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 had no idea what was happening. She didn't envision her insides as a vast computer code, all 1s and 0s, an infinity of sequences, any one of which might contain a bug. Now we know we carry this map of ourselves around. Even as we stand on the street corner, it dictates our destiny.
In this quote, Cal contemplates free will, chance, and destiny. Although the modern citizen supposedly believes in free will and choice, Cal posits that, to a certain extent, everyone believes in biological destiny. For the modern person, destiny is no longer "written in the stars," it is now written in our genetic code. As Cal unfolds his story, he will examine these claims about destiny and chance and what it means to carry a "map of ourselves around." Does a person's biological narrative correspond to their personal narrative? Is it unnecessarily reductive to simplify someone's life to a "vast computer code"? To what extent was Cal's genetic abnormality fated to exist, and to what extent was it chance? Although Cal seems confident in the statement that "we carry this map of ourselves around," his writing of Middlesex is an investigation into the factors of chance and destiny that resulted in his conception and early life. He is not as certain as he seems with regard to genetic destiny.
I feel a little like that Chinese princess, whose discovery gave Desdemona her livelihood. Like her I unravel my story, and the longer the thread, the less there is left to tell. Retrace the filament and you go back to the cocoon's beginning in a tiny knot, a first tentative loop.
Cal outlines his narrative strategy for Middlesex, using a combined linearity and circularity to convey his complicated tale. By comparing himself to the Chinese princess who discovered silk, he both blurs gender lines (something that happens often in Middlesex and engages with his own family's far-away past. Everything in Middlesex is connected circularly, including Cal's metaphor for his narrative style and his family's traditional livelihood. For Cal, his task is to unravel these connections, these circles, by tracing the narrative thread through history as the Chinese princess chased the silk thread across the country. Also like the Chinese princess, Cal traces his story, the story of his 5-alpha-reductase gene, back to a little "knot," the incestuous marriage of his grandparents.
Bride and bridegroom performed the Dance of Isaiah. Hip to hip, arms interwoven to hold hands, Desdemona and Lefty circumambulated the captain, once, twice, and then again, spinning the cocoon of their life together. No patriarchal linearity here. We Greeks get married in circles, to impress upon ourselves the essential matrimonial facts: that to be happy you have to find variety in repetition; that to go forward you have to come back where you began.
As Desdemona and Lefty act out the Greek wedding ceremony, they write circularity and tradition into their lives. Cal emphasizes the importance of this circularity in the structure of his story telling - he begins in the present, goes back to his conception, and goes all the way back to his grandparent's love story before moving back to the present. The last line - "to go forward you have to come back where you began" - illustrates Cal's ideals of narrative truth. You cannot understand a moment or a story without going back to the beginning, to the past. Cal's story is incomplete without the stories of his parents and grandparents. Although stories are linear, they must be formed in circles, much like the Stephanides' silk cocoons.
Remembering his father's old hidden treasure, "Sermin, Girl of the Pleasure Dome," he'd had a vision for updating an old ideal. The days of the harem were over. Bring on the era of the back-seat! Automobiles were the new pleasure domes. They turned the common man into a sultan of the open road.
In describing Lefty's new business plan, Cal draws a direct comparison between old European ideals of sensuality - Turkish harems, veiled dancers, etc. - and new American ideals of sensuality - the power of the automobile, the sexual liberty of American women, etc. Beyond the sexuality of the women posing on the cars, the freedom and power that the cars stand for is arousing and intoxicating. In America, any man can be a sultan as long as he owns an automobile. There is freedom and equality in the accessibility of small-time luxury. Detroit, as the motor industry capitol of America, stands right in the middle of this new cult of the automobile, and Lefty and the Stephanides family capitalize on it.
In front of the window, clarinet erect, Milton played on, oblivious. His hips swayed in an indecent fashion and his lips glistened as brightly as his hair.
As Cal describes Milton's seduction of Tessie, he uses subtly sexualized language to bring across the sensuality of the actions. Milton's clarinet, not normally a particularly sensual object, becomes an "erect" penis, wooing Tessie with its confident masculinity. His hips move erotically in "an indecent fashion." His mouth, puckered at the clarinet, "glistened" as if he were about to kiss Tessie. Cal repeatedly tells the reader the importance of objects in his past, and Milton's' clarinet is one of those objects, singing the song of Milton's sexual desire and Tessie's submission to it.
He started small. Little bets of two or three dollars. After a few weeks, to recoup his losses, he went up to ten bucks. Every day he wagered a piece of the new profits from the restaurant. One day he won and so went double or nothing the next, and lost. Amid hot-water bottles and enema bags, he placed his bets. Surrounded by cough medicine and cold sore ointment, he started playing a "gig," meaning three numbers at once.
Here, Eugenides uses the implicit association between Lefty's gambling habit and the gambling room's prop medical supplies to communicate the idea of Lefty's addiction as a sickness. To drive this in, Eugenides uses alliteration - "bottles" and "bags," and "cough medicine" and "cold sore ointment," emphasizing the illness metaphor. Each of Lefty's bets is a progression down the line of his sickness, the "symptoms" getting more and more severe. In the larger picture, Lefty's actions reflect the bigger problems that have afflicted Detroit, and this hopeless vice helps highlight Detroit's decline into poverty. Just as the industrious and mildly successful Lefty succumbs to his vices and loses all his money, so does industrious Detroit.
Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster." Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy." I'd like to show how "intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members" connects with "the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age." I'd like to have a word for "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants" as well as for "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can't just sit back and watch from a distance anymore.
In this quote, Cal explores the limitations of language connected with his struggles. The act of writing and the creation of narrative is one of the central topics of Middlesex, and Cal's critique of language here ties in with his other thoughts about narrative - namely that it is not one thing or the other, but a hybrid of many. Cal's narrative is both linear and circular, masculine and feminine. The words he seeks are similarly complicated, drawing from combinations of several emotional states or events. Through this discussion of the limitations of words, Cal critiques society's overall approach to narrative, which is implicitly shaped by words. If words are too simple, then narrative will also be too simple. Cal's very existence is proof that life is never as simple as narrative and words imply.
For that spring, while the crocuses bloomed, while the headmistress checked on the daffodil bulbs in the flower beds, Calliope, too, felt something budding. An obscure object all her own, which in addition to the need for privacy was responsible for bringing her down to the basement bathroom. A kind of crocus itself, just before flowering. A pink stem pushing up through dark new moss. But a strange kind of flower indeed, because it seemed to go through a number of seasons in a single day. It had its dormant winter when it slept underground. Five minutes later, it stirred in a private spring-time. Sitting in class with a book in my lap, or riding home in the car pool, I'd feel a thaw between my legs, the soil growing moist, a rich, peaty aroma rising, and then - while I pretended to memorize Latin verbs - the sudden, squirming life in the warm earth beneath my skirt. To the touch, the crocus sometimes felt soft and slippery, like the flesh of a worm. At other times it was as hard as a root.
Here, Cal tells in coded language the story of his discovery of his sexuality and genitalia. "Crocus" becomes a metaphor for his penis, and "moss" is the word for his pubic hair. He frames the discovery of his sexuality within a nature conceit, which gives Calliope the normalcy she so desires. Instead of being a monster, Calliope is just another teenager going through the springtime of her life, developing and growing. Besides being natural, the words Cal chooses verge on the feminine - "budding," "flowering." At the end, however, he makes references to penetrating masculinity as well - "hard as a root." The quote introduces the reader to Calliope's discovery of her gender ambiguity, using both masculine and feminine phrasing. Most importantly, however, it uses a natural lens, which communicates one of the main messages of the book: whatever Cal may be, it is natural.
Chekhov was right. If there's a gun on the wall, it's got to go off. In real life, however, you never know where the gun is hanging. The gun my father kept under his pillow never fired a shot. The rifle over the Object's mantel never did either. But in the emergency room things were different. There was no smoke, no gunpowder smell, absolutely no sound at all. Only the way the doctor and nurse reacted made it clear that my body had lived up to the narrative requirements.
Chekhov's gun is a very popular narrative rule, and Cal has referenced it several times - namely that if you introduce an element, you must use it or engage with it before the last quarter of the play. In traditional, psychoanalytic criticism, guns also often have another function, representing penises, male power, and male desire. Cal makes the relationship obvious as he compares Chekov's gun "going off" to the discovery of his penis, which should be a source of power for him. However, by having the "gun" not be one of the actual guns in the narrative (Milton's, the Object's), Cal subverts the theory. While he is still playing within narrative rules, the narrative is not what the reader first thinks it is. This reflects Cal's choice to tell two stories simultaneously, the story of his past and the story of his present.
As I picked those berries out my bedroom window, however, I had no idea that our mulberry tree had anything to do with the silk trade, or that my grandmother had had trees just like it behind her house in Turkey. That mulberry tree had stood outside my bedroom on Middlesex, never divulging its significance to me. But now things are different. Now all the mute objects of my life seem to tell my story, to stretch back in time, if I look closely enough. So I can't possibly finish up this section of my life without mentioning the following fact: The most widely raised type of silkworm, the larva of the Bombyx mori, no longer exists anywhere in a natural state. As my encyclopedia poignantly puts it: The legs of the larvae have degenerated, and the adults do not fly."
Cal writes this after describing the accident that finally caused people to discover his genetic abnormality. This quote engages with several themes. It relates to narrative, history, and destiny in its discussion of the continuity of the mulberry tree. To Cal, the stories of his grandparents and parents are as important to understanding his life as his own story. The fact that Calliope has a mulberry tree outside of her window shows that, in some ways, she has grown up on the same side of the mountain in Turkey as her grandparents; she has been formed in the same soil, so to speak. This quote also speaks to objectivity - what does it mean that mute objects tell her/his story? For Cal, everything in his life has an unknown significance that could only be read in hindsight.
Middlesex Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Middlesex is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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