Sunday, March 28, 2010

Open Words, Open Letter, Open Book

So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women?  Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us?  This is not a rhetorical question.
--Audre Lorde, "An Open Letter to Mary Daly," Sister outsider: essays and speeches

In sum, Daly claims that Lorde misunderstood her intent in Gyn/Ecology and contends that a public debate about this issue will serve no purpose.
      Respectfully, I disagree.  Without downplaying how personally painful this debate undoubtedly was for both women (as Rich says, such debates are meant to break our hearts), perhaps the rest of us can now benefit from the debate if we revision it [i.e., Rich's concept of revision from "When We Dead Awaken" (35)], using it [i.e., the debate] to imagine not who was right and who was wrong but rather how one moves from a rhetoric of dysfunctional silence to a rhetoric of listening.
--Krista Ratcliffe, Rhetorical listening: identification, gender, whiteness

      Explosions of Diversity do not happen without conflict, however.  One of the responses to Gyn/Ecology was a personal letter from Audre Lorde, which was sent to me in May 1979.  For deep and complex personal reasons I was unable to respond to this lengthy letter immediately.  However, when Lorde came to Boston to give a poetry reading that summer, I made a point of attending it and spoke with her briefly.  I told her that I would like to discuss her letter in person so that we would have an adequate opportunity to understand each other in the dialogue, and I suggested places where we might meet for a discussion. Our meeting did in fact take place at the Simone de Beauvoir conference in New York on September 29, 1979.  In the course of that hour-or-so-long meeting we discussed my book and her response.  I explained my positions clearly, or so I thought.  I pointed out, for example, in answer to Audre Lorde’s objection that I failed to name Black goddesses, that Gyn/Ecology is not a compendium of goddesses. Rather, it focuses primarily on myths and symbols which were direct sources of christian myth. Apparently Lorde was not satisfied, although she did not indicate this at the time. She later published and republished slightly altered versions of her original personal letter to me in This Bridge Called My Back and in Sister Outsider as an "Open Letter."
      It continues to be my judgment that public response in kind would not be a fruitful direction.  In my view Gyn/Ecology is itself an "Open Book."
--Mary Daly, from the 1990 introduction to Gyn/Ecology 
Writing this book is participating in a feminist process.  This is problematic.  For isn't a book by definition a "thing," an objectification of thinking/imagining/speaking?  Here is a book in my hands:  fixed, solid.  Perhaps--hopefully--its author no longer wholly agrees with it.  It is, at least partially, her past.  The dilemma of the living/verbing writer is real, but much of the problem resides in the way books are perceived.  If they are perceived/used/idolized as Sacred Texts (like the bible or the writings of chairman Mao), then of course the idolators are caught on a wheel that turns but does not move.
--Mary Daly, from the 1975 introduction to Gyn/Ecology

When I set it [i.e., the book Gyn/Ecology] free so it could be in the world, I did not see it as a work of perfection.  For some women it could be an Awakening shock, for others a Source of information, or a springboard from which they might Leap into their own A-mazing Searches, Words, Metaphors.
      Above all, I was acutely aware that I had not done or written everything.  I had not written the Last Word.  (Otherwise, how could I ever write again?)
--Mary Daly, from the 1990 introduction to Gyn/Ecology
In preparing to write this post, I re-read all of my favorite bloggers' obituarial responses to the death of Mary Daly.  Several patterns re-sound.  First, many thoughts are personal reflections, opportunities for each blog writer to reflect on her or his self identity (i.e., as an openly gay man who's never bothered reading Gyn/Ecology because of Daly's infamous transphobia; as a woman, a feminist, raised as a girl by a mother who was converted Catholic and strict, stricter than her father who was born Catholic; as a young woman, a fledgling woman studies scholar not so eager, just yet, to critique Daly for her obvious shortcomings; as a woman, a black woman, a transgendered black woman).  Second, most are grateful to Audre Lorde's critique of Daly as "full of privilege," white privilege and born-woman privilege.  Third, hardly any neglects marking Daly as transphobic.

What I didn't see when I wrote an earlier post, and when re-reading so many of my favorite bloggers posts, and before re-reading Gyn/Ecology in Boston last week is how Bonnie Mann starts her re-view of Daly's book. Mann begins:

"I began using Gyn/Ecology in my work with battered women because it is a book that faces the big Questions."

This is the true value of Daly's work, and I want to explain what I mean by "This."  I began this post on Gyn/Ecology with words, open words.  The "di-a/logue" or "de-bate" or "di-s/pute" with Daly can be, I think, "di-s/en-chant-ment" with ourselves.  This is not to say that we cannot blame much of who we are on The Patriarchy.

In other words, in less Dalyesque words perhaps, I'm trying to say that words have consequences of power.

The true value of Daly's work is for the battered woman, whether you are one or not.  You might be the batterer of a woman.  Why won't you cry, then, re-reading about the consequences of your power?  The culpability of re-covery and di-s/covery is very very personal, very individual.  You sit and read these words, of mine, in silence, or aloud.  You choose.

When I sat in Boston, reading, I cried.  You cannot know where these words met me, where inside me.  Gyn/Ecology reads, to me, like the Bible.  In other words, they (i.e., Daly's words) are not written to me, perhaps not even at me, although the latter is more likely since I am a man, heterosexed (and I am also white), a pinnacle part of that elite establishment of higher education of the world's superpower, America.  These words are now old, two decades old.  They open up to Lorde's critique, if you will, a debate not necessarily one you and I are so involved in.  And yet you hear yourself, don't you?  It's been two decades, twenty years now, and how far have we come, other than to put Mary Daly this year in a box (a pine box or others of our own construction)?  Let me re-read Daly's words, here, from her 15 years of reflection after first writing them the first time, lest you hear them somehow (and want, also, to change, want for change, open):
      In Gyn/Ecology I went beyond the scope of Beyond God the Father.  First, the analysis is not restricted to christianity but extends to the universality of patriarchal religion itself....  I wrote to expose the atrocities perpetrated against women under patriarchy on a planetary scale....
     Since Gyn/Ecology was published, the agents of patriarchal evil [some 15 years later] have invaded women and nature with more and more virulent attacks....
      To list a few of these "developments":  A ten-billion-dollar pornography industry has developed and continues to escalate; its images of the torture, murder, and dismemberment of women and girls are everywhere, "inspiring" more and more rapists and sex murderers to copy these images.  Women battering and incest are alarmingly widespread.  The reality of these horrors has always existed under patriarchy, but in recent years there has been an increase not only of information about them but also of the "practices" themselves.  There has been an upsurge of international trafficking in women.  Women of color are the primary victims of this atrocity as well as all other crimes.  The demand for child prostitutes is enormous, especially around military bases and as "tourist attractions."  The new reproductive technologies have developed at an alarming rate, taking on new forms that reduce women to subhuman "subjects" of experimentation.  The torture of animals in laboratories and in agribusiness beggars description.  And the Life-killers continue to kill the earth and its inhabitants. (pages xxiv - xxv)

No comments: