Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our Favorite Straight "Lesbian" Writer, R.I.P.

Women's+Barracks+GM.jpg (420×700)
Tereska Torres has died at 92.  She was the author, among many other books, of Women's Barracks, a classic in the world of lesbian pulp novels.  We bought a copy years ago, to add to our collection of lurid paperback covers, and at first assumed it was just more dime-store trash.  Then we read it.

Women's Barracks is a wonderful novel, with credible characters struggling to do their bit for freedom in the middle of the Blitz.  It may not be Moby-Dick, or even The Price of Salt, but it's a fine book, and well worth picking up from Amazon.  But we never knew much about the author.

The Times obit is a revelation.  Turns out that Torres' own life was more interesting than some fiction.  Born a Polish Jew in Paris, she converted (with her family) to Roman Catholicism.  When the Nazis invaded, they fled the country; in wartime London, she joined the Free French and made it to second lieutenant.  The book, published in 1950, draws on that experience.  During the war, Torres married, got pregnant and lost her husband in combat.  Afterward, she attempted suicide.  Years later, she was involved in the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, which is the subject of a memoir recently published in France.

Although she wrote a number of books, she is by far best known for Women's Barracks, one of the earliest of what would become the "lesbian pulp" genre.  In its own way, it is as seminal as the Beebo Brinker books; it was condemned by a Congressional committee on pornography and banned outright in Canada.

Both the books historic place and its scandal are laced with irony.  By modern standards, Women's Barracks is only mildly racy.  Only a few of the characters were actually daughters of Bilitis, and the author herself was apparently straight.  Its cult-classic status is reminder of just how desperate midcentury lesbians were for some public recognition of their existence.  Its condemnation, of course, is a reminder of why congressmen should not be literary critics.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Paging the Albino Monks

Was Jesus a married man?

For that matter, did he have 2.5 children, a mortgage, and nagging pain in his lower back?  These are among the many questions that cannot be answered from study of the few reliable or even roughly contemporary accounts of his existence.*

Karen L. King, Harvard's Hollis Professor of Divinity, does not dispute this idea, at least so far as marriage is concerned.  In a paper to be published in January's Harvard Theological Review, she makes it quite clear that she does not believe the matter to be addressed by any of the earliest or most reliable documents.  It is important to remember that she says this, since the article in question is devoted to a scrap of Egyptian papyrus which she claims  does provides "the first known statement that explicitly claims Jesus had a wife."

The fragment -- 4 cm by 8cm, written in the Sahidic form of Coptic -- is pretty clearly part of a codex written by and for Christians. It is written in an exceptionally crude and unattractive handwriting.  And it includes both a reference to "Mary" -- the almost generic female name of the New Testament -- and the words, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ....' "

It seems likely that Da Vinci Code enthusiasts will be on this in a heartbeat.  More reasonable people have surely caught wind of the disclaimers:

  • The authenticity of the papyrus is not certain;
  • The fragment is small and in poor condition;
  • No sentence written on it is complete;
  • It is tentatively dated to the 4th century, and King believes it may be a copy of a 2nd-c. text.

So, really, this is not much evidence of anything:  a late text, the contents of which are exceptionally unclear.  Despite some hyperventilation by the Times's Laurie Goodstein, it is impossible to imagine that anything so slight could have any direct impact upon the teaching or practice of any major church body.

What seems likely -- in our opinion, mind you -- is that this fragment belongs to a document once circulated among some of the Gnostics known to have used the language and symbolism of Christianity to communicate a body of quite different and distinct ideas.  Although much of their literature has returned to light in the 20th century, one no more adjusts one's doctrine to accommodate Gnostic ideas than one does to accommodate Creflo Dollar, Joseph Smith or the host of other people who would like you to believe that their ideas are "Christianity."  They were running around in the second century and they are running around now, but -- well, so what?

We say all this to offer some convenient boilerplate for any Egg readers who are asked about this by, say, a church member addicted to The History Channel.  But, for those who can approach it without any unrealistic expectations, King's paper is exciting indeed.  (Why not?  This may be a wee scrap of paper, but it is still an ancient text about Jesus.)  She describes the fragment in detail, and offers a highly speculative interpretation -- an educated guess at what the complete document might have been about, but one educated by close comparison with similar documents, Biblical and otherwise.  (There's some especially interesting stuff about the rites of initiation alluded to in The Gospel of Philip).

Here's a good Harvard Magazine description for the general reader (from which we have lifted the graphic up top), and here's King's paper itself, in a preliminary form.  Well worth a read.

* Actually, it might be possible to answer the mortgage question easily enough, based on 1st-century Jewish legal codes.  The question, we suppose, was whether charging any interest at all was permissible, and if so at what level "interest" became "usury."  But we'll leave this matter to scholars of the historic home-loan market.

"That's Not Bull$#!t, That's the Math"

As a newcomer to  these shores -- we've only been stateside for a month or so -- we haven't had much to say about the coming presidential election.  Apparently, the Democrats are running the same guy they ran last time, which suggests a lack of imagination.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are displaying immense creativity, by running a guy they actively dislike.  We knew that their strategy involved suppressing voter turnout; we just didn't realize that this included their own voters.

Anyway.  Having proven that he will insult our allies abroad, Governor Romney recently set his sights on the enemy at home, meaning the 47% of the electorate which wouldn't vote for him if he were the last 50s TV dad on earth.

We really have nothing to contribute to the discussion which has ensued; we are just relieved that nobody has mentioned the massive tax exemption historically granted to our own employer and its cognate organizations.  It is one thing to lash out at those money-grubbing farmers, deployed soldiers, senior citizens, and milk-addicted schoolchildren.  But it will be a sad day indeed when the GOP's talking heads feel called to lead a charge against America's fat-cat churches.

As we said, though, we are a stranger in these parts, with nothing much to say on the matter.  Perhaps that's just the way these crazy Americans do it, right?  Fortunately, Jon Stewart has no such hesitance.  Here (courtesy of Gawker) are the two parts of his brilliant little video essay, "Chaos on Bull$#!t Mountain."

Part One lays out the defense of Romney by his friends at Fox News -- basically, a combination of "It's true" and "He didn't mean it."  Part Two, the far more brilliant segment, shares both some facts and a heaping spoonful of righteous indignation.  (If time is short, watch Part Two.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Tramp @ The Times

Sunday's Times featured a pair of articles on the power of art to shock, from Rite of Spring forward, and left us wondering whether we were still subject to such shock.  It has been a long time since Nude Descending a Staircase was anybody's cause celebre, and even Karen Finlay's infamous yams seem a little quaint these days.  But then we flipped to the Styles section (talk about infamous!), and by gum, they actually hit us with a joy buzzer.

"Stop the presses," Ada Calhoun quotes a tabloid newspaperman saying; "People have sex!  And sometimes they even have sex with people to whom they are not married."  Her point, of course, is that infidelity is neither new nor, under ordinary circumstances, news.  True enough.

But Calhoun's subject is not marriage and fidelity in the abstract, but her own marriage.  She and her husband are monogamous, she says, adding that "there is a small asterisk where I am concerned."  In other words, under the rules they have negotiated between them, she is allowed the occasional extramarital fling -- and he is not.  She is a bit coy about the details; she contrasts her own youth to her husband's, letting us know that she had many more sex partners than he did, and associated sex with adventure in a way he seems not to.  She hints that he may be aroused by the prospect of her infidelity ("Type 'cuckold' into a pornography search engine," she suggests.  We suggest that you do not).  But beyond a stray kiss and some yearning, she does not actually confess to much -- nor need she; this is a family newspaper, after all.

She's right that there's nothing especially novel about any of this.  Calhoun mocks the "open marriages" and "key parties" of the 1970s, but her essay is little more than a different testimony to the same underlying truth:  that couples have always worked out the precise meaning of their marriage vows in private, and in ways that would sometimes surprise even their friends.  So what, then do we find so shocking?  It is hard to say; perhaps because our work includes marrying people, and we naively like to believe that they mean their promises just as we ourselves would.  Or perhaps it is merely the fact that we are private by nature, and she is exposing a deeply private truth in one of the most public places one possibly could:  the Sunday New York Times.

One shudders to imagine the contents of her inbox on Monday morning.

Calhoun (whose undergraduate degree was in Sanskrit interpretation) is no fool.  The last article to shock us this way was Daphne Merkin's autobiographical essay on  masochism, which added a great deal to her luster as a writer. It is entirely possible that Calhoun's self-revelation will bring her lots of new professional assignments.

Still and all, her essay -- whether one considers it brave, shocking, opportunistic or narcissistic -- is noteworthy for people who spend much time thinking about marriage.  For example, one concern sometimes raised about same-sex marriage is that gay people may not interpret expressions like "lifelong committed relationship" (or as we used to say, "forsaking all others") quite the way straight people do.  To this, some may cite Calhoun and others like her as a reminder that many conventional marriages are less conventional than they seem at first.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Dept. of Mild Surprise: Papal Schulerkreis Edition

Every year since 1977, Joseph Ratzinger has gathered with his erstwhile doctoral students for a sort of seminar thingy.  This sounds immensely cool on its own merits; now that he's the pope, and they can gather at Castel Gandolfo, it sounds too damn cool by half.

Anyhoo, this year (according the The Catholic Free Press) the papal summer camp will turn its attention to Roman Catholic ecumenical dialogue with Lutherans and Anglicans.  A worthy topic, to be sure, and likely a great relief for the Pope, whose attention has no doubt been turned perforce to less purely academic topics lately.  (Read:  scandals breaking out all over.)

A former Luther bishop will speak, although there is no word of any Anglican participation.  Perhaps the second year of the Ordinariate was not a good time to call up the Canterbury and ask if anybody were ... available.

After the evening session, we believe, there is a plan to roast marshmallows and tell ghost stories.

Heroes of Sex

It has been a busy time lately, as the Egg's editorial staff has shuttled hither and yon.  What with exploring the Umbrian hill country, paddling in the Adirondacks and saying a fond farewell to our former offices on the Transylvanian plateau, we haven't had much time to actually, y'know, write anything.

So we've passed up any number of opportunities to snark, comment and snark again.  Among these, the most egregious is no doubt the matter of legitimate rape.  Apparently, new research -- not the kind conducted by scientists, so much as the kind invented by politicians -- reveals that a woman can't get pregnant if her rape was legit, thus mooting the question of abortion (while raising any number of others, such as "what does 'legitimate' mean," and "do these idiots ever hope to win another election"?).

In related news:  the GOP seeks Todd Akin's head on a platter. (No:  literally.)

We've also missed the entire Republican convention, because we don't own a television and our Wifi is spotty.  We will take your word for it that many people said foolish things.  Apparently Clint Eastwood spoke longingly to a chair, a fact which is not nearly as surprising to us as his adoption of the Doc Brown hairstyle.  Is this how Hollywood affects gravitas now, by copying imaginary mad scientists?

But, even if we have no time to do them justice, we do feel compelled to note the passing of two women who have made noteworthy contributions to the world of sex:

1.  Helen Gurley Brown, she of the ironic maiden name.  Despite our many years of reading Cosmopolitan, we're still not sure how we feel about its guiding spirit.  On one hand, she taught repressed Eisenhower-era women that it's okay to embrace their sexuality; on the other she seems sometimes to have hinted that sleeping your way to the top is a legitimate business strategy somehow distinct from the world's oldest profession. Also:  if you put 15 Secrets to a Sizzling Sex Life on every cover, don't you run out of secrets pretty fast?  Or is it just the same fifteen every month? Still, without Helen Gurley Brown, there could be no Joan Holloway -- and that alone makes her a Hero of Sex.

2.  At the other end of the spectrum lies Shulamith Firestone.  As a small boy, we used to hang with our hoodlum friends in the back room of the Hippie Dippie Health Food Store, sucking on dried papaya and breathing in the sweet, sweet aroma of spelt.  There was a small rack of books there, containing any number of mysterious and exotic volumes.  We remember the exciting colors of the various Prabhupada commentaries, surpassed only by the thudding dullness of the contents; the story of a German family that resolved to survive solely on grass from their lawn; and guides to constructing your new home out of mud and empty soda bottles.  But the book that consistently drew our eyes came in a plain white cover; and yet the title was irresistible:  The Dialectic of Sex!  In those tender years, we had no idea what dialectic was; heck, we had barely any idea what sex was.  But the title tantalized us, with its combination of chilly intellectualism and hot-blooded eroticism.  (Not to mention the coolest author's name ever, one so cool that, until reading the obit, we naturally took it for a revolutionary's nom de guerre.)

Indeed, given a well-documented weakness, in our teens and twenties, for women of the schizophrenic, Jewish and intellectual persuasions (not to mention a sturdy tolerance for leftist discourse when we thought it might help us get some action), it seems likely that the very presence of this book on the shelf helped shape our nascent manhood.  This is ironic, since (a) Firestone helped set the tone for the Andrea Dworkin school of man-hating feminism; and (b) we never actually read the thing.  (Here's why.  Try it and see.)

Farewell, ladies.  May flights of really hot-looking (or Marxist) angels sing thee to thy rest.