21 December 2014

If Wine Were Books …

My next column for The Sunday Guardian

Light, flavourful dishes with delicate wines: ‘You have wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity, which is the number of grains of sand. The path that you are to take is endless, and you will die before you have truly awakened.’ When you lightly saute pressed garlic in olive oil, its scent will remind you of Borges. Add pasta and stir in The Immortals. You will dream of mazes and dance with devils if you add a hint of parsley and read A Universal History of Infamy. The Borgesian conundrum will make you wonder if you made the pasta or if the pasta made you.

Silky whites, like Chardonnays, for gravy-based meals: 'Perhaps only people who are capable of real togetherness have that look of being alone in the universe. The others have a certain stickiness, they stick to the mass.’ When you stir a lush sauce and watch it froth heavily into brackish desire, pull out D.H. Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a book for all sorts of nights: the lonely ones and the intimate ones. Let it seep into you – the book, I mean, not the gravy – and let it fill your heart with the multiple shapes that love can take.

Rieslings to tame the heat of spice: ‘I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed / And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. / (I think I made you up inside my head.)’ Wrap the richness of a spicy meal with the tired longings of Sylvia Plath. She’ll tease the pepper right out with her acid charm. Ariel is perfect for the tangy sweetness of the Riesling. If you choose, instead, the neuroses of a drier wine, look no further than The Bell Jar.

The pertness of a rich rose for cheese: ‘The evening's the best part of the day. You've done your day's work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.’ Nothing will enhance the texture of cheese better than the oaky richness of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Cheese is your accomplice when you avoid the drudgery of facing your emotions, Ishiguro your guide. These are your perfect companions if procrastination is your game.

Light-bodied reds for savoury delicacies: ‘And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.’ The lavish lure of Scott Fitzgerald will perfectly balance any midweek mood when paired with the right meal. For those pleasant summer evenings of camaraderie, the blustering youth of a savoury will clear your palate like Nick Carraway and the middle-aged rambunctiousness of a rich red wine will invigorate your senses like Jay Gatsby.

An earthy, rustic Italian red for warm bread. ‘Love's mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is his book.’ Dip bread in balsamic vinegar and the poetry of John Donne. If it’s the right kind of bread, any metaphysical poet will do. Slather butter if you must, and say out loud, ‘I am two fools, I know, / For loving, and for saying so.’

Fruity wines for fruity desserts: ‘People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were travelling abroad.’ Marcel Proust will remind you of the sort of life that is best worth living just as a custard and a fortified sherry will emphasize the sweetness of fruit without the necessity for added sugar. For best results, ensure that the wine is sweeter than the dessert and that Proust is wiser than you.


Champagne and bubbles for salty meals: ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.’ Chilled champagne will work best for Edith Wharton’s quiet optimism. Pair the nuanced insights of The Age of Innocence with the fizzy sharpness of a sparkling wine and balance the book’s sorrow’s with the oceanic saltiness of a plate of hors d’oeuvres and the world is yours. 

07 December 2014

The Empty Vessel Syndrome

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

As products of a largely phallo-centric society, our sexual discourse has had to limit itself to male desire and its immediate outcomes. Our literature, art and cinema have embraced the idea of ‘forced seduction’ or the idea that rape can somehow turn into love. This literary theme has been described by a well-known Dutch newspaper as: ‘Once upon a time there was a very pretty girl. She was raped. The boy begged for forgiveness and they lived happily ever after.’

But where’s female desire in all this? Even the old questions of rape versus seduction do not take into account any sort of independence or initiative from the female participant. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, the eponymous protagonist experiences a sexual encounter with Alec D’Urbervilles that is regularly described as either a seduction or a rape. Hardy at some point describes the relationship between Tess and Alec: ‘She had dreaded him, winced before him, succumbed to adroit advantages he took of her helplessness; then, temporarily blinded by his ardent manners, had been stirred to confused surrender awhile, had suddenly despised and disliked him, and had run away. That was all.’ Hardy himself is ambiguous – is Alec a womanizer and a cad, a flirt who seduced Tess, or is he a rapist who forced himself upon her, who tricked her into being a sexual conquest?

But neither of these questions are about what Tess wants. Had Tess wished for a sexual liaison with Alec, but had been unable to voice that desire due to convention, this encounter – this bizarre, macabre, necrophiliac, sleeping-beauty-esque encounter – might have been her only way of active participation or expression of desire. Modern sexual intercourse depends heavily on consent and agency – or it should – but the Victorian equivalent was bound by an onus on the female to be a passive receptacle, a recipient of sexual intercourse, regardless of desire. This adds a third layer to the scene: Did Tess give into temptation or was this what she had wanted all along?

In Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos – best known for its film adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and John Malkovich – the difference between the victim of rape, also known as ‘seduction’ if it turns to love, and the female libertine is brilliantly explored. The Marquise de Merteuil is a woman with agency, desire and experience, unashamedly so, while the young Cecile de Volanges and Madame de Tourvel, who are corrupted and destroyed by the machinations of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise herself, are real victims. All the while, it celebrates the fleeting joys of intimacy, wrought through some human connection or the other, without ever reducing its participants to the obligations of their gender.

On the other hand, the most horrifying scene in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, for example, is the ‘seduction’ scene. An ageing Volpone forces himself on the young and innocent Celia. When Volpone experiences an erection, he immediately connects his arousal in this situation with a remembered theatrical triumph: ‘I am, now, as fresh, / As hot, as high, and in as joviall plight, / As when (in that so celebrated scene, / At recitation of our comedie, / For entertainement of the great Valoys) / O acted yong Antinous; and attracted / The eyes, and eares of all the ladies, present.’ Celia is entirely an empty vessel here, to be filled with Volpone’s desire and to be emptied when his desire shrinks: physically, emotionally and metaphysically, this is all she is.

Volpone goes on to suggest, after the rape, that the union could be more than physical, that their souls are now united: ‘Where we may, so, transfuse our wandring soules, / Out at our lippes, and score up sums of pleasures.’ This suggestion is vile. Jonson’s lack of subtlety in the scene is maddening. He trivializes the rape, as he and his contemporaries were wont to do, and simply refuses to address its atrocity. It is from this scene that the audience embarks on a love-hate relationship with Volpone. They despise the violator, but why do they adore the trickster? It is frustrating to watch, but it demonstrates that most important aspect of the crime: that it can be committed even by the people one adores.

The stillness of the empty vessel reinforces the passive receptacle theory; perhaps they must learn that old trope and make the most noise.