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Sex and the single girl's world view

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My belief is that the world is fundamentally indifferent to any individual's presence.  Our course in life is mapped, not by design or fate, but by a combination of individual resource and luck.  As individuals, we should care if we're enjoying ourselves (indeed, I believe that joyfulness is an aspect of moral responsibility), but the world itself is as indifferent to our pleasures as it is to our sorrows.

Not everyone shares my perspective.  If you were to have asked me why -- what accounts for differences in world view -- I would've guessed that a combination of experience and temperament accounted for the variance.  Reading Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I discovered a new explanation: world views correspond to our styles of lovemaking.

The Child in Time includes a sex scene between Stephen, the protagonist, and his wife, Julie, during which Stephen wonders:

how anything so good and simple could be permitted, how they were allowed to get away with it . . . . [M]atter itself had dreamed this up for its own pleasure and perpetuity, and this was exactly what you were meant to do, it wanted you to like it. . . . Surely the, he thought . . . surely at heart the place is benevolent, it likes us, it wants us to like it, it likes itself.

(p. 68.)  The passage brought an abrupt halt to my reading, as I mused that I'd never found sex to be "good and simple," nor did the pleasure of an orgasm suggest (to me) the fundamental benevolence of the world.  On the contrary, the humiliating complexity, searing ecstasy and basic irrationality of sex has always implied a world that, if not indifferent, was sardonic.  (My own preference for indifference over sardonicism relates to the my temperament: I'm not a pessimist.) 

I nonetheless appreciate McEwan's insight.  I recognize intuitively the correctness of his observation: what we like to do in bed, how society responds to those preferences, and how we deal with the societal response, colors our world view.  Unlike Stephen, I myself have never experienced the word "home" repeating itself in my mind during intercourse.  The sex Stephen and Julie share derives its joys from the habitual: "the known dip and curve [leading to] a deep, familiar place."  (p. 68.)  The societal approprobation that accompanies such a domestic delight in sex no doubt supports a benevolent world view.

That our behavior in our most primal moments should correpond to the fundaments of our world view is logical, but not necessary.  In fact, the correspondence might -- at the opposite extreme -- be viewed as silly.  Why should a personal fetish, for example, complicate one's understanding of something universal, like matter (to use McEwan's formulation)?  The fact that it so clearly does, however, is yet another instance of the world's indifference to what we think.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince to Léon Werth, a Jewish, leftist, writer friend in hiding in France during WWII.  "I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up," writes Saint-Exupéry.  "I have a[n] . . . excuse," he continues.  "This grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry.  He needs a lot of consoling."

Why The Little Prince would console anyone is an interesting question.  It's a book about loneliness, exile and homelessness.  The book is filled with unanswerable questions: why did the Little Prince leave the flower and his home planet?  Why did the Little Prince ask for a drawing of a sheep, when what he needed was an actual sheep?  Why did he need -- want -- to die?  And, although on a strictly rational level, the story isn't fleshed out enough for full comprehension, on a visceral level the book's clarity is searing: the story pulsates with loneliness.

Reading The Little Prince -- for the first time, three days ago -- I ached.  I didn't feel lonely reading it, but rather I remembered my own lonely childhood.  My empathy for the Little Prince was the vehicle through which I could empathize with my own past self without shame, condemnation or the reflexive defensiveness that normally allows me to think of that time with a cold impassiveness.  I wondered why no one had given me the book to read when I'd been a child.

Why would I have wanted to have read it as a child?  Because it would've consoled me.  As counter-intuitive as it might seem, a book that pulsates loneliness is balm to the lonely.  You aren't alone, The Little Prince says to a child.  You aren't as lonely and helpless as you were when you were a child, The Little Prince says to the political subversive in hiding underground.

But the consolations of The Little Prince go deeper than its message.  The book itself is like a ritual of, if not resurrection of the dead, at least restoration of the missing.  Everyone involved in The Little Prince misses someone: the pilot misses the Little Prince, the Little Prince misses the flower, Saint-Exupéry in exile in America misses Werth in hiding in France. 

For Saint-Exupéry, the remedy for this pain of separation was writing.  He wrote to Werth -- not just The Little Prince, but also the elegiac Letter to a Hostage.  Saint-Exupéry's characters also write.  The pilot, of course, "writes" The Little Prince and urges child readers to write in turn.  The last line of the book is "write quickly and tell me that has returned . . ." 

Writing, for Saint-Exupéry, is not merely psychologically soothing, but a means of working a physical return of the lost -- that greatest consolation of all.
DorothyParker.jpgSo said Dorothy Parker, quoted in a recent NY Times book review of the book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, by Elaine Showalter.

Since I myself have been told -- repeatedly and derisively -- that I write "like a man," I grimaced reading Parker's prayer.  If I were the praying type, my prayer would be: to live in a time when writing like a man was marketable!

That said, I've never been too fussed about whether I write in a gendered manner, or whether I can be classed as a "woman writer" -- a category that many of the renowned females who are the subject of A Jury of Her Peers rejected.  I understand their objections.  The task of all writers, whatever their genitalia, is to develop a voice, to write in a manner distinctive to their individual persons.  Having crafted unique voices, why should women writers be subjected to critical generalizations that lump their achievements into the denigrating sub-class of "women writers"?  And what male writer would find himself in an anthology of "Writers with Penises"?

Still, violent antipathy to being classed with one's peers bears with it a whiff of mythologizing ("I'm the most unique woman ever"), as well as self-loathing ("Don't group me with women -- contemptible").  It's also unreasonable.  "Women writers" is as legitimate a classification, and as useful a basis for comparison, as "British writers" or "Post-colonial writers" or "detective fiction authors."  Such classifications are external to the writing process, devised by critics (non-writers) to aid the understanding of readers (non-writers), and in their hierarchy of values, Stella Gibbons' vagina is more important to understanding Cold Comfort Farm than her internal process of developing an authorial voice, and the influence that P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh or any of the other great, male, British, comic novelists might have had on that process.    

If critics and readers find such classifications helpful, god bless, as long as they're reading.  It makes no difference to my task as a writer, which is the honing my own authorial voice.  In the service of which task I pray: Dear God, please make me stop writing like an unpublished author.

(Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

When the pen is the sword

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In Black Swan Green, David Mitchell writes, "If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, 'When you're ready.'" (p. 183.)  Funny that creative writing should make the author so vulnerable, but my own experience confirms his observation.  The act of writing a novel, for example, seems to arm everyone around the author, while transforming the surroundings into a battleground where the pen is not mightier than the sword.

I recalled the Black Swan Green quote when reading Too Close to the Sun, Sara Wheeler's biography of Denys Finch-Hatton.  Wheeler is open about her dislike of Karen Blixen, who -- by memorializing her love affair with Finch-Hatton in Out of Africa -- is the only reason anyone recalls Denys Finch-Hatton today.

Wheeler's distaste for Karen Blixen spills over into gratuitous pot shots about her writing: "[Karen Blixen] liked sweep and grandeur, and later imbued her tales with it (often with little substance beneath the glittering surface)."  (p. 125.)  This remark is typical of Wheeler's regard for Karen Blixen, and every time I stumble on another Wheeler's tossed-off, untutored literary judgments, I feel more empathy for Karen Blixen, lying in her coffin, with Wheeler gleefully wielding the stake overhead.

On the other hand, I also feel sympathy for Wheeler.  Her subject, Mr. Finch-Hatton, died without leaving any substantive written record of his existence.  While this silence might be one reason why no one previously published a biography of him (despite the lapse of more than 70 years since his death and Wheeler's biography), Wheeler isn't dissuaded.  She grunts through three years of research, until she comes "to see the lack of material not as a biographical handicap but as a cipher for the unknowability of anyone else's inner life."  (p. 3.) 

In other words, she begins a process of rationalization to stave off the certainty that she's been wasting her time, chasing a phantom.  Thankless task, biography writing.  As thankless, no doubt, as literary criticism.

Of fear, femininity and fiction

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In the past month, I've had may opportunities to feel fear.  I've feared running out of money, of course; a constant fear in my hand-to-mouth existence these days.  I've feared having an ulcer, the most recent manifestation of another underlying fear of mine: cancer; or, more generally, physical degeneration in disease.  I've feared for my physical well-being and, specifically, being raped, another fairly stable baseline in my life, especially when I find myself (as I did recently) careening around Mumbai, at night, with a stranger at the wheel and no idea where he was taking me.

I don't enjoy feeling frightened, and I don't find much social support for the experience of fear.  Just two weeks ago, I attended a training on maintaining security in disaster operations, where I was surrounded by men who were described (or who described themselves) as "impervious" to fear and who equated being "strong" with being fearless.  I, on the other hand, was the person who cried during the hostage-taking simulation; no one congratulated me on being strong.

I therefore savored two passages in recent reading selections.  In Gone with the Wind, Grandma Fontaine warns Scarlett,

Child, it's a very bad thing for a woman to face the worst that can happen to her, because after she's faced the worst she can't ever really fear anything again.  And it's very bad for a woman not to be afraid of something. . . . [T]hat lack of fear has gotten me into a lot of trouble and cost me a lot of happiness.  God intended women to be timid, frightened creatures and there's something unnatural about a woman who isn't afraid.

(p. 430.)  While I'm the last person to believe that God intended me to be timid or frightened, Grandma Fontaine's warning -- that a lack of fear has gotten her into trouble and cost her happiness -- resonates.  Danger, of course, is alluring, and once the deterrent fear wears away, the magnetic attraction of dangerous situations is less resistible.  Nor have I observed great happiness among people who are war junkies; once hooked on the adrenaline rush of conflict situations (or disasters, or other high-stakes danger), enjoying the pleasures of ordinary life is a challenge.  Most people I've seen "solve" this challenge with booze.

And, of course, women war/conflict/disaster junkies are especial outcasts.  Whether I buy in to Grandma Fontaine's standards or not, most of the rest of society does; and I haven't met a man yet who wants a war/conflict/disaster junky for a wife.

But there are worse fates than being an outcast, and Isak Dinesen describes one in "The Dreamers," the sixth tale in Seven Gothic Tales:

Alas, [says the famed story teller, Mira Jama, who now can tell stories no more], as I have lived I have lost the capacity of fear.  When you know what things are really like, you can make no poems about them. . . . I have become too familiar with life; it can no longer delude me into believing that one thing is much worse than the other.  The day and the dark, an enemy and a friend--I know them to be about the same.  How can you make others afraid when you have forgotten fear yourself? 

(p. 274.)  I had never before considered the relationship between fear and fiction, that the fearless hero is always the subject, and never the narrator.  Isak Dinesen's insight seems right: fearlessness atrophies the imagination.  (Indeed, Rhett often describes Scarlett -- who has become fearless -- as lacking imagination.)  Also, an absence of fear diminishes compassion for those who do feel fear.  (For example, the "impervious, strong" men with whom I was training couldn't relate to my fearful despair during the hostage simulation.)  And without imagination and compassion, you can't tell a story.

Perhaps, then, I should be more respectful of my own fears, should bolster myself against shame in feeling them, and protect my fears from erosion by experience.  Because to lose the capacity to tell stories -- the means by which I comprehend the world, process my experience, and comfort myself and others -- would be a true horror.

Greatness and Aristocracy

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David Orr discusses in this week's NY Times Book Review the crisis of "greatness" in the current American poetry scene.  "Poetry needs greatness," he explains, because poetry remains "the highest of High Art."  And while Orr recognizes that the concept of "greatness" can be "strategy for concealing predictable prejudices," he also argues that without it, "we stop making demands on the few artists capable of practicing the art at its highest levels."

His argument reminded me of a passage in "The Deluge at Norderney," the first tale in Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales.  In it, a Cardinal and an eccentric older woman, Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag, are stranded during a flood and, to pass the time, they discuss theology.  Miss Malin asks the Cardinal if he believes in the fall of man, and he replies:

I am convinced . . . that there has been a fall, but I do not hold that it is man who has fallen.  I believe that there has been a fall of the divinity.  We are now serving an inferior dynasty of heaven. . . . [N]o human being with a feeling for greatness can possibly believe that the God who created the stars, the sea, and the desert, the poet Homer and the giraffe, is the same God who is now making, and upholding, the King of Belgium, the Poetical School of Schwaben, and the moral ideas of our day.
at pp. 55-56 (emphasis added).  Just as the Cardinal intuits an inferior dynasty of heaven, today's poets perceive an inferior muse: how can Billy Collins and Kay Ryan answer the same Apollonian call as Lord Byron?

But from my perspective, the Cardinal (and perhaps, by extension, Isak Dinesen) got it wrong: it's not the God who has changed, but the worshipful.  "Greatness," in the sense that Orr uses the term, relates not so much to achievement in an absolute sense, but to achievement within a certain context, specifically a society in which an aristocracy (in the sense of a superior class) exists. 

Just as Aristole limited tragedy to a fall by an aristocrat from the pinnacle to the depths, "greatness" is similarly confined to a feat of glory by nobility.  In Aristotle's day (and for centuries thereafter), society widely accepted those categorizations.  But we no longer do so.  In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller claimed tragedy for those who don't have far to fall.  And in Elizabeth Bishop (to take an example that Orr discusses), poetry finds glory without aristocratic pedigree.

The Isak Dinesen who scripted the Cardinal's "inferior dynasty of heaven" was, beneath her nom de plume, a woman mourning the waning of the artistocracy.  She'd married into nobility and clung to her title (Baroness) long after her husband, the Baron, divorced her.  She associated aristocracy with a set of values, like honor, that she seems to have felt wouldn't exist after the aristocrats expire.

But aristocracy was the bastion of unearned privilege, exploitation and cruelty, as much as it was the crucible of beauty, and art at its "highest levels" is as possible without an aristocracy as tragedy is. 

Perhaps what's lacking in American poetry is not greatness, but confidence.  We are not inferior humans to our ancestors, simply because the god we serve is more humane, meritocratic and accessible than in years past.  We are not less because we reject the fall of man altogether.  Our belief in progress, a gradual rise as opposed to a precipitous fall, is an attribute.  When American poetry has the moxy to stop apologizing for society and get on with the harshly difficult job of writing poems, then we will witness a democratic greatness.

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