Claudel’s Commitment

Note: A version of this essay appeared on the website, The Ekphrastic Review, in 2019. Because there’s no dedicated link to the piece on the website, I decided to post it here too.

Paul Claudel, the brother of French artist Camille Claudel, had her committed to a mental institution in 1913, just after their father’s death. Although her forms indicated that she had been voluntarily admitted, they were signed by a doctor and Paul, not by Camille.

After about a year, she was moved to another hospital as protection against the advancing German front. But Claudel was a prisoner of war within her own family. Her brother rarely visited and never told her of the death of her loving father, which had allowed him to do what he had likely wanted to do for a long time. Hide away the unmanageable sister who embarrassed him with her unconventional behavior, which included living openly as an artist and having an affair with her mentor, Auguste Rodin.

“I’ll come again,” Paul might have said on those very occasional visits, as he hastened to leave. The poet-diplomat brother crossing enemy lines—for every mental patient is behind enemy lines.

Despite the fact that several of her doctors protested her confinement, her brother and mother chose to keep her hospitalized until her death in 1943.

**

Aside from Claudel herself, the greatest casualty of her illness was that art. Prior to her commitment, she destroyed many sculptures in psychotic fits. Only about ninety remained by the time she was locked away.

Perhaps she pictured them living on after she had smashed them. Did she feel their cold reproaches could no longer hurt her? Or did they still mock her, freeing themselves from night’s monolith and shambling toward her bed, their derision a crack in marble only she could see?

I am glad that she spared some, like La Vague. La Vague was a departure for her, so fitting it told of a wave, of a change about to move water and land as one. Bronze and marble and onyx, more delicate than what had come before. I wonder if critics were comforted when they saw it, perhaps thinking that the aging spinster had swapped her lurid embraces for decorative arts, as was proper. But Claudel had seen woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Hokusai and been inspired. In Hokusai’s work, nature is pruned and perfected but loses none of its power. His waves are as pretty as the hair of a doll but still they crash out of the frame. Maybe that’s what Claudel was after, or what she was. Rodin wrote to her in a letter, “In a single instant I feel your terrible force.”

Did she ever wish she had destroyed La Vague? In the sculpture, the wave looks like it is reaching for three young girls. It arches like the back of a woman making love, but when it touches them the faces pooling in the water are men’s. Her doctors, her brother.

**

Did Claudel wait for release from the asylum, as she had once waited for Rodin? Always waiting for something to happen—a love, a life—shaves softness from the mind, sharpening it like a sculptor transforming marble from innocence to experience.

During her years of confinement, Claudel may have longed for her child, the one she aborted in 1892. Or perhaps she thought an unborn son or daughter—especially a daughter—should be grateful to have been spared being cast in bronze for life’s exhibition. If what we quickened in the womb had to pass muster before the members of the academy and be given permission to come forth, like some of Claudel’s sculptures, this earth would be deserted.

Locked inside the hospital while the blood of World War I soaked fields outside, Claudel must have fought for her own truce. I wonder how she brokered peace with her mind and her situation. Did she think Rodin was still out to steal from and kill her? Maybe she pictured advancing troops made up of huge sculptures instead of men. Her work fighting her lover’s before forming a pact, then turning on her.

Back when they were lovers, Claudel and Rodin conceived a romantic contract together. It said he would leave his partner Rose and stay true to her, taking no other lover or model. Romantic and sexual contracts are the erotic flipside to commitment forms for the allegedly insane. They tease out the power dynamics of legal-judicial language in order to deliver pleasure, not penalties. The affair between Claudel and Rodin was passionate, tumultuous, so the idea of a contract to calm (or prolong) the storm must have made sense. But with lovers, sometimes appeasement masquerades as collusion.

Rodin violated its terms, of course. Who knows if he felt it to be his artist’s prerogative or if he had chosen his words based on momentary terror and need. I imagine his lover hoped he’d crafted them with assurance and strength, the way he created his unions in bronze.

Devoid of legal recourse, her demons named for her, maybe Claudel dreamt of a contract between herself and her world. One that promised a liberated woman would not be punished.

Maybe she dreamt that she would not be cast in bronze in the asylum, that she would wither and crumble, broken plaster littering the floor of a huge atelier.

Maybe she dreamt that madness was not set in stone. And maybe, through that dream, it wasn’t.

Tiny Libraries and Nowhere Classrooms

We’ve entered an era of hyperobjects and microcosms. Plastic fills the ocean, and structures like capitalism are everywhere and nowhere, oppressive and debilitating. But their antidote may be the proliferation of small learning communities, gemlike chips off ivory towers.

The city of Victoria, where I live, is dotted by dovecote-size lending libraries on people’s front lawns. Further up my street, Arts and Crafts houses preface their intricate stories with these mini versions of themselves. The little lending libraries, like the houses, often feature prominent roofs and small-paned windows, and are painted in complementary colors. Bright curlicues and calligraphy invite passersby to take or leave a book. Even when public and university libraries closed down due to COVID-19, these small stores circulated tales and advice, history and dream. Continue reading

Hair Care Tips for Lupus

When I suffered a life-threatening lupus flare five years ago and lost half my hair, I despaired, especially because many internet articles suggested the loss was irreversible. One blogger said we just had to accept that lupus would take away our hair along with our health.

Fortunately, this is not true! While a patient with discoid lupus, which can cause scarring on hair follicles, might endure permanent hair loss, there’s no reason why someone with systemic lupus erythematosus can’t regrow her hair. I’m wishing that these ten tips for coping with the fallout and growing your hair back better than ever will give help and hope to someone with lupus. Continue reading

Sick Social Media Stars

These days, the cultural conversation about illness unfolds on social media and kindred outlets. And for about five years before COVID-19, illness was the most glamorous it had been since hysteria in Freud’s heyday. Like with an autoimmune disease, there are periods of remission during which popular culture doesn’t dwell on such downfalls much—but then the focus flares. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to alter our views on sickness, if it hasn’t already. The ill are no longer outliers, and the run-of-the-mill are harder to eroticize. But before its outbreak, celebrities vied on Instagram and other platforms for the title of sickest-but-fairest. Continue reading

Favorite Books, Films, and Television of 2021

Favorite Books (and Plays) 2021

 The Shadow King: Ekphrastic terror and haunting music

The Vanishing Half

The House of Breath

Moby Dick

Klara and the Sun: It’s no Never Let Me Go, but Ishiguro makes an interesting attempt to imagine the mind of a non-human

Macbeth, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice: I’m slowly reading through all of the Shakespeare plays that I missed during my first four decades. These three are the last of the unforgivable omissions, with Macbeth’s wintry, witchy poetry my favorite.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life: A great companion to . . .

 

Favorite Films 2021 Continue reading

Post-Pandemic Curricula

One of my employers, the University of Victoria, turns 58 this year. Its late middle age coincides with a profound shift in pedagogy, as well as the onset of the post-pandemic period. (It will inevitably be called that though more pandemics are sure to follow in our unsustainable world, making that moniker itself unsustainable.) Two pedagogical trends seem worthy of wider interest in this post-pandemic jungle, especially for those of us living with chronic physical and mental health issues: trauma-informed pedagogy and curricula designed around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Continue reading

Kuma’s Favorite Things, Part II

  1. For Kuma, it’s all about the packaging, not what’s inside. In particular, bright-colored ribbons tickle his fancy.
  2. Our sunporch. We live in a top-floor, corner unit of our condo building, what a friend on the second floor generously calls “the penthouse.” Standing in our enclosed sunporch, I adore the views of the mountains in Washington State on days clear of clouds and wildfire smoke. But Kuma keeps tabs on the birds and other cats in our neighborhood, spending hours staring out the sunporch windows, and meowing to alert us when he spies a feline rival.
  3. His lint brush. This one’s going to sound weird, but stay with me. A few years ago, my husband was using an adhesive lint brush to remove Kuma’s fur from his clothing after brushing our cat. Then it hit him: Why not roll the brush over Kuma’s fur to remove excess hair? I was appalled, thinking it might catch in his fur, but Kuma absolutely loves it. When Mark breaks out the brush, Kuma comes right over and purrs loudly as he’s groomed. It works especially well at the vet, where he sheds madly due to stress.
  4. “The Rainbow Connection.” No creature has ever appreciated my lullabies as Kuma does. His new favorite is “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie, but I replace every instance of “rainbow” with “Kuma.” He closes his eyes and purrs along.
  5. The smell of strawberries. Summertime was heaven for him as he inhaled the fresh strawberries in our fruit basket

Recent Interviews and Readings

This month, I’d like to post links to recent interviews and readings rather than a written piece, partly because it’s still August as I prepare this entry, and I’m feeling late-summer lazy.

First, I want to share a link to an interview I did with the wonderful Rebecca Gagan, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria and the inspired mind behind the podcast, “Waving, not Drowning” (title inspired by Stevie Smith’s poem, “Not Waving, But Drowning”). Rebecca is doing important work by interviewing faculty and staff about their own challenges with mental health as students and how they developed resilience, in the hopes of offering support to current students. But I was also interested in sharing my current and past struggles with mental illness and lupus because I feel that we need a much more open conversation about faculty and staff health at colleges and universities, particularly as we return to campuses impacted by COVID-19. This is especially the case at universities in the United States, which rely more and more on adjunct and associate faculty who may not have any health care coverage through their jobs. Even as we teachers are striving to support our more vulnerable students, our own vulnerability must be admitted and considered as part of the university ecosystem.

Interview with Rebecca Gagan on “Waving, not Drowning” from August 6, 2021: https://www.instagram.com/p/CSPQoKDl2eS/

And here is a link to my reading of the first three sections of the essay, “A Woman in Trouble: My Life and Illnesses Filtered Through Twin Peaks,” published by Witness Magazine in their Spring 2021 issue: https://youtu.be/SxFmGvXrFi4

Anti-Bengal Bias in Veterinary Medicine

Given my usual literary preoccupations, which include equity within medical care, the title of this essay may seem like a spoof of my own writings. But it’s not. To me, the topic is deadly serious, as my husband Mark and I are the proud parents of Kuma, a bold, beautiful, loyal, 10-year-old Bengal cat.

Anti-Bengal bias is present, and prevalent, among vets. Bengals are the Borderline Personality Disorder patients of veterinary medicine, immediately stereotyped as “difficult.” It’s true that Bengal cats bear some savage DNA, an atavistic wildness, due to an Asian leopard cat ancestor, generations back. They don’t like to be prodded by strangers and may hiss and fight to get away from a physical exam. But Bengal cats are, in many ways, more domesticated than most domestic cats. Kuma waits for Mark by the door when he goes out, a feline Hachiko. He happily walks on a leash. He is gentle, if cautious, with strangers who want to pet him, including the many children who flock to him during our strolls. Continue reading

Grief

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry talks about how physical pain steals language. Grief robs something else: movement. It paralyzes. When grief is in response to someone’s death, the irony is that they have moved on, but we survivors are stock-still.

A few days ago, my father died. People who have read my essay, “The Man in White Underwear Thinks I’m Crazy,” will know that his and my relationship was irrevocably fractured. I hadn’t spoken with him for several years. I don’t feel that I didn’t get to say what I wanted. I feel that I didn’t get the time to think of what I might have said.

Now, as I’m mourning, it’s not that I can’t describe my grief in language. I could. Grief is the swell of a wave that never breaks; it’s the broken edges of pottery not patched with gold; it’s an hour of lead; it’s soot and ash; it’s a black crow feathering the heart.

But I just don’t have the energy.

There are places I can’t go. I used to cry promiscuously. I used to thrill and hum like a cathedral spire. My journeys stay close to home today.

Maybe I would say to him: I was built for joy as well as suffering. But not now.

Poetry for One Body or Billions

Fall 2016: One Ill Body

Donald Trump is elected president on November 8, 2016. A few days later, I start to weaken. At first, I think I’m just suffering from somaticized depression. Who isn’t? But by the following week, my temperature has climbed to 105 degrees. By the end of November, I can’t walk and am admitted to the hospital. Three days later, I am diagnosed with systemic lupus. The average lupus patient, with her chameleonic symptoms, takes six years to be properly diagnosed. Perhaps the fever—or the political crisis—has imploded time.

Meanwhile, bitter partisanship cleaves the United States in two. At the time, I am teaching in Kofu, Japan, but living abroad can sensitize you to the bumps and sways of your native land, like how some drivers feel carsick when they’re made passengers. If you don’t enjoy the illusion of control, sudden movements alarm you even more. Continue reading

In The Hole: Hiroko Oyamada Goes to Ground

While reading The Hole, the second novel by Japanese author Hiroko Oyamada to appear in English, I recalled the saying, “出る釘は打たれる”—the nail that sticks out must be hammered down. It’s an indictment of Japanese society’s pressure to conform, though this ubiquitous maxim does its own amount of hammering. In reality, Japan is less homogenous than it suggests, with rebellious grandmothers dyeing their hair purple while the nation’s artists, designers, directors, and dancers push the boundaries of the global avant-garde. Perhaps alert to the irony, Oyamada chooses to literalize this saying as her characters sink into human-sized cavities in the ground. Continue reading

Fifty Years Ago, Yukio Mishima First Staged Death as Spectacle

I wrote this piece last year, but I think its message is still relevant.

            During a 1961 session with photographer Eikoh Hosoe, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima shared his special gift: He could keep his eyes open, without blinking, for up to two minutes. This ability came in handy when modeling and could serve as a metaphor for his novels. In particular, his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, completed nine years later, fixates on the violence of watching. It seems almost inevitable, in hindsight, that on the day he finished it, Mishima would force the world to watch him die. We’ve been speaking of the male gaze for decades, but Mishima pioneered the forced gaze.

I specialized in modern Japanese literature during graduate school, and when I lived in Japan, people would query me about my favorite writers. I learned quickly never to mention Mishima. He’s the country’s disowned child. He drew attention to Japan for all the wrong reasons, and even today, his name is a billboard for national shame. Continue reading

The Ten Most Shaming Summaries on Netflix

“A 1939 American Civil War epic known for its racism. To learn more about Black lives in America, search for ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
(Actual description of Gone with the Wind on Netflix)

  1. Gone with the Wind, continued: That you would even click on this disgrace is testament to your deplorability. You’re the reason Afro-pessimism exists. Ta-Nehisi Coates should pen a long letter gently excoriating your white privilege. And no, lusting after the Duke on Bridgerton doesn’t mean you’re woke.
  2. Schindler’s List: You like your Holocaust fare lite, don’t you? What, you’re too busy to watch Shoah? If you’re going to indulge in this pro-German, apologist kitsch, you might as well slap a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt on yourself and descend on Capitol Hill.
  3. Continue reading

From Flesh to Word: Female Disembodiment in Literature

I’ve been thinking a lot about disembodiment lately, probably because I spend hours holding court in Zoom’s kingdom of floating heads. As I discuss literature about illness with my students, I savor the irony: we’re discussing texts obsessed with the body even as we’re estranged from each other’s.

Literature glories in disembodiment. In fiction from around the world, limbs disappear. Whole bodies fade. Human flesh is lost in fabric or spirited away to spectral form. Sometimes, these happenings serve as political allegories or erotic fantasies. In other cases, they dissect notions of identity, memory, gender norms, racism, or cultures of violence.

Inspired by our current predicament, I decided to anatomize the literary body of works about female disembodiment through fiction and nonfiction by Yoko Ogawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Carmen Maria Machado, Gaurav Monga, Anne Boyer, Murasaki Shikibu, and Toni Morrison.
Continue reading

Favorite Books and Television of 2020

I didn’t read as much as I ordinarily do this year, despite the quarantines. Instead, I taught 12 courses, designed two new literature courses, did major revisions of my two books-in-progress, wrote a handful of new essays, and bought my first home. Exhaustion and exhilaration went side by side. But believe me, I know how lucky I am to be busy with work during a pandemic.

I also watched fewer new films, but I did indulge in a ton of television, and I enjoyed many of the books I did finish. So here goes: Continue reading

12 Views of Mount Olympus

“Distance is the soul of beauty.”
– Simone Weil

1.
“The best views in Victoria are of another country,” poet Nicholas Bradley said. In spring 2019, I invited him to speak to my class of international students at Royal Roads University, just outside of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Professor Bradley was delivering his talk in a third-floor room whose suite of windows offered a panorama of peaks he’d written about in his poetry, including that of Mount Olympus.

However, there is nothing to view, just a poignant vibration, at one important spot before Mount Olympus. Twenty kilometers down the Strait, as the crow flies, the Canadian border touches palms with that of the United States. Two nations straining at one another as if curious beasts separated by glass.

Having been born in the United States and recently become a Canadian permanent resident through my husband, I have one hand on each side.

2.
Staring out the windows of that third-floor room, I saw the mountains surge toward me, their snowy peaks like memories foaming at the mouth.

“There’s something useful about being able to view your country from a distance,” Professor Bradley assured us.

Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay about regarding San Francisco, where I lived for a decade, from across the water in redwood-rich (and just rich) Marin County: “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.”

I agree with both of them. Distance is clarity, sharpened on a far wind.

Continue reading

Japanese Female Novelists Get to Work

The year 2020 has brought, along with the cataclysms of COVID-19, police brutality, and the U.S. presidential election, at least one consolation: a bento box full of translated novels by Japanese women. Mieko Kawakami’s Breast and Eggs dropped along with the cherry blossoms this past spring, and in October, Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are will infuse Japanese folktales with feminism while Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole tumbles down fantastical rabbit holes. I just finished another novel by Oyamada, The Factory, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, which both appeared last year in English after being published and celebrated in Japan earlier in the twenty-tens. Using different styles and tones, the two books take stock of one of the many things COVID-19 has altered, perhaps forever: the workplace.

An international bestseller, Convenience Store Woman welcomes the reader into the brightly-lit embrace of that revered Japanese institution: the 24-hour convini. Just glimpsing the title flooded me with nostalgia for my years spent in Japan. Whether you live in Tokyo or some backwater town, the local 7-Eleven or Family Mart is the neighborhood cynosure. When I first lived in Tokyo a quarter century ago, before the smartphone era, one of the few ways to navigate a city of 14 million that lacked well-planned streets and sequentially numbered houses was by detailed maps. Convenience stores took pride of place on them, guiding lost travelers like lighthouse beacons. Even today, any rental listing in Japan will include the distance to the nearest convenience store.

Murata frequently compares these glassy oases to aquariums, but when you’re stumbling home from the last train, drunk and world-weary, and are greeted by one of their tinny-voiced salespeople while you purchase your Pocari Sweat, they take on the status of something more elemental and comforting—the quick-stop as bear hug. All is right within them because, as one customer keeps commenting in Convenience Store Woman, “This place really doesn’t ever change, does it?” In this way, convenience stores are the antithesis of the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware, an appreciation of beauty that changes and decays, which has supercharged the literary canon for centuries.

Continue reading

When Good Language Goes Bad: My Thoughts on Canadian English

Canadian English is an abomination. At first, I wholly rejected its infiltration into my writing. But I’m currently working on one essay for an American editor and another for a Canadian, and I can’t deny it any longer: I’m starting to lose my grip on superior orthography. These days, my finger twitches near the “s” when I type “analyze.”

I refuse to apologize for my pride in American English. After all, the U.S. doesn’t have a lot going for it these days, especially compared to Canada. Up until recently, I could only find three things that were unquestionably better in my home country: the American work ethic, our post office (you do not want to see the prices and reliability of a privatized mail system like Canada’s), and our version of English. Needless to say, the post office is fast dropping from the list. So now I’m just left with the work ethic—try getting any work done on your new home during the summer here, pandemic or no—and American English. And in my case, work and language are inextricably linked.

Canadian English is more or less British English, with just enough fluidity across the Atlantic to make things truly unbearable for anyone trying to school young people in its tending.

Continue reading

Logic Problems

  • One man says, “I loved the most beautiful woman in the world.” The other man says, “I loved a woman who wasn’t really beautiful but I saw something in her.” Both loved the same women.
  • Someone who looks like a certain celebrity looks familiar. Someone who looks like someone famous looks like no one else.
  • People are told that they are imprisoned for their own good.
  • The people I’ve met in psych wards are among the sanest and most self-aware I’ve known.
  • We mine cultural trends from those we marginalize and kill.
  • We can express love for a place the most by not journeying to visit it.
  • We can love each other the most by remaining six feet apart.
  • I am filled with joy even as the world starts to burn.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2020