Monday, November 22, 2010

"The White Curve of Her Neck"

One passage from James Joyce's story "Araby" has always moved me; it reminds me so much of my perspective on girls when I was a boy and it makes me think how wrong we have gone in terms of the way women can be perceived in our society. Here is the main character's view of his friend Mangan's older sister (with whom he is desperately in love) in "Araby":

While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go [to Araby], she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent [school]. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps, and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
Maybe I'm getting sentimental, but this nearly brings a tear to my eye every time I read it. It is as if Joyce reached into my brain and pulled out the innocent, aesthetic aching for female beauty that I felt as a boy; the attraction that had nothing to do with ulterior motives -- nothing to do with lust, yet. It was more like a tree's need for light than anything else. Does every boy go through this for a time? Or was it born out of the concept that had I somehow gathered -- that girls were something special, even magical?

George Clausen; "Twilight Interior"
Joyce's passage is sensual, in that it appeals to the senses. But it is not sexual. Unfortunately, right now some sex-starved old professor, somewhere, is teaching his lit. 101 class something naughty in reference to the fence spike, but lonely professors do that. (I once had one try to explain how Santa is a sexual myth: "Little red guy penetrates the chimney and leaves his presents." I kid you not.) The sexual does flutter in the background of Joyce's description, but so subtly that it's a radio between stations, softly buzzing in another room. The rest is an appreciation of the female form and motion. The image of her spinning the silver bracelet on her wrist is exquisite in the lost sense of the word.

Okay -- yeah. So then I grew up and thought along less than poetic lines about women at times (maybe most of the time), but I always respected them, both for who they are and for the brush strokes that made them up. The female form did become sexual for me, but it never ceased to also be aesthetically beautiful: the colors that play through her hair in low light; the delicate, fragile intricacy of her hands; the soft shadows on her shoulders; the natural music in her laughter. Corny? Good. We could use that now in a world that is desperate to be cool, always.

The media is to blame in large part: cameras focusing only on certain parts of a woman's anatomy (and I'm not talking about softly-curving necks in lamplight); sexuality as theatrics with facial expressions that look as much like threats as come-hithers; women proudly referring to themselves as "bitches," etc. I'm losing faith in what our young boys are becoming and in what our young ladies think they need to be to please them.

I guess I am saying nothing new, but it would break my heart to think every man doesn't have memory of having regarded women the way the main character in "Araby" saw Mangan's sister that evening, or that every woman hasn't once had the feeling of being seen as one of nature's most breathtaking aesthetic wonders.

Maybe it is fitting that this little essay is just another blip in the cacophonous drone of world-wide electronic chatter. Like the boy in the story whose powerlessness in the adult world leaves him returning, in the dark, on a train, empty-handed and angry from his self-imposed knightly quest to bring his fair lady home a prize, so my words might get lost in a world that thinks courtship and foreplay are the same thing -- that thinks nude works of art are dirty and that wiggling body parts in music videos are freedom of expression.

Anyway, I still become all boyish inside when I see my wife toss her hair sideways -- that movement only women make, in just that way -- before she begins writing, or reading or any other everyday task.

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