Name: Jessica (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/15/2005 16:09
Link to this Comment: 13526
The majority of my free time during this break was spent reading Middlesex and visiting my grandmother, who is quite sick. I think doing each of those things influenced, helped, the other. As a member of an ethnic minority whoıs family emigrated in that last crazy century, I see many parallels between Calıs story and mine (and then again, plenty of differences)(and this is me focusing on the uniformitarian, and not the catastrophic).
I cannot take the lens of evolution off of my life right now. My mother and I are both differently (not higher or lower) evolved versions of my grandmother. There has been so much passed down, and yet very notable variations. Most striking for me are the things that are getting expressed due to environment. Much of the debilitating fear and angst that has marked my grandmotherıs life has abated in my mother and myself. At the same time, my grandmother and mother complement me on my independence, something I believe is in both of them, but the setting of their stories didnıt lead to its expression.
This (intensely personal, sorry) observation has affected and been affected by having Middlesex in my life. Meanwhile, Iım having fun silently recasting all my friends in their appropriate genders. If we did rewrite the gender/sex system, would we just add a 3rd middle gender? Or do it on like a 1 to 10 scale? We have to have some categories, for the sake of advertising.
Name: Brittany (email@example.com)
Date: 03/15/2005 16:13
Link to this Comment: 13527
I loved Middlesex, though not for the reasons I expected to. Though the story of Cal's gender confusion was intriguing, I found myself most drawn to the early parts of the book and Cal's bizarre family history. To me, Desdemona and Lefty's "evolution" from brother/sister to husband/wife, placed in the context of their simultaneous transition from Greek to American culture, was the most interesting movement of the book. I especially liked the scenes on the boat from Smyrna to New York---the way Eugenedes presents their courtship, in gradual stages of increasing affection, struck me as somewhat Darwinian. Not only were they slowly "adapting" their behavior to suit their new self-identities and roles, they made their courtship *public.* They utilized and adapted to the environment of the ocean liner, from its passengers (for example, Lefty asking other passengers for information on Desdemona) to its physical structure (their "wedding night" occurred in a lifeboat).
Like biological evolution itself, the morality behind Lefty and Desdemona's relationship is complicated and fascinating. Eugenides lets us know going in that they're incestuous; so I began the first half of the book expecting to be disgusted every other page, or at least, to dislike the incestuous characters. But I ended up liking both Lefty and Desdemona. Furthermore, I wasn't as repulsed as I'd expected to be at their relationship. Logically, I mean, I still am: I recognize the genetic danger (Eugenides doesn't let you forget it!) inherent in kin to kin matches and see, from a "future children" perspective, how wrong it is. But---and I really, really worry myself when I catch myself thinking this---on an emotional level, their relationship seemed to work. Even after the Depression when things fell apart some. It seems they adapted successfully, and Eugenides is an amazing writer to make the transition seem so natural.
Name: Eleanor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/15/2005 16:27
Link to this Comment: 13530
I am enjoying the reading the story of Middlesex and puzzling over Callie/Cal's journey. I felt I benefitted greatly from the lecture yesterday having had a sad lack of understanding of hermaphroditism before. The idea of many many genders at once makes sense to me and one that I want to learn more about to better understand. I would imagine that there could be a multitude of ways of experiencing gender.
I'm glad that Cal told the story of his grandparents in the way that he did. Somehow despite biological and moral objections to incest I found myselves rooting for them as characters- Desdemona's guilt and fears may have contributed to this- still I have trouble imagining how a brother sister relationship evolves into a husband wife relationship...
I'd not have read this book if I hadn't taken this class (it sounded "weird"), but I am so very glad now that I have had the chance, it's interesting.
Name: Anjali Vaidya (email@example.com)
Date: 03/15/2005 16:43
Link to this Comment: 13531
I've been putting off posting since there's just so much I could say about this book, and I've been enjoying it so so much, that I just don't know what I could say in one paragraph. I'm also not used to analyzing a book when it feels as though I'm just reading it for pleasure- it's easy to forget that I'm reading this for a class.
Like Jessica, I've been comparing the story to my own family history... Desdemona reminds me so much of my grandmother. She's such a wonderful character. And it's a common theme in this country, I guess- of immigration and trying to find a compromise between assimilating and holding onto your roots. Cultural evolution fascinates me- the way that different cultures come together and blend, how they clash with and complement eachother. And I also found it interesting how the whole first half of the book was told as the story of how the gene for 5 alpha reductase deficiency came to be passed on to Callie- the story of all the chance occurrences that led to him/her being born. Or rather, I guess the journey of that one gene was just an excuse for telling the rest of the story.
Name: Ghazal Zekavat (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/15/2005 16:45
Link to this Comment: 13532
I think that Becky's questionwhy is Cal/lie telling this storyis an important one. On page 179, Father Mike is explaining his faith in the Church to Milton. He says, "Thatıs how people live, Milt, but telling stories. What's the first thing a kid says when he learns how to talk? 'Tell me a story.' Thatıs how we understand who we are, where we come from. Stories are everything." I don't think itıs just Father Mike who believes this; I think that Cal must believe this as well. I also don't think that Cal/lie is just telling the story for our sake; I think it's just as much for his/her sake, as well. There is a general fascination with abnormalities, I think, (I'm fascinated by them, anyway) and to trace down how one specific mutation came to be is kind of triumphant, in a way. I think that a lot of scientific research serves the same purpose. We just want to KNOW all the whys and hows. Additionally, incest is one of those things that makes a lot of us queasy, and to just hear that Cal's family had an incestuous past is not telling enough of a story. Hearing how, when, and where it all happened makes it so much more real, in a sense. It's easy to not care about characters or write them off when you donıt have a bigger picture, but by filling in every detail, Cal is essentially defending his/her existence. I suppose you could argue that evolution wouldn't want Cal to exist, but Cal brings such a human aspect to the story that we end up feeling grateful that Cal is there to tell us his/her story.
On a completely different note, I do research on leeches in a lab here at Bryn Mawr, and one of the things I found really fascinating was that leeches are all hermaphrodites. When you open up a leech, right around the sex ganglia you can clearly see both male and female genitalia. Leeches can obviously produce viable offspring, so I suppose it's unfair to say that evolution doesn't favor hermaphroditism. In humans, though, hermaphroditism often results in infertility, so it's a completely different case, I realize. I wonder why some species have distinct (relatively speaking) genders and others, like leeches, don't.
|What struck me most|
Name: Liz Paterek (email@example.com)
Date: 03/15/2005 16:53
Link to this Comment: 13533
I was struck by how fascinated I was by the notion of not having a socially acceptable gender. Perhaps those are not the words I am looking for but I suppose I mean that usually I adore things that break conventional societal constructs and while this was no exception, I was suprised that I found my own notions of gender altered. I have known people who chose gender, and I have known about having too few or too many sex chromosomes. However, the presence or absence of the Y in humans always for me defined gender in the diseases that I learned about. A person with the genotype XXY would appear as a normal male perfectly able to reproduce therefore nothing was changed to me. It is not that I had never heard of other genetic variations, I knew that a baby would be externally female without male hormones, however, I never thought much about it. The narrator becomes almost genderless, able to select what gender he/she feels fits better and the freedom to have no gender identity at all. I don't know why but it made me feel like the narrator had a lot of freedom to be an individual. The author could break society's/the government's conventional box of gender, that to this day chews away at personal freedoms. This book made me wish for a world where gender was no longer an issue, where people were seen merely as people without labels. While I realize this is an impractical statement, it's still something that I hope for.
I wish I had been more moved by the family history. I think it may be that I am either not moved by personal stories, except in rare instances or that I have heard other stories of incest before that were moving and I have become desensitized. Perhaps I was so excited by this notion of genderlessness that I forgot to care about much else.
Name: Ariel Singer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/15/2005 16:53
Link to this Comment: 13534
I think that the discussion on the distinction between gender and sex was really interesting. I had never really thought about it before, but learning about how reproductive organs and genitalia are formed made things a lot more clear. However I agree with Iva, I am, in this case, unclear on where the distinction between environment and culture is. I was also wondering about testosterone, donıt females also have a certain low level of testosterone? I have been told by a couple women that their doctorıs told them they had elevated levels of testosterone, how does this happen, and what does it signify about their biology?
I have really enjoyed reading Middlesex. I particularly like the way that Eugenides weaves together history, biology and family. Each is a distinct part of Calıs life, and yet they mingle to form a fascinating story. My favorite parts are by far the classical references, especially the connections to the Oedipus trilogy. I think especially interesting is the idea that the Oedipal instincts lasted for more than one generation, since this parallels nicely with a new theory about Antigone. The idea is that Antigone continues her fatherıs ³undesirable² desires, first by being excessively attached to Oedipus, and then transferring that obsession to her brother, Polonaises.
|...the ideas are brewing...|
Name: Carolyn (email@example.com)
Date: 03/15/2005 17:03
Link to this Comment: 13535
I've been thinking about class yesterday and trying to bring new perspective to Middlesex and have been wondering about Anne's final comments in class. She said (and sorry if the ideas have changed a little while they were rattling around in my brain) that critics of the books had complained that Cal/lie was too fluid a character. I have been ruminating about this and I wonder about this criticism; what does it say about the book? I don't find Cal/lie to be an unbelievable character, though I must say that my experience with hermaphrodites (at least that I was aware of) is limited. I think that having a fluid identity means that you are an adaptive person (so it relates back to evolution). It ties into themes of education and life-long learning. If we are not fluid, how can we adapt, how can we learn? An person with a rigid identity is stagnant... there is no potential to grow or change... that person is a dead/inactive story. Others can make stories about that person but they have lost agency/purpose/meaning (which relates "Middlesex" to Dennett). I don't think a critique that Cal/lie is too fluid is valuable. The fluidity of the story makes it more generative; it is many stories combined into one. I think that a fluid story tells more, it has more potential. In addition to telling a 'new' story, it digs into its roots and exposes them as well. (If you couldn't tell, I am enjoying "Middlesex"... I think my uniformitarian storytelling bias is shining through)
In contrast to many of the posts that I have perused through, I wasn't too shocked at the idea that there was a spectrum of gender and sex. Think of the implications of the spectrum of gender/sex the next time you are filling out a form and you have to tick a box for either male or female. From my experience as a psychology major, society and biology often interact and that their relationship is complex and impossible to untangle. There must be a different gender and sex for every person alive, or who ever will be alive. (It relates to the 'man in the door' metaphor) Gender is a issue that is often explored in psychology and I guess I took my pre-existing knowledge for granted. There is an interesting book, "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl", relating to the biological and social aspects of gender and sex. It is about a biological male (who was conveniently a twin) who was reassigned as a girl after a botched circumcision mutilated his external genitalia. Not only does he rebel against the 'assignment' of the female sex/gender that he was raised as, the book also asks important questions about the ethicacy of gender/sex reassignment and shows how underlying motives in science can be detrimental for subjects/patients.
Name: Lauren Z (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/15/2005 18:23
Link to this Comment: 13536
As a Bryn Mawr Classics major I am really enjoying the classical influences evident in the text. Did anyone else notice that in an early chapter the car Uncle Pete was driving was "wine-dark"? Also, the books non-linear structure reminds me of the "in medias res" strucuture found in epic poetry. However, what Anne's lecture defined more clearly for me is the theme of reinventing the self that is also present in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Thanks Anne! I really like how examining the literary ancestors of Middlesex ties into the course's experiment of applying the concepts of Evolution to literature. Things are really starting to come together for me.
|Cal / lie's narration|
Name: Annie Sullivan (email@example.com)
Date: 03/15/2005 22:23
Link to this Comment: 13539
Like everyone else, I am loving Middlesex. . . and (as many have also asked) I find myself wondering why Cal/lie is writing this story. . I find the narration compelling yet contradictory. Cal/lie narrates the evolution of her (I am just going to stick to the feminine pronoun for simplicity's sake) family. She states in the first sentence that she is a hermaphrodite, and the reader senses immediately that this is a story of biology--the story of the ancestry which produces Cal. In a sense, the reader has an expectation, a kind of destination in mind. While reading, I found myself trying to piece together Cal's story, anticipating the narration and predicting the evolutionary track of her family. This sense of determinism (that I felt as a reader, maybe others wll disagree) contradicts Cal/lie's winding, time-skipping narration ..
I am also intrigued by the scientific language and metaphors that infiltrate Cal's imaginative story.. She says at one point that her being came down to "chance and sex.." I absolutely loved Eugenides description of the baptismal scene ("Everything was silent. The sides of my neck tingled in the place where humans once had gills. I was dimly aware that this beginning was somehow indicative of the rest of my life. My family around me; I was in the hands of God. But I was in my own, separate element, too, submerged in rare sensations, pushing evolutions envelope" . . this of course proceeds with Cal's stream of "crystalline liquid" 221). . Eugenides often employs such biological descriptions , placing humans and everything we name as 'fate' or reason back into the organic world. Cal incessantly emphasizes the absolute haphazard, random, acts that produced her own existence; yet she counters this vision of a purposeless, accidental world in her own narration.. Cal's story strives to find reasons, to fill in the blanks, to read minds and desires, and to imagine the past. As father Mike suggests, stories are integral to human existence. And Cal tells us directly that she will assume a kind of absurd omnicience (derived from a kind of Wordsworthian de-evolutionary model): Cal and her brother floating on "raft eggs," before birth, knowing and seeing everything. . . She is everywhere in her own story: she is at once a middle-aged man in Germany, a tiny child, an awkward adolescent, and a spirit not yet born.... She is strangely the very center of, and exempt from, the evolutionary lineage she traces. . Cal demonstrates the very human, imaginative, story-teller part of mankind that escapes biological scientific history she writes. . Consciousness may be an accident, as the decrepit Lefty realizes as lies crumpled on the sidewalk, but this does not depreciate the act of storytelling that Cal cannot escape
|sexual dimorphism revisited|
Name: Anne Dalke (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/15/2005 23:44
Link to this Comment: 13542
So many of you are writing about your bewilderment/wonderment @ the notion of more than two sexes...if you want to read more about this, you might look @
|everyone is bumping into each other....|
but then the darkness becomes more manageable, and...
Name: Anne Dalke (email@example.com)
Date: 03/16/2005 22:01
Link to this Comment: 13562
My section found ourselves, today, cyling back to the earliest terms of this course: in what style of storytelling is Eugenides engaged? Is Middlesex "catastrophic" or "uniformitarian"? How much is it a continuation/how much a renovation of Greek myths and tragedies? How "inevitable," how "determined," is the story Callie tells, how "random," how much the result of chance? We found ourselves working towards the notion that stories are the shapes we make of the shapeless, the form we give to the formless, the maps we make of the territory, the explanations we offer of how we came to be who we are (this akin to Ghazal's idea, above, that to trace down how one specific mutation came to be is kind of triumphant....Cal is essentially defending his/her existence....)
Nicely expressive of all this is an essay by Craig Womack, "Howling at the Moon: The Queer but True Story of My Life as a Hank Williams Song," which Bethany Schneider shared w/ me just before break. Womack says, in part,
Storytelling...is a vast terrain with many possibilities for getting lost, as well as for finding one's way, and not enough folks talking about better maps that represent the real territory in question....my life makes the most sense to me when I think of it as a narrative, kind of like a creation story, where you start with chaos, confusion, as in the Creek story where everyone is stumbling about in a thick fog, bumping into each other and getting hurt. But then, by the end of the story, the fog lifts, individuals have banded together with the animals they ran into and discovered their clans and their place among the people....the story is like a circle; periodically, you end up back in the fog and chaos, but as you get further along, the darkness becomes more manageable, and you know eventually you will emerge out into the light of the broader landscape.
Name: Maureen England (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/17/2005 00:14
Link to this Comment: 13570
I was just reading in the "Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism" for my Methods of Literary Study class selections from Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own". I wanted to share because particularly the section on "Androgyne" was very interesting and I think relevant to class. Woolf is talking about writing and the concept of a male and female voice and mind. She says that the best writers, like Shakespeare, write from an Androgynous mind. If anyone is interested in reading more, an online copy of that section can be found at http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/chap6.html
Name: Anne Sullivan (email@example.com)
Date: 03/17/2005 09:44
Link to this Comment: 13578
I am still thinking about the "boxy-ness" or classification of gender which Paul's group discussed yesterday (As a disclaimer, I have not yet reached the moment in the novel when Cal/lie exclaims, "I am a boy," or something to that effect). I find it interesting and complicated that many of us felt that the narration -- along with Cal/lie's identity -- leaps somewhat effortlessly from female to male. It's strange to me because the novel seems fundamentally concerned with hybridity --with the dual self: the hyphenated national identity of Cal/ie's family, the school-girl / sexual love affair between Cal and the Object, and the sibling / spouse relationship between Desdemona and Lefty, to name only a few examples. Eugenides endlessly transgresses boundaries-- he disrupts dichotomies and (as revealed during our discussion yesterday) often makes us uncomfortable. Likewise, the book is ridden with metaphors of concealment, or layers of disguise -- Callie hiding behind her mane of hair in the basement bathroom stall at school, for example, the concealed and faceless voice that Desdemona listens to through a heating vent at the temple, and the enclosed, shrouded "crocus" that confuses Callie, etc. Anyway . . . given these moments of concealment and duality.... I find it odd that we read Callie's voice as so one-dimensional.. as a voice that re-erects those dichotomies that Eugenides continually dissolves...
I guess what I feel may be a reason for this contradiction (and someone mentioned this in class yesterday as well), is that Eugenides is commenting / parodying gender categorization. Maybe it comes back to this distinction between transformation and discovery (the latter of which we find in Greek Tragedy). Discovery implies the pre-existence of something which one eventually notices, or finds. Transformation, conversely, is willing reinvention . . . an acted transition from one thing to another. When Callie says, "I am a man!" she calls upon the transformation of the self -- a reconstruction of identity. So while it may seem like a deflection of a more complicated issue, Eugenides may actually be calling attention to constructionism, to the constant creation and revision of gender identity. Identity, sexual or otherwise, is perhaps that blank space which gains meaning only through our interpretations.
|Response to class discussion|
Name: Kelsey Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/19/2005 19:57
Link to this Comment: 13648
We talked about finding passages of the book that had beautiful language. One part of the book that I especially like is the second half of page 260 where Callie is talking about the new house with its abundance of windows. She mentions that her mother grew to appreciate them. Right after that she discusses her grandfather and the windows: "Lefty cleaned them. Making himself useful as aways, he took upon himself the Sisyphean task of keeping all those Modernist surfaces sparking." She says more about the windows, but these lines are a wonderful evolution, if you will, from "The Myth of Sisyphus" to part of a single page in "Middlesex." In this way, the language is particularly well chosen.
|end of the book|
Name: Anjali Vaidya (email@example.com)
Date: 03/19/2005 23:45
Link to this Comment: 13650
I just finished Middlesex about a half an hour ago and the book is still settling down in my mind. I loved this book. I've been happily immersed in it all day, and I'm sad it's over... I'm still wondering why Chapter Eleven was named Chapter Eleven- I thought there would be an explanation at some point, but if there was I missed it.
One thing the book made me think of was that I kept trying to classify Cal/lie as either a boy or a girl. And I wasn't doing it at all consciously- it wasn't until about three quarters of the way through the book that I realized I was doing it. I realized that my sense of a character and the way that I hear their voice depends a lot on what gender they are. There was a portion of the book- when Callie was 13 and 14, becoming friends with the Object, when something just felt off about the dialogue to me. It didn't sound right. And I suddenly realized at some point that it didn't sound right because I was hearing Callie's voice as a teenage girl's voice. As soon as I started thinking of him/her as a teenage boy, the dialogue stopped throwing me off.
I thought that was interesting, since it wasn't something I've ever realized that I do before- and it made me realize that I don't have any sense for what "in between" a girl and a boy's voice would sound like. I don't have a sense for such a person. It's interesting how hard it is to develop a sense for a person that transcends gender. Gender plays such a large role in how I define people in my mind, and I'd never even noticed before...
Cal/lie was a fascinating character. I loved this book, once again. It's introduced a lot of thoughts into my head that'll need to stew for a while...
There was also a line that I liked on page 418, when Cal/lie is talking about writing his/her biography for Dr. Luce: "I quickly discovered that telling the truth wasn't nearly as much fun as making things up." That made me laugh, since that's so true about telling stories. You don't necessarily make things up, but you embellish and omit things and add things and manipulate the reader a bit maybe and it's fun. It avoids the more prosaic or darker truth, but it's fun.
Name: Liz Paterek (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/20/2005 09:19
Link to this Comment: 13652
I didn't dislike this book, however, I think that perhaps I interpreted it a way that mocked the creation of boxes by demonstrating the manner in which people will place themselves in pre-constructed boxes rather than find individuality. I was annoyed that we kept trying to argue whther the author wrote in a female or male manner. Those are gross stereotypes and misconceptions. If you already know the author is male you will search for ways to fit him into that box. I remember explaining in my beauty class this picture I found beautiful. It was me with my friends at the Warped tour with a singer from one of my favorite bands. The picture reminded me of the beauty of the choas of this music not of personal relationships with friends, etc. However, I think in some way because I am female some people would try to find that element of connections in my picture, which clearly could be done. I never read characters the way their supposed to be read I suppose or at least I won't box people into a set of actions based on some preconcieved notion of gender. Perhaps it is merely that I defy so many of these notions myself. Okay but now it is time to get back the book and stop ranting.
I thought that the lesson in this book was not that there should be a new box for some intermediate gender but rather that there should be no boxes at all. People should not be segregated on the basis of gender and should not define themselves by a gender. I thought it almost comdemic how Cal could just switch genders. The lack of debate to me was odd but I found that it aided in my point of how people love to put themselves in boxes. I didn't think the writing style should have changed. To me the writing style showed that the mind of the character remained the same regardless of the box that the physical body was placed in. I doubt that boxes can ever be destroyed; however, perhaps boxes can be used in a more favorable manner as grouping based on characteristics of the mind rather than the physical body. For instance, grouping people together based on personality and taste in clothing and music, perhaps is a more acceptable box. It is not ideal but neither is the world.
In class we also spoke about how the box for the inbreeding was perhaps a postive thing or at least acceptable. The reason that I don't support inbreeding is because it is not biologically the best thing to do. There is a 1/4 chance for every gene that a person has that it will be the same gene repeated twice (I'm sorry this is me trying to grossly oversimplify). Humans carry many harmful recessive genes, and while many of these would kill a fetus in utero, some would not and result in harmful recessive mutations being expressed in the population. In any event the box generally stops people who are either undereducation or incapable of comprehending why it is not favorable to inbreed. I do not like the existance of the box, and I would not condemn someone for inbreeding, however, I think that perhaps I might look down on them for being selfish and not thinking about the reprecussions of their reproductive choices.
Name: Ariel Singer (email@example.com)
Date: 03/20/2005 13:39
Link to this Comment: 13661
I just finished Middlesex this weekend, and I really liked it. I did not find the end quite as compelling as the beginning though. I still think that Eugenides has beautiful way of handling language throughout the book, but at the end I felt like some of the things that happened to Cal became more unbelievable. I realize that this a weird statement given that many, many aspects of the book seem improbable. Yet the time in San Francisco felt more like it was created for a ³purpose², more like a plot devise used so that Cal could overcome that first step of awkwardness with minimal fuss, it seemed too much like a circus. Even with that I love the book.
We talked about why incest bothers people so much in our Wednesday class and what the biological/cultural reasons are for the deeply felt revulsion. I have been quizzing my friends to find out their views, and to see if they could define why they were so repulsed by the idea. So far everyone has had the same reaction, but no one has been able to figure out why. At first they will bring up the genetic inbreeding issue, but only in a very cursory way, everyone moves onto the example that they could never imagine it happening with their sibling, the idea is simply repellent. One of the interesting things that I did note was that when I asked people about step-siblings, or adopted sibling, if they did not have any, they were wary about the idea, but did not consider it in anywhere near the same category as relations with ³true² siblings. However if the person did have any half or adopted siblings, they were far more revolted by the idea.
Anyway, on a different note, I was perusing the BBC science web page and found an article on the X chromosome versus the Y chromosome. It is really interesting, it turns out that people with two X chromosomes have more genes expressed than people with an X and a Y. So people with two X chromosomes are more genetically varied. There is more information in the article itself, it is really quite interesting.
Name: Rebekah Baglini (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/20/2005 14:09
Link to this Comment: 13662
Ariel, that article does sound interesting. Could you perhaps post a link?
Paul's section of the class also discussed the incest issue last Wednesday. I remember bringing up something I'd read about how and why humans seem so innately averse to incest. I thought about it a bit more, and then recalled that a whole chapter in the book Consilience, by biologist E.O. Wilson is dedicated to exploring this phenomena. Although I didn't bring my copy with me to school, I googled a little and found an interview with the Wilson that explains the "Westermarck effect" that I was recalling in class.
This is Wilson on the subject:
"I believe the evidence shows persuasively that the original Freudian view of the origin of the incest taboo is incorrect--that some people have an overpowering urge to commit incest and cultures have created this taboo in response. It turns out to be just the reverse of that. The evidence indicates that it is due to the innate aversion to sex that arises from the so-called Westermarck effect--namely, individuals who are intimately associated during the first 30 months of life are desensitized to later close sexual bonding. All of the nonhuman primate species that have been examined for development of sexual preference also show this Westermarck effect. . . . It also explains the interactions of what we presume are genes underlying this rule of inhibition or desensitization. Note that if children are reared apart during the first 30 months or more of their lives and then brought back together again, they would have no barrier to forming sexual bonds, except being told that this is prohibited by custom and law. And then this fits very well with what we know in exact detail about the deleterious effects of inbreeding. When you marry or when you have a child with someone who's very closely related, then the chances are greatly increased that you will bring into juxtaposition rare genes in the population that cause genetic disease. So here we have an example of an understanding of what's going on at the level of the gene in human genetics, and leading up to and explaining how a certain psychological mechanism developed in the brain, which in turn provides an explanation to a wide range of phenomena concerning sexual preference, incest avoidance and all of the various myths and laws and religious prohibitions connected thereto."
As this quotation suggests, the interview (and the book that inspired it) is really relevent to some of the themes of this class and might be worth reading.
|Middlesex and much more|
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (email@example.com)
Date: 03/20/2005 14:17
Link to this Comment: 13663
I proceed with caution. I proceed with the risk of oversimplifying a book so superabundant with characters, history and incident. But here goes
Cal (Cal has me convinced too) doesnıt believe in genetics. Genetics is the scientific version of the ancient Greek notion of fate. Genes are predestined to explain his life. And yes, genetics does account for Calıs ambiguous ³intersexual² genitalia. But it canıt explain this Greek-Americanıs taste in handmade shoes, his Musketeer-like facial hair or his decision to avoid gender reassignment surgery and assume life as a person of ³Middlesex². Viewed through a sociobiological lens, infidelity, the novel's favorite theme, is transformed from the stuff of betrayal and moral failing to the mere playing out of a Darwinian reproductive imperative. Despair springs from an inherited defect in the regulation of neurochemicals, not from an existential apprehension of the immorality associated with incestuous relationships. Cal offers me an alternative to genetics. "A strange new possibility is arising," he tells me. "Compromised, indefinite, sketchy, but not entirely obliterated: free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain, life turns it into a mind"
At one point in his narrative, Cal bemoans the tendency of language to oversimplify emotion. "I don't believe in 'sadness,' 'joy,' or 'regret,'" he writes. English has no words to connote "complicated hybrid emotions" such as "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." or "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants." Cal himself, once a pretty, dark-eyed girl and now a "severe, aquiline-nosed, Roman-coinish person" is a complicated hybrid: an inexpressible concept whose evolution and metamorphosis, facts and language will never capture. But then, aren't we all?
At the end of it all, I am left with a single question. Is ''Middlesex'' -- or any novel, for that matter -- the story of its hero/ine, or the history of a particular configuration of DNA?
Name: Laine Edwards (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/20/2005 15:38
Link to this Comment: 13667
I simply love this book. It's the second time that I've read it, but because of the nature of the class and the things that I was looking for within the story the entire book changed. In our discussion upstairs on Wednesday we talked about whether or not the events of this book were inevitable. I'm not sure that I know there is a definitive answer to that question because it leads me to ask "inevitable to what end?" When you ask if things are inevitable I think it is important to consider the outcome you are expecting. Do we mean Cali's birth, the expression of the gene, her change in identity's? All of these things are connected yet each one takes a turn on its own to create the story.
In response to Arshiya's question, "Is ''Middlesex'' -- or any novel, for that matter -- the story of its hero/ine, or the history of a particular configuration of DNA?", I started to think about the different elements (family history, greek myths, etc.) of the story as the different genes in the story's DNA. Each one individually tells a separate story, but when expressed in relation to each other we get the whole picture, or story for that matter.
|Fate, Genetics, and Happy Reading|
Name: Tonda Shimbo (email@example.com)
Date: 03/20/2005 15:50
Link to this Comment: 13669
To add to Arshiya's comment
, I think Cal has a very interesting take on our existence. Whether due to his Greek heritage, or a result of his tramatic teenage experiences, Cal looks for a reason in everything. I think that is why the story is so enjoyable and electrifying to read - because from the story of Desdemona and Lefty we are ushered into a picture in which we believe that there is a purpose for Cal's narration of this event. That all the events and emotions of the lives of these three generations of Stephanides are going to culminate in Cal, in the very reasoning for his existence and being the way he is.
Obviously, genetics played a very large part in the story, causing the deficiencies and appearances of genetic material and altering Callie's/Cal's life forever. Even this is seen as having a purpose, as to bringing Cal to the person he was meant to be, and drastically changing his original story, which is ever-evolving. I feel that he gives us further reasoning to abandon the identification of two and only two genders, and move more towards what Grobstein was talking about last week - a spectrum. The idea fascinates me, and I wish more people understood what Cal so eloquently describes here.
I found Eugenides' writing style (and Cal's narration) to be very comforting, so that I never felt uncomfortable reading about the many events in Cal's life that society would very likely consider taboo, or flat out wrong. I enjoyed his flowing in and out of Greek tragedy, Elizabethan comedy, and even throwing a little J.D. Salinger in for all our benefit. It was always smooth, never startling unless he wanted it to be so. Overall I think a very effective work and incredibly enjoyable read.
Name: Haley Bruggemann (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/20/2005 18:29
Link to this Comment: 13679
Having finished Middlesex early on this weekend, I first have to say that I loved the book, so I have very few "critiques". I thought it was enjoyable and gripping to the very last and eye-opening to say the least.
When I began reading it, I was struck by the movement backward and forward in time. I liked how we read nearly chronologically the story of Cal's grandparents, parents, and then his own life story. It has been a long time since I've read a book structured like this one. The main character is not even born until part 3, which is a little over halfway through the book. I have still not come to a decision why Eugenides decided to structure it in this way.
Others have talked about Cal's reliability as a narrator, as well, which oftentimes bothered me. How can he know the events that take place before his birth, or accurately describe them?
Finally, we talked about Cal's voice as either being female, male or both downstairs, and whether or not Eugenides meant to make him sound one way or another. I am not quite sure that I believe that his manner of telling his story is connected to his gender (even though at some points he adds in comments like "All I know is this: despite my androgenized brain, there's an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell" on page 20), or that he sounds distinctly female or distinctly male at any particular point in the novel. I think, like every other person, Cal is unique in his voice and in his story-telling style.
|Cycles in Middlesex|
Name: Kate Shiner (email@example.com)
Date: 03/20/2005 22:45
Link to this Comment: 13704
I have been thinking about the concept of cycles Anne raised, and trying to see how it applies to the stories and the genes we find in Middlesex. To quote Anne quoting Craig Womack, "I think the story is like a circle; periodically, you end up back in the fog and chaos, but as you get further along, the darkness becomes more manageable..." I think this quote applies to Middlesex in a number of important ways.
There are so many cycles in Middlesex. After reading comments I have been seeing how the story does something interesting- it tells the story of Cal and Cal's ancestors' lives as one continuous, evolving story. I think so often we, especially in America, see ourselves as standing alone in our own self-created story. But Eugenides sees a parallel between the long view of evolution as a story of genes told through the generations, and a story of personal choices and influences only truly understood through the generations.
The example that is sticking out in my mind is that of the cycle of incest in Middlesex. First Lefty and Desdemona, and then Cal's parents commit a type of incest. Although the second generation is technically a lesser form of "cousin incest," it seems to be made more similar and scandalous by the fact that the two were raised in the same room as infants. This repeats the history of Lefty and Desdemona sharing a room, which Eugenides specifically points out. This comment highlights the repetitiveness of the history of the family and also serves as a type of foreshadowing. Eugenides in this and other examples implies that the genes continue a story that they have willed themselves to continue, that this incest in the family was somehow fated by the genes. This seems illogical at first, but in light of the genetically inhereted Westermarck affect mentioned by Rebekah, one could see how perhaps a mutation in the Westermarck gene or set of genes might give rise to the prevalence of incestual behavior in Callie's family.
This leads me to ask myself, where is the incest in Callie's generation? There seems to be none, and this may be significant. Chapter Eleven and Callie would be the most obvious choices for incest, since they are the only members of this generation who play a central role as characters. The narrator often mentions the two as a united whole, especially before birth they are floating on rafts, the only two ominiscient characters. However I believe Cal/lie shows a significant distaste and dissconnection from his/her brother throughout the book, evidenced by the shameful name that seems to define him. Perhaps this unharmonious relationship implies from the beginning something about Cal's lack of traditional femininity in the sense of not having the protective younger sister/older brother relationship but more of a competitive traditionally male quality of the "brotherly" Cain and Abel variety. Also it may be significant that by the end of the book although both are well into middle age neither has seemed to find a definitive life partner.
This exploration of the absence of incest in the third generation is interesting, but I still feel that the cycle MUST be passed down in some evolved form. I've begun to think that perhaps Cal/lie him/herself is the chaotic and then more well-defined and then chaotic once again "incestual form," as s/he is in some sense torn between two related selves and possesses both genders within.
Name: Nada Ali (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/20/2005 22:55
Link to this Comment: 13706
I have to say, I enjoyed this book. It was entertaining and different. It was in simple terms quite refreshing. However the novelıs unique style makes me curious. The book seems to begin in another world filled with incest, a village life, taboo and genetic mutations and ends up in a completely different world. Initially I felt it was a book that sought to connect two different worlds in a genetic web by using elements of Greek tragedy and scientific explanations of genetics. In some ways, the book was attempting to find some connection between genes and their ability to create consequences through our actions. These consequences based on Desdemona and Leftyıs actions to some degree affect Cal or Callie in the future. Therefore thereıs a sense of how life levels all of us out and consequences are the bearers of morality. Desdemona always feared that there might be something wrong with her children. There wasnıt and she thought it was okay. But then came the twist, Callie/Cal. I think its interesting how Eugenides created a modern Greek tragedy. Perhaps his culture is permeating his work, but I think itıs more deliberate than that.
The use of science, especially in the latter half of the book introduces another style that adds to the effective reception of the book. Itıs both scary and interesting and provides a realistic and imaginable context to the book. However what is still dissatisfying even at the end is Callie/Cals transition. I dont think the book fully captured the essence of Callie/Cal's sexual journey. The trauma is superficial. While there are so many instances in the novel that Cal is confused and reverts back in forth in his/her head, it was not convincing to me as a reader.
Name: maria ()
Date: 03/20/2005 23:58
Link to this Comment: 13718
The issue of incest has clearly been present in human society for a very long time *and* present in such a way that it is a consistently acknowledged (though not accepted) part of human culture. It has been an identifiable presence in a variety of societies and because it was observed it had to be accounted for in the stories those societies told about themselves and the world they lived in.
I am always leery of first-person narrators who tell stories that contain more information than the narrator could possible have (again with the knowledge of his grandparents relationship). If Eugenides had wanted to, he surely could have written the narrative voice of Cal in a way that corresponded more closely to the sort of stories that we are actaully able to tell about ourselves and our families. The question then becomes why Eugenides chose to write this novel the way that he did. He wanted Cal to seem real to us, on the first page one is confronted with what seem to be a number of facts that in thier specificity ("Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974"..."Dr. Peter Luce's study...") paint a picture of Cal as a almost-objective, insightful narrator. But the more I read the more I had trouble reconciling Cal the narrator with the narrative he provides.
Name: Brittany ()
Date: 03/21/2005 00:44
Link to this Comment: 13723
Like Maria, I've also been wondering about Eugenides's storytelling style. Middlesex seems the furthest thing from the traditional transsexual coming-of-age tale, and I think the fact that "Cal" is an omniscient narrator has a lot to do with it. Throughout the book, he enters his characters' heads indiscriminately; even during the same scene, he'll switch perspectives several times. The most striking example of this (in my opinion) was in that highly uncomfortable Lefty/Des lifeboat scene. Cal depicted the union from both sides, sometimes paragraph-by-paragraph. The more I think about it, the more I think that Eugenides did this purposefully. Maybe the point of the book was *not* to have a "big epiphany change of writing style" when Callie finally, physically became Cal. Maybe the entire book is an exercise in seeing from two perspectives at once. The narrative style mimics (or reflects?) its fictional "author's" ability. So when Callie becomes Cal (or even earlier, when the omniscient narrator settles for a long while in Callie), there is no significant change in style. We've already been hearing a ping-pong of male/female viewpoint throughout the book. Callie's shift should be no different.
But. The thing is, no matter how many times Eugenides enters a female's head, I still feel a sense of detachment---like it's really Cal-the-male operating subtly from inside Des-the-female's skull. I can't explain this feeling; it has to do with his writing style, which still despite everything strikes me as "male." I'm too much a part of the tradition I was raised in, I guess. I can't define the "male/female boxes" consciously, but I know what they are and I'm programmed to file certain cadences of words, phrases, writing styles, into each box.
|a continuous story? free well vs genetics|
Name: Britt Fremstad (email@example.com)
Date: 03/21/2005 10:19
Link to this Comment: 13742
I was up late--late, late--finished the book, and it was worth it.
I just wanted to point out something that I don't believe has been mentioned yet.
During the last hundred pages, or so, I paid particular attention to references to previous actions of Desdemona and Lefty. Eugenides often referred to them during Milton's quest to get Cal/lie. On page 501 and 502 the story goes "Back in 1933, a disembodied voice had spoken to my grandmother.... now, forty-two years later, a disguised voice spoke to my father..." AND "Lefty and Desdemona, one time only, had reveled thier secret here.. and now their son... was pulling in behind ths station, also secretly."
I merely mention this because I think it relates to the fate/genetics/free will/chance discussion. If Cal is a proponent of free will, how does he account for the continuous actions of his relatives? Is there something "in their genes" that led them to do this particular action? Or, is it simply chance that Milton mirrored his parents actions on his last day living? (Thus making it a more interesting story.) OR, is he just saying that free will is great and everything and that he's really glad it's "making a comeback."
I assume he believe in a mixture of this whole chance and fate dualism. (If that's not an appropriate usage of the word, forgive me. I've never used it before.) On 489 Cal says that "Fate or luck had brought me [to San Francisco] and I had to take from it what I needed." I suppose this could be a metaphor for him accepting his hermaphodism and then doing what he could with it.
I look forward to class today.
|Cal(lie)'s point of view|
Name: Becky Hahn (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/21/2005 21:34
Link to this Comment: 13832
I am particularly interested in Cal(lie)'s point of view and specifically the idea of consciousness. At first the omniscient POV was a little unsettling because it seems unnatural for a single character to know so many details about others' lives. But once I got used to it, it made more sense because each detail is a part of Cal(lie)'s story--something that made her who she is--no matter how distant the events may seem. The idea of Middlesex as an Easter story, with Cal(lie) as the Christ figure is also useful for understanding this omniscience, and the importance of her story (as she tells it, it becomes comparable to religion--"the greatest story ever told" p. 179).
The "gender" of her perspective doesn't matter to me so much. I usually am quite conscious of the the gender of the narrator of a story that I'm reading, but in this case I'm not. Cal(lie)'s perspective seems to go beyond gender, not in terms of a "third sex" but more of a universal, god-like omnicience where gender is not on your mind. Which seem strange from a book that is thoroghly about sex/gender...
Cal(lie) is certainly central thorughout the novel, but her consciousness is not as present as it seems it would be. She has a way of looking at things from outside--including herself--that sometimes restricts our understanding of her own consciousness of self, despite the fact that she's omnipresent. There's a strange tension between exploration of consiousness of self and lack of consiousness.
Name: Jessica (email@example.com)
Date: 03/22/2005 08:34
Link to this Comment: 13858
Slightly off topic: I read this story over the weekend, ³Lost and found: Tsunami reveals a town's ancient ruins,² http://www.cnn.com/2005/TECH/science/03/17/tsunami.lost.city.ap/index.html
and couldnıt stop thinking about it in conjunction with this class. During the tsunami, when the ocean pulled far away from the land, everyone watching swore they saw hidden temples and ruins revealed. Most of it has now been covered by the water again, and there are discrepancies between what the archeologists say they could have seen, and what the fisherman say they actually saw with the waves blown back.
And thatıs part of the evolution going on in Middlesex. Cal/lieıs catastrophic event uncovers her grandparentsı story. Only when evolution brings Cal to life does it unearth, with verifiable, look and see, scientific evidence, what actually happened on that mountain top, and on that ship. And only in the telling of Callieıs story does her grandparentsı story ever get told (no one else is writing books about Lefty and Desdemona)
So thatıs a part of evolution thatıd been right in front of my face, I suppose, but I love every week, being able to articulate a slightly different angle of these stories.
Name: Nada Ali (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/22/2005 13:14
Link to this Comment: 13869
In some ways the story of Callie is one of biological evolution. Especially in the use of metaphors and direct scientific knowledge. I find it interesting how Eugenides mixes science with greek tragedy and American ideas to produce a very effective book which audiences respond too in such a powerful manner. Hence the question that arises is how is it possible that throughout the other two books, Mayr and Dennett emphasize the lack of purpose, fate and intentionality that Eugenides captures so beautifully without creating much tension between the two supposedly opposite ideals. Like Rebekah, then I wonder if that is a return to the idea of free will. Perhaps the book resonated with us in a more personal way because the truth is that despite what Mayr and Dennett said quite convincingly, isnt actually what we want to believe. We want to believe in some sort of purpose because that is what gives us free will and the ability to choose. I suppose Im rambling and not making much sense but what Im basically trying to get too is that he mixes the scientific with the philosophical and the literary and produces a piece of work that sheds light upon our darkest secret. That while cells hide the mutations and the information and we're like computers, we intrinsically and socially cannot comprehend our existence without the purpose that we create through whatever medium, memes. This book grasped the human aspect of all the previous stories and thats what made this book better. Plus it was more interesting with all its scandal and honesty.
Another interesting thing was that Cal/Callie presents his or herself as undergoing a gender change that wasnt dramatic. The most important inference from that was that Cal was rejecting the experience as being a big deal. The greater message being, that it was always in her himself and this was simply not as drastic and dramatic as we initially may have wanted it to be. Perhaps this is the single most important message of the novel.
Professor Dalke's question about the pragmatic versus the idealist was very thought provoking. In its simplicity lay a dichotomy that was actually a continuum. Pragmatism is what age brings while idealism is what age destroys. As hard as that sounds I feel like experience removes idealism in degrees. Not to say we are one or the other. We are probably both, more or less one of the other. I just liked that question because it made me think about things I didnt think about before. It reinforces my belief that there is no such thing as a simple answer to a straightforward question.
Name: Maja (email@example.com)
Date: 03/22/2005 13:52
Link to this Comment: 13874
In yesterdaysı class, some random ideas popped into my head and I thought I'd share them. First, when Ann Dalke brought up the idea that scientists use more radical story telling styles and Ariel disagreed with her, it made me think of my own opinion on the matter. Although scientist do tend to constantly build onto and off of previous theories, research and knowledge, they often find themselves reaching a brick wall and having to completely abandon one well-established theory or belief for a completely outrageous and new notion. A perfect example of that was the widely accepted idea that all of the planets and the sun revolved around the earth. I would consider that shift in the plotline to be a radical change to the story. They donıt try to subtly connect the two theories. Instead, they abruptly end one as it is disproved by the other.
I was also intrigued by the comment about viewing ourselves from the outside, or choosing not to. I had spent the better part of my childhood (through my first year at college) not really paying much attention to myself in any way, but instead focusing on other people and their personalities, habits, and ways. It was, in a way, a self-defense mechanism that I had mastered into a state of perfection. I was so focused on reading other people that I neglected to 'read' into myself. When I was first faced with the realization of the person that I had shaped into, it almost felt like an out of body experience. It just hit me out of nowhere and all of a sudden I had to deal with the reality of this realization. It is very much an influential experience. And now I realize the importance of checking in with yourself every once in a while. I wonder how life is different for those who seem to overanalyze themselves versus those who barely notice that there may be a selfı to detect.
Name: Lauren Z (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: 03/22/2005 23:17
Link to this Comment: 13901
I just wanted to say a bit about all the egg imagery in Middlesex. There is the easter egg scene the night of Cal's conception. There is also the scene in which Callie is asked to translate a line from Ovid: "omnia ex ova," everything from an egg. I'm certain I had thought up quite a few more, but right now they all escape me. Anyway, I had originally associated this egg imagery with the circular story telling style that we had discussed earlier as a style that is distinctly "feminine." Anne's lecture yesterday on the story of Easter has also enabled me to connect this imagery to the theme of rebirth that is so central to the novel. Wow! The more I search, the more I find.
Name: Austin (email@example.com)
Date: 03/24/2005 02:20
Link to this Comment: 13958
I really enjoyed Middlesex as a jumping off point for all of our discussions in this class, biological and otherwise, as well as just a great read. Although some were wary of Cal being an omnicient narrator, yet a real person in the story, I really enjoyed this aspect. I thought that being able to see into everyone's head involved in this story was an amazing benefit to understanding the complexity of the characters and the plot. Even though the idea of the omnicient narrator who is also present in the story is unrealistic, I found it different, interesting, and a great aspect to the book. I just had to accept that, in reality, there is no way that Cal could have had all of this knowledge. But I am willing to accept that and allow the narrator to break this boundary.
A note about the Greek references: I believe that they are not utterly essential to the story and that one can get along quite nicely without understanding their meaning, although it's a great benefit if you do. I believe that if we think of this in relation to other aspects of the story, however, we will see that one can never get the full grasp of every interworking detail of a tale. Not all of us are familiar with Detroit, but we didn't feel unsettled about this fact. Nor did we get caught up in the fact that we didn't have an idea of what it's like to marry your brother, flee from a war, live as both genders, or even that we didn't understand references to cars, trees, house layouts, or the silk industry. Some people may have understood these and therefore received the benefit of knowing a reference, but it wasn't essential to the story. Every book has unknown aspects to it, and that is what makes reading such an amazing journey. If we knew everything to be known within a text, there would really not be much point in reading it.
| Course Home Page
| Science in Culture
| Serendip Home
Send us your comments at Serendip
© by Serendip 1994-
- Last Modified:
Thursday, 18-Mar-2010 15:05:18 EDT