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Lisa Robertson’s Must-Inhale ‘Proverbs for a She-Dandy’

By Harriet Staff

Lisa Robertson writes of the she-dandy caused by menopause–yeah, you heard that right–for Buenos Tiempos, Int. This is closely connected to Baudelaire: “…In Baudelaire the menopausal flaneur and the dandy share a descriptive vocabulary. It is her mysterious austerity that is the instructive trait for the new dandy that emerges from the Baudelairean text.” Read on, of course!

In celebration of these correspondences I lay in the bath all morning, reading excerpts from ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. This is the text where, in a long exploration of the work of draftsman and journalistic engraver of everyday life Constantin Guys, the poet presents the core of his transformed theory of dandyism. Independence of character, leisure, absolute simplicity, an inner, spiritual aristocracy, an ‘ardent need to make of himself something original’ – all of these self-fashioning gestures were nonetheless contained within the external limits of social propriety. A dandy was not a rebel, not punk. He pertained to the spiritual aestheticisation of limits. In a sense Baudelairean dandyism could be seen as a constraint-based practice on the self.

Menopause, Gardanne said in 1821, is the loss of the signs of female reproductive ability. ‘Huge dangers’, he warned, ‘precede, accompany, follow the cessation of this function’. The illustration on the cover of his book shows a broken ceramic pitcher. Gardanne was at the forefront of what now would be called the ‘medicalisation of menopause’, which is to say, its treatment as an ailment, both physical and psychosomatic, of the female body. In this medical model, a woman’s most important value being reproductive, menopause marks the end of that value, functionally and almost more importantly, aesthetically; medicine then provides temporary placebos for that perceived loss, recuperating the aging woman back into the predominant sexual aesthetics for a time. Baudelaire himself described this melancholic condition in the second text of Paris Spleen, ‘An Old Woman’s Despair’. ‘She went and wept in a corner, saying to herself, “Ah, for the likes of us miserable old hags, the day is gone when we could please… we even terrify the children we long to love.”’ The banality and extreme familiarity of this ideology of abject embodiment doesn’t diminish its ongoing psychological and cultural force. Gardanne knew nothing of hormones – they were not ‘discovered’ until the early twentieth century, with the isolation of insulin, Oestrogen was not isolated until 1943, in time for the return of soldiers to their families, and the post-war return of women to domestic roles. In the nineteenth century the medical approaches to menopausal experience pertained to a theory of unblocking, as if the woman in question were suffering a kind of inner stagnation – George Sand, for example, was systematically lanced and bled by her doctor, to rid her of a persistent suffocating sensation, she told her sister in a letter. Windy climates could be advised, or light labour, to unblock the humours – gardening, wood sawing, walks and housework. It was suggested also that overheated salons should be avoided. So the menopausal condition was a blocked condition, rather than one of substantive lack.

More, more, more (including “Proverbs of a She-Dandy” like “THAT SHE EXISTS AND MOVES IN THE CITY IS AN AFFRONT TO THE WILL OF CAPITAL. COUNTLESS CLINICS ARE DEDICATED TO PREVENTING HER APPEARANCE” and the two-fold “HER HUMOUR IS INK”) here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, April 14th, 2017 by Harriet Staff.