Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Little Historical Perspective, Please

A reader, Emila, posted a strong objection to our take that The Handmaiden's Tale is appropriate for some high school students (below). She quoted some explicit language from that book, then followed up with this comment:
So THAT is literature for minors! Wow... Look at what I missed, reading Voltaire, Camus, Molière, Goethe, Henry James, Kafka, Maugham when I was 17!!!!
AS IF's own Rosemary Graham then posted what I think is some pretty important historical perspective (warning: mildly explicit language follows):
If the Oklahoma people have their way, Voltaire's going to have to be in the adults only section, too. Candide is full of rape and the sexual enslavement of women. Not to mention lusty lesbian handmaids and cannibals, too.

The following excerpts are from chapters 11 and 12 of Smollett's 18th c translation. A contemporary translation would, no doubt, have a different sound.

"I already began to inspire the men with love. My breast began to take its right form, and such a breast! white, firm, and formed like that of the Venus de’ Medici . . . My maids, when they dressed and undressed me, used to fall into an ecstasy in viewing me before and behind; and all the men longed to be in their places."

"The Moors presently stripped us as bare as ever we were born. My mother, my maids of honor, and myself, were served all in the same manner. It is amazing how quick these gentry are at undressing people. But what surprised me most was, that they made a rude sort of surgical examination of parts of the body which are sacred to the functions of nature. . . . I afterwards learned that it was to discover if we had any diamonds concealed."

"A Moor seized my mother by the right arm, while my captain’s lieutenant held her by the left; another Moor laid hold of her by the right leg, and one of our corsairs held her by the other. In this manner almost all of our women were dragged by four soldiers. . .
at length I saw all our Italian women and my mother mangled and torn in pieces."

"Being reduced to the extremity of famine, they found themselves obliged to kill our two eunuchs, and eat them rather than violate their oath. But this horrible repast soon failing them, they next determined to devour the women.

We had a very pious and humane man, who gave them a most excellent sermon on this occasion, exhorting them not to kill us all at once. ‘Cut off only one of the buttocks of each of those ladies,’ said he, ‘and you will fare extremely well; if you are under the necessity of having recourse to the same expedient again, you will find the like supply a few days hence."
So...it looks like Voltaire's out. And I know that some of the "classic" authors that I studied--Chaucer, Hesse, Joyce--occasionally used some pretty racy language too.

I suspect in a hundred (or more) years, a lot of what is "scandalous" now won't seem so bad. But by then, I'm sure they'll be new authors "polluting" young, impressionable minds.

For people used to a certain sensibility, some contemporary books can seem shocking. But it's important to remember than many of the classics were shocking in their time.

The fact is, change is an essential part of literature; without it, it dies. Contemporary books are important not just because we need to new books that will eventually become future classics, but also because they often speak more clearly to contemporary readers (including teens!), about, yes, contemporary issues.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Emilia said...

Interesting... You left the excerpt out of your comment, so here it goes again so people can judge for themselves what we are talking about:

"...there are six more bodies hanging, by the necks, there hands tied [their] heads in white bags... Sometimes they’ll be there for days... hanging from hooks... My... skirt is hitched up to my waist. Below it the Commander is fucking.... [A]n old porno film, from the 70’s or 80’s. Women kneeling, sucking penises or guns, woman tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks... hanging from trees... upside-down, naked,... legs held part, women being raped, beaten up, killed. [A] woman slowly cut into pieces, fingers and breasts snipped off with garden shears, her stomach slit open and her intestines pulled out." (The Handmaid's Tale)

Now, please, refresh my memory: where in Voltaire's books are there GRAPHIC depictions of sex?

4:42 PM  
Blogger Brent Hartinger said...

Emilia, in MANY classic books, many scenes were seen as extremely scandalous...in the time in which they were published.

I hope you're not saying that Margaret Atwood included the scenes of violence (or sex) to be prurient or titilate. They're clearly there to make a point--a point condemning violence against women.

If you honestly think such themes are not the ones that high school students should ever study, well, I guess we have to agree to disagree.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Rosemary Graham said...

A Question for Emilia--

Have you read the whole of Handmaid's Tale? If so, can you please provide some context for this excerpt? Where in the novel does it appear? What is its purpose?

It's important that "people judging for themselves what we are talking about" know that the course from which this book was pulled (and then reinstated) was an AP course. AP courses are, by definition, college level courses made available to graduating seniors who want to get started on college work. (Or impress the admissions people.) No one is ever required to take an AP class. It is an elective.

In the excerpts from Voltaire that I quoted, you have men placing their hands in women's vaginas and women's buttocks being sliced off and eaten. Sounds pretty graphic to me. Or do you mean simply because there isn't a crude word for vagina in the Voltaire excerpt that it's somehow cleaner than the Atwood? Or because it doesn't use the word "fucking"?

Candide is, of course, a satirical work, which indulges in much exaggeration.

8:20 PM  
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