“A Man Is Not A Turkish Bath”

Isn’t that a great quote? It is from Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Mandarins”–a novel I do not suggest you read. It is a very wordy 600+page book, mostly about Stalinist politics in post-WW2 France.

No one has much fun in this novel. Much as I admire de Beauvoir, I would much rather read Colette. But now you don’t even have to consider reading this novel, as I have pulled the best quotation from it for you!

Colette and Janis Joplin

I’m having a nice morning. I just finished re-reading Colette’s immortal autobiographical novel “The Vagabond” and danced around to Janis Joplin.

I can’t help but compare and contrast the two. “The Vagabond” is about giving up a comfortable but confining love for the freedom of the theatrical road. Colette’s life on the stage isn’t wildly successful or easy, but it is hers. Fascinatingly, this is a period where she self-reports as not writing—and yet she eventually does write “The Vagabond.”

One of my favorite Joplin songs is “Get It While You Can”—a motto I apply to everything from love to theater tickets, houseplants to useful ideas. Compared to Colette, Joplin seems self-destructive, hedonistic, Dionysian. Liberated in an emotional way—Colette after all is essentially post-Victorian—and raw. But that is what Joplin is aiming for, no doubt. I remember the look on Mama Cass’s face in “Monterey Pop” when Joplin opens her mouth to sing. It is the expression of someone unexpectedly seeing—and hearing—the divine.

Joplin died young, Colette lived to be old. Both were bisexual. Colette’s descriptions of love affairs with women are among the most authentic and personal ones of all time. Joplin could go to pieces in public. Colette danced almost naked on the stage. Both are adored to this day.

Colette, however, was eminently practical. When the Nazis invaded Paris her first move was to find some sources for eggs and milk in the surrounding countryside. Then she set about trying to protect her third husband, who was Jewish.

Colette was an anti-feminist, at least in terms of what she said politically. Joplin? Who knows she even thought about it. Both of them were fashion outliers, with an uninhibited style.

Both of them are icons for women making our own way in the world. Full of contradictions, artistic geniuses—I’m not sure either of them would make an easy friend.

But I’m glad I met their spirits when I was young.

Two of My Favorite Millennial Thinkers Respond To A Question About Belief

What beliefs did you have about yourself that have now changed?

Tasia Karoutsos: That I’m bad at math, can’t understand complex science, and that I should pursue creative writing. Turns out I prefer analytic thinking. Wish I’d figured that out before I started my career!

Tasia Karoutsos: I also used to think all of my body hair was thick, dark, and hideous, so I would shave the “normal” bits, as well as my arms, tummy, and toes. Adult me has gained back a lot of time by letting go of that insecurity

Isabel Winson-Sagan: I believed there was some sort of ultimate reality or truth that I could get to if I worked on it. It took me a long time to understand that human consciousness is much more about holding multiple, often conflicting, truths simultaneously. And that this has nothing to do with “reality” (what a problematic concept!). Also that I would be an English teacher when I grew up as a fall back because I had no real passion for anything! Sorry mom

Never Get In A Car With Boys by Miriam Sagan

Never get in a car with boys, I told my daughter.

Huh? Any boy?

Well, I amended, any car with more than one boy. Never get in a car with two boys. Not even if it is your boyfriend and his brother. OK?

What if there are girls in the car?

That’s fine. Girls are fine.

I could have also said, never get in an elevator with just one man in it. Look out for your friends’ fathers—they can be dangerous. Don’t go to a college where there are more men than women. And never…

I could have gone on and on. In fact, I probably did. I got her pepper spray. Encouraged self-defense class. Worried.

I have no idea if this was right or wrong. We grew up in very different parts of the world in very different times. Mercifully she grew into a competent adult despite my fear—maybe partially because of it.

Did these warnings scare her? Empower her? Or just make her think her mother was neurotic? Or that her mother was devoted to her. Probably all of it. Who can tell.

In 1972-1975 I was at Harvard, a legacy. My parents were proud. But although I didn’t have the words at the time, I found Harvard very predatory. There was a lot of drinking, women were in the minority, and preyed upon constantly. I think this was particularly true in the Yard. I just accepted it as a vicissitude of life and never discussed it. I’ve shunted aside my own memories and am not sure how or if I can express them–although recent national events have reminded me.

I never saw anyone raped (of course if I’d seen it I’d have called 911). But there was a constant subliminal threat. Every woman I knew looked out for friends and roommates, would not leave someone behind at a party, particularly if drunk. There was an informal system of women making sure everyone got home etc. It’s sad we had to do this at a young age, but it was also positive self-help. No “adult” proctor or administrator showed any interest at all in the situation.

This was not all bad. It was part of what led me, and pretty quickly, to leave Boston and academia and head west to a life that was a lot more suited to me. I knew the word patriarchy by the time I left high school. I’d also suffered from it it. I opposed it but I also did my best to protect myself. And I believed it was real. And this is why the revelations about Kavanaugh don’t surprise me at all.

Even though mother never told me anything.

Me Too

Me Too

Recent events—the Me Too movement, the accusations against powerful men, their firing (or in the case of certain Republican candidates, nothing) was something I was avoiding. I didn’t think my survival of a violent felony was appropriate for Facebook. But now, I’m starting to cheer up. I’m getting happier and happier. I don’t care if I liked an actor’s work, or Garrison Keillor. Why?
Well, it’s something called feminism. Which insists that my survival is tied in to the survival of all women. As are my concerns. As is my fate.
I came of age as a writer in Boston in the 1970’s. It was an open assumption that older men preyed on young women in the poetry and literary world. In this way, these worlds were no different than the 42nd Street Port Authority Bus Station where pimps accosted me every time I stepped off a bus from Jersey. I grew up with the combat of the street, and accepted it. I couldn’t accept the misogyny of the poetry world so I sidestepped it. This wasn’t the only reason I didn’t become a “real” academic and essentially identify as indie—that’s my personality and my path. But I knew from the first hours at my first writers’ conference that fawning over skanky old (sometimes drunk) famous guys was never going to be my thing.
None of this is news, and none of this affects my personal relationships with men. I don’t ask the question—are their good guys—because I differentiate between individuals and patriarchy. I’ve loved my husbands, my male mentors, my nephews, my son-in-law, my male friends, and many men under many circumstances. I don’t fear or criticize them because I consider myself a good judge of character and I don’t confuse those I’ve chosen to be close to with famous powerful men whose values are loathsome. And why would I? Various counter and subcultures I inhabit have provided unlimited and excellent opportunities for men be care about women and equality. To be honest, I never expected that emphasis from Garrison Keillor.
Misogyny limited the women of my generation. The endless expected unexamined daily harassment of women in all the artistic fields certainly destroyed some careers before they ever began. If the firing of predators makes my cohort—creative class women—safer, then I am one hundred percent behind it.
Frankly I think the rest is just smoke and mirrors—an apology for behavior which is immoral and illegal. I don’t care if liberal leaders go down, or if I find out William Shakespeare was hitting on his interns. I grew up knowing this behavior was pandemic. Maybe it will become less so.

We Were Witches by Ariel Gore. Reading and Interview with Miriam Sagan at Collected Works, Saturday 9/9 at 6 pm

Very excited to be interviewing Ariel about her new novel at Collected Works. Please join us! Here is a preview.

Why did you decide to consider WITCHES a “novel” rather than a kind of magical realism “memoir.”? Was it to give yourself a more spacious approach? Do the genres seem to blur?

I did start out thinking of it as a magical memoir, but in the end I think I pushed through too many of walls of what we call memoir. The genres blur completely, and in the end I guess the idea was that “novel” could hold all the hybridity. One review said that by calling it a novel I was saying that I was giving my art, not myself–and I liked that. I thought, Ah, I’m going to call everything a novel from here going forward, because I very much like giving my art.

Despite the deconstruction of life not having the same curve of resolution as fiction, in many ways the book is inspiring! Do you realize that now? Was it written innocently, or with a sense that redemption was coming—i.e. the heroine triumphs both structurally and actually?

I tried so hard to make it a tragedy, to really end on a sense of failure, to say, look failure is fine — all of the anti-Hollywood-ending things I could think of. But the problem is that we’re happy. The problem is that on our terms, we never failed. We don’t have the financial security some people might have, and we’re not married to men — those “happily ever afters” aren’t our lives, but I realized that when you completely invert the traditional plot structure, you still end up on the other side of it. Do you know what I mean? Like when you’re in the ocean and there’s a huge wave coming, and you’re out too far to run, you have to decide to go over it or under it. We went under it. The people who told me I had to conform to their ideas of motherhood and womanhood were full of shit, and their lives were different than mine, but they weren’t any easier. The world wasn’t any kinder to them for playing by the rules.

There is so much negative dialogue about so-called single or teen mothers in our society. The central strength the protagonist has in terms of philosophical resources is feminism. I love the reading list, and the amazingly refreshing look at The Scarlet Letter. Would you consider this to be second wave feminism or something else? The roots of feminist spirituality seem more west coast than east—is location a factor? The title of the book points to that core of identity and power. Thoughts on this?

The waves of feminism actually always confused me. We have been here always. But the time and place where I lived when Maia was a baby, the time and place in which this novel takes place,  was–like all times and places—this unique Zeitgeist. When I landed in Sonoma County in 1990, I had no idea what that meant. In the same way that arriving here now in Santa Fe, I have not idea what that’s going to end up meaning. But what it meant to be in Sonoma County in 1990 was that the women who made the Motherpeace Tarot lived up there. Mary TallMountain was my neighbor. We had Sonoma County Women’s Voices, the oldest continually-published women’s newspaper in the country, and they took  me in even though I could hardly speak I was so shy. For all of the shit feminists got for being anti-child, they are the ones who took me in. And their books took me in. So I lived my daily life in the welfare lines and college classes and on the streets of this suburb where a lot of old-school yahoos hated me, but magic was afoot. There were these incredible, multi-generational post-hippie feminist outsider spaces—both physical spaces and published spaces. When the yahoos ran me out of town and I ended up in Oakland, this complete revolution around queer identity was happening. So, again, my day-to-day life was often dealing with a homophobic, anti-mother family court system and getting buried in student loans, but the sense of magic and social engagement around me made everything feel expansive, too.

And — totally — I think West Coast feminism always included the spiritual. It’s something that has been very mocked, and I’ve certainly joined in on some of that mocking, but cynicism isn’t really getting us anywhere. I think lefties need to start finding ways they feel comfortable praying.

I love that you like my reading of the Scarlet Letter. I didn’t know it was weird! That book is a trip, but I don’t know how they usually talk about it in English Lit.

I think a lot of the authors on the reading list are considered second wave, and for sure part of my work with this book was to pay tribute to them, to acknowledge how many women and gender queers I’m standing on the shoulders of. I think a lot of people would be emboldened right now to read their bell hooks, and their Audrey Lorde, and their Adrienne Rich, and their Tillie Olsen, and their Leslie Feinberg, and their Ntozake Shange, and their Susie Bright, and their Gloria Anzaldua, and their Judith Butler, and their Diane Di Prima, and their Walt Whitman. Some of the words mean different things now, but there are some deep strategies illuminated in those books. I’m building my apocalypse library.

You can build yours, too. Start with:

“I never wanted to be married or have children, so I never felt conflict about being an artist. ”True or False? An examination by Miriam Sagan

I recently attended a lecture on women in the arts and was quite surprised when the speaker said: “I never wanted to be married or have children, so I never felt conflict about being an artist.”
I was dumbstruck (although not totally—because now I’m responding!). Perhaps I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Of course I started to list women writers and artists and rock and rollers who were married with children. Feel free to go ahead and do the same. Then I listed other kinds of conflict: money, first and foremost, societal expectations, family expectations, class, race, temperament, madness, illness, lack of inspiration, grandiosity, aesthetics, nationality, war, dislocation, and sure—gender, etc. etc.
So—I’ll agree being an artist is full of conflict. But marriage—post 1950’s Feminine Mystique? And children? Now that’s tricky—children beguile and they take time. They inspire, unleash creativity, and grow up to support your art. They also get strep throat and cause you to spend hours at Urgent Care. So I’d say—have them if you want and don’t if you don’t. But in my experience they aren’t really that central to the conflicts of art.
When I was a teenager, at the height of what I think of as second wave feminism in the US, it’s ideas helped me. They helped me to attempt to be a free person. The excavation of women writers as important really supported my efforts. However, I wanted only two things:

1. To have a boyfriend and
2. To be a writer

Probably the first has had more lifelong importance. These were not really connected. Boyfriends—yes, husbands too—take up time, inspire, etc. I’m just not the kind of artist who has wanted to be separated from ordinary life.
Of course I do know many women who found family life to be in conflict with their art. Most of us need some kind of solitude or container to create. Any kind of work you hate is going to be draining and distracting. But so is any kind of suffering. I guess I’m not totally at ease with the heroic male model of artist as separate from the concerns of daily life. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was eternally tortured. Is that my kind of heroism? Maybe I’d just rather toast a bagel and write when I can.

Should I say: “I always just really wanted a boyfriend and to be a writer so I never felt any conflict”? Maybe!

Fat Matters by Devon Miller-Duggan

A fantastic and thought provoking new blog by frequent contributor Devon Miller-Duggan–fatmatters.wordpress.com. Check it out!
Also, re-posting the first entry here:

Welcome to my round world.

I have a lot I would like to say to the folks-of-normal-size and the medical profession in general. Much of it boils down to two basic things: Where the hell do you get off making all those judgments? & You’re not helping.

First, let me share my credentials. I was not fat as a small child. I started to get plump when puberty started occupying the territory of my body and people (loosely defined as other children, my family, and people on the street) started talking about me to me about my being fat. So, much of my 57 years (47, to be precise) I have run around with “fat” as the core of my public identity. It is the first thing that anyone sees or thinks about me, and, very often, the abiding “tag” with which I am identified. Oddly enough, I gather it’s the same for conventionally beautiful people, and not always an easy tag for them to bear, either, though I suspect that the burden of beauty is more work-with-able than the burden of race of other visual tags.

I am not lazy. I am a little undisciplined, but it does not translate into my not getting much done. Quite the contrary. At any given point, I usually have five or six projects going, ranging from crocheting for charity to the novel I’m working on to running various committees at my church. I am one of those people about whom her friends say “I don’t know how you get so much done.” I exercise. I am not stupid. The fact that I went to one of the Seven Sisters, then to Johns Hopkins, have a Ph. D. from a reputable institution and have published a book certainly doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m profoundly intelligent, but it does pretty much guarantee that I am not stupid. I am not clueless. I probably know more about calorie counts, carb counts, glycemic indices, and the general biochemistry of weight than you do. I am not a rampant, cream slurping sensualist. Well, not entirely, anyway. I am not a member of NAFA, the National Association for Fat Acceptance. I don’t think being fat is a good thing. That being said, there are fat people who are beautiful and fat people who are remarkably healthy. But mostly it is neither aesthetically advantageous, nor without health consequences. At 57 I’ve already had both knees replaced. My always-skinny aunt has had to have hers done, too, but mine had to be done about 15 years earlier than hers. I have type 2 diabetes. But I take my meds, exercise, and my A1C is 5.6—I’m a compliant patient. I am not pathetic, unmarried and miserable. I’ve been happily married for 35 years to a non-fat man with a big fat degree from a nice school in Cambridge, MA. And no, he’s not a “chubby chaser.” His all time favorite screen goddess is Audrey Hepburn—go figure. His other is Sophia Loren–I don’t have those cheekbones-of-a-goddess either.

I’m not merely “plump” (a word I am actually rather fond of) or slightly overweight. At my heaviest, I was more 130 pounds overweight—unquestionably “morbidly obese” by any standard out there. The term “morbidly obese” is repugnant. But then, many doctors are “terminally stupid” about their overweight patients (and, very often, their female patients, their older patients, their younger patients, their breathing patients—I am hugely lucky to have a GP who’s not an a-hole), making nearly unchangeable judgments about my intellect, my character, my life, and the causes of anything that was wrong with me. No, really. When I was in my late adolescence, my friend-of-the-family physician suggested that I had flu because I was fat. We will pass over in silence the extent to which the orthopedist who did my knees talked to me like I was 13—and the fact that he very clearly didn’t think it mattered how UGLY my scars were.

Why am I fat? Unless you’re my therapist or my doctor, it’s none of your bloody business. But I know why I’m fat, how I got that way, and how I stay that way. I know with some precision. I even know why I have so much trouble willing the good for my own body. That’s none of your business, either. Heredity and an unwillingness to make being thin the whole-and-sole focus of my life are factors, though.

Others are entitled to an opinions about my weight, just like I’m entitled to an opinion about their height/haircolor/taste in clothes/morals/behavior/whathaveyou. But no one is entitled to talk to me about it any more than I am entitled to walk up to them on the street and ask why it’s okay for them to wear $600. shoes when there are children in this country who have none. And, in my case, people I barely know do, in fact, walk up to me and offer opinions about my body: “You have such a beautiful face; you’d be gorgeous if you lost weight.” We’ll pass over in silence the things cars full of teenaged boys have been known to shout as they passed. We’ll hope they’ll grow out of it. Some teenaged jerk-pig-dog-wantwits do grow out of it. Many don’t.

Obviously, I have a fair amount to get off my chest. I’m not getting any younger, so it seems like 2012’s a good year to start speaking my mind. Hence the blog. I plan to tell stories, offer tips, and meditate on the business of being fat in a world that has better things to be thinking about. We’ll see how it goes.

Thiking About: Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own by Emily Oppenheimer

Finally got around to reading the classic essay. I was familiar with Virginia Woolf’s basic assertion that to write, a woman requires her own income and, well, a room of one’s own–the privilege of leisure, the space to think independently and freely–but the essay is really about so much more than that. It is, among other things, also about (white, mid-to-upper class, western) women’s socioeconomic allotment throughout history and how this affects their presence in literature, and relative absence as authors until fairly recently.

Adapted from two speeches on the subject of “Women and Fiction”, Woolf begins her investigation by asking:

Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?

What is most interesting about this essay are not Virginia Woolf’s answers to these questions, but the meandering ways in which she thinks about the problem she sees. For at the time of her writing it, let’s not forget, this kind of broad based sex-and-gender philosophizing was still lots of uncharted territory. This is obvious when reading, as her focus consistently alternates between observations of concrete conditions and more abstract, almost existential thought about the relationship between the sexes. There really is a lot to untangle here and there so many different parts of this essay I could talk about. I’m going to try and pick just a few. Even a few seems hard to write about, so if it seems muddled, stick with me! (Woolf might have said the same of her essay)!

Firstly, Woolf attributes the feminization of poverty to the roles women play as wives and mothers in a patriarchal household and society for which they are rewarded no economic or property incentive. The vote was great and all, she says, but it’s not enough: women’s oppression is vastly more complicated than that. Women must be economically independent if they are to achieve the independence of thought and influence that is necessary to the art of creation.

Natural genius must be nurtured if it is to be properly communicated through art–I believe that this is what she means in stating that genius has always been (and always will be?) borne of the wealthy and the educated. Hence her (fictional) tale of Shakespeare’s sister, who shares equally his poetic talents and ambitions, yet is doomed to a life of non-productivity and misery. Where Shakespeare found encouragement and support, his sister found only barriers and admonitions. Her genius is squandered, her creativity scorned. She is not taught the same things he is, and is not offered the same opportunities.

In thinking about the general ways in which she believes men think about women, she begins to examine fictional women in literature created by men and finds that contrary to women’s limited options in real life, literary women have been allowed all sorts of multi-dimensional roles and personalities from the start. Interestingly, she proposes that men are not interested in the inferiority of women–on the contrary, they are simply interested in maintaining their own superiority, for therein lies their means to self-confidence, the most prized of humanity’s jewels. For that reason, the inferiority of women is constructed as a societal mirror of sorts, in which the image of woman is meant to reflect and enlarge the doings of man.

Which is super interesting. So far, so good. But it’s when she begins her discussion of women novelists that she begins to lose me. She loves Jane Austen, and though Austen actually did not have her own work room, she believes that Austen is able to exemplify writing that is uniquely female both in style and subject, and that she is able to do this by not looking at herself in relation to men, but simply as a woman in relationship to herself. Somehow, she is able to subvert typical male values as they appear in literature (by focusing on and valuing domestic issues as opposed to those of war, for example) while remaining “unconscious” of her sex–writing as herself, not as a woman, which she just happens to be. This is what she admires most in Austen.

In comparison, she finds fault with Charlotte Bronte. The flow of prose in Jane Eyre is disrupted, she seems to think, because Bronte is aware of the limitations imposed upon her as a woman, she’s unhappy with this, and it affects her work. Woolf suggests that because she is not able to transcend this aspect of her identity and just write as a person unawares of sex, that her book and story suffer. This is completely ridiculous. To be fair, I was also totally confused by this part and so I’m not sure I understand it quite as Woolf meant me to. In any case, my reactions are:

I know that The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir had not been written yet, but the idea that men have historically been considered the default human and women are considered only in relationship to men (which Woolf does acknowledge), popularized by that book, lead me to conclude the opposite of Woolf: writing unawares of ones sex, and therefore unaware of the privileges, limitations, and questions that may apply to ones’ writing because of it, is something that men have been doing in their writing since the beginning of time. It is a typical male value that is not necessarily subverted by a woman who does the same.

And anyway, I don’t believe that Jane Austen WAS unconscious of her sex to begin with. At all. Jane Austen was a biting social critic, who clearly understood the specific spheres and gender roles assigned to men and women and the way this plays out in the lives of the individuals of her class and society. That’s what she writes about. That’s her whole thing! Just because Woolf didn’t sense that Austen was angry about this by reading her novels doesn’t mean that she was unconscious of being a woman while writing.

But what OF anger in women’s writing? Why does the anger that Woolf senses in Bronte’s Jane Eyre and attributes to consciousness of her sex in relation to men make her writing any less womanly? Why is this considered an adaptation of male literary values? Why should she be expected to start from scratch, as though she and her work are not already located somewhere on the map of sexist oppression? Why does Woolf seem to value sex-transcendence over all else?

My brain hurts. Am I misunderstanding something? Missing something completely?

And the stuff that followed, about everyone’s minds containing elements of maleness and femaleness that must be united to produce balanced writing? Well, I’m not really going to get into all that. It would only lead to a total sex-and-gender meltdown for me, I think. Suffice it to say, my reaction was one big WHAAAT?!

I realize this all sounds pretty negative, but I actually really enjoyed this essay. Really, I did! It moved swiftly along at a nice place, and has maintained an impressive freshness over many decades. I am a huge fan of Virginia Woolf’s airy, windy, spiraling style and I had quite a pleasant time reading it. And it’s obviously given me a lot to think about! It’s just in typing all this out that I’m having a hard time making sense of what I didn’t like about it. Which, sorry for this disorganization, brings me back to the beginning, the bit about Shakespeare’s sister.

By this imaginary anecdote, it is clear that Woolf believes there is genius even where it goes unrecognized; that wealth and privilege merely nurture it. Which, true enough. However, it’s not really enough, in my mind, to offset the general classicism of the premise that women must have their own rooms and incomes to create. I mean, that excludes the vast majority of the world’s women, who create beautiful/awesome/shocking/inspiring/terrible things every day without those things. Whether or not we recognize their expressions of creativity–or why we might not–is really a different question than any Woolf asks, and I think it’s ultimately a more productive one.

Of course, I agree that economic and social oppression of women shouldn’t exist and that all women should have access to the means to have their own rooms and incomes, and agree that these privileges make it vastly easier and more practical to do one’s work. But let’s not ignore all the women who have done, and continue to do, without.

Ahh! What do you all think? Did you share any of these reactions?

Read more Emily Oppenheimer at her blog http://bookedallweek.wordpress.com