Laws and traditions are not overthrown by a logistical performance, however good. It takes dynamite of one sort or another.
—HENRY MILLER, LETTER TO SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD WILLIAM BECKER, JULY 18, 1966
IT IS NO SECRET that a great deal of rhetorical rubbish has been written on the subject of Henry Miller, sexist. My conviction is that it has done little good either to the understanding of Henry Miller or toward the destruction of sexism.
Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics and other important books, is not the main offender here. She, in fact, acknowledges Henry as a surrealist, an essayist, and an autobiographer, and many of her own fictions and nonfictions owe something to his unmethodical methods.
It is Millett’s journalistic popularizers, particularly in England and to a lesser extent in the United States, who do both her and Henry an injustice in setting the terms of their opposition so grossly. Kate Millett is too much the artist not to understand that Henry Miller is more than just a misogynist. But her Sexual Politics, which, like Henry’s Tropics, more people discussed than actually read, left an indelible mark on Miller criticism.
Millett makes a brilliant case for Henry Miller’s autobiographical protagonist as a textbook study of patriarchal attitudes, but she fails to go farther, to explore the source of those attitudes, namely the male terror and envy of female power. (To be fair, this is not the province of her book.) Millett is out to prove that Miller is not “liberated” but that he is enslaved—and surely she is right in this. “Miller,” she says, “is a compendium of American sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions, but in having had the honesty to express and dramatize them.” Right again. “What Miller did articulate was the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality. And women too; for somehow it is women upon whom this onerous burden of sexuality falls.”
Millett’s analysis remains illuminating. But only its grossest elements have entered the debate about Miller. How can we use Henry’s work to understand the roots of sexism and thereby eradicate them? How can we fight sexism without burning books? Some feminist zealots have damaged the movement for equality between the sexes by means of an oversimplification of analysis: all men are brutes and all women must be gay to be free. Zealotry is the enemy here, not feminism; and zealotry always fuels backlash.
In the last few years, we have been faced with a massive backlash against women’s equality before even half the wrongs against women have been righted. Perhaps backlash is inevitable against all movements, and surely women’s movements have characteristically ebbed and flowed, but dare we attempt constructive criticism of our own movement? Dare we look at the ways we may have aided the backlash with our own intransigence? Now, with a welcome third wave of feminism approaching, can we be honest enough to acknowledge that women are full of diversity and contradiction? Women, like men, come in all flavors—gay, straight, and indifferent. Women, to be free, must embrace diversity, not conformity.
In responding to these ebbs and flows, I fear we have not attacked the problem of making feminist reform stick. Female solidarity is the key. If we truly want to end this repetitive cycle of feminism and backlash, we must acknowledge the underpinnings of misogyny, the whore/Madonna split in Judeo-Christian culture and how its setting man against woman and woman against woman has warped us all psychologically.
To blame Henry because he had the courage to articulate it honestly from the male point of view is clearly a case of killing the messenger.
Artists are forever accused of advocacy when they are trying to be mirrors of society, mirrors of the inner chaos of the self. Male chauvinist critics are forever assailing women’s books for being full of rage against men and society—as if this were not inevitable, when one is seeking an honest expression of women’s feelings. Let us be smarter than these two-bit polemicists. Let us understand the war between the sexes so that we can end it.
Henry Miller had the courage to ride his rage to the outermost limit and present an unforgettable picture of the world at war between cock and cunt. As Millett says, he is not a free man but a slave, and I think even Henry would be the first to agree with her notion of enslavement. He actually articulates this slavery himself in Insomnia and other books. But he did eventually get free, beyond the body, beyond the sex war, beyond the whore/Madonna split. His freedom came with the book most ignored by his critics: The Colossus of Maroussi. He transcended sex and war, as we all must, man and woman both, to become entirely human. And he came, at last, to forgive his mother—as we all must.
Mary Dearborn, a gifted writer who has written a fascinating but highly damning biography of Miller, strongly bears the marks of the feminist critique. It confuses her response to Miller the man and the writer to the point where she seems to vacillate between attacking him for anti-Semitism, veiled homosexuality, and not-so-veiled sexism, and praising him for his scathing honesty and for “being on the side of life.” Her point of view lurches so wildly at times that one wonders why she chose to immerse herself in Miller’s life and work. She hates him, yet she is fascinated by him. She denigrates his craft, yet praises his honesty. She is also confused about the difference between art and advocacy. It is as if Shakespeare were recommending regicide in Macbeth and suicide pacts in Romeo and Juliet.
Dearborn is not alone in her ambivalence. I have certainly felt it too. Anyone immersed in Miller must. Most critics, both academic and popular, are equally confused about the difference between art and advocacy. Feminist novels have been destroyed by the literary establishment because their “givens” were not granted.
In some ways, controversial women writers bear the brunt of this confusion between art and advocacy, because not only are they outside the societal norms of conformist behavior, they are also outside the societal norms of rebellious behavior. The male rebel-artist’s way is never open to us. Henry is banned, deprived of publication in his native land, made literally a beggar for his art, but inevitably he becomes a hero because of his very rebellion and renunciation. Rebellious women tend to vanish, to be dropped out of the review media, the anthologies, the college courses. Witness the de facto ban on Andrea Dworkin, in effect for many years; the official eclipse of the once wildly popular Edna St. Vincent Millay; the obsolesence of Anna Wickham, Laura Riding, Muriel Rukeyser, and others too numerous to list.
There is some sign that this is changing in popular art. Feisty women private eyes, trained female killers, and outlaw women are beginning to populate our movie screens and bestseller lists, but they, too, are stereotyped from a male point of view. And only rarely do they outlive their plots. With a third wave of feminism gathering, we must honestly look at the fact that, since the seventeenth century, for every rise of feminism there has been an equal and opposite reaction. Patriarchal attitudes go underground, change terminology, but do not vanish: on the contrary, women creators do vanish—except for those few tokens that prove the rule.
We must ask why. And perhaps Henry Miller’s work is a clue to that puzzle. Like any underclass, women are denied not only their rights to parity in the arts, but the right to their own subject matter. Their anger is deemed unacceptable, their sexuality hemmed in by male definitions, their place in the academy determined by males or male-identified women. Women critics and academics (who are often defending their token status) tend to be even less kind to them than men. Even the spate of feminist academics seems not to have benefited the position of contemporary woman creators—many of whom remain eternally beyond the pale—unless they espouse the trendy “politically correct” positions that will doom their work to be ephemeral.
Even if we look at Henry Miller vis-à-vis his female contemporaries, we see that his reputation eclipses the reputations of everyone from Anaïs Nin to Kay Boyle. Nin poured much of her essence into helping Henry fulfill himself as a writer. As for June, the writer she might have become was also submerged in Henry. When she arrived in Paris to find Henry involved with Anaïs Nin and writing Tropic of Cancer, she felt cast aside. And she was always furious with Anaïs Nin for rewriting history in her expurgated journals.
And what of Louise Nieting Miller, who is remembered mostly for her rages? What if those rages had been put on paper in her own hand, thereby powered by her own rage to live beyond her time? We shall never know. Women of Louise Nieting Miller’s generation were rarely writers as well as mothers. We have in place of what she might have written her son’s immense creation in response to her rage. Her rage was his motor, his motor-mother.
It is impossible to break the barriers of convention unless one is propelled by rage, a fuck-everything attitude toward literary censors that says, in effect: let them ban or burn me, publish me or punish me—whatever happens I must get down on paper what is left out of books. Henry’s history as a writer was utterly dependent on his finding the courage to fuck everything.
First he cuts himself off from New York, from his family, from his first wife, Beatrice Wickens, and their daughter, Barbara. Then he takes up with June the taxi dancer, June the rebel, the renegade, the debtor, the conniver, the flagrant and unapologetic bisexual. Then he goes to Paris and becomes a bum, a beggar, a kept man. Under conditions of utter self-abnegation, stripped of his dignity, of all his supports, the Paris book explodes.
I have compared Henry’s odyssey to the male initiatory odyssey described in Iron John: A Book About Men: a descent into the underworld to find the wildman in oneself and “steal the key from under the mother’s pillow.” Many women have been offended by Bly’s book, thinking it excludes them from the quest for selfhood, but in truth the initiatory odyssey it describes is no different for women in today’s world. Female heroism depends on a similar sequence of events. Women must claim their sexuality (and their wildwoman) in order to claim their creativity. But claiming sexuality has never been easy for women. One’s own self-censorship is hard to break through, and, if one breaks through, the world is still brutal in its denunciation. Even Anaïs Nin has only published her sexuality from the grave.
The reasons that led to my writing Fear of Flying were remarkably parallel to those that led to Henry’s writing Tropic of Cancer, and it seems he intuitively knew this when he “discovered” my first novel. He felt the kinship between us even though he could not then know how parallel our lives had been: bourgeois families; a renounced first marriage; a second marriage that made possible a flight to Europe and provided both subject matter and muse; many attempts to write “literary” books; and then an explosion, a fuck-everything, a descent into the cave of the wildman (or wildwoman) in the self.
Most commentators stop here in their exploration of both Henry and me. But, releasing the wild one, as Bly knows—it can be male or female—is only the beginning. The wild one takes the hero-writer down to the depths. Then the ascent must begin. And the ascent is everything. Most writers, most heroes, never make it. Henry did.
We live in a time of immense gender-anxiety, a time when both women and men are searching for new definitions of gender and there is such testiness on the subject of femaleness and maleness that it often seems the sexes do not know how to act with each other at all. Witness our current debates about definitions of date rape, sexual harassment, feminism, and backlash.
If this happens in life, imagine how much worse the problem is in literature! Literature presupposes certain societal agreement about what constitutes reality, and there is no such agreement between men and women today. Men live in one world of privilege, women in another world of want.
Literature mirrors this. At one extreme are Andrea Dworkin’s fictions anatomizing female abuse; at the other is Bret Easton Ellis’s evocations of male violence and brutality. How can such divergence make for a common literature? How can such divergence make for a common voice?
It wasn’t always this way. When I began searching for my voice as a writer, it was absolutely clear what a writer’s voice was supposed to sound like: male.
As a literature student at Barnard in the sixties, I studied the prescribed curriculum and it was at least 95 percent male. I remember using a book on Emily Dickinson that was from a series subtitled American Men of Letters. (Nobody seemed to get the joke.) The Modern American Novel meant: Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Updike. Modern poetry meant: Yeats, Auden, Pound. Even at a college founded by feminists, which prided itself on its affirmation of all things female, there was no question raised about the patriarchal nature of the curriculum. Not yet.
When in 1962, a famous male critic, the late Anatole Broyard, came to my writing class at Barnard and asserted: “Women can’t be writers; they don’t have the experience to be writers,” not one female voice was raised against him. We all sat there—we budding female writers—with our eyes modestly downcast, listening to the male voice of authority telling us what we could or could not write. Nobody laughed out loud. Nobody challenged him. And nobody thought it strange at all that a man should be dictating to a room of promising young women writers, many of whom have by now published dozens of distinguished books. Why were we so timid? Why did we find it so difficult to raise a voice?
In my first poems, I assumed a male poet’s persona. In my first attempts at fiction, I assumed the voice of a male madman. I loved Nabokov and this male madman’s voice was my homage to him. None of this was conscious, of course. I struggled for several years after college and graduate school, searching for a voice that was mine—since I seemed to know even then that no writer is truly born until she finds a voice.
Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Anne Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back were important books in my life because they released me to find my own experience valid, to stop slavishly imitating Auden and Roethke and become a woman poet, taking pride in her own femaleness. That was a long road to travel, because femaleness was mocked, disregarded, and invisibilized by the New Critical Orthodoxies of the academic world in which I found myself. It was not easy for a woman to raise an authentic voice. There were no models, except Colette and de Beauvoir, who were almost unavailable in my college days.
As a young teenage poet—thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old—I adored Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay, found their work in my mother’s bookshelves and appropriated their books to my own room. I loved Parker’s mordant wit and Millay’s female lyricism. I identified with these poets in a special way that encouraged me to think I could write myself. I did not know their status (or lack thereof) in the “literary world.” How could I?
I arrived at Barnard to find these poets considered not kosher. Who among women poets was kosher? Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore—women who neutered their voices, who did not wear their ovaries on their sleeves. At that point, I did not have the historical (herstorical some would say) perspective to understand that these women poets whom I loved had undergone the usual invisibilization process that women creators are treated to under patriarchy. I was given Pound, Eliot, Auden, and Roethke to study and I did so—dutifully and well—but I could never identify much with the women poets allowed into the canon. I was not sophisticated enough to understand that perhaps that was precisely why they—and not the others—were allowed into the canon: so that young women would not identify with them and come to believe they could be writers themselves. Instead, everything was done to make it appear that writing was a male preserve.
I got a degree in literature with honors, won numerous fellowships to graduate school, and toiled for two years on an appropriately unreadable master’s thesis about women in the poems of Alexander Pope. It was typical of my generation of women graduate students to express their nascent feminism in searching for traces of androgyny in male writers accepted by the orthodox canon. It would only be the next generation of feminists who would have the guts to rediscover invisibilized writers—from Aphra Behn to Kate Chopin, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Adelaide Crapsey. Surely the rehabilitation of Parker and Millay must be at hand.
I give all this background to show what a torturous road I had to travel to find the voice of Fruits & Vegetables, my first book of poems, or Half-Lives, my second. I had to throw out my literary education and accept my own life. Whatever may be said of my first two books of verse, they do break through to an authentic female voice. This, in itself, was against the odds, and a triumph of self-liberation.
I then sweated for several years on a derivative Nabokovian pastiche called The Man Who Murdered Poets. When I brought it to Aaron Asher, my then editor at Holt, a man who had published an unknown young woman poet twice before being rewarded with a novel, he wisely said: “Go home and write a novel in a voice you’ve discovered in those poems.” That remark proved to be the boot in the pants I needed to release Fear of Flying from my psyche.
Writing the book was terrifying, another exercise in self-liberation. I truly never expected the book to see the light of day. I wrote with the wind at my back, full of fear and trembling, promising myself that if it were never published—I didn’t expect it to be—I would at least be proud of myself for having tried. The book’s ending cost me the most sleepless nights. I had internalized the paradigm of the sexual heroine who dies for her sexuality—a paradigm unchallenged in books as diverse as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, and even her The Group. You will find the same paradigm in such comparatively recent movies as Fatal Attraction and Thelma & Louise. If you examine sexy heroines in recent literature you will see that either they lose their lives or their children for expressing their sexuality. Sue Miller’s The Good Mother punished the heroine for her sexuality by allowing her to lose her beloved child.
As I sat writing and rewriting the ending of Fear of Flying (twelve times in all), I found myself wanting to kill off my rebellious alter-ego Isadora, or make her pregnant and have her lose the baby to a botched abortion. After all, she had left her “good” husband and gone off with a “bad boy.” Didn’t she deserve something terrible?
I did not know why I was drawn to such catastrophes. How could I know that I myself was a walking paradigm of sexism? How could I know that I had internalized the values of patriarchy and was expressing them even in this supposedly liberated and liberating (as it eventually proved to be) book?
Patriarchy is within us; that is why it proves so inexorable. We must eradicate it first within ourselves; after that we may be able to eradicate it in the world.
The only way feminism will ever triumph politically is if all women—young, old, gay, straight, black, white—understand that solidarity is our only choice. We may not always agree about everything, but to fight each other to the death—however compelling the surface reasons—is to relinquish our power, to give it away to the patriarchy. My generation of women—aging baby boomers—has, alas, sometimes fallen into this trap. We have divided along essentially meaningless lines. The fact is that all women are politically oppressed under patriarchy, just as all men are spiritually oppressed, and only our honesty can save us. First we must see the problem inside ourselves; then we must see it in society; then we must fight to change it. Perception is everything here. All change starts with perception.
Ultimately Miller can be a stronger force for feminism than for male chauvinism. His writing consistently shows a ruthless honesty about the self, an honesty that even women writers would do well to emulate, because honesty is the beginning of all transformation.
Despite the decade of backlash we experienced during the eighties, despite the success of the divide-and-conquer technique used against feminist progress, I think we are on the verge of a brave new world of equality between the sexes. This is because I see the next generation of daughters—the young women born in the seventies and eighties—and I see that they take for granted a new level of freedom, a new level of choice and self-determination. They will not sit quietly while an authority figure tells them what to write. They are already feisty arguers and advocates. They have only to learn the all-important lesson: that it is wisest not to conspire against their sisters, however tempting it may seem.
Every time I read an article or book in which a woman trashes another woman, I think: Fool! You don’t realize you have been programmed to attack women and coddle men. You don’t realize you are the walking embodiment of male chauvinism—even though you have the anatomy of a woman.
Henry Miller’s openness to women’s writing started at the beginning of his life (Marie Corelli, Emma Goldman, Madame Blavatsky), and never ceased. He passionately advocated the historic contribution Anaïs Nin’s diaries made, even after their estrangement. When I met him, he was full of admiration for women creators and intellectuals, and he strongly promoted not only my work but that of Suzanne Brøgger, the Danish writer whose Deliver Us From Love (1976) was full of polemics against monogamy, the nuclear family, and rape that had made her a heroine with Scandinavian feminists. Despite his quarrels with Nin, he publicly reunited with her. And he was more able to absorb the lessons of female creativity than many women are. In his Paris days, when Henry discovered Anaïs Nin’s writing and celebrated that discovery in the essay “Un Etre Etoilique” (The Cosmological Eye), he knew at once he was in the presence of something female, revolutionary, and destined to change the world.
The contrast between this language and that of man’s is forcible; the whole of man’s art begins to appear like a frozen edelweiss under a glass bell reposing on a mantelpiece in the deserted home of a lunatic.
Henry recognized at once that all male literature was frozen compared to the fecund delta of female prose. He absorbed Nin’s writing and let its influence enliven his own art. He understood that Nin had put her finger on a revolutionary change in the nature of writing in the twentieth century. Henceforth the novels of our time would be autobiography and documentary, as Emerson had predicted when he spoke of novels giving way to diaries or autobiographies. The line between fiction and fact would blur. Just as the epic gave way to the novel in the mid-eighteenth century, so the twentieth century was the age of autobiography, an age in which fiction itself would give way to first-person chronicles based on fact:
More and more, as our era draws to a close, are we made aware of the tremendous significance of the human document. Our literature, unable any longer to express itself through dying forms, has become almost exclusively biographical. The artist is retreating behind the dead forms to rediscover in himself the eternal source of creation. Our age, intensely productive, yet thoroughly un-vital, un-creative, is obsessed with a lust for investigating the mysteries of the personality. We turn instinctively towards, those documents—fragments, notes, autobiographies, diaries—which appease our hunger for life because, avoiding the circuitous expression of art, they seem to put us directly in contact with that which we are seeking.
Henry Miller predicted the art of our age—and even our journalism, film, television, and visual arts—all based on the exploration of personality and the blurring of the line between fiction and fact. It was Henry’s ability to seize upon this tendency in his own work, to make the most of both it and the androgyny of his own personality, that made him a radical and prophetic writer. In a sense, he points toward a future of feminized art. His novels may dissect sexism, but his essays and meditative books show a man profoundly in touch with the feminine side of his own nature, releasing the heat of the feminine principle to melt the frozen patriarchal world.
Just as Henry discovered the truth of what made Anaïs Nin a revolutionary writer, Anaïs understood Henry’s contribution perhaps better than anyone. In Henry and June, the unexpurgated diary of her affair with Henry Miller and June Mansfield Miller (not published till 1987), she remarks on her first feelings while reading Tropic of Cancer: “He has left softness, tenderness out of his work, he has written down only the hate, the violence.”
Anaïs believes he has done this because the violence of love is easier to express than the tenderness. “But the man who leans over my bed is soft,” she writes “and he writes nothing about these moments.”
It is the violence of Henry’s writing about women that has so angered feminist commentators, just as the violence of much women’s writing—Andrea Dworkin’s, for example—about men has so angered male commentators. But it is the role of the artist to express this violence. Art is pagan, wild, red in tooth and claw. It must be, in order to reflect the chthonic side of nature. It follows the furies, the bacchae, the dybbukim—or it is not truly art. No one has enunciated this view of art more clearly than the controversial critic Camille Paglia, in her brilliant and troubling book Sexual Personae. Paglia’s abrasive public persona and her regrettable tendency to trash other women makes her hard to accept. But some of her wildest ideas are provocative and much needed: “I see sex and nature as brutal pagan forces,” says Paglia. And she challenges orthodox critical canons that attempt to sanitize art and literature, and, in the process, deeply misread them.
Whether one agrees with Paglia’s views of maleness and femaleness or not, her analysis is a brisk tonic for the misinterpretations perpetrated by feminist criticism of Miller. Since sex is indeed a violent pagan force, we cannot blame the artist who attempts to mirror this force. Similarly, women who write about female sexuality, female rage, female vulnerability to rape, ought not to be attacked for mirroring life accurately. We must stop demanding of our artists, male and female, that they sweeten sour nature, that they cook what is meant to be raw. To do this is to demand a Walt Disney theme-park treatment of all our art.
Theme parks are one thing, art another. And it would be tragic if, in the name of “family values,” we so sanitized art that it was suitable only for children and therefore could no longer mirror the passions of real life. For years, censorship in America was founded upon the Hicklin rule, which insisted books and films be judged according to whether they would be a possible corrupting influence on minors. This has regrettably hampered the production of grown-up art—in all genres.
In a way, this same censorship is already prevalent in television and movies—two art forms whose immense promise has been utterly traduced, especially in America. Books and the visual arts alone have been allowed the power to disturb, to upset, to inspire controversy. And always, there are censors preparing to take away this freedom. The book industry, run by bean counters who buy shelf space in bookstores as toothpaste manufacturers buy space in drugstores, has begun seriously to dilute freedom of choice. Next time you stand in an airport bookstore and notice that you can choose only between A and B, think how restricted is your access to disturbing books. Try even today to find Henry Miller in the average mall bookstore. He most probably is not there.
“These choices are market-driven,” the cynic says, “they stock what sells.”
Not quite. A million decisions, made before the fact, determine subject matter, breadth of distribution, and the tenor of expression. In the name of “market forces,” your freedoms are being eroded. You are the proof that the market-driven censorship has worked when you say, “They stock what sells.”
We cannot pass over the subject of one sex’s ability to crush the other without touching at least briefly on the issues raised by Women against Pornography and the Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon-drafted model statute that seeks to punish pornography as a crime against women.
Dworkin and MacKinnon define pornography as:
the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and/or words that also includes one or more of the following: (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy pain or humiliation; or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (vi) women’s body parts—including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks—are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or (vii) women are presented as whores by nature; or (viii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (ix) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.
The statute seems clear and specific and impossible to oppose unless you look at the history of sexual censorship all over the world. Alas, this history demonstrates that sexual censorship is always used to mask political goals. Frequently, it is not about sex at all.
People like Edward de Grazia, who have chronicled the censorship wars both in the U.S. and abroad, have shown that the suppression of books can often be linked to more than the reasons initially given. A few examples: D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was banned in 1914–15 supposedly for obscenity, but in reality because of Lawrence’s antiwar sentiments and the fact that he had a German wife at a time when many people were virulently anti-German. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was banned in 1929, supposedly for lewdness and obscenity, but really for presenting lesbian characters in a favorable light. Countless books on contraception and sexual technique were banned, again supposedly for obscenity, but in reality because they enabled women to control their fertility or their access to pleasure. Writers like Margaret Sanger and Havelock Ellis were persecuted for these “sins.”
Whatever the laws on the books, they tend not to be enforced by feminist intellectuals like Dworkin and MacKinnon, but by police yahoos. It is the societies of busy-bodies who fear—yet slaver over—sexuality, and the politicians who pander to them, who wind up determining what we can read or see. Wherever sexual laws exist, they will sooner or later be used to repress dissent.
One would think that the viciousness of the attacks on Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Radclyffe Hall, James Joyce, Edmund Wilson, and Robert Mapplethorpe would convince MacKinnon and Dworkin that any law governing sexual behavior or sexual representation in words or images eventually gets used by Big Brother to silence opposition. Homosexuality itself has historically been attacked as a loss of “family values.”
I do not think we can afford to have any sexually repressive laws on the books at all, however benign or protective they may at first seem. I can easily foresee a day when parents who have taken nude pictures of their adorable babies will be arrested for child pornography. All that is needed is another House Un-American Activities Committee—an ever-present danger in the country that invented the First Amendment, but doesn’t seem to understand it. Its very point is that we must tolerate certain obnoxious words and images simply in order to protect our larger freedoms.
Although I remain a First Amendment fundamentalist, I respect the courage of those feminists who have come forward to illuminate the nature of pornography as a symbolic form of violence against women. Abusive images of women are ubiquitous in our culture, and these images do serve to condone society’s abuse of women. But it seems that some feminists have allowed themselves to be manipulated by a cynical right wing, led by evangelical groups. The attack on pornography that began under the auspices of the woman-hating Reagan administration was clearly politically motivated, and those feminists who endorsed it were, alas, politically naïve.
Disturbing as it is to be surrounded by images of abused women, it is equally disturbing to be surrounded by the pretty young females who dominate our visual media. It is as if old women did not exist, or were somehow obscene. Women are forced to homogenize their public images in public life. As long as they are forced to be “feminine” to be heard and seen, and as long as “femininity” is defined as young, pretty, soft, and perfumed, women will have no way to assert the full range of their selfhood in public or private life.
A distressing conformity is imposed upon us all. Pornography is only part of the problem. Advertising, movies, television, and romance novels also overwhelmingly present only one face of woman. Until I look at the TV screen and see women allowed to go without makeup, without dyed hair, showing their true age, and as long as First Ladies are forced to prate of cookie baking and to stand by, or behind, their husbands, we shall have a society in which it is a dishonor to be a complete woman. These things are just as damaging as pornography. And I would like to see the entire female population rise up against them. But I would not create codes of censorship or legislation against specific images of women.
All women today live like those African-Americans of an earlier generation who used to feel obliged to bleach their skin. Whatever we are is not enough. Why aren’t we fully human unless we are blonde, slim, and have no excess skin on our necks? To be a woman is to be always in the wrong. If we can change this, we can surely change pornography. If we can change this, there will no longer be titillation in the image of an abused woman.
Historically, politicians care less about pornography than they care about their power bases. Once they achieve power through pushing the “hot button” of porn, they tend to use that power to crush dissent from any source.
Even though we must raise society’s consciousness about the many ways in which images of female abuse pervade our culture, there is a greater danger in legally equating such images—or words, for that matter—with acts. Some feminists believe the pornographic image is, in itself, an act of violence (see Susan Griffin’s Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature for a lucid exegesis of this idea), but I believe it is deeply dangerous to the First Amendment to equate an image with an act for any purpose whatsoever.
The image of an abused woman is not the same thing as an abused woman. Words are not deeds. If we allow such laws to be promulgated in order to protect women, I think it will not be long before they are used against women as a way to prevent their free expression of their very real grievances.
Imagine a society in which novelists and poets could only write nice things about women. How would we show the very real suffering of women in our culture? Suppose we could never write about sadomasochistic relationships? How would we show that sadomasochistic relationships are often the rule, not the exception? How could we change society if we could not chronicle it honestly?
Even if we are horrified by “snuff films,” and by images of violence against women, I think we would be better off changing minds and hearts by a vigorous campaign of consciousness-raising than by altering our laws to interpret a representation of an act as the act itself. If we do that, we are well on our way to promulgating fatwas that condemn authors to death, or to lopping off hands and heads like Moslem fundamentalists.
Let Henry rail against the enormous womb. Let women writers rail against the various crazy cocks (and cunts) in their lives. Let the culture be aerated by controversy and debate. But let us not start punishing even the sleaziest creators of images for the harm that might come from ideas.
“Every idea is an incitement,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1925. He was speaking about sedition, but he might as well have been speaking about pornography. Any text may cause action—sometimes destructive action. Once we punish writers and publishers for their words, we have opened the door to the obliteration of the word.
At present we have an incomplete feminist revolution, one in which women are still institutionalized as the second sex but are beginning to break out of their prison. A thousand censors and guards stand at the gates to silence their valid anger, but at least the Bill of Rights still protects their power to voice it. Overturning the Bill of Rights will hurt feminism more than it will hurt male chauvinism. Laws follow consciousness, and changing consciousness transforms society. This is a better sequence of events than the sequence that relies on suppression of expression to bring about what must eventually be a Pyrrhic justice. If we erase the First Amendment in the name of gender justice, such “justice” will surely backfire.
Ours may be the first culture on earth that has attempted the bold experiment of letting differing groups have their not always equal say. This is unprecedented in human history. Hierarchical animals that we are, we do not take easily to equality. It’s too soon—merely two hundred years in the case of the Bill of Rights—to toss away this experiment without carrying it to its conclusion. It may yet bear fruit.
So how shall we write honestly about men and women in a culture where we have, as some have said, two sexes divided by a common language? I think we must grant the sexes the same freedom of expression that multiculturalists grant to differing cultural groups in our heterogenous culture. We must acknowledge that men and women have a different emotional experience of life, experience sex differently, mothering differently, fathering differently, love differently, rage differently. And we must grant each sex its honest expression of feeling. In a sense, this is what both the women’s movement and the men’s movement have asked for. Easy as it is to mock the excesses of these movements, each asks for something authentic: to have its sex’s view of the world declared valid and significant.
Why are we so threatened by this eminently reasonable demand? We can, I hope, distinguish the desire to validate emotional truth from the desire to crush the opposite sex.
The fact is that we are in transition from patriarchy to a new sort of society, one which I hope will combine the best elements of matriarchy and the best elements of patriarchy, and, in the process, make both words obsolete.
Equalarchy is what we seek, but that does not mean we ask each sex to be identical. The world has been ruled by men’s emotions for the last several thousand years. Now we are trying to create a society that equally validates women’s emotions. We are still a long way from it, as many recent events have shown, from Willy Smith’s rape trial to Clarence Thomas’s hearings for the Supreme Court.
Henry Miller’s writing, with its open expression and final transcendence of male rage and its ability to recognize female creativity, is a good place to begin searching for the honesty both sexes must find. Shall we burn Miller? Better to emulate him. Better to follow his path from sexual madness to spiritual serenity, from bleeding maleness to an androgyny that fills the heart with light.