Monthly Archives: May 2011

Rainbow Sign

Georgia 1929: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, “No more water, but fire next time!”

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On James Baldwin

This is smart.

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Miriam Schapiro, Celia Gilbert

As we know, I am fascinated with Working It Out. I need to put this volume aside, though, so as to pore over other things. I also think I will see some things in it more clearly still if I come back to it later, yet I do not want to leave it unfinished on the present read-through. This is a set of brief notes on some pieces to which I shall not attempt to do justice now, and quotations from two which draw my attention sharply: Miriam Schapiro‘s “Notes from a Conversation on Art, Feminism, and Work” (283-305) and Celia Gilbert‘s “The Sacred Fire” (306-322).

Essays to which I am paying less attention now are Kay Keeshan Hamod’s, which includes a really useful discussion of women in Victorian England (and I do think my mother and I were both raised to believe we were there); Hamod was later Professor of History at Rutgers University and died in the late 1990s. alice atkinson lyndon (Alice Wingwall) writes on her work as a sculptor; Joann Green shows telling work in progress or process; Diana Michener talks about the difficulty of daring to become an art and not a journalistic photographer.

Alice Walker’s 1974 piece for Ms., In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, is reprinted here; it carries the power of the saints. “Our mothers” are plural and they reach back and back in time. Connie Young Yu writes about deciding to “write Chinese America;” I think “but she is a doctor’s wife, she can afford to work in the way she does;” then I think of the doctors’ wives I know in real life, now, who do not do such things. Naomi Thornton writes about acting; I will return to all these people in a few months.

There are references in many of these pieces to the fear that if the writer is truly successful, in a way that is true to herself, people will die (or, alternatively, she will be killed). I am assailed by these images as well.

*

Born in 1923, Schapiro grew up with the idea that the world was a place where only a man could work. She did not act on this idea, of course. What constitutes work? She considers teaching, which she does for pay, her second work and painting her primary work. I knew that when I was in school, but this idea has been considered almost sinful, for women, in some places I have been a professor. She has trouble recognizing the kind of domestic labor her mother performs as work. Read Alice Walker, and also become aware of the skill and planning that goes into that kind of work – especially if one is doing more than take care of a student apartment, or helping out with light cleaning.

She was a token woman in a male art world, and was beset by doubts as to whether she, a woman, could or should really be an artist. And the male artists were not comfortable with woman artists who did not establish themselves as female – e.g. relate in a sexual way, discuss sexual identity – first. Women artists, meanwhile, did not seem to respect each other deeply. They would talk about their personal lives, but not about painting.

And she was, like many writers in this volume, lost in her role as a woman artist. Not having the conditions to work the twelve hour days Rembrandt had, giving pieces of herself to others as women in patriarchal society do, she began to have difficulty affirming herself in her art in the time she did have to devote to it. She actually lost the ability to work, and experienced this as having forgotten how to make a painting. She went into a psychoanalysis based on the theories of Karen Horney, which are worth studying. Looking up Karen Horney, I found this sentence, which explains many things: “In the 1930’s, Brooklyn was the intellectual capital of the world, due in part to the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany.”

She started working again, but in a different vein and spirit. “Although I was indoctrinated early into the ways of work, no one had been able to tell me before why to work or for whom.” (291) In California in 1970, she met and worked with Judy Chicago. She was fascinated by the women artists she met in California — serious people but poorer than New York artists, working “in the most invisible, most anonymous way” (294) and with what I would call a much stronger feminist consciousness. (292-294)

After this experience she began working in a more feminist way. This had various aspects, only one of which was beginning

to redress the trivialization of women’s experience…. I learned … that my sense of my life, of my conflicts, of my work as mine alone, was a false view of my own history. I learned that all women had experienced some version of problems I had taken to be unique. (300)

She says:

When I talk to you about my ambivalence, my fears, my guilts, I too am trying to help us make new connections. I too was “victimized” by this culture. It took a movement of women to equal, to balance, in my head, my father’s image. Until I was struck by the mass, the weight, of women’s works, I could only live with my fears, not overcome them. Women made me understand that I could join them, that we could join together, that I could proclaim myself a woman and do my work. Things seemed to snap into place; my work ecame joy. I had been in the fog for many years. I had been clear about being an artist, but not about much else. (302)

And:

When I look back on the years of excessive self-doubt, I wonder how I was able to make my paintings. In part, I managed to paint because I had a desire … to push through, to make an image that signified. The fear of death is on the other side of that desire, the other side of creativity…. I don’t want to be mystical. I do want to stress … the interconnectedness, the experienced duality, of death and creation. The principal artists in the fifties were men; and almost every other one drank himself to death. Why? … It had to do with … responsibility for one’s work and doubts about fulfilling that responsibility alone in the studio. It had to do with facing death, alone, while trying to create life.” (303-304; there is much more here about the relationship between life, creativity, work, and death, that is worth reading and considering.)

Schapiro works in a very different way than does her husband, less apparently “organized.” And she notes that to work, to place work at the center of your life, is living, is being a full person. This is, of course, why I have always resented it when people try to break my concentration by saying, “You work too hard.” (Although these people might be related to those who say taking time off is “decadent,” I reckon.)

*

I am avoiding reading e-mail today because there is a letter from Evergreen Review, on a story I submitted last year. I am assuming it is a rejection. I submitted it four places – you can do that with creative writing – and it has already been rejected from two of these. I sent another fragment of this novel to only one place, and it was rejected.

I have not decided yet where to resubmit that second piece and I somehow want to get it sent off, or get that manuscript moving again in some way, before reading this rejection slip. That is one reason why I want to put Working It Out away for a while, although this book has me mesmerized. I will say a few things about Celia Gilbert, and then go.

*

Born in 1932, Gilbert grew up in a traditional family. Her aunt was happy as a “career girl” but her parents considered this aunt a “poor thing.” Her father appreciated her intelligence, so long as it was (at least so far as he knew) officially inferior to his own. She married a man who did not have values nearly so traditional, but she insisted upon reproducing her parents’ marriage with him – largely so as to retain her own mother’s love.

When at 34, in 1966, Gilbert began to work again as a poet (she had won a poetry prize at Smith in 1951, but stopped writing when she was married), she found that she was ignorant of work. She was “unfamiliar with the process: the need for persistence and encouragement, the small achievements that lead to greater confidence, the courage to try, the courage to fail.” (312) She was unused to viewing her actions as important, and she had a sense of inferiority that masqueraded as modesty. She assumed that others’ achievements were “real” and hers were not. (312)

Being a good daughter meant not working; Gilbert felt passive and dependent (I do not or do not realize that is what to call it) and saw herself as captive and paralyzed (I do that). She grew stronger slowly. She doesn’t feel she can write “just anytime,” and she learned to insist on her writers’ hours. Anne Sexton was one of her professors in the graduate program in Creative Writing at Boston University, and it is not clear to Gilbert that she would have become a poet without the women’s movement. And had she begun writing seriously earlier, she “might have believed in the androgyny of art and ignored the hegemony of male editors, publishers, and attitudes,” but she did not. (317) On work she says, and I could write almost exactly this:

For me, there had been a taboo on work as powerful as the proscription against incest. To give myself to my work–to admit that I loved it as much as husband and children, needed it as much, perhaps more, was the most terrifying admission I could make. [But] the challenge of work is in daring to use my whole self in the struggle for growth. Without that growth, I would be living an “unlived life.” … [Like Prometheus, women], defying their fear of punishment, [should] wrest from men that jealously guarded fire, the sacred right to a work. [She contrasts the fire Prometheus steals to the hearth fires women traditionally tend.] (319)

Perhaps the reason I am fascinated with Working It Out is that I would like to write my own contribution to it. Perhaps I will do this but if I do, I will have to find a way to limit the amount of time spent upon it per day or week. I used to think Friday evenings would be a good time for this kind of writing; perhaps they are.

It might be a creative piece, or it might be a chronicle for a feminist journal. It might be an academic piece on working — not necessarily for this journal, but for some journal. This piece and the piece I may have had rejected from Evergreen Review are some of the kinds of writing — literature, personal essay, journalistic essay — I really like to do.

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Adrienne Rich

I am becoming myself again at long last; I can feel my life flowing back to me. On the radio they are discussing managing your (musical) career “as though it were a work of art itself” and I like the concept.

*

I am still reading Working It Out which is a really epoch making book, in my view. I wish an expert like Historiann or Clio Bluestocking would review and contextualize it as a historian would. I could of course do research on the reception and impact of this book, but that might constitute procrastination.

Meanwhile, here are some incomplete notes on Adrienne Rich’s foreword to the volume (xiii-xxiv). This foreword is in some ways the most dated piece in the book, but it makes several key points which I, for one, never absorbed fully and which do not go stale. Fragments:

– the damage that can be done to creative energy by the lack of a sense of continuity, historical validation, community … support of friends … may make survival possible; but it is not enough (xiv-xv)

– women who go through undergraduate and graduate school suffer an intellectual coercion of which they are not even consciously aware … where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence (xv)

– Simone Weil: the commonplace, and false assertion that spiritual values cannot be destroyed by force is cruel to the past, for they can be and have been on numerous occasions (consider, once again, what book burning did to Nahuas and Mayans like me). For spiritual values and a creative tradition to continue unbroken we need … a dialogue with those who came before us.

-women in patriarchy, however, have been withheld from building a “common world” (Arendt) in this way (xv)

-women not described as “working” when we create the essential conditions for the work of men (or for our own) (xvi)

– the fear that if we do not enter the common world of men as some form of honorary man, we will be sucked back into the realm of servitude; this temptation and fear “compromise our powers, divert our energies, form a potent source of ‘blocks’ and acute anxiety about work” (xvii)

– if, in trying to join the common world of men, we split ourselves off from the common life of women and deny our female heritage and identity in our work, we lose touch with our real powers and with the essential condition for all fully realized work: community (xvii)

– feminism means assuming self consciousness as woman – renouncing obedience to the fathers – recognizing that the world they have described is not the whole world; masculine ideologies are neither objective, nor value-free, nor inclusively “human;” we must think and act out of that recognition (xvii)

– especially insidious is the sabotage which appears as paternal encouragement, approal granted for internalizing a masculine subjectivity; women working in he common world of men are denied that integrity of work and life which can only be found in … connectedness with ourselves and other women (xviii … and interwoven through to the end)

– shedding the encumbrance of someone else’s baggage, ceasing to translate (xviii)

– Hannah Arendt’s masculine/masculinist descent (xxi-xxii)

– the importance of not just rising above all of this, being one of the few who rise (xxiii-xxiv)

Then there is the introduction by Ruddick and Daniels (xxv-xxxii). Apparently Freud said the healthy person should be able to love and work well; Erik Erikson said intimacy and generativity were “the two central developmental tasks of adulthood.” (xxv)

The condition of women typically interdicts these tasks, as it interdicts the aspiration toward autonomous creative work and also our ability to see ourselves as purposive workers. (xxvi) I remember hearing: “it is unsettling about you, that you are a woman with a purpose; it is not right.”

In this volume they are addressing our “volatile relationship to our work as well as our sense of its developmental importance” (xxvi) and also the right to exercise power in one’s work (xxxi). Like Rich’s foreword, this introduction seems more dated than do any of the narratives that comprise the book. Yet it makes points which many still recognize but darkly, if at all.

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Stimpson, Stevens

Catharine R. Stimpson (Working It Out 71-76) was raised to work, not to be supported as we were a generation later – “after the war,” as it was said.Her picture of herself as as a worker “was that of an angel: wings and body of fire; shooting toward heaven, at once desperate and choreographed; longing to leave the hereness of the base world behind and go into orbit in welcoming space.” (71-72)

She decided not to marry because “the sanctity of domestic love could never sufficiently compensate for the rigors of domestic service.” (73)

She went through a “lost period” where she was “empty of both animating purpose and a job that might execute and symbolize it” (74); she forgot her name was “Catharine” and believed she had been rebaptized as “girl.” This period was necessary in its way, as it provided “some exploration of possibilities of not being ‘good’.” (75)

She considers herself to work in memory of her blood family, but also for her political relatives; she is at the same time uneasy about her membership, through success at work, in an elite — “what [her] politics have ultimately taught [her] to suspect.” (76)

*

Born in 1924, May Stevens (103-116) is one of the older of the contributors to this 1977 volume; like many of them, she is still working. I am quite taken with her painting, which I did not know. Like Stimpson, she was raised to work; unlike her, she was not expected to become a professional. She decided she would always paint and always make her own living, but she did not connect these two things at the beginning.

Stevens resisted going to a “regular college” for fear she would end up as a teacher, which meant being an old maid. “Art school would save me, subsituting bohemianism for the prim academic life. I chose to … make my life riskier, more open.” (105)

Now I see: it is the primness which disturbs me about the academic life, not its corporate nature which appears to be what disturbs so many other faculty. And my parents, of Stevens’ age, dreamed of art school for us, perhaps for this reason.

Stevens’ parents were lower middle class. They gave her a great deal of moral support but she was very different from them. Her father was a white, working class conservative (see her poem for him on 116) and her mother

…did not sew, did not cook well, and did not keep a beautiful house. She had been forced to leave elementary school when her father died. She had no social graces and no talents. She only loved me and my brother without question. When my brother died at sixteen and I left home, the long disorientation consumed her and she was committed to a state mental hospital. (112)

Stevens’ comments on this situation (112-113, and 115) are extremely insightful in terms of political analysis and I will not summarize them here, because I want you to buy the book; there is a great deal in this essay in particular on gender and politics and work and love and artistic creation that people deserve to read directly. I will quote one paragraph in full:

Work for me has meant establishing my identity and my freedom in the face of pressures of many kinds. The roles of wife and mother and working woman (teacher) have eaten away at my energy and courage. I have had to fight to get my work seen and understood. The comparison with my painter-husband and his work, and the competition that inevitably exists even in the most loving relationship have chipped at my strength. The art-world necessities of modishness and historical determinism in style, as well as the sexism of art history and art criticism have had to be analyzed and combatted. Every one of these issues distracts and takes time from the real battle–that painful, private battle in which each artist works out her/his way to the most honest and authentic statement. I see a real similarity between that struggle and the way a woman (and any other oppressed person) creates herself through trusting her own needs and desires and working to achieve them. I have not had a psychological difficulty getting down to work, but rather the problem of finding my true work within my chosen field, of finding the task that only I could do–which is the artist’s task. (15; emphasis added)

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Hazel-Eyed Girl

The Mississippi River is cresting, and the waterways are full. There is so much water that the usual brown color is tinged with green.

The water is flowing by, as opposed to inching in crocodile stillness as it sometimes does. It runs and jumps over the spillways in little white jets.

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Evelyn Fox Keller

In the late 1950s Evelyn Fox Keller, then a PhD student, was the object of a rather successful demoralization campaign in the Department of Physics at Harvard University (Working It Out, 77-91). Why she was admitted to the program if her abilities were not in fact trusted is a fair question whose answer, I wager, is more complex than “so they could put her to the test and ‘prove’ she was not worthy” (although there may have been an element of this involved).

I am interested in her story because it is validating – someone else has had an experience related to mine and succumbed to it, at least for a time. Keller had sensibilities the field had dedicated itself to weeding out, in the interest of creating a certain image and consolidating power (84-85).

She was also quite male identified or perhaps patriarchally educated, seeking male intellectual approval and complicit in some ways with the idea that men were more capable. This contributed to her vulnerability to, and confusion in the face of the campaign that was mounted to demonstrate to her that she could not do.

I find it interesting as well that Keller, at several points in the essay, is at pains to make sure the reader knows that she acknowledges that she could have handled things differently at that time, and perhaps better. It is as though she had been told so many times that it must have been a problem of her own that she has to let us know she has considered this very seriously.

The point is that it was a political problem, external to her and initiated by others, and not a weakness of character on her part. Writing in 1970s, she explains that twenty years before conflicts and obstacles were considered internal and individual, not societal (90-91). It appears to me that from the 1980s forward, we returned to this ideological prism.

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