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Saturday, 21 February 2009

Eliot, Woolf, Plath, Mitchell...

I live and exist through art.

The older I get, and the further I get from my rebellious pre-teen years, the more it seems like my identity and existence are defined through my interactions with others. To be a thing, I must communicate, and no meaningful self can be communicated without artistry.

Further complications arise both from my liberal upbringing and from the near-proverbial "changing times" in which we live. In a conservative society, the basics of identity come from ideas which are well-known to all and easy to communicate: gender, religion, social class, familial relationships. By contrast, in a more liberal society, such things must always be in a state of flux.

Personally, I find that it's the changing status of women that affects me most. Partly this is due to being a woman in a male-dominated field, but mostly I would like to cantankerously blame it on the fact that nearly every notion of feminine sexuality out there either stinks or doesn't suit me. Creativity is clearly called for.

I look back gratefully to the strident feminists who fought for space, who took principled stands and rejected all that came before. Yet I must also bow before the artists who filled that space, borrowing from the culture that feminists repudiated even as they showed how it was flawed or how it might be changed. I'm thinking of George Eliot, whose women accepted the social order and yet you could always see how it was wrong for them. I'm thinking of Virginia Woolf, who could sneak female sexual desire in behind literary curtains. Sylvia Plath, whose self-absorption preserved a somewhat unconventional femininity that others might borrow from if they wished. All three of them had skills that took them far beyond the subject of femininity, yet all three of them could fold in their womanhood as they understood it. For all three of them, that womanhood was cutting edge.

In the past five decades, novelists and singer-songwriters have pasted cutting-edge pictures of womanhood all over the map. I admire Joni Mitchell, who has an unquestioned strength behind her self-questioning. Then there's k. d. lang, who was, I think, my first introduction to the way the queer movement completely redefined sex. The women in many of Anne McCaffrey's novels seem to be inhabiting a different universe (funnily enough...). Sometimes I wish I lived there.

None of what has gone before me is enough. I have a task to do; I believe that every woman does. Perhaps every man does, too. But I look on in awe at the creativity and courage of men and women, past and present. They are my inspiration and my light.