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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Reading through the diary of Frida Kahlo. That statement makes it seem a simple project, a matter of starting at page 1 and following the linear route towards its inevitable end. But with Frida Kahlo, nothing is simple. Nothing is obvious. Nothing is linear. I stop already at the first page, confronted with endless random words linked, occasionally, with a verb. I count seven verbs in total: “I am coming.” “I am” (twice). “I search.” “tumbling – I draw close.” “sleeping.”

Obviously it’s going to be a challenging journey. I sit back for the ride.

Frida Kahlo’s diary is an intensely introspective space that marries text with image. On one page we get words,  a cascade of text . Another might offer up a series of unfinished portraits. On still another, she’s shaped an ink stain into a bull, a reclining woman, a wing, an eye. One image, dated 1953, presents the ‘bust’ of her right foot, imagined as a receptacle for a thorny plant. Language, throughout is fractured, broken, nonlinear. Seemingly random phrases give way to introspective poetic ruminations. Reflections about her relationship with Diego Rivera juxtaposed with comments on Stalin and indigenous Mexican images. ‘Reading’ this diary is no easy task, and is no easier when it’s read in relation to her self portraiture. Here images of a broken and suffering body are captured in the broken and fractured language she explores to express the most intimate parts of her being….

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Yum. A new book just arrived in the mail today. I love the smell and feel of a new book, and I freely confess that I’m likely never to warm to ereaders, or ireaders, or areaders, or whatever they are… a new book is all about anticipation and I can’t wait to dive in.

This one’s been waiting for me for a while. It’s Joan Sherwood’s Infection of the Innocents: Wet Nurses, Infants and Syphilis in France, 1780-1900. It tells the story of doctors’ attempts to clear up syphilis in newborns…by using the wet nurse as a form of medical technology. In an experiment originating at Paris’ Vaugirard Hospital, qualified wet nurses were given mercury (one of the only known treatments for syphilis) which then passed, in diluted form, through their breast milk and from there, into the mouths and bodies of the babies they were suckling. It’s a fascinating window into the history of breastfeeding, showcasing how medicine came to use the lactating female body to further its own goals, often at the expense of impoverished wet nurses. In Sherwood’s words:

“The Vaugirard experiment used poor women as medical instruments in a procedure with dangerous implications for their health and well-being. It can be seen as an earl example of human experimentation in medical practice.” (Sherwood, Infection of the Innocents, 160).

Monsieur Gounon had it relatively good. Married in his twenties, he was the father of a healthy daughter and his wife believed that she was pregnant with a second child. But this felicitous state hid a debauched past: “I loved women with a passion. I sported my whole life and I drank much wine and drank coffee continually.”

Wine, women…. and coffee?

Today, it’s the drug of choice. I would wager a guess that millions of North Americans (or Europeans for that matter) can’t leave the home without it. From the instant granules of  Nescafe to locally roasted ethical beans, coffee is a going concern. Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Blenz … coffee is central to our contemporary ethos. It was also, along with hot chocolate and wine, one of the keys to the good life in eighteenth-century France as well, and particularly among the elite. Tissot, however, did not approve, finding in these drinks the source of debauchery and excess. Like the contemporary simple living guru, Tissot counselled moderation in all things, but especially in diet and sexual relations. Only in controlling the appetite could the individual achieve the balance and equilibrium necessary for a healthy and virtuous life.

Coffee and chocolate have, however, proven enduring.

Perhaps we need to look more closely at the moral implications of Bach’s light hearted Coffee Cantata. What might Lieschen’s addiction to coffee – articulated in her amorous aria in homage to the beverage – reveal about her moral stance?