Rachel mimes to a song by Dolly Parton. She does not imitate Dolly, but presents the sentiments of lost love. She is the complicit, needing, loving; a paradigm of 'feminine virtues'. Rachel does not want to be Dolly, but admires how tough and yielding at once Dolly is. The Real Thing (1988).
What did Dolly do to herself? For herself? For another?
Know thyself. Or perhaps, know thy place. Rachel Evans finds things in their allotted space. These are things which know their place and, therefore, should remain mute and contained. And those things which have a place, even necessities, become all but invisible. Rendering the invisible visible is to move things out of their proper place and time. But what must be questioned is any notion of what that word, 'proper', might indeed mean.
In a way, propriety contains both the sense of something belonging, having its place in the world, as well as the sense of something which conforms to a pre-determined moral absolute, or established set of social mores. What both of these senses do share, however, is that fundamental need to belong, to be sufficiently of consequence to have a place to call one's own, whilst never appearing indiscreetly prominent in any way.
All Things Nice (1988). Rachel is iced into a ball gown. She becomes the embodiment of all feminine desire. She is sweet, and makes herself with all things nice that little girls are, or should be. She may look and taste delicious, but she can hardly move. She has become a victim of her professed desire to please. In this manipulation she is, ironically, relieved of her power as a woman. The contradiction within the assertion is that she represents those who think that they ought to appear in a particular way, those who would go against their own nature to satisfy others. She offers complicity on a plate. 1 2
But she can hardly move.
At the heart of all this, desire cannot hide itself, or keep its place, as the primary mover. We want, and we want to be loved. Keeping that desire in check is a delicate operation. Too much repression, we know, corrupts, whilst unrestrained desire is called madness. What is threatening is the delimitation of personal space, and the unspeakable spoken. It presents a form of reality which is, perhaps, too real to assimilate.
Rachel sends a personalized gift to her sculpting colleagues. One morning she leaves a row of honey jars, containing slices of lemon for all concerned. Each jar is has the name of the recipient inscribed on the label, whilst on the back of the jar, she offers this missive of love:
From the first moment l met you l knew there was something different about you. The way you looked at me that first time, made me aware of something special happening between us.
I realise you can never acknowledge it, but deep down you too can feel this closeness.
Please accept this gift as a token of my love and in memory of the moments of intimacy shared.
Perhaps the truth is that nothing at all is different about them in any way. Personalizing each of the jars forces this point home. Everyone wants to be loved, but more than this, everyone wants to be loved like no other.
The recipients are speechless. Rachel has even told them they will be. She pre-empts their every move. In this way, the silent one, or silenced one, speaks, and silences those who would have their voices heard above hers. Rachel does not speak in anger, but with gestures of love.
A sharp, cutting tang in the sticky sweetness. So what is so 'special', so-called? Who is so special? Why? These are not the questions. For to understand Rachel and her motives, we must look at the gaps in between. The threat, on both sides, lies in the proposed intimacy. Sharing promotes fear, since it must relinquish the self for the sake of the other.
The situation which is being forced here is a fantasy gone drastically wrong. Whose? It is the woman's, in desiring to define herself in terms of her man; it is the man's in desiring that this message be delivered without irony, and in a state of full submission. Fantasies, it seems, rarely conform to the desire of another. 3 4
Rachel decides to cook lamb - pots and pots of it. She goes to the kitchen, and cooks and cooks. The fruit is soft and moist Rachel fills hundreds of jars. She seals each jar with a gingham cloth, and applies the labels. She wants to tell a story or two. These are not her stories, but they might as well be. They come from a book called My Secret Garden, by Nancy Friday. Nancy has compiled the book from hundreds of confessional women's fantasies. It tells a form of truth which is never spoken. Rachel takes some of these stories, retaining their anonymity, and applies them to the labels on the jars. When formally arranged, the jars start to tell a story. In a way, they tell of the fictional person who cooked the jam. The jars look homely, the jam home-cooked. Upon closer inspection, however, all is not quite as it at first appears.
A passer-by admires the deep red colouring of the summers fruits, and pauses to peer at the descriptive labels. He only wants to know the flavour on offer.
Like most fantasies, we are not being offered the thing itself, but rather a description of that thing. Perhaps the fantasy is all but impossible to achieve. That, of course, is the greater part of its definition. It might also be said that the fantasy collapses when it is brought out of the subliminal. In witnessing this 'confession', we become voyeurs, uncommitted, yet complicit spectators to a deeply internalized struggle.
How, then, do we read? It is clear that we may read in a variety of ways, with a variety of inflections. We can misread, by bringing too much of ourselves to the text. Of course, we might also drastically misread were we not to bring enough of ourselves. The text is delicate and should not be imposed upon, otherwise its meaning may wither. But the text is also passive. It waits patiently to be read: it is inert until called into action. Thereafter it is recollection and reconstruction, or perhaps a kind of secondary reality, the virtual nature of which will always leave one wanting.
Rachel likes the look of a cream cake, the recipe of which she finds in a magazine by the supermarket checkout:
Thin layers of moist almond sponge layered with rich coffee butter-cream and chocolate mousse. 5 6
She thinks about making the cake, but the real seduction occurs with the words themselves. There really is no need actually to bake. The description is a tease, generating infinite desire, yielding just a fraction less than it at first appears to offer.
Rachel paints the words directly on a wall. Everyone who passes by is hungry and excited.
Inevitably, the words become sexually charged. Not only do they come from a context where selfworth is defined in terms of offering satisfaction to another, but the language is itself a manipulation and a seduction. It appeals directly to the sense of taste, touch and smell, signalling cognition, and it helps that cognition along with subjective directives: "moist" and "rich".The subjective, here, is the seductive.
Dead Meat (1991). Rachel selects some tender cuts of meat: "hind quarter", "loin chop", "rump steak". These fleshy morsels all come from the genital area of the cow. This time, the words are stencilled out against a background of Vaseline on glass. The grease is a highly appropriate medium. Just as the words are separated from the thing they represent, so too the meat is separated from the body of the animal before we need contemplate it. Of course, part of the seduction is precisely that we do retain some of the sexual charge with the words, but it is more like our own. We bring a sensual response to the meat, whilst separating it from another form of reality. The process works as a kind of pornography: a condescending objecthood, or over-focussing, of limitation and subjugation.
Rachel is eating again. She tries to cram as many doughnuts as possible into her mouth. She can hardly chew, but it is important to be still smiling. At all costs smiling.
1 Sometimes, half-rising from his seat, he would delicately draw Madame's attention to a titbit, or turn around to the maid with advice on the way to deal with a stew, or the dietetic properties of various seasonings, with much impressive talk of aromas, osmazomes, essences and gelatines. Having more recipes in his head than bottles in his shop, Homais excelled at making various kinds of preserves, vinegars and cordials, besides being an authority on the latest inventions in fuel-saving cookers, on the art of preserving cheese and that of nursing a sickly wine.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Alan Russell, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950, p.110.
2 She grew in secret, away from their eyes. 0utwardly she was obedient and loving, but inside she was feeding a hunger that would have disgusted them if disgust itself were not an excess. She read the lives of saints and knew most of the Bible off by heart. She believed that the Blessed Virgin herself would aid her when the time came.
Jeanette Winterson, The Passion, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988, p.10.
3 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception: in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, saying, Thou shah not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.
Genesis 3,16 - 17 (Authorized King James Version.)
4 The oscillation between extremes of gluttonous gorging and enforced fasting seems all of a piece with other aspects of medieval and early modern personality. As such it need not be seen as connected only with the insecurity and unpredictability of food supplies, but also with the more general insecurity of life.
Claude Levi - Strauss, 'The Culinary Triangle', New Society, 22 December 1966, p.940.
Stephen Mennell, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, p.24.
6 Tess wished to abridge her visit as much as possible: but the young man was pressing, and she consented to accompany him. He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit- garden and green-houses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries. "Yes," said Tess, "when they come." "They are already here." D'Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to hems he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the "British Queen" variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth. "No-no!" she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. "I would rather take it in my own hand." "Nonsense!" he insisted, and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbevilles, New York: Signet, 1964, p.53.