The lie that postmodernism believes it has uncovered is that there was never anything to lose in the first place. (Armstrong 31)
I’ve been meaning to write about DH Lawrence’s “Snake” for awhile because I really liked the poem. But I didn’t think I had much to say about it because I mostly just like it because the snake sounds like a good, handsome snake, who if I met him I would say something silly like “Hello snake! What a good snake you are! Yes, you are a handsome snake!” I just like animals, and I like stories that recognize their dignity. But Lawrence’s narrator doesn’t quite get along with the snake, so, while liking the poem, I found the narrator’s revulsion and anger about the snake’s retreat into the hole upsetting and kind of frightening to a degree that I can’t really make sense of or explain.
But it strikes me that there is something very odd in the commentary accompanying the poem in Representative Poetry Online. At the end of an interesting commentary expanding on Lawrence’s poetic allusions, the editor adds:
No doubt this poem can also be read erotically, as Lawrence’s vision of a phallic serpent, the demonic seducer of Eve in the garden of Eden, hanging out of and re-entering the body of a firy procreative Earth. Given Lawrence’s extraordinary visions of sex and death, such a reading can no doubt be sustained, although children of all ages, in and out of school, might be forgiven for missing the point, believing that he really did meet a snake one day at the water-trough and wrote about it in the same wide-eyed spirit as he did other living things in his Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems (1923).
Erm, why are we talking about children?
Of course I would expect children to fuck up most, if not all, literary readings. If practical criticism, the establishment of English as an academic discipline and criticism as a profession, was intended to produce “mature” readings, then children, by definition, can be forgiven for missing the point. And since children are traditionally barred knowledge of the erotic and the sexual, then naturally they would miss the poem’s erotic potential—at least consciously. I could argue that children still have sexualities and still would be affected on the level of sexuality.
But what’s this “children of all ages, in and out of school” business? Are there non-child-aged children who, reading for innocent pleasure instead of dirty, dirty study, should also be forgiven for ignorance of this huge piece of human experience? What’s so much more innocent about aggressively constructed and imposed ignorance of sexuality, than a simple erotic response? Not to mention: DH Lawrence was a giant kinky perverted violent queer, who struggled continuously with his homosexual desires and often gloried in his misogyny and penis-worship. “Extraordinary visions of sex and death” weren’t just an idle passtime, they were expressions of a lifelong struggle with identity and sexual and romantic practice. So that’s an odd turn in the criticism.
Jolene Armstrong writes about the poem in the course guide (this was my favourite chapter in the course guide, btw, because I felt like it made a lot of my own responses to modern and postmodern literature and criticism a lot clearer). She identifies the moments I found so upsetting as the moment of the narrator’s crisis of faith in the institutions of masculinity and Enlightenment education. Postmodernism, she says, is that jerk standing at the sidelines heckling: What? Don’t tell me you believed that? Loser. Which is still kind of the problem I have with postmodernism. It’s not that I disagree, it’s just that these crises, and the reactions of ‘believers’ to crisis, are really fucking things up. Like Lawrence’s narrator, for example, a lot of men have reacted violently to their crises of masculinity. So it seems like the myth of an ideal, better world, even when I know it’s a myth, could be a really useful thing.
Cited, but not linked
Armstrong, Jolene. “Modernism/Postmodernism: The Dialogues of the Modern Age.” LTST605 Study GuideAthabasca U, 2010. 26-32
This is a reproduction of a post from September 9th 2012 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108
When war is instigated, it’s safe to assume an awful lot of people are about to get fucked. We all know, of course, that VD was an issue for men and women “overseas” at war throughout the 20th century (and still is now). A few of other things we know, of course, are that some men have sex with other men, sex is not always consensual, and rape (especially rape of racialized women) is a widely used and effective weapon in wars. These are important things to keep in mind as some of the realities that fall outside the limits of dominant discourse, so we can see more clearly the work done by discourse.
I have limited information about the posters below. They were all posted as a part of the “100 Years of Sex” campaign by The San Francisco City Clinic, but without information about when they were made, where, how widely they were distributed. And that’s why I say ‘dialogue,’ because I am reading them as evidence of an ongoing covnersation, not a chronologically developing statement. (There’s 100 posters there, one from each year the clinic has been open — totally worth checking out.)
As far as information about how to not get syphilis goes, this is pretty useless. Chances are, all of those men do not have syphilis (probably not the ones who are smiling, anyway — festering genital sore = frowny face), and even if they did, no one is going to catch it by dancing with them.
But that doesn’t mean dancing’s not dangerous business. This commentary, from the extreme end of the religious right, neatly captures the “trouble” with dancing:
Even back in the 1940s, my mother and her friends—no doubt like millions of mothers all across the United States—had pushed me and dozens of my classmates to attend “dancing school”—where we were taught to dance face to face and chest to chest with young girls barely entering their puberty. We were just little children who wanted to play baseball and “kick the can.” God does not forbid dancing, of course, but He does command us to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Why did our mothers push us into the kind of semi-romantic, semi-sexual behavior involved in that kind of dancing when we were only twelve years old?
The commentary is about violence against women and its causes (and it’s about as useful as the poster is for preventing syphilis). First syphilis, now violence: dancehalls can’t catch a break in this post. Dancing is sexy, so I’ll give them that much, but the poster has more to say. Amy Leigh writes:
[…] as the United States struggled with the ethical and racial issues surrounding jazz music in the early twentieth century, legal boundaries, doctrine, and personal rights evolved to accommodate and embrace changing prevailing views. This co-existing development appears especially in the use of ordinances, zoning laws, and restrictive covenants as weapons to insulate middle- and upper-class white communities from the “evils” thought to exist in black communities, red-light districts, and dance halls. Prevailing community ideals held that the goals of maintaining a white, middle-class homogeneity and a proper moral environment suited for childrearing justified all efforts to segregate blacks in American cities.
Public health discourse, like zoning law, is a way that governments can attempt to regulate people’s movements. After all, the poster doesn’t say “women: don’t fuck,” it says to stay not only out of, but entirely away from dancehalls. The men in the poster may all be white (and that helps to target an audience of white women), but the syphilis-infected men dancing with white women in the cultural imagination probably were not.
That the men are evidently returning ‘home’ from ‘away’ — we see them exiting a train — makes this a story of men’s movement as well, referencing the sexual threat of conquest and pillage (the mission just completed, where we must assume the men picked up the VD) and, because it is a racialized message in the US, the lingering exoticized foreignness of racialized masculinity. (I need to know a word for “un-citizenship,” btw. What do I mean by un-citizenship? Consider the zillion of so citizens who can’t vote because of their “criminal” records. There’s citizenship on paper, and then there’s citizenship in practice)
Sexual threat brings us pretty neatly to the next image, a picture of Donald Duck, who would be having a super-good day if only he had a condom. Also, he would be raping someone, but ‘the West’ has always had, and still has, a pretty fucked up discourse around sexual assault and sexual consent. That doesn’t make it ok, just unsurprising. (Just because it really can’t go without saying, having sex with someone who is asleep is rape, regardless of where she’s sleeping, how she came to pass out, and what she’s wearing at the time. Not being on guard against rapists 24/7 is not an invitation for sex.)
Whiteness, once again, is a funny thing in conversations about disease and sexual threat. Donald Duck is a soldier in this image, stationed somewhere where tropical plants grow. I don’t know if ducks can be ‘white,’ but I’ve never seen Donald Duck pictured as other than white. The woman napping under the plants is pictured as an alluring and vulnerable white woman. Despite the fact that Donald Duck is considering raping the woman, it’s her body, not his, that’s cast as a sexual threat: she might have VD. Given our cultural myths about rape, we might even assume she’s promiscuous — she is, after all, ‘asking for it’ — so then, according to many of the posters on the site, she definitely has VD.
But the reality this poster is interacting with is one where soldiers stationed in the global South have sex with (and rape) women who are not white. And if the poster had shown a racialized woman napping under a bush, with Donald Duck poised to rape her, if only he could do so without risk to himself, well, that story would resonate almost perfectly with the history of American imperialism. It’s not quite a “don’t rape” message, but it’s definitely a warning, casting racialized women’s bodies as simultaneously absent and threatening: to the integrity of male American soldiers and, in the dialogue between the poster and the reality it speaks to, to white women’s privileged desirability.
The ‘exotic’ plants place this threat ‘far away,’ but of course, as American soliders impregnate racialized women in far away places, we have every reason to fear migration.
Speaking of fear, Hitler is very scary. So is that other guy, who might be Hirohito, but, as it now occurs to me, I really don’t know anything about the Japanese leadership during World War 2 (or at any other point in history, for that matter), so it could be some other commander-type whose face was familiar to Americans. I wonder why Japanese leaders never became iconic in the same way as Hitler did, but I suppose that’s best left unanswered, as it’s quite off-topic.
We can repeat the dialogue above about sexual threat and threatening sexualities, taking note in this case the construction of women’s bodies specifically as weapons in war, instrumental to the political (and musical?) designs of these caricatures of fascism. This instrumentality contradicts the real use of women’s bodies in war, as people who can be raped to establish dominance over an ‘enemy’ population. (Have I mentioned rape enough in this post? That’s because war is super rapey. Hey, Canada’s at war in Afghanistan right now. And we’ve been occupying Haiti for, like, ever. We should probably be talking regularly about how frequently women involved in war in any way, as soldiers or as civilians, are sexually assaulted.)
Anyway. The next two posters mark a shift in the conversation we’ve been following.
This looks like an aircraft carrier, and the higher production value and inclusion of technology in the image suggest a later date than the others, but who knows? (Does someone know? I think it would be fascinating to be able to arrange this dialogue chronologically without my half-baked guesswork.)
This is my favourite (in the sense of “I’m excited to deconstruct this,” not “this is a good STI-prevention tool”) of the posters I pulled from the site because the movement of sexual threat from sexualized remediated bodies to sexualized space and place is so apparent. The weather vane indicates that “whereever you go” is a movement from North and West to South and East, identifying the trajectories of invasion and occupation in American imperialism, even as its consistency with the viewer’s gaze helps to normalize them. The sexualized threat isn’t women’s bodies, but the places themselves, characterizing the global ‘East’ and ‘South’ as always and already infected: a discourse reflective of American views on ‘foreign’ (and the exceptional ‘homegrown,’ always said with surprise as if to entrench its natural foreignness) terrorism, fascism, primitivism and communism, but also one that negates the infectious nature of Western military and economic movement around the world. (Think of american army bases and McDonalds restaurants popping up like clusters of herpes blisters, while violence and hunger cause suffering in those same places. Capitalism is the ultimate opportunistic infection.)
So, last but not least, we come to the point of the VD dialogue. What, if sexuality and bodies aren’t necessarily connected in discourse, are we protecting? And in the weird imperial dialogue of VD, the ‘citizen’ finally makes an appearance among all the infected un-citizens. He’s an interesting character: white and male, of course, and he’s a child, necessarily subjected to the rule of a higher authority. The citizen, in whose name we engage this weird discourse of sexual morality, sexual conquest and sexual threat, is a promise (or a dream) as much as a person; something we can work toward, but never embody.
This is a reproduction of a post from April 29th 2011 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108