The Lost Civilization of Women

Image source (Rome)

The scales have tipped. The glass is overflowing. I’m not sure when the drop that caused the overflow happened, but it feels different now, the fact of women’s writing, women’s words in the world. As a child, a teenager in school, I felt the general tokenization of women. I received by osmosis (from textbooks, from teachers), the sense that “women writers” needed to be included in curricula to fill a quota, but that they weren’t quite as good as the writers that didn’t require a modifier (male writers).

Then, when trying to write, learning to write, there was the sense, also transmitted by teachers, anthologies, peers, that I should try to write to fit in with the men, to impress the men in the room, in the canon, at the publishers. Gradually, this fueled a rebellion and I wanted to read only women, discover women’s writing that wasn’t anthologized or talked about in institutions, and write like a woman (whatever that means, if anything). But this felt like a kind of isolation, marginalization in my reading and writing life. [The usual disclaimer: I’m writing from a mostly English-language, mostly American perspective…]

But the chauvinism isn’t a given now. The rejection of it is palpable! Women writers are becoming just writers, no modifier required. Joan Didion is the aspiration, not Norman Mailer. Women, who comprise the majority of fiction readers, now number among the critics. So many more varied women’s voices are being published, on a large scale, by major publishers, from mass market to literary. That’s not to say there’s still not a way to go, of course. This is the beginning and it feels great.

What’s struck me recently is that not only are new voices being published, but women writers from the past are being resurrected and appreciated. In the U.S., Eve Babitz, Lucia Berlin, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Hardwick, Penelope Fitzgerald, Renata Adler have all had a recent renaissance as major literary figures of the 20th century. (Parul Sehgal of the New York Times wrote an interesting piece about this phenomenon and paying attention to what caused the vanishing in the first place.) Not only was Zora Neale Hurston’s book on a former slave published in 2018, 90 years after it was written, it got a surprising amount of ink when it did (, NPR, The Huffington Post, The New Yorker, The Daily Mail!).

I took this in Arco, Italy. This fresco was inside the ruins of a medieval castle. I loved that it depicted, of all things (and after seeing so many sad Christs and saints and naked goddesses), clothed ladies playing a dice game and having fun in the 1300s.

I’ve been thinking of all of the Modernist women I skipped over in my education, whose work I still haven’t read. I was reading T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound hungrily, but skipped over Mina Loy, H.D. I didn’t know about Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, who were there all along, drinking and smoking with the dudes, and writing, too.

As someone with an interest but no particular expertise on visual art, I’ve been peripherally aware of a similar tendency in that realm, as well. I was delighted by Peter Schjeldahl decrying the title “Woman Impressionist” of the big 2018 Berthe Morisot show at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (“a great artist who is not so much underrated in standard art history as not rated at all”). There was the recent astounding Hilma Af Klint show at the Guggenheim. She was painting abstract forms in the early 20th century on her own, as part of a spiritual search, long before Kandinsky, and didn’t want to be shown in her time for fear of being misunderstood. There was Yayoi Kusama’s triumphant, late-career world domination, beginning with the blockbuster show at the Hirshhorn in 2017. A big Frida Kahlo show now at the Brooklyn Museum. Joan Mitchell’s work setting auction records. (I’d never heard of her before last year, but of course had heard of de Kooning and Pollock.) I’ve seen lots of Artemisia Gentileschi’s images pop up all over the Internet. Hopefully the art history books are being rewritten. These people, their work, have been there the whole time.

I don’t have the same evidence, but a sense or hope that this transformation–the recognition of women who were there all along, making history and culture–is happening in other areas, too, ones that I track less, like comedy, film, food, and science.

This resurrection of women from the past makes me think of an ancient civilization that’s discovered beneath the living city. It was there all along. We are excavating, removing the layers of dirt that was dumped on women’s work. We’re carefully lifting it up, dusting it, examining it, valuing it, attempting to connect it to other fragments. We’re realizing, too, what’s been lost and can’t be recovered.

Evidence of this past civilization goes even further back. I don’t know why we’ve assumed it was only men drafting illuminated manuscripts, sculpting goddess figures, painting on cave walls, but we do, I do. We need scientific proof that it was possible women were doing these things, otherwise we don’t believe it, can’t picture it. I saw several articles making the rounds recently about flecks of blue lapis lazuli being found in the teeth of a 1,000 skull of a nun in a German monastery. It’s evidence that women, too, created beautiful illuminated manuscripts. There’s scientific proof that most cave paintings were done by women. And there’s the theory that “the first images
of the human figure [fertility goddesses] were made from the point of view of self rather than other” and “Paleolithic ‘Venus’ figurines represent ordinary women’s views of their own bodies.”

Image source

The uncovering of women’s part in our civilization and culture isn’t a physical discovering. It’s been there all along. We covered it up and made ourselves blind to it. We have to remove the layers of dirt from history books, museums, our own minds and consciousness…

The world loved the delusion more than it loved the mother

Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children. we didn’t really know what to do with her, this fierce, independent young woman who followed us about, shouting and pointing the finger while we wheeled our buggies in the English rain…

Mother was The Woman the whole world had imagined to death. It proved very hard to re-negotiate the world’s nostalgic phantasy about our purpose in life. The trouble was that we too had all sorts of wild imaginings about what Mother should “be” and were cursed with the desire to not be disappointing. We did not yet entirely understand that Mother, as imagined and politicised by the societal system, was a delusion. The world loved the delusion more than it loved the mother. All the same, we felt guilty about unveiling this delusion in case the niche we had made for ourselves and our much-loved children collapsed in ruins around our muddy trainers – which were probably sewn together by child slaves in sweatshops all over the globe. It was mysterious because it seemed to me that the male world and its political arrangements (never in favour of children and women) was actually jealous of the passion we felt for our babies. Like everything that involves love, our children made us happy beyond measure –and unhappy too– but never as miserable as the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy made us feel. It required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled – we were to be Strong Modern Women whilst being subjected to all kinds of humiliations, both economic and domestic. If we felt guilty about everything most of the time, we were not sure what it was we had actually done wrong.

Deborah Levy, from Things I Don’t Want to Know

Long answer to “you’re a writer, aren’t you?”

When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry (or a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the societal system in the first place. She will have to be canny how she sets about doing this because she will have many delusions of her own. In fact it would be best fi she was uncanny when she sets about doing this. It’s exhausting to learn how to become a subject, it’s hard enough learning how to become a writer.

the brilliant Deborah Levy, from Things I Don’t Want to Know

Woolf anticipates the Bechdel test

She puts her fine finger on the issue here, analyzing a recently published book written by a woman:

“ ‘Chloe liked Olivia,’ I read. And then it struck me how immense a change was there. Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so! As it is, I thought …the whole thing is simplified, conventionalized, if one dared say it, absurdly. Cleopatra’s only feeling about Octavia is one of jealousy. Is she taller than I am? How does she do her hair? The play, perhaps, required no more. But how interesting it would have been if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated. All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted. And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends … They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies. They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that; and how little can a man know even of that when he observes it through the black or rosy spectacles which sex puts upon his nose. Hence, perhaps, the peculiar nature of woman in fiction; the astonishing extremes of her beauty and horror; her alternations between heavenly goodness and hellish depravity – for so a lover would see her as his love rose or sank, was prosperous or unhappy.” 

-Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Books read in 2012, Part II

In 2012, I read 27 books. Here are numbers 11-18 in the order most to least inspiration, pleasure, ideas and word-love derived from.

(11) Are You My Mother? (2012) – Alison Bechdel

I don’t think this should be read without first reading Bechdel’s other graphic novel/memoir, Fun Home. I would call this a companion read. She frequently states that it’s a book about her mother, but it’s really a book about her relationship with her imagemother and coming to terms with her feelings about her mother in psychotherapy. I could see how its “meta-book” quality (she talks about the process of writing the book in the book) and its focus on her therapy (many pages are panels of conversations with her therapists) would not appeal to everyone, but I felt very open to it & interested in it. She touches on a lot of my own interests – the theories of Dinald Winicott, the life of Virginia Woolf, the psychoanalytic process. Bechdel’s persona, a curious, creative, insecure, unrelentingly honest artist and memoirist is also highly sympathetic.

(12) and (13) The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5, 1947-1955 (1974)

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 6, 1955-1966 (1976)

I worked my way through Volumes 1-6 of the Diary of Anais Nin this year, which I found to be lyrical, compelling, idea-inspiring. Like friendship. The later volumes aren’t as full of events, emotional upheavals and insights. Volume 6, for example, is padded out with her correspondence with writers in prison, which I started to skim through.

(14) Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – Philip Roth


Roth was quite brilliant for choosing the psychotherapeutic rant as his form – it allowsfor unlimited quantities of narcissism and the most intimate, embarrassing & shockingly honest admissions. As a reader, you can’t say you didn’t know what you were in for. I liked that Portnoy had some insight, being in his 30s, I was afraid it would all be from the blind-and-horny-young-man point of view. Rich, rhythmic language, like a meaty stew. Daring use of exclamation marks. I was needing to read something risk-taking & this hit the spot.

The funniest part to me was his description of his shiksa girlfriend’s Midwest home, Portnoy’s surprise & delight at the normalcy of it. Again, my only quibble was with the ending – attempted rape of a woman who looks like his mother, in Israel, was not only super heavy-handed in the psychoanalytic sense, but also fully disconnected me from Portnoy, whom I had sort of gotten to like for his honesty & lustiness. I left the book with a feeling of distaste, violence.

(15) Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) – Ben Lerner

imageYoung American poet in Madrid. Some say this is thinly disguised autobiography – I found myself actually not being that curious either way, which is not always the case. I really liked the internal quality of the novel, the absolute subjectivity. You get the feeling that the people the narrator interacts with actually like him better and think he’s smarter, more interesting & socially adjusted than he gives himself credit for (doesn’t help that he’s high & paranoid most of the time). I also loved the way he described the fog of living in a country where you halfway speak the language, how you have multiple interpretations for what someone could be saying to you, and how all of those versions might be wrong. My only quibble was with the ending, it’s all tied up into a neat bow, not sure what we as readers are intended to be left with. (I passed it along to a friend, not a keeper on the shelf, but worth passing along.)

(16) How to Be a Woman (2012) – Caitlin Moran

Extremely funny, bawdy, straight-talking in a most English way. Timagehoroughly enjoyable if you disregard her lofty claims for the book. Namely, that it’s a sorely needed feminist treatise on pop culture & the everyday conundrums of femininity (such as what to wear). Especially if Lady Gaga is the absolute height of feminist achievement (as she claims, ugh). There’s in fact extensive writing & thinking on this stuff all over the internet (though maybe not written by someone of her generation).

However, she is quite lovable. The chapter on breasts and what to call them, for example, is hilarious. I am also 100% with her thinking on the wedding-industrial complex.

(17) Tete-a-Tete (2005)- Hazel Rowley

imageFascinating account of the lifelong relationship between Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre, spanning their complicated private lives, literary works and the great wave of the 20th centruy. This was my second read, otherwise would be higher on the list – my first read transformed my perspective for a while.

18) Freedom (2011) – Jonathan Franzen

Positive stuff

image-Absolutely absorbing. He plants information masterfully, weaves the story in a way that keeps you reading (from the first sentence you know there’s a downfall to come). Franzen sticks to his mantra of being a friend to the reader – a feat to create a literary page-turner.

-Ambitious in its reach. A successful, rich depiction of the present time in the USA and also a family saga. I was wowed by the scope of subjects he covers & the level of detail.

Negative stuff (spoiler alert)

-It unravels in the last 150 pages or so & that put me off the book as a whole. Endings are so hard!!

First, because it becomes completely ranty & you start to feel the voice author grousing through his characters (see a 3-page dialogue involving a fight between neighbors about keeping cats inside in order to spare birds in the wild). As much as I am sympathetic to urgent environmental matters it started to feel like a lecture & pulled me away from the narrative. Second, the characters and scenarios become too much to swallow: a college kid buying army supplies in Paraguay with minimal Spanish for Iraqi contractors; a young woman (Connie character) whose only ambition from age 12 is to be with this guy – no more depth to her than that (think how much young women change between ages 12-23); the death of Lalitha seemed like a conventional plot twist, etc.

-Walnut Surprise is a terrible name for a blues-country, dark-horse hit band.

-While I appreciate the gesture of creating a happy ending for all (including all of Patty’s dysfunctional family), that again felt a bit forced .

-As with The Corrections, his overall vision of the human heart, human motivations as revealed in the novel made me uncomfortable. A major theme was competition, that competitiveness drives every relationship. It was interesting to look at the world this way while I read the book (including assessing my own relationships), but ultimately it’s not a reduction I want to live by.

We do not forgive a woman aging

There is a difference in the aging of men and women which I hope one day we can eradicate. The aging of a man is accepted. He can age nobly like a prehistoric statue, he can age like a bronze statue, acquire a patina, can have character and quality. We do not forgive a woman aging. We demand that her beauty never change. The charming, beautiful women I have known, is it because their aging is frowned upon that they do not age nobly?

Italian women age nobly, Mexican women. The culture accepts it. They cease to wear dresses which clash with their bodies and faces. The charm of voice, laughter, the animation remain, but because we have associated femininity with silk, satin, lace, flower, veil, a woman is not allowed to acquire the beauty of a stone piece. […] a real housewivespassing into stone and leather, as if to acquire a statue’s quality. The slightest wilting is tragic in women because we make it so. A woman’s skin has to rival the flower, her hair has to retain its buoyancy, aging does not constitute a new kind of beauty, hierarchic, gothic, classical. She can only seem incongruous, condemned, doomed among the silks and the flowers and the perfumes and the chiffon nightgowns, the white negligées. Why can she not efface her rivalries behind black gowns as the Greek women, as the Japanese women do? It is the rivalry among the elements we associate with women which prevents the transition to some other kind of beauty. Caresse Crosby gave me a shock when she appeared in a bright deep red dress, a buoyant dress, frou-frou, walking lightly on very high heels, but then her face appeared like a ruined mural, eroded with time. The powder and the lipstick did not adhere to its dryness but seemed about to crumble off. The sadness was that not all of Caresse aged simultaneously; her voice and laughter were younger […]

The sadness was that the aging of woman is like crushed satin, wilted flowers, while that of man is more like that of architecture, as if the old belief that we love men for libertytheir character and women for the dewy, ephemeral quality we call beauty were still enforced.

The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume 6, 1955-1966

This was written in 1956, but the circumstances are worse today, I think. Also, “ruined mural” is such a startling moment, fantastic image to evoke caked-on make-up, red lipstick on wrinkled lips.

Life among the oatmeal people

Phyllis, our neighbor on the left, daughter of a Swedish farmer, left her three children with me Sunday so that she could see the horse show with her husband. The baby is only a few months old, so I changed ten diapers and fed him two bottles. And everyone was laughing to see me in that role! […] Complete cycle of human experience!

I have now known community living. But I am still convinced that these people who are so proud of giving birth and raising three children are giving less to the world than Beethoven, or Paul Klee, or Proust. It is their conviction of their virtuousness which distresses me. I would like to see fewer children and more beauty around them, fewer children and more educated ones, fewer children and more food for all, more hope and less war. I was not proud at all of having helped three children with faces like puddings or oatmeal to live through a Sunday afternoon. I would have felt prouder if I had written a quartet to delight many generations.

These years in the Sierra Madre, with relationships based entirely on human fraternity, proved to me that simple human life as laid out by uncreative human beings is impossible for creative people because it is narrow, monotonous and not deeply nourishing. Kindness, peace, routine, are not enough. I get desperately restless.

The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume 6, 1955-1966

For a while we were casting a lot of drag queens in our movies because the real girls we knew couldn’t seem to get excited about anything, and the drag queens could get excited about anything. But lately the girls seem to be getting their energy back, so we’ve been using real ones a lot again.

Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol