My body was braille
for the creeping influences:
Seamus Heaney, ‘The Bog Queen’ (1975)
In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert, loosely inspired by Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking ecological text, Silent Spring (1962), one of the characters complains that he was at a restaurant and the ‘eel tasted of petroleum’. This is a film landscaped by oil rigs, the persistent murmur of a dull grey dying sea, industrial structures whirring with eerie electricity. While there is a distinct sense of disconnection between characters, between humans and their environment, one connection that persists is between excess, waste and the body. While nowadays fish change genders due to oestrogen from the Pill being excreted and pumped from sewage into rivers, in Antonioni’s film, haunted by the apocalyptic backdrop of the Cold War, the characters worry about their food getting cloaked in some essence of what gets dumped and yet is also extracted from the sea. A perverse cycle of waste, energy, wasted energy.
This early expression of ecological disaster as embedded in a fear of contamination, of sliminess mixing with toxic sliminess, has its roots even further back, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). After shooting the albatross and overcoming a terrible, supernatural (super as in extra nature, nature made unnatural by being its full strong self) storm, the mariner finds himself suspended in the aftermath, ‘as idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’ (Coleridge 2015). This sense of time frozen, of the environment refusing to yield to human command, is uncanny, a reminder that the land isn’t just something we can divide and conquer. The image of idleness and a ‘painted ocean’ recalls the experience of a crashed computer screen, hung or ‘frozen’ as the mariner is in the sheets of ice ‘green as emerald’ (Coleridge 2015). Think of a typical glitch, that which overlaps colour, blends unrelated materials together in a random, patchwork image. The ice is the colour of grass, yet still we are in the ocean. This is an environment without location, an ‘anywhere’ of strange displacement. This is the place of the ecological glitch.
Rosa Menkman describes a glitch as ‘a (actual and/or simulated) break from an expected or conventional flow of information or meaning within (digital) communication systems that results in a perceived accident’ (2011: 9). While we are dealing in poems like Coleridge’s with a ‘natural’ system as opposed to a digital one, the strange effect of ‘accident’ persists. ‘Nature’ is never as it seems, never ‘natural’ but always unexpected, strange. Systems follow patterns which glitch; the patterns themselves, like evolution, proceed often by a logic of chance, randomness. The weather in The Ancient Mariner is not just climate, a conventional flow of data to be charted and forecasted; but it is positively weird. Weird in the etymological sense identified by Timothy Morton as ‘a turn or twist or loop, a turn of events’, the ‘flickers [of] a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing’ (2016: 5). We question whether the crime of shooting the albatross instigates this ecological horror, which culminates in the monstrous appearance of ‘a million million slimy things’ which the mariner sees surrounding the ship. Like Antonioni’s petroleum eels, these slimy things are stuck with the human character, they have by proximity or digestion become enmeshed, to borrow another term from Morton, the idea that ‘nothing exists by itself, and so nothing is fully “itself”’ (2010: 15). The mariner realises his own surprising mortality, just as the slimy things ‘liv’d on – so did I’. His attempt to lump the slimy things as one gelatinous mass of gross matter leaves him realising that he can’t distance himself from the ugly parts of nature, because he himself is part of the mass, that mesh of beings.
We might now describe Coleridge’s flirtation with the supernatural as a kind of magical realism, and the trend of using such weird elements to render ecological themes continues in a short story written by Karen Russell and published in the New Yorker in 2016. ‘The Bog Girl’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, Cillian, who works as a turf-cutter in the peatlands of some ambiguous ‘green island off the coast of northern Europe’, inflected with hints of Heaney’s hardy Irish pastoralism. Cillian falls in love with a young girl pulled from the bog; she is ‘whole and intact, cocooned in peat, curled like a sleeping child’ with ‘lustrous hair’ dyed ‘wild red-orange’ by the ‘bog acids’ (Russell 2016a). Crucially, there is a noose round her neck. She is young in appearance but probably 2000 years old; her flame-haired and gaunt appearance recalls Celtic/Pictish origins as well as a ragged Pre-Raphaelitism, which hints at Cillian’s weird fetishisation of her beauty. The story that unfolds can be read as a love story, a tale of caution against projecting your ideal fantasies onto ‘the mask of another person’s face’ (Russell 2016b); but here I will read it as a tale of ecological horror that warns of the dangers of industry and celebrates the sensuous mysteries of the peatlands as something that deserves preserving.
Our current era, the Anthropocene, is one of distorted scale, where constantly we deposit chemicals into the atmosphere and earth whose afterlife beyond our own we can barely even gauge as mortal humans. Russell’s story explores this (im)possible meeting of temporalities through an encounter with strangeness which allows us to mull upon our relationship with the earth, to realise our absolute enmeshment with the environment. No matter the narratives we construct through history and science, all human theory is at best the ‘most speculative fiction’; while improvements in science (‘radiocarbon dating, DNA testing’) allow us to trace the ‘material fragments’ as ‘clues’ about our ancestors’ experience, ‘their inner lives remain true blanks’ (Russell 2016b). At one point, Cillian decides it’s time he met the Bog Girl’s family, so he takes a ferry from the island to a museum. He scans the museum’s labels, which attempt to give context to the ‘pickled bodies from the Iron Age’, but is unsatisfied by these attempts to ‘surmise’ details about the ancestors’ lives based on material detail alone (Russell 2016:a). Their bodies are ‘fetally scrolled’ (Russell 2016a), suggesting that screeds more of history are inscribed on their skin like ink upon scrolls, a literal blending of flesh and text. The inadequacy of the museum labels allows Cillian to continue his fantasy that the Bog Girl appeared for him alone, that she ‘was an alien from a planet that nobody alive could visit—the planet Earth, in the first century A.D.’ (Russell 2016a); none of the other ancestors stir the same emotion as the Bog Girl. Love becomes a token, a talisman of magical power: ‘He told no one his theory but polished it inside his mind like an amulet: it was his love that was protecting her’ (Russell 2016a).
Russell’s narrative sustains this fantasy, resisting the natural outcome which would be the Bog Girl’s rapid decomposition upon exposure to air. This commitment to a magical realist effect allows her to explore problems of intimacy and otherness, which relate deeply to ecological issues. Take the bog itself. Russell describes it as a primitive hole, the ‘watery mires where the earth yawns open’, a place where time is suspended by a ‘spell of chemical protection’ which prevents the decomposition of matter: ‘Growth is impossible, and death cannot complete her lean work’ (2016a). Her rendering of the bog is crucial to the story for its associations with the suspended temporality embodied in the Bog Girl. We are told that much of the peat is cut away to turf, a key energy source still used by the islanders, and ‘nobody gives much thought to the fuel’s mortuary origins’ (Russell 2016a). Death, a haunting presence seemingly without telos, lingers in the earth, in the home; the Bog Girl weirdly embodies our paradoxical relationship to natural fuel sources: we consume them to produce energy, but our consuming instigates the loop of destruction—de-energising the earth—pumping poisons and coagulating into new forms of deadly matter. The peat bogs are a kind of charnel ground, already containing the detritus of bodies and time in a ‘disturbing intimacy […] that exists beyond being and non-being’ (Morton 2009: 76). The bogs are both ‘shit’ and ‘fuel’ (Russell 2016a), embodying the waste we must expel to maintain presence and order; but also refusing this separation, stickily gluing us through interdependence (the islanders need it for fuel) just like those slimy things reminding the mariner of mortality.
Moreover, the introduction to the bog includes the narrator’s address to the reader, the only such address in the story. The narrator remarks of the island, ‘it’s unlikely that you’ve ever visited. It’s not really on the circuit’. This seemingly throwaway comment interpellates (in Althusser’s sense of the word as a ‘hailing’ of subjectivity within ideology) the reader as a global consumer, whose ‘circuit’ references a sort of capitalist freeway (the places we drift through for pleasure) as much as it slyly hints at the cycles of life/death which are interrupted in the text. From the start, we are made to feel as outsiders in this community, which is self-consciously established as a wasteland of sorts, off the circuit, the beaten track; a charnel ground for exploring the mystical possibilities of strangeness and ecological intimacy.
What’s more, her association with primitivism and death links the Bog Girl to the past in a way that is queer, that disrupts the reproductive logic of heteronormative capitalism, a disruption that Cillian welcomes. Cillian ‘imagined, with a strange joy, the narrow life’ he and the Bog Girl ‘would lead. No children, no sex, no messy nights vomiting outside bars, no unintended pregnancies […] no promises’ (Russell 2016a). Note again that word, ‘strange’. The Bog Girl’s body is bounded; she will never consume nor produce waste, will never reproduce to bring more consumers upon the earth; with her, Cillian shrugs off the lusty masculinity of the ‘mouth-breathers’ (Russell 2016a) who help dig up the Bog Girl, he deviates from the established gender norms. Indeed, Cillian’s docility, his placid detachment from the rugged rural manliness of those who surround him (personified most perfectly in his uncle, who refers to the Bog Girl as a ‘cougar’ and has ‘a thousand beers’ laid out for himself at dinner) renders Cillian a queer figure, ‘so kind, so intelligent, so unusual, so sensitive—such an outlier in the Eddowis family that his aunts had paid him the modern compliment of assuming that he was gay’ (Russell 2016a).
Yet while the Bog Girl embodies a queer backwardness, more specifically she offers an openness of temporality, a strange oscillation between past and future rather than an obsessional projection towards the future. Derrida (1994) explains the promise as bound up in the logic of messianism, the guarantee of the future to-come of some saving force that would sweep up history. Remember the religious breathlessness which narrates Cillian’s discovery of the Bog Girl: ‘The bog had confessed her’ (Russell 2016a), as if she were a message passed on from a Neolithic age. Yet Cillian is oblivious to the fact that his love is itself the promise of an (unspeakable) secret, a promise of a present without future, a seamless overlapping of present and a past that can never again be as time demands its rupture, the Event of her eventual, unexpected awakening. The silence between them, the Bog Girl’s inability to speak, indicates his sense that love can be their pre-linguistic communication, an avowal without trace; but this originary language is impossible:
Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d’arrivée ou plutôt d’avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.
(Derrida 1998: 61)
This ‘language of the other’ breaks down the classically patriarchal imposition of telos and closure upon the Bog Girl: she will be his forever faithful silent Angel in the House; that is, until she starts speaking. Cillian’s aphasia, ‘a stutter that had been corrected at the state’s expense’ (Russell 2016a), hints at his own problematised presence in the text, since commonly we associate speech with presence. He lacks the authoritative Word, is himself described as a queerish glitch in (human) nature, a ‘thin, strange boy’, ‘once a bug-eyed toddler’, whose grownup, ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a) bely an inherent connection to both land and water—there’s a suggestion of his slightness, his precarious and translucent appearance in the world. The mutuality of recognised love he comprehends with the Bog Girl is this ‘secret’ which excludes his mother and friends, which makes others jealous; and yet it is also a source of troubling disruption, the threat that emerges in the master/servant dynamic symbolised by the noose round the Bog Girl’s neck, which Cillian tightens as his ‘fantasy life’ grows deeper (Russell 2016a). And what is ‘the language of arrival’? It is the Bog Girl’s coming-to-life, her messianic resurrection into present existence.
The irony of the story is that Cillian and indeed all the human characters in the story failed to predict this resurrection. The Bog Girl is adored or feared precisely because she skims with death; the body-conscious girls at Cillian’s school are ‘jealous of how little she ate’, the vice-principal sees her as shedding ‘an exciting new perspective on our modern life’ through her contrasting connection to the past (at this moment, the Bog Girl ‘had slumped into his aloe planter’), the fear among Cillian’s mother and aunts is that she will drag him away from the safety net of respectable surveillance: ‘“I’m afraid,”’ Gillian, the mother, confesses, ‘“if I put her out of the house, he’ll leave with her”’ (Russell 2016a). There is no suggestion of the Bog Girl’s autonomy here; rather, she is seen as embodying a terrifying strangeness that might contaminate ‘innocent’ Cillian. But then she wakes up. Her ‘radish-red’ lashes are vegetable (in the sense of passivity and organic matter) companions to Cillian’s ‘celery-green eyes’ (Russell 2016a); she too is an earthling, bound to the bog in an inexplicably deep, mournful way. Her awakening is erotic, marked by ‘a blush of primal satisfaction’; it is only at this point that their relationship emerges fully into what Donna Haraway calls that of companion species, whose interdependence is based on mutuality, in ‘forbidden conversation’ (Haraway 2008: 16). Haraway says of her relationship to her canine friend:
I’m sure our genomes are more alike than they should be. Some molecular record of our touch in the codes of living will surely leave traces in the world, no matter that we are each reproductively silenced females, one by age and choice, one by surgery without consultation. […] We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story on story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand. We are, constitutively, companion species. We make each other up, in the flesh. Significantly other to each other, in specific difference, we signify in the flesh a nasty developmental infection called love. This love is a historical aberration and a naturalcultural legacy
(Haraway 2008: 16).
It is only when the Bog Girl awakens that the relationship becomes properly ‘in the flesh’; she has learned the communion of erotic love, is ‘tugging at his boxers’, but at this point Cillian is tipped into the abyss of signifying rupture: ‘something truly terrifying had happened: she loved him back’ (Russell 2016a). The nasty developmental infection called love’ rips apart his perfect communion of static silence. The Bog Girl’s language ‘was no longer spoken anywhere on earth’, it is a primitive cry from the depths of the peatlands, which Cillian cannot answer because he is indifferent to the Other as anything more than his own anthropocentric projection: ‘The past, with its monstrous depth and span, reached toward him, demanding an understanding that he simply could not give’ (Russell 2016a). We might think of the title from Jonathan Bate’s crucial ecological polemic, The Song of the Earth (2000), or a strange, aberrant passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), where a vagrant woman whose ‘rude’ mouth is a ‘rusty pump’ (signifying, perhaps, the decay of industry, its material crudeness) singing a song of ‘love which has lasted a million years’ (Woolf 2004: 70-71). The idea of song suggests an ambient music that stretches onwards without climax and fall, echoing past and future in its rasping cry. The eerie, anthropomorphic crackles, growls, roars and howls that come from the ice in The Ancient Mariner. What would the earth sound like, speaking back? Surely it would be our own cry, endlessly deferred; the echolalia of life forms caught in this experience together, entangled in the rendering of a dark and dying world.
In many ways, the Bog Girl is animal, Other; she is not quite human. Better then to think of her as someone who embodies the terrifying intimacy of all life-forms, which brush up against one another, bearing their various sensations and temporalities. While the mariner comes to admire those gross ‘slimy things’, noting their ‘rich attire’ and blessing them with a whiff of Romantic kitsch as ‘happy living things!’ (Coleridge 2015), Cillian finds himself caught between the Bog Girl’s world and his own, ‘struggling to pay attention to his droning contemporaries in the cramped classroom’ (Russell 2016a). Referring to his classmates as ‘contemporaries’ reinforces their association with the present; juxtaposing with Cillian’s mournful retracing of steps, back ‘to the lip of the bog’ (Russell 2016a), the word ‘lip’ suggesting both spatial liminality and the erotic possibility of the temporal and primordial lacuna that lies within. We can think of the Bog Girl as what Morton (2010: 41) calls the ‘strange stranger’, a word for all life-forms which encapsulates the way that even those closest to us are inherently weird, because they remind us that we are not wholly ourselves, that we too are composites of life-forms, viral code, enmeshments of DNA.
Although the Bog Girl always seems close—we get vivid details of her ‘rhinestone barettes’, her ‘face which was void of all judgement’ (Russell 2016a))—indeed she becomes a vital component of Cillian’s life, ultimately he is forced to realise her absolute strangeness. Unlike the mariner he is unable to overcome that gap of Otherness and make peace with the uncanny experience of the ecological mesh. He goes down, enticed by the ‘lip’ of the bog, listening for the ‘primitive eloquence’ of ‘the air-galloping insects continu[ing] to speak the million syllables of [the Bog Girl’s] name’ (Russell 2016a). At the end, the narrative becomes ambient, with a distortion of inside/outside, self/other:
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” That night, Cillian came roaring out of the dark, pistoning his knees as he ran for the light, for his home at the edge of the boglands. “Who was that?”
My immediate assumption here is that Cillian is calling “Ma!” for his mother, a riff on the Irish references of the piece which are probably a nod to Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems (1975). However, it’s not clear; elsewhere she is usually referred to with the Americanism, “Mom”. Cillian himself has adopted a primitive roar, which rips through the resonant chorus of insects as if refusing their incantations of the Bog Girl’s presence. The call for the mother seems vaguely directed, a generalised cry for help rising from pure terror as he runs for the light. ‘“Who was that?”’, embedded in the same line, seems to come from Cillian, but equally it could come from his mother back home, or even the boglands themselves, watching this skinny boy run off from the darkness. A mutual sharing of strangeness. This is an affective, fleshly and sensuous experience of horror that the written texts, the museum labels, cannot document. There is always a possible slippage, which Russell literalises in the Bog Girls’ figure. Nature has betrayed its accident, the glitched intrusion of the prehistoric past upon a modern present. While Red Desert more overtly projects the ecological breakdown of the external world through the increasingly disordered mind of its female protagonist, ‘The Bog Girl’ leaves us with an unsettling vision of lingering presence: the insects singing the elegy of her name, a name which tremors, sends nightmares to Cillian, which resonates with the bog, itself a microcosm of a wasting, gurgling, plundered world. Is this a haunted logic for future coexistence? We’ll have to take the plunge to find out…it’s going to be dark, sticky and maybe dangerous…
Bennington, Geoffrey, 2004. Other Analyses: Reading Philosophy (Bennington Books).
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, 2015. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Available at: <http://www.bartleby.com/101/549.html> [Accessed 1/3/17].
Derrida, Jacques, 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf, (London: Routledge).
Derrida, Jacques, 1996. Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou le prothèse d’origine (Paris: Galilée). [The translations I use from this text are Geoffrey Bennington, cited in Bennington, 2004.
Haraway, Donna J., 2008. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Menkman, Rosa, 2011. The Glitch Moment(um) (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures).
Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought (London: Harvard University Press).
Morton, Timothy, 2013. ‘Thinking the Charnel Ground (The Charnel Ground Thinking): Auto-Commentary and Death in Esoteric Buddhism’, Glossator, Vol. 7, pp. 73-94.
Morton, Timothy, 2016. Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press).
Red Desert, 1963. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni [Film] (Milan: Rizzoli).
Russell, Karen, 2016a. ‘The Bog Girl, The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/bog-girl-by-karen-russell> [Accessed 1/3/17].
Russell, Karen, 2016b. ‘This Week in Fiction: Karen Russell on Balancing Humour and Horror’, Interview by Willing Davidson in The New Yorker. Available at: <http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/fiction-this-week-karen-russell-2016-06-20> [Accessed 1/3/17].
Woolf, Virginia, 2004. Mrs Dalloway (London: Vintage).
A long time ago, far out in the constellations of mythology, Rapunzel let down her hair. And what lovely hair it was, a waterfall of gold, spilling from the window of her tower. Answering the call of her keeper or lover, she unravelled her braids to form a rope. Rapunzel’s hair, then, provided the connecting threshold, the thread that stitched together her turreted psyche and the world outside. It was also her downfall, allowing her to have illicitly a lover. Her keeper, Dame Gothel, became jealous and cut her hair, and left her to live a withered existence out in the desert. The tale takes us from the lush beauty of a ‘splendid garden’ to the arid desert, where eventually Rapunzel and her lover reunite and find happiness. It’s a peculiar tale of desire, entrapment, revenge, femininity; a tale which sets the scene for wider cultural mythologising of long hair. It’s a mythology that we’re still fascinated with, as the popularity of the Disney adaptation of Rapunzal’s tale, Tangled (2010), attests.
History and myth are glutted with references to the power of lengthy tresses. Take Samson, the Israelite leader who lost the source of his strength when his lover Delilah betrayed him and cut off his long hair. Or the Sif, the wife of Thor, whose wheat-coloured locks were cut off and stolen in her sleep by the malevolent god Loki. After Sif’s husband entered a threatening rage about the hair theft, Loki ordered dwarves to weave Sif a new mane of hair out of threads of gold, more long and beautiful than before. There’s also, of course, Medusa; the monstrous Greek guardian whose hair famously consisted of venomous snakes, and whose eyes turned their onlookers to stone. In his essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), Freud suggests that her snaky mane is linked to the castration complex, the (male) fear of having one’s genitals effectively guillotined. Freud’s typically eyebrow-raising essay links Medusa’s head to the female genitals, and the supposed threat of castration a boy experiences if he catches sight of these genitals. Well, apparently, Medusa’s snakes also alleviate the terror of castration, since they provide supplementary figures for the penis, thus filling in the implied absence of castration. And of course, Freud throws in a cheeky sexual pun, as Medusa’s head makes her ‘spectator stiff with terror’, and thus not only turns him to stone but also arouses him: ‘[f]or becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact’. Yes, quite.
Well, it’s undeniable that literature has tended to represent a woman’s long hair with desire, sexuality and beauty. Take this passage from Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
Medusa was astonishingly fair;
She was desired and contended for–
So many jealous suitors hoped to win her.
Her form was graced by many splendors, yet
There was no other beauty she possessed
That could surpass the splendor of her hair–
Yet while her hair made her an object of desire, a thing to be ‘contended for’, the ‘splendor’ of her snake hair also symbolises her multiplicity. As the snakes are full of a life of their own, Medusa cannot be pinned down, her personality is multiple, endless. Her hair is its own being, extending in legend and through history. It is slippery, but also a symbol of her power. Indeed, Hélène Cixous reclaimed Freud’s psychoanalytic pinning of Medusa to advance her feminist call-to-arms for women to rethink their sexuality in relation to language. In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975) Cixous critiques the way Freud’s castration complex reinforces the mythologising of Woman as hysterical, as the Unknowable, ’dark continent’. As weak, passive, mysterious. Through writing (extending the lines of multiplicity that we find in Medusa’s hair), women may reclaim themselves, reach out and produce their desires and being through writing. Just as Cixous herself reclaims the mythical figure of Medusa from Freud’s cigar-stained fingers: ‘she’s not deadly’, Cixous argues, ‘she’s beautiful and she’s laughing’.
There is something joyful and exuberant about long hair. Think of the connotations: a young girl skipping through a field of wheat, streaming behind her a cherry red ribbon. An Austen heroine waiting to be the belle of the ball, or the flame of The Little Mermaid’s rippling tresses. It is a distinctly youthful trait, too; a symbol of childish innocence. In Victorian society, only children tended to let their hair down in public; if a girl wished to be seen as a woman or ‘lady’, she must pin up her locks, dress them in ornaments and braids. Letting one’s hair loose as a woman was seen as a sign of wantonness. Thus, the artistic portrayal of woman with their tresses flowing free represented a kind of back-to-nature aesthetic, a fetishising of the body, the long locks relishing a kind of originary femininity and sensuality. Perhaps also a wildness, a breaking forth from repressive societal values – the kind of constructed femininity that kept women as the domestic ‘angels of the house’. Think of the young Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), her hair streaming behind her as she gallantly trails the ‘savage’ Heathcliff over the hillsides, or the iconography of the ‘fallen woman’ as depicted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Women who did not look in the mirror and reflect back the pale perfection of the chaste Victorian angel, but positively glowed with their own matter – their glorious hair – their sensuality. There is something in that: the glorious feeling of standing on a cliff edge, letting the wind whip your hair across your face and fill it with billowing energy. Just don’t try it when you’re trying to eat ice cream.
Today, like everything else long hair has been sucked into the commercial imperative. Perhaps that is why long hair has been associated with anti-capitalist and consumerist movements: the lengthy tresses of 1960s hippies, Marx with his wild white beard and mane, the fluffy mop of Che Guevara. Long hair (especially the unkempt dreads of the hippies) was never really a friend of the drone-like demands of the job market. A short sharp haircut symbolises ‘cool’, edginess, the new freedoms enabled by consumption (think of the bobbed Flappers of the 1920s). Advertising impels us to buy products, perfect your femininity, express yourself through a new style; a new cut, spray, or shampoo. ‘The latest hair trends’, the V05 website proclaims, ‘help you express yourself’. Every day is a decision about how one will adorn oneself, about one’s performance; hair becomes a web of possible signifiers, waiting to be decoded by an image-consuming public, or at least by that stranger across the street. Femininity is a performance, but the secrets of self lie in the hair. There is Kim Kardashian, that postmodern queen of the feminine, a patchwork of skin and plastic flesh, of shiny dye and hair extensions. Websites will spend considerable time and space unpicking the details of Kim’s hairstyles, as she shifts chameleon-like from blonde to black to ombre. It seems that still we read a women through the strands of her hair, as if they were lines of text.
In Greek mythology, the long-haired Sirens were alluring femme fatales who seduced sailors with their bewitching singing, leading them to perish and shipwreck on their islands. The beauty of these long-haired beings is thus inherently linked to danger, a threat to the freedom and power of masculinity. We might make a connection to the emasculating anxiety of becoming trapped in feminised domestic space. We might also make a connection to the contemporary use of the word siren in relation to (often long-haired) actresses: she’s a real screen siren, we say. Again, these sirens are beguiling, but often perilous in luring their spectators into the isolated islands of their cinematic fantasies.
Yet in addition to these chains of mythology, hair at its most basic component is protein: an element of our body which symbolises nurturance and life. Like our hair, we are always changing, growing. If we look after our bodies with sleep, good food and exercise, it shows in the glow of our hair. A quick flick through a photo album will reveal a history of hairstyles, which reflect not only on the (dodgy or not) cultural trends of the period, but also on ourselves. Who we are and were.
My own hair history is a fairly interesting one. I’ve always loved long hair, ever since (perhaps even before) I watched a rented VHS copy of Splash (1984) and decided I wanted to be a mermaid. Refusing my mother’s futile attempts to brush my hair, I went to school with a witchy mane which was only sometimes contained in double, Heidi-like braids. There’s a picture of me at my seventh birthday party, with it all crimped as I grin at the camera, wearing 90s-style Baby-Spice white leggings. It would’ve looked almost cute, if I didn’t have a full-fringe which took over half of my skull. Safe to say I’m not such a fan of primary school photos…
At least I earned the comparisons I (still) get to Hermione from Harry Potter (and not just through the geekery department). Kids at school would ask me if I ever bothered to straighten my hair (or at least brush it, one girl sighed) – this was back when everyone had to wear their hair poker-straight and smooth as if it had been recently ironed, Bridget Jones style. All that static flattened out; everyone a clone. You could almost smell the whiff of burnt heat spray as the other girls glided past. I wanted GHD straighteners for so long, that by the time I got them (a joint present for me and my brother, who was then going through his wee 12-year-old emo phase), I quite liked my hair a bit wavy or curly. I still have and use that same pair of trusty straighteners, incidentally.
Hair was always a contentious issue in my schooldays. The P.E. teacher would warn us every week that if we didn’t have it tied up in class, we’d be forced to wear rubber bands to pull it back. I’d always imagine the excruciating sensation of pulling a rubber band out a ponytail (along with half of my hair), every nerve searing with dread. By the time I was thirteen my hair was pretty long and for Halloween I bought some of that wonderful Stargazer semi-permanent dye and made a half-successful job of my hair. I think I got that sort of ethereal/faerie/cyborg look, as I dyed the top half pink and the bottom half blue, and my bad dyeing skills meant I actually got quite a cool ombre effect as the shades blended into each other. I wasn’t so good at clearing up the spattered mess of the bathroom, which resembled a mediocre Jackson Pollock painting by the time I was finished.
Oh, and with said blue dye I also did my brother’s hair once. My friend and I bought him some cheap permanent blonde stuff from Semi-Chem, thinking that because his hair was so naturally dark it would need a bleached out base. I didn’t think the blonde would do much at all, maybe only lighten the brown a bit. Somehow, however, it worked a treat and he had the most, um, skunk-like streaks of yellow in his hair. Diligently, we applied the blue dye, forbidding him to look in the mirror until it was finished. With everything all rinsed out, I suppose he looked more like Sonic the Hedgehog than the Billie Joe Armstrong look he was probably going for. It also didn’t help much that I also let my friend cut his hair in the Debenham’s family toilets (while I sipped warm wine mixed with whisky from a plastic sports bottle – classay!), leaving chunks of it over the floor like it was the detritus of some old, innocent self. After a few week’s of swimming lessons, the chlorine made the blue bleed out into a measly green, and he’ll probably never forgive me for that.
The best hair I ever had was platinum blonde. I loved it so much. I guess it was my failed scene-kid phase, when I wanted hair that was long and spiky and backcombed like a rat’s nest, a white canvas to set off my black liner and neon eyeshadow. The bleach process took over three hours for the hairdresser to do, and probably cost all my birthday money and a month or so’s worth of EMA, but it was worth it. I was born a bonnie wee blonde, but cursed with the family trait of having this fade. Having bright blonde hair makes you literally dazzle. Anita Loos was the first to say that ‘gentleman prefer blondes’, and it’s become an adage that blondes have more fun. I don’t know about all that, but you do feel like you’ve become some diamond in a sea of dull, radiating a new light. It fades though. The roots cut in like black leeches and the strands dry out like straw. You get bored. I let the blonde grow out and kept the tips as a kind of proto-ombre (I swear I got there before Alexa Chung et al), which remained as a kind of limp homage to my teen years pretty much until about a year ago, when I went the whole way with the brunette thing.
And now I just wished I was ginger, or at least half ginger. That’s my plan now: gradually get more ginger. There’s something special about ginger hair; the way people try to hide it with lovely euphemisms – strawberry blonde – the way it’s linked to a fresh freckled face, or strange stereotypes (ginger people don’t have souls, I’ve been told). Its Celtic connotations. I want the amber and russet tones of Pre-Raphaelite tresses, that look gorgeous in autumn. It’s a sort of long term life plan, but probably achievable, although it’s one of the hardest colours to get right. You could end up with some cat-vomit orange, or a lustreless red, if you’re not precise with your dye. Yeah, I’ll do it gradually. It took me a while to get my hair as long and strong as it is now, so in spite of that saying ‘it’s hair: it’ll grow back’, I’m not risking my mane anytime soon.
Sure, I love the idea of hair makeovers. Get several inches lopped off and highlights put in and maybe an undercut. It looks cool on loads of people. But I’m definitely one of those strange souls who finds their hair a total comfort blanket, a scarf in the winter, something to chew on idly when I’m staring at a computer screen. I like being able to hide my face in awkward situations, or conceal the fact that I’ve made no effort with my makeup. It becomes a kind of signature, and people remember you by your hair. It would be hard to lose that, like shedding a self.
However, I’m not denying that long hair, rich with sensuous mythology though it is, isn’t a proper pain in the arse. The brushing, painful detangling, the half-hour plus hair-washing, the problem of it getting stuck in the door when you’re trying to clean the microwave. How to wear it for work; nobody wants a spaghetti strand of hair in their £18 steak. You do come up with a good routine though and it becomes manageable. I promise, it’s worth it.
Desire, jealousy, strength – all things long hair represents in myth. Sure, everyone has bad hair days, but maybe a bad hair day with long hair is more a ‘I just came out of the ocean’ look rather than ‘I just woke up’. Long live the mermaids.
Long hair-care tips:
- Wash as little as possible. I wash about once a week with a teaspoon of shampoo and a heap of conditioner.
- Good diet! Eat all your greens: kale, spinach, celery, avocado and broccoli are best.
- Coconut oil: heat some up and slather your hair in it and leave overnight for a nourishing hot oil treatment.
- Buy a tangle-teezer and make your life 50 x easier.
- Try to sleep with it in a braid.
- Wash it in the coldest water you can stand, and only start to blow dry it when it’s about 80% dry, so it’s getting less heat damage.
- Soft scrunchies are better than harsh bands!
- Give yourself or get someone else to give you regular almond oil scalp massages. A splash of peppermint oil mixed in also stimulates growth.
- Regular trims will not make it grow longer (myth myth myth!) but obviously keep your ends in good shape.
- Try using colour-depositing shampoos and conditioners as a less damaging colour upkeep as opposed to layering up permanent dye. Henna can also be good, although it doesn’t ever wash out, so be careful and do a strand test.