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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quantum of Solace: Guilt Flavored Ice Cream

Posted by Aaron Bady on 11/18/08 at 08:45 PM

Observing that James Bond is misogynist is like observing that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves: it’s such an important fact that it can be easy to forget how spectacularly obvious it is. I’m not going to say that the new Bond film isn’t misogynist—that’s a sucker’s game—but I want to start by observing something interesting about this new Daniel Craig version. Since Bond’s narrative arc now defines his character by the trauma of a particular loss/betrayal in Casino Royale*, the inherent misogyny of the character gets re-framed less as a natural attitude towards women (and thus a masculinity which implies an anti-feminine attitude) and more as a defensive, individual, and contingent response to that personal trauma. These two movies are, in other words, prequels in the most extraverted sense, for by providing a specific explanation for what has otherwise been taken for granted (and thus naturalized), they transform the misogyny of all the other movies. Or at least they do to the extent that we buy the fiction and let Daniel Craig function as a prequel for past Bonds.

In any case, Quantum of Solace is an interesting and strange Bond movie whether or not we let it retroactively re-narrate the franchise. After all, the franchise’s main misogynist institution is the “Bond girl,” the conceit that being a secret agent naturally implies having a lot of sex with a series of women defined by their replaceable uniqueness. To put it one way, this plurality is necessary to dis-imply any measure of personal attachment on the part of Bond himself, and to put it another, it’s a seriality that commodifies difference, transforming the “individuality” of each girl into the difference between flavors, like blonde flavored ice cream. More ominously, however, seduction in the Bond film has often suggested rape—especially when it involved “turning” enemy agents by overpowering them with sex—and the number of times it resulted in the women’s deaths is part of that logic**. The Pierce Brosnan Bond not only embraced this paradigm, it perfected it; I found it deeply disturbing when Pierce Brosnan killed Sophie Morceau in The World is Not Enough, and while you can partially rescue that film by emphasizing the extent to which it makes plain what is usually mystified, you can’t really argue that there is any alternative in the universe of those films. Women are a threat, increasingly the threat.

Quantum, on the other hand, adheres to this convention in a pointedly agonistic way. After all, there are two living Bond girls in this film, one who he doesn’t sleep with (and who is essentially his narrative double), and another who he kills by sleeping with, a guilt he both addresses as such and suffers from. In other words, both serve precisely the opposite function as we have been taught to expect of them: instead of using guilt-free sex as an expression of masculine power over women (and an expression of “free world” supremacy in the cold war), the main relationship of the film is a celibate one, and the other only illustrates Bond’s impotent inability to use sex in a constructive way.

Bond’s character arc within the film is therefore a progression from a position of hatred towards the woman he loved and who betrayed him towards a position of what the movie narrates as understanding, catharsis, and transcendence. At the start of the movie, he is a homicidal maniac who has displaced his rage onto the a series of similarly different bad guys—making every kill an expression of sexualized rage. By the end of the film, however, his choice not to kill the man who is most directly responsible, at the same time as he “forgives” the woman that this bad guy is in the act of seducing out of her duty, is an indication of narrative closure. Perhaps more importantly, a classic Bond movie ending involves having sex with the good Bond girl while headquarters tries (in vain) to locate him, yet this movie ends with Craig and Kurylenko having parted ways, and with (something like) this exchange between M and Bond:

Dench as M: “I need you back”

Craig as Bond: “I never left"

If the classic Bond ending emphasizes the simultaneity of sexual power and duty—and even subordinateds the latter to the former—then Quantum explicitly places sex in opposition to duty, and Craig sacrifices the former for the latter. And while so much of the Bond movie is a touristic fantasy of never-ending summer vacation in exotica, Quantum’s Bond chooses to “come home,” and go back to work.

It’s worth noting, then, that the ending is made possible by this willingness to be brought home, by M’s decision to trust him, and finally by his proving to be worthy of that trust. M is a mother figure—it even sounds like “mum”—and while his earlier response a threat on her life had been psychotic homicidal rage, the ending is a “happy” one only because his response has changed: instead of expressing the problem of attachment to a female by displacing it onto an object of violence, he embraces her. In this sense, M is by far the most important Bond girl in this film, or she would be if it were possible to call Dame Judi Dench a “girl,” which it is not. And this is the thing I dig most about the film: the most important female character in the film, occupying the space where the Bond girl usually goes, is a person who really explodes the series’ most cherished fantasy. While the Bond girl represents guilt-free sex, power, the fantasy of freedom from attachment, and an infantilized femininity, Judi Dench’s asexual M voices his guilty conscience as a powerful (and deeply respected) maternal figure he cannot disavow, and he denies ever trying to do so. What makes the Bond franchise most questionable, in my mind, is the thing this movie works the hardest to stand on its head. and that’s something.

Yet, all that said, I want to push the argument a little harder. After all, where is home? Who is M really? And what kind of work is it their duty to do?

Since I wrote my Shirley Temple post, I think I understand better what bothered me about The Littlest Rebel: not merely that the movie is racist, sexist, and pedophilic (again, importance makes us overlook obviousness), but that its address to these characteristics is explicit, and that it tries to exploit them. The Littlest Rebel is not a movie that hides what it is; instead, it takes pleasure in being what it is, and by mounting an argument that this pleasure is legitimate, it invites the viewer to take part, even moralizing on its behalf. The fact that this film becomes a source of affective pleasure in ways novels traditionally aren’t thought to be—with the key exception of, for example, the sentimental novel tradition—makes the particularly passivity of the movie-viewer an even more significant site of meaning; not only are we urged to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, but that very “sitting backness” of it is the thing itself. This is something I’m thinking about after reading the late great David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” and I wonder if the general point he makes about TV and fiction doesn’t translate nicely into why I distrust Shirley Temple’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: filmic/televisual media have the power to affect us in exactly the ways Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted her novel to do, but which novels are less good at doing. Reading brings pleasure, but it’s an active one and you have to work at it (at least by comparison with film). What makes me so suspicious of a film like The Littlest Rebel, then, is that its medium and message converge: it doesn’t just teach you to how to be enjoy being passive, it does so as you enjoy it passively.

Quantum of Solace is not as different from The Littlest Rebel as one might expect. While The Littlest Rebel works to transform guilt into pleasure, Quantum is a movie that urges us to take pleasure in guilt. Or perhaps it’s the reverse? After all, The Littlest Rebel transforms the spectacle of the civil war and southern guilt into a kind of joyous subjection, but the more I think about it, the more I find myself disturbed by the analogous pleasure Quantum teaches us to derive from Bond’s guilt. A friend called this the most “Christian” of Bond movies, in a largely pejorative way, and I think he’s at least partially right: this is a movie in which there can be no pleasure without guilt, and the sprezzetura and panache of the franchise has disappeared (if you’ll pardon the expression) into a Bourne from which no traveler returns. As in the Bourne franchise, the special service suddenly stands revealed as an agent of disorder and tyranny, less the fun-loving defender of the free world than an economic hit man, a sin which Craig can only seem to expiate by (improbably) fighting against American hegemony on behalf of Evo Morales and Bolivian peasants.

Part of me both welcomes the change and sees why it was inevitable. During the cold war, the pleasure loving Bond always stood in implicit contrast with a pleasure-less totalitarianism, and even the Brosnan Bond managed to burden the character with an imperial “free world” hubris. No more. As Juan Cole points out, this Bond is a radical departure from those older Bonds in both ideological context and intervention; the “lurking presence” of George W. Bush “appears to have almost single-handedly pushed Bond into championing the indigenous peasants against the white-tie global elite,” and “Craig’s Bond is an intimation of the sort of Britain that could have been if Tony Blair had stood up to Bush and refused to be dragged into an illegal war of choice.”

Yet the many critics and fans who have complained about how un-fun this new Bond might have a more serious point; however ideological the Bond-as-jouissance fiction may have been, it’s a powerful one precisely because it only champions “The Free World” as the free world, less the Anglo-American axis as it was than as it was imagined to be, thereby positioning the better Angels of our nature against a totalitarian command to enjoy as little as possible.” Put ins such terms, I’ll take the better angels. And while I think we should be careful about how the Bond films naturalize a misogynist performance of masculinity, as Lauren Berlant pointed out some time ago, sometimes attacking hypocrisy has the effect of damaging the ideals in question; after all, does rejecting misogyny have to imply rejecting love as well?

This, I think, is the danger in taking the movie on its own terms, for while it explicitly attacks the pleasures of the old Bond films, it also revels in the darkness of this very vision, transforming the very guilt by which its sins are remembered into a pleasurable aesthetics of ascetic denial and righteous denunciation. And if the movie’s politics are anti-right, they aren’t exactly left either; as a commenter at Juan Cole’s blog rightly pointed out, it is a massive exaggeration to say that Kurylenko is “so organically a figure of the left that no distinction can be made between her private quest for vengeance on Medrano and the salvation of the pro-peasantry government of Bolivia.” In fact, she is the daughter of a good soldier within a dictatorial junta, “a cruel man” whose death has left her with no option but a pleasure-less revenge, nothing to fight for but self-denial followed by self-destruction (from which Bond saves her).

But Bond is in the same predicament, and it would be just as much of an exaggeration to make Craig’s Bond into an organic anything. While it’s true that he fights (at one remove) both against the CIA and in defense of a nameless Bolivian president, that president is less an Evo Morales who nationalizes industry and redistributes income than simply a bugbear used to frighten right wing children of all ages. As a figure of revolution and opposition to US hegemony, he has been emptied of his content, less a Che Guevara than a Che Guevara t-shirt. And a re-investment in M as embodiment of maternal virtue only helps obscure that Bond is still working for the same slime balls he’s supposedly fighting against, a valorization of an empty “duty” that will endlessly defer the problem of why. And this, I think, gives a new meaning of Bond’s lost love: “Vesper Lynd” is a pun on “West Berlin,” a signifier of the lost cold war, when things made sense. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bond’s jouissance no longer works in those old terms. “That Bush’s America now appears in a Bond film in rather the same light as Brezhnev’s Soviet Union used to,” as Cole puts it, is a loss that he can mourn but which he can never, quite, let himself understand. The same is true for his audience: we can enjoy denying ourselves the pleasure of empire, but only as long as we forget to think about the cipher that comes to replace it.

* As Erich Kuersten puts it, “One of the many things which makes Daniel Craig the best Bond since Connery is his pain. He’s aware of the lost sense of intimacy that came with having license to both kill and “be a sexual heel.” In that vein, you can find an interesting “Bond Blogathon” over here.

** As Lance Mannion puts it in his “Dame Judi Dench as the ultimate Bond Girl", “Bond Girls are eye candy, pure and simple.  Their role in a Bond film is to get naked, as naked as a PG-13 rating allows anyway, get laid, and then get dead.  They manage all three tasks efficiently by the single method of setting out to get Bond killed.  Either they are bait dangled by his would-be assassins or they are would-be assassins themselves.”


This is a fascinating reading of the film.  One niggle is when you say: “Quantum is a movie that urges us to take pleasure in guilt. Or perhaps it’s the reverse?” That throwaway last bit undermines the force of your point, I think, for these are very different things.  A film that says ‘we in the West rule the world and enjoy the perks of that rule, but here is our symbolic scapegoat, James Bond, to suffer punishments physical and psychological in atonement for our collective guilt’ would not be nearly so interesting a take on the text as saying: ‘guilt is a given; we are all always already guilty; but Bond is a text that shows how we can derive kinetic, sadomasochistic, sexualised pleasure from our guilt ...’

What does Le Chiffre say to Bond just before he thwacks him repeatedly in the cods with a knotted rope?  ‘Gosh, you’ve really taken good care of your body.’ That’s one of the fascinating contradictions in the representation of Bond, I think: the emphasis on his sensual pleasure in luxurious things: fine alcohol, food, cigarettes etc.  What I mean is: I know what a body looks like when it has indulged itself for a long time in the decadent pleasures of the superrich, and it doesn’t look like Daniel Craig in speedos.  Which is to say, there’s a spectral other Bond, a Spartan warrior wholly given over to war, quite at odds with the sensually self-indulgent international playboy figure.  Getting the tension right between the fantasy of wish-fulfilment (’oo, wouldn’t it be nice to have sex with Eva Green...’) and the more potent fantasy of wish-denial.  It’s the obstacles that make Bond films interesting, not the motion; the eight-hours-a-day in the gym and four more in training to fight, not the swanning around a casino with a martini.

I think that’s one reason why I preferred the first Craig Bond film to this one.  In that, movement from country to country and place to place, is strenuous, difficult; things keep getting in the way.  In this one Bond wafts effortlessly from Italy to Britain to Haiti to Austria back to Italy to Bolivia and all round it.  They cancel all his credit cards and it does not incommode him in the slightest.  That’s the fantasy of the frictionless passage of the Fantasy playboy, and ultimately that’s pretty boring.  Similarly, the ending: a gunfight in a hotel results in that hotel literally exploding (what did they build it out of? Dynamite?), which has more to do with the fantastic exaggeration of the destructive potential of the phallic handgun than anything else.

By Adam Roberts on 11/19/08 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you put your finger on the wobbliest part of the argument, but I’m not sure it isn’t wobbly for a salvageable reason. You say that a film that uses Bond as symbolic scapegoat in atonement for our collective guilt would not as interesting as saying that we are all always already guilty but that Bond shows how we can derive pleasure from our guilt, and I (obviously) agree, but I think these things are intimately connected. After all, the movie ostensibly wants you to give it the former reading, just as it wants you to forget about the twenty hours weekly in the gym and carrot juice diet that’s necessary for Craig to look like that. And you might be right that the first film is more careful about that sort of thing; that Le Chiffre torture scene is amazing for so many different reasons, but one of them is the way he breaks open the illusion. And I hadn’t thought about the difficulty of travelling. With respect to guilt, though, I think the movie wants to have it both ways; it wants Bond to atone for his sins, but in turning that guilt into a sort of masochistic pleasure, it empties it out of any real substance, something it only occasionally seems self-aware of doing. Just as Bond wants to simplify things by displacing his sense of loss onto the “bitch” who betrayed him, the simple reading of the movie cleans things up by making Bond into a scapegoat. After all, we don’t feel guilty for Bond’s participation in an ongoing Western domination of the world because all that bad stuff gets displaced on the texas-y American or the bad cabinet minister, and by aestheticizing that guilt, it becomes a formal guilt, disconnected from any actual people (the scene where they walk past the Bolivian peasants struggling to get water is emblematic of that; those people aren’t real, they’re just ciphers). But the movie is at its most interesting when it plays with that blindness, when it suggests that Bond’s enjoyment of his own guilt comes at a certain cost, and I think there are a few such moments (when M calls him out, for example). There is also something really interestingly *wrong* about that last kiss between Bond and Camille; Craig looks like he doesn’t know what to do *except* kiss her, and it’s one of the all time most awkward screen kisses, making me wonder if that was the point. I’m still thinking it through. 

And the exploding hotel bothered me too. I believe the conceit was that those were hydrogen tanks for the “green hotel.” Anyway, it was an awfully shaggy dog of a setup to justify a few explosions; the only point of it that I can ascertain was for Camille to need to be rescued from a burning room (which I think was necessary on several levels: a replay of Bond’s failure to save Eva Green and an illustration that she doesn’t have anything to live for after having consummated her revenge). I actually thought the guts of the film was strikingly spotty; some of the action sequences were great (I liked the roof top chase, for example) but too many of them (scaffolding, boat chase, hotel fight) were just confusing or boring.  I think calling such things “the fantastic exaggeration of the destructive potential of the phallic handgun” actualy gives him too much credit.

By on 11/19/08 at 10:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I haven’t seen this movie, just as I didn’t see the last movie you commented on.  But I have been recently reading the Ian Fleming Bond books.  They are intensely weird.  (For instance, Dr. No’s source of wealth, in the original, is guano.  And Bond gets on his case because he’s killed two observers from the National Audobon Society.) A lot of this is discarded in the movies, but some isn’t.  Sex-as-rape is an overt theme in the books, with the narrator creepily telling us in many of them that the woman Bond is sleeping with is excited by the overtones of rape in what they’re doing.

Your mention of people as ciphers, though, means that I should probably point out that Le Chiffre translates to The Number, or The Cipher.  The character is supposed to have first appeared in a Nazi displaced persons camp, and when I read Casino Royale, I assumed that one of the reasons that he called himself Le Chiffre was that he actually had a tattooed number on his arm.  The reference may actually have been to a passport number, but in any case, Fleming makes a point of telling us that he appeared in a Nazi camp, stating that he had lost his memory from before that, and that he may have partial Jewish descent.  He may embody a sort of right-wing resentment of guilt—the feeling that the system did wrong by people like him, that people have reason to feel guilty when he’s around, and that this is a reason to hate him.

By on 11/19/08 at 10:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, that business with Le Chiffre is fascinating; I had been thinking of guilt as having a thematic importance unique to our particular moment (in which all superheroes seem to be converging on Bourne) but maybe it has legs beyond that. I really need to see In Her Majesty’s Secret Service, since I’m told there are some similarities. And anyway, one of the pitfalls of doing the “the new Bond is different from the old Bonds” style argument is that it becomes very easy to smooth out all the complexity and strangeness of the old stuff. But sometimes the new stuff can only seem fresh and different if we forget the old.

By on 11/20/08 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know whether you’re read the Fleming books, but if you’re that interested in the movies, I encourage you to.  They’re quick reads, and—especially as the movie-makers hunt further back into the Fleming canon for inspiration, as they must be doing to take on Quantum of Solace—they are an overt source for a good deal of the movie subtext.

In this case, I don’t know whether you can really treat whatever guilt is in Bond as being unique to our particular moment.  Fleming was an intelligence officer in WWII; his character Bond was supposed to have gotten his start in spying then.  Le Chiffre, and the SMERSH agents who chase him, function as a displacement device to turn attention from the fascism just defeated to the USSR.  I think it’s significant that Le Chiffre is one of the rare Bond villains not actually killed by Bond; he is a sort of transmission conduit to the new villains who do him in, and any guilt associated with him is displaced onto them.  Until that’s dealt with, guilt within the Bond universe is always going to be somewhat slippery and misdirecting.

Compare Le Carre, whose spy novels were similarly grounded in WWII.  He compensates with a sometimes embarrassing philosemitism.  Over and over in his early-to-mid novels, a Jew shows up as the bearer of all of the civilized, intellectual values that Smiley and company are defending.

By on 11/20/08 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, World enough and time! But, yeah, I’ve got to read Casino at least. And while I wouldn’t treat the guilt in Quantum as unique to our historical moment, it seems to me to be both a reversion to past guilts and a re-version of them, if you’ll excuse the punnery. This is a film that would be unthinkable if American troops had been greeted as liberators, and I think one has to see the Brosnan into Craig transformation of the series as at least partially in dialogue wiht the “everything changed” narrative of 9/11. Not to say that your point isn’t valid, just that the two lines of thought get even more interestingly complex as they merge: what happens to the kind of guilty pleasure represented by Le Chiffre in your narrative when he becomes the Le Chiffre in mine?

By on 11/20/08 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been watching the ads for Quantum of Solace and wishing I’d be able to see it in the theater, but I probably won’t.  I’m a big Pierce Brosnan fan, but Craig’s Bond is probably the most believable of any of them in my lifetime (that is, starting with Moore).  Though we did snicker, here, at the implausible number of high-valued hands in that poker game.

I have Casino Royale in a box somewhere but read it probably twenty years ago.  Interesting if Rich is right about Le Chiffre.  In American fiction, that “guilty other” is usually black.  I wrote a grad-school paper on this idea, using Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man, and Light in August (I reread the paper last year, and I think I’ll want to read Light in August again).  On the other hand, in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, her other is definitely a Jew(ess).  Maybe she thought more in English terms than American?

By bianca steele on 11/23/08 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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