LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE
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After many years of barely being able to publish in magazines at all, the women at Hot Wire, a magazine about music, asked me to write something about my identity as a writer. Thematically, this follows up on some of what I wrote in "Nervous Interview." With male writers, people want to know who they are. With women, stereotypes are simply applied. The invitation from Hot Wire gave me an exceptionally short chance to say something myself about my own identity and development.I live a strange life, but often the strangest thing about it is that I still love books and have faith in them and get courage from them as I did when I was young, hopeful, and innocent. The innocence was particularly about what it takes to endure as a writer--simply to survive, if one is rigorous, unsentimental, radical, extreme, and tells the truth. The books I loved when I was younger were by wild men: Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Allen Ginsberg among the living, Baudelaire, Whitman, the undecorous. I read Freud and Darwin as great visionaries, their work culled from the fantastic, complex imagination. My own values as a writer were set back then; and work by women (except for Gone with the Wind and the Nancy Drew books1) intruded much later. In eighth grade science class, my best girlfriend and I (lovers too) were both writing novels as antidote to the boredom of learning by rote--and these novels had women as heroes who had great ambitions. They were named after Belle Starr and Amelia Earhart: strange names, women who were not usual, not grounded, not boring.
I have never wanted to be less than a great writer; and I have never been afraid of failing, the reason being that I would rather fail at that than succeed at anything else. This ambition is deeply rooted in male identification: and many of the characteristics that I value most in myself as a person and as a writer are. When young, I never thought about being homosexual or bisexual or heterosexual: only about being like Rimbaud. Artiste in the soon-to-be-dead mode was my sexual orientation, my gender identity, the most intense way of living: dying early the inevitable end of doing everything with absolute passion. I was devoted to Sappho, her existence obscuring the gender specificity of my true devotion. When I read books, I was the writer, not the Lady. I was incorrigible: no matter what happened to me, no matter what price I paid for being in this woman's body, for being used like a woman, treated like a woman, I was the writer, not the Lady. Sexual annihilation, not esthetic burn-out with a magnificent literature left behind, was the real dead-end for women too dense to comprehend.
Feminism provided a way for me to understand my own life: why being free was not just a matter of living without self-imposed or social or sexual limits. My so-called freedom on many occasions nearly cost me my life, but there was neither tragedy nor romance in this: neither Dostoevsky nor Rimbaud had ever ended up being sexually used and cleaning toilets.
Sexual Politics was about the writing and sex I had adored; with big doses of lesbianism too. I learned from this book what they were doing to me: see, said Millett, here he does this and this and this to her. I wasn't the writer, after all. I was the her. I had plenty of open wounds on my body, and I began to feel them hurt. Had I been the user, not the used, my sensitivity probably would have approximated Henry Miller's. This is not pleasant to face; so I don't. Someday I must.
I have learned tremendously from women writers as an adult; I have learned that great writing from women is genuinely--not romantically--despised, and that the books are written out of an open vein; I have learned about women's lives. My ambitions as a writer still go back, too far, into my obsessions with the men; but what I learned from them, I need every day of my writing life--I am not afraid of confrontation or risk, also not of arrogance or error--I am happy not to even be able to follow the rules of polite discourse, because I learned to hate them so early--I love what is raw and eloquent in writing but not feminine. I have learned to appreciate the great subtlety and strength of women who write within the boundaries of a feminine writing ethic: but I do not accept it for myself.
What I affirm here is that while I did not learn writing from women, I have learned virtually everything important about what it means to be a woman from women writers: and I have also learned much about male power from them, once I cared enough about women as such to realize that male power was the theme my own life had led me to. I know male power inside out, with knowledge of it gained by this female body. I dare to confront it in my writing because of the audacity I learned from male writers. I learned to confront it in life from living feminists, writers and activists both, who lived political lives not bounded by either female frailty or male ruthlessness; instead animated by the luminous self-respect and militant compassion I still hope to achieve.
"Loving Books: Male/Female/Feminist," first published in Hot Wire, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserve
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