Tuesday, May 27, 2008

As I get older and more well-read, I get so much joy from literature that references literature that I have read.

For example, earlier this year, while reading Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, there was a glorious reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was wonderful, about a bad person that was ageing well having a portrait of himself withering away in an attic somewhere. It may have been my favourite part of the book.

But I had a different experience of this on Monday night. 

I went to see The Counterfeiters with my book club, a new Austrian film about the Holocaust that won an Oscar earlier this year. The Jewish prisoner characters in the film were of different nationalities, and some were Russian. In a certain scene, a Russian character was speaking his native language, while those around him were speaking German. 

I knew this, because he used the word "spasibo", which, I knew, is Russian for thank you.

I knew that because in season six of Sex and the City, Carrie dates "the Russian", and she learns a few brief words of Russian from her beautician. Including spasibo.

I enjoyed this moment nearly as much as the Transit of Venus reference. It truly was a postmodern pastiche of high and low culture, all in my own head.

And today I'm including the question, "In what language does the word “spasibo” mean thank you?" in the Canberra Times trivia quiz.

I like it when my life becomes intertextual.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Andrea Dworkin is important to my life. 

She died, on April 9th 2005. Which is around the time that I took my first Sexual Politics class, with Sheila Jeffreys, who is also important to my life. That class opened my eyes, and dropped my feelings into place, like a peg into a hole. It brought my thoughts and beliefs about all things "feminism" (and I wouldn't have used that word before) into sharp focus. It made me realise that this was real, that it wasn't just me. It is now part of who I am.

I wrote my honours thesis on pornography, and Andrea Dworkin became important to me on another level. She writes beautifully and honestly and passionately – she crafts that kind of quote that you have to quote, not paraphrase. I read bits and pieces of Letters From a War Zone and it adds to the person that I am, like good writing should, like Kurt Vonnegut does, like Helen Garner does, like Shakespeare does. 

Andrea Dworkin is also important to my life because she encapsulates the misunderstandings in our society about feminism. Sheila does this too. Even the picture of Andrea on the front cover of my copy of Letters becomes a part of this. Catharine MacKinnon is stately and dignified-looking and Gloria Steinem is downright beautiful, and, aesthetically, they fit with the idea of successful, intelligent women. Andrea Dworkin, as she appears in black and white on my book, is fat. And hairy, with thick, bushy eyebrows. She looks grumpy and unkempt, and she's wearing overalls and a padded, quilted jacket. Her legs are apart as she stands. 

She's not a palatable feminist.

So people say that she was a man hater. She wasn't:

"I don't believe rape is inevitable or natural. If I did, I would have no reason to be here. If I did, my political practice would be different than it is. Have you ever wondered why we [women] are not just in armed combat against you? It's not because theres a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence."

They say that she was a lesbian separatist, and that she claimed that all heterosexual intercourse was rape. She wasn't, and she didn't. She loved a man, in fact, for a long time. His name was John Stoltenberg. They were married in 1998.

They say that she was angry and militant and cranky. Maybe she was. She'd lived through atrocities too numerous to mention. Here's a short history of her pain, from Germaine Greer:

"She first came to public notice in 1965 when newspapers all over the world ran the story of how she was so brutally examined by officials at the New York women’s correctional centre where she was taken after being arrested at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration that she bled for two weeks. She later told of how she was raped in a cinema at the age of 9, prostituted herself for a living in her twenties, was for five years married to a Dutch anarchist who abused her and was drug-raped by staff in a Paris hotel in 1999."

Liberal feminists again and again condemn her – and MacKinnon as well, but mostly Dworkin, because she's an easier target – for "doing more harm than good", for bringing too much "negativity" into the women's movement, for focussing on the bad instead of the good.

Dworkin wrote – and I'm quoting her quoting Robin Morgan – that she did the "atrocity work" in the women's movement. She tackled the dirty, painful and unappealing subjects. This can be "negative" and upsetting to read. To borrow her own idiom, she was on the front line. As Catharine MacKinnon wrote in her obituary:

"She stood with, and therefore for, sexually abused women. So she was treated as they are treated, denigrated as they are denigrated. She was the intellectual shock troops, the artistic heavy artillery of the women’s movement in our time. She took its heaviest hits."

I have learnt from Dworkin's writing, and from my interaction with Sheila, that this condemned "negativity" does not stem in any way from pessimism. Quite the opposite, in fact. 

These women look at the shit in the world, the shit that is heaped upon women – and surely all political persuasions will agree, at least, that there is a lot of shit. They look at this pain and horror and injustice with unclouded eyes, they stare it right in the face, they acknowledge and document and critique it.

And instead of washing their hands of the situation, instead of saying there's too much rape, too much abuse, too much degradation and pornography and violence and oppression, they hope.

Women activists like Andrea and Sheila know, more than anyone else, perhaps, the extent of the raw pain that women suffer. And yet they still believe that this world can change so much that that pain can be eradicated. They believe that there is enough strength and goodness in humanity to overcome this shit.

Now, isn't that the ultimate in optimism?

Catharine MacKinnon said upon the death of Andrea Dworkin, "It feels like the north pole is gone now." 

Dworkin's writing is still the north pole of my feminism. She informs it, and me, and continually. 

I'm glad that she was.