Posts Tagged ‘racism

01
Apr
22

In Search of Lost Time 4-1-2022

Odette is Swann’s lover. Here are some pictures of what others think Odette looks like.

Swann in Love (film)

From the Swann in Love movie.

What these two pictures and other Goolge searches show is that Odette is a white woman. That’s what I thought when reading about France in the early 1900s. But I may have changed my mind, and I’m surprised that, as far as I can tell, I am the only person to notice what she looks like. Here is what I read on page 139 of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (the second volume of In Search of Lost Time):

[B]etween Mme. Swann, who was dark, and the golden-skinned girl [Gilberte, who is Odette and Swan’s child] with fairish hair. . . . Gilberte resembled a portrait of her mother, verging on a good likeness, but done by a fanciful colorist who had made her pose in semi-disguise . . . It was not just the blond wig she was wearing, but the fact that every last atom of her [Gilberte’s] dark complexion had faded . . . . Her fair complexion was so clearly her father’s that Nature, in order to create Gilberte, seemed to have been faced with the problem of imitating Mme. Swann while being able to use as its sole material the skin of M. Swann. . . . a new variety of Mme. Swann had been achieved, like a white lilac growing beside a purple one.

In this description and what is left out, the narrator describes Gilberte by noticing certain features Gilberte inherited from her mother, Odette, and her father, Swann. What I want to point out is that from this description, it seems Odette is a person of color and not white. This adds a twist to when Odette is first mentioned in Swann’s Way where she is basically described as not being beautiful in the “traditional” conception of beauty. I read that as code for not “white” beauty.

It’s interesting because none of the characters indicate she is a person of color and nor does the narrator. What it does is to make the following seemingly innocuous scene from 29 pages earlier gain new meaning. In the following scene, Odette and Swann are talking about Mme Blatin and judging her (judging people behind their backs seems to be the main occupation of all the characters):

[Swann speaking:] “It’s too stupid. You see, Mme Blatin likes to address people in a way that she thinks is friendly, but which gives the impression that she’s talking down to them.” “What our neighbors across the Channel call patronizing,” Odette interrupted. “So recently she went to the Zoo, where there was this exhibition being given by black fellows, from Ceylon, I think, or so I’m told by my wife, who’s much better at ethnography than I am.” “Charles do stop being facetious.” “I’m not being facetious in the slightest. So there she is, saying to this black fellow, “Good morning, blackie! . . . Well, this form of speech was not to the black fellow’s liking—’Me blackie,” he bellowed at Mme Blatin, ‘you camel!'” (110)

You can see here how two characters reference the man as being black, and one in a most racist manner. I would think someone would say something similar about Odette if she is black, but they don’t . . . directly. In this passage, Swann says Odette is “better at ethnography” and Odette tells Swann to “stop being facetious.” I read this as Swann saying Odette is black so she would recognize where a black person hails from, and Odette is basically telling Swann in a most polite manner to shut up with his racist remark.

I’m not sure what to do with this new knowledge as of now, but I am concerned that I haven’t seen this mentioned elsewhere. But I think someone else needs to investigate this and verify what I am claiming or indicate how I am missing reading all of this.

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08
Oct
15

Quick Notes on Rita Dove

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Rita DoveRita Dove (August 28, 1952) is an American poet whose collection of poems Thomas and Beulah (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, which is what I will focus on.

Thomas and Beulah is a contemporary collection of poetry that uses a Modernist collage technique of telling a story, much like William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where four different narrators narrate the decline of the Compson family. With Dove’s collection, she narrates the story of two people (who might be her grandparents) and who eventually become married. The narrator, unlike Faulkner’s narrators, is all-knowing but does not insert herself into the stories. When reading through these poems, I expected there to be a developing love story or that at least something very significant would take place, but after Lem drowns in the opening poem, “Event,” the poems are uneventful. Not that the poetry is uneventful, for the poetry is terrific. But the happenings within the poems and the stories are uneventful. The narrator tells us Thomas’s story of meeting and living with Beulah, but it’s just like so many other marriages, except that Thomas doesn’t mention her name in his section. Beulah’s section is about her life and how it intersects with Thomas’s life. That might be the way to think about this collection: how two seemingly parallel narratives intersect, but share little in common, especially love between Thomas and Beulah. Thomas driving force is his love for Lem, while Beulah’s driving force is an unfulfilled dream of going to Paris and maybe staying in love with a man she met before Thomas. Perhaps Dove made their lives uninteresting for a similar reason that Richard Wright makes Bigger Thomas a murderer. Prior to Wright’s Native Son, writers often presented African Americans as passive and innocent victims of racism, who lived their days in silence but with dignity. As a result of this, Wright creates the murderer so his readers would be forced to confront the realities of racism, and not the tropes and clichés of racism. Dove then, maybe, makes Thomas and Beulah ordinary lovers and workers who have children to show a different aspect of racism. With all the detail Dove gives in her imagistic narrative, the reader can piece together the lives and experiences of two African Americans living in America from the early 1900s through the 1960s, but without using the tropes that have were often used when writing about African American experiences. Dove gives us Two African American experiences across the backdrop of the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and the March on Washington in ordinary but accumulative details. Helen Vendler probably says it more eloquently:

Thomas and Beulah represents Dove’s rethinking of the lyric poet’s relation to the history of blackness. No longer bound to a single lyric moment, she lets the successive raw data of life (perceived over time by a man and by his wife at the same epoch and in the same circumstances) become pieces for a reader to assemble. The sure hand of structural form supports each life-glimpse: cunningly counter-balancing each other into stability, the tart and touching individual poems add up to a sturdy two-part invention which symbolizes that mysterious third thing, a lifelong marriage – lived, it is true, in blackness, but not determined by blackness alone. (82)

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Works Cited

Vendler, Helen. “Rita Dove: Identity Markers.” The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. 59-88. Print.

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The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

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