By any definition woman is an outsider. A difficult notion genuinely to digest, as woman occupies one-half of the race, constitutes an entire sexual category, cuts across all cultures, classes, and conditions, and often occupies positions of honor within those very circumstances in which total rule is exercised, it nevertheless is true.
The literary concept of the outsider speaks to the idea of a human being who, for mysterious reasons and in mysterious ways, is outside the circle of ordinary human experience. Rather than mingling with his fellows within the circle's embrace, he stands beyond it, and because of his distance he is able to see deeply into the circle, penetrating to its very center, his vision a needle piercing the heart of life. Invariably, What he sees is intolerable, and further, what he sees makes living intolerable. For while he shares the characteristics and recognizable elements of all other human beings, the mere distance of the outsider has acted as a force for an economical kind o perception, a perception that is trained on the irreducible; thus, the outsider is denied the filtered vision that allows men to live without too troubling an insight.
The outsider's experience, therefore, continually exposed to the glaring light of his special perception, De-comes an agony, his responses a kind of grotesquerie, his behavior profoundly unsocialized His is the humanness that is carried to the edge of what it means to be human. Outside, standing there utterly alone, looking in, the portion of his thought, his feelings, his very being becomes metaphorical in size. His anguish is the ultimate human anguish, his violence the ultimate human violence, his numbness, his cruelty, his fear, his hatred, as well as his awe, his love, his religiosity, his courage, his compassion all become larger than life. He becomes, in all his parts, a symbolic container of elemental humanness. His life, paradoxically extraordinary, nevertheless makes grand statements about the nature of human experience.
The most famous outsider in literature - Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf - and the most famous outsiders in history - among them Van Gogh and Nijinsky and Nietzsche - are men of tragically unfiltered vision, distended emotion, unbearable spiritual honesty; men alone, hated, primitive sacrifices to self-understanding, driven ultimately either mad or suicidal. These figures have become our surrogate selves, our symbolic representations of the stunning aloneness, the dazed sense of disorder and madness, the wild kind of accompanying violence we have all - at least once in our lives - felt characterize human existence. Theirs has been the symbolic pain of the symbolic individual.
The pain of the individual, however, is ultimately the pain of a culture, a civilization, a politics. Sometimes that pain is the torment of the existential of, and sometimes it is that of a cultural one. The tension wire upon which these two realities move creates a flowing current, one that pushes each of them interchangeably back and forth, between the pole ends of the wire, one glowing first at one end, then at the other end. Thus', the existential sense of »outsiderness« gathers mythic pain and mythic impact as it is translated into the experience of a subculture, as it were, a group of human beings whose national or racial characteristics have put them forever beyond the pale of ordinary human experience, have made of them beings who must eternally become but never simply are, beings whose existence is dominated by an overriding sense of cultural distance, and who therefore become, not by virtue of their individual experience, but by virtue of their culturally accidental lives, existentially symbolic. Hence, the most famous culturally prototypic outsiders of all: the Wandering Jew and the Noble Savage. In these cultural outsiders we have gathered, in a peculiar dimension, the properties of that other single, existential outsider. We see in their behavior, in their idiom, in their dreams and fears, those particularities of human response that attest to lives dominated by a baffling sense of distance between men and world, between men and being, between men and self-realization. Thus, the Jew cringes and the negro kills; the Jew retreats into isolated thought, and the negro lashes out in maddened action; the Jew defends his besieged existence by numbing himself to his sexuality, and the negro defends his by abandoning himself to his. Both kinds of behavior are exaggerated, »half« behaviors. Both represent a kind of infantilism, the infantilism of reduction. Both are the painful, disproportionate, metaphorical responses of human beings deprived of suffrage.
Very few writers speaking for either of these groups of hounded outsiders have described the true meaning of their condition as well as have Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In his autobiography, Black Boy, Richard Wright describes a scene between his exploding sixteen-year-old self and his strong, ignorant, intelligent, Baptist aunt. She slaps the rebellious Richard across the face and announces fiercely that he should thank God every day of his life that he was born black, that it was a blessing, a token of favoritism on God's part that he had visited upon the black people the privilege of truly understanding human pain. And then again, Baldwin, writing out a wild and beautiful power of needle-heart understanding about the violence of the black man, a violence that springs directly from his insupportable knowledge of his outsiderness, a violence that reveals that at the heart, life is irrational and suicidal whenever autonomy is withheld....
In every real sense woman also is an outsider, one in whom experience lives in a metaphorical sense, one whose life and meaning is a surrogate for the pain and fear of existence, one onto whom is projected the self-hatred that dogs the life of the race. Only a brief look at the cultural and religious myths and the literary projections of woman that surround the female existence smothering it, depriving it, manipulating it, and in the final irony, creating it and then reflecting it - will instantly reveal the essential outsiderness of woman: her distance from the center of self-realizing life, the extremity of her responses to experience, her characteristic femaleness incorporating (very much as a black man's blackness does) a distillation of human behavior that grows directly out of the excluded nature of her destined life. Further a look at culture and literature will confirm that the life of woman, like the life of every outsider, is determinedly symbolic of the life of the race; that this life is offered up, as every other outsider's life is offered up, as a sacrifice to the forces of annihilation that surround our sense of existence, in the hope that in reducing the strength of the outsider in declaring her the bearer of all the insufficiency and con-tradition of the race - the wildness, grief, and terror of loss that is in us will be grafted onto her, and the strength of those remaining within the circle will be increased. For in the end, that is what the outsider is all about; that is what power and powerlessness are all about; that is what inclusion and exclusion are all about; that is what the cultural decision that certain people are »different« is all about: if only these Steppenwolfs, these blacks, these Jews, these women will go mad and die for us, we will escape; we will be saved; we will have made a successful bid for salvation.
Man's life is pervaded by a mixture of elements that sets up for him an obstacle course which he must perpetually run. A complication of circumstances elaborated from within insures both the magnitude of his longing and the bitterness of his failure. Man's condition has been described for thousands of years by religion as an internal war between the spirit and the flesh, and then again by Freud as an internal war between the desire to live and the desire to die, and now yet again by Arthur Koestler - who seeks to demonstrate that all is evolutionary physiology - as a conflict within man's physical being between two brains, evolved at different times, predicated upon different principles of life, both still exerting influence. The manifestations of the condition remain eternally the same: man is intellectually brave and emotionally craven, spiritually daring and biologically fearful. Thus, he speaks or brotherhood and makes war, he adores reason and is a slave to passion, he fawns upon moral courage and repeatedly falls to moral cowardice.
One of the most fully realized characters in English literature to embody these painfully contradictory elements is the woman, Sue Bridehead, in Thomas Hardy s Jude the Obscure. A powerful tale of nineteenth-century England in which the rural Jude comes to the city to begin a lifelong attempt to gain entrance to the university, the story is one of false seduction and cruel abandonment. The cohesive farm life out of which Jude comes is slowly being sucked by the Industrial Revolution into the urban restlessness. There, all of its good is lost and all of its deficiency prevails. The city life is a misery - and yet they cannot stay away. It is the fatal lot of men that they are irresistibly drawn by complication. The farm life that going is also the simple life; the city life that is growing is also the life of mental and spiritual complexity. Jude is drawn by it all, spends his life wrestling with it all, and in the end is desperately defeated by it all. However, his struggle is but a pale reflection of the struggle of Sue - his cousin, his sweetheart, his destiny - whose life parallels his and whose pain and defeat are an incredible agony, drawn in fevered lines, as though she were meant to be the heroine in a medieval morality play, and he the shadowy life copy that lends credence to the parable.
Sue is a marvelous creature, a woman of dimension and enormous appeal, full of terrible longings and terrible anxieties - alive with intellectual courage and emotional cowardice. In nineteenth-century England she lives »platonically« with a young student she rearranges the Bible chronologically, she brings naked Greek statuary into her boarding-house room, she instructs and bewilders and arouses Jude with all that seductive mental longing. On the other hand, out of emotional fear and sexual immaturity, she is helpless to resist a loveless Victorian marriage. When its full horrors break on her, and she does leave her husband for Jude, she struggles continually against an irrational conviction of retribution that haunts her, a conviction that goes directly counter to every thing she intellectually knows to be right a conviction that finally overcomes her, sending her toppling from spiritual and intellectual enlightenment down into the most slavering, primitive, utterly mad religiosity imaginable: she ends her days a groveling, half-lucid creature. Both she and Jude are utterly destroyed by her compulsive, self-imposed fall from grace, a fall surely as determinedly low as her life was high. She is impaled upon the cross of spiritual boldness and emotional terror that marks her being.
Now, the point of all this is that Sue is the most brilliantly recognizable female in all of Hardy's literature, and it is within the context of her femaleness almost as a function of it, that this ancient dilemma of the human construct is played out. Jude could never bring down on them the mayhem she causes. In the ultimateness of the lives, he is too rational, too modest, too decent in his soul to be brought to this seaming, life-destroying edge.
There is in him some vital center, some sense of self that holds, that resists the disaster of utter emotional abandonment, that cannot go back entirely on things it already knows. For Sue this is not true. For Sue extremity is the familiar condition: she swings wildly from one clutched principle of life to another, eradicating one entirely as she embraces the other.
Sue is the quintessential female. Everything that she is and everything that she does and everything that happens to her is seen within the circle of her femaleness. Her behavior is emotional, impetuous, illogical, uncontrollable. (A thread runs through the story - -Sue always treats Jude cruelly, then overcome with remorse, sends him tearful notes of regret with strict promises that it will never happen again. Of course, nothing changes. She continues to treat him to her unpredictable responses to the end of his miserable life.) She is spineless in most of her behavior; incapable of making the best of a bad bargain or of ever taking the consequences for her action. She is a rather hysterical female as a mother, as well as an incompetent and compassionate female as an intellectual dreamer. And, of course, she is most female when she goes mad. Madness. It runs through the mythic life of woman like a stream running down through a rain forest, seeking the level of the sea. Women go mad. Men shoot themselves bravely, but women go mad. Hamlet dies, but Ophelia goes mad. Macbeth dies, but Lady Macbeth goes mad. Jude dies, but Sue goes mad. Our men die, but our asylums are overflowing with madwomen: women who become depressed - and go mad.
And, indeed, is it not more to the point to go mad than to commit suicide? Is it not truer of life that we do not escape it, that we are not released, that we cannot simply end it all? Caught as we are, thrashing around inside a skin that wishes simultaneously both to conquer existence and simply to walk away from it, we are driven ever more deeply into ourselves. In is the true direction of life; to penetrate that circle, to get to the heart of it all, to free ourselves by struggling inward. To be defeated by the effort. To lose the battle on a grand scale. To go mad. Much more than suicide, madness is the symbolic illness of life. And fighting so much harder, traveling from so much further a distance toward that magical center, women - more than men - go mad. Madness is in the female vein. Antonioni, that master moviemaker, knows what he is about when he portrays twentieth-century angst in repeated female nervous breakdowns. Monica Vitti, in movie after movie, is seen as beautiful, wealthy, beloved: Tolling her eyes wildly in her head, stuffing her hand in her mouth, unable to articulate the cause of her misery, unable to name the beast in the jungle that is eating at her vitals, while her affluent lovers and husbands go about their business - clothing her ample flesh while her spiritual bones crumble.
In Boesman and Lena, a contemporary South African play about two Cape coloreds, it is Lena, the woman, who goes mad. Boesman and Lena are two homeless drifters, continually on the run. Although both are strong and capable of enduring, something always goes wrong and there they are again - with pots and pans and mattresses on their heads and on their backs - walking. They spend their lives out on the mud flats of the river Swartkops which links up the cities they spend their lives madly veering toward, madly veering away from. Inevitably, they wind up pitching a desperate camp, by turns cowed and defiant, shivering at the prospect of regrouping.
When the play opens Lena is mad. Lost in a hallucination of fatigue and startling hopelessness, she apparently has lost her wits trying to remember the sequence of their wanderings. »Let's see now«, she muses, »when were we at Redhouse? Before Mission vale? After the dog died? Before Boesman blacked this eye? Just now? Yesterday? Last month? Two years ago? When? Oh God, when?« Boesman is infuriated by her lapsing reason, her endless talking to herself, her frightening withdrawal. He threatens, he pleads, he punishes, he cajoles. To each of his actions she responds, but her responses are rather like those of a half-dead body that nevertheless twitches convulsively at the touch of an electric prod.
Boesman and Lena are startlingly reminiscent of the two characters in Fellini's film La Strada; the wild man, Zampano (»he's like a dog; he wants to talk but all he can do is bark«) and the girl whose name I cannot remember but whose anxious, funny, expressive face Giulietta Massina stamped indelibly upon my memory. They too were the dreadfully castoff of the world, those who lived a wild, peripheral existence, lurking at the edges of other people's lives, living a grabbing, biting, violent, hand-to-mouth life of the spirit, the woman taking on the added burden of being whipped daily not only by the world but by Zampano as well. She too, it will be remembered, went mad.
In Boesman and Lena the condition of being cast out is carried to the nth power, held as it is beneath the powerful light of being black, as well, in a country that unyieldingly holds black to be a human. Deprived as they are, the equation of their despair is that much closer to the bone than is the despair of the two in La Strada--vxx the models are unmistakably the same. In a life that is not to be borne, a life that must end either in madness or suicide, it is Lena, the woman, who assumes the burden 01 madness for both of them; it is Lena who allows Boesman the luxury of fury while taking on the necessity of annihilation herself. It is she who raves on and on, mixing up the past and the present, refusing the moment coherence, renouncing the cogency of chronology, refusing to remember - although she can remember every detail of the event - when or where their child died. Boesman lashes out at her dementia, but clearly, it is tantamount to bloodletting for him. Clearly, the scorn her madness induces in him reduces the pressure of his fear. Clearly, the woman, who is the only living thing beneath him, relieves him of ms stunning sense of powerlessness, and' utter powerlessness - a recognizable root of madness devolves upon her. Clearly, then, her madness is intimately tied to her femaleness, that condition of reduced meaning than which there is none greater.
The myth of violence, no less than the myth of madness, also haunts the race. Violence at all times, in an places, under all conditions, in numberless variations. It is a measure of life, a reflection of self-value, the world one comes gaspingly up against; the threat, the challenge, the real and imagined fear; the long dream of guilt. Coming up against potential violent death is coming up against life. From the very first recognition of parental power and childish helplessness, the male dreams often - as befits a child - of conquering through violence. It will be a long time before he understands that that primitive, lifelong violence is not a response to external circumstance; rather, the violence is in him, built into him, a force of expression which lives always in him and threatens always to destroy him at the same time that Its release is also^one of the crucial ways in which he experiences himself. Violence brings man to the edge of death, and it is there, at that edge, that he feels most keenly the thrill of life running through him, there he discovers - if he lives through it - a sense of himself unavailable anyway else. Thus, from Achilles and the Trojan War to Dr. Strange-love and the Bomb, men demonstrate the profound pull of violence: a force that kills, yet without which we are only half alive. Men go to war, fight wild animals, undergo challenges of all sorts, pitting themselves against an external world in order to come violently up against that irresistible urge to live while yet challenging death to come and get them.
In woman the myth of violence takes form through the fantasy of rape. Women, who are also both terrified of violence and drawn to it, shiver in excited fear over the prospect - real or imagined - of rape. Rape looms in their dreams, in their contradictory desires, in their fears both real and imagined. Women who wish to live and at same time wish to walk the white line down the center of the road are continually - in the ordinary course of social existence - in the presence of that possible danger. Sometimes they flirt with it, sometimes they court it, sometimes they flee from it. Always, they are aware of it. Always in actuality, it is a possibility. Always, an apparently harmless situation may actually flare suddenly and end in annihilation. Always, there is the possibility that at the next street corner after dark, or in some taxi with the driver gone berserk, or in some inescapable elevator, or on some subway platform at four in the afternoon, or out for a casual evening with a man met just last week... suddenly, rape.
The level of fear that is experienced at the prospect of actual rape has been developed by the fantasy of rape has been blooming in the hothouse of woman's mind. Just as the man facing an African jungle for the first time with a gun in his hand begins to sweat long before he sees anything moving because he has fantasized about this so long, so women live with an exaggerated anxiety rape because they have fantasized about it so long. A number of years ago, when the roots of racism first began to be explored psychoanalytically, much was made of the fact that white middle-class women dream of being raped by black men, that this archetypical male incorporated in his being all the repressed sexual longings and provocative fears of the race. The emphasis was wrong, all wrong. It was on the blackness of the man when it should have been on the idea of rape. Of course, for racial purpose the blackness was all-important, but the fact is, women fantasize most, not of being raped by some nameless, faceless, unknown man, but rather of being raped by their fathers, their brothers, their uncles, their lovers, their husbands, their sons, their family friends. The danger that is dreamed of will come from the violence that is provoked by closeness; by the love-hate of what is known; by the desire to protect and the desire to abandon that lives simultaneously in those to whom our care is entrusted; by the passionate, trembling, exhausting awareness that - always - our lives are barely under control, that the terror lies right here in the bosom of the known circle, not out there in some nameless, faceless black man.
Rape is the ultimate death wish. It is the death wish operating at a level of self-sealing internalization. Men must come up against the external to give life to their expressive longing for violence, but women, in the grip of that same longing, come up against themselves. The woman's dream of rape is that of being pierced, torn, violated, challenged for her very existence by man, her enemy; man, her brother; man, her lover; man, her other self.
Implicit in the dream of rape is woman's true sense of herself, her true subconscious understanding of the actual position of value which she occupies in the life of the culture, her dread, long-felt conviction that she is not real to men. Her fantasies of rape are a culmination of the fact that she has always been raped. She is preeminently an object of lust; a creature upon whom the darker desires are realized; a source of release, of tension gathered and tension exploded; a creature with whom the agony of passion and the morbid fear of sexuality are associated, as man is desperate in his fear of himself, he externalizes that in himself which he fears most, projecting onto the outside universe the causes for his frenzy. Thus, woman becomes the cause of his lust, the seducer of his reason, the fabled temptress who calls into being his ignoble passions and causes him to wrestle in torment for all that is noble in himself, for his very soul.
For thousands of years woman has been characterized, as the temptress. In every modern religion she lives as the source of sexual challenge in this earthly life. In the fierce unjoyousness of Hebraism, especially, woman is a living symbol of the obstacles God puts in man's way as man strives to make himself more godly and less manly. An orthodox Jewish woman must cut off her hair upon marriage and wear a wig all her life long because her hair, he crowning glory, is a chief source of sexual temptation; an now that she has fulfilled her obligation to marry and beget children she must tempt men no longer. An Orthodox Jewish man may have no physical contact with his wife while she menstruates. An Orthodox Jew may not look upon the face or form of a woman - ever - and daily thanks God that he has not been born a woman. These strictures are not a thing of some barbaric past, they are a living part of the detail of many contemporary lives. Today, on the Lower East Side of hew YorK, the streets are filled with darkly brooding men whose eyes are averted from the faces of passing women, and who walk three feet ahead of their bewigged and silent wives. If a woman should enter a rabbinical study on Grand Street today, her direct gaze would be met by lowered eyelids , she would stand before the holy man, the seeker of wisdom, the worshipper of the spirit, and she would have say to herself: »Why, in this room I am a pariah, a Yahoo. If the rabbi should but look upon my face, vile hot desire would enter his being and endanger the salvation of his sacred soul; when my body discharges i monthly portion of blood and waste he dare not even pass over to me an object that will touch my hand, much less sleep with me if I am his wife, for that monthly waste in me is disgusting, and it makes me disgusting. It is offal, dung, filth. It reminds him of what no holy man ever wishes to be reminded: that he is matter as well as spirit. So he has made a bargain with God and constructed religion in which I am all matter and he is all spirit; I am (yet!) the human sacrifice offered up for his salvation. Even as Agamemnon offered up his virgin daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods so that the strength of the elements would enter into him and he would triumph at Troy, so this rabbi is still sacrificing the female so that the strength of concentrated spirituality will course through his veins. I am to live as a Yahoo so that the rabbi can play at being a Houyhnhnm. . . .
»But, rabbi, listen: once a Jew created by a Gentile had to come before the world and announce his reality. If you cut me, he said, do I not bleed? Now I must say to you: rabbi, do I not also have a soul that is endangered by the perils of the flesh? Rabbi, am I not also humiliated by lust? If my body grows hot, does my sole not burn even as yours does? Oh rabbi I am grown numb beneath the double weight of centuries of sexual denial, l have not been able to struggle up even far enough to tell you that I am made even as you are, that I carry the same freight of sexual fear and hope that you do, that if there is no salvation for me there is certainly none for you, that the bargain you struck is false, that your religion is a measure of your fear not of your courage, that you' ll never get out of this world alive, rabbi, not so long as your women wear wigs and you avert your eyes from them.«
The terror of felt sexuality is the tenor of our lives, the very essence of our existence. It pervades the culture, manifesting itself not only in the bodies of religious codes but in every aspect of moral law, every nuance of custom, every trace of human exchange, soaking through social intercourse: it is there in restaurants, on busses, in shops, on country roads, and on city streets; in university appointments and government decisions and pleasure trips and the popular arts. Everywhere - like some pernicious covering - can be felt the influence of that fear of the sexual self that has destroyed our childhoods, scarred our adolescence, forced us into loveless marriages, made of us dangerously repressed and corrupt people, and sometimes driven us mad. And deeply interwoven in the fabric of this cultural cloak is the image of woman: woman, the temptress; woman, the slut; woman, the heartless bitch - luring men eternally toward spiritual death, making them come up against what they most fear and hate in themselves, pulling them down, down, down into the pit of themselves. Sensuous Circe luring Ulysses onto the rocks of his worst self, sluttish Mildred in of Human Bondage mangling crippled Philip still further, heartless Marlene Dietrich casually destroying the weak, decent professor in The Blue Angel - the list is endless and the lesson is always the same. Woman herself is not locked in this profound struggle with the self; she is only the catalyst for man's struggle with himself. It is never too certain that woman has any self at all. What is certain is that onto woman is projected all that is worst in man's own view of himself, all that is primitive, immature, and degrading. In woman man has a kind of reverse reflection of himself- all of his sloth and weakness is there in full vibrance, and only a shadow of those higher emotions that will flame into full life in himself alone.
Othello's ill-fated Desdemona carries almost whole, within her frail, confused, weakly existent being, the burden of the foregoing argument. Without a shred of actuality, Desdemona is a total projection of Othello's fears, and self-hatred, a direct reflection of his great longings and his melancholy sense of humiliated defeat. When Iago first Othello with his dramatic tale of Desdemona's perfidy, Othello, feeling very much satisfied with Desdemona's love, quite sensibly says: »But why on earth would she do that?« Iago, hesitating not an instant, announces: »Lust!« »Oh«, says Othello and Desdemona's fate in sealed. He accepts in a shot that Desdemona is a craven female, absolutely helpless before an onslaught of lust. Should it overcome her, clearly there is an immediate end to love, loyalty, survival instinct, the lot - all, all are as nothing before the raging lust of the female. At that moment it is remarkably clear that Desdemona is, and always has been, without any reality for Othello, for his capitulation is the bow to destiny of a man gripped by a fearful and intimate knowledge of his own volatile passions. Immediately, we remember Othello's description how he won Desdemona. He told her stories! He told her stories of his own military glory and she came to adore him. She has never been anything but a receptacle for his own dreams and his own fears; when fears outstrip dreams we perform acts of violence and sacrifice, so unbearable are we then to our exposed selves.
Desdemona aside, the painfully abundant proof of the cultural effectiveness of this myth of the lustful and arousing female can be found in the statistics of sexual-psychopathic murders. The number of women who have been butchered to death in a frenzy of psychopathic lust and fear (and we all know that a psychopath's obsessions are not atypical of a culture's hallucinations, but rather archetypical) would no doubt populate a small country.
Of course, there is also an opposite value to this exaggerated mythic projection of woman-equally exaggerated equally mythic, equally difficult to bear. The man who reviles the slut slavers at the feet of his mother. If woman is not temptress, then she is goddess. She is all, then, that breast-beating man would be if he were not the craven breast-beating creature that he is. Woman-the-mother is the golden ideal, the convenient repository for man's most unexamined, unwanted, sentimentalized, suffocating, human notions about his own composite being. She too is a creation of his adolescent dreams, of his frightened longing that life should only prove not to be what he deeply suspects it is.
I was a twenty-five-year-old graduate student of English literature when I first read George Washington Cable's The Grandissimes, an 1870 novel about hew Orleans. This story of a racially mixed family was the first important work in America literature to recognize the negro question as a deep spiritual curse that would hover over the South, eventually taking a violent retribution. Although the novel is written in the stilted language of self-conscious nineteenth-century Americanese, an undeniable underlying power emerges in the delineation of the book's black and white male Grandissimes, never through its women. The major male characters are two Honores - black and white - both powerful, interesting, oddly believable. The heroine, on the other hand, is Aurora. She is thirty-five years old, a young widow and mother struggling financially (an in every other damn way too). She is magnificently, touchingly, incredibly beautiful, brave, true, soft, good, loyal, courageous, quiet, heed I go on? She is the quintessential Victorian fantasy female. As I continued to read of Aurora, I felt a strange, sickening feeling developing in my chest and stomach. I felt heavy and anxious each time I came back to her. It was a long time before I realized that I was feeling panic. Who was Aurora? I thought. What was she? And what on earth did she have to do with me? With any woman? In what skin on what earth in what time could Aurora ever have lived? In no skin, on no earth, at no time, I said fiercely to myself. Aurora, you are destroying me! If you live, I surely cannot!
Here, then, the double sexual image of woman: Circe on the one hand, Aurora on the other. All that is evil, all that is ideal. Like a compress for drawing fever, woman is endowed with the sexual unreality the race longs for, burdened with a life-destroying innocence (for make no mistake: her evil is certainly as innocent of genuine knowledge as is her goldenness) that makes of her, at one and the same time, obsessively sexual and extraordinarily asexual.
And, of course, in the end that's it: the final mythic outsiderness of woman is that ultimately she is beyond sex. Steeped in sex, drugged on sex, defined by sex, but never actually realized through sex, she has gone beyond it, she has gone through it, she is on the other side.
Woman has been defined primarily in her society as a sexual object - either one of lust or one of chastity. She has been allowed to be nothing else essentially. Whatever else she reaches for, or appears to have gained, or however far from this definition she seemingly has traveled, the fact is - all superficially deceptive appearances to the contrary - there isn't a woman alive who is not obsessed with her sexual desirability. Not her sexual desire. Her sex desirability. Her inner life - no matter who she is - is, in many senses, ruled by the continual measure she is taking of her ability - on a scale of one to ninety million - to attract men. When she feels this power waning she literally feels that life is leaving her. The multiplicity of heeds attached to this condition long ago produced a kind of deadening panic in which her own sexuality was never acknowledged, much less fulfilled. No one understands this better than D. H. Lawrence. Lawrentian women only discover their own sexuality in their mid-thirties; then it is gut-ripping trauma, an upheaval that destroys the ordered life around them - something along the lines of crucifixion and resurrection. The average woman, however, preoccupied all her life with everything that her sexuality has been a stand-in for, never realizing herself in simple human sexual terms, is exhausted, in her mid-thirties, and she continues to lie back in bed, never talking, always being taken, never absorbed by her own desire, preoccupied only with whether or not she is desired.
Valerie Solanas' remarkable SCUM Manifesto is a perfect illustration of what I mean. A virulent and extraordinarily imaginative piece of man-hating, the Manifesto circulated, with much heated debate, throughout the underground of the women's liberation movement for a long time before surfacing. The Manifesto is mainly a description of society as Solanas sees it in the hands of men, whom she considers walking abortions (literally ). In the last analysis, though, the piece is a startling portrait of the horrors of the sexual role system, even though Solanas thinks it is a denunciation of men alone, and a diffense of women. However, Solanas understands full that the enemy is not really men, but women against themselves; she understands that the revolution will not occur until women simply refuse to play their customary roles, and against this understanding she constructs a revolutionary female whom she calls the SCUM female, the female who will lead the struggle, the female who is, indeed, the irreducible Liberationist woman, the SCUM female who has been driven by her own experience to take the position she now takes, and it is in describing this experience Solanas now becomes important to us. Listen:
- »Sex is the refuge of the mindless. And the more mindless the woman, the more deeply embedded in the male culture«, in short, the nicer she is, the more sexual she is. The nicest women in our society are raving sex maniacs. But, being most awfully, awfully nice they don't, of course, descend to fucking - that's uncouth - rather they make love, commune by means of their bodies and establish sensual rapport; the literary ones are attuned to the throb of Eros and attain a clutch upon the Universe; the religious have spiritual communion with the Divine Sensualism; the mystics merge with the Erotic Principle and blend with the Cosmos, and the acid heads contact their erotic cells.
On the other hand, the females least embedded in the male »culture«, the least nice, those crass and simple souls who reduce fucking to fucking, who are too childish for the grown-up world of suburbs, mortgages, mops and baby shit, too selfish to raise kids and husbands, too uncivilized to give a shit for anyone's opinion of them, too arrogant to respect Daddy, the »Greats« or the deep wisdom of the Ancients, who trust only their own animal, gutter instincts, who equate Culture with chicks, whose sole diversion is prowling for emotional thrills and excitement, who are given to disgusting, nasty, upsetting »scene«, hateful, violent bitches given to slamming those who unduly irritate them in the teeth, who'd sink a shiv into a man's chest or ram an ice-pick up his asshole as soon as look at him, if they knew they could get away with it, in short, those who by the standards of our »culture«, are SCUM... these females are cool and relatively cerebral and skirting asexuality.
Unhampered by propriety, niceness, discretion, public opinion, »morals«, the »respect« of assholes, always funky, dirty, lowdown, SCUM gets around...
and around... they've seen the whole show - every bit of it - the fucking scene, the sucking scene, the dick scene, the dike scene - they've covered the whole waterfront, been under every dock and pier - the peter pier, the pussy pier - you've got to go through a lot of sex to get to anti-sex, and SCUM's been through it all, and they're now ready for a hew show; they want to crawl out from under the dock, move, take off, sink out. But SCUM doesn't yet prevail; SCUM's still in the gutter of our »society«, which, if it's not deflected from its present course and if the Bomb doesn't drop on it, will hump itself to death«.
Solanas has stumbled onto the fact that sex, in a curious way, is to women what alcohol is to the alcoholic or drugs to the addict. Forced to live her life within the incomprehensible shadow of unrealistic sexual terms, saddled with the whimpering male fear, stemming from the mother that has projected onto woman the image of lady or slut woman herself - numb and confused - has become dangerously lost. never - in all of this - realizing her own self through her sexuality, she becomes obsessed with sexuality, and finally, perhaps, must pass beyond it in order to live. For in woman the mythic sexual sense, the sexual heed, the sexual preoccupation has been so pervasive, so confused so multiple in definition, so grotesquely unfiltered that she has suffered the fate of the compulsive; in order to live perhaps she must remove herself from sex entirely.
Once again, in this hideous charade of female masks a deadly perfect opposite appears: Miriam of the luxuriant Sons and Lovers. Miriam of the Spirit (I feel an old familiar pain in my chest) - true sister to the SCUM female, every bit as much beyond sex as that lady of the thousand bodies; Miriam, growing up amid the shop and crudity and backbreaking labor of the English farmlands of the 1890s; Miriam, servant to men who were servants to the earth, taught to love what was beautiful and to shun what was ugly by a mother who could save her own soul only through the retreat into romance: the spirit was beautiful the flesh was ugly. (How many women, faced with the terror of the masculine earth, become just such »spiritual« creatures? How many? Who could even begin to count?) Thus, Miriam grows, arrested nearly in prepuberty, worshipping the spiritual, repulsed by the carnal displacing her erotic impulses onto nature, never growing to feel the force of sexuality fusing in her own self; when she comes to love Paul Morel she is drawn, numb with fear, into a bed she cannot share. For her sex can never be a path to self-realization; for her sex is a card to be thrown into the game of chance, gambling on the win: possession of the man. For him, of course, it is otherwise. For him that bed is a marvel of revelation through abandon; for him it is the ecstasy of biology, the moment of ultimate daring, of total exposure, total risk. For him the great and voluptuous pleasure is to lose all sense of himself, as such, and all sense of her, as such, and to feel them both as marvelous mindless embodiments of the sexual principle alive in each of them. For her, ah, for her - it is death. No desire, only a grim and continual struggle to hold onto herself, not to drown in the inundation of his desire, and above all, at all times, to be recognized. At the very point of his orgasm she cries: you love me? Paul! Do you love me?« Me! Me! It's Miriam here. It is I giving myself to you, not some faceless nameless female. Do you realize what I am doing for you? Do you? Reward me. Love me. Take care of me. Treat me as if I were precious, of great value, as if you appreciate what I am doing, don't abandon me along with yourself, to these disgusting, this animal actions, this sex I cannot feel, I cannot touch, I only know is my mortal enemy...
Not too long ago I sat across a luncheon table from a man who is intelligent, educated, urbane, and somewhat famous. As coffee was being poured, he leaned back, lit a cigarette, narrowed his eyes against the smoke, flicks an ash from his arm, and casually said: »Of course, you realize that if Women's Liberation wins, civilization simply be wrecked.«
I put my trembling hands in my lap and stared silently at him. This very same man had once - also apropos women's liberation - said something to me about the »fear of female sexuality« being at the bottom of it all; he had said it with the same shrewd, amused, conspiratorial expression in his eyes that was there now, as if he was admitting that we both shared this knowledge (I because I was the clever exception) of fearful female sexuality and female liberation threatening civilization, very much as someone else, a Protestant I knew, had once leaned across another table and said to me: »Jews really are smart, aren't they? You know what I mean. Smart!«
I thought when my Protestant friend had spoken, and I thought now as my worldly male friend spoke: »To whom is he speaking? Could it be me? No, that is impossible. I couldn't be real to him. No one speaks to a human being who is real in this manner. Now here am I, a living breathing woman, what's more a living breathing woman this man has known for many years, and he tells me now that I am petitioning my civilization - out of the very heed of my soul - for full recognition of my humanness that I am about to wreck that civilization. . . . And he speaks to me of »fearful female sexuality« ... Is that me he is speaking of? Dear God, where am I in all of that? Where is my life in all of that? Me at the typewriter, me talking, me in bed, me struggling to write, me fearful of love and wanting everything, me squirming inside my skin, alive with terror and ambition. Could it be that I am flesh an blood to this man? Could it be that my life is as real to him as it is to me?
No. It cannot be. I am not real to him. I am not real to my civilization. I am not real to the culture that has spawned me and made use of me. I am only a collection of myths. I am an existential stand-in. The idea of me is real - the temptress, the goddess, the child, the mother - but I am not real. The mythic proportions of woman are recognizable and real; it is only the human dimensions that are patently false and will be denied to the death, our death. James Baldwin once wrote: »The white man can deal with the negro as a symbol or as a victim, but never as a human being.« It was given to the black in the second great wave of black civil rights to understand that he lived as a symbolic surrogate, as a deliberate and necessary outsider, as an existential offering in his own civilization. Now, in the second great wave of feminism, the same understanding is being granted to women.
Wherever it is possible subjugation takes place: the reduction of power for some will increase the power for others. The race knows better; of course, it does, But so great is the heed - so great - that waves of helpless delusion wash over civilization after civilization, and the process continues, unheeded - and wherever it does, subjugation is accompanied by mythic structures that mingle with and confuse the luminous pain of the outsider.
Life, from beginning to end, is fear. Yes, it it is pain, yes it is desire, but more than anything it is fear, a certain amount rational, an enormous amount irrational. All political cruelties stem from that overwhelming fear. To push back the threatening forces, to offer primitive sacrifices, to give up some in the hope that will be saved... that is the power struggle. That » the outsiderness of the poor, the feeble, the infantile. That is the outsiderness of Jews. That is the outsiderness of blacks. That is the outsiderness of women.