actors speaking to our hero lost in his deep sleep are our Lady of Purity, our Lady of Chastity, and our Lady of Modesty. After each delivers her words about how life in England has no more room for them, some trumpeters who have announced each of their appearances to the sleeping Orlando “blow one terrific blast” and our narrator proclaims “THE TRUTH!” Orlando suddenly wakes and we read “He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess–he was a woman.” Surely there is no way to understand this amazing scene if we read it in 2018 except to say that Virginia Woolf is presaging a world in which a person of one anatomical sex can undergo a radical transformation into another anatomical sex.
That she could presage our own trans moment shouldn’t come as such a shock if we look at certain details of her own life. Her most serious intimate relationship surely was with Vita Sackville-West, the aristocratic woman with whom Virginia was in love and with whom she spent long and happy periods of her life, never mind that both had husbands. Vita liked nothing more than to dress as a tall handsome man and on more than one occasion, she and Virginia attended plays and concerts as a heterosexual couple. Woolf writes of one such escapade, sharing her delight at having fooled an older heterosexual couple who actually knew both women but didn’t recognize Vita in her male disguise. In various essays, Woolf would explore “androgyny,” asserting that all humans combine in ourselves certain aspects of what society labels “masculine” and “feminine” traits, and that the most interesting of us are those who inhabit both worlds. So in her putative fantasy novel, she creates a single human being who lives from the late 16th century until October 11, 1928, the date registered in the last words of this romping story of Orlando who is boy/man until that no longer “works,” so “he” becomes needs to become “she” in order to express some “truth” that has played around the edges from those opening scenes full of gender confusion.
Once Orlando becomes a woman, she has adventures beginning with running away to live with a group of Romany people until they help her understand she has to return to her own world. She is able to adapt to the centuries until she got to 19th c. Conformity to what a young woman was supposed to be wore her spirit down because she’d always been able to stand against the norm and still be accepted. The most oppressive aspect of her culture at that time was the pressure to find a heterosexual mate and stop being single as Orlando had chosen to remain for a few hundred years. But the universe turns towards her and as she is roaming in Turkey, a man on a horse approaches her because he thinks she is a damsel in distress. Sensing her distress, the stranger leaps from his large horse and declares “Madam, you’re hurt.!” Orlando’s reply is “Sir, I’m dead!” Woolf collapses time and engagement with her next sentence: “A few minutes later, they became engaged.” This magical man’s name is Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire–“Shel” for short. Just as they are pledging eternal love, both sense the deep truth of the matter–“You’re a woman, Shel!: she cried. “You’re a man, Orlando!” he cried. This grasp of the trans nature of each half of this strange equation solves all their dilemmas and they live happily ever after–until they come to the present moment (1928). As Woolf so wisely writes “For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment?” Orlando stops her whirligig life to consider who she really is in that present moment and concludes that each of us is composed of multiple selves–“some say two thousand and fifty-two”–and her job after all the centuries s/he has lived is to. Woolf, in an act of authorial comfort, lets her character experience a unifying moment when s/he feels s/he is a true self. As this fabulous tale ends, Orlando keeps having very old memories both of when she presented as a young man and when she tried to live as a maturing woman. The last thing s/he sees is “her husband’s brig, rising to the top of the wave! Up it went! and up and up. Oh rash, oh ridiculous man, always sailing, so uselessly, round Cape Horn in the teeth of a gale! But the brig was through the arch and out on the other side; it was safe at last!” S/he sees Shel coming towards her/him in all his/her glory and she shouts out so Shel will see where s/he is. They meet as a single wild goose flies over them and the curtain falls on this very early experiment in trying to escape gender binaries.
Rereading this amazing novel that Woolf calls a “biography,” I feel excited to discover again just how prescient she was about human existence in all its profound and mysterious aspects. And, who knows, she may see it as a life story not only of Orlando but of her own complicated relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Surely it is no accident that she dedicates the novel “To V. Sackville-West” who loved every minute of the tale as she told Virginia in a letter after having read an early draft. And surely both of them understood, perhaps nonverbally, what it means to feel fluidity rather than certainty about gender identity.