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Philosophy of New Music

Le Sel de la Semaine: Henry Miller

by Fernand Seguin
Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 1969/2010
DVD, French with subtitles, 53 mins, B&W
Sales, $375
Distributor’s website: http://www.icarusfilms.com.

Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture

by Christine L. Marran
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2007
256 pp., illus. 20 b/w. Trade, $67.50; paper, $23.50
ISBN: 0-8166-4726-7; ISBN: 0-8166-4727-5.

The Rule of Mars: Readings on the Origins. History and Impact of Patriarchy

by Cristina Biaggi, Editor
Knowledge, Ideas and Trends, 2006
454 pp. Paper, $40.00
ISBN: 1-879198-31-2.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


These three very different works each speak to sex, gender, and patriarchy in different times, places, and cultures, as well as disciplines.  Exceptional resources for classes on gender and power, they provide examples of how the social history of gender is variously approached and understood. From the autobiographical insights of Henry Miller (1891-1980), driven to writing by a despair born in his dislike of American materialism (no less his wife) to a unique literary analysis of sex, drugs, and murder in Japanese history, and the historical depth and breadth of patriarchy and matriarchy led by women seeking change, they make for an interesting triad.

They each have powerful inter-disciplinary value whether it be to the study of gender in literature, media, archaeology, myth, and medicine, or culture, law and history.  From Miller taking us back to how his accounts of the sex lives of modern Americans in Paris in the 1930’s came about to Marran on the continuing Japanese fascination with isolated cases of sex and murder in the Meji period to the present day study of culture and power in the matrilineal societies of the Mingangkabau of West Sumatra and Naxi in India, the Kurgan Theory of Marija Gimbutas on the European Neolithic Mother Goddess Cults and much more, these are each wonderful resources in their own rights.  Each might serve different pedagogical purposes: Miller for revisiting a classic misogynistic account of gender relations and the modern history of censorship and pornography, Marran as a penultimate example of what constitutes compellingly cogent literary scholarship, and Biaggi’s edited collection of widely ranging types of research and writing, a rich resource bound to captivate any undergraduate class on gender and power in historical perspective.

For the vast number of people who have read any of Henry Miller’s work, this interview will be fascinating because of how well it succeeds in providing an intimate appreciation for the man and of the autobiographical basis of his work.  The Tropic of Cancer (1934) was his first published book. The second was The Tropic of Capricorn, later came Sexus, Plexus and Nexus. But nothing he ever wrote after the Tropics received the same fame and notoriety.  For Miller, it proved impossible to escape from the expectation of pornographic titillation that most people hoped to find in his writing, something that deeply aggravated him. We learn here that The Tropic of Capricorn was an autobiographical novel, an expression of despair, a man struggling for freedom, to be an artist.  Likened to Walt Whitman by Karl Shapiro, hailed for his “primitive honesty” by Anais Nin, Miller achieved his freedom through penury.  Every generation has his kind. In the 1930’s young American aspiring artists and writers gravitated to Paris if they could, and there, unchained from the constraints of pre-War American society, they experimented with the freedom and excess that Paris offered the libertine.

Here we meet the man in his old age on French television in 1969 reflecting back on his life in endearing American French, very much a Buddhist in his philosophy of acceptance, in his selflessness and gratitude, in his anti-establishmentarianism. He felt no shame at all in begging, even going so far as to do so in the press.  In return he would send you a water color painting. His affable and sensitive nature came to me as a complete surprise.  I had not expected such a gracious man.  I was expecting from his novels a different kind of person, a Picasso-like Minotaur.  Above all, however, one comes away perhaps with an appreciation for just how much Miller abhorred literary pretension.  Miller is a testament to plain speaking and writing, to the immediacy of experience, and necessity of passion.  This brings us then to Marran.

Poison Woman is a phenomenal book.  It has great relevance across the disciplines including medical science, law, and history.  Focusing on famous cases studies of transgression in Japan, it provides detailed accounts of sensational 19th Century histories of the dokufu (poison women) in the courts, the press and the literature. There, the cases of convicted murderers, such as Night Storm and Demon, Viper, and Lightning make for riveting reading. Marran’s is a work of deft scholarship revealing why these women and their stories become national obsessions.  In addition, she relates how and why this tradition of the poison woman as the ultimate transgressor continued to serve anti-authoritarian impulse in Japanese society through the 20th Century.  Nowhere does Marran succumb to the impenetrable intellectual pretension of other literary studies as for instance in the tortuous case of Kevin Bell’s Ashes Taken for Fire: Aesthetic Modernism and the Critique of Identity (2007) also from the University of Minnesota Press.  Highly sexed notorious women who poisoned and murdered their lovers, Henry Miller would have loved it. So will you.

The Rule of Mars makes for equally fascinating reading but of a completely different sort. Honoring the memory and work of the late Marija Gimbutas of UCLA and an outcome of the Second Archeomythology Conference held in Italy in 2002, it revisits the violent Kurgan transformation of society from matriarchy to patriarchy in the third millennium B.C.  Whether one takes a skeptical position or not, the articles are all well worth reading and will add a wonderful sense of frisson to classes on the matriarchy-patriarchy debates in anthropology, archeology, and history. Some chapters refer to prehistoric cultures and infer value systems from the archaeological record, myth, and literature, others refer to contemporary contexts such as “Antigone in Sumatra: Matriarchal Values in a Patriarchal Context” by Peggy Reeves Sanday, and others concern the legacy of the Amazons and political pathways to taming testosterone toxicity.  While many archaeologists will be deeply critical of the sense of surety in the hypothetical claims made here about prehistoric matriarchal cults and gender balance in the Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Ages, and while scholars in public policy and policy makers in the halls of power especially “the women with shoulder pads” will find its idealism unrealistic, it is a passionate collection and a forceful defense of Gimbutas’ much discredited revolutionary and original work.  In any event, it will be an interesting resource for teaching about gender across the disciplines. Because of its explicit political dimension, it will inspire endless debate on the relationship between knowledge and power.

To end, cut short as a lover strangled or stabbed in the act, Le Sel de la Semaine, Poison Women, and The Rule of Mars are each significant and memorable contributions to the study of gender and patriarchy. When used together, they will make for a lively if unlikely triad.

Last Updated 4 June 2011

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