23 August 2013

2 winded

we're all of us sensitive still, in my family. to depictions of violence, darkness, sad stories.

my parents had to turn off gone with the wind the other night.

this was significant enough of a thing that they have both mentioned it to me separately and my father has addressed it further in a letter.

last night, debo told me it qualified as an epiphany. this sudden realization that gone with the wind is a tragedy and not a romance.

they had to turn it off after rhett carried scarlett up the stairs.

'oh', i said, 'when he raped her, you mean?'

this leads to the longest conversation we've ever had about gone with the wind- which sounds rather flippant but, in light of the fact this is a book/movie i've been talking about for 25 years, it's pretty substantial.

'it's no wonder they lost the war when they had leaders like ashley wilkes and charles hamilton!' she says.

'but remember charles was raised by pittypat...' i remind her, hearing my father pipe up in the background to acknowledge: 'and she was a total flibberty-jibbet.' 

'and ashley wasn't as dreamy as i remembered...' debo said trailing off so i could jump in and point out that ashley is dreamy, in the sense that he's the old south, a disappearing world. he's a pathetic figure who can't speak his mind and tell scarlett he doesn't love her or even chop logs to warm the house she's running to keep the whole lot of them alive. he's so polite, so poetic that he's completely impotent, because the world he was raised to live in no longer exists. 

so he is dreamy, that's precisely the word for him, because he's like a water color, whilst rhett is painted in oil. 

rhett is the new south and ashley's the old and scarlett lies somewhere between- torn between old south manners and the stronger pull of her irish roots. the knowledge that she should be a proper lady but the fact that she only knows how to be herself- a gritty, rather vapid woman hardened by war and hunger, with ambition, a talent for math and a gift for making money. 

still, she cannot relinquish the dream. she clings to it, despite the fact that, as soon as she commits murder, it's definitely gone. 

the question then is whether she'll hang on to the last remnants of the world she grew up in (ie. ashlely) and be dragged down by it, or let it go. in the end, since the dudes abandon her in one fell swoop at melanie's deathbed, it's kind of all up to her to free herself. and, yes, the ending implies she goes for the latter, but she's returning to a plantation so the idea that she's made real progress is somewhat debatable. it's not like she up and moved to new york. she just did the southern thing and went home.  

'if any of them could just say what they mean, they might have been happier,' says debo. 

(an argument that is exactly analogous to saying 'if any of them could've done math they would've known nan couldn't be carrying jack's baby' in circle of friends.)

but that is, i think, the whole point. or at the very least part of it. because they could not say what they meant. not only because for any of them to have been forthright would have lessened the impact of the story and also the length of the novel/movie, but because to be frank is not southern. in all the psycho-drama and love turmoil, it's easy to forget that all of these characters are southern and, therefore, they are existing within the confines of an elaborate etiquette system. 

ashley keeps scarlett on the hook for years and years because (1) he's a spineless lame and (2) it would be super impolite for a gentleman to tell a lady he didn't love her. this was a time when ladies like scarlett- belles- turned down marriage proposals as a matter of routine. like how you'd say, 'yeah, i'm not free for dinner next tuesday,' they'd be all 'oh brent tarleton, thank you so much for your proposal of marriage i just can't decided if i like your or your brother better so let's all sit together at the barbecue.' 

you tell a girl you love her. you shut your mouth when you don't. 

so poor ashley here is caught up in a classic southern no win. 

and rhett is stuck too. because his rudeness- his flying in the face of southern conventions- is disingenuous. he is in love with scarlett but acts as though he isn't and frequently says so. so she isn't clear on his feelings because he isn't clear about them to her. everything is conveyed with a sarcastic veneer. and she's, what?, 20? and kinda stupid? it's like he's speaking at a register she cannot hear. 

it's a register to which one becomes gradually attuned. reading the book as a kid, i missed all this. around the age of 25, i was like 'holy shit.'

gone with the wind comes up a lot in conversations. because i read it a lot and because, in discussions of southernness, i bring it up a lot and because, in discussions with southerners, we southerners talk about it a lot.

a few weeks ago a biographer friend was in town and we were both from the south and reading the mind of the south, so inevitably the conversation wound it's way around to gone with the wind. and, in discussing her divorce, she looked at me across the table of a pub built in 1462 and said, 'you see i got it wrong. i married an ashley and i should've held out for a rhett.'

an allusion that strikes to the very centre, like a needle into skin, of all of my fears about my own judgement when it comes to love.

ashley is a watercolor. rhett is an oil. gone with the wind is, in the end, a clashing of the two. and yet there's a heroine. an anti-heroine, really, but a heroine nonetheless, who holds it all together. she is the bridge between the worlds, this woman. 

A WOMAN!!! (this is probably why the book gets demeaned as 'a women's book' or a 'trashy book' or 'a guilty pleasure.' because it's by a woman and it's about a woman. imagine how differently we might view it had mitchell opted to follow the war exploits of ashley and rhett rather than remaining on the homefront with the gals...) 

early on, there's a brazen acknowledgement that the women of the south pretended they were silly and only interested in silly things because that would be easier for the men to take and, in a society where men were happy, women would hold the power. it's one example of the what would probably be best described as- to borrow a phrase often disparagingly used by mr. brady on the brady bunch and yet which is useful if we can apply positive connotations to it- notions of 'women's liberation' (rather than feminism) that thread through the book. 

you guys, THERE IS SO MUCH GOING ON HERE. for reals. there's the racism of the 1930s south filtered through the racism of the 1860s south. the women's lib of the 1930s south filtered through the women of 1860s atlanta. there's the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the enslaved and the free. and the regrets!!! omg, the regrets. there are more regrets here than in grey gardens. see also: ellen's cousin philippe! (SADFACE. that is all i will say about that.) 

seriously, it's like the book of genesis set in civil war times. 

if i were given the opportunity to teach any two college level courses: course #2 = great american novels of the 20th century featuring groups of women wherein one dies at the end (the group, the best of everything, valley of the dolls)... course #1 = gone with the wind: the class. the whole semester. all gone with the wind all the time. we would just squeeze that book dry like a lemon until it had absolutely nothing left to give.

because it is key. it is pivotal. it is one of the great novels by anyone period. you should basically all go read it right now because it is grotesquely underrated as a work of art simply because it is deeply pleasurable to read, which is some horrible awful puritanical anti-pleasure crap at work that we should all- each and every one of us who loves books- actively seek to defy.


mak said...

As Libby will tell you in a shocked voice, I've neither read nor scene Gone with the Wind.

But damn if I don't want to read it now. Like right now, Monday work obligations be damned.

oline said...

DO IT!!!! right now. seriously. i'm on my second sweep through it this year and i'm not at all embarrassed to say that i would rank the experience of it right up there with reading nabokov.