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Book Review: Swooning Beauty: A Memoir of Pleasure by Joanna Frueh

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As a young scholar and journalist there was one word I was trained to expel from my vocabulary: “I”. Personal feelings, opinion, comment, did not belong in a news story or a piece of academic analysis, I was firmly told, and after a decade or more of conditioning even now, in a blog world in which such injunctions look antique, my finger still hovers momentarily over that dangerous key, before making the plunge to the personal pronoun.

If you were to look the absolute opposite approach, then Joanna Frueh’s Swooning Beauty: a Memoir of Pleasure could be a fine example. Freah is an art historian and performance artist, and both of those frameworks are evident in this memoir, but it is the personal nature of the text that is dominant. This is an account of a time of loss and pain in her life – the death of both her parents and a divorce come in quick succession. But while she’s understandably struck down by this trio of losses, she’s also determined to build herself back up – psychologically, but very much through the mechanism of her body. Self-pity it seems is not in her make-up, or at least not in her writing.

For Frueh there’s certainly no mind/body split – both are open to any experience, any possibility. If she sometimes gets too mystical, too New Age for me, that doesn’t mean she’ll be that for every reader, and her determination to live in the moment, to be inspired, and inspiring, can be uplifting:

…late August, dragonflies appeared in my life…. I spotted a small metallic bronze dragonfly above some pink cosmos and lavender… Within the week, I noticed a large one… lying on the paved walkway about three feet from the entrance to the building that I teach in. … At first I assumed it was alive, but I touched it and it didn’t move. The stillness of death had found the dragonfly, as it had found my parents… Part of me wanted to leave the insect where it was, undisturbed. But the part that moved me to action wanted to protect its intact beauty, so I took the dragonfly to my office and set it on my desk. Students and colleagues remarked on its perfection and size, and I enjoyed telling them the story of my finding it, even though I felt a twinge of sadness each time: why had this animal magically offered itself to me? And why was it dead? After a month or so, I brought it home, then eventually laid it in one of the backyard flowerbeds.

That passage pretty well sums of Frueh’s writing, and it seems, life: she lives in the moment, embraces it in every detail, in a way that I can only admire, although I doubt, as a “big picture person” I could emulate it. She always stops to smell the flowers.

Although there’s little overt theory, this is also a passionately feminist book: one of its conceits – not as developed as I might have liked it– is her feeling that at this point in life she is “becoming a man”. I came away from Swooning Beauty without being entirely clear what she meant by this – sometimes it seems she is appropriating traditional male prerogatives and powers, sometimes it is a bodily sensation of the phallus as a symbol of power, but perhaps non-traditional male power, what she calls the “fairy phallus”. Frueh nods to Susan Bordo’s The Male Body and its definition of “the masculinist phallus as delivering conventional male force”, but indicates there can be others, one of which she finds, somewhat curiously, in Mel Gibson. This is not really Mel Gibson the actor (perhaps luckily in light of recent events), but a fantasy character created by viewing his movies, particularly Braveheart.

She ties this to the writing of 12th-century European mystics – the linking of the language of love and prayer. But Frueh is determined grounded in the body, denying that it is possible “that one’s fantasy of sleeping with someone is better than reality… My disagreement rested in the experience of flowering rather than falling when I fucked someone I loved, or rising rather than falling in love, of melting, opening, and lifting the heart.” As that suggests, Swooning Beauty might be read as a manifesto for sex-positive feminism, indeed beyond that “body-positive” feminism. For Frueh tells us that she is going through menopause, and this is something she embraces, not fears: “… having decided that if indeed the curative had become ineffective, then I’d live with the flushes for a while. I never timed their appearance, but I think it sometimes may have been every thirty minutes: heat in my face, neck, and shoulders, moistness on my arms, belly, back, buttocks, and legs, especially at night along with cold sweating and removing bed linens so that air could cool my naked body, encumbered by fabric as much as by heat.”

The references are wide-ranging and frequently thought-provoking. How, Frueh wonders after watching the “corporeal masculinity” of a group of working-class American males, did Hatchepsut (the only known female pharaoh of Egypt) walk? Did she incite the same visceral dislike as Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton? Another book I reviewed taught me something about the “Father of Modern Gynecology”, J. Marion Sims, but Frueh added more, quoting from his autobiography in which he wrote: “If there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis.” But the author of Swooning Beauty offers an alternative view of the vagina, as an “articulate organ”, as portrayed in Carolee Schneemann’s performance Interior Scroll of 1973.

One of the fascinating aspects of book reviewing is encountering books far outside your normal frame of references, taking approaches that are new, but sometimes shine light and new thoughts on your existing work. I’ve written a thesis arguing for the corporeality of the online world, but Swooning Beauty presents a view of a very different form of corporeality – one that, it has to be said, given the dominance of porn in the online world, has something new and relevant to say. I can’t see myself ever writing anything like Swooning Beauty, or indeed regularly reading such writing, but it has given me a lot to think about.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    nice review natalie. this book has gone right to the top of our “buy” list.

  • http://bryanmckay.com/blog Bryan

    This doesn’t look like the sort of thing I’d normally read, but you’ve managed to make it sound quite interesting. I may just have to check this one out at some point!

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    Thanks for your kind comments. I’m sure you’ll find different and interesting things to say Snarkattack – I could have just kept going and going…

  • http://www.tammypowley.com Tammy

    I’ve just started reading this book and also have been asked to review it for a web journal. It is actually the sort of thing I normally enjoy reading, but I am finding it a little difficult to get into as yet. Frueh is working through so much pain. I find it unsettling.