This week: A novel about being stuck between the living and dead, prisoners’ artwork and Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny.
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Grief in Lincoln in the Bardo
“Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.”
Roger Bevins III says/thinks in his final moments, not of his life, but the second lifetime he has spent in the in-between state of being dead but not in heaven or hell. The place is modelled on a ‘bardo’, “a transitional realm” in the Tibetan tradition according to the synopsis on the back cover of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.
In a review of the book, Hari Kunzru described a bardo thus, “Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all ‘bardos’, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death.”
At its core, Lincoln in the Bardo explores Abraham Lincoln’s grief at his son’s passing, but the cast of spirits that occupy Oak Hill cemetery are the main narrators of the book – caught in this ‘sick-state’ for decades, they live lives of denial, referring to their corpses as ‘sick forms’ and coffins as ‘sick boxes’. Their concerns continue to be the same ones that plagued them while alive. A middle-aged man who died before he could sleep with his young, beautiful wife walks around naked with a large boner; another, a young gay man who killed himself after being rejected by his lover manifests as a mass of eyes and arms, caught in the final sensory overload that engulfed him in his final moments. Three bachelors who all died at the age of 27 fly around, raining an assortment of hats down on the other occupants.
There are some laughs to be had at their expense but each one has a story for being in this purgatory state – daughters that a mother wants to return to, not realising she has died from the ‘minor surgery’ that she thinks she’s recovering from, properties that someone wants to tend to because his gardeners can’t be left to their own devices.
The novel seems to highlight that we don’t just grieve the permanent separation from loved ones, but also the rupturing of the previously held belief that terrible, inexplicable grief will not touch us in our lifetimes – the latter is not confined to the living, it infects the deceased most profoundly of all. In the world constructed by Saunders, those left behind in this realm are not the only ones coping with loss, but also the deceased themselves, who continue to love and cherish their lives, faithful to a strong denial that blinds them to the constrictions and stillness of the bardo they insist on occupying. Lincoln in the Bardo is an excellent companion for that often unspeakable grief that envelops us in the face of tragedy.
‘Ships, waves, storms, wrecks’
Nothing pleasant comes to mind when we think of Guantanamo. Not even President Barack Obama – loved while in office, revered now – could scrub the name clean of its sinister connotations.
However, the Obama administration did manage to introduce art classes for detainees, some of the resulting artwork was curated by Erin Thompson, a professor of jail art and jail law, for an exhibition. She wrote about the experience in the Paris Review this week. Pictures of the art accompany the piece, simply titled ‘Art from Guantanamo’. Model ships made of handy materials, including the lining of a prayer cap; several paintings and sketches of the sea – one featuring a drowned Statue of Liberty.
Thomson notes that the detainees produced pictures of apples and empty glasses that you’d expect to see in a “suburban continuing-education program”. And then delivers a surprising, harsh punch.
“Except that the detainees were working while shackled to the floor and drawing with charcoal because the authorities were afraid that pencils might be sharpened into weapons. Except that apples and empty glasses take on different meanings when they are drawn by men on years-long hunger strikes, fed by force every day. Except that each piece of art bore a stamp that reads ‘Approved by US Forces’, indicating that military censors had allowed the works to leave Guantánamo only after deciding there were no messages to Al-Qaeda hidden in the shading.”
There is nothing typical or normal about the conditions in which this art was produced, and yet the art itself tells us none of that. Unless, like Thomson, you interrogate the recurring theme of water bodies – oceans, seas, ships prevalent in most detainees’ works.
Although these artists are so close to the ocean, they cannot see it; it is hidden behind layers of tarp that cover heavily secured fences. But they can hear it, and clearly that’s enough solace. Thomson explains, “They represented it in order to dream about escape and to escape as best they could. By immersing themselves so fully in making art, they could imagine that they were in a ship at sea – until the work was finished.”
She compares them to the “water gazers” of New York that appear in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Office workers who came down to look at the sea and the river, in an attempt to contemplate, as Melville called it, “the ungraspable phantom of life.”
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Gloria Steinem’s forgotten Playboy exposé
At the end of her first shift as a Playboy Bunny, Gloria Steinem emerged from the Playboy Club with an indent on her spine where her tight costume’s zipper had dug into her skin; swollen feet that no longer fit in the required three-inch-heels that were mandatory for a job that required her to be on her feet at all times; and two-and-a-half pounds lighter. She returned to work the next day, gauze wrapped around her middle where the costume had cut into her.
The (in)famous strapless high-cut bodysuit was designed to be tight everywhere except the chest, where the in-house designer left up to two inches of space – for stuffing material like plastic dry cleaning bags, wads of cotton, socks (Steinem kept a running list of boob-stuffing material during her short stint at Playboy). But the long, breakless shifts, combined with the physical strain of carrying heavy trays and never stopping for meals, meant that Steinem lost ten pounds in a week or so of doing the job. Spotting her in the hallway, the woman in charge of the costumes told Steinem it needed to be taken in two inches from each side.
This is to say nothing of the constant ‘pawing’ and propositioning that Bunnies had to endure from customers as well as the club’s doormen and the taxi drivers that waited outside the club. There was an extensive document of do’s and don’ts referred to as the Bunny Bible that instructed Bunnies to keep men interested by always smiling and being engaging but never to let them do the aforementioned pawing and propositioning. The book cited the example of Elizabeth Taylor and how men were excited just to be in her company, getting away with anything more would de-glamourise Taylor. The Bunnies were to do like Taylor did. And so men tweaked their tails, constantly made inappropriate jokes, even told Bunnies to remember their hotel room numbers for later. However, Bunnies weren’t allowed to date anyone they met at the club. Unless the man happened to be an elite member or a special key holder. Then the lines around refusing advances from such a person got blurry – of course a Bunny didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to do, but upper management wouldn’t be pleased to hear about an upset VIP, would it?
Steinem’s expose on Playboy clubs, ‘A Bunny’s Tale’, published in two parts in Shape magazine, caused waves when it was first published in 1963 and reading it now, in light of Hugh Hefner’s death, her account of how women were treated in the club is not as archaic and distant as I’d like it to be. Plenty has been said about the tension between Hefner’s Playboy empire, which commodified women, and his support for women’s abortion rights. But not enough attention was paid to Steinem’s account of what it was like to be a woman employed by Playboy – the constant patronisation and the reduction of a woman’s entire self to her physical appearance. Playboy was selling an idea of the ideal woman and it was essentially a shell of a person to hang prettily on a man’s arm as he luxuriated in expensive goods and services (the kind advertised in Playboy) and indulged his intellectual and sexual sides all at the same time. Playboy, as a magazine, made that possible for men, but the benefits of this sexual revolution haven’t really reached women in the same strength. Sure birth control and the right to get abortions (again under threat from the current US administration) made it easier for women to be in control of their sexuality, but the continuing relevance of Steinem’s article highlights the fact that women are still not entitled to being viewed as complete human beings – intellectual interests, personalities, sexuality et all.
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