Warren Bartolo waxes philosophical on handbags and home in the midst of global lockdown.
Last week, in taking further precautions regarding the spread of COVID-19 in my country, the Maltese government decided to close retail shops. This included hairdressers, beauticians, and handbag outlets — all deemed “non-essential”.
Bags, nails, and hair are hot topics amongst my friends and I, so naturally I found myself thinking about the government’s statement for the rest of the day. Placing handbags in conversation with ecology, fiction, lockdowns and pandemics brought to mind an essay by famed writer Ursula K Le Guin; “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”
The essay espouses the ‘The Carrier Bag’ theory wherein Le Guin posits that characteristically womb-like (i.e.; feminine) tools preceded that of those considered masculine, and are therefore the origin story for human technology.
Le Guin challenges the masculinist logic of phallic tools and technology — the spear, the sword, the stick — and instead tells the story of the recipient; the container, or the handbag, if you will. She argues that
the container (let’s just call them handbags from here on out, it’s more fun) the handbag is the origin of human technology. “65% to 80% of what human beings ate in palaeolithic, neolithic and prehistoric times was gathered,” she says, “only in the extreme Arctic” (where meat was a staple) were phallic tools and weapons required for survival.
Thus, the earliest invention for utilisation has to have been a handbag of sorts in order to gather and collect food or products that were harvested. In essence, Le Guin urges us to depart from the dominant narrative of phallic thinking.
“We’ve heard all about the sticks and the spears and the swords, the things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things, but we have not heard about the thing to put things in. The container, for the thing contained. That is a new story. That is new.”Le Guin
In laymen terms; it’s useless to dig potatoes if you don’t have something to carry them home in. “With or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.”
Now more than ever this quote resonates with me on a personal level, as I’m sure it does with many of you. To prevent the spread of this virus we’re locking ourselves within our homes (our containers), unable to ‘force our energy outward’.
Of course, Le Guin recognises that putting the handbag under the spotlight is a strange gesture, absurd even. However she argues that this is because we’re accustomed to phallocentric narratives; “Finally, it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”
But, of course, the handbag has much to offer. The bag theory embraced in Le Guin’s essay destabilises values like conquest and domination perpetuated by “Man the Hero” in favour of an ethical system that gravitates toward continuity, contiguity and cohabitation, and ultimately leads us to view ourselves as common bodies alongside non-human ecologies.
Le Guin strives for a narrative “conceived as a carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle,” suggesting that a bag’s function comes close to that of a house. A useful term for getting your head around this is ‘habitat’ (house), derived from the Latin ‘habitus’ (v: habeo), which also means ‘I wear/I carry/inhabit’. I have the habit of carrying a handbag, I hold/carry/have a handbag. I inhabit. I cohabit.
The ecological undertones in Le Guin’s approach to narrative cannot be dismissed, as her value of continuity (which she calls “the life story”) embraces a community of diverse individuals. The prefix ‘eco’ in ecology derives from the Greek οἰκός/home. In fact, the Greeks had a very strong notions of ‘going home’, which they called νόστος. At the heart of Homer’s Odyssey is a sense of place, finding refuge — which is what we’re being called to do right now; stay home and reassess its implications.
Incidentally, it was not only houses and homes that were essential to Odysseus, but also handbags. Having sailed from the land of the Cyclopes in Book 10 of Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew reached the home of Aeolus, keeper of the winds. Before Aeolus blew them homeward with westerly winds, he bestowed upon Odysseus a gift; a handbag containing all winds bar the western. As they neared Ithaca (their home island) curiosity consumed Odysseus’ crew and they opened the handbag, thinking that Aeolus had given him gold and silver and that he was hiding it from his crew, who had undoubtedly suffered as much as he had. To their surprise, the winds leapt forth and bore them away from their native land.
Today we live in the anthropogenic era in which destroying nonhuman ecologies is part and parcel. Being boarded up in our own homes has given us the chance to realise the importance of our own human ecology and how our homes protect, shelter, and keep us safe. It’s almost ironic that, having exhausted nonhuman ecologies, we are being driven back into our own. The Guardian claims that an “estimated 1.7 billion people have been ordered to remain at home as governments take extreme measures to protect their populations.” On the other hand, nonhuman ecologies seem to be asking us to revise our relationship with the οἰκός/home, as we witness pollution and carbon emissions decreasing drastically across the globe. By staying in our own homes, the homes of nonhuman ecologies finally have a chance to revitalise.
What Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory’ — and by extension, what thinking about ‘the essential handbag’ — does is shift the lens through which we look at the foundations of humanity. We move from a phallocentric narrative centred around conquest, to one that privileges collecting, holding, and rationing, and ultimately couples it with an ecocritical approach. Thus it helps us to look at human and nonhuman eco-bodies as contiguous.
In a world being consumed by corona-mayhem we see that we no longer fit into the narrative of “Man the Hero”. Today our habitus is not the dominating spear. Today it is our handbags. Our homes. Our collective effort to stay indoors. That is the ultimate weapon with which we can stop the spread of the virus.
To think about our eco or home is to think about something that receives, holds, protects, shares, and gathers, thus swerving us toward lines of kinship with non-human ecologies. In Le Guin’s opinion, our weapon is not the spear, it is the home. And by extension, coming to appreciate the handbag as an innately essential tool.
The handbag contains. As does our home. As does our body. And it is actually quite essential.
Warren Bartolo has a BA in Ancient Greek and Latin and is currently completing his MA in Comparative Literature. He lives and works in Paris, but is spending time with friends and family in his homeland, Malta, while he waits for the COVID-chaos to blow over.