A Difficult but Satisfying Read

The nameless narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing struggles with the oppressive behavior of the men in the group who have traveled together to her childhood home. But she doesn’t hate men, she hates domination, and the false, unnatural and deadening culture of domination, that values only power.  Turns people into robots. Uses victims only as food, slave or trophy. 

At first she thinks of the source of this evil as the USA, or “America.”  (It certainly is true we aggressively market this culture!)  She copes with it through dissociation, regarding herself as a victim  But eventually she realizes we all have in us the impulse to cruelty, to delight in power over others.

The book’s last chapter starts “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone.”

The way forward is not clear, the narrator’s next steps are halting.  It’s easy to be disappointed with such an end to a novel.  But after rereading several times, I find its excruciating honesty deeply satisfying.

Anne Carolyn Klein on Essentialism

“Essentialism is a trap,” I said in my review of Aphrodite’s Daughters.  According to Anne Carolyn Klein, actually the trap is our habit of polarized thinking.  We get fixated on one mental concept, and on its difference from what we think of as its opposite — to the point where we don’t see them as interconnected parts of a larger reality.

If a woman is not defined by her essential femininity, how does she arrive at a sense of self?  Postmodern theorists understand “self” as a construction, created from a variety of influences, experiences and understandings.

Klein examines the conflict between feminists polarized on this subject, in Meeting the Great Bliss Queen; Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self.  In her introduction, she says

It is clear that both essentialist and postmodern feminists threaten the “individual.” In the essentialist view, no matter whether the essence is concrete or abstract, the individual woman is in danger of disappearing into it. Conversely, to focus only on the multiple particularities of any given life is to raise questions about personal coherence and agency. If essentialists seem to limit women’s horizons by favoring the general over the particular, constructionist and postmodern feminisms threaten both women and men by doing the opposite: the very possibility of “having” a self is undermined, let alone a coherent one. Although much feminist theory has been cast as a debate between the essentialist and postmodern views, the opposition between them is to some extent a false one.… Each contains and requires something of the other. … After all, why bother to speak about female essence if not to reconstruct her own experience and society’s characterization of It? Why protest current conditions unless the category “women” is in some way a meaningful one? (p.9)

In this book Klein reframes the debate, opening it up to the interconnected larger reality.

I realized, reading Klein, that we can’t get rid of the notion of essence;  it informs our perception of reality; it’s just ridiculous to imagine either factor — essence or construction — can stand alone. Still it seems to me that essentialism poses an additional danger beyond polarization:  the tendency to regard essentialist concepts as prescriptive, not simply descriptive.  One common example: the idea that women are essentially passive. This means they should be passive;  assertive women violate a natural law. Or nurturing. Intuitive. Priestesses….  Even if the quality or role is universally valued, requiring it of one group oppresses everyone.

Both the habit of polarizing these two views, and the attachment to essentialist ideas …  seem to me forms of mental laziness:  it’s easier to think in black and white, easier to think in stereotypes.  But essentialism takes on religious force (and indeed is often endorsed by religious authorities).  I don’t see a corresponding danger from postmodern ideas of the self.

In Bliss Queen Klein focuses on the polarization — and she has a remedy.  From her Buddhist training she presents ideas and techniques new to the feminist discourse on the subject of selfhood:  centrally, the use of mindfulness, which she describes as “the ability to sustain a calm, intense and steady focus when one chooses to do so.”  As she says,

Mindfulness has the power and centeredness associated with essentialist orientations and also makes one keenly observant of causal processes in a manner analogous to contructivist or postmodern perspectives. … This is a category of mind that, once understood, can dissolve the antagonisms between the outlooks defined as essentialist and postmodern feminism. (p.11)

Though Klein doesn’t deal with the danger of attachment to essentialist ideas, her remedy will serve for that problem too.  When mindfulness brings mental habits to awareness, we learn to be free of them. Mindfulness fosters a gut sense of groundedness which is completely independent of concepts of who we are or should be — so we have no need of the security promised by attachment to them.

Since this book was first published (in 1995) the practice of mindfulness has made considerable impact on Western culture, especially in complementary medicine.  But Klein’s approach remains revolutionary.  Meeting the Great Bliss Queen is so substantial, so rich and useful, that I expect to report on it in several posts, as relevant subjects come up.

(Page numbers are from my hardcover 1995 copy, ISBN# 0807073067.)

The Meaning of “Erotica”

Erotica: Women’s Writing from Sappho to Margaret Atwood, edited by Margaret Reynolds. This book expanded my definition of “erotic.” It’s not just about sexuality. It’s about our relationship to pleasure, about the pleasure of interaction — interaction with others, with the world, with our interior world.

Jane Austen, Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Stevie Smith, Dorothy Wordsworth … and many, many more.

I kept making note of authors new to me, or names of works that opened my eyes by authors I thought I knew. My favorites among the more esoteric (to me, anyway) were excerpts from…

“Putting the Great Mother Together Again, or How the Cunt Lost its Tongue,” by Sarah Murphy: 

Eros – I think – Eros. Still there, moving through our world. And I get up quickly, startling my friend. -Back in a moment-I say and she nods, sure I have finally gone off, why didn’t 1 do it before we sat down, I can hear the crack as my legs come apart, feel it too, to hunt the missing machine, and I hurry out after him, looking around, I know he must be here somewhere, a beginning for my quest: the Eros for our civilisation. But where has he gone, I know I saw him just a moment ago. (p. 127).

“The Sex Which is not One,” by Luce Irigaray: 

The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary undoubtedly places woman in a position where she can experience herself only fragmentarily as waste or as excess in the little structured margins of a dominant ideology, this mirror entrusted by the (masculine) ‘subject’ with the task of reflecting and redoubling himself.  The role of ‘femininity’ is prescribed moreover by this masculine specula(risa)tion and corresponds only slightly to woman’s desire, which is recuperated only secretly, in hiding, and in a disturbing and unpardonable manner. (p.316)

[Ooh, that “secretly, in hiding, and in a disturbing and unpardonable manner” gives me a thrill, makes me realize I had been thinking I should share my fantasies with my spouse — but now I think maybe not.]

“The Laugh of the Medusa,” by Helene Cixous: 

Almost everything is yet to be written by women about femininity, about their sexuality, that is, its infinite and mobile complexity, about how their eroticisation sudden turn-ons of a minuscule-immense area of their bodies; not about destiny, but about the adventure of such and such a drive, about trips, crossings, trudges, abrupt and gradual awakenings, discoveries of a zone at one time timorous and soon to be forthright.  A woman’s body, with its thousand and one thresholds of ardour — once, by smashing yokes and censors she lets it articulate the profusion of meanings that run through it in every direction — will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language. (p. 311)

French Kiss, or A Pang’s Progress, by Nicole Brossard: 

The curious lapping sound of tongues before they find each other in the dark spaces over Adam’s apples that bob as if in warning. Mouths touch and salivate beyond control, venture blindly toward each other. Toward the dark. Each to lose itself inside the other’s geography. (p.277)

Reynolds says “Female sexuality is rehabilitated in these texts. It is given back its variety, its beauty, its pride, its infinite possibilities. … The women writing here make their bodies speak. They write out their desire. They claim their original rights; to their own bodies, their own selves, to their own voices.”

And not just recently, either: I’m awed to learn that women have been writing this consciousness-expanding stuff throughout history

Boring Horror

Waking the Moon, by Elizabeth Hand, made me realize why I hate most horror stories.  (Or I think it’s most, anyway — only recently have I begun to purposefully read anything labeled horror, because I stumbled on a few that were different.)  I have no patience with a tale in which Evil is a force or being more powerful than human beings.  Avoiding responsibility by projecting human faults into some demonic Other — I think that’s a recipe for delusion and infantilism.

Omnipotent Divinity

The omnipotent view of divinity angers me even when God is seen as purely good, as in conventional Christian belief.  When the godhead is all-powerful, then human power is insignificant, and we are robbed of the dignity of agency, of the authority that taking existential responsibility gives us to create meaningful lives.

A deity is a human concept:  an idea we have about something which is actually totally beyond our understanding.  We endow each of these concepts with certain attributes in order to be able to think about those subjects.  For example dark imagery serves the mythic/psychological purpose of giving us a handle — a means — to deal with what we fear.

But when we create omnipotent divinities, we are avoiding responsibility.  We are not in charge of our lives, our deity is.  This submission to authority invites abuse. Result:  a culture of manipulation, victimization and violence.  So we create the Devil, an overwhelmingly powerful evil force, in order to avoid facing the “enemy” within ourselves.

Othiym Lunarsa, Hand’s Dark Goddess, is not quite all-powerful; but she is only foiled by …not really the humans who fight her, but rather the destiny that makes them its instruments.  Humans are not effective agents, only caught up in a play of greater forces. And the ones opposing Othiym don’t come off as truly beneficient.  But this complexity serves no mythic function, it just muddies the picture.

I want mythic stories that truly help me deal with the issues they evoke.  If a story simply recapitulates manipulation, victimization and violence, it bores me.

Pure Evil

Besides boringly powerful, Hand’s Othiym Lunarsa is boringly evil.

This Goddess is not any of the female versions of divinity I was familiar with from the Neopagan movement or feminist thealogy.  Those interpretations typically include both bright and dark aspects of godhood.  But in an interview with Cheryl Morgan of Strange Horizons, Hand expressed impatience with “empty-headed New Age goddess stuff.” She went on, “We don’t really know what went on in ancient goddess-worshipping cultures, but I’m pretty sure it was not this benign, kind of toothless female empowerment that we saw back then in the 1990s goddess movement.”

Hand’s solution to toothlessness however is a stereotype from our culture:  pure evil.  Murderous, ravenous, devouring — completely destructive, unopposed by any beneficient deity or aspect.

The single-valued image of divinity fails in conservation of psychic energy.  It may well be that modern woman seldom looks at the bloodier manifestations of the Dark Goddess — but they were part of a system in balance.  If we revisit the horror, we distort mythic reality unless we also recreate the power to transform the horror.

We need both dark and bright — as well as the bright side of the dark, and the dark side of the bright.  (A single-sided concept of God as only good is just as pernicious. If the godhead is only good, then anything bad is ungodly, and must be fought or destroyed.  Moveover the only good is my definition of God;  yours is bad, and therefore so are you.)

A Satisfying Finale

I wanted a finale to Waking the Moon in which … well, say Sweeney discovered responsibility she had for the dire situation … took the place of the sacrificial victim … in so doing disrupted the power field which had been building toward the ascension of Othiym … resulting instead in a fragmentation of that being into two halves … who fell into each other’s arms with passion that sometimes looked like love and sometimes hate.  It was clear to all that this was Othiym’s true nature, which had been disrupted by the effects of human theology over the centuries.

All the humans who had been involved in the plot were marked with a tiny, lunula-shaped burn, just between their collarbones. It scarred.  They found themselves reflecting on the whole disturbing affair.  This had various effects, but all resulted in some kind of increased awareness.

Beyond Horror

Is there any fiction with this kind of action? Fiction in which human beings reclaim the power we have handed over to deities?  People own their responsibility for evil they have projected?  For me this would be the most exciting kind of adventure story, the most satisfying resolution to true horrors. It would acknowledge the horror, and go beyond it.

So far I can only think of a non-fiction treatment:  Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons.  More on that later.

Male Essentialism

Ever since I objected to the essentialism in Aphrodite’s Daughters, the subject keeps popping up. For example… in comments Joseph Gelfer made in “Both Remedy and Poison: Religious Men and the Future of Peace,” a speech to the Parliament of the World’s Religions on 6 December 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.

Gelfer sees the groups which have claimed the label of “men’s movement” as promoting “a type of masculinity that is at best oppressive, and at worst pathological and violent.” From conservative Christian to alternative forms of men’s spirituality, he says, it’s “the same old story: power, control, strength, the [attitude that] got us in the hole we are in today.”

In contrast, Gelfer, a straight man, finds hope in the spiritual principles of the gay men’s movement, which call for attitudes “Not aggressive, not competitive, [and] harmonious with nature.”

Underlying these positive attitudes, Gelfer feels…

“The key issue is multiple masculinities. All the other forms of masculine spirituality assume masculinity to be a certain, fixed type of thing: specifically, a married, rather conservative man who should provide for, protect, and lead his family. Gay spirituality assumes there can be any number of ways of being a man: maybe married, maybe not, maybe tough, soft, competitive, whatever. These different types of masculinity offer complements to traditional masculinity.”

Gelfer sees this flexibility as vital to the spiritual work of creating peace. But, he warns, “we cannot achieve this while masculine spirituality is defined by a patriarchal nature and restrictive treatment of gender.”

Then he adds, “I would go so far as to say we should reject masculine spirituality as a term because it does not seem capable of shaking these critical issues.”

He’s rejecting essentialism.

His speech was taken, he says, “largely from the book Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy (Equinox Publishing, 2009) and the article ‘Pray Like a Man‘ (The Guardian, 24 March 2009).” I’m looking forward to reading the book.

Aphrodite’s Daughters

Aphrodite’s Daughters: Women’s Sexual Stories and the Journey of the Soul
by Jalaja Bonheim

Sexuality as a sacred dance, as magic, as “our body’s way of opening to the life force.” With the testimony of the women she quotes, Bonheim encourages all women to regain our heritage of the spiritual energy of sex. Drawing on thorough research, Bonheim’s detailed descriptions of pre-patriarchal myth and practices glow with this joyful energy. In considering the dark side of sexuality, her compassion and insight offer the best descriptions I have read of how to grow from pain.

Several times Bonheim startled me with insights reframing my experience in useful ways. For example the difference between fantasy rape and real rape; why in our fantasies rape can be pleasureable: ”The imaginary aggressor is actually a part of the woman’s own psyche — the part that wants to break her resistance to receiving pleasure” (p. 343). In areas where I’ve felt lonely from bucking the culture, Bonheim gave me support — for example her discussion of relationship as path. On the other hand, she challenged my bah-humbug attitude towards romance, with stories of women in long-term romantic relationships. Most encouraging was to hear her testify, as therapist, to the effectiveness of deconditioning sexual distress patterns.

The only real problem: I’m just not comfortable with Bonheim’s talk about “essential qualities of the feminine spirit” and “what it means to be a woman.” Essentialism is a conceptual trap; Bonheim herself identifies the problem. Reflecting on Jungian psychology, she objects to its traditional classification of masculine and feminine qualities: “to reconnect with the sacred masculine, we must break ancient cultural habits of automatically identifying the feminine with matter, the earth, nurturance, and passivity, while linking the masculine with spirit, the sky, assertiveness, and activity. If … the masculine and the feminine are first and foremost fields of vibrating energy, this means that we can never define them verbally or conceptually, any more than words can convey the taste of a banana to someone who has never eaten one. To know the sacred masculine and feminine, we must directly experience their vibrational essence” (p. 120).

So how does one talk about this “vibrational essence” without concepts? I would prefer we refrain from talking about “masculine” and “feminine” at all, and focus instead on the human qualities available to every individual unique man and woman.

Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Sex

Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Sex: Every Woman’s Guide to Pleasure and Beyond

by Sandra Scantling and Sue Browder

This is a wonderful book — with flaws.  Scantling and Browder’s research recorded experiences of states like those Tantra cultivates — but in ordinary women, with no special discipline or unusual preparation.  They do identify conditions that contribute, but in language that’s down-to-earth.  They make “supersex” accessible;  this got me quite inspired.

Feeling safe is a required condition. But the authors don’t allocate all the responsibility for creating safety to a woman’s partner. “A woman creates her own sense of safety by being clear — both in her own mind and with her partner — about what pleases her and hurts her.”  I can use being reminded of this!

The book’s self-help style creates problems for me.  Although the authors encourage letting go of destructive “shoulds,”  and never use the word themselves, still “you can” and “you will,” and the instructions for what to do … all come off, to me, as another kind of should.  I prefer books that stick to testimony.  There’s plenty of that here, too, from their subjects… but none from the authors.  So when they speak in their own voices, but don’t talk of their own experience, a vibe of authority results.

If you experience something wonderful, and want to help everyone experience it, how do you write about it?  The natural inclination is to describe it with superlatives. Unfortunately, these authors have used so many that they lose force, cloy, and put me off.

Getting carried away with the wonderfulness of your subject … can also lead to overstating your case, overlooking problems. Scantling and Browder say “Paradoxically, when you and your partner each choose to do what you like, it results in a heightened sexual experience for you both.”  They’re trying to encourage women to let go of the overwhelming cultural programming to please one’s partner.  But we still need to be sensitive to our partners.  I remember vividly a time one sex partner got so carried away with his own enjoyment of cunnilingus that it was way too energetic for me.  It turned me off; I felt used.

All in all, however, I’m very glad I read this book:  it got me thinking about ways I limit myself.  I started playing again with fantasies I do feel good about, but had abandoned because I couldn’t make them take a clear shape in my mind.  I decided just to let that happen, to let it be a shifting montage and enjoy what was there.