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Credo of a Passionate Skeptic

March 11, 2001|ADRIENNE RICH | Adrienne Rich is the author of more than 16 volumes of poetry and four nonfiction prose books. She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1999 Lannan Foundation lifetime achievement award. Her new book, "Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations," will be published in April by W.W. Norton

Recently I collected a number of my prose writings for a forthcoming volume. Rereading them, it struck me that for some readers, the earlier pieces might seem to belong to a bygone era--20 to 30 years ago. I chose to include them as background, indicating certain directions in my thinking. A burgeoning women's movement in the 1970s and early 1980s incited and provided the occasions for them, created their ecology. But, as I suggested in "Notes Toward a Politics of Location," my thinking was unable to fulfill itself within feminism alone.

Our senses are currently whip-driven by a feverish new pace of technological change. The activities that mark us as human, though, don't begin, exist in, or end by such a calculus. They pulse, fade out, and pulse again in human tissue, human nerves, and in the elemental humus of memory, dreams, and art, where there are no bygone eras. They are in us, they can speak to us, they can teach us if we desire it.

In fact, for Westerners to look back on 1900 is to come full face upon ourselves in 2000, still trying to grapple with the hectic power of capitalism and technology, the displacement of the social will into the accumulation of money and things. "Thus" (Karl Marx in 1844) "all physical and intellectual senses [are] replaced by the simple alienation of all these senses, the sense of having." We have been here all along.

But retrospection can also remind us how one period's necessary strategies can mutate into the monsters of a later time. The accurate feminist perceptions that women's lives, historically or individually, were mostly unrecorded and that the personal is political are cases in point. Feminism has depended heavily on the concrete testimony of individual women, a testimony that was meant to accumulate toward collective understanding and practice. In "When We Dead Awaken," I borrowed my title from Ibsen's last play, written in 1900. Certainly the issues Ibsen had dramatized were very much alive. I "used myself" to illustrate a woman writer's journey, rather tentatively. In 1971 this still seemed a questionable, even illegitimate, approach, especially in a paper to be given at an academic convention.

Soon thereafter, personal narrative was becoming valued as the true coin of feminist expression. At the same time, in every zone of public life, personal and private solutions were being marketed by a profit-driven corporate system, while collective action and even collective realities were mocked at best and at worst rendered historically sterile.

By the late 1990s, in mainstream American public discourse, personal anecdote was replacing critical argument, true confessions were foregrounding the discussion of ideas. A feminism that sought to engage race and colonialism, the global monoculture of United States corporate and military interests, the specific locations and agencies of women within all this was being countered by the marketing of a United States model of female--or feminine--self-involvement and self-improvement, devoid of political context or content.

Still, those early essays suggest the terrain where I started: a time of imaginative and intellectual ferment, when many kinds of transformations seemed possible. "Women and Honor" belongs to a period when there was in the air a theoretical code of ethical responsibility among women: a precarious solidarity of gender. Within that ethic--which I shared--I was trying to criticize the deceptions we practiced on each other and ourselves. Published at a time of vigorous feminist small-press pamphleteering, "Women and Honor" seemed, for a while, usable. Today, the parts that most interest me are the descriptions of how lying can disrupt the internal balance of the one who accepts the lie, and the difficulties of constructing an honorable life. I believe these stretch beyond gender to other hoped-for pacts, comradeships, and conversations, including those between the citizen and her government. (I do not believe that truth-telling exists in a bubble, sealed off from the desire for justice.)

Looking back on her own earlier writings, Susan Sontag has remarked: "Now the very idea of the serious (and the honorable) seems quaint, 'unrealistic,' to most people." Like other serious and vibrant movements, feminism was to be countered by cultural patterns unforeseen before the 1980s: a growing middle-class self-absorption and indifference both to ideas and to the larger social order, along with the compression of media power and resources into fewer and fewer hands, during and beyond the Reagan years.

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