I've been watching women expose themselves. In the locker room, puckers of skin, damp dark triangles, secret marks, tattoos; amid those rushing to put their clothes on, obeying the silent rule of least flesh, one woman stands crooked to the mirror, regarding the smooth teardrop of her belly. But she's not pregnant; there's nothing inside her. At least, there is nothing in her but more of her.
I've been reading lives, letters, diaries -- not for pleasure.
Dancer-choreographer-filmmaker Yvonne Rainer's memoir Feelings Are Facts reeks of midcentury suffering: distant parents, foster homes, abusive boyfriends, infidelity, rape, illegal abortion, medical trauma, all of it coded coolly, merely what happened. Every time I read I come up sick and dizzy, I'm having her dreams, but I can't stop, as fixated as if it's my life she's unwinding.
In her memoir, Rainer says little about the dance works that made her name -- Trio A, The Mind is a Muscle, Three Seascapes. We get their dates and some description, but not much about why she did what she did. This unsatisfactory and glancing account (from a letter to her brother and sister-in-law) is about as good as it gets:
I imagine what comes across is incongruity, bizarre... My image sometimes takes the form of a disoriented body in which one part doesn't know what the other part is doing. Examples: A movement in which my head looks at my moving feet, or my gaze follows the upward traveling of wiggling fingers; facing the audience, I walk slowly on half-tow while my fingers twiddle in front of my eyes and I say "I told you everything would be all right, Harry"...
This neglect eventually becomes clear as a strategy: Rainer pushes off her critically secure early work (which she had documented in another volume, anyway) to make a case for her rather less-known later work (her films, largely). And she makes that case through her title. "Feelings are facts," her therapist used to say. Once she took that to mean that feelings can be objects, just as in her dance everything -- boxes, mattresses, bodies -- became an object and every movement (whether a dance step or a pedestrian gesture) became a task. In other words she understood in it a freeing reduction of the world, clarity, isolation, boundary.
Later she saw the phrase as most would, as it was probably intended: you cannot pretend that feelings do not exist. The minimal work of her youth came to seem the counterweight to her fraught life -- a cool place to retreat from emotion. She began to want more: a mode that, without sacrificing integrity, could handle feeling.
With the title in lipstick red, my old paperback copy of Elizabeth Hardwick's essay collection Seduction and Betrayal gets attention in coffee shops and on buses, but the writing itself is reined close. Hardwick's clever move is to assess the assessors of women, to examine how we've seen Jane Carlyle or Sylvia Plath, yet Hardwick must also offer her own assessment, often a brutal one, often final, presented without recourse. Of Jane Carlyle (wife of the Victorian writer-philosopher Thomas Carlyle), she writes: "It is very risky to think of her as a failed novelist or as a 'sacrificed' writer in some other form." But Hardwick does not explain why this is risky. Because we will lose our credibility? Because we will not then see her plight as common? The cumulative effect of the book is this: a layer of skin is peeled back with delicious skill, the muscle that lies underneath is carefully documented, and then the whole is shut up again, condemned.
Browsing through the art stacks, I pull down Eva Hesse Drawing by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and find the following:
Ever since Cubism (if not before), one of the principal dialectical oppositions in the medium of drawing has been between the authentic corporeal trace and the externally established matrix. This opposition between drawing as desire for another corporeality and drawing as self-critical subjection to pre-existing formal or linguistic conventions, between drawing as voluntaristic self-deception (about the availability of unfettered subjective expression, for example) and drawing as voluntary self-defeat (driven by the insurmountability of the pervasive control of even the most microscopic gesture) has determined the artistic stances towards the grapheme...
This paragraph fascinates me with its bizarre style, yes (what does it mean to oppose "voluntary" with "voluntaristic"?), but mostly with its relentless flaying of this dichotomy between expression and form, feeling and discipline. I'm struck by how neither choice comes out well here: self-deception or self-defeat. In this passage we watch some agent place this uncertain thing, a self, upon the block, then step back and hesitate over how to carve it.
Hardwick on Sylvia Plath: "The poems are about death, rage, hatred, blood, wounds, cuts, deformities, suicide attempts, stings, fevers, operations." She could be writing about Rainer's memoir here. I find myself wondering, though, what should Plath's content be? Granted, Plath chased a cold fire -- I've never been a "Daddy" girl, I don't disagree with Hardwick's assessment -- but Hardwick seems to privilege some purer content here, some escape from the bodily that Plath didn't manage.
Like Rainer, Hesse is sometimes called a minimalist. But if she stripped her work down, she often stripped it to a line like an unhealed scar or the seam of a Venus Flytrap's closed mouth. She pared to the bone -- a bone she knew was made of soft flesh once.
I've been told to be careful. That doesn't interest me.
What novel is it that begins "I is not I"? I can't find it, can't remember. I remember, instead of the plot, the pure denial with which it begins. Goodbye to the solid ground, the writer says. Goodbye to what you think you know.
Hardwick: "With Sylvia Plath suicide is a performance." What isn't?
Reject the tragic narrative. Reject the rigged choice.
Of course I abuse my freedom. That's how I feel its edge.
Just as when I learn a new word I see it everywhere, so lately I find Eva Hesse everywhere. What her early death (at thirty-four, of a brain tumor), her ragged unconservable work, her aura of deep aesthetic struggle mean to us, I can't say. But the other night, in a performance by Rachel Perlmeter, I saw a woman suspended in a rat's nest of rope, picking at it and tossing down little clumps like dead hair. Later she threw open a suitcase full of scrolls; unfurling revealed a matrix of words, their block capitals and seemingly aimless repetition belying their emotional content:
SO I GIVE UP AGAIN... DON'T LEAVE TOO MUCH ON THE SURFACE I.E. DECORATION (MYSTERY IS LOST). I CAN ONLY SEE THINGS THAT WAY. I DO NOT KNOW WHO IS WORTHY.
Snippets from Hesse's diary, one suspects. You can buy that diary now in facsimile, mussed with Hesse's scrawling, faintly foreign handwriting, with its blank weeks intact.
Susan Sontag in her diary (the volumes released as Reborn), sixteen, hungry as a mountain cat: "To think that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers!"
I admit: I'm rereading Anne Sexton. I tell myself I'm curious about her manipulation of persona -- I marvel at the author photo on the back of Live or Die, perfect evocation of the experienced woman, ripe with secrets she'll confess throatily in a cloud of gin and cigarette smoke -- but the stickier the weather, the less distance I can get from her self-dramatic pose, her guillotining line breaks, her intense and unearned "Oh," her terrible taste, taste so bad it's a moral error. Here she is on Plath's death:
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long
Yet it's hard to stay indifferent to her, to her gratifying cruelties, to "I'll squat in a new red dress," or "I will dial the wound" (of an old rotary phone), and why should I? Why should I disown her -- to assert my own purity? I know how Sexton would talk back to that, the snarl she'd greet me with if I came to her door in white.
Amid this hysteria, this murmur of rupture and fear of disclosure, I find myself turning to French criticism. Its fearless assertion of unbodied truths, its cool architecture of argument, gives my intellect room to breathe. Here, for example, Roland Barthes watches a wrestling match (in Mythologies): "a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve," he comments, but he seems at most amused in the essay, never impassioned. Perhaps this is because "What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself": the wrestling match acts as catharsis, contained release for the dangerous. (Watching it is perhaps a slight risk; writing of it is not risky at all.) What is dangerous here seems to be an image of male helplessness: "Deprived of all resilience, the wrestler's flesh is no longer anything but an unspeakable heap spread out on the floor."
And if the flesh were female? Women's professional wrestling burlesques this sacrificial spectacle of which Barthes speaks. Does anyone remember POWW ("Powerful Women of Wrestling")? It hasn't aged well. Characters with absurd names (Queen Kong, Sasha the Russian, Pocahontas) flounce around in skimpy leotards, trash talk, and whale on each other with obviously fake kicks, punches, and drops. Yet there's something exhilarating in their shamelessness, their faux-macho bravado as they strut around the ring. They're ridiculous and they know it and they don't seem to care. In the course of a match, each woman is up, down, on the ropes, sprawled out, whirling her opponent around her head; she's the victor and the victim; the decision could never be as vivid as the struggle. Barthes again: "A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time." The only thing certain is that someone will punch out the ref.