LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE
Copyright © 1988, 1993 by Andrea Dworkin.
I used to work as an assistant to the late poet Muriel Rukeyser. I typed okay, but I was no respecter of margins and I didn't like using capital letters, so I wasn't too useful in preparing business letters. I couldn't file because I could never understand why something should be under one heading and not under another, equally apt in my view. When I went to deliver packages, usually manuscripts, for Muriel, or to pick them up, I usually got into a political fight, or ardent discussion, with whoever answered the door. When I went to the library to do research for her, I would get all the material on her chosen subject, survey it all, decide it was too boring and she couldn't have had this in mind at all, and go back with nothing. I was the worst assistant in the history of the world. But Muriel kept me on because she believed in me as a writer. No matter how much I fucked up, I had a job, a little change in my pocket, a warm place to go, lunch and dinner, for as long as I could stand it. She had already decided to stand it: she believed in doing whatever was necessary to keep a writer of talent (in her estimation) going. I don't think she ever would have fired me. She had made great sacrifices in her life for both politics and writing, but none, I suspect, had quite the comic quality of her insistent support for me. Out of mercy (and guilt), I eventually quit.
Muriel gave me my first book party, to celebrate the publication of Woman Hating; and I thought that was it--I was a writer (sort of like being an archangel) forever. Everything she had tried to tell me was lost on me. She had tried to make me understand that, for a writer, endurance mattered more than anything--not talent, not luck; endurance. One had to keep writing, not to make a brilliant or distinguished or gorgeous first try, but to keep going, to last over hard time. Endurance, she would say, was the difference between writers who mattered and writers who didn't. She had had rough years. I hope someday her story will be told. It is a heroic story. She knew the cost of keeping at writing in the face of poverty, ostracism, and especially trivialization. She knew how much worse it was to be a woman. She knew that one had to survive many desolations and injuries--one would be both bloodied and bowed; but one had to keep writing anyway--through it, despite it, because of it, around it, in it, under it goddam. I was twenty-six, twenty-seven. I had been through a lot in life, but in writing I was an innocent, a kind of ecstatic idiot. For me, writing was pure, magic, the essence of both integrity and power, uncorrupted by anything mean or mundane. Books were luminous, sacred. Writers were heroes of conscience, intensity, sincerity. I had no idea what it meant to endure over time. I had no idea how hard it was to do.
Now, at forty-one, the truth is that I am still a fool for writing. I love it. I believe in it. I do know now how hard it is to keep going. It is perhaps understatement to say that I have never been a prudent writer. In a sense, I am more reckless now than when I started out because I know what everything costs and it doesn't matter. I have paid a lot to write what I believe to be true. On one level, I suffer terribly from the disdain that much of my work has met. On another, deeper level, I don't give a fuck. It is this indifference to pain--which is real--that enables one to keep going. One develops a warrior's discipline or one stops. Pain becomes irrelevant. Being a writer isn't easy or even very civilized. It is not a bourgeois indulgence. It is not a natural outcome of good manners mixed with intelligence and filtered through language. It is primitive and it is passionate. Writers get underneath the agreed-on amenities, the lies a society depends on to maintain the status quo, by becoming ruthless, pursuing the truth in the face of intimidation, not by being compliant or solicitous. No society likes it and no society says thank you. We think that contemporary western democracies are different but we are wrong. The society will mobilize to destroy the writer who opposes or threatens its favorite cruelties: in this case, the dominance of men over women. I have been asked a lot, by interviewers and by women I meet when I travel to speak, what courage is, or how to be courageous. Often, I think that courage is a kind of stupidity, an incapacity, a terrifying insensitivity to pain and fear. Writers need this kind of courage. The macho men romanticize it. I think it is a partial death of the soul.
These are essays and speeches, an occasional interview or book review, written from 1976 to 1987. l wrote them to communicate and to survive: as a writer and as a woman; for me, the two are one. I wrote them because I care about fairness and justice for women. I wrote them because I believe in bearing witness, and I have seen a lot. I wrote them because people are being hurt and the injury has to stop. I wrote them because I believe in writing, in its power to right wrongs, to change how people see and think, to change how and what people know, to change how and why people act. I wrote them out of the conviction, Quaker in its origin, that one must speak truth to power. This is the basic premise for all my work as a feminist: activism or writing. I wrote these pieces because I believe that women must wage a war against silence: against socially coerced silence; against politically preordained silence; against economically choreographed silence; against the silence created by the pain and despair of sexual abuse and second-class status. And I wrote these essays, gave these speeches, because I believe in people: that we can disavow cruelty and embrace the simple compassion of social equality. I don't know why I believe these things; only that I do believe them and act on them.
Every piece in this book is part of my own war against the silence of women. Only four pieces were published in mainstream magazines with decent, not wonderful, circulations: three were published in Ms., the last one in 1983, and one was published in Mother Jones a decade ago. Most of the essays and speeches were published in tiny, ephemeral newspapers, most of which are no longer publishing. Three of these pieces were eventually published in the widely distributed anthology Take Back the Night. Seven of these pieces have never been published at all; four have been published in English but have never been published in the United States; one, "Letter from a War Zone", has been published in German and in Norwegian but never in English; and two (one on "Wuthering Heights" and one on "Voyage in the Dark") were written for this collection. None of these pieces, despite repeated efforts over years, were published in The Nation, The New Republic, The Progressive, The Village Voice, Inquiry, left-liberal periodicals that pretend to be freewheeling forums for radical debate and all of which have published vicious articles with nasty, purposeful misrepresentations of what I believe or advocate. Some of my pieces were written in the aftermath of such attacks--most were written in the social environment created by them--but I have never been given any right of response. And none of these pieces, despite repeated efforts over years, have been published in the magazines that presume to intellectual independence: for instance, The Atlantic or Harper's. And I have never been able to publish anything on the op-ed page of The New York Times, even though I have been attacked by name and my politics and my work have been denounced editorially so many times over the last decade that I am dizzy from it. And I have never been able to publish in, say, Esquire or Vogue, two magazines that publish essays on political issues, including pornography, and also pay writers real money. I have been able to travel in the United States and Canada to speak. If the work in this book has had any influence, that is the main reason.
These essays and speeches present a political point of view, an analysis, information, arguments, that are censored out of the Amerikan press by the Amerikan press to protect the pornographers and to punish me for getting way out of line. I am, of course, a politically dissident writer but by virtue of gender I am a second-class politically dissident writer. That means that I can be erased, maligned, ridiculed in violent and abusive language, and kept from speaking in my own voice by people pretending to stand for freedom of speech. It also means that every misogynist stereotype can be invoked to justify the exclusion, the financial punishment, the contempt, the forced exile from published debate. The fact is that these essays and speeches speak for and to vast numbers of women condemned to silence by this same misogyny, this same sadistic self-righteousness, this same callous disregard for human rights and human dignity. I do know, of course, that I am not supposed to keep on writing. One is supposed to disappear as a writer. I have not. I hope that I will not. I know that some other people share the same hope; and I take this opportunity to thank them for the help they have given me over this decade of trying--as I said earlier--to communicate and to survive, as a writer and as a woman; the two are one for me.
Copyright © 1988, 1993 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.
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