A sofa is forever

Before I moved into my last apartment, I was obsessed by this idea of a sauce pan. I had a big sauce pan (like for popcorn, or once-a-winter huge stew), and a tiny sauce pan (like for actual sauce), but no mid-sized sauce pan (like for any normal thing that you might conceivably cook). I actually had nightmares about this. Like wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night cannot-go-back-to-sleep anxiety dreams.

As I prepare to move into my new place February 1st, my obsession with housewares has returned–only this time, the thing I can’t stop thinking about is a sofa.

Let me back up. Five or six years ago, my parents replaced their living room furniture for the first time in–well, ever, pretty much. And they gifted me their old sofa bed. It was a ridiculous object for a semi-transient 20-something to own–massive, heavy and older than I am by at least three years.

sofa image
The sofa in 2010, with strategic patching

I absolutely adored it. I actually chose apartments based on whether or not it would fit inside. I dragged that thing around through four different moves as it decayed before my eyes, acquiring cat scratches at one apartment, the back growing weak and wobbly in another, the mattress on the fold-out bed compressing, the cushions shrinking like dried sponges. Like some rare and valuable collectable taken out from under the glass, it aged more in five years with me than in 25 with my scrupulous family.

I didn’t care. I had the actual original receipt from when my parents bought it. I remembered building forts out of the cushions as a little kid. I slept on the fold-out for weeks at a time as a teenager, once because I found a mouse in my room, another time as a protest against my white lace-covered daybed. I have a scar on my leg from where the mettle frame cut me once. I loved the way the fuzzy upholstery felt against my face. To this day, I miss that thing like it was a dead pet.

Eventually, though, I was brought to see reason: it was old; it was uncomfortable; it was impossible to drag up and down stairs; no one I knew was willing to help me move it again; even my my baby brother didn’t want it. So, at length I abandoned it with my harpy scank roommates (who are so completely undeserving of the gift that is that sofa, by the way).

Today, a sofa bed has once again become my weird, borderline unhealthy object of transference. I think about it while I go to sleep. Why?

Its not that I’m this big entertainer or anything, but I hate the idea of having a bed as the main focal point of the place where I live. Why not? one might reasonably ask. After all, I lived in roughly 7 different cramped, San Francisco shotgun-style apartment, with no common space and extra beds jammed in the closets and laundry areas since, oh, about 2005. And dorms, before that. So, you know. Its not like I’m shy about having people sit on my bed (though I’d prefer they keep their feet off it).

I don’t know what it is exactly. A living room is sort of a personalized public space. And that appeals to me. And a living room has a sofa, not a bed. That’s not it though; not entirely. I like that sofas are big: they can’t be crammed in here or there. They anchor the place where you live. A sofa is a piece of furniture. I like that sofas last: they’re the kind of thing you pick out in your 20s and still own in your 50s (at least in my family). It’s a big, old, investment; status and stability.

Plus my place is tiny. I need floor space to pace in; it helps me to think.

 

Cousinly love

Image from Mansfield Park film
Everyone’s favorite “kissing cousins”

While we’re on the subject of Mauprat–what is it about romance between relatives? Because it makes us uncomfortable these days, we have a tendency to shrug our shoulders, look the other way and say, “well, that was the olden days, they didn’t know any better.” Although clearly, of course, they did; 19th century novelists and the characters who populate their work were the wealthiest people in agricultural economies; they understood breeding just fine.

Historians can tell us that marriages between cousins were a fiscal strategy of the upper class, a way to soften the blow of female disenfranchisement, lessen the impact of primogeniture and keep wealth concentrated within the family. This political and financial necessity was deliberately romanticized in the culture, some argue. It was desirable from a prudential standpoint, and so it became desirable form a psychosocial one as well.

But, as all diligent english majors know, cousin love in 19th century novels isn’t about practicality or money or social acceptability or even, really, about love. Its a way of expressing the fundamental sameness between two individuals. Romances of this period are obsessed by the idea of transcendental love, of fated spiritual connection, a union of souls–of two people who are, in some mysterious way actually one personThis concept is not infrequently expressed as familial relationship. Blood of my blood. All that. Its also a sneaky blow for gender equality. In depicting male and female characters as two halves of one whole, brothers and sisters (don’t worry, its a figure of speech), matched souls, these authors are tacitly placing them on equal footing.

Mauprat, George Sand

Mauprat by George SandI’ve been struggling to come up with something to say about Mauprat that’s not completely obvious for a while now. But here’s the thing: this book is completely obvious. Theres no ambiguity; no “showing, not telling”; nothing obtuse or inconclusive. It’s utterly transparent. The author tells us what happens in definite terms, and then she tells us how to interpret it, and then she tells us how we should feel about it. Sand had a point; a message about feminine value and feminine strength, about the complex relationship between nature and education in the formation of human character, which she wanted to convey to readers, critics, and very probably her soon-to-be ex-husband, loud and clear.

In Mauprat (1837), George Sand relates the life story young Bernard de Mauprat, tracing his progress from a busque and villainous youth, to a respectable and worthy gentleman. The novel adopts elements of many popular genres–its a gothic novel, a romance, a history, an (almost) murder mystery, and at its core, a coming of age story.

Like many novels of the same period and genre, Mauprat employs a nested story structure which lends itself to that uniquely 19th century combination of first person narration and omniscient soap boxing. Sand narrates the tale in the voice of an aged Bernard de Mauprat, relating his life-story to a pair of younger men over the course of two evenings spent before the fire at his home.

Bernard was born the grandson of an infamous noble tyrant and was, after the death of his parents raised by his grandfather and his eight brutal bachelor uncles in their deteriorating castle, Roche-Mauprat. He was brought up to a life of violence, indulgence, and oppression by a group of men who robbed, murdered, fought and drank, seizing what they wanted from the peasantry at will, abused by the old patriarch, and eager to treat anyone weaker than themselves in the same style.

Then, we meet the girl. The uncles bring her back to Roche-Mauprat after one of their marauding trips, having evidently discovered her lost in the woods after becoming separated from a hunting party and tricked her into believing that they would help her home. Of course, she’s beautiful. Somewhat less predictably she’s also their cousin. It seems that a lesser branch of the Mauprat family lives nearby, a cousin of the head of the house, and his daughter. This is the daughter, Edmee. She’s given to Bernard by his uncles, the first woman he’s ever had. Bernard is possessed by an instant passion, but can’t bring himself to rape the girl then hand her over to his uncles. Instead, he extracts an as-it-turns out, unfortunately unspecific promise of love, and the two escape to her home, where her father (his great uncle) receives Bernard joyfully. Safe at home, Edmee explains herself more fully: she’s not going to “give herself to him” immediately as payment for her life (which is what he expects), but she will marry him if he becomes educated. To be clear, Edmee is not asking Bernard to read a few books and learn to add; she’s speaking of a moral, social and philosophical education.

What follows his a seven-year courtship during which Bernard discovers, through painful trial and error, what it means to care for and think about others, to take responsibility, to exercise self control. He travels the world, fights in the American Revolution, make real friends, becomes a whole person. This provides Sand with a wealth of opportunities to discourse on the subjects of love and human nature.

There is, she tells us,

reason to believe that we carry within us from our earliest years the seeds of those virtues and vices which are in time made to bear fruit by the action of our environment.

and yet,

A man cannot change the essence of his nature, but he can guide his divers faculties towards a right path; he can almost succeed in turning his faults to account

Her advice, then, is:

Do not believe in any absolute and inevitable fate; and yet acknowledge, in a measure, that we are moulded by instincts, our faculties, the impressions of our infancy, the surroundings of our earliest childhood–in short, by all that outside world which has presided over the development of our soul. Admit that we are not always absolutely free to choose between good and evil, if you would be indulgent towards the guilty…

Bernard credits Edmee and his love for her with the evolution of his character, “from a wolf into a man.” She is not, however, a female pygmalion. Sand is very clear about this. Edmee, we are told, loved Bernard from the instant they met. She would not degrade herself by surrendering to him while he was so unworthy, or endanger herself by placing her person and property in his care while he was so incompetent–but she always loved him. She didn’t carve a statue and then fall in love with it; she fell in love with the block of marble and but refused to compromise her own principles or well being, until eventually it carved itself.

In this way, Sand gives us a three dimensional heroine; a woman who is both passionate and sane (is there anything more rare in gothic fiction?); a woman who is thoughtful and intelligent, but still gets angry; a woman of principal and integrity, who has weaknesses, but doesn’t give in to them.

Channeling her own voice through her characters, Sand asserts,

Men imagine that a woman can have no separate existence of her own, and that she must always be wrapped up in them; and yet the only woman they love deeply is she whose character seems to raise her above the weakness and indolence of her sex…

A spirit of independence, the conception of virtue, a love of duty, all these privileges of lofty souls are essential…in the woman who is to be one’s companion through life; and the more your mistress gives proof of strength and patience, the more you cherish her, in spite of what you may have to suffer.

Sand executes a neat trick in writing this novel from Bernard’s perspective, appropriating the authoritative voice of an elderly wealthy landed nobleman and using it to endorse a controversial message of gender and class equality. This approach also has a tempering effect on the feminist novel format. This is no hopeless, soul sucking Kate Chopin sob-fest. There’s no lonesome Margaret Fuller austerity. No one goes swimming with a pocket full of rocks. The men in this book are universally (with the exception of the Mauprat uncles and few other stray villains) estimable, offered up as examples of the solution, not causes of the problem.

Though not frequently read today, Mauprat has an important role in the literary discusion of education. In it, Sand replies to Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel exudes an air of La Belle et Bete (1740). Its easy to  imagine Charlotte Bronte drawing upon Mauprat for Jane Eyre (1847).

Man is born with more or less of passions, with more or less power to satisfy them, with more or less capacity for turning them to a good or bad account in society. But education can and must find a remedy for everything.

(quotes are from the free Kindle version)

New Years 2013

New Years Resolution imageNot so long ago (or at least it doesn’t feel long ago), in a fit of credulous sentimentality, I made the mistake of publicly posting my New Years resolutions, in the mistaken belief that it would somehow make a difference. The whole exercise was ludicrous  and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. But, since I did that, I might as well do this….

 

5. Care for skin. I didn’t do so bad with this one, actually. No shocking sunburns. Nothing but a mild tan acquired despite layers of spf. The liklihood of my getting skin cancer has not risen since last year.

4. Weigh 125 lbs. Not so much. Its not that I didn’t loose any weight; its just that I gained it all back. Carry that one over into 2013, I guess.

3. Achieve a modicum of financial stability. Not so bad in this department either. More lucrative job? Check. Two, actually. Small savings? Check. It was hard. Really, really hard. But its there somehow, and I’m not touching it.

2. Graduate! Oh, right. No thesis; no diploma. May 2013, here I come.

1. Write everyday. Um…no. Huge improvements in this area actually; I’ve put in a lot of work. But everyday? No. It does occur to me that this was a dumb idea. That if I was going insist on quantifying, I should have gone with something like total pages, or total hours. Excuses, excuses.

Top 5 Worst Calendars of 2013

When shopping for a calendar turned into an extended exercise in yikes, I decided to share. If you really think about wall calendars, they’re all a little strange–flowers, pets, farm animals, sports teams, scenic views, children dressed like adults–but these are each in one way or another, a new level of terrible. I give you, the worst calendars of 2013.

The rules: No Cafe Press weirdness (examples: this or this). Too easy. You could fill up a top fifty list in 5 minutes on there. Calendars must be offered on websites which feature mostly mainstream products normal people could conceivably want.

The Worst of the Worst

5. Butter my ButtFull title: Butter my butt and call me a biscuit. Classin’ up the joint, I see. Well, I’ll be.

4. Underwater Dogs. What. the. fuck. This gives me the shivers, but people love this calendar: 58 positive customer reviews.

3. The Peeps Show. Something the quirky-hot-girl in a romantic comedy would come up with. Listen, honey, you’re not that charming. Just stop.

2. Thomas Kinkade: The Disney Dreams CollectionAppalling. There is so much sentimental bullshit crammed into this, its hard to know what to say.

1. Celebrity Feast. I take that back. Now it’s hard to know what to say.

Runners up:

Breastfeeding Mamas. Okay, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for breast feeding, empowered moms, cute babies, and going topless. I’m just saying: wouldn’t this look great on my desk at work?

One Direction. Its like there was a most-unintentionally-homoerotic photo contest.

 

Ma’s Dolls. Six haphazard snapshots of super creepy mice dolls. Alright.