Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Human Spirit

Davis - Other cultures

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Morals…It’s a Bad Joke

Joker - Morals are a Bad Joke

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I love to travel – the new experiences, meeting interesting people, trying good food – it’s all great.  But as I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve realized that traveling is not nearly as fun when you’re by yourself.  That’s why these past four months have been bittersweet for me.  I’ve gotten to see new cities and do some extensive travelling.  But every step of the way, I found myself wanting to turn to my partner and tell him about it – only to be painfully reminded that I’d just have to take a mental note and tell him the next time we Skyped.

But, I guess that’s what makes traveling for work different than a vacation!  As much good research as I’ve been able to do for my dissertation, I’m so. very. glad. that I’ll be flying home in just eleven days!  Because, I’ll admit that I’ve got a bad case of what the Germans call Heimweh – or pain from being away from home.

Great things about these past four months: 

  • Getting to know Berlin, from its glitzy city center to its grungy neighborhoods (being able to see the Berlin Wall from my courtyard was pretty fun, too).
  • Strolling through the gorgeous Christmas markets in Cologne.
  • Enjoying a gigantic BBQ Burger from a cheesy American bar & grille in Hanover.
  • Getting to spend a week in Munich.
  • Sharing meals and wine with great people from around the world this past month.
  • Conducting interesting interviews with people who deserve their own book.
  • Making some very useful contacts for my career.
  • Visiting with some of my best friends from Marburg!
  • Getting to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Mumbai with my future in-laws!
  • Having that thrill of finding something new and exciting in the archives.


What I’m looking forward to: 

  • Snuggling with my boo!
  • My pillow
  • My bed
  • Cooking in my own kitchen!
  • Going back to all of my favorite restaurants in Boston.
  • CRAFT BEER!  I know that Germany’s supposed to be the land of beer, but they don’t have anything on America’s microbreweries and Sam Adams’ seasonal brews.
  • Being in the same time zone as my family.
  • Not having to talk to a screen when I’m talking to my family and friends.
  • Waking up, making coffee, and watching CBS Sunday Morning  until my boo wakes up, then relaxing on the couch with him for the rest of the day.


What I’ll Miss about Germany: 

  • The excellent assortment of fresh baked breads every day
  • All the delicious pastries from the bakeries (not having those is enough to make a grown man weep)
  • I guess that’s about it.

Christmas market under the Cologne cathedral



And of course, Cologne had a gay Christmas market



Bombed out church in Hanover. Left like this as a reminder of the cost of war.


The best way to do research – with strudel, coffee, and good tunes.


Henry’s American Bar & Grill offering monster burgers and chicken wings to folks in Hanover (



Hanover’s court house

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Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany


Tatar, Maria.  Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

In her short but dense book, Tatar examines the role of Lustmord (sexual murder) in Germany during the Weimar period.  She reveals that violent murders of women took a central place in this era.  The media chronicled – in often grizzly detail – the acts of serial killers and the subsequent trials of the murders.  Tatar goes beyond actual murders to show that the mutilated bodies of women cropped up as the subjects of many works of art in several genres: canvases, novels, and on the screen.  What can we make of all this violence? What does it mean that the victims were always women?  These are the questions that Tatar tackles in her provocative work.

First, Tatar focuses on a number of real-life serial murderers that dominated the German headlines in the 1920s.  The cases of Fritz Haarmann, Wilhelm Grossmann, Karl Denke, and Peter Kürten reveal how the media and public reacted to the existence of such violent murderers (whose victims were always women or children).  Tatar explains the public’s frenzied reaction to the murders and the simultaneous “pathologization” of criminality (56). “The population at large was thus seen as duplicating the psychosis of the murderer, partaking of his sexualized frenzy in its desperate attempt to defuse the general sense of anxiety by finding scapegoats” (46).  The press contributed to this frenzy by boosting the “toxic” effect of killer and giving them the attention they wanted.  Moreover, the attention provided incentive for copy-cat killers (47).

Tatar’s analysis of particular novels, paintings, and movies is interesting, particularly for someone interested in art or cultural history of the Weimar Republic.  But what I find more interesting, convincing, and ultimately useful is her discussion of perpetrators and victims.  One of the main threads throughout the book is her claim that in cases of real or fictional Lustmord, the perpetrator (artist/murderer) often transitions into victim by the end. This is only understandable within the larger context of modern German culture.  Tatar argues that a flux of hostile female images in art “gives vivid testimony to an unprecedented dread of female sexuality and its homicidal power” (10).  World War One had destroyed the traditional social order: it redrew national boundaries, destroyed the earth in the trenches, maimed bodies, and also transformed mores.  Men, Tatar argues, saw the emancipation of women, as a devastating event.  There was a short step from the sexual empowerment of the femme fatale to her overstepping her bounds and destabilizing society (11).  Therefore, portraying women as the causes of social disorder allowed for her murder to become an act of self-defense or sacrifice.  “The murderous agent takes on the role of victim, who has sacrificed his life by killing” (172).  This act of turning the aggressor into victim through sacrifice (Tatar notes that in German Opfer means both victim and sacrifice) was also used in the racial demonization of the Jews in Nazi Germany.  In both cases, repression and projection operate in such a way as to turn the target of murderous violence into a peril of monstrous proportions, one that threatens to sap the lifeblood of the “victims” and thereby authorizes a form of unrestrained retaliatory violence marked by frenzied excess” (152).

Through this process of demonization of the Other and transformation from aggressor to victim, Tatar draws an important connection between Lustmord culture in the Weimar era to the policies of the Third Reich.  Moreover, she shows the importance of the Great War in shaping this murderous view of women (and “the other”).  In doing that, Tatar reveals that Weimar can’t be seen as a “glamorized…period of alluring decadence” between two dark periods of German history.  Instead, it is a bridge between the two world wars.

Tatar’s book is interesting and provocative, but I am left with several questions, the main one being: What about women artists in the Weimar era?  How did they feel about these Lustmord paintings?  Did they make paintings in which men’s bodies were mutilated?

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews

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Intimate Friends

Intimate Friends

Vicinus, Martha.  Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Subject:  A reevaluation of the ways in which upper class white women in Britain and France expressed and sought to define their love for other women.

Main Points:  The main objective of Vicinus’ book is to complicate or replace a linear understanding of the historical development of “the” lesbian identity.  In this new, piecemeal, kaleidoscope view, medical discourse is downplayed and she focuses on the “lesbian-like” women themselves.  By using diaries, letters, essays, fiction, newspapers, and even court cases, Vicinus discerns how these women understood themselves, their relationships, and their connection to society.  By approaching the subject from this angle, Vicinus succeeds in showing that these women employed many different discourses at different times to describe themselves, thus achieving her goal of complicating the emergence of a singular “lesbian” identity.

In fact, in her introduction, Vicinus explicitly questions the usefulness of “identity” in historical analysis.  Is it too simple to assume individuals were motivated by an impulse to construct an identity for themselves?  Perhaps these women never saw themselves as embodying only one identity (“lesbian” for example), and moreover, perhaps they never wanted to.

Her book is divided into four parts, each of which discusses a particular type of arrangement between intimate women.  Part 1 looks at “husband wife couplings,” though I think it could be more generalized simply as “coupling,” because the pairs of women discussed in these chapters aren’t necessarily trying to mimic the heteronormative marriage of masculine husband and feminine wife.  They simply lived together in monogamous (for the most part) relationships, in the countryside, separated from the rest of society.  It was society that then forced the “husband and wife” rubric on to them.  Part 2 discusses what Vicinus calls “queer relationships” in which complicated love triangles were formed between a husband, his wife, and the woman that the wife still loved.  Far from the traditional understanding of these triangles, which posits that the man viewed his wife’s desire for another woman as trivial, Vicinus paints a portrait in which the relationship among all three is deeply entangled.  In some cases, the man respected his wife’s desire and used his marriage to her as a shield, protecting his wife’s same-sex relationship from the view of society.  His role then shifts from lover to “male mother” who gives a platonic and paternalistic love (132).  Part 3 then addresses “cross age” relationships; in other words, the ones that were built upon an age difference and took on the role of mother/daughter, aunt/niece, or teacher/pupil.  “Whereas same-sex marriages could be more equal than heterosexual marriages, cross-age love accentuated inequalities…disparities of age and power increased the opportunities for intense emotional dramas between women” (109).  These cross age relationships were not always physical, but they often led to ‘husband-wife’ marriages.  And part 4 discusses the “modernist refashioning” of these erotic friendships into a lesbian identity.  At the same time, the medicalization of sexuality provided a wider array of vocabulary with which these same-sex desiring women could express themselves, but it also offered fewer roles for them.  Vicinus highlights the ways in which these emerging, modern lesbians (those who embraced that identity) did not simply subscribe to the medical identities, but negotiated and forged identities on their own terms.

In all of these varied relationships listed above, Vicinus emphasizes that the women involved used their knowledge of family, religion, education, and nature to talk about and understand their desires.  This challenges the traditional view of same-sex relationships among women as characteristic of either romantic friendship or gender inversion (“male”/female marriages).  Her book also shows that sexual, genital contact was not always a defining factor of an erotic relationship.  In fact, sometimes it was part of the drama of self-restraint that added to the passion of the relationship.

My Comments:

The stories that she includes in the book are fascinating, but I think the obvious contribution Vicinus has made is complicating the story of women who have loved women.  Moreover, I think her book has returned agency to these women by showing how they actively maneuvered societal norms and gender roles to define their relationship with their lover.  At first I was skeptical – or just didn’t fully understand – her critique of “identity” as an analytical lens, but after finishing her book, I think I better understand it.  I wonder though, if it’s helpful at all to talk about multiple identities?  Because, I’m convinced that these women (and us today) aren’t ever trying to form a single identity, but that we utilize multiple identities depending on our situation – and one identity is no less sincere or “real” than the other.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Here Comes the Bride!

My last post on my trip to Mumbai is actually about the main reason I flew to India in the first place: the wedding of my future sister in law.  I had always heard how grand and extravagant Indian weddings are, so when I found out that not only was I getting to go to India, but I was getting to go to an Indian wedding, I was just beside myself. 

I should also note that, because of the fact that, for most of its history, what we today know as “India” was actually a collection of hundreds of kingdoms, languages, and cultures, it’s a little misleading to speak of a traditionally “Indian” wedding.  If you told an Indian that you were going to see an Indian wedding, they’d probably ask, “Yeah, but what kind?” – Meaning: which of the myriad of traditions in India is the wedding going to follow?  The wedding that I went to was a Punjabi wedding, since the bride’s mother comes from the state of Punjab.  So, all of these traditions I’m going to describe below are characteristic of a Punjabi wedding.  Here are a few of the things that I enjoyed the most – or just found noteworthy:

1) It lasted FOUR days!  Now, that doesn’t mean that we were all out Bollywood dancing in the streets for 96 hours straight.  But there were big, important ceremonies for four days in a row.

Day One: That night was a religious ceremony to kick off the wedding.   Drapes were hung on the apartment courtyard walls and a shrine was set up front and center for an idol of the goddess Durga.  Catering, a band, and a priest were brought in for the evening.  Family started showing up the night before, and it was a festive occasion.

But of course, the real stars of the show were the bride-to-be and her mom.  They. Were. Decked. Out.  The sarees they wore looked like they had just stepped out of the tales of splendor from the ancient days.  There was also bling.  Lots of bling – jewelry everywhere!  On the wrists, fingers, neck, on the saree, in the hair!

So, that night, the priest led some type of worship/blessing ceremony.  I didn’t have a clue what was going on, except that this was meant to bless the coming wedding.  Beyond that, I had to only imagine – the family was too busy with the rituals to have time to translate everything – and I think that even if it was in English, I still wouldn’t really understand it.  But, there were songs, and prayers, and some chants.  And then folks danced for a while.  During a pause, folks paid their respects at the altar, and then there was a little more dancing.  And then, there was eating!  Like most of the time, I had no clue what I was putting on my plate and in my mouth.  I just took my platter and got a little of this, a little of that, and hoped for the best.  And I wasn’t disappointed.


Day Two: This was the cocktail party – this was the one night we could indulge in our vices like alcohol and chicken.  The family had rented out a dance hall, which was nice since dancing was the focus of the night.  The bride, siblings, cousins, and even the little kiddies had prepared dances to perform.  So, one-by-one or in pairs, they got up on the stage and danced their little Bollywood asses off!

I think I had inadvertently offended some people – or at least disappointed them – when I didn’t dance with them the night before.  But, I really didn’t feel like breaking it down in front of people I’d only just met…to the tune of religious chanting.  So I promised them that I would dance with them at the cocktail party, even though I wasn’t doing anything for the ‘prepared dance’ portion of the evening.

So, when the last performance was done, and they opened up the dance floor, I finished my whiskey and Coke, and headed out there (I’d like to think that my royal purple and gold kurta was billowing in an unseen, slow-motion wind while dramatic music played, like in some Bollywood movie).  As I dared to glance back at the seats, I saw a look of excited surprise on everybody’s face, and that gave me the courage enough to break it down as far as my white rhythm and moves would let me.  But, it didn’t matter if I was a good dancer or simply having epileptic seizures, they were just happy that I got up there and danced with them.  The photographers loved it, too, and lots of people took turns taking pictures with me on the dance floor.  When they finally turned the music off and we decided to raid the buffet, no one would let me fix my own food.  They just asked what I wanted and then brought it to me.  I guess that’s the closest thing to feeling like a celebrity that I’ll ever experience!

Once I danced with them that night, I was inThat sealed my fate as one of the family.

Day Three was full of more religious ceremonies that I didn’t understand.  The bride got something that looked like turmeric painted on her face – and my fiancé was inducted as a Brahmin, which means that he’s supposed to renounce all worldly pleasures and devote his life to education.  We’ll see how that goes! Later that evening, one of the aunt & uncles placed some blingy, red bangles on the bride’s wrists.  I’m still not sure what that meant exactly, but I think those bangles were blessed, too.


The bride getting her henna tattoos


Henna tattoo for one of the cousins

Day Four:  This was the day of the actual wedding ceremony.  The families had rented out a resort – there was a stage set up outside, lights, palms, fountains, and even a red carpet.  The stage was set up in front of an amphitheater – and every seat was filled.  I’d estimate that anywhere from 400 to 500 people were there that night.

The bride’s family arrived at the resort early to get dressed and make sure everything was set up.  Around 6pm, I heard a commotion in the distance – – a band, cheering, and then I saw fireworks.  “I wonder what’s going on over there,” I said to my fiancé.  He suddenly looked a little panicked, “It’s the groom’s family; they’re here…We’ve got to hurry up and get finished.”

Wait – what?  That’s the groom’s family?  I remember thinking to myself (my fiancé had already run off to let everyone else know – as if they couldn’t hear the commotion, too!)  So, yeah, the groom showed up with his own parade – marching band, performers, fireworks, and all.  And he was riding a horse.  Once they arrived at the gates, the band played another song, everyone danced, and the groom finally dismounted.  The bride’s family (all except the bride) was there to greet everyone and give them gifts.

The groom made his entrance and then went for a costume change.  Only after he came back and took his place on the stage were we allowed to go get the bride.  I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful she was.  Six of us held a cloth over her head and escorted her onto the stage where her groom and the world saw her for the first time that day.


The stage for the wedding couple

And then, for hours, everyone who was there filed onto the stage to congratulate them and get a picture with the couple.  The gigantic buffet was open during all of this, and I snuck off stage a couple of times to go graze.

Then, by 11pm or so, everyone left except family and close friends.  I was afraid I had missed the actual wedding ceremony and I wasn’t sure when they had become man and wife yet.  But that was because they hadn’t.  All of that was just the reception.  The actual ceremony wouldn’t take place until two o’clock in the morning, which was when their priests had told them was the best time for their union.

Eventually, the date changed, people came up and wished me Merry Christmas (it was the wee hours in the morning of December 25 after all!), and then the couple went to the alter and spent about an hour doing some more rituals and saying, what I guess were their vows.  Finally, everyone clapped, and they were married.  Then her brother had to escort her to her new husband’s house as a symbol of her making the transition from one family to the other.  By the time we finally got to bed that night/morning, it was 4:30am – the wedding had lasted almost 12 hours.

2) The bride and groom were kept separate until the actual wedding day. One thing that I noticed about this Indian wedding, was that it seemed like it was more about the joining of two families rather than being just about the bride and groom.  One thing that led me to that conclusion was that the bride and groom didn’t celebrate together – even spend any time together – until the wedding night.  Both families had their own four days’ worth of ceremonies.  The groom and his family did make a short appearance at day one’s religious ceremony, but apart from that, everything was separate.  The wedding night was the first time that both families mixed together in a large celebration.

3) There was enough gold to make Smaug jealous.  Seriously, I’ve never seen so much gold in one spot.  Let’s not even taken into account all of the jewelry that the bride was wearing – I’m talking about just the gold that both families gave to her on the wedding night.  But, I don’t think it’s really just about jewelry and bling.  It’s also about financial stability for the new couple.  Those gifts of gold are meant to be investments in their future.  The bride will keep those necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings – maybe even wearing them on special occasions – as her own wealth, which she can rely on to support her family if something should ever happen.

4) My god at the food! Lastly, I’ll just quickly mention the food again.  Can you imagine four days of wedding feasts?  Sometimes I still dream about those spreads of food – those platters of Indo-Chinese food, pani-puris, noodles, curries, sweets, and naans.  Since I’ve already posted about Indian food, I won’t waste any more time on it here, but I just thought I’d mention that these folks barred nothing when it came to providing excellent meals for all their wedding guests.  It was simply marvelous.

Damnit…I’ve made myself hungry.  But, now that I’m back in Germany, I guess I’ll have to settle for a bratwurst.

To see my general thoughts on my three weeks in Mumbai, see my post “Welcome to India!”  Or, to read about Mumbai traffic, see “Hey! Rickshaw!”  And if you want to drool over some descriptions of Indian food, check out “Bo-Hawt Atcha-Hey!”

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