Today is the first day of Women’s History Month 2017, and I wanted to share some treasures from the amazing women I’ve been reading.
I’ve loved women authors my whole life. My favorite writer of all time is Virginia Woolf. I don’t think another person has clarified the human experience’s unclarity more than she has…her books are, as Rebecca Solnit wrote…”compasses by which to get lost.” I’ve always thought the first paragraph of Woolf’s The Waves is the most succinct, complex, and forgiving definition of what it is to be alive in this world. Marisha Pessl and Donna Tartt have both left me howling in tears, and Zadie Smith has left me howling in laughter. I learned morality, ethics, and the various gradations of them from Ayn Rand, the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Anne Carson feed my soul, Annie Dillard is my (dream) spirit animal, and recently, so many more women have written their way into my heart- Lucia Berlin, Carrie Brownstein, Carol Shields, and Elena Ferrante.
I started the year with Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, and I drank those books deep into my blood. People would ask me what the books were about, and I’d stammer and say something deep along the lines of…”um? It’s about two friends? The sociopolitical history of Italy in the 20th century? It’s really good!” I felt absurd trying to reduce the experience of these books into a few sentences…because these books changed me in ways I’m only beginning to understand. I started seeing the world around me so differently; for example I started having trouble with men in my life…their very presence. I hadn’t realized before how much even the presence of men changes the alchemy of women, tightens the freedoms of women. It was a bizarre moment in my life. For the first time, I began to notice and question things I’ve taken for granted (why is the majority of music I play composed by males? why are the majority of conductors I’ve worked with males?) All because I followed the very complex relationship between two unabridged women for decades. I read an interview with Elena Ferrante recently, and they’re pretty hard to come by since Elena Ferrante is her pseudonym and no one knows who she is. And I want to share verbatim, quotes she said in the interview (Spring and Summer 2016 issue of the gentlewoman) which are, I think, core ideals of hers which permeate her fiction, and which have permeated my reality.
When asked about the two main characters of the Neopolitan Novels, she says, “The structure of the narrative is such that neither Lila or Elena can ever be definitively locked within a formula that makes one the opposite of the other.”
I think this quote is why the people in the novels are so complex and full-bodied. To reduce anything to duality, to reduce anyone to the opposite of another is exactly that; reduction of human experience and limitation of self. Women have been locked into these “formulas” of opposition, and we now do it to ourselves constantly. We compare ourselves with other women and because of how strong these formulas are, basic insecurities arise. We see a beautiful/smart/whathaveyou woman, or we hear someone talking about a beautiful/smart/whathaveyou woman and because of the sheer fact that we are not them, we decide that we are opposite, and thus must not be beautiful/s/why. Am I alone in this? It took me a long, long time to notice and overcome these insecurities myself and to accept the complexities of myself and others.
The interviewer asks, “Do you aim to speak primarily to women in your writing?”
Elena, “One writes for all human beings. But I am happy that my readers are first and foremost women. We, all of us, need to build a genealogy of our own, one that will embolden us, define us, allow us to see ourselves outside the tradition through which men have viewed, represented, evaluated and catalogued us- for millennia. Theirs is a potent tradition, rich with splendid works, but one that has excluded much, too much, of what is ours.
Even if we think we have left behind the culture and language of patriarchal society once and for all, we just have to look at the world in its entirety to understand that the conflict is far from over and that everything we have gained can still be lost. First of all, we must never forget there are vast areas of the planet where women live in the most terrible conditions. But even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman in a way that runs counter to how even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us.
We vacillate between rooted adhesion to male expectations and the new ways of being female. Although we are free and combative, we accept that our need for fulfillment in this or that field should be ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us only after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses.
Instead, we must continue fighting to bring about profound change. This will be possibly only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against. It’s going to be a long battle, centers on women’s industry in every field, on the excellence of female thought and action. Only when a man publicly recognizes his debt to a woman’s work without the condescending kindliness typical of those who feel themselves superior will things really start to change.”
She explores some of what she mentions above in the novels. Elena, an intellectual is constantly studying and trying to be “good enough” by male standards and she very slowly realizes that she much be “ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us only after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses.” Reading about Elena’s experiences of never being good enough (because she’s inherently the’lesser’ sex and constantly molding herself after another gender) and reading through her voice of insecurity which slowly grows bolder was an incredible experience. Through her feminist awakening, I had shudders of my own.
“We must continue fighting to bring about profound change.” I think classical music is as guilty of excluding too much of women’s history. We have started to, and must continue to build our own grand female tradition as composers, performers, conductors, etc. We must advocate for our female peers and their works and create opportunities for them. We can no longer view other women as opposition. When I can choose, I will work on the music of women composers. When I can choose, I will collaborate with women. I’ve read 8 books this year, only one was by a male. We have to choose each other because preference is the only way we can even begin to approach equality.
Another book I recently read was the very slim Poetry and Commitment by Adrienne Rich. It is specifically about the arts and activism and the role of the artist in activism. Being a part of the Women’s March and seeing the whole world come together on that day was indescribably moving. I felt a hope that dimmed the loneliness which constantly claws at me. This volume was important to me because there was a time when I was not sure if music was what I wanted to do. I’ve always had a strong inclination to help people and it never felt like music could be enough. I took sociology classes at one point and seriously considered becoming a social worker. In our current time, it can be especially difficult for those in the arts to know what to do, so I wanted to share some quotes I found helpful which clarify the kind of art which Rich thinks is relevant and necessary.
Rich starts the essay with a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid called, “The Kind of Poetry I Want.” Essentially, he wants poetry “founded on difficult knowledge”…”a manifesto of desire for a new and conscious organization” and describes the poet as a nurse during an operation. “Energy quiet and contained and fearfully alert.”
She then takes it all the way back to Shelley in 1821…his quote being ” Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators in the world.”
Rich says, “He did NOT say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world. What’s at stake here is the recognition of poetry as what James Scully calls “social practice.” He distinguishes between “protest poetry” and “dissident poetry.”
Protest poetry is “conceptually shallow,” “reactive,” predictable in its means, too often a handwringing from the sidelines.
Dissident poetry, however, does not respect boundaries between private and public self and other. In breaking boundaries, it breaks silence, speaking for, or, at best, with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of life…It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as a part of the world , not simply as a mirror of it.”
I have to say, most of the things I see on social media…these echo chambers we create, feels like the description of protest poetry listed above. Maybe what we needed more of during this horrifyingly divisive election was art that broke boundaries, broke the silences and walls we have invisibly built against those we would call Other. Social media in a sense, doesn’t really participate in the world, it just “mirrors” and more often than not, aggravates pre-existing issues.
I can’t recommend highly enough this little essay by Adrienne Rich.
She discusses so many travesties of the time, which are still issues now, such as the “punitive and cynical anti-immigration bill passed by the House.”
She responds to the accusation of poetry being complicit in the violent realities of power because of its aestheticizing of collective punishment, torture, and rape by saying, “to aestheticize” is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the artist rather than structures of power to be revealed and dismantled. Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. There is a tradition of those who have written against the silences of their time and location. Without it, in poetry as in politics, our world is unintelligible.”
She quotes Muriel Rukeyser’s idea of poetry as”an exchange of energy, which in changing consciousness, can effect change in existing conditions.”
And Mark Doty in his afterword says of Adrienne Rich,
“Her restless empathy for those not in positions of power is the ethical basis of her art.”
May we all have a restless empathy,