George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

A_Feast_For_Crows.365x600.w.bI’d heard from more than one source that this fourth novel was one of the weaker, if not the weakest, of the five yet published. Likely this is because—I’m not making an original observation here—it’s one-half of the too-large manuscript Martin submitted to his publisher, only to be told to split the thing into what would be the fourth and fifth books of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin chose to divide the text geographically rather than chronologically, and this meant that a number of well-liked characters, left in cliffhangers in A Storm of Swords, made no appearance in A Feast for Crows. This, and a large part of the book involves new characters, yet to prove their depth compared to the old.

So be it: the book’s good. If the new characters don’t seem as deep as the old, then at some level it remains to be seen whether this is a function of knowing them for less time or a less-compelling conception.

The broader issue for me, aside from enjoying the read, is the extent to which Martin’s work revises Tolkein’s precedent. Along this line, the question of women in the narrative is central. Martin’s work is widely seen as rebutting Tolkein’s near-totally male Middle Earth. Rhiannon, in an excellent piece, puts it as follows:

A Song of Ice and Fire is a mostly feminist text, featuring fascinating, dynamic female characters in a variety of situations. The fact that these girls and women live in a deeply misogynistic world only adds to the realism of their struggles and ultimately to the strength of their achievements.

I might have gone with that sentiment all the way through the first three books, but am hesitant with A Feast for Crows. Why, precisely, and why with this book? For me, any feminism worth getting behind is based on the premise that women are precisely as complex as men. This is more of an analytical point than an evaluative one. Patriarchy is based on the premise that women are as a group are subservient, simply. All my experience flies in the face of this idea, and so I reject it.

Martin’s treatment of Cersei in A Feast for Crows has forced me to re-investigate the women who populate the books generally. She is, here, an alcoholic hitting her bottom. For starters she drinks constantly, and to finish everything she does is wrong and destructive. Interestingly, I find myself becoming more sympathetic toward her in inverse proportion to the extent Martin reduces her to a simply destructive presence. It’s as if I feel like it’s one thing for her to fight against a rotten father, dashed hopes, a philandering royal husband, and a murdered child, but something more difficult entirely to fight against an author who chooses to make you a predictable villain. Nobody deserves that kind of treatment.

I don’t have the series of books at hand and were they here I would not refer to them in any event. My concern is how I feel about the books now. I find myself wondering about how Martin built Cersei in previous books. The general idea is that Martin, contra Tolkein, not only writes women into his books, but writes them well. I am not sure at this point. Martin places appropriate details in Cersei’s trajectory, but I am not sure, in hindsight, that I saw them come together as someone like Jaime or Tyrion. Cersei behaves selfishly and abominably throughout the series, but we get told that she is truly devoted to her children. This is contradiction substituted for complexity. I don’t suggest that any individual has some kind of essential core character from which all behavior springs. There is no such core in anyone. What is true, however, is that as people develop, the varying aspects of what we call, as a convenience, personality, fit together, not because of a predetermined design but because each influences the other and in turn is influenced.

We don’t see this kind of developing “personality” in Cersei. We have elements in her that form contrasts—love of children, selfish behavior—but not mutually-forming contrasts, as in real people and, I would say, in characters like her brothers. Though she makes no direct appearance in A Feast for Crows, I think back to Daenerys and feel as if a similar process is at work. On the face of it, she functions as a foil for Cersei, and vice versa. Where Cersei wields state power foolishly, the teenage girl Daenerys,when last we saw her in A Storm of Swords, makes political and strategic decisions more effectively than either Jorah Mormont or Barristan Selmy. All good, but we don’t see any development that would have given her the kind of understanding she demonstrates in her actions. She began the series timid and emotionally dependent on her older brother. After learning to enjoy sex with her husband, her personality changes and she becomes assertive. That’s the only development, per se, I can recall in the character. I like Daenerys, it’s good that we see a woman wielding political power well, but real people have a learning curve. Daenerys doesn’t.

Feminism’s most important point is that women are real people and that our social, political, and economic norms need to reflect this fact. I see powerful women in Martin,and certainly progress from Tolkein, but I am increasingly unsure that I’m reading, in his female characters, about real people.

Mariama Ba, So Long a Letter

I first heard of Marieme Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre when living in Dakar, but despite its great reputation and brevity–89 pages in my translation–I only just got to it.  My mistake, in some ways, but on the other hand, having gotten a bit older, gone through a lot, and learned to understand more about people, it’s just as well I came to it now.

To briefly rehearse the plot: Ramatoulaye’s husband took, as allowed by law and custom, a much younger wife.  She rightly understands this as a rejection.  He dies suddenly, and she faces both her past and her future.  She pens a long letter–89 pages in my translation–to her friend, Aissatou, relating her thoughts.

The book, more than one bit on the internet points out, is often used in post-colonial lit courses to illustrate the “woman’s point-of-view,” etc.  This is certainly appropriate, such as it is.  It is also pointed to as an example of an African feminism, which I would not disagree with either.  I am in favor I will stress of both endeavors.

The problem is that a lot of people will read those two descriptions above, imagine that they know what to expect–post-colonial=Europe bad, African feminism=African and European men bad–and completely miss what’s actually happening.  It’s well-known that liberatory movements are often misrepresented, but less commonly noted that this is often done by sympathizers.

As regards the book’s post-colonial place: Ba was of the first generation of independent young people in Senegal.  As such, and not unlike the brilliant Ousmane Sembene, she works through, in her literature, the realization that independence was the start of a lot of work for the country–in this case, Senegal–even more than it was the end of a process.  A line stands out:

One does not easily overcome the burdens of a thousand years. (73)

Ramatoulaye is shocked to find her daughters smoking:

Suddenly, I became afraid of the flow of progress.  Did they also drink? Who knows, one vice leads to another.  Does it mean that one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards? (77)

There is nothing conservative about these concerns, despite the internal discourse in the United States.  Ba is facing a central fact of modern capitalism: it doesn’t care about people.  It cares about selling.  I had a friend who spent some time in Russia immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.  He noted a proliferation of old US pornography, Penthouse more than anything, he said, sold on the “free market” in Russian kiosks.  Yes: one can’t have modernism without the lowering of moral standards.  We can discuss the dynamics of those morals, i.e., who makes them, how they are enforced, etc., all from a critical angle, but I say as a leftist that at some point we need to discuss in more detail not just the problems in out societies, but what kinds of communities we want to form.  This is where those of us living in citadel of capital need to shut up and listen to the peripheries.

The question of African feminism is critical as well.  I will note anecdotally that both my wife at the time and I noticed in Senegal that we saw patriarchy everywhere, but very little if any misogyny.  Neither of us would have allowed the possibility that the two were separable before we lived there, but we witnessed it.  We were there nine months, too–not just a quick trip.  By no means were things equal: as Ba notes as a matter of course, there are strict limits on women in the Senegal of her day.  However, she conceives, contra a universalizing white feminism in which everyone is essentially the same save for social construction, or an essentializing white feminist in which all women are more or less the same, a feminism which means that people are free to be who they are.  She does not, however, reject a dualistic approach to gender:

I remain persuaded of the inevitable and necessary complementarity of man and woman. (88)

You can reject this proposition and furthermore note its heteronormativity, and I’ll say that for my part I do, but do so understanding its context.  This is not a feminist who is behind the times (the white people in the US being au courant), nor has she merely been browbeaten by the oppressor.  This is a reflection of a place where there are emphatically two unequal gendered spheres, but in which each values the other.  This is a far cry from US misogyny.