Thursday, June 19, 2014

EUPHORIA by Lily King: A reaction

“Euphoria” is another one of those books that I bought for the cover and blurbs.  Sigh.  In fact, it is Harry Potter for grown-ups with anthropology instead of magic.  The novel is "inspired by" Margaret Mead, her second (Reo Fortune) and third (Gregory Bateson) husbands, a famous emotional triangle, united by the experience of intellectual "euphoria" on discovering "the secret of the universe," or at least one small tribe.  It was a feeling that lasted several days as the three figured out a graph for organizing cultural types.  It was a little like the fellow who had an epiphany in his sleep, woke up enough to write it down, and discovered in the morning that he had written "tomato soup."   The other plot gimmick is supposedly an actual object worth a lot of money back in England.  It is supposed to be valuable because it has “writing” on it, meant to be like one of those Middle Eastern steles with once-mysterious language.  Very phallic.  Very Euro-centric.  No writing has ever been invented by New Guinea tribes.

Mead and Fortune

So the plot rocks along with funky descriptions of New Guinea, that interrupted, rucked up, and narrow place, much darker than Africa ever thought of being.  I only know a little about the tribes because of the Cassowary ceremonial cycle that I use in “The Bone Chalice.”   (Not a novel.) This novel is not about high mountain jungle where the cassowaries lurk but rather about the steamy bug-ridden villages along the Sepik River, each with it’s own “vibe.”  In “Euphoria” one is not likely to learn as much about the relationship of the people with their environment and the compromises they make in order to survive, as about the stubborn anthros who write it all down -- on their own terms.  Euphoria easily becomes delusion.

The "euphoric" insight about cultures is only two lines, boundaries, one turned perpendicular to create four quadrants that can “locate” opposite characteristics.  These graphs abound everywhere, esp. in workshops about teaching methods or psychological styles.  Why these three relatively sophisticated and certainly educated people would get so excited over this quadrant diagram may just be a novelist’s conceit.  The other gizmo, the “object” that carries privileged writing, is pretty common: ask the Mormons.  Or Moses.

Anton Boisen was a figure in religious counseling ("chaplaincy") related to medicine, who did much work in the small towns of middle America (not unlike being an anthropologist) and who occasionally had psychotic breaks during which he entertained a structured fantasy about four people, two couples, one that included him and one that included a woman he loved and lost.  This kind of structuring of emotional abstracts seems to me (partly because I’m reading so much about brain neuron organization that controls the way we think) to come out of the thinker rather than the thought or the environment.  As I understand it, one thin layer of the cerebrum appears to be organized in a geometric topography.  The body is sketched out on the next layer.  This appears to control our use of metaphors.  We can only think of abstract concepts in terms of metaphors anchored in sensory memories and "located" as diagrams.  This is what Lily King has done.  It's the essence of narrative.

For some the book will be an intense and satisfyingly sordid fantasy that for once avoids the trashed out and half-rotted urban ghettoes we see on television every night.  Spoiler coming:  the final “climax” is an all-female massage orgy, the long-resisted fuck for the two anthros not out stealing artifacts, and a murder.  Quite a pile-up.  Then the anthros flee.

Lily King

What lurks behind this whole tale is the portrait of the author, who looks like a younger, more fairy-tale version of J.K. Rowling, which is what got me started on this comparison of Bateson with Harry Potter.  (Or is it a cross-gender thing with the Margaret Mead version as the diligent and honorable Harry.)  But they were kids.

Mary Catherine Bateson in mid-life

There’s something disturbing about thinking about the nipples of Margaret Mead or the purple penis of Reo Fortune.  TMI. I’m the same age as Mary Catharine Bateson and have always identified with her a little bit, so it’s almost like thinking about the sex lives of one’s parents.  Maybe for Lily King those iconic people are distant enough for it not to matter.  There’s a real hypocrisy in pretending that these are fictional people when all along we know the tale is supposed to be revealing some hidden truth about their rather mysterious lives.
Mead and Bateson (maybe)

There are two epigraphs:  “Quarrels over women are the keynote of the New Guinea primitive world.”  (Margaret Mead) and “Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination.”  (Ruth Benedict)   Lily King took those very seriously.  The mood is delusion-encouraging, but there is much talk of specs, eyeglasses.  Fortune broke Mead’s specs and Bateson gave her those of his brother, which seem to have been close enough in prescription to work pretty well.  Fortune also broke Mead’s typewriter.   See?

The two husbands were nearly indistinguishable when they grew beards.  Even NOT.

As the story begins, Mead is scraped, feverish, sprained, exhausted, and Bateson supplies meds and bandages.  Later it is Bateson who is seriously ill, semi-conscious, and Fortune near-kisses him -- lip to lip contact, anyway, but there’s no real kiss.   Just enough to hint at male/male eroticism and the intimacy of taking care of someone too weak to resist.  It’s all sophomorically “hip” and “wised up.”  There doesn’t seem to be some final political statement, the way “The Wind Done Gone” is a corrective to “Gone with the Wind.

Partly this echoes the scandal over Mead’s original book, which suggested that innocent adolescent sex in Samoa was simply a social variant.  (I watched an episode of “Spiral,” last night.  It’s a French crime series and in this section two couples admit wife-swapping (swinging) at several sex clubs with which the aggressive judge seems very familiar.  One wife has been strung up, raped and tortured to the point of losing blood.  All is discovered, but the line between what is merely “edgy” and what is criminal becomes blurry.)  One proposition was that Mead made up "Coming of Age in Samoa" to justify her own behavior.  

Derek Freeman led the charge, but there has been a great tangle of ambiguity among several famous figures and their opinions.  This is a kind of variation on the accusations of writers perpetrating hoaxes.  This time the informant may be the hoaxer.  

The Samoan girls mock Mead.

It makes a good inkblot test -- “an elephant in boots”, as the Bateson character in the novel mischaracterizes the “sex” card of the Rorschach sequence.  In the end the controversy seems to have settled down to the idea that Mead was too personal, “not even wrong,” too subjective -- just what you’d expect from a woman.  Feminists smiled.  Betty Friedan felt Mead was infantilizing her subjects.  Rev. Luther Cressman, Mead's first husband, had made it his policy not to talk.

If the waters of this story are already so fetid, dark and muddied, why worry about a fictional sensationalized version?  I guess I don’t see any moral objection to "Euphoria", but maybe it just seems like a pretty little blonde girl trying to be a grownup by playing with the obscene, a form of dress-ups, more teasing than transgressive.  It’s strange that obscenity is supposed to be the entitlement of grownups when so many obscene things happen to kids everywhere. 

Of course, just as this novel tells us more about Lily King than about Margaret Mead, this review tells more about me than Lily King.  Around here anthros, novelists, and religionists are knee deep, but this is high and dry country.  We tend to be a good deal more humorous and cynical.  As for erotics, that’s pretty much for kids.  Teasing.

Margaret Mead, everybody's grandmother

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