Monthly Archives: October 2013

a grotesque history of halloween

Is there any night as justly hallowed as October 31?

The question is rhetorical, and the answer, of course, is no.

No other holiday celebrates the intersection of the otherworldly and carnal as heartily as Halloween: the double, double toil and trouble (fire burn, caldron bubble); undead spirit incarnate as flesh and body; the corporeal ghost; the pinnacle power of the persecuted witches and warlocks; Medusa herself; the trick over the treat; the grim friction created from the supernatural forced down to earth and twisted into the grotesque.

Here’s my treat to you: a* history of Halloween.

The holiday is not just a recent corporate phenomenon concocted by Hershey’s to sell candy, you see. Its origins trace back over 2,000 years to the Celtic new year, called Samhain, which fell on November 1. The Celts believed that on Samhain eve, spirits walked the Earth with fairies and demons as they traveled to the afterlife. The Celtic people sacrificed animals in bonfires to their gods and wore costumes made of animal skins to confuse spirits, probably to avoid being possessed, according to National Geographic. Another ancient costume: cross dressing. Yes, gender binaries have been challenged for thousands of years.

Trick-or-treating also emerged from this Celtic tradition. Originally, people left food and drink outside homes as offerings to spirits on their long journeys. Soon Celts disguised as supernatural beings went from house to house and put on little shows in exchange for these treats.

Naturally, early Christians were not about to let the Pagans have all the fun. So, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV knew just what to do about it: he turned Samhain into All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day. The festivities of the preceding night continued to flourish, and October 31 embraced its new name: All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween.

Today, Halloween’s popularity actually reigns in the United States, a country that is neither majority Celtic, nor majority Catholic. I remember explaining to my bewildered cousins in Poland on several occasions what trick-or-treating is, and when I studied in Cambridge, I learned that Halloween in the U.K. is more of an occasion for adults to dress up and engage in debauchery then for kids to scramble from house-to-house in Disney costumes, begging for candy. The fervor for the holiday in America likely originates from European immigration, especially the influx of Irish migrants in the 1800s.

During the Victorian period, Halloween was seen as a “rustic, country holiday,” according to Lesley Bannatyne, author of Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night. “Overwhelmed by the fallout of industrialization, [Victorians and early Halloween revelers] sought out a simpler time where people were more connected to the land and the natural world.”

A schoolhouse ghost in 1905, surrounded by a vegetable harvest and tree branches. Photo Historic Photo Archive, Getty Images.

A schoolhouse ghost in 1905, surrounded by a vegetable harvest and tree branches. photo by Historic Photo Archive, Getty Images.

The distinction between the supernatural and natural, a hierarchy traditionally held sacred by scripture, becomes increasingly blurred. Here, at this crossing point, we find the domain of the grotesque and carnival. I’ve written about Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival before–it rejects binaries dictated by dominant culture and imagines an alternative way of living. Celtic cross dressing? That was carnival. Disguising oneself as an evil thing: spirits, witches, demons? The celebration of the grotesque? Hell, the whole of Halloween? That is carnival.**

In the hierarchy between good and evil, good wins. Except on Halloween. In the hierarchy between the sullied physical body and sublime transcendence, the spiritual realm wins. Except on Halloween, when the likes of Lewis Carroll’s physically monstrous Duchess rules supreme.

There’s something so rousing about a night when the world as we know it is flipped on its head, when rules of polite society fall to the wayside, when indiscretions are forgotten, because that’s how carnival works, neither remembered nor real. Carnival, dangerous but intriguing: simply pretend.

But carnival is the instrument of its own defeat: it lasts only a night. My All Saint’s Day morning is greeted by a phone call from my mother, reminding me of Mass, and 8 a.m. means back to work. Any hierarchies dictated by social norms that just a night before had been reversed or abolished returns to business as usual.

Well, this November 1, I plan to stay witchy. You should too.

Happy Halloween!

Cambridge 2011. Liz as a dead schoolgirl come back to life, and me as Columbia from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a carnival classic.

Throwback Thursday, Cambridge 2011. Liz as a dead schoolgirl come back to life, and me as Columbia from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a carnival classic.

*I say a history and not the history of Halloween because, as with all history, origins are debate by competing theories and the whole of cultural diffusion cannot be summed up within one story.

**Admittedly debatable. After all, though the cultural status quo may be challenged for a night, big businesses profit from the costumes and candy. So the existing economic structure might actually be bolstered by the holiday.

on hiding brushstrokes: putin and public image

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been soaking up every minute of his recent place at the forefront of the American press. Russia was instrumental in the international chemical weapons deal with  Syria that avoided President Obama’s plan to go to war, and Putin knows it. He loves it, almost as much as he loves homophobia and taking off his shirt.

Although difficult to believe, an even sexier portrait of Putin has made its appearance in the world by way of Russian artist Konstantin Altunin; sexier, that is, because the painting imagines Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as women in lingerie.

A visitor takes a picture of the artwork entitled "Travesty" by Altunin at an exhibition at the Muzei Vlasti in St. Petersburg

The painting debuted in a Russian museum exhibition in August along with a few other satirical renderings of Russian leaders, and it was shut down by authorities soon after it opened. Classic Putin, asserting total control over his public image.

Putin not only censors satire and criticism but attempts to dictate a narrative of his own public image by fabricating pretty outrageous events to confirm his identity as Mr. Manly Man. Besides obsessively losing his shirt during photo ops, his publicity stunts center on mastering unforgiving Mother Nature and her wildest creatures. He’s hugged and put a tracking meter on a tranquilized polar bear (he didn’t do the tranquilizing); symbolically re-released a caged leopard into the wild; shot darts at a gray whale to collect its skin samples for scientific research; reportedly saved a film crew from an escaped tiger by tranquilizing it (this feat was conveniently not captured on camera, despite the fact that his damsels in distress were a film crew); and (my personal favorite) led a flock of endangered Siberian cranes on their winter migration by boarding a motorized hang glider while dressed in a puffy white jumpsuit.

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We can’t forget, of course, the great archeological incident sure to inspire even Indiana Jones in late 2011 when Putin went on a diving expedition in the Black Sea only to discover fragments of ancient Greek ceramic mugs. When critics stated the obvious statistical improbability of a few pieces of Greek artifacts laying in plain sight on the ocean floor for over 2,000 years, a spokesperson admitted that the discovery was a hoax. The fragments had been planted there.

Putin might be attempting to mold his Public Image into a superman powerhouse, but he’s clearly doing a terrible job. Public Image is a form of narrative. In fact, I understand public image through theory of the relationship between reader and writer in terms of stories. Here’s what I mean:

Let’s start with Roland Barthes, French literary theorist and critic and inspiration for the name of this blog*.  Barthes claimed that the author is dead. In fact, he named one of his most seminal essays “The Death of the Author,” published in 1968. Barthes thought that to assign one interpretation to a text based on the author’s intentional message is t0 limit its possibilities in meaning. Instead, readers impose a certain context upon the text, and thus the significance of the text changes with every reader. There is no longer a writer, but  a scriptor, who produces the content of the text, but not its meaning. The reader has the ultimate say in determining meaning.

Public image also has an author–for instance, I am the author of my own public image–but I cannot control the how people read my behavior and choices. Therefore, I can attempt to create a narrative for myself, but it is not entirely in my command. Moreover, I am a different person for different people, based on my various relationships with those people.

However, I attempt to create myself as well. My choice to wear a chambray button-up shirt underneath a black leather jacket is thought-out, every political tweet I send out is intentional, and what I choose to blog about has meaning both because I believe in its importance, but also to create a brand for myself as a writer. In the first season of Mad Men, Betty Draper tells her friend, “My mother always said, ‘You’re painting a masterpiece, make sure to hide the brush strokes.’”** I am working to paint a picture of the Kasia that I project to the world  with brushstrokes so tight that they can’t be deciphered. Ultimately, though, the world gets to interpret what I project.

Putin certainly thinks of himself as a masterpiece (though perhaps a masterpiece without lingerie), which is problematic considering that he is truly awful at hiding those brush strokes. His attempts at total control over peoples’ perception of him are painfully obvious and embarrassing, as he cannot control another party’s interpretation of him. He seems to be in total denial of the power of his observers (his readers, so to speak). Vladimir Putin is the selfie incarnate in human form, painstakingly edited to perfection and then tagged #nofilter.

And here’s the rub: Putin’s obsession with controlling his image has political consequences. His fear of association with anything effeminate or homosexual might not be the ultimate reason for the repression of gay rights in Russia, but the two are undoubtedly connected. In fact, the so-called “anti-gay propaganda law” in Russia is the reason that painter Altunin’s exhibition was shut down. It also compelled Altunin to flee St. Petersburg for France in order to seek asylum and avoid arrest.

“My wife is in tears and my 2-year-old child keeps asking where daddy is,” Altunin said. “What kind of PR can we talk about here? Of course, deputies simply have nothing better to do than close exhibits and confiscate pictures. This needs no further comment, really. Such a situation is possible only in Russia.”

Putin’s attempt to stifle any critical dialogue is not just some ideological or theoretical problem. It has very real material repercussions not only for Altunin’s family, but for the queer community who are stigmatized and denied rights, and for women–the fact that Putin was so disgusted at being rendered in a female body implies that women are somehow disgusting or of lesser value than men, which is a tacit but pervasive understanding of gender that carries a load of cultural weight.

In the end, positing public image as a form of narrative can be helpful in understanding the interplay between self and others, but it is also dangerous to suspend identity in the form of narrative or language. Narrative and politics are intertwined. Art and politics are intertwined. This investigation into Putin’s public image is not a push to promote a certain ideology, but to explore the nuances in the relationship between theory and materiality–nuances that Siberian crane leader and nightgown model Vladimir Putin just cannot seem to acknowledge.

*The Pleasure of the Grotesque is based on Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text.

**Betty Draper’s quote is used in a totally different historical context than my blog post does (she is ashamed of her anxiety and domestic problems, and attempts to hide them from the world). But, as a viewer of Mad Men, I’m appropriating the quote for my own reasons and interpreting it within the context of my post. See? Barthes in action!

on beauty (and fashion)

Hello October 21, Hello Blog, Hello Readers. It’s been far too long since I have written for you, I know, but you’ll just have to forgive me. The process of applying to grad schools means quarantining myself off from humanity to study for the GRE and write application essays. You understand. I hope I didn’t miss anything important. Like, say, a government shutdown.

As it happens, during my time off I did do some writing other than “This is Why You Should Admit Me to Your School.” Never one to dismiss a writing trend, I wrote an open letter to a celebrity on my Tumblr. It’s not addressed to Miley Cyrus; I’m sure Sinead O’Conner, Amanda Palmer, and everyone with a Twitter account have that covered. Actually, the letter to Miley Cyrus that grabbed my attention was written by musician Sufjan Stevens and posted on his Ghetto Blog.

You can read the whole thing here (after you finish my blog post, obviously), but here’s the last bit, which refers to the Present Perfect Continuous tense.

It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between. I feel that way all the time. It kind of sucks. But I have a feeling your “present perfect continuous” involves a lot more excitement than mine. Anyway, doesn’t that also sum up your career right now? Present. Perfect. Continuous. And Tense. Intense? Girl, you work it like Mike Tyson. Miley, I love you because you’re the Queen, grammatically and anatomically speaking. And you’re the hottest cake in the pan. Don’t ever grow old. Live brightly before your fire fades into total darkness. XXOO Sufjan

That’s right. Sufjan’s letter to Miley was about grammar. And hot cakes and Mike Tyson, apparently. Talk about Continually being Present and Perfect, eh?

This is probably not the most accurate image to faithfully represent Sufjan's music, but he's the one who posted it in the first place. That's the danger you get for being ironic, kids.

This is probably not the most accurate image to faithfully represent Sufjan’s music, but he’s the one who posted it in the first place. The danger of irony, kids.

After I read Sufjan’s letter, I inadvertently spent the next few hours (days) on his blog, and I came across this post:

Emily Post. Etiquette. 1922.

FASHION HAS LITTLE IN COMMON WITH BEAUTY

Fashion ought to be likened to a tide or epidemic; sometimes one might define it as a sort of hypnotism, seemingly exerted by the gods as a joke. Fashion has the power to appear temporarily in the guise of beauty, though it is the antithesis of beauty nearly always. If you doubt it, look at old fashion plates. Even the woman of beautiful taste succumbs occasionally to the epidemics of fashion, but she is more immune than most. All women who have any clothes sense whatever know more or less the type of things that are their style—unless they have such an attack of fashionitis as to be irresponsibly delirious.

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The post was preceded by this collage, and I’m not entirely sure why. I can only assume it has something to do with that gorgeous striped top from 2002. Or the fact that Skyler White has a megawatt grin in hopes of a great life after her engagement to Walter White, probably.

In return, I decided to join the conversation. This is the part where I wrote an Open Letter to Sufjan about fashion theory. Enjoy:

Dear Sufjan, I’m a 22-year-old teacher and I haven’t stopped listening to your music since junior high. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is the sixth best song that I’ve ever heard, even though you (and technically all of Illinois) spelled Pulaski’s name incorrectly—splendid music, poignant lyrics, powerful storytelling. Plus you’ve got a great face. You’re amazing. But I haven’t even begun to touch the purpose of this message, and somehow I already digress.

I’m not sure if you posted this excerpt from Emily Post’s Etiquette because you agree with it, but I find it to be pretty problematic. So regardless of whether or not you share Ms. Post’s sentiments, I’d love to discuss it with you.

First of all, the entire construct of etiquette is a classist method of identifying which allows one to identify which people belong in his or her socioeconomic circles so that he or she rarely must leave these circles. Etiquette does not simply equal manners. I can’t help but be skeptical from the get go, you see.

But Sufjan, the point that I pick with this argument concerns BEAUTY. The assumptions Ms. Post rely on are these: beauty is objective, and this objective force of beauty can be known if one has good taste. It all seems very Kantian in its disinterested understanding of the judgment of aesthetics. I can’t help but wonder who benefits and what they gain from setting the ideal standard of beauty. I’m not sure that Post’s and Kant’s ideas are true, although if they are, I’m completely aware that you would be the one to possess good judgment. Your music is beautiful. I think. (I’m not sure that I share your good taste.)

Even more than that (and still on the topic of beauty), here’s what irks me: the implicit idea that this objective form of beauty is that which we must strive to achieve. Fashion is not synonymous with beauty, true. In fact, fashion can be intentionally non-beautiful, or gaudy, or scary, or intimidating, or bright, or muted, or self-expressionistic, or even ugly. With reference to my previous paragraph, if someone benefits from deciding what “beauty” is, then fashion can, ideally, subvert these expectations of beauty.

Of course, fashion isn’t a one-way street to overthrow patriarchal norms that keep women grooming themselves to reach a standard of beautiful that doesn’t exist. Not everyone is as boldly repellent as the Man Repeller. In many ways, fashion can work as a force to keep people unaware and submissive to exploitative capitalistic constructs when they throw away their money on a hi-lo skirt that will be dated next season because Seventeen told them to. But I think the tension between the subversive and subservient forces created by fashion is worth exploring, rather than writing off everyone interested in fashion as hypnotized by an epidemic, don’t you?

Sufjan, you’re the greatest. A conversation with you would turn me giddy with curiosity. I adore you, even though I’m terrified of the prospect that your winged costuming is cultural appropriation. Please keep making music, because few things make me happier.

xoxo Kasia

p.s. (to my readers, not to Sufjan) Remember how I said that it’s worth exploring the tension between the subversive and subservient forces created by fashion? You can expect a lot more of that on this blog in the future. I checked out Roland Barthes’ “The Fashion System” this evening and I am already taking notes.