Sunday, June 28, 2009

More of the chapter

What makes Selden’s acts of consumption most troubling is the underlying fact that he does, in his own way, love both nature and Lily. While he is not the only character consuming Lily, his element of adoration reveals the simple truth that a glorification of women and nature is not ultimately in the best interests of anyone. While the reader may easily be repulsed by characters like Gus Trenor, who overtly desires sexual consumption, and Bertha Dorset who uses people to her advantage and then disposes of them, it is easy to be wooed by Selden perhaps because his romantic ideals are so deeply entrenched in western thought. Nevertheless his “love of nature” is toxic because it is a love based on unattainable ideals, incomplete comprehension and sulking inaction.

His passivity is part of his literary type. Like many bachelor characters, Selden is represented as a spectator. Early in the novel, Wharton establishes a pattern of visual consumption and private contemplation which remain fundamental to Selden throughout . Wharton begins the novel with Selden being “refreshed” by the sight of Lily Bart in Grand Central Station. She writes:

It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions (5).

Brief as this passage is, it is saturated with the interpenetrations of nature and culture. The language of the passage, even when not directly addressing nature is suggestive of nature and also suggestive of Lily’s role as a natural commodity. Selden’s shock at seeing Lily in the station “at that season” carries the connotation of cyclic vegetation. For Selden, Miss Bart is like a botanical commodity out of season in this particular place. The passage then entertains Selden’s more acceptable notion that Lily be “in the act of transitioning between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence”. While this may seem to reestablish Lily as a social being, it is important to recognize that even in these “country-houses” Miss Bart functions as an ornament to enhance the atmosphere at gatherings hosted by her wealthier friends.

As the passage continues, Wharton repeats the use of the word “air” to describe what might otherwise be called Lily’s manner or behavior. This choice further aligns Lily with the natural and heightens what Selden perceives as her separation from the crowd. The simple fact that Selden is described as “refreshed” by the sight of Lily, suggests that he is invested in a world-view that ascribes a spiritual value to beauty; the culturally determined province of both women and nature. This world-view is further explicated by Selden’s pastoral, leisure class relationship with the “country”. His return from a “hurried dip into the country” suggests that for him nature is a place apart from everyday life, a place for escape and renewal – both physical and spiritual—an idea which emphasizes the relationship between Lily and nature since she too has the capacity to “refresh” him when viewed against the bustling urban backdrop of Grand Central Station .

Indeed, the sight of Lily is more important to Selden than the substance of her. Wharton makes clear-- “[t]here was nothing new about Lily Bart ”—yet Selden cannot help but feel that there is great significance in seeing her. This further suggests Selden’s pastoral persuasions; an idealizing and artful interest in nature (and women) devoid of any real comprehension of or concern about the functions of the natural world. Wharton’s description of Selden’s pleasure in viewing both Lily and nature, along with his moralizing and critical detachment, stand in place for a whole patriarchal system of thought, in which nature and Lily become symbolic of significance without being significant in their own rights.
Selden is aligned with the dominant culture that sustains him, and looks with a hyper-critical eye at Lily’s negotiations of nature and artifice. It is not difficult to sense the imperious moralistic overtones of these observations. Though attracted to what he considers “natural” in Lily, Selden is scornful about what he perceives as Lily’s “artifice”. To Selden, Lily is a master of her art. Within the first a few pages of the novel Selden perceives both the brightness of Lily’s hair and the timing of her blush as “art” (7). In describing the scene when Lily leaves the Benedick Wharton writes:
She paused before the mantelpiece, studying herself in the mirror while she adjusted her veil. The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline--as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing-room; and Selden reflected that it was the same streak of sylvan freedom in her nature that lent such savour to her artificiality (12).

This perception, closely aligned with Selden’s point of view, acknowledges in its language both the natural beauty of Lily, and the way it interacts with elements of artifice. Selden’s perception privileges the artificial, by having the natural lend “savour” to Lily’s “artificiality”. Furthermore his acknowledgement of the natural is coded as he also overlays the “wild-wood grace” of her form with the significant cultural imagery of the “captured dryad subdued”. This coding impresses upon the reader the depth of Selden’s culturally mediated conception of women and nature.

In the tableaux vivants scene, an episode which is defined by Selden’s point of view, the concept of Lily as “dryad” is restated. Wharton writes, “Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm” (106). Here Selden’s view of Lily is more sensitive. Although the language of art and nature still mingle in this passage, the focus is on the Selden’s perceptions and glorifications of Lily’s “naturalness”. The passage continues, “[t]he noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence” (106). This language intensifies Selden’s escalating idealization. Here it is clear that for Selden, Lily is most beautiful when she is consumed as “natural”. Furthermore it is obvious that for Selden “nature” is idealized, magical, and pure.

Ironically, in this scene Lily is at the height of her artificiality, yet Selden is sure that “for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart” (106) . Wharton goes on to describe what this “reality” entails, a Lily Bart “divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part” (106). This vision, Selden feels, allows him to acknowledge “the whole tragedy of her life” which he considers the cultural and social trappings which “cheapened and vulgarized” her beauty (107).

As the two characters leave the party for the terrace garden the reader might expect that some genuine connection will be attained, but close reading passage reveals more of the same aesthetic consumption of Lily. Wharton writes,
Selden had given her his arm without speaking. She took it in silence, and they moved away, not toward the supper-room, but against the tide which was setting thither. The faces about her flowed by like the streaming images of sleep: she hardly noticed where Selden was leading her, till they passed through a glass doorway at the end of the long suite of rooms and stood suddenly in the fragrant hush of a garden (108).

Wharton’s language here reverts again to natural metaphors. The image of the two moving “against the tide” seems hopeful. The faces flowing and streaming also seems on the verge of undoing those social constraints which have thwarted the possibility of connection between Selden and Lily. Quickly though Wharton introduces the image of the dream, and it must become clear that what is about to transpire does so outside of the realm of reality. The passage goes on to intensify this, describing “emerald caverns in the depths of foliage” which render the garden a “magic place” in which Selden and Lily accept “the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations” (108). This acceptance complete, “Lily withdrew her hand, and moved away a step, so that her white-robed slimness was outlined against the dusk of the branches” displaying herself as a blossom (108). This botanical verisimilitude is replicated a moment later when “her face turned to him with the soft motion of a flower” (109). This phrasing not only reinforces the flower image, but removes agency from Lily as a person. This brief exchange between Lily and Selden, although on the surface both lovely and sympathetic, is profoundly problematic in that it once again positions Selden as a consumer, aligned with patriarchal privilege and a powerful pastoral impulse to glorify beauty and nature as ideals, or ultimate realities, at the expense of authentic understanding. Despite the sensitivity and beauty of the tableaux vivants and garden scene, Lily remains a stranger to Selden. No longer perceiving Lily as artificial, Selden is moved by the “beauty” and “poetry” of nature contained in Miss Bart. Nevertheless he is unable to reconcile that with the circumstances of their actual lives. When Lily slips “through the arch of boughs, disappearing in the brightness of the room beyond” Selden is unable to follow her.

When he re-enters the house he is reabsorbed into the realm of the dominant culture which places a high sexual value on the flower-woman. The language of the passage indicates this transition through a focus on architecture and distinctly masculine details such as the cigars in “silver boxes invitingly set out near the door” (109). Further illustrating and ironizing Selden’s alignment with the dominant culture is the fact that the two people he meets as he is leaving the party are Ned Van Alstyne and Gus Trenor.

These two men on the surface may seem the polar opposites of Selden, certainly Selden does not see himself as part of their type, but is clearly opposed to it, especially in the earlier viewing of the tableaux. In this earlier scene Selden describes Ned Van Alstyne as evoking “indignant contempt” and compares him to Caliban (107). Nevertheless this final episode at the Brys reveals a good deal about the similarities Selden shares with these men. In their parting conversation Van Alstyne says “Hallo, Selden, going too? You're an Epicurean like myself, I see: you
don't want to see all those goddesses gobbling terrapin” (109). While Selden would never put his feelings in such simple language, the fact remains that rather than suffer the compromise of Lily as an ideal, Selden flees the scene. His tenacious will to preserve nature as a thing apart, a sacred beauty, ultimately opens the way for the events which most profoundly initiate Lily’s demise.

Selden’s pastoral consumption of Lily and Gus Trenor’s will to sexually consume her are not finally opposed so much as serving each other’s ends. Selden cannot compromise his pure vision and so Gus is given the room to make his attempt at acquisition. This attempt and the consequences it sets in motion press Lily to the brink and in Lily’s death Selden is able to gratify himself with the perfection of her “real” presence.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chapter One

Although apparently focused on the role of women in upper-class turn-of-the-century society, the role of nature is a central idea in Edith Wharton’s first novel, The House of Mirth (1905). Subtly constructed, yet persistent, the relationship between women and nature permeates the text.

In this novel, Wharton emphasizes how characters understand nature and their relationship to nature. While environmental descriptions do not dominate the text, when present they reveal the cultural associations shared by many of the characters. Exploring these associations, readers can discern a basic world-view regarding the ways in which gender inflects the human-nature relationship against which to examine the details of the text. These details regarding this human-nature relationship often emerge where the language of the text suggests natural phenomena even when “nature” is not the focus of the passage, a pattern that highlights the pervasiveness of the theme.

This reading focuses primarily on what I call the flower-woman ideology. From the outset Wharton presents the reader with language that illustrates this conceptual relationship between heroine Lily Bart and nature. Although the Lily is not a farmer, woods-woman, nor a pioneer in any real sense, she is connected to nature in a way that is both symbolic and intentional. Her name is botanical and like a flower she is expected to bear a correlation to nature predicated upon beauty and passivity.
Furthermore she is, like all women of her age, intended for consumption.

Wharton’s two main characters in this novel, Lily and Selden, disclose much about Wharton’s consideration of the natural world and its relationship to culture. Through their interactions with each other and the world around them Wharton reveals a range of conflicting pressures and ideologies which ultimately destroy Lily, who I believe operates as a viable icon of the natural world in this novel, being symbolically tied to nature –through her botanical name and her “ornamental” value, and controlled / ruined by a patriarchal market-culture that idealizes even as it destroys .

In this novel Wharton evinces her dystopian vision regarding nature and “natural-identified” characters through the consumption and destruction of Lily Bart. This plot trajectory reveals the impossibility and impracticality of a woman being a perfect “lily”. The novel comments on the bitter realities of patriarchal and commercial life, but it also addresses the cultural associations that bind the identities of nature and women together, and how these associations result from a limited understanding of both on the part of those who dominate Wharton’s world.

 Cultivating and Consuming Lily
The consumption of Lily Bart as a natural aesthetic object is joined textually with the careful cultivation of her “natural” identity, which is to say that there is nothing innate about this particular identity. The wide cultural sensibility which ties femininity to nature aside, Wharton provides the reader with evidence of the ways in which the characters that populate Lily’s social sphere work to reaffirm her role by describing her in terms of naturalness.

Language of cultivation used on several occasions indicates the work Lily must do in order to make a good matrimonial match. For example, Carrie Fisher in a conversation with Selden says, “That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic” (147). This passage frames Lily in agricultural and botanical terms. The ambiguous phrase “her seed” allows the reader to consider these seeds as metaphorical extensions of the flower-woman herself rather than something distinct or separate. While this phrasing grants Lily some agency, it is worth noting that Carrie Fisher, like many of the other women in this text, invests herself in promoting Lily’s presence and success among the social elite. In this capacity, Fisher cultivates and exhibits Lily for consumption. While not insensible to Lily’s personhood, Fisher is aware that Lily’s value in their social set is determined not by her humanity, but by those traits most desirable to the men of their class. In the same conversation with Selden, Fisher states, “it's Lily's beauty that does it” (147). A statement that indicates the woman’s beauty is her prime asset.

The theme of Lily’s cultivation for consumption runs through the novel. Nearly every friendly female character in the text works in some way to propagate Lily . In descriptions of Miss Bart’s youth, Wharton shows the reader that this has been a life-long condition for the main character. Not only does Lily’s mother “foster her naturally lively taste for splendour” but she also becomes fixated on Lily’s beauty and the power it might have (29). Mrs. Bart straddles the line between cultivation and consumption. Although she promotes Lily in the marriage markets of Europe, she watches Lily’s beauty “jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian” (29).

Other women also consume Lily in a variety of ways, she is an ornament to enhance the parties of the rich, to draw attention to their tables while abroad, and to help the newly wealthy make connections with those in higher social positions. Of those women who cultivate and consume Lily it is interesting to note the rather complicated role played by Gerty Farish in the text. While the other women in the novel are interested in cultivating the flower-woman along the lines of beauty and sexuality through their focus on the marriage match, Farish is interested in the spiritual idealization of Lily. Wharton expresses this interest in a number of passages where Gerty presents her vision of Lily as contrary to the prevailing view. In the scene preceding the tableaux vivants for example, Gerty describes Lily as “dear” and “wonderfully kind” while telling Selden of how
Lily has visited with the Club Girls and contributed money to their cause (105).

This interest in the spiritual uplift of Lily seeks to cultivate her along the lines of beauty and purity, not unlike Selden’s idealizations although his also contain an undeniable element of sexuality . In my view, Selden is the primary consumer of Lily Bart. I contend that Wharton makes clear the dismal reality of Lily’s existence, and by extension the dismal situation faced by nature, by beginning and ending the novel with Selden. Although Selden has been often considered a sort of “spokesperson” for Wharton’s own sensibilities, I believe, as Cynthia Griffin Wolff contends, that, “Selden is the final object of [Wharton’s] sweeping social satire” (338). From beginning to end, both Lily and nature are under the gaze of a masculine culture which finds both nearly as appealing dead, as they were alive.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Oh how I wish for more gardening space, and more sanity so that I might have better planned things, but as it is I went and planted some new seeds today.

Had I been more thoughtful I would have invested in only heirlooms and natives, but sadly I didn't. Still, the new seeds are all of this line.

Hollyhocks (watchman) - heirlooms. sooooo cool. I have high hopes but I have never grown them before so who knows. Four seeds starting in the bedroom. We'll see.

Flax Blue and California poppies - both natives growing in a pot together should be really beautiful if they take.

Artemesia (sweet annie) - heirloom and a mix of native wildflowers started in another bucket

Watermelons (stars and moons) - heirloom started in small pots. Don't really know that i have room for this, but I'm gonna try.

If I am some where grow worthy next year I am going to try an all mint menagerie as it is I have some orange mint which is lovely.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

GAP and Me : A lesson in argument

So for the past two days the "Genocide Awareness Project" people have been outside in the quad with their giant anti-abortion display.

Today it finally made me snap. Now I am not strictly pro-choice, in fact I lean more toward pro-life, but given our political climate and the way both women and children are treated in society, I currently vote pro-choice... but that's another tale.

My real problem with the GAP is not their politics vis a vis the abortion issue, but rather the way they mix their anti-abortion message with totally unrelated things.

Next to their images of aborted fetuses (which make sense given their argument) they have:

1. Images of the Holocaust
2. Images of African Americans being lynched
3. Images of animal testing
4. The word Genocide

Now, the word Genocide applies correctly to 2 out of the four things portrayed. The Holocaust and the treatment of blacks in the us could aptly be called "Genocide"

Genocide means the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

I pointed this out to them, but they mostly seemed confused. Furthermore I expressed my concern over the fact that they were conflating issues that have no relationship.

Their response? All these things are bad... lol

Um well, ok yes I see that I suppose, but really does this make for a sound argument?

I further pointed out that as white non-Jews their use of racial/ethnic oppression and genocides as a tool for furthering their cause is offensive to those who are actually concerned with racial equality.

Their response? "A black woman showed us support earlier"

Um ok. But one African American showing support doesn't debunk my claim at all. Furthermore this sort of "Token" woman sounds like the old "I'm not racist I have a black friend" argument.

I then inquired about the animal rights issue.

Are you guys pro-Animal rights? Are you vegetarian? (No) Do you work to avoid buying products tested on animals (No). Well then your use of this image is not only totally unrelated to "Genocide" but is also an obvious emotional ploy. You are -- by using this image with no real opposition to what it portrays-- merely exploiting the pain of these animals for your own ends. Making you just as bad as those who test on animals in my mind.

Similarly you are exploiting the suffering of Jews and Af. Am. people with out any real concern about the conditions --present or historical-- of minority peoples.

I also wanted to ask if they found it problematic that dominant white christian ideologies played a fair role in both the Holocaust and the persecution of African Americans. But I refrained on this point.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Two tomatoes going strong.
Two fuscias also chugging along though one was near dead when i bought it, it's doing much better.
Gladiolus and oregeno doing well
Peas all viney, though no peas yet
Cukes and beans just planted