"Make obscurity the point of departure in judging what men call clarity."
I generally shy away from chromosomal aesthetics, or notions of art-making, creativity, or intelligence rooted in biology. When 1 first read this interview, I made the following note: "audacity... boldness... staking claims... instead, the leaf that sticks to me like a separate skin and a skin that is kin, my skin and not my skin... this madness of literature... to let the madness in rather than skirt or avoid or tamp it down. But what is the nature of this madness over and against the madness of our age?" I include this cryptic jotting in my response because I believe Duras would want me to--to allow for an opacity, even of oneself to oneself; to trust the unformed urging of thought into a language whose origins are as ungraspable as its ends. I suppose I am saying that if I'm to engage Duras where she asks me to meet her that might require allowing myself into my own silences. "Do you feel you have a special intelligence that emanates from your biology?" Susan Husserl-Kapit asks Duras. If I merely bristle at the question, I miss the chance that the silence of language affords, for isn't it the case that "intelligence" and its cognate subject "intellectual," mean something different in French than in English, something different in France than in the United States? Perhaps what Duras' interview stands to offer us today is the chance for American women and men to learn a new language, in many senses of the word, to become more worldly in our sensibilities (around gender and so many other things), but this would require a sort of opening to silence that is easier said than done.
I appreciate the force with which Duras asserts women's intelligence as an untapped resource, and I'm not sure if reading Duras just now has made me more acutely aware of the many young women in my life who, in various ways, are successfully tapping their intelligence, or if I am just generally more on the lookout for "acts of sudden grace" as antidote to the nihilistic newsfeeds and related violations of consciousness that dominate our current moment. As a writer who teaches at a public university, I enjoy the privilege of being made hopeful by the new generations of men and women that I work with. The assertion of a masculinist power commensurate with a kind of subzero intelligence in the White House presumes to color our age, but I have noticed a new sweetness and tenderness in the way that some young men comport themselves these days. Some initiate a habit of shaking my hand after I have held an office hour with them, and I find such contact--the desire implicit in it, as well as the respect that it signals--touching. But the "intelligence" I encounter in my women students and in the children of my friends is even more striking. I can think in an instant of three such twenty-year-olds: A. has an emotional intelligence and candor that no descriptors adequately capture. When I am with her, I feel in the presence of a spiritual leader and poet-to-be. She has the makings of both. I also wonder what man could possibly be up to her Beauty of mind. Her mother died recently, and I feel myself wanting to look out for and after her as her mother did for me--though her mother and I were peers. Perhaps she will know many men and many women, and my projecting a single mate, and a hetero-normative one at that, exposes my own stupidity in her midst.
N. started her own thriving business when she was just a teenager, and now, at twenty is majoring in "Conflict Resolution" studies at a small college that offers such. She has been taking a class in feminist philosophy taught by a male instructor who regularly makes sexist remarks. While he thinks she is busily taking notes with the doggedness of a devotee, she really has been recording his words verbatim toward the feminist article she aims to write at semester's end.
G. just wrote with exquisite self-assuredness and disarming self-regard an essay about coming into lesbianism even if the people in her world only half-hear her. There will be no torturous wringing of hands for her, no self-loathing, but the intelligence of a self-love propelled by self-inquiry.
"Make darkness the point of departure in judging what men call light. "
The great self-forgetting that art-making entails isn't a forgetting at all according to Duras but a return to, perhaps a remembering of, herself as woman. Men, on the other hand, are incapable of self-forgetting. Having "lost sight of themselves," they are incapable of accessing the light: "The silence in women is such that anything that falls into it has an enormous reverberation. Whereas in men, this silence no longer exists."
While I was reading the interview between Susan Husserl-Kapit and Marguerite Duras, a memory that I would classify as a "variety of disturbance" (that's Lydia Davis' phrase) came back to me in full force. I am not sure if a genre of self-forgetting allowed the memory through; nor do I think it bespeaks the darkness that women have access to and from which a female-driven art must spring according to Duras. I can only admit of how surprised, how confounded, I was by its sudden intrusion into consciousness. I have never written about this. I have never confided it to my partner, nor to my therapist. And I don't know if it is Duras who brings the memory out of the rushes, or a combination of this reading and the horrific incivilities of the moment in which we are living. So many fresh instances present themselves daily, it's hard to choose one to exemplify my point: as I was riding the Northeast Regional from New York to Providence this week, I witnessed a large, lumbering male passenger yelling at the woman selling food at the snack bar: "You're a fucking asshole, ya fucking ball buster!" The rest of us apologized to her for him, and I had that experience I always do when confronted with male violence, even at a raised male voice: I literally felt my genitals contract as if in defense against rape. The day before this--are all men currently confiding to one another?--my brother asked me if there is a female equivalent to the phrase "ball buster"--if a woman is experiencing excruciation at the hands of another, is there a phrase for that, he wants to know.
In May '68, the month of the famous unrests that shook a country and that marked a newly emboldened political shift in Duras' work, I was eight years old; in October of that year, I was attending the third grade at a Catholic elementary school in our working class neighborhood, Blessed Virgin Mary. One day a boy got up in the middle of class, and sang a bizarrely obscene song that went: "My woman works from 8 till 4, she uses her pussy to sweep the floor."
I don't remember the boy's name, only that there were "k" sounds attached to it: Kenny? Kyle? His face was always deeply flushed beneath a blond mop of mussed hair; his lips were also very red, his teeth, large and gapped. His shirttails perpetually refused tucking, and when he sang this song, he performed a little dance in accompaniment to its rhythms, snapping his fingers, and upturning his elbows, in a slight off-rhyme with his hips, from side to side to side. He pronounced "floor," "flawh," and "four," "fawh" end-stopping the words at the back of his throat. In my mind's eye, he didn't stand at his desk for this, or to one side of an aisle. His entire body filled the center of the room. The lesson Kyle-Kenny was teaching us that day, the knowledge he was imparting, the imitation he was imprinting, the hysteric he was becoming bespeaks a kind of echoless cave. Though I am forced to list the effects of his song sequentially, the difficulty for the children we both were when he sang it, and the adult I am now, trying to understand it, is the sheer variety of its disturbance, the simultaneity of its multiple confusions.
First, there was the mise en scene of his having suffered. This, I knew and understood implicitly as an 8 year old. He was dramatizing a scene from his own suffering. I imagined someone beat him with a stick. I pictured someone having "taught" him this, and how horrible a person that figure, his father (?), must be. I was above him--pitying him, not-him, able to "view" him from afar--and simultaneously beneath him, stung, wounded by him, altered irreparably, stunned into silence. There was the hideousness of the image of woman-as-broom; the incomprehension of the word, "pussy" (was it the same as the "Pussy in the Well" in the song my grandfather had taught me?). Somehow I already knew what "it" was--the part of my mother's body from which the babies emerged? Was there such a part to be found in me? But sweeping invoked bristles, and bristles, hair, and I had no way in the first place to imagine my mother's vagina, and then, as the metaphor required, conflate it with hair. The hair on Kyle-Kenny's head was mop-like. Can I forgive myself the metaphor? Could a. woman become a broom (1 had images from The Sorcerer's Apprentice at my disposal, where the brooms go wild with a life of their own), or was someone handling her as if she were a broom, swishing the floor with her?
If the goal of metaphor is to make something otherwise fragmented, consummate, here was an altogether different effect: the power of metaphor to pierce or to wound. It's safe to say I never got the image out of my head, nor the rhythm, but that is for another essay. Suffice to say, that I remain, with Osip Mandelstam, uncertain of the difference between auditory hallucinations and the voice in my head from which a poem issues. The difference between those, and the obsessional voices I suffered as a young adult, like an internalized Tourette's, my inner life was punctuated--more like, plagued--daily by invective and obscenity that made me feel both monstrous and beset.
Eventually, and not too long after this, Kyle-Kenny disappeared from the school. Where did he go? What became of his intelligence? And have I really recovered the song word for word for word? I am certain of the closing line, but not of the opening phrase. The rhythm is off. It wasn't "My woman." Maybe "my old lady..." Or "my bitch." "The bitch, she worked from..." Or "mother." Had he said, "Mamma?"
Each of these options is worse than the one before; substitutable, and yet carrying a separate meaning, indicative of the endless variations on a theme of misogyny that plague us still. If I leave the memory feeling that I've still not quite recovered its opening reference point--what WAS the word he used for "woman"?--this might just be a sign of my wishing, like Duras, to leave it blank, and thereby make way for the "woman" who could not conceivably take up residence in that song. The pity is in our imagining such a thing as "gender" in the first place; like this dark episode, it's an instance of imagination minus intelligence. Now more than ever, it's an intelligence we cannot afford to be without.
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|Title Annotation:||Marguerite Duras|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
|Previous Article:||An Interview with Marguerite Duras.|
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