Friday, April 02, 2010

Gabriel and Christina

Across the way a blue umbrella fishes in and out of the new green leaves.

Three girls run in out of the rain, awkwardly, thighs turned in and heels flying out; but happy for all that, laughing at each other.

I think of Christina, the other Rossetti, turning her thighs in, tending her father, curbing her temper.

She should have been the best of the Victorian poets. Perhaps she was anyway: but broken by the stupidities that also, backwards, broke her brother.

Gabriel buried his poems with his young wife, when he was going to be a great painter. The grief was real enough: but later, when he decided he was going to be a great poet instead, he had her dug up, the sheaf of poems exhumed. The poems were soaked through with something. But he thought he could restore the poems, maybe; and he wandered through chloral nightmares ever after. And not a great poet anyway, after all that. He was a painter if he was anything. He might have been saved by what broke his sister: a sense of proportion, of duty, of unimportance. But he had to be a great something. A great artist, a great poet, a great lover. Hence his titanic love affair with Mrs Morris, which dwindled gradually away to something even he felt to be ridiculous.

We have paid some attention, if not enough, to women being ruined by the expectation of service; but we have not paid nearly enough attention to men being ruined by the expectation of greatness.

I've done my damnedest to raise ordinary children, neither servants nor leaders, who will take their turns serving or leading as occasion demands.

Human beings, like cats, are incorrigibly but flexibly hierarchical. Dogs establish hierarchies once and for all, and are happiest being alphas or betas ever after, whichever it may be. We're not like that. We're never quite happy in our places. Never secure in power, never happy in service. Laying rigid gender roles on top of that makes it worse. We need above all to be able to renegotiate, according to the stresses and demands of our lives, if we are to work, or love, fruitfully and happily.

I have said before that I don't have a liberal bone in my body. I don't believe in equality, not for a moment: I think one of the deepest urges of human beings is to place themselves in hierarchies, to find their place, to have heros and mentors, disciples and adorers. What makes me look and behave rather like a Liberal is my conviction that these places have to be lightly held and easily abandoned. The yen for power and the yen to serve easily become pathological, when they become formalized. To me an equilibrium of equality is not something to be aimed at in human relationships, social, political, or erotic: what's healthy is precisely the seesaw of power, the alternation of roles. There's nothing wrong with being a master or a servant. What's wrong is being stuck as the master or the servant.

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