“Mother’s Day”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about babies. No, not because I have them. Also not because I want them, though as a 35, soon-to-be-36 year old woman who is not a mother but who is married to a man, 99% of the world seems to assume that I do, that I must, and quite pointedly that I should want to be a mother, and should be pursuing motherhood as an urgent imperative second to none. No, I have been thinking about babies because my friends are having them, because the children of my mother’s friends and of my parents-in-law’s friends are having them, and because there is a lot of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing a life without children, in accepting a life in which your children choose not to have children. There also seems to be a whole other load of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing to have children, but that’s not my area of expertise.

The other, bigger-picture reason why I’m thinking about babies, and about women’s reproductive choices and access to family planning is because I am living in the U.S.A in an era when fewer and fewer women have access to health care at all, and when access to resources such as contraception and safe and legal termination of unwanted pregnancies are specifically further and further out of reach for huge numbers of women. I could conceivably wake up one of these days to discover that my health insurance provider has been forced by the government to stop covering the benefit that allows me access to the birth-control pill that’s allowed me to avoid an unwanted pregnancy for almost 15 years of having sex with men. The pill could become a luxury- an out-of-pocket cost I can’t afford, if it’s available to me at all, to the inevitable detriment of my emotional well-being and my stable and happy (voluntarily child-free) marriage. And I live in deep-blue California. This lack of access to reproductive health care is already a reality for women all over this country and is bound to become more and more dire. I read something a couple days ago about what “back-alley abortion” could mean in a potential (dare I say “probable”?) post-Roe world. Very likely it would not greatly resemble what was commonplace pre-Roe. More likely it would mostly involve drugs ordered off of the internet to chemically induce miscarriages. One would like to claim this would be safer, however, many women who have miscarriages, self-induced or otherwise, require medical care and support. A few months ago I read an article about El Salvador, where all abortions, self-induced miscarriages, etcetera are legally framed as homicide. Even a miscarriage that is suspected to be in any way self-induced can lead to a woman doing years of jail time. This situation basically results in women whose pregnancies terminate avoiding those who could give them medical care they need for fear of being turned over to the authorities, slapped with homicide charges and railroaded through a criminal justice system rife with misogyny where they are presumed guilty based on nothing more than the testimony of neighbors, bitter exes, abusive partners, family members or physicians who can have no presumed objectivity (and don’t need it to be taken at their word). I hear some of you saying “but that’s El Salvador…poverty…corruption…backwards… ” and so on. Here’s the thing though. If (when?) Roe is overturned, we could easily find ourselves in a not dissimilar situation. The difference is there may be wild variations from state to state or even county to county. Example: two college women in post-Roe America. One is a Sophomore at University of California, Berkeley. One is a Sophomore at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Both wind up with unplanned pregnancies and for any number of legitimate reasons (lack of resources, desire to finish education and establish career, income, stable, healthy relationship before having a family, or simple lack of desire to be a parent), both of these young women use the internet to order pills to induce miscarriages at home. Both develop alarming symptoms, fever, hemmorhaging, etcetera, get scared and seek medical help, whether at a campus clinic or a local E.R. Chances are any doctor is going to look at this scenario and know immediately what is going on. The question is, are any of the medical personnel involved in stabilizing this woman- keeping her alive and healthy- going to call the cops on her? Is this more likely to happen at Bob Jones or in South Carolina than at U.C Berkeley or in California? And lastly could there be a mental affect- a fear of criminal proceedings- that could prevent either of these young women from seeking medical help, thus potentially risking extremely serious lasting complications or death?

Are we going to see a whole branch of the FBI dedicated to cyber-surveillance of purveyors and purchasers of the drugs that are used to induce miscarriages? Are we going to see sting operations to round up and arrest those staffing underground warehouses that ship these drugs to desperate women all over the country? are we going to see women spending years in jail for ordering these drugs on the internet?

These are the things I think about around Mother’s day. The never-ending war on the rights of women to decide if and when to have children. The tiers of pressure and coercion. The first tier is the soft coercion of the way girl-children are socialized. The dolls and the “playing mommy” and the toy kitchen, and the expectation of play-caretaking which is designed to lead to a life of caretaking, i.e unpaid work, in particular the unpaid work of motherhood. Incidentally, if my mother wanted me to produce grandchildren for her, the first mistake she made was basically allowing me to be a genderless feral child and do whatever the hell I wanted to do when I was very young. I didn’t have an inborn interest in playing at being “mommy”, I was never made to or even especially encouraged to play “mommy” and I never developed an interest in being “mommy”. I think these things are related. I don’t doubt that there are some children, and some people, who have a natural gravitation toward the role of being a parent. I also feel fairly sure that there are many many people who only become parents- and specifically women who only become mothers- because of a combination of early coercion in their socialization as children combined with enormous pressure to become mothers in their child-bearing years, all topped off with lack of availability and/or affordability of reproductive health care. Put it this way- the fact that I have a cat and I love her does not mean that I want to have a baby- (though I wouldn’t mind a possum. Or better yet, a baby sloth).

So why does the government want to force me to have a baby human being? It has occurred to me that there may be a simple answer: economics and demographics. Late capitalist economies require constant growth. Economic expansion is not possible without demographic expansion. You get demographic expansion in one of two ways: Babies, or immigration. In countries that are sour on immigration for any number of reasons (hewwo, Brexit, hewwo, Trump’s America), the attempt of legislators/pols/patriarchal stringpullers/old white guys to keep the old engine of capitalism chugging away and hopefully stave off fiscal disaster as the baby-boomers come into their long stretch of waning dependent years is to stimulate demographic growth by taking away women’s access to reproductive health care and forcing us to have children whether we want to or not. 

and we find ourselves full-circle, right back where we started, pre-womens movement, pre-suffrage, pre-enlightenment, pre-mass female literacy, pre-women in the professions… right back to the beginning of civilization where a woman is nothing but a uterus to be locked up, guarded, bought and sold and discarded if not in proper working order and so on and so on. This is the premise upon which all these efforts to pressure or force women to have children (and to groom little girls for motherhood) are based: the premise that for women, biology is destiny. You are not a human being. You are an object. An incubator/milk machine. A Uterus that will serve at the pleasure of state and patriarchy, which happens to exhibit some very human characteristics at times. The ideology is so pervasive (and so important a component of the algorithm of capitalism) that it even has girls and women pressuring each other, using the ancient instruments of ostracism and shame to coerce compliance. I feel grateful that I actually live in one of the least oppressive places in the world (reading this article today about the situation my sisters in Saudi Arabia find themselves in snapped things back into perspective), but I see the erosion of what’s been built up over centuries of progress and I regularly experience the toxic effects of continued patriarchal and capitalist control of society’s ideas about women’s autonomy and about the legitimacy-and legality- (or lack thereof) of the choice female-identified humans may make to not be mothers. We cannot afford to harbor any illusions about how very far from innocent and how dreadfully consequential the ideology of required motherhood is.

Back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the heavy existential shit. I intended to talk more about it, but then I started going on and on about all the other stuff. Luckily, it can be summed up briefly. It is tempting to have children because we human beings are the only animal (as far as we know) with an awareness of, and therefore an unshakeable fear of, our own mortality. We are going to die, and we know it, and this scares the shit out of us. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least create another person who looks a lot like us, who will still be alive after we die, who will remember our stories, pass on our legend? wouldn’t that be kind of like not dying? Better yet, if that person could make another person who might look kind of like us, who will be alive even longer… We do it all “for the children”, but hey, they were saying that back when I was a child! (As Norm Macdonald says on this topic in his new standup special, which is hilarious: “I recognize a Ponzi scheme when I see one”).

yup, the problem is having children doesn’t actually solve the human dilemma, which is awareness that we are going to die and ultimately, everything we do will disappear without a trace. Knowing that, how can we attribute meaning to anything we do in life? Having a child may make you too busy to think about it, at least for a couple decades, but it’s not going to make it go away. Having grandchildren is not going to make it go away, either. Personally, I’m hoping that reading and re-reading Epictetus and Lao Tzu and Yeats, for 80 years if I’m lucky, may help me to make a dent in this smooth hard wall of nothingness. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay, because none of it matters, anyway, and I’ve got this furry zen master curled up in my lap right now, showing me (again, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating) how to just fucking relax.

 

 

on style and being

“Chomsky remarks that when one speaks a language one knows a great deal that was never learned. The effort of criticism is to teach a language for what is never learned but comes as the gift of a language, is a poetry already written- an insight I derive from Shelley’s remark that every language is a relic of an abandoned cyclic poem.” –                       —- Harold Bloom

“I can’t worry about Masculinist geeks who don’t read books by women on principle, any more than I worry about lit-snob dweebs who don’t read genre literature on principle. I don’t write for bigots.”                                                                                                                           — Ursula K. LeGuin

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”                                                                                                              —Oscar Wilde

…nothing is absent. all you could know is here in front of you- everything is in the visible . elemental and ancestral knowledge are at the tip of your tongue, literally…

“In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world- in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”. It is to turn the world into “this world”. (“This world”! as if there were any other.)”                        — Susan Sontag

“In place of a Hermeneutics we need an Erotics of Art.” —Sontag

“Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us,  the soul assumes the form of the body.”                                                                                                             — Jean Cocteau

 

“Even if one were to define style as the manner of our appearing, this by no means necessarily entails an opposition between a style that one assumes and ones “true” being. In fact, such a disjunction is extremely rare. In almost every case our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face.”                                                                — Sontag

“In art, “content” is, as it were, the pretext, the goal, the lure which engages consciousness in essentially formal processes  of transformation.”                                            — Sontag

“The complex kind of willing that is embodied, and communicated, in a work of art both abolishes the world and encounters it in an extraordinary intense and specialized way. This double aspect of the will in art is succinctly expressed by Bayer when he says: “each work of art gives us the schematized, disengaged, a memory of a volition. Insofar as it is schematized, disengaged, a memory, the willing involved in art sets itself at a distance from the world. All of which hearkens back to Neitzsche’s famous statement in the birth of tragedy: “Art is not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it in  order to overcome it.”                                                                                                      —- Sontag

The idea that all great art is founded on distance on artificiality, on style, on what might be called “dehumanization”… But- the overcoming or transcending of the world in art is also a way of encountering the world and of training or educating the will to be in the world…

 

“Every style is a means of insisting on something.”          — Sontag

 

“In what language can impudence be spoken? A national language? Which one? A crossbreed language? How so?”                                                                                                   – Julia Kristeva in Colette

 

“Colette, who knew nothing of politics, dreamt only of revealing feminine jouissance. In fact, her alphabet of the world is an alphabet of feminine pleasure, subject to the pleasure of men but marked by an an incommensurable  difference from it. There is no emancipation of women without a liberation of women’s sexuality, which is fundamentally a bisexuality and a polyphonic sensuality: That is what Colette continually proclaims throughout her life and works, in a constant dialogue between what she calls “the pure” and “the impure”, describing herself from the outset as a ‘mental hermaphrodite’. ”  —Kristeva

 

“The formality of style is only an aspect of her participation in Being.”  -Kristeva, Colette

 

 

*Illustration by G.F Marlier

I Love Dick, Gravity and Grace, and self-negation/self-abasement as female mystical practice

This is an essay I have already posted elsewhere, but I’d like to have it up here as well, so for those who have already seen it, please excuse the repeat.

 

 

I love Dick is a stunning foray into the little-discussed mystical practice of ego-disintegration through relentless, unrequited love. Chris Kraus references and quotes Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace many times in the book- she also gave the title of that book to the film she is working on throughout the narrative- and I find this book to be indeed a brilliantly creative commentary on /extension of Weil’s thought. Kraus’ revelations of total humiliation, sexual exploitation, rejection, cruelty… The (common female) experience of being violated, erased, or both, simultaneously or in succession, of always being a plus-one, of being told implicitly or explicitly that one is not a “real intellectual”, that the work, if it includes or is built around a female first person perspective, is “narcissistic”, all are shards of shadow easily thrown from a Weil-ian prism.

Weil was a mystic of self-negation. Like Kraus (see Aliens and Anorexia), she had problems with eating all her life, preferring the power and authorship of self-denial to the physical fuel that is food. She was also a virgin and a person who voluntarily refused the range of earthly comforts in favor of ill-paid physical work. In other words, she placed the spiritual above the physical, and found a realm of autonomy there which she could not fully secure elsewhere.

Our culture tends to associate such self-denial in female-identified humans with weakness. We associate it with pathology, mental illness, self-loathing- with impressionable young women and girls effectively skewered on the male gaze.

We also seem to hold a collective erroneous assumption that women, and particularly young women, have no spiritual life to speak of seriously, or that those who do are somehow “not right”, “not properly female”.

Throughout history the denial of earthly nourishment has been a practice of yogis, gurus, monks and other spiritual seekers who seek to cultivate a state of transcendence, free of ego- who are trying, step-by-step to make it across the line to another, better, more true place. Incidentally, a place which exists outside of corporeality, and therefore outside of the biological sex that for most people for most of history, has spawned gendered life-scripts.

Taking away the mystical nature of women’s self-denial, of their self-exposure to elements that could destroy them, of their testing the limits of their own earthly bodies and in some cases insisting on being the authors of their own suffering and even of their own deaths, is yet another form of misogyny.

As for Dick…

Rumi was a Sufi mystic who sang the merits of doing the work of ego-dissolution in relationship. He says in his poem “Checkmate”-

“Those who make you return, for whatever reason, to God’s solitude, be grateful to them. Worry about the others who give you delicious comforts that keep you from prayer. Friends are enemies sometimes, and enemies friends.”

And

“If you can’t do this work yourself, don’t worry

You don’t even have to make a decision one way or another.

The Friend, who knows a lot more than you do,

Will bring difficulties, and grief, and sickness-

As medicine, as happiness,

As the essence of the moment when you’re beaten,

When you hear Checkmate, and can finally say

With Hallaj’s voice,

I trust you to kill me.”

 

The essential exchange here can be understood as one between two humans- a person and her “friend”, however, the “friend” in Rumi is also understood to be God- a divine intervention, and agent of ego-destruction that scours off the shell of human personality to reveal the divine presence in the one being broken down, allowing her to speak with the holy voice of Hallaj, to use this new voice in agreeing to her own destruction, which is actually, in effect, not a destruction at all but a transformation into something truer, more enlightened than what she was before.

 

In I love Dick, Dick seems most disturbed when he starts to suspect that this intelligent woman is using him not for sex (as others may be, like “Kayla”, the “Bimbo on the answering machine”), but as “the Friend”- as an ego-corrosive, as a vital male catalyst in a mystical and intellectual prostration.

What he, as intelligent as he is, has not been in any way prepared by his life and education to process, is that for her their relationship is so profoundly not about him and his dick, but about her and her enlightenment.

Chris says “let me be your lap dog” to Dick, thereby directing their sexual encounter to make herself lower- as low as she can be in relation to him. After all, we can only know our position in relation: She needs Dick because to be lower is to be lower than something or someone outside of oneself.

And somewhere Simone Weil intones:

“la pesanteur fait descendre, l’aile fait monter.:

quelle aile a la deuxieme puissance peut faire descendre sans pesanteur?”

(Gravity causes downward motion, a wing causes rising motion-

But what wing to the second power could cause a lowering without Gravity?)