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More Primitive, More Sensual, More Obscene


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Jacques Gautier d’Agoty, anatomical plate, 1773

Last spring, as leaves unrolled to catch the light, the American writer Melissa Febos took to social media vowing to drop the word “seminal” from her lexicon of praise, because “why should formative, ground-breaking things evoke semen?” The post caught my eye. Febos put out a playful call for female-centered alternatives to seminal, sourced in women’s pleasure zones, and I joined the gaggle of respondents who offered a string of high-spirited replies. Because it made me laugh and picture cartoonish ideas budding, ballooning out, then floating off like soap bubbles, I suggested boobissimo. But the coinages that really sang to me announced themselves with more poetry: clitoral, oveal, vulvate, luteal, lacteal, hysteral, gyntastic. Here were terms that evoked dark and brooding spaces­: undergrowth, caverns, grottos, hidden streams, the richly symbolic unconscious, places where things might be synthesized from organic mulch and unusual elements might combine, becoming impressed with secret shapes before oozing forth from the gloaming. There was something messy and uncontainable about these words, so unlike the clean linearity we associate with sprouting seeds.

Febos clearly had politics on her mind. She wanted to kvetch about the way maleness is always and everywhere universalized, not least when encoding creative achievement. It is the seed, not the egg, that implants ideas in our heads and suggests vistas pregnant with possibility; and the seed (or inspiration) that counts, even when the most promising ideas need to gestate before they can bloom, or incubate, or marinate: that is, sit for a time in a stew of nutrient-rich fluids. Her post made me think of the way maleness aggrandizes itself, arrogates territory to itself, then others the things it discards. It made me think of those early modern theories of reproduction that imagined microscopic homunculi folded up inside every spermatozoa, the egg conscripted only to provide food and shelter.

Although the terms Febos crowdsourced were contrived to make a point, the same way herstory makes a point, they hit my ears just so, setting off a chain of satisfying little tingles all along the neural axis that links visceral sensations to head and heart. I have been thinking a lot lately, you see, about the codependence of language, body, and self, the way each constitutes the other and the inescapable sense it makes to acknowledge that where we speak from and who we speak for is bound up with our experience not just as historical beings, but as material beings. I have been thinking about this in ways that run explicitly counter to all my old commitments, ever since having my uterus and ovaries removed six years ago. At the time, I hoped the surgery would free me, and it did, from the daily drag generated by my fibroid-mangled organs, which had a way of stopping me in my tracks, paralyzed with pain, and from the different kind of drag that came from living with the bleak specter of ovarian cancer. With my organs gone I moved more lightly through the world.

But I was unprepared for the toxic shock of sudden menopause that caused my body to snag up like a choked machine, gears rattling, rivets loosening and popping off, red lights flashing at the controls. It was as if one set of problems (compromising, but nevertheless known) had been elbowed aside only to make room for a new and entirely foreign set, more onerous than the ones they had replaced. Instantly I swung into fire-fighting mode, determined to combat the rage, tearfulness, severe depression, insomnia, night sweats, fatigue, and memory loss that arrived out of nowhere to assail me, failing to see that all the while I was so intent on putting out the flames the ground was giving way elsewhere. Something more nebulous was happening to me. My center of gravity was shifting, or migrating, my sense of self, dissolving: the person I’d always been was morphing into who knows what.

I wandered about the world queasily off-balance. Out and about on basic errands in my neighborhood, I’d be so high on a sense of unreality as to be practically levitating; and because language is expressive of our material natures, not just the seemingly free-floating thoughts “inside” our heads, my command of that suffered, too. In the weeks after my surgery, I may as well have been a hologram. I’d speak to people only to be looked through and unheard.

A range of interesting speech impediments took hold. Where once I communicated fluently, without giving the mechanism a second thought, I now kept stalling, lapsed and confused. Words flew from my brain and dissipated upward like a flock of birds. Nouns, in particular, kept disappearing.

This broken link between word and object mattered. When you name things you acquaint yourself with the world, rescribing it daily via a ritual “hello again.” More importantly, you constitute who you are to yourself. You affirm that you’re the kind of person who notices this or appreciates that, has an affinity for this and an aversion to that, who arrives at an understanding of their particular interiority through calibrating the temperature between inside and out. Noun-mute, I had a hangdog feeling of being locked out of my own mind. The place I was speaking from was the void.

Now and again, I surprised myself with what did come out of my mouth. I’d say pencils instead of flowers, substitute wallet for fridge. If my husband shot me a look of concern I’d brush it off, joking that my brain appeared to be hung up on morphological resemblances. Yet too often sentences that began well, with clear intention, would lose direction and peter out or else freeze abruptly, midway between the starting line and the finish. Too many times, talking to someone at home, at work, socially, my mouth would open and nothing at all would come out. People looked at me expectantly and in apology I’d shrug. I figured this was what dementia must feel like from the inside. But given that trauma is by definition unspeakable, I can’t help but wonder now if my problems with language weren’t masking something else.

*

In all its varied symptomology, menopause put me on intimate terms with what Virginia Woolf, writing about the perspective-shifting properties of illness, called “the daily drama of the body.” Its histrionics demanded notice.

Menopause asked that I pay closer attention to bodily experience almost minute by minute, because with each bodily dip and lurch, each hormonal spike and roundabout, every shiver and sweat that wrenched my guts, a new filter was placed between my reality and that of the larger world. As Woolf described: “Meaning comes to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.” But because this proximal knowing—raw, experiential, strangely insistent—so fully absorbs us as it twists our existence around the new co-ordinates of illness, “the whole landscape of life lies remote and fair, like the shore seen from a ship far out at sea.”

“Landscape of life” is just right. Its connotation of painterly remove perfectly captures how, when ill (or menopausal), we’re estranged from the world beyond our sickbed. Turned inward, we have to contend with an immediate reality prone to kaleidoscopic collapse, or sudden reconfiguring: once familiar, its shapes, textures, and smells (that “queer odour”) grow alien. No wonder Woolf called for a new language—“more primitive, more sensual, more obscene”—for describing where we speak from when we find ourselves in this altered state. We need, she insisted, to “speculate carnally.”

Woolf’s endless struggles with nervous fatigue and what we might now call manic depression are well known. She suffered multiple breakdowns, often following the completion of a book, as if the process of writing it was what kept her sane. The year before she wrote her short essay “On Being Ill,” she’d fallen down in a faint at her sister’s house in Charleston. She’d been overworking, as usual, and though she couldn’t admit it to herself, she was “a little used up & riding on a flat tire.” The faint led to many months of illness, debilitating headaches, and rest cures. She felt weak, then melancholy. She wanted to begin To the Lighthouse, said she had “a whole novel in my head,” but she was forbidden by her doctors from writing. Then T. S. Eliot commissioned her to write an essay for The New Criterion and “On Being Ill” was the piece she submitted. He was less than enthusiastic about it, which naturally sent Woolf into fresh spasms of anxious self-doubt. She worried about her “wordiness” and the “feebleness” of her writing.

Woolf’s essay bears all the hallmarks of having been written in the heat of the lived moment, with the feverish urgency of a patient wanting the particulars of their condition to be better understood. There is constant reference to the body throughout, to its intrusiveness, its insistence on being heard, its animal wants. In illness, the body dominates our existence: it is at once tuning fork and transmitter, the principal medium through which experience resonates through us. Perhaps this explains why, for Woolf, the ill are so lawless—unlike “the army of the upright.” Subject to the wiles of a body that ails, and yet wants, the ill become rash, willful, and contrary; they spurn sympathy, wallow in sensation. Their critical faculties, responsibilities, and good sense desert them, and into the vacuum “other tastes assert themselves: sudden, fitful, intense.”

I am ashamed to say that I came late to Woolf’s fiery essay, after having given a book-length account of my own menopause as an embodied experience. I wrote it as I lived it—as an embodied woman, come into the inheritance of aging. It was a passion project, something I had to write, and full of carnal speculation, and it was turned down by every major publishing house; when my proposal was doing the rounds back in 2014, no one seemed able to muster an appetite for such corporeal reckoning with womanhood. Then again, before crashing headlong into menopause, neither could I. Looking back over my earliest efforts in nonfiction, I see that I wrote cerebral books that willfully trespassed into areas with a distinct masculinist pedigree. They concerned end-time religious cults, the space age, and Middle Eastern geopolitics. The minded body—my minded body—didn’t get a look in.

I do not subscribe to simple binaries that insist “this is female” and “this is male.” Never have. But every feminist knows that male cultures and male hegemonies are not in the habit of announcing themselves as male. They just are. They are what we have; what we are asked to accept is the way the world is. If you put your neck out as a woman and give voice to female experience, or travel against the grain of patriarchal norms, you risk marginalizing yourself. But I wish to do something a little different here. I wish to denounce my own former (and, at the time, unconscious) collusion.

My first book about millennial end-time cults was an act of ventriloquism. The words I mouthed in it were not mine, the posturing was borrowed. In scope and tone, the book was crafted to engage a critical-professional class of reader largely made up of men—the assumption being that if you write like a man, then maybe men will read you. But I wasn’t really writing at all. I was channeling. Much of the time I worked on the project, various “style bibles” sat on my desk, beside my computer, most of them by Gore Vidal, whose orotund, word-clever sentences I sought to emulate, and when it wasn’t Vidal, I modeled my thinking on Frank Kermode, Oliver Sacks, or Richard Holmes, men with evident status and to whose authority I deferred, every one of them now a Dead White Man.

Deferring, demurring, apologizing, explaining themselves: this is what women do when they intrude on male territory. Did I think these “intellectual giants,” or their successors, would beckon me into the fold of their unremarked privilege? Offer me a matey pat on the back as they pressed forward to open doors? Did I think they might review me, or use my book in the classroom? I did not. Yet at some fundamental level I believed that if I cloaked myself in a masculine aura I might somehow pass for the real thing.

Proof of concept aside there’s practically nothing about that book on cults I’d defend as authentic. I wish to be precise here, because the very qualities it aspires to are those I now repudiate in my work. Where to begin? The book pretends to expertise—and not in a humble way that acknowledges due diligence by the research, but with a brash swagger that today makes me cringe. It aspires to comprehensiveness, that is, to a lofty generality and off-handed sweep. It is too loud (in places), at times pompous, and it wears its puffed-up learning like chest-borne medals. It is a piece of performance art; a strut in literary drag. If I listen in close enough, trying to catch what lives between the lines of my book, all I can hear is the wind blowing through empty space—a howl of under-confidence.

I know now—indeed, I knew then—how to think differently. I knew that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I’d traveled back and forth pondering the merits and demerits of an écriture féminine. I was all too aware of the feminist thought police, who, if you didn’t renounce the patriarchy at every turn, accused you of being self-hating. I even had role models to look toward: Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, Julia Blackburn, women writers who managed to “pass” without compromising themselves. And still I wrote like a man. It is not that second-wave feminism offered no alternative ways to be and write and dream, but the options available did not come made-to-measure for every feminist fit. The politics of difference, in particular, hinged on a relentless separatism that forever dragged women back to the body, enchained them to it, in ways that were the opposite of liberating, at least for me.

It is difficult for me to recapture now, as a woman who has always gravitated toward cerebral things, my horror of biological essentialism. When politicized at university in the mid-’80s, it was Wollstonecraft’s rights-based politics that I clutched to my chest, not rediscovered ancient goddesses, fertility cults, and white witches, those shades of old female power from which I instinctively recoiled for bringing back to me my ancestral Baghdadi bubbas whose bony grip I imagined extending from beyond the grave to claim me. I found wimmin whimsical, while the righteous feminism, symbolized by the buzz-cut, bulldozing lesbians who strode across campus felt to me needlessly tyrannical. I joined a consciousness-raising group where I cried each week and railed against my disciplinarian father, but there I was made to feel bad for being femme and for sleeping with men. Also for using tampons—slated as just more evidence of self-hate since they mimicked the penetrative prerogative of the penis (others, more self-aware than I, preferred moon cups­, or so they said).

Mostly, I resented the way any kind of “feminine” logic was anchored in women’s flesh, which became the ground soil for flourishing dualisms: women were “naturally” more peaceful, men aggressive; women listened, men opined; and while men gazed, women submitted to being seen, then shaped themselves into what men wanted to see. “If women ruled the world, they wouldn’t have made such a hash of things.” This was the antiwar cry of the day, heard everywhere. And so it went. I can’t have been the only feminist in my generation concealing a knee-jerk repugnance toward everything Greenham Common.

Or indeed, a distaste for the high-flown French feminist philosophy that situated female subjectivity in the groin. With my troublesome gynecology, problematic even in youth, I sought escape into the pain-free and unbloodied immateriality of the pure (and as it turned out, male-colonized) mind. I had no time for theorists such as Luce Irigaray, who seemed to think it was a good thing if a woman’s voice, her thinking, her female jouissance, was essentially vaginal. “In her end is her beginning,” wrote Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One, picturing a female subjectivity that perpetually revolves around itself, its edges never ending, lips always touching, and at its center, a nothing.

It is not uncommon these days to hear women castigate themselves for internalizing male judgement—see Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering” or Olivia Sudjic’s Exposure. So many of us have allowed a male judge or jury or godlike father the right to enthrone themselves inside our heads. But I also have a righteous second-waver kicking ass inside my head, perpetually telling me how to be a better feminist. She doesn’t shave, or even wash much: she’s not a pleaser. She slobs around the house in her dressing gown for much of the day, grazes at the fridge door, neglects her family’s needs, her mothering duties and her daughterly duties, and justifies all of it in the cause of furthering women’s interests. This is the feminist who wins the day when I am writing and I don’t always like her. But she has earned the platform because for a long time she pushed back when the miniature judges strutted about, tut-tutting at my failings.

Looking back now, I can’t quite believe she wasn’t more vocal back in the days when I was man-aping. Especially since I never stopped identifying as a feminist. And especially since feminism itself was widely regarded at the new century’s dawn as an artifact of the seventies, quaint as hot pants or glitter-framed specs, while the girl power of the nineties looked like little more than a marketing ploy. Still, my sweaty, snarly, stompy avatar was ready to bring me back to myself when I was lost. Emptied out by menopause, my sentences thwarted, she reminded me that I could not, after all, escape biology. Even if it was not exactly a female biology I was now reckoning with, but rather a nonbiology or mirror-image biology, one that substituted a set of curious absences for the politically (oftentimes physically) bothersome presence of femaleness.

It bears repeating that if aging brought with it an unexpected inheritance of undreamed of and unwanted experiences—which, with only the old repertoire to hand, I had no language to frame—it also placed me beyond reproductive life, if not in fact beyond the body. I was now on nodding terms with the barren woman, the bitter woman, the empty vessel, the widow, and the crone, all of them singular types who converged upon an archetype almost as repugnant to feminists as to anyone else: the spent woman, the woman whose purpose is no longer evident, whose use value has expired. The woman whose very existence requires justifying. It represents (I represent) the stony ground on which nothing ever seeds. In fact, you can scatter any amount of seed upon this ground and nothing seminal will ever take root. What kind of subjectivity dwells in this desert terrain?

I hadn’t a clue. But I hadn’t a choice either. If I was going to give adequate testimony of menopause then I would have to write from inside of this altered state, rerouting my thinking via a body consciousness that had broken free of rules and rhythms and gone rogue. Instead of pretending that there was no crisis of the self I would write directly into the crisis, attending closely to my anomalous symptomology and sticking fast with that feeling of being unmoored. Here was a manner of self-witnessing that, oddly enough, already had correlates in other guises. The outsider looking in, the ingénue delivering dispatches from the frontline, the anthropological participant-observer, the existential voyager: all of these tropes fit with my field-noting agenda.

One thing was clear: the male voice I had earlier ventriloquized, with its unitary, forward-pointing, linear intent, wasn’t going to cut it when it came to exploring my traumatized state of lack (hormonal lack, the absence of a reproductive identity, the profoundly alienating experience of sleep deprivation). It was too assertive to dwell inside the gaps of broken language and explore the silences therein, or brave the void and bring absence into presence.

Just as you can feel enlarged by giving things away, you can build confidence, in writerly terms, by being humble. I don’t mean posing as humble, hedging everything you say with possibly and perhaps. I mean actually reveling in not knowing. I mean interrupting yourself and entertaining contrariness, letting your thoughts wander then circle back upon themselves, trail off and fragment. For me, it was a liberation to let it all hang out, put it all on the page. And that went for the body, too, in all its menopausal, aging complexity.

Like Woolf, I had been forced to acknowledge that at every turn “the body intervenes,” but does not define us. It exposes us, blindsides us, pleads with us, pleasures, pains, arouses, and depresses us, sways our judgement and shapes our sense of self. Which is to say our bodily self-consciousness has a hand in forming our subjectivity. Writers can heed it or not, though I find I’m increasingly drawn to those who do—Adrienne Rich, Maggie Nelson, Carmen Maria Machado, and many others. The point is that in pain or grief, love, rage, or illness, in hormonal extremes or sleepless desperation, the body gifts us a window onto the world that changes what we see by virtue of shifting how we see it.

Audre Lorde, so passionate about and precise in using language, so committed to its world-creating potential, celebrated the notion of feeling our way into knowledge rather than thinking ourselves into it. She understood that the body knows, and that this knowing, calling on skin and gut and nerves, ears, eyes, and tongue, is individual and particular, not categorically gendered. I like to think of this knowing as a “somatic sensibility,” and these days I actively cultivate it. Not just because it gifts us a sensory idiom (“more primitive, more sensual, more obscene,” just as Woolf envisaged) but because it carves out a place for writing that jars, disrupts, and disorientates, just like the experiences it inscribes. I can’t think of anything more radically feminist than to return to the body, not as an acted upon thing, or a passively gendered substrate, but as an agent, and to use it to cross-question what it is to be female.

 

A version of this essay appears in Trauma: Writing about Art and Mental Health (Dodo Ink, 2021).  
Marina Benjamin’s most recent books, The Middlepause (Catapult/Scribe 2016) and Insomnia (Catapult/Scribe 2018) were published in the UK, U.S., and Australia, and translated into eight languages. Marina works as a senior editor at Aeon magazine. In 2020, she edited Garden Among Fires: A lockdown anthology, published by Dodo Ink. 

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