by two enchanting geniuses.
I left Charlottesville, Virginia two and a half years ago in a wave of disintegration that carried me, that summer, to twenty beaches, six states and one territory; I lost my cat and my stilts but held onto my typewriter, maul and toolbox. I had rooted in my community and while I was ready to go I also felt what it meant to be uprooted, unrooted. I don’t remember when the letters began although I could easily go look. V is my friend, former housemate and comrade in arms against the nuclear industry. She taught me how to keep house, how to brush paint, how to grow food in the yard, and how to dismantle the patriarchy that has invaded the mind. And now she is my pen-pal. I had a pen-pal when I was nine, from Delaware. It was really boring. V has kept up more than her share of an encyclopedic correspondance. The conversation below was drawn from letters in the spring of 2012, as I despaired in California and V in Virginia, for different reasons. But it was a fruitful despair, paired with lots of pleasure and joy, and leading to other places: for me, it led to Buffalo. For V, it led to a headlong immersion in the study of visual art. The first letter in this series was an essay I sent to V, called Writing the Experiment. She photocopied it and wrote all over it in red ink. I photocopied and sent back. Additional letters followed. In the end I tried to follow the arrows and responses to turn a palimpsest into a dialogue. From layer to linear; I hope the layers and circularity still show through.
J.: I have been trying to come up with the counterpart to badass medieval Japanese women writers or bohemian women of France and Japan. It leads me to Disney movies: cartoons of hourglass figures with abnormally large eyes. I think the Disney story encapsulates each element of the dominant narrative of women’s lives: passive accumulation of attraction/power that culminates in young womanhood, and the culmination equals the end of said power. All loose ends tied up. The rest, post-script.
V: Another way of saying this is: a woman’s life has no worth past her use as a sex object and vessel for propagation of the race. In real life she continues on invisibly and in fiction she must die. Sometimes in real life she will die also, if she allows herself to embody the story that the patriarchy projects on her: Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di.
J.: In three words, Happily Ever After. Silent, like the medieval Japanese feudal code for women. Planned obsolescence.
V: Therefore it is revolutionary for a woman to grow old, to embrace the changes in aging. To live, healthy and happy and creative. Our heroines in this project have all grown old. Aging is an essential part of the challenge, and it is feared and denied aggressively in the culture. George Sands grew into a fat healthy creative contented old age, returned to nature and to a non-scandalous state of disengagement from the world.
J.: The first story of those I have been reading which comes to my mind is the Kagero Nikki, the record of what happens afterward- of the rest of a life. The woman who wrote the Kagero Nikki wrote it as both diary and literary work in eleventh century Japan and she describes the lack of fulfillment she experiences now that she is living the life proscribed for her at the time. So even in the eleventh century, the narrative was being challenged.
V: Wanting to live means constant pushing against the forces meant to crush you.
J.: But this leads me to believe that the idea itself of a dominant narrative of women’s lives is a myth propagated by a loud minority against the preponderance of evidence, of story and art. Not that the cultural narrative doesn’t cast its shadow.
V: Yes, for sure. But we won’t let that stop us.
J.: I notice, as we talk about this subject, a blur between the writing and living of women’s lives. I notice how I literally read women’s stories in order to read my life and the lives of women around me. Avriel H. Goldberger, translater of Emilie Carles, describes “how much of the impact of the autobiography came from Carles compelling us to re-read our won lives, dilemnas, hopes, how much we identified with her and were strengthened by her.”
V: This beautiful feminine mode is criticized by the patriarchy as: subjective, only speaking from personal experience instead of from the point of view of THE TRUTH from on high. This is typical. The minimizing of the feminine, the categorizing of masculine modes as desirable (or human) and feminine modes as evil, bestial, inferior. It has been a joy to read and find this blur in every area of women’s being, in every author, in you and me. This correspondence itself blurs everything! Or, from our own point of view, unites and integrates. I feel a healing from it, after a lifetime of being taught otherwise. Even as lately as when I was doing art with M- and she insisted I paint my feelings exclusively and leave my intellect in the shoe room. I found this outrageously retarded and totally unacceptable.
Blur as “marriage”: I think this is why men are afraid of marriage. They are opposed to this blurring of me and you. In the experience, the reality of women, the human race continues only because of the blurring of mother and baby. Men must learn this blurring. They seem to be willing to parent in a way that feels like ownership to me. I think it feels distasteful to me because they are play-acting the father and child blurring: I don’t think that a man can blur with a child until after he has blurred with the mother.
J.: Blur: biology and life-metaphor. Women’s bodies are more likely to take in that which is not-self and make it part of self; through this trait they nurture and give birth; yet this trait at work in our modern toxic world also results in cancer and mercury poisoning. Blur in Gertrude Stein (from Patriarchal Poetry):
A hyacinth resembles a rose. A rose resembles a blossom a blossom resembles a calla lily a calla lily resembles a jonquil and a jonquil resembles a marguerite a marguerite resembles a rose in bloom a rose in bloom resembles a lily of the valley a lily of the valley resembles a violet and a violet resembles a bird.
V: Blurs: fact and fiction; writing and painting; world and self; life and death; inner and outer; intellect and feeling; right and left brain; body and soul; sex and love. Blur: reader and the words/ideas of the author. This is how women read. Michele Sarde, about her biography of Colette: “the history of a particular subjectivity, filtered through another subjectivity, mine.” “In the light of Colette’s life, I have questioned my own existence as a woman.”
J.: In the light of Sarde filtering Colette, you examine your own life as a women. This part always makes me think of Derrida. In the context of our correspondence, I wonder: was Derrida’s discovery/ theory of postmodern literary analysis actually a reframing by a man of what women have always lived? A codifying into men’s language of subjective female experience?
But back to blurring: part of the idea of blur is embodied in Carolyn Heilbrun’s book, which served as the point of connection for me between various lines of thought I was spinning. In her introduction she declares her choice to write about lives and not texts, explaining “We are in danger of refining the theory and scholarship at the expense of the lives of the women who need to experience the fruits of research.”
V: To S- the theory of life, of which he is an expert, is far superior to life itself: cleaning, cooking, bathing, etc.
J.: These stories are about very real survival, another difference in how women’s stories exist.
Heilbrun describes the dominant myth:
For a short time, during courtship, the illusion is maintained that women, by withholding themselves, are central. Women are allowed this brief period in the limelight- and it is the part of their lives most constantly and vividly enacted in a myriad of representations- to encourage the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality. And courtship itself is.. an illusion: that is, the women must entrap the man to ensure herself a center for her life. The rest is aging and regret.
V: My personal encounter with this lack of center is with the homeschooling mothers who drove me nuts; I always felt that they could only speak in the third person, through their children, and never using the I. Their response to the forces that want to erase them is to glorify this marginalization. This does not work.
This means that the woman’s life “happens to her” in her first twenty to twenty-five years. In Hollywood, this is the age of “fuckability,” the quality that is looked for in the casting of an actress.
J.: The next sixty-five to seventy years are the afterword. By comparison, a model for men’s lives is that of the lifelong quest, turning here, turning there, finding sometimes failure and sometimes success. In one case the object is closure, in the other, open-ended adventure. The adventure is overtly about gaining power and control. Comparatively, the model for women’s narrative includes a tradition of idealization, glossing over, romanticizing, nostalgia, all of which serve to mask issues of power and control, and by extension, anger.
V: Yes! Rage! Fury! In the wake of violence against women- two deaths in town recently- I complained to Elena that men want to kill women. “A good woman is a dead woman.” She said, “No V. Men want women. For sex and for cleaning.”
Power and Control are defined differently for men and women I think. This is why a dialogue is almost impossible.
Men: power over, control over others, not self-control, not self-mastery.
Women: power with, control over their own bodies, for fuck’s sake!
Men (i.e. S-): “at least he’s getting some intimacy” meaning the same as “at least he is getting some pussy” but using the word “intimacy” instead.
Women: intimacy, a state that two people work toward together without an end, in trust, in love.
Do you think that it would occur to a woman to build the biggest submarine in the world or the tallest building?
J.: It could occur to a woman but that doesn’t mean she would think it was a good idea to actually do it. There is a primary quality of scale here: human-sized versus inhuman, global, to space and beyond. Connected to this is Carolyn Heibrun’s description of the Quest as an archetypal journey narrative for men. The quest model has recognizable stages of career and phases within the narrative. Women’s narrative- which is self-less, since the woman herself is not at the center- has a tradition of memoir and memory as a confession of inadequacy.
The quest model is self-full rather than self-less. Memoir serves the function of recollecting satisfaction from personal achievements, however small they may be.
V: V and Sky [friend] do not think of memoir as a consolation but as the basic response to human life as it happens. Real life is small though the imagination may be great. Men should learn this response more. We think that small is beautiful. Big is forcing humanity into an inhuman scale, destructive to all. Alice Walker: “Why do we have to be like you? Why can’t you be more like us? And what are you like, anyway?” Men should write memoir confessing their feelings of inadequacy instead of blowing up mountains to feel bigger.
The woman’s quest has always been not only that of her life, but also her quest for her own story, to seize power. “Power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter. This is true in the Pentagon, in marriage, in friendship, and in politics.”
V: Historically in the U.S. we are standing to lose power, possession of our own bodies, should Mitt Romney become president. People don’t think that a culture can go backwards but look at Iran.
J.: Power includes the right to your own anger and your own pain.
V: And your own biology.
J.: Because you either have the right to all of it or you have another version of your life. You may even be living this other version while all the while a real life roils below. Carolyn Heilbrun points out idealization in women’s narratives and I see the upside-down logic at work.
Years ago my friend in women’s studies shared her belief in the stoicism of women and how it harms them. I found the idea confusing. Isn’t stoicism a male trait? However, as I have thought about it, I think that male stoicism is really the choice to not communicate their feelings of pain but to enact and express it in other ways- publicly, personally, artistically, and sometimes violently. In the tradition of women’s stories, women often express pain privately, or not at all. It becomes inwardly refracted. Carolyn Heilbrun quotes May Sarton’s reaction to her own memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep, which “eventually dismayed her as she came to realize that none of her anger, passionate struggle, or despair of her life was revealed in the book. She had not intentionally concealed her pain: she had written in the old genre of female autobiography which tends to find beauty even in pain and to transform rage into spiritual acceptance.” She marks this shift as a watershed, when “Sarton deliberately retold the story of her anger. And, above all other prohibitions, what has been forbidden to women is anger, together with the open admission of the desire fro power and control over one’s life (which inevitably means accepting some degree of power and control over other’s lives.”
V: I think that feminism helped her to retell her story and include anger. It’s not only the East that holds forth the ideal of silent womanhood. A woman who voices her pain is called a bitch. Have you not been labeled “negative” for mentioning the sad state of the world?
J.: I think I label myself this way sometimes- but then I remember it is not so. I think that the rise of the black power movement and voices of black women also allowed this shift for others, while bearing much of the repercussions for making public women’s justified anger.
It was a little shocking for me to reconsider Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness from within this context. It was clear that, at the time, Dorothy Day could not have both her pain and anger as well as her story of spiritual transformation, though we do get a taste of it in her final days with her husband on Staten Island. I am reminded of how Daniel Berrigan, in his introduction to the book, suggests that today, she would not have felt obligated to choose either husband or belief.
V: Here is an example of your ‘dominant cultural narrative casting a shadow’: in the story of EITHER/OR. To do political work, one must give up personal work. The patriarchy demands either/or. This is very sad in addition to being infuriating. In the personal/political split, Dorothy Day suffered, but men did not. They had wives who kept homes and raised children for them. Luckily for us the feminists blurred the boundaries between political/personal.
J.: More recently I read Emilie Carles, who as you know I loved. The peasant/commune culture is one of repression and she rebels outright. She articulately describes the depths of grief, shock and anger in her life. Even so there are parts where I sense a glossing over, such as when she describes shouldering the economic and labor burden for her family of six children as her husband plays the role of generous anarchist/freethinker. Where her own pain might cast him in poor light, she withholds.
V: Many spiritual men are in this category. Louisa May Alcott’s father, for example, a transcendentalist. He did not support his family. The mother struggled. I ask, what is the mission of men in life? What is their special contribution to humanity? S-’s serious answer: “their sperm.” I made a “pf!” dismissive noise. I have a lot of respect for men who support their families, more and more as I age. I don’t see it as bourgeois conditioning but as the manly shouldering of responsibility. I know what it is because women have always had this responsibility: to feed and clothe their children, to impart with the meaning of humanhood.
J.: My mother has been interested in this story for several years. We visited Fruitlands, the site of the failed utopian commune, where Abigail Alcott and her daughters worked and starved and froze, then left. Their ideals, as set by Bronson Alcott, were to live without exploitation. No cotton, because it came from slavery. No wool, because it came from animals. They were freezing in the Massachusetts winter. My mother was also reading Wild Oats, Louisa May Alcott’s funny or not? satire of the commune.
But other women took pride in their role as breadwinner: Uno Chiyo, who finagled money for her incompetent lovers and husbands; Joyce Johnson, who in Minor Characters writes about her pleasure at buying Jack Kerouac dinner, about being the more solvent of the two.
V: I think Colette is to me what Uno Chiyo is to you. She is what she is and defies labeling. She represents freedom, and feminine power and control. She lived the life she wanted and that’s all there was to it. She lived into the wisdom stage of life, almost non-existent, unmentioned at all, now.
J.: When I re-read I realize that more than anything else she is a mass of anomalies. She wrote bipolar potboilers in which one woman is amoral, cold, powerful, and the other represents unconditional subservient love for her man. Uno Chiyo had a tumultuous life but refers to only a couple of periods of sadness and admits little anger. She was considered in certain respects, at certain times, a great example of Japanese womanhood, and at other times, a paragon. I lose track of her various lovers and how she feels about each one. At one point in her life she creates her “Broken-Heart Exercises.”
V: All of life a series of creative projects. Anything that can happen provides the material and the fuel.
Uno Chico’s Broken Heart Exercises
To say I keep the bitterness of a broken heart tucked away and suffer without telling a soul would be misleading. My heartbreaks are always big affairs. I give vent to them in the bluntest, most exaggerated way. I don’t complain to anyone, but alone, where no one can see me, I wail and make a great stir, too pathetic to imagine.
While cursing my absent lover I cling to the futon. All night long I am in an uproar, squirming like a caterpillar, gripping the pillar like a cicada, sobbing. Sometimes I run through the dark alleys where no one else goes, calling out my lover’s name…
I know it sounds crazy, but after I have carried on like this for a while, I feel just like a baby who has cried its fill. “Now what on earth was I so upset about?”
V: A great blurring. Life as Art, Life as Theater, encompassing the polar opposites and everything in between?
Uno is a comic: funny, adorable.
J.: Simultaneously demonetizing and boldly assertive, much like her bipolar potboilers.
V: This is called ‘diversity’ in some circles.
J.: She also declares at times that she will fuel her writing with anger over affairs that have ended, and at other times that she is dry-eyed and free of all feelings of recrimination.
It is a funny thing to lay lives and texts of women from such distinct cultures side by side. Uno Chiyo in particular lived with a very specific set of expectations for women’s behavior; quietness was one of the four primary virtues for women listed in the Onna Daigaku, the feudal code, and Uno Chiyo was far from quiet.
V: J., a female writer, blurs space in addition to the traditional blurring in time of women’s writing. No male writer would ever dare such a feat! But of course it makes total sense, and it makes for a better read.
J.: Kagero Nikki, too, is a record of Broken-Heart Exercises.
In 1929, at the age of 32, somewhat concurrently with the Broken Heart Exercises, Uno Chiyo chartered her own club. “Instead of loving a man I shall love my work. I shall love myself. In order to become a respected, independent person (no woman has ever achieved such) I shall take no man as my husband… I shall simply live alone.” Her charter read:
And a determination to follow my own will!
A year later she marries again.
V: Colette marries again after she renounced love and decided to live alone, after 50. Actually she lived in sin with Maurice Goudeket, age 35. After 10 years, when they were invited to go to New York, he asked her to marry him in order not to scandalize the Americans, in the 1930’s. He recorded in his memoir that his gesture made her happy. He wrote one memoir of being Colette’s faithful husband and one later on being a father at a late age. He was not interested in building submarines or skyscrapers. He was interested in family members. He requested that the authorities not publish the wedding banns because of Colette’s celebrity status, but they refused, suggesting that he asked in order to be protected from scandal. Since the neighborhood thought them married, the banns would reveal they were not, and cause a scandal. Colette’s American trip was not a success. She simply did not fit as an “exportable commodity.”
J.: The Uno Chiyo-Colette dynamique becomes more evident as we write-
V: Also Sidonie Colette, middle class French housewife and letter writer and Colette’s mother and an enduring model and muse for her.
J.: -paradoxically traditional and completely free. Existing unabashedly within contradiction. Seven years after issuing her edict of will she states in A Genius of Imitation, “I don’t wish not to be a woman, but I’d certainly like to be a woman whose sense of purpose comes from within.” Yet from without, her whole life story appears to be one driven by will and choice. Her life’s narrative most closely relates to quest, and her old age is not a post-script but a period of synthesis, integration and enlightenment.
V: Wonderful story! This is as it should be. I love it.
“Quest” must be different for men and women I think. We have not had women’s quest laid out for us, except as I find them in the stories of Colette and Uno’s life. I try to find them wherever I can. And really I don’t want to, my body doesn’t want to, go on the men’s quest, as described in the Grail stories, in Joseph Campbell, in the traditional hero journeys of Greece, or India, or China or anywhere in the world, the Americas. Ugh! Men think they can go on this trajectory until they drop dead, ever accumulating experience and power, begetting children at 90, etc… It is totally different for women, because of our biological cycles and because we have not held power in society. When I was 54 and dating men in their 60’s and 70’s I was told that I was too old for them. It was so weird and surreal- Sky says that it is a recent phenomenon, to see a 20 year-old woman paired with a 50 year-old man in the movies. She said that in the movies of the 40’s you will notice that the man and the woman are the same age. What does this mean?
J.: I think this goes into realms of romance and love versus marriage. Traditionally I think that age differences were accepted for their function. A young woman married an old man for his money. Or, in ancient China, a woman married a fourteen year-old boy so that she could properly train him. None of this has to do with love. It probably has to do with economic systems and the power structure. The only big age-difference love story that I can think of, which we love, is Harold and Maude. Oh yes, and Colette- and Uno Chiyo. For couples who do not fit the male/female paradigm, I think the age difference matters less and says less because it already does not support the power structure properly.
The second-to-last chapter of Uno Chiyo’s biography is called “Botticelli’s Venus.”
I did not include the central image of this chapter before, but now I think that I should:
Every time Kazue gets out of the bath, she stands in front of the mirror and examines her naked body for a moment. She used the towel in front for modesty and turns her hips slightly, standing at an angle. Her skin has turned slightly pink.
“I look like her,” she thinks.
She thus notes her resemblance to Botticelli’s Venus. There is the similarity in the way she is standing, although no seashell supports her. She also has the same feet and the slightly rounded stomach. This description might imly that Kazue enjoys staring at herself at length, but in fact this is not the case. She just notes the resemblance and soon gets dressed.
In fact, Kazue does not very deeply believe that her naked body resembles Venus. A body with more than seventy years behind it is hardly likely to come close to Venus. Perhaps Kazue”s skin bears blemishes in places and occasionally sags. But her eyesight is failing and the steam from the bath makes the objects before her even more obscure. Kazue includes these shortcomings when she enumerates the happy aspects of her life. In this manner, Kazue collects fragments of happiness one after another, and so lives, spreading them throughout her environment. Even what seems odd to other people, she considers happiness.
as quoted in The Sound of the Wind by Rebecca Copeland,
from “Kofuku”(Happiness) by Uno Chiyo
The last chapter, called “I Will Go On Living,” covers age seventy to ninety-three.
In Botticelli’s Venus, biographer Rebecca Copeland describes the narrative of Uno Chiyo’s transition from whirlwind of love affairs to single older woman. She dismisses the notion that this is a simple biological progression and examines it as a period of significant adjustment on a deep emotional level.
V: A clear developmental phase with its particular psychological tasks and challenges, and potential fulfillment. This is totally missed by the youth-worshipping culture and therefore unusually difficult for anyone willing to undertake the quest.
J.: Rebecca Copeland references the ideas of Annie Pratt: “in the fiction of older writers, the purpose of the work is not so much to integrate the heroine into society (as that has all been done before) but to integrate the heroine with herself. Quite often she returns to nature in her effort to relocate and reaffirm herself.”
V: Full circle- I think in real life also integration follows this sequence. First to know where we are, who we are in relation to the world, and then, at the point when the end is nearer than the beginning, more subjectivity, drawing inward away from the world.
J.: I wanted to write that nature was not so badly affected by people at that time, or that we didn’t know if it was- but then I realized that Uno Chiyo’s own return to nature includes nature as herself, and that part of the work of her old age is to re-integrate “broken” nature back in to nature as well- integration of nature, integration of self, one and the same.
V: Yes I feel this strongly, that our human nature, and our feminine nature, is Nature. I think it is a feminine realization too, that you are having/writing. This is a source of power. A difference between men and women is that we come to this knowledge through our own bodies.
J.: In this phase Uno Chiyo goes and buys a little house in the country, by the mountains. She says:
“After a woman has grown old, do you suppose she no longer falls in love? Perhaps she does not love in the romantic sense of the word. But there are times when she thinks, “Isn’t this the same as romantic love? Yes, it is exactly the same.” After I moved to Nasu, my feelings for the mountains were thus. I carried things to my mountain home in the same spirit with which I brought presents to a man.”
V: Yes yes yes. In my conversations with S- I found out that men think women only feel this way about them, these feelings always bound up with sexual desires. Sky feels this way about her home, too.
Uno Chiyo’s biography itself, is so full of love for its subject. Is this in any way different from romantic love? A la Chiyo, no! It is compelling reading. And it is an expression of the feminine in that it tells a story that is worth telling. It does not insist on “great literature,” it recognizes that Chiyo’s story makes as good a telling as Dostoevsky’s. It recognizes in Chiyo not an important historical figure, but an important homo sapiens. What a loss to human culture that many stories like hers are not told and instead we keep having to hear about Napoleon.
Uno Chiyo was an adventuress but also many multitudes of self and she never stopped evolving, and I love that so much. She was extraverted but very reflective too. She knew how to grow old which is unusual for a femme fatale and this is instructive to me, who is looking for ways to move into “advanced age.” I love in her what I love in Colette, the irrepressible feminine spirit full of play and humour. She always was working on integration though she did not call it that. She was adorable! She didn’t mind becoming a little toad-like old woman inhabited by the ageless Chiyo. Sky said to me, exasperated by watching old women on television: “Why do you have to be sexy at seventy years old?” Chiyo gave up sex but not spirit.
These women do not follow any script and they do not write the script for themselves in advance. I have been watching Maria Kalman and Linda Barry [visual artists] on youtube. They are fabulous. This project of ours is giving me lots of hope about finding my way in the uncharted territory of growing old- older- oldest as a woman, alive and vibrant, and in love. These women do not fit inside any category. They are completely fresh. Aside from this they do not resemble each other. I think physically they do not look alike because they haven’t had plastic surgery.
J.: In her wisdom phase Uno Chiyo also begins the process of taking stock. For her this involves writing and re-writing her life as fiction and memoir- again, a la Colette. The memoir/fiction of this time has as its features: 1) she does not analyze or justify 2) all events narrated in the same level tone 3) which is a detached, philosophical tone. She says “Is it really natural to forget the past?…Perhaps then what I remember now is not the truth. Perhaps I remember only what is pleasant. No, I remember by reshaping the past into something pleasant.”
V: This made Sky laugh very much.
J.: “I remember by creating myself” versus “I remember by creating you/ the other.”
And as she takes stock of her life, her many affairs- Nogami Yaeko writes, “the one Uno really loves is Uno herself.”
V: One of the best consequences of this Experiment of ours that has evolved into so many open doors into new possiblities for me is: how to grow old. I have been looking for this for many years as you know. Of course it is not to be found anywhere in the culture. Among the few old women that I know it is not well articulated. The middle-aged women are in confusion. That growing old equals the Return to Nature in these writers feels so fitting, so right, so good.
J.: One of her last works of fiction is called “The Grey Cherry Tree,” written after she has successfully saved a 1500 year-old cherry tree by a campaign that leads to root-grafting. Uno says that it is the “most difficult story she had ever written, and also the most satisfying.”
In the last two decades of her life, she travels, writes numerous short stories and another memoir, runs an advice column, appears on television, is interviewed by women’s pulp magazines, re-issues older writings.
V: “Multi-tasking” it is called, and not recognized in the one-minded patriarchy as the diversity (inner) that is the hallmark of wealth and health.
Uno Chiyo celebrates her 88th birthday in style at the Tokyo Imperial Hotel:
“As the popular tune “We Are The World” blared out over the audience, Uno was led onto the stage.. [she] wore a girlish kimono with flowing sleeves and had festooned her hair with flowers. During the course of the festivities, she changed two times, like a young bride, into other kimonos of her design. With each new kimono she paraded across the stage with a new escort.. a young grandson,… a handsome tv personality.”
Don’t you wish you were there?
V: Yes, and so did Sky.
J.: After all of this she begins to write a sequel to I Will Go On Living called My Twilight Years, continues to write generally, but seems to have passed most of her business along to others. She has returned to a more passive state.
V: I wrote to you in a separate letter about the inactivity that allows the brain to integrate, organize, harmonize, stabilize at a more complex configuration. I do feel that before the final adventure of death it is good to have a period of inner preparation/detachment from every day activity.
The dominant/ideal story is symbolized by the phallic obelisk, one arrow pointing one way, up and away from earthly life. If the guy should fail in this attempt he really does experience permanent neutralization. Example: S-.
Rudolf Steiner acknowledges these cycles and emphasizes the periods of passivity as crucial for human development, and in child education. He cites examples of geniuses who had to endure long bed-ridden periods.
J.: The dominant story for women: one period of activity followed by permanent neutralization and passivity.
The reality: endless cycles of passive and active growth that cycle upon each other, the activity a natural outgrowth from what has been stored up and savored and digested.
And for both men and capitalism, the myth: endless, exponential growth.
Carolyn Heilbrun cites Erik Erikson’s concept of the “period known as the moratorium, but, as with all Erikson’s writing, only the male is seen as the model for human development. Nonetheless, his description of the moratorium is highly useful in looking at women’s lives…there is a time when the individual appears.. to be getting nowhere.” Erikson declares this to be pre-30; I think that this is not true for women who return to the moratorium cyclically.
The concept of the radical break also occurs at various ages although I think that age 30 and 50 are significant, relating to childbirth and the age children leave home, because the radical break represents a divergence from the traditional meaning and purpose of women’s lives. Carolyn details the radical break in her fifth and seventh chapters and I could quote them almost in entirety, but I will just go back to this part:
“[Nina] Auerbach has, with dazzling succintness, identified a phenomenon evident in the lives of accomplished women who live in a storyless time and are either trapped in, or have wasted energy opposing, the only narrative available to them: the conventional marriage or erotic plot. For women who wished to live a quest plot, as men’s stories allow, indeed encourage, them to do, some event must be invented to transform their lives, all unconsciously, apparently “accidentally,” from a conventional to an eccentric story.”
The third characteristic, that of women in a community of women, involves the element of telling and hearing stories and relates to your project of the study of friendship and loneliness and your chart of species, social and emotional needs. I am certain that the act of storytelling is an antidote to debilitating loneliness, whether it is through word or pen. I am working on a farm crew this autumn, mostly women, and have heard many stories. One woman, in her twenties and hasn’t roamed far from home, told the unromantic story of a drinking weekend that through inertia turned into her marriage. “When we fight I always tell him, it’s your fault I stayed. I wanted to leave.”
V: This is not a good story because the contents are not created with a view of the purpose of the story. I think this is the dark side of the feminine experience. All yin with no yang. We are stressing the yin in our experiment but we need that spot of yang in there to ground us. The stories and the women we admire capture their balance. Also they tell stories to live by, to live into. Example: the return to Nature.
J.: Yes, it is an uninspiring story. No reflection. Also lots of alcohol. You could take it as a cautionary tale. It is an unexamined tale. But, because I heard it on the farm crew, we can examine it. The opportunity was there to hear each others stories. This is an antidote to debilitating loneliness.
Another recent experience of storytelling in the community of women- I attended a collaborative project by a feminist theater group in which they explored the theme of wicked women, women who either were or were perceived as wicked- Mae West, Bonnie from the Barrow Gang, Cleopatra, Georgina Spelvin (porn star), Lorena Bobbitt, Calamity Jane, Nell Gwynn, and more. The idea was interesting and the execution amateur- I wanted it to be good. I think one undercurrent was that the actors underestimated the power that these stories and women would evoke and were uncomfortable/unsure of what to do with that; simultaneously they were unsure of how to portray wicked women whose power was an illusion, whose life was parametered by men’s power.
V: I think many are still in an illusion that women share power in our times. Many men think that women have too much power and that it must be wrested from them (S-, for example).
J.: It is not only hearing and reading a story that form the community but also telling and living it. Finding myself in a book is thrilling but even more thrilling is meeting someone who found herself in that book too.
More on friendship, this time from Jeannette Winterson-
I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God wo was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky… As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side forever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me. There are many forms of love and affection. Some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other’s names. Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name. Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere it is still in the original written on stone tablets. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer and never the destroyed. That is why they are unfit for romantic love. There are exceptions and I hope they are happy.
The unknownness of my needs frightens me. I do not know how huge they are, or how high they are, I only know they are not being met. If you want to find the circumference of an oil drop, you can use lycopodium powder. That’s what I’ll find. A tub of lycopodium powder, and I will sprinkle it onto my needs and find out how large they are. Then when I meet someone I can write up the experiment and show them what they have to take on… One thing I am certain of, I do not want to be betrayed, but that’s quite hard to say, casually, at the beginning of a relationship… It’s not a word people use very often, which confuses me, because there are different kinds of infidelity, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeannette Winterson
V: Because of Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? I started to read Alice Miller (because I still wanted to read women and not Donald Winnicott just yet) and trying to understand what she is trying to do from this new place I am standing in, from the point of view of this experiment of ours. What I understand is our needs are unchanged from infancy, and that they are simple. We need for someone to make a safe place in which we can be our true self. I like Jung’s term “container.” I wish for someone to be able to contain me. In a great sense we contain each other. This writing the experiment is itself a container for me- But the psychoanalysts say that what we long for is “Mother” if we never had it. Jeannette Winterson certainly did not have “Mother.” Alison Bechdel consciously seeked for the Mother experience which she knew she was lacking. The mother need extends beyond the personal as well. Sky says we live in a masculinized culture, an un-mothered culture. Remember when we said we don’t know what the purpose of men is in the world? Winnicott says that what men can do is make a safe space in which women can mother.
J.: They can make a safe space by not making it an explicitly unsafe space-
V: There is a male association of sex and death, I can’t remember my source right at this moment. I think that women in touch with their own femininity who have been un-interfered with in their sexual development make an association of sex and life, and this is one of the many incompatibilities between men and women. And of course, sex and love, rather than sex as opposed to love.
J.: Jeannette Winterson’s protagonist is wandering to find the balance between earth and sky, yin and yang. When you talk about a husband I hear you naming that person who will be on your side forever and ever, know you, call you home- which also means keeping the home, keeping the light in the lighthouse; one who is loyal, who will accept your needs in their entirety.
V: “Accept” here does not mean a husband is obliged to fill the needs, wouldn’t you say? I think men freak out at this because they think it means they actually have to fulfill the needs.
J.: It is a problem of quest- the requirement of being actively progressing towards the goal, versus living with loose ends that may or may not resolve.
And yet this love is as unattainable as divine love which may or may not exist.
V: The Christian concept of divine love is too tricky. To me it is so hopelessly contaminated I never want to go there. Mark Morris the choreographer calls it “the love that is already in the world” and I like that. He said about the Nutcracker Ballet, that “it is about the love between two people and the love that is already in the world.” The regular traditional Nutcracker Ballet and his own wacky lunatic Nutcracher, both. One instance of this love which is heavily acknowledged but not named is the yearly blossoming of the cherry trees.
J.: This book and all of her books is her writing up of the experiment. So are Colette’s journals. Camille Paglia has referred to Sexual Personae as one big personal ad (and she puzzled at the lack of response…). In various ways each women is writing up the experiment of living life fully.
I keep thinking about the book on Buddhism and desire we both read which debunked Buddhism’s misunderstanding of desire as something to be rid of rather than an integral part of life so that embracing desire is more integrating than being rid of it. Jeannette Winterson and Uno Chiyo and Colette and Patti Smith embrace desire itself, different from striving to attain its end-object. Acquiring the end-object means creating an end-object. It means marriage and neutralization at 25. It means desire is over. Happily ever after. Embracing desire brings these women into relation, coming alive.
V: To focus on the desiring itself rather than the object of desire is called: longing. Tarn Singh said to me while I was in therapy with him that to him longing is the hope of the world. I don’t know what he means and I never asked him. His saying that made me feel alright with my longing and I just kept to that. I wonder if people confuse the longing in me with neediness, which is scary to them.
J.: It is hard to imagine characterizing you as needy- I see it as inseparable from the passions in your life.
According to the story of desire, achieved, Virginia Woolf had an unsatisfactory marriage. But in the story of herself her relationship with Leonard sustains.
V: I cannot get over the fact that Virginia Woolf was married to a man who took her manuscripts into the back of the house and made them into Books! How can this be unsatisfactory to a writer? Virginia Woolf never had to send her manuscript to publishers to be rejected.
By the way, Alice Miller psychoanalysed Virginia Woolf (and Kafka) I have yet to dig this up but I will. She also psychoanalysed Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. I will not dig for these analyses.*
One of the tangent adventures that our Experiment has sent me on is, The Feminine Expression in Painting, which in turn took me to the Feminine Expression in Ceramics and Feminist Art History. I got my art history from Judy Chicago. Did you know that until the 1970’s the bibles of Art History included 0 women? In the 1980’s Georgia O’Keefe was given a mention. One woman. I have been looking at Art by Judy Chicago (a lot of collaboration with others, all acknowledged. I don’t like her own stuff really). Sarah McEneany ( !) Florine Stettheimer ( !) Helen Redman ( !) Frida Kahlo ( !) Natalie Goldberg ( !) I see depictions of women’s lives and women’s experiences, new imagery of birth, new “iconography” intended to depict women’s perspective. All considered not serious, not important art by the male institutions. I took in a catalog of an exhibit of Maira Kalman put together by all women to show Fenella [painting instructor]. In it is a picture of a high-heeled bootie polka-dotted. Fenella pointed to it and laughed, “Men don’t think this is serious art?” In the 1970’s male curators did not only not put on shows by women, they refused to look at art by women. But you must understand. I couldn’t look. I had to avert my eyes. It was as if a lady had pulled up her skirt and pulled down her stockings.”
What the paintings have in common with the reading I have been doing: they relate experience instead of theory. They are totally subjective. They show the daily life, this is important to woman, not important to men. They show themselves entwined in animals and plants. They are autobiographical. They are made in order to connect with life. Judy Chicago says women’s art is content-based (men more interested in form). They do not include any nudes at all, except for the pregnant or nursing artists themselves, or old and decrepit (Alice Neal).
Yesterday I checked out Tom Clarkson’s pots on the Artisan Studio Tour. I like them okay, I appreciate that he is very sophisticated and masterful. I appreciate that he doesn’t teach what he does, that I never knew what his own stuff looked like, that he allows the students to create their own image. But I loved the three women potters that I also visited, two at the Barn Swallow. I loved the organic free-flowing misshapen vegetal forms. They are technique-heavy but at the same time totally accessible. I could say to myself about the pieces I love: “I want to make that.” I saw vaginal-shaped vases at Nancy Ross’s studio, on her flower-shaped vessels. She also teaches at PVCC and I had seen and loved her stuff before, but only connected with her things yesterday.
J.: I lived by her in the mountains and the first time I saw her pottery I recognized the colors immediately: they were the colors of the hills and sky by our houses on the creek road.
V: I said, “I am happy to see vaginal shapes.” (You know, after art history and the new iconography by Judy Chicago.)
Nancy: “Oh, they are lilies.”
Me: “I know they are lilies but they are vaginal-shaped.”
Nancy: “Well, I said to myself, what the hell, I’ll just put them out there. The turquoise ones, inside and out, one glaze, do not strike the people as hard as the ones that have the inside and the lips glazed shiny, dark brown/purple/red.”
V: “You are the only one with these shapes on display.”
Nancy then told how two gay friends of hers freaked out over the vases and informed her that no, they could never buy one of them to have in their house.
Things have not changed much. No man has ever said “oh my god look I have made erection shapes. Oh what the hell, I’ll just display them anyway.” It is now 2012 and a sixty four year-old woman said that to herself, rightly, because of the reaction she gets from the viewers.
About portraiture: women appropriated this form and made it their own, because, the nude, that was the standard by which technical prowess was measured, was forbidden to them. Women still are attracted to portraiture because they read facial expression. Susan Wood told me the students in her drawing class demanded to learn to do faces from the young male teacher. “We are sick of drawing pumpkins and dried-up bones! We do not have any feeling toward the dried-up bones and we are sick of pumpkins.” “We want to draw something we have a feeling about.”
J.: We have ranged across forms from portrait to memoir to field crew to formal japanese tale and I want to return to the latter so I can talk about craft, which is your other study now with Fenella and Tom Clark in oil painting and ceramics.
If a potter has an idea, she makes it into a pot, and it exists beyond her, in its own separate life. She uses a physical substance to display her thoughts.
Jeannette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
You can turn puppets out clean and even, as if you were stamping them out with mold, but they’ll never draw a single breath. I don’t know how to tell you to give life to a puppet, and even if I was to take up a block of wood right here and carve it for you, I doubt that I could show you what it is that gives a puppet life. But I suppose that’s the way it is with any art.
Uno Chiyo, “The Puppetmaker”
This letter is the clay, and I believe it lives and breathes between us-
V: How I feel about art, my own: I do not worry about infusing life into the artifact. I try to do the project, period, and to complete it by the due date. I work on infusing life into myself, and my life. I get impatient sitting through critiques in painting class when people talk about their art. They seem to read too much into their own artifacts. When I see a tree and grass and sky I do not want to hear all about what is going on inside a young boy’s head to have resulted in such a painting, for what seems like half an hour. I wish that these boys would shut up and critique end and everybody go to their easel and do some painting.
J.: One of the many gifts of Rebecca Copeland’s biography of Uno Chiyo was her explanation of form, ancient, rigid, and so alive in the hands of Japanese women. As the puppetmaker explains they are not stamping a mold, they are breathing life. Paraphrased from her introduction-
Monogatori (the telling of things) signified a sense of orality. “Early monogatori..were often shared by means of an orator who read the story aloud to a small and intimate audience. Even when the story was read silently, there was in the story’s narrative presentation a sense of communion between audience and narrator.”
Zange (confessions) signified entertainment, friends speaking together, romantic trysts, failed romance.
And my favorite, which I have not read of before:
Watakushi shosetsu, “the mainstream of Japanese prose fiction..Generally translated as the I-novel, it is neither a novel, in the strictest Western sense, nor always a first-person narrative. The form claims to represent an author’s lived experiences just as the author lived them, without any fictional mediation. Yet inevitably it allows for embellishment, alterations and synthesis; thus, readers are left not with documented fact, but with an emotional, at times almost spiritual, re-creation of an author’s experience… perhaps it can best be understood as a story about the “I,” the self, the author, or that is to say, the persona the author creates.” And that is the essence to me of Uno Chiyo’s work. It feels to me like an autobiography of the soul or psyche. Like a polaroid of a haunting spirit.
What I am fascinated with here is the explicit recognition of the subjectivity of written and told lives. Here it is not only the motion but the form itself, the container.
V: Jung’s definition of “extravert” and “introvert,” which we now use in a different sense than he intended: an extravert focuses on the facts of an event, whereas an introvert focuses on his own feelings around the event. His own impressions, his own interpretations. Neither extravert nor introvert has the real reality in his grasp. Both the facts and the feelings are realities, though societally the extrovert is rewarded and the introvert not. Colette is a French writer of watakushi shosetsu, and very materially-set minds cannot get beyond the paradox, always asking the question, “is it fact, documentary, memoir, or is it fiction?”
Yes I think you are right there is no English equivalent of this. I think that M.F.K. Fisher was an American writer of watakushi shosetsu and so she belongs to no genre whatsoever.
J.: I am also fascinated with how the confessional, oral and communal aspects are inherent to zange and monogatori. These aspects have been formalized and codified in Japanese art and culture. I supposed coming from casual American society I can be fascinated not constricted and repelled.
V: I am afraid J. is an American writer of confessional/oral/communal/fictional/etc. for which there is no name no genre!
J.: Emilie Carles translator says of her autobiography that it “reads like a story.” Emilie grew up going to the veilles: village commune gatherings on long winter nights, with lots of storytelling. You can see how our isolating capitalistic society explicitly strikes at the root of women’s art. You can see how such society would codify not the form but the story itself.
V: I have now embarked upon Emilie Carles! I read the translator’s note and loved it. Is this any different from romantic love? I am afraid not!
The word for Uno Chiyo: adorable.
J.: I don’t have an ending for this. But it’s over, for now.
Appendix: An I Ching Reading for Writing The Experiment: The Marrying Maiden
The Marrying Maiden is the image of Thunder over Lake. Thunder and Lake contain many significances; amongst them, in strictly ordered Confucian society, the image of Lake, youngest daughter, approaching a man of her own volition. According to the sages- “In later times it was considered immoral for a girl to marry on her own initiative…This goes back to patriarchal times.”
The sage known as V: The I Ching came about during Confucius’ time, a retarded time. In my self-taught art history, the Renaissance, which was supposed to be such an enlightened time, turned out to be a monumental backlash against women, who thrived artistically in the Middle Ages. What this says to me is that history is not a one way forward as some suppose, and that what human rights have been acquired through much fighting have to be vigilantly guarded and protected. It is not inconceivable that the U.S. could go the way of Iran, for example. About the idea of progressive or retarded, on a lighter (very much lighter) note, I have been watching Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot on the internet. In one of his insights he figured out that a character speaks with an American accent because the guy wrote “Aug 2, 1935” on his hotel register. Hercule explains to his sidekick, Hastings, that he figured it out because Americans put the month before the day: “A very backward people, Americans.”
The sage known as J.: Another interpretation goes back to “reminisces of matriarchal times disseminated in popular romance.” Storytelling as a means of remembering that women’s power can and did exist.
The image is of a young woman acting on her own volition, the action of yin; the tension is between the interpretation against modern (at the time) repressive norms or those of matriarchal times.
V: Forward hussy/good wife is the patriarchal construct of mother or whore. All this is saying is that they don’t understand who and what women are because they don’t know who they are. Uno Chiyo is always working at integrating these two images that she has internalized from Japanese Culture in presenting them as opposite characters in her fiction. Looking at these two projections through my own eyes, I see that their forward hussy equals a woman who is present in her body and her senses, in nature and who enjoys sex, and that their good wife equals a loving woman, a woman who knows how to and wants to love. Uno Chiyo was both these women, as was Colette. The patriarchy cannot handle this. Why?
What I also see in Uno Chiyo and Colette that I love (but I do not get a true confirmation of it) is a true purity, a true innocence. They are amoral in the way of animals, not immoral as the culture wants to make them. They retain a fullness of spirit to the very end. Why is this energy so threatening to the patriarchy?
The yogis call this energy, Shakti, but I think because they are men, this energy is also associated in their minds with destruction and death. The energy in Uno Chiyo and Colette is bright and clear, life-giving, love-affirming, humorous, playful, sweet.
J.: Also contained within this image are images of east west north south; spring summer autumn winter; “consequently the whole cycle of life is contained in this hexagram.” Images of heaven and earth uniting, sun and moon, inception of life and harvest and birth.
The changing line means weakness and difficulty in seeing. “..this brings into it darkness and loneliness…abyss, a gloomy valley.” In such circumstances the advice is to keep an inner faith; I think this aptly describes the ways in which minority culture has had to maintain an inner faith when made invisible to each other.
The admonition against the marriage appears weak and false against the backdrop of cosmic unity and cycle.
One last interpretation: “this maiden will not make you a Good Wife.” And that is so.