A lot of things really bad and really good have happened around Chez Moriah the last couple of years. One of the good things is that XX tax deduction has learned how to drive and is getting out and about on her own. She works only a few minutes away, so we got used to her driving to work and back. But she has an internship 20 minutes away from home, all freeway, heavily trafficked, and sometimes very windy. Today was her first day driving it by herself, and I am nervous and scared.
Generally speaking, I tend to “borrow trouble”, as Ma Ingalls would say. I spin up scenarios in my head of all the bad things that could go wrong, and then I ruminate on them. I have tried very hard not to do that, because I found out during the Great Mojo Prepper Panic of 2008 that living that way is soul-crushing. Self-help/inspirational/affirmation memes all warn of doing this. But I do it anyway, just on a smaller scale.
I have a great deal of respect for the stoic philosophers, though, and as I learn more about them, I try to incorporate their thinking into my own. Well, today I learned of “premeditatio malorum” or, to be more specific, borrowing trouble.
What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events… Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.
Let me emphasize this:
What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, being mentally prepared for disaster has its advantages. You know what you should do and in the heat of the moment, you’re not making stupid decisions. On the other hand, that’s kind of a stressful way to live. If I go into a Tuesday (because Tuesdays are always bad) expecting bad things to happen, bad things are going to happen and/or I’m going to look at every wrinkle as A Bad Thing That Happened and if enough of those wrinkles are there, it is going to have been A Bad Day.
Except…yesterday was Tuesday and I took note of all the ways in which my day was easy: all my lights were green, all my lines were short, most of my errands were effortless, I got (good) things I was expecting. The worst thing that happened was that I forgot to tell Arby’s not to put tomatoes on my gyro. I was braced for a bad day because it was Tuesday, but when the day was over with I noticed that everything went my way and I was grateful for that.
I’m contemplating the role of this Stoic concept in my life. It’s something I already do but have been trying to break myself of, but now it’s been approved by philosophers I look up to. Where and how does this fit with my concomitant contemplation of boredom, contentment, happiness, and gratitude?
* * *
For a fictional treatment of Stoicism and one of my favorite novels ever, and one that informs just about everything I write, try Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.
May all your lights be green and all your lines be short.
Except for those little moments relieved by the occasional huge moment, everyday life can be a drudgery. Whatever you are engaged in, be it work (no matter how glamorous or lucrative it is) or raising a family or fulfilling your calling at church or attaining some long-held goal (usually all of them at once), at some point, you’ll find yourself slogging through it and wondering where the magic is.
The truth is, there is very little magic, except that which we grab for ourselves. When in the midst of this drudgery, few women1 think to themselves, “How awesome am I? Super-awesome, is what!” While she is in the midst of drudgery, she can be beset with feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and irrelevance, even if other people find her admirable or even inspirational in performing said drudgery.
And this is what TV and movies and books and games are for: little moments of respite from the drudgery. People decry “escapist” fiction, but who really wants to read about other people’s drudgery while in the midst of one’s own?2
Fictional characters are not immune to drudgery. The writers just choose not to show you that part because … why? It’s boring.
Giselle slogs through her neverending days of law school classes and shitty second-shift transcription job and church attendance after being stripped of her precious bookstore she can’t rebuild. She has little to lighten her load or brighten her days. Who wants to read about how tired and hopeless she feels?
Eilis slogs through the neverending stress of building a business, fighting off enemies alone, and seeks her magic in meaningless sex with strangers which she never finds and leaves her feeling worse than she did before.
Justice slogs through neverending farm work, housework, college, and then law school with absolutely nothing but the goal of becoming a prosecutor. Even then, her options are limited to the two counties she can actually drive to every day because she has a piece-of-shit car and no money to buy a decent one.3
And why do they do this? Because they’re just trying to survive: financially, emotionally, and intellectually. It has to be done and there’s no one else to do it. Just like everyone else.
You, the reader, may not think about it much beyond the feeling that, “Hey, that’s a lot more than I do.”
No, it’s not. You do plenty. It’s just that you can’t see it and you probably don’t want to think about it because it’s depressing as hell. I don’t care where you are in your life, every once in a while, you stop, look around, and wonder what the hell you’re doing all this for.
Which brings me to one of those hot-button topics in genre romance: the “placeholder heroine,” wherein the heroine is void of personality or otherwise uninteresting, whose role is to be the foil for the hero as well as a way for the reader to insert herself into the story and thus, in the hero’s arms. The heroine as written serves as the reader’s avatar.
These characters frustrate me. When I read, I want to experience someone else’s life. I do not want to be obliged to construct my own character out of the bare shell the author has given me. Nor do I want to put myself in that shell. I already live my life.
The most egregious example in my recent memory is Bella Swan from Twilight.
Bella is the epitome of the placeholder heroine in that her personality is a void, her opinions are nonexistent, and she does not act. She is acted upon. One could argue that because she is seventeen years old, this is normal. Seventeen-year-old girls have no power and so Bella’s reactivity is not untoward.
Then along comes Edward, who gives her things any seventeen-year-old girl craves: the complete acceptance by, doting attention of, and fairy-tale romance from a truly powerful male. Thus, I would expect that female adolescents and young adults to find this storyline attractive.
What has always baffled me, though, is why this is attractive to so many millions of adult women with husbands and families of their own unless the “placeholder heroine” isn’t just a theory.
I nearly cried when I noticed my husband changing a light bulb. Watching him perform this menial task with so little grace and elegance, so un-vampire like, was a depressing reminder that there was no Edward in my life. My husband didn’t float on air, change the bulb at breakneck speed or pounce off into the forest to protect me. Instead, he fumbled and ultimately dropped it on the floor where it shattered. The whole episode sent me into a depression.
A kiss from my husband is simply a kiss; there’s no woozy feeling or butterflies fluttering in my stomach. We don’t get lost in each other’s eyes while discussing our son’s report card or arguing over bills. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never been married. Bella and Edward live each moment in their own private world, with little else to divert their attention … ”5
Twi-Moms aren’t just reading about Bella, we are trying to be her. We experienced her shock at the depth of Edward’s love, and her crushing anguish when he left her. Stephenie Meyer captured the longing, the desire and the total devotion that is a faint memory for most married women.6
But Edward himself is neither here nor there, really. The point is to escape the drudgery of life, as this article so explicitly states, into the arms of an Edward. The placeholder heroine is, in fact, an avatar for the reader.
Or is she?
So I got to thinking about this one day, and it occurred to me that the vapid heroine might not be an avatar for the reader, but a reflection of how the reader sees herself.
First there are the women who have little enough identities of themselves. For whatever reason they have given their own goals, dreams, and desires over to someone else: husband, children, boss, church, clubs, volunteer organizations. They define themselves in someone else’s terms:
“I am my kids’ mom.”
“I am my husband’s wife.”8
“I am my deity’s creation.”
“I am my organization’s member.”
“I am my mother’s caretaker.”
“I am my boss’s employee.”
Women who have few enough identities of themselves may feel that they are already ciphers and so they understand Bella’s really rather subconscious feelings of emptiness, aimlessness, and hopelessness acutely. Her emptiness makes her identifiable.9
Whether Edward is good for her or not, whether he’s carving out her personality or not, he’s taking her somewhere because a) she doesn’t know there’s a there there and b) wouldn’t know how to get there if she knew because she doesn’t have anything of her own.
But what about the women who do have an identity, love those identities, and take pride in those things?
“I practice law.”
“I raise productive human beings.”
“I save people’s lives.”
“I live off the land and am self-sustaining.”
“I teach people to read and think.”
“I feed and succor the hungry and hopeless.”
No matter how much we love our work (I defy anyone to tell me women don’t find their identities in our occupations and/or work we love every bit as much as men), drudgery will be involved. And in those moments when we are drowning in the boredom, the slog that feels neverending; when we are straining for that next big job to pay for unexpected expenses; when we are alone with our tasks that no one else can do because we’re unique; when we are exhausted and wondering what the hell we’re doing this for, we may feel as empty and colorless and vapid as any Bella: Thus we identify with her as a reflection of where we are at the moment, not a container for who we wish we were.
Sorry, guys. I know you experience the same drudgery, so feel free to substitute “James Bond” for “Bella Swan.” ↩
Barring Oprah picks, literary fiction sales may bear this out, but I’m not going to look it up. ↩
All from The Proviso, but all my characters have drudgery. The only character I have ever written who likes the drudgery is Jack Blackwood. But he’s really weird anyway. ↩
And make yourself feel even worse by diving into Pinterest and all those mommy blogs with awesome photography. ↩
Until, you know, Bella and Edward devolve into drudgery … eternally. ↩
The original article was taken down and there is no cached copy. You’ll have to take my word for it that this was in the original article. ↩
Yes, I know he’s 100. His entire situation makes no sense. Why are you a 100-year-old vampire going through endless courses of high school? There are better, more mature things to do with immortality unless you simply never progress beyond the age you were turned. This is never explained. ↩
I tackled this one in We Were Gods. Tess’s mother slapped her for saying she was not her kids’ mom and she was not Étienne’s wife. ↩
Germaine Greer said, “The misery of the middle-aged woman is a gray and hopeless thing, born of having nothing to live for, of disappointment and resentment at having been gypped by consumer society, and surviving merely to be the butt of its unthinking scorn.” Well, now that’s fucking depressing, isn’t it? ↩
Novels particularly were associated with such habits of consumption, for they became a symbol of the newly accessible literary market. Commentators described them as feeding unwholesome appetites. In turn, certain readers were linked to novel-imbibing habits, particularly women. Describing their reading as consumption was a way of denigrating them, for it positioned them as vulnerable, ignorant and morally contagious. Gustatory metaphors often implied that women read according to the flesh, in contrast to the disembodied realm of ‘rational’ masculinity.
Countered by slow reading. These (to a fiction reader) are also fightin’ words:
But Lancelot R Fletcher, the first present-day author to popularise the term “slow reading”, argues that slow reading is not so much about unleashing the reader’s creativity, as uncovering the author’s. “My intention was to counter postmodernism, to encourage the discovery of authorial content,” the American expat explains from his holiday in the Caucasus mountains in eastern Europe. “I told my students to believe that the text was written by God – if you can’t understand something written in the text, it’s your fault, not the author’s.”
Emphasis mine. I have several opinions on this, all conflicting, except that postmodernism does tend to drive me up a wucking fall because invariably the term “intersectionality” and others like it enter the conversation. They’re rabbit trails that may or may not be as interesting as the original text.
One literature professor, Pierre Bayard, notoriously wrote a book about how readers can form valid opinions about texts they have only skimmed – or even not read at all. “It’s possible to have a passionate conversation about a book that one has not read, including, perhaps especially, with someone else who has not read it,” he says in How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read (2007), before suggesting that such bluffing is even “at the heart of a creative process”.
See: Born Yesterday. No, seriously, I’m telling you to see the movie. It’s not Great Art (nominated for a Raspberry)1, but there’s a pivotal scene with Nora Dunn’s character that is the thematic heart of the whole movie, when she’s surprised that Melanie Griffith’s character read the entirety of Democracy in America. She tells her that nobody ever reads those books. They just know enough about it to look smart at parties.
1) There are way too many books to be read to spend one’s life slow reading each book you pick up.
2) How many times have you devoured a book, then gone back for the express purpose of picking up details you know you missed the first time because you were so engaged with the story?2
It’s a remake of a 1950s movie and there is a stage play, so you don’t have to torture yourself with this one. ↩
Movie example: Watching Eyes Wide Shut as a single person is an entirely different experience watching it as a married person. ↩