The School of the Dead: The Radical Danger of Readers and Writers

cixous Reading about writing can be something like reading about music. Too meta, too not-quite, too useless. But reading Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing was an experience I’ve never had before. It’s not a how-to, a craft book, but a philosophy of writing and reading and language, how the three are combined so intimately that we feel it more than know it.

cixousbookReading the first chapter, which is actually a lecture, “The School of the Dead,” I felt as if somebody was writing my own unconscious, my own impulse towards writing. She was pulling it out of me. I want to think about how Cixous’ ideas make clear my experience writing my book The Loud Earth and my experiences afterwards, having written it, having others read it. Both were equally strange experiences. “The School of the Dead” took me back to writing the book as if Cixous was transcribing my hours at my desk, which were dreamlike and fast, taken hold of by this story. I felt as if I’d already read this lecture, or heard her speak it, because surely I could not have written something that so perfectly aligns with her thoughts? But I did.

loudearth_full“The writers I love are descenders, explorers of the lowest and deepest. Descending is deceptive. Carried out by those I love the descent is sometimes intolerable, the descenders descend with difficulty; sometimes they stop descending.” She tells us here that literature is meant to be hard. It should not take the easy way out. It should not be pleasant to read, pleasurable perhaps, but not lazy. Sometimes writing flows, I know my pen just moves across the page, I am trying to keep up with the unravelling in my head, but it is never easy.

Cixous tells us that writing is physical. Descending is a physical motion, you cannot stay where you started. For this reason it’s not just paper and ink. It’s nature, dirt, ocean. “The element (and I would like to have you hear this word said by Tsvetaeva, in Russian: stikhia, she means both the element – matter – and the element – poetic verse – the word element signifies both things in Russian), the element resists: the earth and the sea offer resistance, as does language or thought.” I am interested in the descent literally, I’m interested in the dark places in the earth, the loud earth, that we try to ignore though its calls are sometimes deafening. And I’m interested in the places in our heads and in other people’s heads that are secret, hidden, but important. You can go your whole life ignoring these things. But writers – and readers, how can we separate the two? – must seek these places compulsively. Descend, though it breaks the heart and pushes against you.

This is the ladder she is talking about. Sometimes the ladder is invisible. Which is why writing is like scraping through the darkness thinking you see a flicker of light, then another, and if you’re lucky your path will grow visible, though it’s not a path that was always already there, it’s a path you made, out of the darkness, so you have to turn back to see where you went, where you came from, and then retrace your stumbling. Cixous says, “Giving oneself to writing means being in a position to do this work of digging, of unburying, and this entails a long period of apprenticeship.”

And why is this apprenticeship the “School of the Dead”? Because writing always starts with death. “The [death] that comes right up to us so suddenly we don’t have time to avoid it, I mean to avoid feeling its breath touching us. Ha!” For Cixous all writing is about death. Read a book and think it’s not about death? It’s probably lazy, it probably doesn’t want to dig or unbury. We should be uncomfortable when we are reading. Writing should twist our bodies on the edge of pain. Otherwise we are only avoiding.

darkness“I said that the first dead are our first masters, those who unlock the door for us that opens onto the other side, if we are only willing to bear it. Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.”

I have been told time and again, “Your book scared me.” “You scare me with your writing.” “Please tell me everything is okay in the end.”

They say it like it’s a bad thing. But why would I write if I wasn’t going to try to dig something out that made you uncomfortable? Why would I skim the surface, then brush the dirt from my palms? If you sit with the discomfort you learn that reading is like witnessing the scene of a crime. “We are witnesses to an extraordinary scene whose secret is on the other side. We are not the ones who have the secret. It’s a pictorial scene.”

We know that art isn’t decoration. It’s not an ornament or gardenscaping. It’s a crime scene. “The duel – death – and the picture form a door, a window, an opening.” Art, in making us afraid, lets us go to places we can never go in reality. But it should be just as petrifying, just as soul-altering, just as physical. Yes, “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.”

I write about dead people, ghosts, murder, blood, dark places, deathlust, bloodlust, bodies and secrets. Because “we need to lose the world, to lose a world, and to discover that there is more than one world and that the world isn’t what we think it is. Without that, we know nothing about the mortality and immortality we carry. We don’t know we’re alive as long as we haven’t encountered death: these are banalities that have been erased. And it is an act of grace.”

Which is why I don’t understand “reading is escapism” or “reading is entertainment.” I wouldn’t be alive without language. It’s not exactly a running away. I actually had someone say to me, in response to reading my book, “Well, you know, I don’t really like heavy stuff, I like happy books.”

The point just flew away, unseen, I guess.

Is it about being depressing? Is it about wallowing in sad feelings? For me it’s the exact opposite. Only by reading those writers who don’t turn away, who don’t avoid, who go to the edge and look down that ladder, reach as far as they can, am I able to see what it is to be alive. We need to examine our relationship to the dead. Constantly. And it’s not that by contrast that we’ll know what being alive means to us. It’s because being alive includes death. It includes the dead. As Cixous says, be brave: “Individually, it constitutes part of our work, our work of love, not of hate or destruction; we must think through each relationship. We can think this with the help of writing, if we know how to write, if we dare write.”

Daring to write, to read books that make us lose our worlds, means stumbling through a darkness that is dangerous. Cixous’ concept of the writing process is as perfect as anything I’ve read: “Writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written: it is preknowing and not knowing, blindly, with words. It occurs at the point where blindness and light meet. Kafka says – one very small line lost in his writing – ‘to the depths, to the depths.’” That’s why we know that literature and experience cannot be diametrically opposed, as most people imagine. Have you ever been told you read too much, don’t experience enough of life? Well, quote Cixous next time.

But it won’t be easy. You can’t do it smiling. “Try to write the worst and you will see that the worst will turn against you and, treacherously, will try to veil the worst. For we cannot bear the worst. Writing the worst is an exercise that requires us to be stronger than ourselves. My authors have killed.”

Those of us who are willing to break ourselves at our desks may get close, but it takes strength most of us don’t possess.

“In what is often inadmissible, contrary, terribly dangerous, and risks turning into complacency – which is the worst of all crimes: it originates here. We are the ones who make of death something mortal and negative. Yes, it is mortal, it is bad, but it is also good; this depends on us. We can be the killers of the dead, that’s the worst of all, because when we kill a dead person, we kill ourselves. But we can also, on the contrary, be the guardian, the friend, the regenerator of the dead.”

handgraveComplacency may be the worst of all crimes, but it also the most common. Try to talk to anyone about something that runs against the status quo. If you are a feminist you already know this. Most people just don’t want to hear it. But that’s okay. Writing is dangerous. Reading is dangerous. Not the bestsellers, the ones with the masses-approved raised lettering on the cover, but the books that take on this task of befriending the dead.

This is why women writers are not as palatable as men. Black writers are not as market-friendly as white writers. Queer writers may as well bank on a niche readership compared to heteronormative ones.

Perhaps the response to your writing is even more educative than the writing itself. When you are at your desk you will know this is hard, you will know it is dangerous, you will know it makes you cry when you discover that you can turn into language something that crushes your body. But the reaction from people you know once your writing is in print will tell you that you are pushing against the grain every step of the way.

Cixous reveres Kafka.

Kafka22When she writes about his philosophy of language and literature it’s obvious why, and why he is such a rare writer. He writes about books the way true readers experience them:

I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

If the stakes are as high as this for writing and reading, then as Cixous puts it we must recognise that there is “always the same violent relationship: the book first, then you.”

If you experience books like you experience life, sometimes more forcefully, then you will understand this. If someone has ever told you you read too much, that you must experience more of life, as if reading and experience were dichotomous. If you don’t wish to numb that frozen sea inside you, or ignore it.

It is useless to describe a book as happy because it is stupid, because it turns away from that frozen sea, because it doesn’t wound us. As Cixous says, “Those books that do break the frozen sea and kill us are the books that give us joy. Why are such books so rare? Because those who write the books that hurt us also suffer, also undergo a sort of suicide, also get lost in forests – and this is frightening.” But it’s only through this intelligent suffering that we will get true joy, rather than the quick, numbing, fast-food joy of bestsellers or “happy” books, forgotten as soon as you disembark from the plane.

This is why writing begins with death, why it is risky. “The writers I feel close to are those who play with fire, those who play seriously with their own mortality, go further, go too far, sometimes go as far as catching fire, as far as being seized by fire.”

Some people simply don’t experience reading in this way. It is a way of passing time. I don’t know what else. Cixous acknowledges this, though she cannot understand it: “Not everyone carries out the act of reading in the same way, but there is a manner of reading comparable to the act of writing – it’s an act that suppresses the world. We annihilate the world with a book.” Those of us for whom reading is a matter of life and death, sanity and insanity.

bloodWe know books are dangerous because we are told so by others every time we pick one up. As Thomas Bernhard wrote:

And they call reading a sin, and writing is a crime.

And no doubt this is not entirely false.

They will never forgive us for this Somewhere Else.

This risk means going to crazy places that seem to draw us though we don’t know why. “And for this home, this foreign home, about which we know nothing and which looks like a black thing moving, for this we give up all our family homes.”

On the other hand, if we wish our reading to be numbing, happy-pill, quickly forgotten, we are not like Cixous. She avows: “I have the inclination for avowal. What would the opposite of need for avowal be? The need to remain silent. Does that exist? Do we really want secrets? Real need is on the side of avowal. The true secret causes the most suffering, because it is the exact figure of death. If we have a secret we don’t tell then we truly are a tomb.”

Some days it’s easier to be a tomb. Not to write a lie, exactly, but to not quite write the truth. It’s easy to write out of a tomb, read out of a tomb, the ultimate laziness. But the next day, when we feel some strength or even such weakness that we are newly grotesque and even masochistic, we can cross all of this out and move closer to avowal. Perhaps avowal cannot be done every day, it’s too exhausting. But it’s okay if it’s slow, as long as it’s painful.

Cixous teaches us that while writing is about crossing borders, transcending limits, it’s also about respecting difference. Respecting the things you cannot know. “In life, as soon as I say my, as soon as I say my daughter, my brother, I am verging on a form of murder, as soon as I forget to unceasingly recognise the other’s difference. You may come to know your son, your sister, your daughter well after thirty, forty, or fifty years of life, and yet during those thirty or forty years you haven’t known this person who was so close. You kept him or her in the realm of the dead. And the other way around. Then the one who dies kills and the one who doesn’t die when the other dies kills as well.”

Maybe part of what she is telling us is that there are some things you cannot write. Leave space in your writing. That’s a hard thing to accept. We want to write everything, we want our characters to know each other deeply, we want to know our characters deeply, we want to put our sons, our sisters, our daughters into our writing as if we have a hold of them. I think here of Levinas’ notion that the other is always unknowable.

levinasThough his writing his utterly sexist, positioning the feminine as the mysterious other, denying any form of feminine subjectivity, and giving a whole new meaning to the male gaze, difference is important to consider from an ethical perspective. In my book the narrator wants to collapse all difference between herself and Hannah, because it is too painful to accept her borders, which explains her deathlust and how ultimately destructive it is to be possessive of another person without really seeing them. Cixous knows that if you don’t see the other person, only yourself through them, you are verging on a form of murder. The narrator takes this literally.

My narrator is haunted by the crime scene of her murdered father and stepmother. Did she do it? She cannot think it to herself, so we have to think about it ourselves, as the reader. Cixous offers an explanation: “the loved one remained inside her, a dead man inexplicably without his death.” When we write, when we call up the dead like this, we are calling up a whole set of confusing feelings that are difficult to separate: what is his? What is mine? “She is staging an unenvisionable crime. What she lives out, and what she rejects with all her strength, is the fact that the deadman reproaches her for being alive. This is something she cannot come to terms with since she is both characters at once, herself and her-him. She is guilty of being a survivor. She didn’t follow him. She isn’t him.”

This works if she was the murderer and it works if she is. I don’t know why I am drawn to texts with this “unenvisionable crime,” these unresolved crimes. Perhaps because as Cixous claims “all great texts are prey to the question: who is killing me? Whom am I giving myself to kill?”

This is why great texts are like crime scenes, so much is at stake. “What finally emerges from the earth of the narrative is that we need the scene of the crime in order to come to terms with ourselves: we need the theatre of the crime. We need to be able to expose the crime and at the same time to somehow keep it alive.”

But this ain’t crime fiction. Because it is unresolved. The social order is ultimately left in the mess we began with. The lack of a resolution is the same as what is in the mind of the narrator. Full of illusions, delusions. “This is how we regulate our way of not seeing, or seeing what we don’t want to see. Seeing, not seeing, making visible, hiding/exposing, what? What is there in that heavy bag he is carrying?” I think this is one of the things people resist. But this is where intelligence resides: to accept the mystery, but to want to know. Desire and murder at once. A few people have asked me “What happened? Did she do it? Did she kill her parents? Did she kill Hannah at the end?” I do not want to answer. For one thing I don’t know. But my favourite thing is when people discuss the possibilities, and are not afraid.

A resolution is tempting, but it isn’t possible. “The inclination for avowal, the desire for avowal, the yearning to taste the taste of avowal, is what compels us to write: both the need to avow and its impossibility. Because most of the time the moment we avow we fall into the snare of atonement: confession – and forgetfulness. Confession is the worst thing: it disavows what it avows.”

But in one sense don’t we have to be afraid? Because reading isn’t “over there.” It is also inside me. Cixous sums up this conundrum: “Dostoyevsky was prey to this character’s mystery: what causes a young woman to bloody the entire house. She is a monster who isn’t a monster. I could be her. I am also you.”

We want to keep intact the other’s difference but we know it is not always possible. In the end Levinas’ idea of radical alterity is not satisfying. Irigaray does a better job, explaining that difference isn’t an opposition, it’s a possibility for creativity.

irigarayImagine a Western concept of the body in comparison to the Eastern concept. The body is bounded in Western thought, in opposition to other bodies, whereas in Eastern thought it is subtle, the bounds of the self aren’t so easily defined, relationality becomes more complex.

subtle-body Writers know that our bodies are subtle even if it’s only an unconscious knowing. Because books have subtle bodies. One person wrote them, quite another person reads them. “The author writes as if he or she were in a foreign country, as if he or she were a foreigner in his or her own family. We don’t know the authors, we read books and we take them for the authors. We think there must be an analogy or identification between the book and the author. But you can be sure there is an immense difference between the author and the person who writes; and if you were to meet that person, it would be someone else. The foreign origin of the book makes the scene of writing a scene of immeasurable separation.”

And if the book is out there, mine, written by me, it is also inside you, read by you. “This turbulent landscape is our inner storm, it’s the curtain-raising of the unconscious. The world is white, we are lost, a great wind blows, and there in the background is a small black spot. We wonder what it is.”

Writing, and reading, are ways to communicate with the other, to experience the ways that our bodies are in fact subtle. Because literature is also physical. “These people have taken us through the storm ‘toward the depths’ where we can’t see clearly what we see, to discover ‘the most known unknown thing.’”

So it’s strange when somebody tells me “You scared me with your book.” Did I? I am not quite the person who wrote that book. Writing is another mode of communication altogether. We simply do not communicate with people in the same way as we write literature. That is why we need it so badly. And those who ask me for “the answer” to the book, as if there is one? I did not write the same book that you read.

If you love writing, if you love reading, if you find literature is the only way you can make sense of the world – and even more than that, the best way to make sense of the world – you must read Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Cixous has written this book with your blood.

A Prison Cell Built for Two: Romance, Monogamy and Violence

perfectheteronormativityI know I could write pretty much what I want about patriarchy and heteronormativity. I’d have to get pretty radical before progressive people got upset. And yet to criticise monogamy? People who love attacking heteronormativity with me stop when I start on mononormativity. “Well, that’s okay isn’t it?” Aren’t romance and monogamy synonymous? Isn’t it how our society works best? Then – hold on, are you criticising my relationship? This tells me I’m getting something right.

Laura Kipnis points out that monogamy is “secured through routine interrogations (“Who was that on the phone, dear?”), surveillance, (“Do you think I didn’t notice how much time you spent talking to X at the reception?”), or impromptu search and seizure. We are taught that this is necessary, romantic, even natural. That each partner should be naturally jealous and overbearing of the other’s movements, words and thoughts. Why can’t we see this for what it is, controlling and often downright abusive?

rule206By falling for the trap that jealousy and efforts at control are “natural” (does that mean biologically determined?) we fail to see what’s really at stake. No, it’s not your relationship. It’s the social order. Again, thank you, Kipnis: “adultery puts things at risk: from the organisation of daily life to the very moral fabric of the nation.” This is why “cheaters” get called “immature,” “selfish,” “irresponsible.” It’s the language of what Kipnis calls “bad citizenship.”

When you start to see how institutionalised heterosexuality is built into the social order, you see the point of monogamy. These little units, neat little heterosexual couples, neat little nuclear families in their neat little houses, are the building blocks of capitalist society.

nuclearBut wait! How can something so beautiful as romance and love and commitment be subject to social forces? It’s destiny, it’s a force of nature.

Just look at the workplace vocabulary we use to describe monogamous relationships. There’s the oldest line in the book: “Marriage takes work.” We are asked to “show commitment,” or we may get criticised for “being scared of commitment.” We are advised to “compromise,” “negotiate,” “put in more time,” “be more accommodating.” If necessary, we should question whether the relationship is “worth saving” and if we shouldn’t just “cut our losses.”

workplacevocab

Isn’t this just a little scary? The language of business moves into intimacy. And yet, it’s not at all surprising if we see how heterosexual monogamy is always institutionalised, not the result of a “natural drive” but fundamental to the social order.

And yet apparently resistance is futile. Everywhere you turn there are heterosexual monogamous couples! Turn on the TV, there they are. Attend a family gathering, there they are. Walk into a café – still there! There would be no problem if there weren’t so many. It’s the overwhelming discursive power of heterosexual monogamy that is so damaging. You see a forty year old unmarried woman – first question: “Why isn’t she married?” You overhear the word “polyamory” and blush, or shake your head at the immaturity or downright immorality. A handsome young man always shows up to parties without a woman in his shadow – what’s going on? Must be gay.

couplesThe discourse of romance as meaning heterosexual monogamy is suffocating. Even more so, it includes the notion that all people should aim for it. My one life’s goal is apparently to meet a man, date, marry, buy house, reproduce, raise offspring, die.

Not a bad life script, but why the only acceptable one? Why the only one that is “built into my DNA”?

Okay, this is all well and good, but what’s truly wrong with this discourse? Why can’t we find a “partner” of the “opposite sex,” “settle down” and never “stray”? Apologies for the scare quotes, but seriously. Maybe you don’t mind supporting the status quo, maybe you don’t even mind the capitalist system, enjoy your relationship being legitimated by the state? Well, there are a whole lot more problems with our ideas of romance than we ever hear at the cinema.

disneyheteroThe ultimate problem with heterosexual monogamy is the way it enshrines a hierarchy of relationships. One’s most important bond is with one’s romantic partner. Yeah, you might have friends, but it’s cool to ignore them if you find yourself in a relationship. Obviously you’ll take your partner to that social function, I mean who else is there? Couples refer to themselves as “we.” Other people refer to couples as “John and Jane” or whatever. They merge.

Becky Rosa’s work on anti-monogamy is some of the best I’ve ever read. She criticises monogamy for promoting an “ideology that as adults we should primarily bond with one person, meeting most of our needs from them.” We not only see this in the proliferation of songs, movies, books obsessed with finding a “life partner” but in the social and economic status and incentives given to married or de facto couples. This is why conservative politicians (and unfortunately most of the population) want to promote the couple, the nuclear family. It’s the most orderly way of sorting people.

Mononormativity is the pervasive normalisation of monogamous romantic relationships as the most desirable, “natural” form of relating. Once you realise its presence you feel suffocated. Double beds. Armrests at the cinema that lift up between two seats and are locked down on either side. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. The third wheel. The odd person out. A lover being our “other half.” Which is based on Plato’s myth of humans originally being connected balls, then split in two, so we search always for our “wholeness.” Why is two such a magic number?

platomythThis hierarchy is ultimately patriarchal. Women in a heterosexual monogamous relationship have greater status and opportunities than women who aren’t. They are seen as normal. They are successful. In this stasis – the status quo of heterosexual monogamy – compulsory heterosexuality is affirmed and women’s highest priority is their husband and children. Dangerous, potentially radical ways of relating, such as women’s friendships, are diminished.

Isn’t it time to deprioritise this privileging of sexual relations as comprising our most meaningful relationships? Why do we equate our most important emotional relationships with monogamy? Why have we closed off all our other options? Why are friends less important than lovers? Why is the sexual cordoned off, welcomed only in monogamous relationships? Rosa puts it best: “For monogamy to exist, there needs to be a division between sexual/romantic love and nonsexual love…We believe that there is a distinction between the romantic/sexual love people feel for their partners, the love people feel for their friends and the love we feel for our biological families, yet this is not quantified nor qualified.” How come it’s unacceptable to love two people romantically, yet we would never dream that a mother or a father couldn’t love all of their children. The fact is, monogamy suits patriarchy.

friendshipThis belief sets up a hierarchy of relationships with monogamous partner at the top. The relative neglect of other relationships results in a poverty of intimacy. As Rosa puts it, this “is maintained by ensuring that certain needs can only be met within a certain kind of relationship, the couple” and “it is also very difficult for people not in couple relationships to get the love and caring they want if other people are absorbed in their pair-bond.” Friendship is always less important than romantic relationships. We are obsessed with the “story” of how a couple met each other, but do you ever ask where your friend met her friend? In meeting with a friend we ask, “How is John?” (her partner), but not “How is Marie?” (her friend). We gossip if someone is going out on a date, but not if he is going out with a friend. We gossip that a relationship is on the rocks. Couldn’t care less about the intimacy between siblings. Someone bails on a night out with friends to go on a date? All good. And of course, as Jackson and Scott point out, there’s the eternal problem of “the assumption that we have a pre-ordained right to impose a lover on our friends and that they are automatically included in any social invitation.” Our lives are impoverished by investment in a single “love” relationship.

impoverishedThis poverty is central to patriarchy. With women and men dependent on each other, heteronormativity is maintained and women are separated from each other. Monogamy is also deeply conservative: it keeps couples focused inside – on domesticity, on the house, the car, the kids – rather than seeking radical social change. This is the idea of “settling down,” which apparently everyone learns to yearn for as they “mature.”

Let’s turn to Kipnis again for a dispassionate summing-up: “the authorised forms of desire are those pollinated in the hothouse of the nuclear family, forever in lockstep with its oedipal technologies.”

Just as problematic is the treatment of people as objects. The language of capitalism is inherent to romance. We talk of people as an “item,” call partners “mine” or “my man,” we say “I’m all yours,” “I want you,” “I gotta have you,” “I’ll kill any man who takes you from me,” “You belong to me,” “The girl gets the boy,” “I’m not available.” Why do we speak like this about the person we apparently care for most in the world? We do we feel the need to have exclusive ownership of somebody? While many are leaving behind the abusive capitalistic features of marriage or de facto relationships, such as joint bank accounts, joint ownership of property and women taking men’s surnames (though seriously in 2014 the number of women still doing this is startling), mononormativity thrives on ownership.

jealousySince reading some theorists on intimacy, I am constantly shocked by what I hear in songs and see on TV. Things that are so clearly violent and abusive are represented as “romantic.”

Women and men alike want to know where their partners are at all times. Men can’t talk to women their girlfriends don’t like. Women can’t go out with a man they find attractive. Why didn’t she answer the call? Why doesn’t he say the right thing in this circumstance? Kipnis lists a huge range of interdictions that most people would consider perfectly reasonable when taken one by one: “You can’t spend more than X amount of time talking to such persons, with X measured in nanoseconds. You can’t provoke the mate’s jealousy. You can’t talk to people who make the mate feel insecure or threatened. You can’t socialise with your exes, even if you swear it’s really over. You can’t transgress the standards or degree of honesty or bluntness that the other person feels is appropriate in social situations.” After a few pages of this, the panopticon of coupledom seems hideous, nothing appealing about it.

panopticonIt’s apparently romantic to lust after someone, even badger or chase them, though they don’t offer any encouragement. A marriage or relationship is a failure if it ends in divorce. Inevitable human change is not permitted. To be locked inside the same rules and the same priorities with the same person – to the exclusion of all others – is apparently our hearts’ desire. Why don’t we recognise that this benefits social order, and not necessarily us? We have been sucked in to the vortex of the romance myth.

How about the lovely song “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie?

Or the Beatles, “Run for Your Life”?

“You’d better run for your life, little girl

Hide your head in the sand, little girl

Catch you with another man

That’s the end, little girl.”

beatles

Misogynistic, obviously, but the panopticon of monogamy is practiced on both sides, being a keystone of heterosexuality.

Aretha Franklin sings in “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”:

“I guess I’ll rap on your door

Tap on your window pane

I wanna tell you, baby

Changes I’ve been going through

Missing you, listening you

Til you come back to me that’s what I’m gonna do.”

And how can we leave out the woman who proclaimed she finds feminism “boring,” Lana Del Rey? “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” Of course, she is referencing The Crystals’ 1960s hit, and forty years on our ideas of romance are just as entwined with abuse and control, so maybe a few more of us should try to figure out what this feminism thing is all about.

ultraviolenceThen we have the supposed latest feminist icon, Beyoncé, singing that the only way some man can have a say in her activities is if he claims exclusive ownership: “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.

And lastly (though the examples go on forever), Selena Gomez declaring in a song I can only gather is directed towards pre-teens: “When you’re ready come and get it…I’ll be sittin’ right here, real patient” and to top it off “Even if you knock it, ain’t no way to stop it.

selenagomezIn these last two songs, we have the well-worn delusion that women are after “secure” monogamy, the gatekeepers of romance, always passive, and men have to give up their “natural” desire to be wayward. These women objectify themselves. Call it the oldest trick in the book of the patriarchy.

These lovely pop songs normalise abuse for the sake of monogamy. In our definition of romance, violence is never far away. It’s pop culture like this that is the reason we still have horrendous rates of violence against women. In Australia, a woman a week is killed by an intimate partner. This in a society in which women apparently participate at a level equal to men. But it’s the more insidious ideas we still have about women, men and heterosexual relationships that cause this violence. Which is why we need to look at what makes us uncomfortable: the fact that control and interdictions which are thought of as “just part of monogamy” would be better classified as abuse.

domesticviolenceThe idea that monogamy provides security is hugely troubling. Apparently women need to be in a monogamous relationship, and desire marriage, because they need to feel “secure.” Why? Are men constantly thinking about relationships with other women? Is the only thing making you feel safe the fact that you are in a relationship with rules? The fact that your partner is forbidden to leave you? The fact that the state has recognised your relationship as legitimate? Jealousy is considered a natural emotion, because we don’t want to consider the possibility that it’s actually the control at the heart of monogamy that is the problem.

In fact, romantic monogamous relationships capitalise on insecurity. They can only thrive on jealousy, anxiety and self-absorption. Simone de Beauvoir tells us that women utterly abdicate their sense of identity in romantic relationships, because “A woman is non-existent without a master.” A man is the essential, and her only chance at true life is through him. Patriarchal heteronormativity has told women that this is their only means of achievement. And who makes up the biggest market for romance novels, romantic comedies, magazines to improve marriage? Yeah.

weddingAnd yet society tells us that the only way to be a mature, fully-realised person is to be engaged in a romantic monogamous relationship! Preferably heterosexual and state-sanctioned through marriage, but as a last resort same-sex monogamy will do.

This tells us romance is not the prime expression of human compassion. It is ultimately about the self. While men are less defined by their relationships and their children, they are also sucked in to this grand, totalising myth. We are told that the best way to discover ourselves is in falling in love. Oh, so it’s about us, not them? Or we are supposed to “lose ourselves in them.” In which case it is still about us. And to maintain romance, we must set up rules, interdictions, lines you cannot cross. This is because in the end it is about social order. Beauvoir tells it like it is: “Love has a smaller place in woman’s life than has often been supposed. Husband, children, home, amusements, social duties, vanity, sexuality, career, are much more important. Most women dream of a grand amour, a soul-searing love.” This is the fiction. The fact is institutionalised monogamy. Isn’t the search for our “other half” or true “wholeness” essentially selfish? It stops us from seeing the other person as they are, as we are able to see friends and relatives, without reference to ourselves, but as a whole person in themselves. As Beauvoir says, the “dream…to attain supreme existence through losing oneself in the other” is not selfless, but self-obsessed. In refusing to allow the other person freedom, in establishing so many rules about their movements, speech, glances and smiles, we are not showing care. We are creating our own insecurity. Monogamy doesn’t solve the problem of jealousy, it creates it. If you didn’t need to control your partner, you wouldn’t mind how intimate they were with another person.

So the hook is romance, but the end goal is domesticity. The end goal is institutionalised couples who lock themselves out of all the other complex network of relationships that are a whole lot more radical. Because we are told that this is the only way to stop the everlasting insecurity inside of us.

Arrows and crossings-out: The fun of rewriting

“I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.” — Susan Sontag

editingI think I prefer editing to writing. But then, how can we separate them? As Robert Graves said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

If some cruel person was to rifle through my papers (good luck) and read my first drafts, I would be caught out at once. I don’t necessarily think of myself as a bad writer when I’m actually writing the first draft, because usually I’m deluded by the flow of the story, but if I judged myself by those initial attempts I would not be mad enough to call myself a writer.

Of course, there are those first drafts I have to know to abandon entirely. I have to recognise when something is just way too rough to stand a chance of being turned into anything that will shine.

All of this is part of the fun of first drafts. You can let yourself be bad, get things down quickly, think “I’ll fix that later,” put dashes in for words you need to find or facts you need to check, but this only works if you have faith in the rewriting.

I always write the first and second drafts longhand in full. Typing is too seductive. The words come too quickly. You put five where you need one. Typing is a lot less thoughtful, it has all the wrong flow. So after I have my sheets of lined paper filled I leave them for a couple of days and then get out some more, have the first lot on my desk for reference and rewrite the whole thing. The second draft is never much better than the first. But I begin to know the story better, it’s less about a crazy flow of a story and word association and starts to get a structure. I still don’t know what I want to say though.

I will then type up the second draft, print it out and leave it for a while. A while can mean a few days or a few weeks. I have lots of other things to work on. I rotate drafts like a production line. Hoping they will come out a little better at each step.

Leaving drafts for a while is sometimes enough for me to be confused by some things a reader would be confused by, things I haven’t made clear enough, and to let go of some of the bits I find charming but are useless. To be less self-indulgent. To kill a few of my darlings.

The first thing I find myself scratching out (using pen on the printed copy) is explication. Things I needed explaining to myself when I was figuring out the story while I wrote, but that really don’t need explaining to a reader. It’s better to imagine your reader as more intelligent than they really are, rather than stupider. I know I’m reading bad writing when the writer feels the need to tell me every thought a character has, to give me the reasons for a character eating toast or lighting a fire. That’s something all bad writers have in common and it’s the main reason I throw books against the wall. One example from a couple of my drafts:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights that were faint against the riotous sky. She stepped back and I went inside. There was no smoke, only a clean dark.

This should become:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights that were faint against the riotous sky. She stepped back and I went inside. There was no smoke inside, only a clean dark.

Obviously the woman has let the narrator inside, because the rest of the story continues in the house. The reader would roll their eyes at me pointing it out.

In the fourth draft this became:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights. There was no smoke inside, only a clean dark.

Yes, those adjectives were beautiful, but they weren’t doing anything. In fact, they detracted from the mindset the narrator is in, in shock and sort of detached. She notices a lot, but she doesn’t have space in her head for those kind of flowery thoughts.

After I have got rid of a lot of the “fat” of a story – unnecessarily explication, description and pure wordage – I need to figure out what I’m trying to say.

My first draft flows from a single image, place or relationship. I don’t know anything about the plot, so I discover it as I go along. But this means that even by the third draft I don’t have a concrete sense of what the story is trying to say. So I read it a few times. Think about all the images and people that have come onto the page without much interference from me. In other words, I need to bring the story out of my unconscious and into my conscious mind. I have to analyse my own work, as I’d do in an English essay.

Once I half understand what is going on, I can see if the structure works fine or needs fixing. Sometimes a lot of the story simply needs to be excised, because it is overkill or just a distraction. Sometimes a character has to be taken out or one put in. Things I don’t ever remember having to change are the point of view or the ending. For some reason those things come in the right way, or they are just so attached to the story I’ve got on the page that I couldn’t change them without writing something completely different.

The beginning is another matter. This is the start of the first draft of the story I quoted from above:

The branches were ochre-painted against the sky. The debris of clay, watery, soft. The sky all grey and red. As the trees blew over the leaves pressed one way like hands, they were spread with stuff of clay. The sky was a fire itself, orange in the middle, ash-coloured outside. Everything was caught in the gust and smoke, the drying, firing, and might later be glazed.

I have already admitted my first drafts wouldn’t let anyone guess I call myself a writer. That came out of a real smoky afternoon when I was just looking out my window describing what I was seeing. Too dull for an opening. Too much. The reader doesn’t yet care. It’s just a collection of phrases, trying to grasp something visually and symbolically powerful. By the fourth draft, the beginning of the story became:

A pair of lorikeets streaked across the sky, greener than the greenery. All the plants were drained in the smoke. Only things with heartbeats kept their colour. I looked at my skin. It seemed all right, but the pores were no doubt gaping in the smoke.

In the first draft, those ideas were there, but they needed to be condensed. That image of the lorikeets returns at the end, so I wondered what it would look like at the beginning of the story too. Something is happening, some movement, and something that might make the reader wonder, though that story has quite a few more drafts to endure before it becomes respectable.

It is only through rewriting that my ideas become plain to me, or as plain as they’ll ever be. It is the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I need to pare back so the good things can show themselves. I need to cross out, make additions in the margins, explain what should be explained and take out what the reader would roll her eyes at. I find ideas I didn’t know I had. I find connections I didn’t know were there, buried in unexpected places. It’s my job to unearth them for the reader so that she can discover them for herself. And probably a whole lot more I never realised was there.

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman

“Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in the edit.” — Will Self

Fight Like a Girl: Constructing an Active Femininity

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Why is fashion mocked but not sport, where the goal is, for example, to put a ball on the grass behind a line?

Why are girls at a pop concert thought of as stupid but not men screaming, crying and fighting at a football match?

Why are romance novels scoffed at but not ghostwritten crime thrillers?

Why do romantic comedies elicit eye rolls but not formulaic Bond films?

Why is pink a frivolous colour but not blue?

Why are girls allowed to play with trucks but boys aren’t allowed to play with dolls?

Why is it okay for girls to enjoy soccer but not okay for boys to enjoy ballet?

Why so much attention on about girls playing with pink toys but not boys playing with guns, swords, all kinds of military apparatus?

Why is it shameful to enjoy Britney’s music but not AC/DC’s? (After all, the musical value is the same)

Why is knitting foolish but not playing pool at the pub?

Why is a love of handbags laughable but not a fixation on accessories for a car?

Why is celebrity gossip shallow but (male) sports gossip, which fills TV news, newspapers and programmes like “The Footy Show,” a worthy use of time?

Why does “man up” mean “stop being weak”?

Why do women read novels by men but very few men read novels by women?

These questions all have the same answer.

passivefemininityIt may seem that the easiest way to achieve gender equality is to do away with femininity, with the idea that women should reshape their bodies, decorate themselves, spend hours turning themselves into people that “look like women.”

But this privileges masculinity. This buys into the very idea that the patriarchy has propagated: masculinity means strength, rationality, aggression, and power. Femininity means passivity, emotion, artifice and frivolity.

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If we want to break down all patriarchal concepts of gender, that the category of man is synonymous with masculinity and the category of woman with femininity, and are mutually exclusive (that is, that you can’t be a “real man” and be feminine and vice versa), we have to rethink femininity all together. We have to construct it in a new way, make it powerful. I use the word construct deliberately. It needs to be conscious. We are still too deep in patriarchal concepts of femininity to use femininity without consequence. Everywhere objectification and sexualisation and women and girls bombards us. How can we reconstruct femininity in a way that isn’t patriarchal?

Red-Tape-Sexist-AdFirst of all I want to say that femininity should not be associated with women. But this is a complicated idea because of patriarchy’s centuries-old construction of femininity to assist its oppression of women. Those traits I mentioned earlier – passivity, emotion, artifice, frivolity (and you could name thousands more) – are negative. Masculine traits are positive. And here is the crux: they are only positive when men possess them. So we get the typical insults applied to women who are seen to transgress femininity (and how easy to overstep the mark): “shrill” for women who speak their mind and out of turn, “bitch” for the same thing, “bossy” for women who show leadership, “slut” for women who claim sexual agency rather than passivity, and how long could we go on for? Femininity is ultimately supposed to be about attracting men. That’s why feminists are called “man haters.” Because they fundamentally oppose the idea that their existence needs male validation. That’s the scariest idea patriarchy can hear.

antisuffragepropagandaBy the same token, insults applied to men police masculinity just as effectively. As Jessica Valenti writes:

“What’s the worst possible thing you can call a woman? Don’t hold back, now.
You’re probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank.
Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I’ve even heard the term “mangina.”
Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult. Now tell me that’s not royally fucked up.”

Policing masculinity works through denigrating femininity and therefore women. It works through misogyny.

““Femininity is depicted as weakness, the sapping of strength, yet masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with the feminine destroys it.” – Gwen Sharp

Our binary gender system means that men who express “feminine” traits, say by crying or enjoying “feminine” things such as arranging flowers, are not “real men.” You can’t be masculine and feminine at the same time. In fact, masculinity is defined by an avoidance of femininity. How about if we de-sexed and de-gendered femininity? This means that “feminine” wouldn’t be attached to genitals, chromosomes, even bodies – however we define gender. Basically the term “femininity” wouldn’t be suitable for the kind of body-performance I suggest but since I’m working in a patriarchal symbolic I will use the word. I also use the term because I recognise the denigration of femininity has been synonymous with the denigration of women, is the basis of misogyny, and reclaiming it is a way of freeing women from being the objects the patriarchy wants them to be, to become true subjects with human agency.

riotgrrrlMost essential to me is making femininity about subjectivity. Femininity under patriarchy is about making our bodies amenable to men. Is there a way to reclaim femininity for ourselves, as fluid and changeable, so that one day we can feel like curling our hair and wearing heels and the next wear trackpants and no bra, without feeling that we are abandoning our duty, without feeling that we aren’t “real women” today, without worrying we won’t be treated with respect, without feeling we are missing any advantages by not complying with patriarchy, without feeling guilty, without the world curling its lip or heaping slurs on us?

ilikeskirtsTraditionally femininity has been about objectification. Yes, turning ourselves into objects. Looking at ourselves as objects. Decorating our bodies by inhabiting the male gaze. The way women have internalised the male gaze is scary.

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As Simone de Beauvoir said back in 1949 “Woman…is even required by society to make herself an erotic object. The purpose of the fashions to which she is enslaved is not to reveal her as an independent individual, but rather to offer her as prey to male desires.” So skirts, heels, frills, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, decorative hats, unwieldy coloured fingernails are not designed for free bodily movement and in fact often hinder it. Men’s clothing needs to be practical: shirts without lace or frills, plain pants (it’s forbidden for men to wear skirts), flat shoes, and on special occasions suit and tie. It is not supposed to draw attention to men’s body but allow him to express himself, allow his personality and opinions to shine through. On the other hand, women in positions of power are constantly criticised or evaluated on their choice of clothing, hairstyles, bodily comportment. Women in movies and TV shows are shown fretting over what to wear – this would be unacceptable in a male character. Why? Because women’s bodies are viewed as objects, something to be adorned, and women in sexist pop culture view their own bodies as objects, to be adorned for the male gaze. To be shaped to be amenable to patriarchy.

nothingtowearTo reclaim femininity we have to understand these origins. Yes, it has been utilised for patriarchal purposes. Maybe we can say that femininity can be feminist, but it can be (and certainly has been for centuries) anti-feminist. To use Foucault’s analysis, femininity has been used to create docile bodies, though Foucault of course was bad with gender, so we have to apply his very good concept of (male) bodies being manipulated into soldiers, prisoners, students. If only he had picked up on the incredible differences in the ways female bodies are produced.

Sandra Lee Bartky’s analysis of the way female bodies are produced as objects is pretty much the best thing ever. She knows that “[t]he strategy of much beauty-related advertising is to suggest to women that their bodies are deficient” so that femininity is based on a “pervasive sense of bodily deficiency.” Shame is used to make us discipline our bodies in often crazy ways. You shouldn’t have hair there. You shouldn’t have fat there. You should have a gap there, and a curve there, and a visible bone there. This is because “[w]oman lives her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal Other” as Bartky says. This is reinforced at every turn. On billboards. In “women’s” magazines (often working against women rather than for/with them). On the street when a man thinks he has a right to comment on her appearance. In her home when a relative calls her pretty.

eraseradThis is the message women get from everywhere: the most important thing is how you look. Then they are laughed at for accepting the message. Girls are told they should be pretty, they should like pop music, they should like pink, and then they are mocked for it. Girls are caught in a double-bind. Why can’t we stop telling them that being a girl is essentially weak, without giving them any alternatives?

girlsgetmockedThis is also why girls claim to be “not like other girls” or to take it as a compliment when someone (usually a boy) tells them they are “not like other girls.”

notlikeothergirlsWhen femininity is trivialised, women are trivialised. When masculinity goes unquestioned, patriarchy goes unquestioned.

So, do undo all this historical and cultural work we have to be aware of it. One way to do this is by acknowledging that all gender is artifice. Femininity has been intimately linked with artifice, superficiality, “faking it,” while masculinity has been linked with solidity, truth, natural, pragmatic, down-to-earth. “Feminine” gestures are unnecessary and foolish, such as the stereotypical hair flick, movement of the hips, limp wrist. Drag performances show up this “constructed” femininity clearly. We also get this idea through the common assumption that queer men who “act feminine” are “flamboyant” or somehow faking their speech patterns, body movements and gestures.

whitechicks_3Heterosexual masculinity is the only form of gender expression that is “stripped back” and “natural.” Surprise surprise.

But masculinity is just as much faked and performed. Do men really need to sit with their legs so far apart? Do they need to drape their arms over nearby pieces of furniture? Do they need to swig from a glass with their elbows at a ninety-degree angle? Do they need to clap each other on the back?

takinguptoomuchspaceNope. Artifice. Of course, we can’t avoid Judith Butler here: gender is “a stylised repetition of acts [so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” Basically, gender is “real only to the extent that it is performed.”

If we recognise that gender is a performance, we can detach it from arbitrary markers of genitals and chromosomes. Why would we want to reclaim femininity? It has been used to objectify us, distract us, trivialise us. All that time we spend putting on makeup could be spent reading good books. All that time spent criticising a woman politician’s outfit could be spent examining her policies. But femininity isn’t inherently any worse than masculinity. And there are some things typified as “feminine” that we need a whole lot more of: emotion, affection, kindness, carefulness, even frivolous fun. I think we can reclaim femininity by dissociating it from objectification and shame.

Shame is really hard to get through. As women we feel obligated to shave our legs, our armpits, shape our eyebrows. We are obligated to make ourselves objects. If we can come to a different, more liberating understanding of our bodies we can spend hours looking for a nice dress or putting on makeup if we feel like it, but if we would rather sleep in or read a book we won’t think anything of it. Above all there should be no requirement for women to shape their bodies and faces as if they were deficient, just as there is no requirement for men. If a woman never shaves, plucks, dyes, whatever other regimes that get thrown at women as compulsory, why should we care? Her body isn’t there for us to look at. Rather than looking at our bodies we can experience them, how they move fast, sweat, beat, let us feel pleasure, let us feel pain, the thrill and exhaustion of running or scoring a goal or lifting weights, how they show what we’re feeling, tears or embarrassment or laughter. If we feel all this, if we know our bodies in this way, shame takes up less space. This is body positivity – knowing all the things our bodies can do rather than all the ways that they don’t look. Let’s not leave Riot Grrrl in the 90s. Femininity can be feminist – if we don’t view our bodies with the male gaze, but experience them as our own, as our connection with the world and all its sensations and joys and tragedies.

zooeydeschanel45 years ago Germaine Greer wrote: “Whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them and their owners. Whether the curves imposed are the ebullient arabesques of the tit-queen or the attenuated coils of art-nouveau they are deformations of the dynamic, individual body, and limitations of the possibilities of being female.

The definition of strength that suits patriarchy is aggression, competition, denial of emotion and self-reliance. But when you have all this, who would suggest that tanks, guns, brawls on footy fields, hacking a path through jungle, speeding around in a loud and decorated car, swallowing back tears, looking at women’s bodies as if they had no heart, soul or mind and shuddering at the idea of drinking a “chick drink” are examples of strength? Until men stop viewing “feminine traits” as weak and seeking to avoid them at all costs, we won’t be rid of our stupid notions of gender and the damage patriarchy has wrought on women, men and the world.

riotgrrrlmanifestoWe need to detach “being a woman” from objectification. A femininity that is not about attracting men. We need a feminist patriarchy-smashing femininity.

ididitformyselfI am an I, not a she, not a her, not “my girlfriend” or “my daughter” or “my wife” or sweetheart, baby, darling. My lipstick is the colour of blood, the lifeforce. I know that flowers grow from nothing, everywhere. My hair is long and not ornamental, it catches the light and gives out its own light, it whips and warms me and drips with sweat. I cry when I feel beautiful music and I feel the beauty and spirit of the wide mountains like a kick in the guts. When I cry it is salt and water and heat and intensity. I eat pizza, read philosophy and keep my nails sharp enough to cut skin. I don’t smile in deference, I smile because I am strong enough to show kindness. I am not scared of my emotions. I don’t need to beat nature or prove my survival skills because I know I am part of it. I don’t leave a room that is filled with sadness. I touch without violence. I am not an empty space, I am filled with strength. My body moves fast, sweats, heats up. I am not pretty. I wear skirts and occupy my own space and don’t apologise for it. If you undermine me I can protect myself. I lift weights with my brothers and box with my sisters. I’m wear heels and I haven’t shaved my armpits. I wear a thousand bracelets and I am quick to anger. I cry when I see somebody crying and I shout at those who take me for decoration. I see no contradiction. My makeup is warpaint.

fightlikeagirl

The freak had a country voice: Southern Gothic fiction and transgression

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Southern Gothic has been my favourite mode of writing since I studied Flannery O’Connor at uni in 2009. She was one of those writers you experience in a way that is so rare – just WOAH. When the writing is so good you have not only an aesthetic and emotional experience but also a physical one. Reading (and writing) is usually a physical experience for me – I’m big on undoing the mind vs body opposition that underpins all of Western culture, but that’s another story – but the physicality of reading O’Connor was all about shock. The more I’ve read of Southern Gothic the more I’ve come to cherish the uniqueness of the physical experience it gives – hairs standing on end, disgust in the back of the throat, queasiness in the stomach, laughter foaming in the chest and the sound of it in the space you occupy, because I always laugh when reading and most Southern literature is just so damned funny.

oconnorWhat the heck is it? My lecturer who first introduced me to O’Connor preferred the alternative label Southern Grotesque, which gives a good idea of what it does. It’s all about clash, jarring, juxtaposition.

Politically, we have to think about the Deep South as a kind of awkward place. It does not occupy a mainstream place in American culture. Writers, especially, from the Deep South also have to contend with an environment of deep conservatism, reactionary attitudes, sexism, racism, classism, and the fact that they lost the Civil War and so were proven to occupy the wrong side of history. So Southern Gothic comes out of an outsider mentality – both from the mainstream secular liberalism that is the lens of American writing, coming from New York, New England and California especially, as well as from the conservative, often anti-intellectual, environment of the Deep South. It represents the South and Southern culture NEITHER in the way it often represents itself – think Southern belles, honesty, down-to-earth folks, Edenic landscapes, NOR as it is represented in mainstream American culture – rednecks, incest, Bible-bashing, greasy food, missing teeth.

southerngothiAs O’Connor said, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognise one.”

And why this outsider status?

“Because we lost the war.”

This was also her reason for there being so many good Southern writers.

Though a lot of classic Southern Gothic fiction was written in the 1950s and 1960s, the discomfort with the grotesquerie it presents is still obvious in critical reactions today. O’Connor’s hardcore Catholicism and her primary concern with shocking her readers into apprehending Grace is usually swept under the carpet by liberal critics. It is the elephant in the room. They laud her narrative structure, stark and utterly original style, dialogue, characterisation, but ignore precisely the purpose of her fiction – to shock the reader into recognising the Grace that for her utterly smashes mundane reality, a complacent sense of order. She spoke of her audience as “hostile” – this is pretty much unheard of in writers – and for this reason she knew that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Modern liberal readers who view religion as belonging to the realm of the conservative, the ignorant, the uncultured, are in O’Connor’s eyes these hard of hearing, almost-blind fools.

This goes to the heart of what Southern Grotesque does – make us uncomfortable. O’Connor would have laughed and written a scathing letter to one of her many correspondents (read The Habit of Being, her letters, for hours of laughter) if she could see many modern liberal responses to her work.

oconnorpeacockO’Connor was writing in the 50s. But the violence of her stories still hits us, even though we have been supposedly desensitised by violent TV and film. Why? Because of the way she constructs violence. There are no gory details, yet it’s utterly gory. She writes it in a way that is shocking and sudden. She is a master of narrative tension. Everything in her stories moves towards that moment of Grace, which is often also a moment of extreme and strange violence. So when it comes, it hits us, no matter how many Wolf Creeks or The Walking Deads we’ve seen.

At the end of “Greenleaf” Mrs May is impaled by a bull: “She stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression changed. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip. She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed – the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky – and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”

greenleafO’Connor’s violence is narrative crisis without closure. It hits us because it’s a sudden rupture in the mundane world of characters like Mrs May who say things like “Mr Greenleaf…get that bull up this morning before you do anything else. You know he’ll ruin the breeding schedule.” The grotesque violence comes out of nowhere, shatters the mundane order these complacent characters inhabit, and forces them to recognise the truth of the mystery – for O’Connor, Christ’s redemption. It is without closure because it’s all about that mystery – something beyond the human world, something invisible to us but something we can sense. These complacent characters like Mrs May though require something a little more violent to perceive the mystery. For the most unfortunate of O’Connor’s characters, nothing short of death removes their blindness.with-dead-body2

Southern Gothic has this strain of anti-realism. For O’Connor, it’s about the supernatural, or Christian mystery, for Faulkner it’s about narrative point of view – so dead bodies can narrate a story, or speak from the past. Unlike the Gothic genre, this lack of realism is more about representing Southern culture in a way that sets up a stark contrast with mainstream Northern US culture. The characters are usually misfits in the South as well, best seen in Carson McCullers’ writing. Her grotesque characters – giants, dwarfs, deaf-mutes, tomboys, cross-dressers, androgynous folks and all kinds of queer figures – don’t indicate a limited or negative view of humanity. They show us things only outsiders know. In the conservative, evangelical Christian South, this is radical.

CARSON McCULLERS ICarson McCullers

Southern Gothic writers anticipate discourses of gender and queerness of much later. O’Connor’s women are never demure, sexually available Southern Belles. In “Good Country People” Joy, one of my favourite characters in literature, changes her name to Hulga, has an artificial leg, deliberately stumps around as loudly as possible, and won’t wear the cheerful expression others want her to. She does not make her body into the neat, quiet, compact body that is classified as “feminine.”

southern belleThe mode of the grotesque foregrounds ideas of embodiment and gender and sexuality in a climate (including that of the cultured, politically correct North) that can only conceive of normative gender and normative sexuality. Quite simply, they give us a way of seeing possibilities outside normativity, in the very bodies they describe.

mccullersFrankie in McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding wears a gaudy dress that makes her look like a “human Christmas tree in August,” as the maid Berenice tells her. Berenice advises her to change into a dress that will make her less of a spectacle, in order to meet “the cutest little white boy in Winter Hill.” The grotesque is a way of rejecting all those discourses that define the purpose of women’s existence as being just pretty objects, not to stand out or express their individuality in any way, and all in order to attract a man. Southern Gothic plays with bodies and norms in a radical, transgressive way. Pretty cool thing to come out of the supposedly backwards and backwoods Deep South of the 50s and 60s.

And it’s still a shock to modern sensibilities.

Great Southern Gothic stories/books:

Flannery O’Connor

“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

“Greenleaf”

“Good Country People”

“A View of the Woods”

Wise Blood

Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Member of the Wedding

William Faulkner

“A Rose for Emily”

As I Lay Dying

Cormac McCarthy’s early novels

Outer Dark

Suttree

We Weren’t Born This Way: Smashing Heteronormativity and Repairing Fluidity

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – Audre Lorde

hetero blowsToday the phrase “sexual identity” is so common and familiar we barely think about it. A “biological explanation” for homosexuality is considered the “progressive” way to think about non-normative sexuality. But do these phrases and ways of thinking help us to dismantle the master’s house – that is, to smash heteronormativity?

The categories “heterosexual” and “homosexual” are very recent historical inventions. From their origins in medical discourse, we now understand them as eternal facts of nature.

What does this mean? Well, when I suggest to people that there is really no such thing as “homosexuality,” that it was only invented in the late 19th century, they are confused. They say, “Yeah, but it always existed, people just didn’t realise it.”

This is a very subtle but absolutely crucial point: language completely alters the way we think about things and the way we act and how power operates.

sexuality1(Which is your best fit? Pick ONE and ONLY one!)

So, is it true that same-sex desire was just as common in the past, but we (being post-Enlightenment scientific rational individuals) now know the true name for it? Really, all people in the past could be categorised into our scientifically proven categories of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual? Can we read back into history and classify Sir Bertrand Warblington as gay and Ethel Moresby as bisexual?

I would say this is ludicrous. Such categories are historically and culturally dependent. They depend on specific constructions of masculinity, femininity, identity, behaviours, meanings, desires, institutions. How then can we simplify sexuality to a three-tiered “universal” system that says all people are innately homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual? To different degrees, certainly (and here people will invoke a “spectrum” model that is just as essentialist) but ultimately classifiable into these three boxes.

One thing that always gets me is when someone will say, “Ah yes, you know he was gay?” And another will reply, “Ohhhhhh!” As if something has been made clear. As if all has been explained. Nothing more needs to be said.

On the other hand, to historicise sexuality is to look at the intimate connections between so many parts of society and culture – gender constructs, gender relations, the economy, the law, how desire was represented, and I could go on forever. To cast a modern essentialist net back into any past era is to miss out on how people actually thought about gender, sex, desire, intimacy. Ancient Greeks would be utterly bewildered if we spoke to them about “an internal set of desires.” For them, sexual behaviour was about social status – so sex between older men and younger boys was not about expressing desire but who had power. Similarly, in the Middle Ages sexual acts between men were just that – acts. They were unnatural and unholy acts, yes, but they didn’t reveal anything about what kind of person you were, they were just temporary aberrations. Believing sexuality is biologically ordained doesn’t let us see the historical contexts in which it functioned, it doesn’t let us question how patriarchy worked in these societies, how gender relations were institutionalised. For example, why has the focus always been on sexual acts between men? Basically, because women’s sexuality hasn’t counted. As soon as we historicise and denaturalise sexuality, the old line that “most people were innately heterosexual and so marriage and family” crumbles before our eyes.

heteroweddingAs one example, marriage in 19th century England was an economic imperative for women. Does this mean all of them were exclusively attracted to men? Perhaps they just didn’t want to die.

To historicise sexuality is unsettling, because 21st century Western society depends on a discourse of classifying, categorising, universalising, normalising. David Halperin points out that we think of sexuality now as “a positive, distinct, and constitutive feature of the human personality.” We have this idea that a person’s sexuality will tell us certain things about them. It will tell us about their “personal essence.”

I’m sorry, but I have no choice but to quote my beloved Foucault here. “Is it not with the aim of inciting people to speak of sex that it is made to mirror, at the outer limit of every actual discourse, something akin to a secret whose discovery is imperative, a thing abusively reduced to silence, and at the same time difficult and necessary, dangerous and precious to divulge?

What he is saying is that this linking of sexuality with “inner essence” makes it into a “secret about the self.” In revealing this secret, the self will be revealed. Saying, “I am attracted to the same sex, deep down” (oh, the heteronormativity!), I have revealed something about myself. I have revealed some fundamental part of my personality, my essence, my soul.

foucaultI am in love with Foucault’s comparison of the modern “incitement to discourse” with the mode of confession in Catholicism – that penance meant speaking and examining every part of an act to get some meaning out of it, to get to some “truth” of a person. And his comparison with psychiatric discourse – that extension of the confessional. But anyway.

We see a continuation of exactly the same thing in the modern trope of the closet.

ClosetThe association between homosexuality and visibility is really interesting. Basically homosexuality cannot be thought of without thinking about visibility. Heterosexuality is never associated with visibility. But the need to “come out” only exists because of heterosexuality. It only exists because we see sexuality as a “truth” about ourselves to be revealed. It’s a double-bind: if you don’t “come out” you may be seen as straight, you may be reproducing heteronormativity, but if you do, you are reproducing a binary, an understanding of sexuality as somehow intimately linked with your identity. If we accept that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” we need to be more radical. The closet and “coming out” is a master’s tool. But don’t get me wrong. I want to put the burden of proof on heterosexuality instead.

As Halperin wisely says, linking sexuality with identity in this way means people “belong to different types or kinds of being by virtue of their sexuality.”

If we can classify people, we can group them, divide them, understand an individual by reference to the group and what we know about the category.

howtoknowifyouaregayDoes this strike you as somewhat reductive? For me, the obsession with seeing through a lens of sexuality is severely restrictive. Of course, it reinforces heterosexuality by naturalising it and turning the focus of attention on non-heterosexuality, so that people who don’t identify as heterosexual find that this is the marker of their identity. So, for example, if a person comes out as gay this is seen as divulging a “truth” about their personality, impacting on all other facets of their personality, so that things they have done, said, not done, not said in the past all become a function of their non-heterosexuality. (“Oh, that explains it!”) Heterosexual-identified people don’t have their sexuality discussed in such a way, except in a way that explains it as “natural.” So a heterosexual-identified person may discuss their partners, desires, attractions, clothing styles, music tastes, holidays, political affiliations, all things to do with their sexuality and all things that have nothing to do with it, without their heterosexuality ever being used as an explanation.

But this sexuality-identity knot also, I think, reduces our experiences of and possibilities for intimacy.

I think the following imagined interior monologue is actually pretty accurate, even if condensed:

“Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have worn these jeans today. They do make me look a bit gay. Oh nah, that’s right, got my Radiohead shirt on. What the hell? Why is that guy checking me out? What is his problem? Wow, very attractive girl. Wow, very attractive guy. Wait, what? Oh, God, what if I’m gay? I might be gay. I have thought about it once or twice…Oh God. Wait, that’s right, I have a girlfriend and I love her. I love footy. Cool.”

questioningyourUnderstanding sexuality as “inner essence” or a category of identity means we are constantly policing our subject positions. So, if we have taken on a heterosexual identity, everything that we understand to be contradictory to that identity will scare us or at least make us think twice. Masculinity is much more heavily policed in terms of sexuality than femininity. Heterosexual men have very limited boundaries in terms of intimacy and every form of behaviour, speech and interest that is seen to relate to their sexual identity. I might leave that topic for another day, but it shows how everything is constructed as relating to our sexual identity and how restrictive it is.

What if we went about the world not thinking that our desires, sexual behaviours and relationships were intimately connected to our identities? It would dispel the myth that sexuality is unchangeable and biologically determined.

Firstly, we need to take sexuality down from its pedestal. It is not the most important feature of our identity. Imagine, for example, if we privileged our taste in food as much as we do our sexualities. If we treated it as fixed, as categorical, as biologically-ordained. My relationship with bananas would be problematic.

For a long time I didn’t like bananas. I guess I ate them as a baby, mashed up, but as a child and a teenager I didn’t much care for them. Then, hold on, I began to eat them rapidly and by the treeload when I went overseas. I loved them. I always looked for the freshest at hotels to stow away and eat on the road. Now I don’t really like them again. I’ve had a few bad experiences of overripe bananas. But I guess I’d try another if it looked all right. Maybe in a year’s time I’ll rediscover my taste for them. Nothing to lose, right? To complicate matters I absolutely love banana cake and banana-flavoured things.

But I see no reflection of this on my inner essence, on my identity. I don’t think it’s biologically ordained. It’s a lot to do with the context I find myself in. My taste could change twenty times from now until I die and it wouldn’t worry me. I would not have an identity crisis. So why should the gender of any person I desire define my identity? If I happen to prefer men, why should that taste dictate my feelings about my inner self, my future, my biological makeup? Also, why must our sexuality be dictated by the gender we most desire? There are so many other categories that could define it, such as the kind of affection we most enjoy. But no, heteronormativity has told us that gender is the most important aspect in intimacy, desire and relationships.

I can understand the embrace of the “gay identity” and the development of the Gay Liberation Movement. This was a way to reclaim the discourse that had relegated queer people not only to the margins but to spaces marked by deviance, characterising us as monsters, inherently “unnatural.” It was a way to claim a subject position that had been denied us. This could only be done by linking sexuality intimately with identity. It was empowering to say, “This is who we are.” It explains the radical power of gay pride – and it was radical, and brave, and world-altering.

gaylibIt also explains why the idea of sexuality as unchanging, non-fluid and static, was taken up. Queer people had to actively claim the margins they had been relegated to. They had to create space within these margins. Moving into the centre – the heteronormative centre of society – would have been a betrayal. To abandon that sense of innate difference would have been a betrayal. This explains the suspicion with which bisexual-identified people are regarded today, by both heterosexual-identified and gay-identified people, and it explains why bisexual erasure happens. Because it is damn confusing for people not to fit into a binary category! Bisexual people are kidding themselves, right? Everyone knows there are only two innate sexualities: homosexual and heterosexual. Bisexual-identified people are seen as “going through a phase” or even more worryingly as a menace to the “stability” of homosexual or heterosexual relationships. We can also see this in the commentary about, say, people who end a heterosexual marriage and then begin a relationship with someone of the same gender. Somehow their marriage was a “sham,” they were “hiding their true identity,” because really all along they were gay. How about no? How about this person actually experiences intimacy and desire apart from from identity, and so their kinship changes over time? While bisexuality is often linked with fluidity though, it still buys into the “sexuality as identity” construction. It does not critique heteronormativity.

I can completely understand the desire to distinguish oneself from the utter unfabulousness of heteronormative society. It was this society, this discursive power, which had (and still does) erased the experiences and selves of non-heterosexual people (but only because the self is bound to sexuality), regulated their movement, bodies, subjectivities, economic opportunities…Need I go on? Reclaiming a marginal identity allows you to reclaim some of this discursive power, and some of this disciplinary power, not least by being able to know who else is “like you.” If you can split the world into gay and straight people, you can establish a kinship. You can better tell who is going to be sympathetic, who will embrace your subjectivity, see you as an “insider,” and who is going to see you as an outsider, and likely be hostile and possibly violent. But in claiming those margins they were also reinstating them.

I will never deny the efficacy of embracing a gay identity. Even though I think today we can do something more radical, I think it is valid and useful and an important choice for many people.

What I want to critique is the idea of sexuality as truth, as a revelation about the self.

To me, this lets straight-identified people off the hook.

It lets heteronormativity off the hook.

straightStraight-identified people thought they were being pretty persecuted during the Gay Liberation Movement. So much so that some people, fearful their heterosexuality and (most commonly) masculinity were under threat, felt the need to use violence that often resulted in death. What they were doing were policing the boundaries of heteronormativity. This happens today. All you have to do is look at the violence directed towards queer people ; the Gay Panic Defence – or the Homosexual Advance Defence in Australia; the policing of things declared “gay” (these always seem bafflingly arbitrary to me). Straight-identified people think their “institution of marriage” is under threat today. They think “the children” are under threat.

Guess what? This is only a possible argument if heteronormativity remains intact. What if we smash it?

Heternormativity means that the sexuality under question is always queer sexuality. Always. Because heterosexuality is always perceived as natural. That is the basis of heteronormativity. This means that necessarily any form of non-heterosexuality will be “different” and under question.

What does it mean for heterosexuality to be “natural”?

What if we turned everything on its head and put the onus on heterosexuality?

If we abandon the idea that we were “born this way” heterosexuality can no longer hold its smug belief that it is “natural.” If it is not “written into our genes,” things become a lot more complex. I find the search for a “gay gene” ridiculous. It starts with the presumption of a binary gender system, of normal/abnormal desires. The imperative to understand something scientifically is based on a prior confusion regarding something non-normative: “How can people be attracted to the same sex? It’s not natural because they can’t reproduce. We must find the biological reason for this.”

That has a whole lot of heteronormative assumptions I don’t need to point out.

gay-choice-dna-biologyIn using biology as the be all and end all, we ignore the huge complexity of social construction. The collapse of genetic and social ways of knowing is crazy in the idea of a “gay gene.” Aside from anything else, biology has no knowledge of the 20th century Western construct of homosexuality. The study of biology itself, while proclaiming itself a mere method of revealing facts, is actually highly influenced by social categories.

Biological essentialism also precludes criticism of heteronormativity, heterosexuality as an institution and its construction for political and patriarchal purposes. The history of the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality come from what Foucault calls a “will to knowledge.” Western culture gives priority to scientific investigation, which in the “psy” traditions (psychology, psychiatry) has “researched” sexuality in terms of what constitutes “normal sexual desire.” So these categories allow a binary understanding of normal/abnormal, healthy/pathological. Today we might see a binary of common/different, where heterosexuality is understood as common and homosexuality as different. This may seem kinder than a healthy/pathological binary (even though this absolutely still exists in every “enlightened” city in every Western country, among my friends, families and neighbours). But it stems from the same strange “will to knowledge” and is still about categorising people, finding ways to understand their “inner essence.” So we read behaviours, appearances, desires of people as manifesting some unchanging essence deep inside. Foucault talks about how this “will to knowledge” was all about “discovering” the most intimate details of an individual and extrapolating from those details some overarching narrative.

Judith Butler puts it brilliantly: it is “an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality. If the ‘cause’ of desire, gesture, and act can be localised within the ‘self’ of the actor, then the political regulations and disciplinary practices which produce that ostensibly coherent gender are effectively displaced from view.”

Viewing sexuality as located inside an individual lets society off the hook.

judith-butler-quoteI think the categories of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality reiterate notions of commonness and difference. So, in practical terms, they legitimate a degree of exclusion of queer people, because they are “in the minority.” In political terms, it continues to normalise certain experiences of sex, intimacy and desire, while casting others as “different” if not “deviant.” The classification of sexual desire into categories, as Gail Mason points out, reduces and contains human multiplicities (or differences) to a “tight space.” This then dictates behaviour. She says, “once subjects are seen, and see themselves, in a particular light, their choices, decisions and actions are all affected by the parameters of these identity categories. They adapt to the cultural expectations attached to specific identities and restrict their behaviour accordingly.

Categories construct margins and a centre. Heterosexuality is given the centre. Everything else is shifted to the margins. Categories of homosexuality and bisexuality make the margins easier to understand. This is why I have great respect for the term “queer” because it is slippery, those in the centre can’t get a grip on it. It is fluid and changeable and not supposed to denote anything except anti-heteronormativity. It says “I won’t define anything for you.” It is not a direct signifier, it shifts between spaces and meanings. All it wants to do is break the rules, assume nothing. It is a radical protest against heteronormativity and does not use the master’s tool of an essentialist collapse of sexuality and identity.

What a social constructionist view of sexuality as culturally produced, and therefore fluid and changeable, allows us to do is to say: heterosexism and heteronormativity are not only unjust and exclusionary because they oppress the LGBTQIA minority, but they are false and they are used as a politically expedient discourse. When a florist says to a man buying roses, “So who’s the lucky girl then?” or when a father says to his daughter “We’ll have to chase the boys away from you!” or when shops advertise “His and Hers” whatever it is, it’s not just an example of stupidity and blindness, it’s reproducing an institutionalised and normalised discourse. It simultaneously confirms heterosexual-identified people’s view of their naturalness (subconsciously – because the whole point of normalised discourse is to make itself invisible) and casts queer people as different. Always, people who have been successfully inducted into heterosexuality have their success reinforced. Always, people who find this discourse of heterosexuality limiting and incongruous to their own experiences of desire and intimacy are cast as different. This is heterosexual privilege and it has social, cultural, economic, psychological, epistemological and all other kinds of benefits.

hetero everywhereI don’t think a “that’s okay, it’s who you are!” or a “born this way” argument is sufficient because it lets heterosexuality off the hook. Instead of asking people who find this compulsory heterosexuality too much to deal with to “come out,” we should ask that heterosexuality look at itself. It should look at how it has been socially constructed, institutionalised, normalised. Basically, people who identify as heterosexual should “come out.”

Maybe then we will really get somewhere towards understanding the complexity of desire, behaviour, relationality and intimacy. Maybe then we will move away from this discourse of sexuality that dictates what we wear, who we speak to, how we conceive of our futures, who we value most, who we invite to formal events, how we raise our kids. Maybe then we can take each experience and social situation at a time, taking        each intimacy on its own terms, rather than seeking out intimacies based on predetermined categories. Because guess what? We were not born into those categories.

They look like white elephants: Hemingway, writing and feminism

collectedstoriesI have loved Hemingway for a long time. I must have first read him in my late teens, and I was stunned by him in that all-consuming way I’ve experienced with only a few other writers. It is the simultaneous clarity and obscurity that I love. Everything is laid on the surface: action, gestures, drinks, rain. But you hear very few internal thoughts, read very little emotion. Hemingway trusts his readers to make their own meaning from the surface he has constructed so plainly. The iceberg theory and all that.

Hemingway taught me that dialogue is not the conversation of everyday life. Dialogue must be constructed as tightly as anything in fiction. In real life, people waste words. In dialogue they should not. Repetition is good. It sometimes conveys the gap between people, whether it’s a difference of opinion or something more permanent. Look at this:

“How you feel now?”
“I’m awfully tired,” he said. “And I’ve got a bad headache. But I feel a lot better. Let’s have another one and then go up to your place and get a bath.”
“Maybe we ought to eat first.”
“I’m too dirty to eat. You can hold a place and I’ll go get a bath and join you at the Gran Via.”
“I’ll go up with you.”
“No. It’s better to hold a place and I’ll join you.” He leaned his head forward on the table. “Boy I got a headache. It’s the noise in those buckets. I never hear it any more but it does something to your ears just the same.”
“Why don’t you go to bed?”
“No. I’d rather stay up with you for a while and then sleep when I got back down there. I don’t want to wake up twice.”
“You haven’t got the horrors, have you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m fine. Listen, Hank. I don’t want to talk a lot of crap but I think I’m going to get killed tomorrow.”
I touched the table three times with my fingertips.
“Everybody feels like that. I’ve felt like that plenty of times.”

A lesser writer would have put, “He rolled his eyes” or “He shook his head yet again.” We get the full relationship and scenario between these men through dialogue and repetition only, no explication. What hit me when I first read Hemingway, and what enchanted me to the point where I tried to imitate it as so many writers have, was the artificiality of his dialogue. It is obviously and deliberately contrived. Not being a realist writer, he isn’t afraid to cut and shape. After all, all fiction is contrived. Hemingway’s dialogue shows the difficulty his characters have “connecting” with each other, the inadequacy of external things – dialogue, appearance, movement – to truly express the internal world of a person.

EH 1306NReading all of his stories recently, I was struck by how many of the images had stayed somewhere in my unconscious. It was like happening on a scent that brings back the entirety of a place, a time, a set of feelings.

I think this is how influence works sometimes. When you write, you aren’t cognisant of what you’re drawing on. But a lot of what you’ve read – especially those images, passages, characters, motifs – stays buried, where only your unconscious can reach it. It’s going off-topic, but the role of the unconscious, bringing things out of the dark into the light, sometimes only partially, is I think the centre of writing.

Here’s something that was buried for me:

Into a skillet he was laying slices of ham. As the skillet grew hot the grease sputtered and Bugs, crouching on long nigger legs over the fire, turned the ham and broke eggs into the skillet, tipping it from side to side to baste the eggs with the hot fat.
“Will you cut some bread out of that bag, Mister Adams?” Bugs turned from the fire.
“Sure.”
Nick reached in the bag and brought out a loaf of bread. He cut six slices.

What is special about that? There’s no intensity of feeling or language. It is the starkness, the food, the atmosphere, the Americanness. I know that for me, what I see as good writing is connected to concreteness. Abstract, transcendental concepts which aren’t tied to something tangible on earth are too vague to have much impact. I don’t really know what strikes me about this particular Hemingway passage, what took me back to the first time I read this scene. But good writing is like that. There is a certain amount you can analyse, but as an aesthetic and emotional experience good writing is like good music – it hits you somewhere beyond expression.

This is all aesthetic. As a feminist, how do I come to terms what is truly Hemingway’s unavoidable misogyny? He gives us no complexity in his female characters. They are always passive and are defined by their relation to men. This is their mode of being. If Hemingway isn’t eager to chronicle interior lives in general, he certainly completely avoids giving us the subjectivity of any female characters. They are defined by their usefulness or agreeableness to men. They are either “good” women who do their job by serving men, or “bad” women who have deceived or hurt them.

I don’t think the excuse that “he was writing in another time” is tenable. I don’t see gender politics as moving in a straight line, always tending toward progress. I think it is more complicated than that. But if you are a radical feminist, when you read any literature, and of course with any work of art or pop culture, you have to come to a point of compromise. You have to use the critical lens you have developed to interrogate what you’re reading/watching/listening to.

As a feminist I am as interested in masculinity and its construction as I am in femininity. They are both central to the deconstruction of patriarchal power. So Hemingway’s representation of war, bullfighting, boxing, drinking, “man in nature,” homosociality is fascinating for me. He somehow manages to interrogate this hypermasculinity while being enthralled in it. As a reader I can see the violence, anxiety, loneliness and impossible expectations of this kind of masculinity and I don’t have to celebrate this masculinity as he does. Being a writer of complexity, he necessarily shows the “negative” aspects of this kind of masculinity, he gestures towards the underlying uncertainties his male characters have. His style itself is reflective of the way hypermasculinity obscures the anxiety it provokes. The spare sentences, focused on external action, simultaneously make us think about what is not being said, what is under the iceberg, what men are supposed to hide and bluff their way through. He is still in love with the façade of masculinity, but as a reader I can see it as artifice in the way femininity is understood in Western culture as artifice. His male characters are trying to get to some “truth” of manhood through war, bullfighting, boxing, drinking, getting “back to nature” but it never works out. As a feminist I can see that this is because there is no truth to manhood.

HemingwayGun
Reading Hemingway critically like this, far from making me a “bad feminist,” I think makes me a better one. Yes, I roll my eyes at the waif-like “girls” who beg men to love them, but I can see that this is the misogyny that must attend hypermasculinity. Hypermasculinity of the sort Hemingway celebrates depends on misogyny for its power. Just as it depends on homophobia. Because it is not just a celebration of “masculine” activities and traits, it is a conde   mnation of everything “feminine.” To be a man means to objectify women, which means to embrace a misogynistic heterosexuality. Hemingway definitely writes masculinity with complexity but he doesn’t go the next step and interrogate its attendant misogyny and homophobia.
But reading him gives me a better understanding of masculinity, and patriarchy, and misogyny. And it has made me a better writer.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY