Friday, 6 May 2016

Review: 'Blood, Bread and Roses', Judy Grahn

You know what I was saying about random library finds?

Well, my gods, I love this so much. I admit, a fraction of this enjoyment is because (shortly after picking up) I had a run in with my favourite local mansplainer who benignly asked what I was reading, and I had the pleasure of showing him the cover and watching the vague interest turn to an actual recoil.

Still this book is astonishing. Did you know I'd never heard of it before? Me, whose doorway to adulthood was Angela Carter, whose undergraduate adulation was spent on Carl Jung, James Frazer and Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs? No-one even thought to tell me this book was around?

And okay, yes, it is one of those sweeping, slightly too-universal acts of poetic anthropology which are a) academically a bit suspect, and b) not to everyone's taste. However, the value of such works is not solely in their content, or the viablity of their research. No. What they do is shatter open the closed doors in our minds, bring us face to face with the impossible, with the things that, bone-deep, we have always suspected to be true. Their worth is not measured in intellectual terms, but in spiritual and socieological ones. Their sweeping deconstruction may not be entirely accurate, but it reframes our mental narratives, makes us interrogate our understanding of our bodies, our spirituality, our world.

To her credit, Grahn recognises this. By her own lights, she is a poet, and the story she offers here - overwhelming and encyclopeadic as it might be - is never intended to be more than one voice among many. More importantly, it is a female voice, one rooted in the female body - specifically in the act of menstruation - an act and a body that has faced and faces so much discrimination, so much legislation, disgust and ostracisation worldwide. 

Grahn takes the balance of shame laid upon the female head, the female gaze, upon female blood and female decoration, and draws out its global import. Rather than shame and staining, menstrual blood becomes the original creator of human consciousness, the single thing whose expression and management keeps the world in order. She reframes it as the root of all science, all craft, all religion, language and clothing. It is the originator of diet and ritual. In her language, all blood is menstrual blood.

 Her methodology is engaging and pursuasive, hopping through academic disciplines to create a welter of evidence and arguement, drawing parallels and concordances across time periods and civilisations. She shows consciousness, humanity, society as a gift that was begun by women and passed - through actions she calls metaforms - into the hands of men, whose mimetic 'menstruations' can be traced through every hero's journey we have ever read. 

Naturally, a book so focused on periods is going to be pretty essentialist. Yet, even so, Grahn leaves the door open for queer theory. Civilisation could not begin and end at bodies which menstruate - the truths so learned must be commicated to those that do not. The narrative she constructs suggests that gendered behaviours not only can cross the line of bodies, but more specifically that they must. That, for society to function, men can and have simulate menstrual forms to access that same ritual power associated with the original menstruation. 

A more marked criticism is that Grahn's methodology and examples are not always entirely sound. She makes much of menstrual etymology, but her focus is almost entirely upon the English language. What is more, with my limited knowledge of etymology, I was able to spot a few mistakes - a more experienced scholar would doubtless notice more. Perhaps more seriously, her universal focus could be open to the criticism of approriation and misrepresentation of other cultures. Her repeated reference to the practices of the Dogon people made me uneasy, and although I am not an anthropologist, I am always wary of the constructions European scholars put upon the practices of other cultures.

That said, however, if recognised as a flawed work that exists as one voice among many, Blood, Bread and Roses should really take its place as a central text of mythic history. It should be spoken of in the same breath as Man and his Symbols, The Golden Bough and The White Goddess.

Essentially, I should have heard of it.

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