Middlesex:  themes for discussion, 9/26



I.  I gave you a prompt and some addressed it (OK if you didn’t), but maybe we can start there…I asked:  Why do Cal’s parents and grandparents do the things they do? How do their selves, their desires, take form? (Genetics? Choice?)


In other words – we get an epic story here, and also lots of direct commentaries on the action from our narrator.  So…what is “Cal’s” take on this question of genetic determination versus choice?  How do they explain, or not, why Lefty and Desdemona, and Tessie and Milton, fall in love?


p. 37, quote Samantha mentions:


“Was it love or reproduction? Chance or destiny? Crime or nature at work? Maybe the gene contained an override, ensuring its expression…not fondness, not emotional sympathy; only the need for this new thing to enter the world and hence the heart’s rigged game.”


He goes on:


“…I can’t explain it…any more than each of us, falling in love, can separate the hormonal from what feels divine…I try to go back in my mind to a time before genetics, before everyone was in the habit of saying about everything, ‘It’s in the genes.’ A time before our present freedom, and so much freer! Desdemona…didn’t envision her insides as a vast computer code…Now we know we carry this map of ourselves around. Even as we stand on the street corner, it dictates our destiny…” 


(So is he saying that genes really do determine a lot, but we’d be happier not knowing?)



Samantha’s take: 

…the characters selves and desires seem to take form by making choices that do not conform to their culture/society/religious upbringing, giving in to what seems “natural” to them, by the deep unnamed feelings with but doing this secretively. It appears to lie somewhere within biology and choice.


Interesting!  Idea here that biology and choice aren’t necessarily opposites or mutually exclusive.  Is it really society/culture that stands as the constraining force against both biology and choice?


Although…if the gene demands to be expressed, is this much of a choice for Lefty and Desdemona?


See more meaty quotes, p. 4 “roller coaster ride of a single gene through time”

And 11:  delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection…

71 : a “smuggling operation” – they were each carrying a single mutated gene…

125:  Look closer: one mutation apiece


And Em suggests, jumping ahead through the story a bit:

what i'm intrigued by more than anything is the fact that cal is narrating the book as a man. clearly, at some point in his/her life, she/he has made the choice to live according to biology (that recessive gene his grandparents' union has pushed to the forefront of the family makeup....).
what does this say about biology? is it really destiny, as freud then says? because calliope does not seem to be dissatisfied being calliope. sure, she's interested in other girls and all, but i don't see why it doesn't mean that she couldn't just as easily "choose" to live as a girl...
yet the narrative is a male. so maybe it's not a "choice"?



More complications:

Genetics as a “crapshoot, entirely” he says – does he mean this?

(situation here is Zizmo’s wondering whether Tessie is his – 119)


72  narrator says he is dutifully spinning out feminine glue of kinship, but aware that genealogies mean nothing… (Tessie didn’t know the real story)


Kelsey suggests that Cal may be satirizing scientific explanations…



Or is the “gene” just a metaphor for Cal’s thinking through of what he now understands as his inexorable fate (b/c it is what happened)? 


109 “Parents are supposed to pass down physical traits…but it’s my belief that all sorts of other things get passed down, too:  motifs, scenarios, even fates.”


179  Fr. Michael:  “ ‘Tell me  a story.’ That’s how we understand who we are, where we come from. Stories are everything.”



Genes versus God?? God via genes?  What about God as the author of all these events?

13  “God decides what baby is, not you!”

31 Lefty:  “you made me this way, I don’t ask to think things like…”

196  Milton’s deus ex machina




 …though he seems to be referring to "the biology gods" in jest, it is significant that he explains biological phenomenon as a result of intentional action. a biologist might disagree and say that the formation of that fifth chromosome was pure chance. or, like foucault, a biologist might embark on further excavation in order to find a prominent rift from where to grow explanation.

Eugenides' makes me wonder if all stories of beginnings and ends include the "monkeying," the penetration of forces external to our worldly experience. how are things that ARE NOT come into being? the scientific explanation of "chance" seems weak to me ... but so does the personification of "the gods" ...


[**recall my Evans-Pritchard reading on “chance” as no explanation at all…]



Christian imagery and lots of re-births…

Easter and eggs

In Smyra, their almost-death becomes a rebirth.  59

“Aware that whatever happened now would become the truth…”  67

D’s cocoonery, and her corset – as Kelsey sorts it out:

cocoon= Body (body-the container of feelings)
silkworm = mind (the weaver/creator of feelings)
thread = society (the social pressure it exerts-contoller of mind and body)

"As she put it on (corset), she felt like she was spinning her own cocoon, awaiting metamorphosis." (36)


[and like cocoon metaphor, other mentions of spinning, circles, repetition—

68-69:  We Greeks get married circles…]



II.  Let’s think about all this in relation to our continuing conversation about categories – Patricia and Kelsey make points here:



Also, I'm just putting this out there, but doesn't Lefty/Desdemona's relationship kind of signify a relationship that has transcended the boundaries of categories in some ways? If we are able to forget, just as Lefty tries to forget that the breasts he sees are his sisters, then aren't we enabling ourselves to be free from the restraints of categories? Or are some categories good? "It was just a body; it could have been anyone's.." (pp. 48).



We so often times gets so wrapped up in creating categories based on logic (often defused unconciously from science) that we tend to limit our understanding of "people" and the relationships that they form with one another. I think it is this need to "prove" people's idenities that Eugenides is trying to make us get away from. Cal satires science and its "scientific" excuses for constructing gender and its "exuses" for him being an "error." It is only when we study gender without cateogorizations that people are allowed to become human. It is only by complicating gender and its pre-constructed connotations that we are allowed to really interact with individuals as people--not categorizations--because its is this complexity that makes them colorful and interesting. And yet, we (including myself) continue to place people into gender cateogizations because it makes analysis "logical." How can we dilineate gender while still using categories and logic as tools for anaylsis/discussion? I think it is possible...



There are definitely recurring themes of differences (especially ethnic) vs. mixing;  also theme of “passing” for something you aren’t.


3 cities are mentioned:

Smyra, cross-roads of Old and New in its own ways

Berlin, divided city seeking unification – reminds Cal of self

Detriot, racially divided 106


The encounter of D with the Black Muslims:  she swallows her pride to say, “Everybody mixed. Turks, Greeks, same same.”



Theme of culture/ethnicity also presents lots of cases of self-recreation…


Old World/New World:  themes of self-discovery, self-creation (Sourmelina has also remade herself…and Zizmo certainly does!; Milton recreates family as suburban Americans


And AMERICANIZATION movement! 97


but also idea that you can change everything around you, but destiny follows??

(D&L didn’t know they were smuggling mutated genes across the Atlantic)



More on culture and gender – Alex:

…the fact that desdemona is a very traditional greek woman makes gender categorization all the more apparent. on pgs 99-100 when Zizmo is complaining about his wife acting too masculine (or is it too american?), he says to lefty, "your wife understands. do you see her in thesala showing her legs and listening to the radio?" so what is the base root in zizmo's problem with his wife? is it that she isnt acting like a "lady," or is it that she's acting like an american lady? cultural differences in the expectation of women are really striking to me. 




III.  Patricia wonders about the narrator:


“It's so interesting because this novel feels like it's coming from the voice of a woman. I think it's because it makes references to the readers and the voice has a playful element to it. I totally feel that "innate feminine circularity in the story" (pp. 20)-- Jen refers to that in her post.   [talk more about how you feel this, Patricia?]

He says that, "When Calliope surfaces, she does so like a childhood speech impediment. Suddenly there she is again, doing a hair flip, or checking her nails. It's a little like being possessed." (pp. 41) He speaks of Calliope as an entity almost, but that confuses me because it seems like Calliope is controlling the nature of this whole novel. If he claims that he operates in society as a man, does that mean that this novel is where he is able to run free as a woman? Does that mean that society forces him to play up this image of "male" and that through language he is able to be one with his true self...which is a woman? Or if he is "innately feminine", how can he operate as a male in society? Because he's learned all that one needs to do to be seen as a male in society? I don't know...hmm”



[JP:  Also, if Calliope resurfaces like a speech impediment, what does this say about the nature of identity?  Can Cal shed his old one? How completely?  What does the old identity consist of?  Is he totally different as Cal?  How superficial or profound are the changes? …this to discuss later in the book]



Any other thoughts about the narrator, how he is shaping the story to his own ends?

(Christ Pantocrator)




And another note from Alex:


also, the discussion of the "loneliness of fatherhood" (130) really struck me. we've spent so much time talking about various aspects of being a woman, and a mother, so hearing about parenthood from a man's perspective (albeit it from a novel) was refreshing.



Themes of the natural, transgression/mutation, the monstrous; seem entangled with themes of Old and New World


The Minotaur – a Greek monster plays a role in Cal’s destiny 109;


and another monstrosity:  K&D and their “Siamese shadow,” p. 25


The spoon and predictions about who this baby will be…the suggestion that Cal was a girl at first b/c they so wanted her to be a girl?  But the Old World prediction knew she was really a boy?  Milton reminds his mother that “it’s science.”  (and he is finally made a fool of)  6, 17