Hot milk goodness #3


One of the things Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is concerned with is what it means to be a woman, or a man for that matter. As many individuals and schools of thought have realised, the more one looks into the question the more one sees there is nothing there. There is no inherent meaning in the concept “woman” just as there is no inherent meaning in any other concept or thing, and Levy puts the case with great lightness and wit in the scene in which Sofia is speculating on what she might buy from the market if she were an adult woman with all the accoutrements …

“I picked up an aerosol of air freshener that had been designed in the shape of a curvaceous woman. She was wearing a polka-dot apron that did not disguise her massive belly and heavy breasts. Her eyelashes were long and curled, her lips tiny and puckered. The instructions for how to use her were translated into Italian, Greek, German, Danish and a language I did not recognise, but she was ‘Extremely Flammable’ in every language.

There were instructions in English, too. Shake her well. Point her towards the centre of the room and spray. The scale of her belly and breasts were not unlike early fertility goddesses found in Greece around 6000BC, except they did not wear polka-dot aprons. Did they suffer from hypochondria? Hysteria? Were they bold? Lame? Too full of the milk of human kindness?

I bought the air freshener for four euro because it was a kind of artefact translated into many languages, and also because it was clearly an interpretation of a woman (breasts belly apron eyelashes) and I had become confused by the sign for servicios in public places. I could not figure out why one sign was male and the other female. The most common stick-figure sign was not particularly male or female. Did I need this aerosol to make things clearer to me? What kind of clarity was I after?

I had conquered Juan who was Zeus the thunderer as far as I was concerned, but the signs were all mixed up because his job in the injury hut was to tend the wounded with his tube of ointment. He was maternal, brotherly, he was like a sister, perhaps paternal, he had become my lover. Are we all lurking in each other’s sign? Do I and the woman on the air freshener belong to the same sign? …

It wasn’t clarity I was after. I wanted things to be less clear …”


Image: Man taking pic of the installation Narcissism: Dazzle Room by Shigeki Matsuyama

Hot milk goodness #1


Hot Milk by Deborah Levy continues to be exhilarating. I’m going to share some over the next day or two. Here’s a section from the scene called “Boldness” in which Sofia finally takes action after Dr Gómez observes she lacks strength as a young woman. She needs “more purpose, less apathy” and he prescribes stealing a fish from the market to make her bolder, “It need not be the biggest fish, but it must not be the smallest either.”

Often, I think I need to steal a fish too …

“The first fish to snare my attention from the point of view of a thief was a monkfish with a monster face, mouth gaping open to reveal its two rows of sharp little teeth. I lightly poked my finger into its mouth and discovered a world that was totally unknown to me, like Columbus discovering the Bahamas. The cashier, a fierce woman in a yellow rubber apron, shouted in Spanish not to touch the fish. Already I had made myself visible, when the point of a thief is to slip unseen into the night and not into the mouth of a fish … I considered the whiskery langoustines … they were the professors of the ocean but they did not make me feel bolder. A huge tuna lay on a bed of ice … It was the most precious jewel in the market, the emerald of the sea. My hand reached towards it, but I couldn’t follow it through. A tuna was too ambitious, not so much bold as reckless.

… I looked away and that’s when I saw my fish. It was looking straight at me and its eyes were furious. It was a plump dorado in a rage. I knew it was destined to be mine.

… To steal the dorado, I had to conquer my fear of being found out and shamed … Very slowly, I moved closer to the dorado, and with my left hand I touched the price tag on the langoustines to distract the cashier from my right hand, which was sliding the grumpy dorado into my basket.

As far as I could make out, this was the model that most politicians had adopted to run their democracies and dictatorships. If the reality of the right hand is being messed up with the left hand, it would be true to say that reality is not a stable commodity …”


Image: Man with sailfish

Carnality, intimacy, frankness: Edgar Degas at NGV, Melbourne


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing the paintings and drawings of Edgar Degas (1834-1917) that I loved and copied as a child here in my own city for the Degas exhibition at the NGV Melbourne.

I loved drawing as a child and, somehow, I recognised his draftmanship and used to copy them. I remember how happy I was with my version of one of his washer women for a school assignment.

I had a little cry at seeing many of them in the flesh, their lines so familiar to me. I also cried over the painting of his father and the Catalan musician, Lorenzo Pagans, which you can see below, his father listening intently to the Spanish man’s guitar. The accompanying note says that years after the deaths of his father and the musician, Degas took his friend and art connoisseur, Paul Poujaud, into his bedroom to show him the painting. Poujaud recalled,

“He showed me the precious painting hanging above the little iron bedstead … I’m sure he did not show me the Pagans in memory of his father, whom I never knew and of whom he had never spoken, but as one of those completed works he admired above all others.”

And I’m stunned that as a child I was also instinctively responding to his treatment of women. Look on his works and note it well. His women are carnal, real, with bodily functions. They’re not prettified or sexualised, and they are infinitely interesting. Above all, they are members of the human race, not objects.

Look at his little ballet dancer with her second-last button not quite done up; his absinthe drinker resigned and hopeless with her companion in her Parisian drinking shop; his fellow artist Victoria Dubourg staring out at the viewer “with the forthright interest of a professional equal”; the young working-class woman after the violence at the hands of the bourgeois man lounging by the door; his sister and her husband’s frozen grief over their lost child.

It’s all sensational, wonderful and I LOVE HIM.

(Click on an image to enlarge)


Main image: Therésè De Gas, his sister, and her husband, Edmundo Morbilli, after the miscarriage of their much-anticipated child, “depicting them physically close but in a pose of frozen stillness.”

Who are you wearing?


Now I’m in my 50s, I look around and see little on offer when it comes to inspiring archetypes in dress and appearance. Where I live, there’s pretty much just two styles: Toorak Woman – caramel tones, black Range Rover, highlights, shops at Thomas Dux – and The Artistic One – red flats with leather daisy, stripey top, grey bob (she also has a cousin who only ever wears variations on a theme, the theme being, as a friend put it, “menopause mauve”).

So. Boring.

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Female wallpaper


Years ago, during my angry period (circa 8BR, Before Responsibility), I worked on a project with two other women and a group of men. I used to call us the “female wallpaper” to my two colleagues and they would get uncomfortable and look the other way.

We were marginalised and trivialised, and endured regular sexual intimidation enforced by threats, both covert and overt. What I didn’t see at the time was that I had a choice. It might have looked like I didn’t – “oh, if I complain or resist, I’ll be let go” – but it wasn’t actually the case. I could have left at any time and gotten another job. The truth, which, in my angry righteousness, was obscured from me, was that I preferred the harassment to the inconvenience and cost of having to get another job.

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Women and mistake-making


It’s difficult for men to appreciate the extent to which the imperative to be perfect, to be good, to get things right, rules womens’ lives. It’s difficult for men because it’s difficult for women.

Occasionally, a woman, here and there, will get a glimpse of its effect on her life, and then five minutes later, unconsciousness takes over again, and soon enough, she’s squirming at the thought of a boo-boo she made in an email, or the fact she didn’t remember so-and-so’s name or didn’t ask about their recent operation.

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Monday with the Wolves: The Red Shoes, conclusion


Continued from part 1.

Back home, the old woman slammed the red shoes down high on a shelf and told the girl never to touch them again.

Not long after, the old woman fell ill, and as soon as the doctors left, the girl crept into the room where the red shoes were kept. The girl took the shoes from the shelf and fastened them on, feeling it would do no harm. But as soon as they touched her heels, she was overcome by the urge to dance.

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The They


They say, “Poetry is a man’s game.”

“Mathematics and philosophy too,” They say. Mathematics, philosophy, two sides of the one coin: the interrogation of reality through symbol. “Ah,” They say, “things concerning the abstract are men’s business.”

“Women are too concerned with the ‘domestic’ to be able to engage with the abstract,” They say, “their minds don’t work that way,” skipping down its well-trod path from Don’t-choose-to to Can-not.

Like everything They says, it can be “proved” to the precise degree it can be disproved.

They is a fool.


Image: Preincarnation by Wang Qingsong

Monday with the Wolves: Bluebeard

woman with candle

Once upon a time there was a man with a beard as blue as the shadow of a hole at night. He was a giant man, a failed magician with an eye for women, a man known by the name of Bluebeard.

‘Twas said he courted three sisters at the same time. But they were frightened of his beard with its odd blue cast, and so they hid when he called. In an effort to convince them of his geniality he invited them on an outing in the forest. He arrived leading horses arrayed in bells and crimson ribbons. He set the sisters and their mother upon the horses and off they cantered into the forest. There they had a most wonderful day riding, and the sisters began to think,

Well, perhaps this man Bluebeard is not so bad after all.

They returned home all a-chatter, but the two older girls still had their suspicions. The youngest, however, thought that if a man could be that charming, perhaps he was not so bad. The more she talked to herself, the less awful he seemed, and the less blue his beard.

So when Bluebeard asked for her hand in marriage, she said yes, and they rode off to his castle in the woods.


One day, Bluebeard said,

I must go away for a time. Invite your family here, do whatever you want. I’ll give you my keys which you can use. However, this one key, the little one with the scrollwork, do not use.

And so he left and the woman’s sisters arrived, and she told them what he had said. And the sisters, feeling full of high spirits, decided to play a game of fitting each key to a door. The castle had hundreds of doors and they played for hours until there was just the one little scrollwork key.

“Maybe this key doesn’t fit anything at all,” they said. Just then they heard an odd sound – “errrrrrr”. They peeked around the corner, and – lo and behold – there was a small door just closing. One cried, “Sister, sister, bring your key. Surely this is the door for that mysterious little key.”

Without a thought, they put the key in the door and it swung open but it was so dark inside they could not see. “Sister, sister, bring a candle.” So a candle was lit and all three women screamed at once, for in the room was a mire of blood and the blackened bones of corpses.

They slammed the door and leaned against each other gasping.

The wife looked down at the key and saw it was stained with blood. Horrified, she used her skirt to wipe it clean, but the blood remained. “Oh, no!” she cried. The wife hid the key in her pocket and ran to the cook’s kitchen. When she arrived, her white dress was stained red from pocket to hem, for the key was slowly weeping drops of dark red blood. She told the cook, “Quick, give me some horsehair,” but no matter how she scoured the key, it would not stop bleeding. She tried all manner of things to staunch the flow, but nothing could make the weeping blood subside.

“Oh, what am I to do?” she cried.

I know, I’ll put the little key in the wardrobe and close the door. This is a bad dream. All will be aright.

…. continued in part 2.


Image: Silje Kristin

Review of movie, Elles


To the French movie, Elles, on the recommendation of A.

A is a breast cancer survivor who has a vision for a world in which people live to the age of 150. Depending on the age of the audience with whom she shares this vision, people either gasp at its audacity or frown with incomprehension, “why the hell …?”

One of the things A says about this world is that it will require women transforming who they are for men, and for their children. Said in a rigorous way, it will require women transforming who they are for themselves that they are for men and children.

Elles, it turns out, is all about this question.

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