Monday, 24 December 2012

Advent Women 9

The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can't describe myself I can't ask for help. We are alone in this quest, and Fortunata is right not to disguise it, though she may be wrong about love. I have met a great many pilgrims on their way towards God and I wonder why they have chosen to look for him rather than themselves. Perhaps I'm missing the point - perhaps whilst looking for someone else you might come across yourself unexpectedly, in a garden somewhere or on a mountain watching the rain. But they don't seem to care about who they are. Some of them have told me that the very point of searching for God is to forget about oneself, to lose oneself for ever. But it is not difficult to lose oneself, or is it the ego they're talking about, the hollow, screaming cadaver that has not spirit within it?

I think that cadaver is only the ideal self run mad, and if the other life, the secret life, could be found and brought home, then a person might live in peace and have no need for God. After all, He has no need for us, being complete.
Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

My mother has a theory that JW wrote this novel as a sort of explanation/apology for Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. JW's mother was furious at Oranges and never read another book by her. It's sad because there is a tenderness in the mother-child relationship (almost obsessively portrayed by JW) in this novel that might have undone some of the damage. This book has a special place for me because it was the starting point for my phd, as an inspirational example of literature deploying theological themes and narratives. The funny thing is that I read it to help my mother who was writing an essay (and later teaching a course) on feminist myth-revision. I'm not going to say any more about this...

Christianity is not the only thing that JW revises, there's a whole lot of myth, fairytale and literature that gets picked up and twisted to her own ends. But the theology is what intrigued me. Her (foster) mother raised her a brethren and so Christianity and the mother have fused together into a complex ambivalent relationship. She memorized a lot of Scripture in her youth, along with T. S. Eliot and plenty of other Christian writers. Weirdly the very thing she ended up rejecting (Oranges tells a pseudo-biographical story of how her sexuality led to her being rejected [notably it's this way round] by her church) is what gives it so much depth. The passage above resonates significantly with the mystical tradition and she has (sort of!) described the novel as a reading of Four Quartets (which is sort of a reading of St John of the Cross's Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul). 

I chose this passage mainly because it highlights the central feminist issue with mysticism. How can you balance mystical kenosis and the assertion of feminine identity that feminism requires? I think there are options and she hints at directions here. The garden she mentions is surely the garden at Burnt Norton where Eliot finds his still point with Emily Hale (who he almost but didn't marry). The mountain is surely Elijah's, discovered at the point of exhaustion again in the silence after an earthquake. JW herself is complicated here. On the one hand, she frequently signals that the path for the soul is independent self-discovery; but then why are all her novels about obsessive love? Anyway enough mansplaining - it's Roaring's fault who's been too busy to write this month; all these Advent women have begun answers to this question much better than I could. There are doubtless many ways to create and discover yourself, just as there are the divine; they are necessarily the same question at the end of the day, whether or not that also means finally losing yourself and God again.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Advent Women 8

"Hell is the seventh name 
Of this Love wherein I suffer.
For there is nothing Love does not engulf and damn,
And no one who falls into her
And whom she seizes comes out again…
To be wholly devoured and engulfed
In her unfathomable essence,
To founder unceasingly in heat and cold,
In the deep, insurmountable darkness of Love"
Hadewijch of Antwerp

Hadewijch is one of my favourite theologians and poets. She's like John of the Cross on acid. Full of romance, gender-bending and self-abasement; it's gripping, moving and very clever. In the same tradition of St Denys, with St Bonaventure's more human and Christological elements, but grafted into the medieval narrative of the questing knight:

"He must march far who presses on to Love – 
Through her broad width, her loftiest height, her deepest abyss.
In all storms he must explore the ways;
Then her wondrous wonder is known to him: 
        That is – to cross her desert plains,
To journey onward and not stand still;
To fly through and climb the heights,
And swim through the abyss,
There from Love to receive love whole and entire."

'She' has become a 'he', Christ has become a 'she', the mountain is partnered with her deepest abyss; there is a complementarity of images that is pretty damn sexy. Never has the journey of the soul been so exciting.

"My soul melts away
In the madness of Love;
The abyss into which she hurls me
Is deeper than the sea;
For Love’s new deep abyss
Renews my wound:"

And the knight errant narrative is matched by a love story. She is the Elizabeth Wurtzel to John of the Cross' Plath. There's a terrifying chaos to the writing, but not without careful thought. The mystical journey is a kenosis, an emptying of the soul and the medieval period learns to describe this passionately. The danger is great - especially for women - and others like Marguerite Porete learned this at great cost, but this self-abandonment to God runs like a seam of coal through Christian history. And it's anything but miserable:

She always wishes to hear
And to give herself to rejoicing and sadness;
Love cannot be without either;
She is always mingling both in a wonderful way;
So strongly active is Love’s nature
That she cannot rest one instant.

The qualification of the active life of love prevents her from disappearing into self-absorbption, and with all that passion there is joy as well as sadness. Grace Jantzen drew attention to the natal aspect of the abyss in her writing, finding it to be a site of nourishment and plenitude. This is true, but to return to the quote with which I began the abyss is equally a place of self-destruction and the womb of creation possesses the vagina dentata; it is the place of making and un-making. People always go to Julian for the female metaphors of God. Hadewijch may have been from Belgium but she definitely provides a more exciting place to begin uncovering some traditional feminist theology...

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Advent Women 7

‘We have no female trinity. But as long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own… If she is to become woman, if she is to accomplish her female subjectivity, woman needs a god who is a figure for the perfection of her subjectivity’
Luce Irigaray, 'Divine Women''

A friend told me a while back (2nd hand), that Luce Irigaray was not a very nice person. I found this really disappointing. She is a great writer and, more unusually, a writer whose writing has done a lot of good. One shouldn't pay much attention to gossip, I suppose, but that sort of thing always colours how I see people. Sometimes it works the other way. Anyone who has met, say Denys Turner or Janet Soskice, would be more inclined to read their work. I imagine many have struggled through After Writing or Theology and the Drama of History purely on the basis of a well placed crush. 

What is most pleasing about Irigaray's work is the pragmatic and imaginary slant. She takes a work like Fiorenza's In Memory of Her, a feminist biblical attempt to reclaim the position of women in the gospels, to recover the equality of women in Christianity, but then asks the important question: equal to whom? In a way this cuts to the heart of the question of women bishops. Equality, after all, has two opposites: inequality and difference. Inequality is obviously a problem but the question of difference brings us into a difficult area. Difference can suggest gender essentialism, it can smuggle in inequality by the back-door, but without difference the political voice of women is lost, the distinctive ways of being are in danger of elision and the battered ark of feminism is run aground. 

Feminism's work is not done. 'Slavery is ours, not in a merely symbolic sense but absolutely. Woman is, from birth, a slave until she is able to decide for herself as a civil person. this is how it still is for us today.' That means, even if you fear that a great deal of femininity is passed as natural when it's cultural, you cannot give up women and you need to keep listening for their voice. But Irigaray takes this further in setting sexual difference as the preliminary test for opening ourselves to all forms of otherness: 'Sexual difference is perhaps the hardest way, but it is also the key, to achieving civil coexistence between other forms of difference. An apprenticeship in respect for the other at the most instinctive, emotional level, leads to peaceful coexistence with all forms of otherness.' Some might object to setting feminism as the basis for all social inclusion but it kind of makes sense.

Once you accept this insistence on difference, the next question is how do women redescribe our world. For theology the question is vital - can such a male God save women? Can He even speak to them or for them? But the point at which I think it gets really interesting is when we start clearing away our presuppositions, when we try to begin theology from a different place. This is an ethical task: 'I also ask how we can rethink our tradition, particularly the religious one, in order to be able to love each other here below, making of the other a horizontal transcendence, an absolute which cannot be gone beyond insofar as it is irreducible to oneself', but also a theological one: 'Man sets the infinite in a transcendence that is always deferred to the beyond, even if it be the beyond of the concept. Woman sets it in an expanse of jouissance here and now right away'. Like Cixous earlier who is breaking in a female voice across all different genres, appropriating and transforming, Irigaray begins to look at what a female theology might look like. Now I can see the proverbial Dean of Peterhouse wagging his finger intoning "heresy, heresy, heresy", but it needn't be. There are of course many ways in which doing theology in this way could deteriorate into some sort of New Age nonsense, or shallow political correctness, or some embarrassing wishy-washy materialism. What could be discovered, however, is a way of expanding how we think about the divine, a critique of prevailing mythologies and a new vocabulary for saying something about God, humanity and the world. This is exciting and should be what theology is all about rather than a bunch of stale old men shrouded in cigar smoke discussing Barth. It might even bring a spark of life back to the academy. After all who could disagree with Irigaray that ‘sociology quickly bores me when I’m expecting the divine’. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Advent Women 6

In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real... The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed upon the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy and despair... It is a task to come to see the world as it is.
Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I remember reading an interview with a philosopher many years ago, perhaps Barthes or Foucault, and they mentioned reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment - a very passionately written and hypnotic work. Their comment was though that it did not significantly affect them because by the time they had read it they were beyond the age of "intellectual discoveries". 

The phrase stayed with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it disturbed me that you reached an age where you no longer made "intellectual discoveries" and secondly because I understood what he meant by it and it's a good phrase. Because there are some things you read which affect you profoundly - that significantly change the way you think. It may be an odd conjugation of life events and current affairs, a girlfriend or a city, or a teacher - but certain books in the right circumstances change you, form you even. It turns out he was right as well about getting beyond the age. It's not that you don't keep learning or expanding how you see the world, but the really dramatic formational intellectual moments, I suspect, run parallel to our emotional development and experience of the world. When the mind is least formed on subjects it has the greatest potential for growth and change. Be careful what you read in your early twenties...

Anyway I only thought of this because reading the above book reminded me so much of Don Mackinnon, who I found very formative in my early twenties. Turns out he taught Murdoch yonks ago. Clearly they both liked Cezanne. Speaking of Mackinnon, I was told once by someone who knew him, how his wife had once come home, gone upstairs and found his trousers on the bed. She ran downstairs ready to call the police because she thought her husband had finally lost the plot and gone out without his trousers. Eventually he turned up at home and it turns out he'd bought himself a new pair of trousers. "Nice anecdote" I hear you cry! But it does kind of suggest that actually Mackinnon just wore the same pair of trousers every day without fail for years. Which is a bit odd. I guess they didn't have H&M in those days.

Well I thought I'd put in Iris today since she fits very well with Weil and Rose. The same emphasis on attention and acceptance, the same intellectual curiosity, here in relation to art. What is beginning to strike me about all these female writers (which I'm choosing more or less at random) is their ability to stick with difficulty and a certain sense of renunciation, in a way which is not so evident in male writing. 

Anyway I liked Murdoch's essays because they are really about transcendence, even though she is reticent or even hostile towards God. Secularizing Plato doesn't work but she does describe the task of the philosopher and writer really very well. People are often averse to these concepts today. Culturally speaking it's very easy to be lazy, to accept the dominant mythologies, to listen only to familiar music, to give up on morality and to stop believing in better and worse. The people who criticise these things equally often end up sounding like snobs, conservatives and hypocrites. Especially if their defense is based on formality: the opera is the right place to go, getting married is the right thing to do. Murdoch is pointing to a realism, which requires us make the effort to see the world as it is; that achieving depth - in relationships, in appreciation of art, in discerning the right thing to do - is a task. It is difficult. That's why her primary enemies in the essay are scientists (who think everything can be explained simply by cause and effect [determinism]) and existentialists (who believe it's all about an abstract 'will' that has freedom to do whatever, whenever rather than learning to see the world truthfully). The frailties of our egos and wandering attentions will always distract us from this task, but the pursuit of perfection remains the goal of the soul. Humankind cannot bear very much reality but 'the humble man (sic), because he sees himself as nothing, can see other things as they are'.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Advent Women 5

Let me then be destroyed. For that is the only way I may have a chance of surviving. Let those feelings uniquely called forth by sexual love, my life's passion and pain, my learnt desirability figured out of my primeval undesirability, let them prevail. Now I am not dissociated from my ululation. I hear the roaring and the roasting and know that it is I. Resist the telephone! Even though help is only a few digits away. For the first time, I say "No" to any alleviation, to the mean of friendship, to the endlessly inventive love of my sisters. I don't want to be justified. Keep your mind in hell and . . . I want to sob and sob . . . until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.

"Loss" means that the original gift and salvation of love have been degraded: love's arrow poisoned and sent swiftly back to the heart. My time-worn remedy has been to pluck the arrow and to prove the wound, testing its resources with protestant concentration. This time I want to do it differently. You may be weaker than the whole world but you are always stronger than yourself. Let me send my power against my power. So what if I die. Let me discover what it is that I want and fear from love. Power and love, might and grace. That I may desire again. I would be the Lover, am barely the Beloved.
Gillian Rose, Love's Work

A couple of weeks ago I took Gillian Rose's The Broken Middle on retreat with me. Fortunately I had other books with me for in the end I only read one and a half chapters because it is such hard going. Every now and again you get some encouragement, but most of the time the strain of reading is immense. I've fought through Hegel, I didn't have the heart for Heidegger, but I feel I should continue with Rose, if only because she has influenced this generation of theologians so much. It's a bloody hard business though. I met up with my old tutor from theological college the other day who wrote her phd on Rose. She claims that Rose is playing with you. I didn't find this particularly encouraging. 

She has written more accessible books though and Love's Work is deceptively accessible for the depth it contains. Similar in tone is her unfinished, posthumous Paradiso, in which she defines the philosopher's task as one of 'eros', 'attention' and 'acceptance'. Eros by which she means intellectual curiosity; attention as in careful concentration; and acceptance as a refusal to make an easy closed-off conclusion - to remain with the problems and conflicts without seeking a way out. The passage above shows how her attitude to love and sex bears the same marks. The eros is pronounced, the passion, the ululation, the shriek and sob; but so is the attention - the rapt concentration of feeling, the honesty of self-assessment, the awareness and analysis; but finally it is the 'acceptance' that is most striking. Refusing to call friends or sisters, staying with the pain, refusing distraction or lies of denial. The refusal of consolation - to 'prove the wound'. The reward is to discover what I want and fear from love, for love not to be diminished and cheapened. 

Many years ago I spent several months with St John of the Cross, endlessly reading the poems and prose. The intention at the time was academic but I gained an interesting spiritual insight. St John teaches a sort of detachment. Not in a not caring way, what might be called indifference, but more like what Rose here calls 'acceptance' (T. S. Eliot takes this up in 'Little Gidding' in the hedgerow and St Julian: All shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well.). The point is that if we can let things go we are freed from the anxiety, the weight of our fragility. Reading him this became I kind of prayer - I looked at what I was most terrified of - for me beginning with things like losing my job, my vocation, mobility, vision, the ability to read, to communicate, enduring unassailable discomfort. It was a sort of process of burning away, meditating upon fear until it dissolved; staying with pain and humiliation rather than running from it. Imaginatively I came to a place of assurance where I truly felt that whatever my conditions I could live in the simplicity of what remained of my mind and its relationship with God.

In a sense this is very close to a negative form of control. When I am on trains and planes I usually spend some time imagining they crash and thinking through my actions. This is of course an idle fantasy and a sort of anxiety displacement exercise. This is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about acceptance - that whatever comes to be the case, it will be ok, or in Rose's celebrated borrowing: 'keep your mind in hell and despair not' (or as Jessie J profoundly reminds us: 'It's ok not to be ok'). This will be tested in greater depth of course. Most of us will endure the slow decline to the body's end, when our assurance is tested. Only time will tell the success of our preparations. Rose was struggling with the cancer that finally killed her as she wrote this work. The great success of it is that she articulates a theology, a spirituality, of suffering, of abiding with conflicts in love and friendship, of staying with the problems of philosophy and politics, and of bearing with the reality of suffering and not turning away:

[New age spiritualities] burden the individual soul with an inner predestination: you have eternal life only if you dissolve the difficulty of living, of love, of self and other, of the other in the self, if you are translucid, without inner or outer boundaries. If you lead a normally unhappy life, you are predestined to eternal damnation, you will not live.

This is the counsel of despair which would keep the mind out of hell. The tradition is far kinder in its understanding that to live, to love, is to be failed, to forgive, to have failed, to be forgiven, for ever and ever. Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Advent Women 4

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-- 

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not 
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voices just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two--
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.
from 'Daddy' by Sylvia Plath

No one matches Plath for emotional distress. I'm still reading Birthday Letters, one a day. It should probably be classified under 'horror'. It's like a groundhog day of repeated self-violence, a scratched record that jars continually on the note of a scream. Plath's father died just before her 8th birthday following complications after an amputation of his foot, after unrecognised diabetes. Still, as a figure, a figure of death, he looms through Hughes' as well as Plath's work. This last week of mine has been characterized by death and grief for various reasons. It is of course the cold weather but Advent seems to bring the most incongruous combinations of events and emotions together: consuming parties of over-indulgence in a penitential season, the formality of carol services set against the kitsch of decorations and the innocence of nativity plays performed on the barely-cleared floors of funerals and wakes. It makes sense though. Advent ends in birth and it looks towards the end of time. It is the season of life and death.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Advent Women 3

Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs. They have made for women an antinarcissism! A narcissism which loves itself only to be loved for what women haven't got! They have constructed the infamous logic of antilove. We the precocious, we the repressed of culture, our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies - we are black and we are beau-tiful. We're stormy, and that which is ours breaks loose from us without our fearing any debilitation. Our glances, our smiles, are spent; laughs exude from all our mouths; our blood flows and we extend ourselves without ever reaching an end; we never hold back our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we're not afraid of lacking.
Helene Cixous 'Laugh of the Medusa'

I should have begun with this essay as it contains some of the most impressive writing I have ever read. It's also related to one of the most awkward moments I've ever had. I was in another English MA seminar; I can't remember the subject. Anyway, for some reason I brought up style and started talking about this essay because one of the beautiful things about it is that she is trying to write differently. Her point is that writing is male, and women need to find a way of writing female texts. So even the female writers of the past have written as men: 'the woman who writes cuts herself out a paper penis', or haven't written publicly; the woman writes in 'white ink'. Cixous is trying out writing as a woman though, writing bodily (hence white ink/breast milk) and rewriting myth, psychology, philosophy, politics and theology as a woman: 'in the beginning are our differences'. She even manages to pre-empt mobile phones: 'we're going to show them our sexts!'. And part of this is reflected in her style which is highly rhetorical and runs in waves over the reader, the entire essay is a long drawn out, pulsing orgasm, reflecting playfully a metaphor between women's writing and women masturbating. Anyway halfway through my explanation I realised that I was about to talk to a class full of people about women masturbating. Awkward. Well I pressed on and regardless of my dislike of the word itself (sounds too much like masticating, which makes me think of cows) I made my point. This wasn't the embarrassing bit though. At the time I had developed a new side to my relationship with my mother by discussing these classes each week (she has a phd in English - helpful common ground). And in the evening I'd call her to discuss the seminar. well somehow I didn't see it coming and once again started making my point, realising with horror the approaching wreck where I was taking the conversation. So yes I am one of the few boys who has managed to discuss women masturbating with my mother. Awkward.

Anyway, all that is pretty irrelevant (although in a pleasing meta- way it's nice to have managed to have a third chance to relive this experience), because until you have read this essay, you do not know what beautiful, powerful writing is. This essay made me jealous of women. Think Martin Luther King's speech, but wait! 'The new history is coming; it's not a dream, though it does extend beyond men's imagination, and for good reason. It's going to deprive them of their conceptual orthopedics, beginning with the destruction of their enticement machine.' Think the Communist Manifesto, but 'A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is vol-canic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there's no other way. There's no room for her if she's not a he. If she's a her-she, it's in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the "truth" with laughter.' This is the laugh of the medusa reclaimed: 'You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing.' Think of the sexual revolution but taken further: 'We will rethink womankind beginning with every form and every period of her body. The Americans remind us, "We are all Lesbians"; that is, don't denigrate woman, don't make of her what men have made of you.'

This essay should have changed the world. It should have been played on every radio station, when it was written in the summer of 1976. It should not be possible to be sexist in the way that society and the church remain sexist - as if one were to say that no black man can be a bishop. The writing here is not on the wall, it is on the body; and that body is the female body of Christ. What I would like to see is a legion of women in synod on the terrace laughing; laughing so hard that all the women-haters, men and women, could no longer speak. Laughing to destroy all this anti-love with an orgasm that will send waves of jouissance throughout this flacid, impotent structure.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent Women 2

Christianity should contain all vocations without exception since it is catholic. In consequence the Church should also. But in my eyes Christianity is catholic by right but not in fact. So many things are outside it, so many things that I love and do not want to give up, so many things that God loves, otherwise they would not be in existence... Christianity being catholic by right but not in fact, I regard it as legitimate on my part to be a member of the Church by right but not in fact, not only for a time, but for my whole life if need be...
(Simone Weil, Spiritual Autobiography)

As T. S. Eliot said, while everything Weil writes is worth reading, we might not always follow her arguments to their conclusions. What defines her work though is a honesty that is as sharp as a quadro-blade Gilette razor ("The Best a Man Can Get"). Absolutely everything is cut through - ideology, politics, pragmatism, doctrine, received wisdom - even if it seems pretty or pleasant or just necessary to get along, it is tested, whittled, sliced until every inch of paradox, hypocrisy and superstition is filed to a stump. But you can still hear the love. The desire for total inclusion. The solidarity with any misshapen lump that might have been overlooked. 

It's unclear whether she was baptised. If so, like Gillian Rose, a similar figure, it was a death-bed baptism. But what more powerful sign of Christian redemption could there be than a refusal of a sacrament in solidarity with those whom the Church has not recognised but are full of the grace of God?

It's an interesting conundrum. Whatever you think, though, Weil is a prophetic voice of truth that dared to cut itself against doctrine and it's voices like these that continue to call the Church to account and make it anywhere close to being worthy of the name.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Advent Women 1

Well there you are. It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten. Even the one moment that you thought was your eternity fades out and is forgotten and dies. This is what makes life so droll – the way you forget, and every day is a new day, and there’s hope for everybody, hooray…

Now our luck has changed and the lights are red. 
(Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight)

Whenever I hear Jean Rhys's name I smile. I was at an MA seminar in the School of English at Exeter University and an American girl was giving a seminar presentation on the above novel. The only problem was that she had, at some point, assumed that Jean Rhys was in fact a French man (repeat the name in Joey Barton comedy French accent...). By the end of the twenty minute presentation the room temperature had gone through various levels of surprise, confusion, embarrassment, humour till finally settling upon excruciation. As her words trailed into silence everyone stared at the desk in front of them wondering how, HOW could anyone not check the gender of the writer they were presenting on in a postgrad seminar (especially when this novel is a first-person woman's narration). The lecturer, all wry grin and charm, deflected the situation with a rhetorical interrogation of the significance of the author. I don't know whether the girl ever recovered her own dignity, but in a way it was a telling indictment that she assumed male gender, especially in this case. 

Well, there are enough reasons in stand on your chair a la Caitlin Moran and declare yourself a feminist. I myself have been wrapped in black these past weeks mourning the sad cases of so many young men (and women though I do not personally know these) who are so young and yet on the wrong side of history. They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. They are already middle aged and already condemned in their own smallmindedness. Anyway and I must publish this as I only have two minutes before midnight, but we have decided to celebrate great female writers and thinkers this month and so we have a treat of an Advent 24 days of the very best wisdom of women...

Oh and let's hope our luck changes again and the lights go green.

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