Naked Truth

Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt

The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”

The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair.  I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind.  She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.

She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:

This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces).  The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.

Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering.  She is wisdom.

A story  tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.”  Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.

In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,

she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…

Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens

and walked through the depths of the abyss.

Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,

and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)

Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman.  Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says

Although she is alone, she can do everything;

herself unchanging, she renews the world,

and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,

she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;

for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)

Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason.  But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight.  She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it.  She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics.  Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,

All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,

Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.

The Author on her Book

I have just thrown away an entire dumpster full of notes and essays related to the book that I’ve been working on for more than 10 years and that I am having some trouble giving up. I have carted these papers around -from Arlington, Virginia to St. Louis, Missouri, and then on to Pittsburgh and then to Washington, DC, and then to Los Angeles and London. Many papers came back with me from the British Library, where I spent eight hours a day for three months going quietly mad.  These flew home with me to Pittsburgh and some came out to Santa Barbara the summer after my father died and I had to clean up the estate while crawling out of darkness.  I tossed whole chapters, whole years, into the bin.

I feel somewhat as though I’ve just had a miscarriage, or as though I’ve just forced myself to accept that the fetus was dead and I no longer even wanted the child.  I’ve been carrying it, mostly formed, around inside of me for so long, and I’m finally coming to terms with the truth that it has stunted my intellectual, professional, and emotional growth.   It has been a permanent dis-ease, a burden I could not put down, an illness I could not give up.

I put everything else aside–my painting, my political activism, my genealogy hobby, my cooking, my gardening, my social life, my health–in order to “focus on the book.”  For  years after I stopped believing that anyone would ever read it, I’d say to myself: I will do that when the book is done.   But it was never finished!  I didn’t particularly burn to write it, either.  I’m not sure I ever did, but maybe I have forgotten.   It was simply what I had to do, the hoop I had to jump through, in order to get to the next level in my profession.

No book no tenure no job no income no respect no self-esteem no identity no self no thing.

Or so the chain of associations seemed to go.  My entire self-image became fixated, frozen, limited, fetishized, like a shrunken head. It hung leadenly around my neck and bent my back.  I should be rejoicing, not grieving, for I am like Christian at the gate to the Delectable Mountains.

Writing a book and getting tenure are both very fine goals, especially if one is writing a book that one passionately wants to publish, and if one feels well-supported and nourished, in all possible ways, at the tenure-granting institution.  In my experience most people write books because they must, not because they have an important message to share, and spend most of their lives in a state of self-aggrandizement and anxious paranoia.

Still, I am melancholy.  My book was my art for many years, and I am very fond of it.  I think lots of it is very, very good, and innovative, and interesting, and I do burn to share it.  But I do not know quite how, just yet.  I haven’t thrown out all the notes–I’m far too much of a packrat and a historian and a collector to do that.  Perhaps I’ll share it with you here, in pieces, as poems.  Or I’ll publish it privately.  Or send it down a well, or create a massive collage and hang it in my living room.  Or have it compressed and made into a bench.  Or shred it with cheese and make omelets.  Or beads.  Or stepping stones to the next destination.



Some Thoughts about Feminist Teaching and Feminist Advocacy

I have begun volunteering my time and skills at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh in their legal advocacy program.  The work is challenging, fascinating, and compelling.  Working here I feel the same exhilaration that I have when leading discussion on feminist topics in the university classroom.  This is the work I want to do.  In many ways it is more satisfying than teaching, because I know that everything I do or say will immediately affect another person’s life.  This factor also makes the work daunting and pleasantly challenging.

In the classroom, I teach women and men to think critically about the formation and practice of gender in the world.  I ask them to consider the structures and institutions that have shaped their identities and their choices in the world: their families, their churches, their schools, their governments, their workplaces.

As a legal advocate, I work to support women who have suffered intimate partner violence and taken the first step to protect themselves and her children.  I guide each woman through the confusing and intimidating legal system.  I urge her to make her own choices, after thinking critically about her options and their consequences.  Obviously,  the woman sitting and weeping across from me with blackened eyes and broken facial bones neither needs nor deserves a lecture on gender and prejudice.  What she needs is my support, my compassion, and my discretion.   I have to set aside my own prejudices and cultural expectations, and respect her as the person who best knows what will keep her safe, and what she really wants.  (Note: I am not yet fully trained in this job, and therefore am only describing the position as I understand it after observing other advocates in action.)

So, here’s how I see the parallel, the similarity, between what I do in the classroom and in the anterooms of the court:  in both places I am trying to get people to think for themselves and to understand that they have choices about how they live in the world.  Of course, when teaching people to think about gender and sexuality as social constructs, identities created and enforced over a long period of time, I am asking them to consider themselves on an abstract and esoteric level.  When I am working with women as a legal advocate, I am teaching them to think about the court system, the laws pertaining to their situation, and the consequences of their and their abusers’ actions, so I am working on a much more concrete, practical level.   But in both situations my single, driving goal is to enable each individual to speak and choose for herself.  In both situations I am working to support the subjectivity, the active agency, of another person.

Although I will not bring up the topic of gender as an abstract concept when I’m working with a woman who has been beaten, stalked, harassed, raped, stabbed, assaulted, or threatened by an abuser, she will often raise questions about sexual prejudice and common myths about how men and women are supposed to behave.   She will often say, “I don’t have to take this,” or “he thinks he has the right to control me,”  or she will name some of the common insults that men hurl at women in order to demean and manipulate them.  One doesn’t need a college education, or even a high school degree, to understand that when men physically or emotionally abuse women, they are acting out of contempt for women.

Obviously, intimate partner violence is not limited to heterosexual couples, nor is the male partner in a heterosexual relationship always the aggressor, but men commit the overwhelming percentage of intimate partner violence incidents against women.  As the Pennsylvania Coalition of Domestic Violence states,

Domestic violence can happen to people of all racial, economic, educational, religious backgrounds and in heterosexual and same gender relationships. While both men and women may be victims of domestic violence, research shows that the overwhelming majority of adult victims are women and that domestic violence is a major cause of injury to women.

The underlying cause of intimate partner violence–and victims’ greatest enemy–is masculinism, the wholly arbitrary and erroneous belief that male beings are inherently superior to female beings and that, therefore, men justly have greater political, social, economic, legal, spiritual and psychological rights than women.

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to vote or drive, women in this country enjoy many of the same privileges that men do.  What we often forget is that women had to fight hard for these rights.  We still have not managed to elect a woman to the Executive branch, and very few State governors are female.  The GOP is currently waging a “war on women” and seem to care more about shutting down funding for programs that provide medical care, food, shelter and education primarily to poor women than about any other political agenda. A right-wing, mostly Christian minority has recently had great success in rolling back women’s hard-won right to sovereignty over their own bodies.  These “forced-birthers” want to force women to bear children against their will, even if pregnancy will kill them, and have introduced legislation to make the murder of an abortion provider a justifiable homicide.  As Amanda Marcotte notes, “It’s hard to overstate how much Republican energy is invested in bringing the uteruses of America under right-wing control.”

Moreover, we too often forget that our male-dominated legislature still actively opposes adding this language to the Constitution of the United States of America:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Yes, that is the entire text of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Finding it hard to believe that we have still failed to pass this protection against sex discrimination?  Consider this also unbelievable fact: every 30 seconds, a man batters a woman in the United States.  See if you can figure out the connection.

A Manifesto on Leaving Academia

Some of you have already seen this wonderful piece, which was first published in Paraphernalian, and later in  Inside Higher Education, where it received some predictably arrogant and conceited responses from some of the small-minded people who make academia a miserable place.  I resonate with everything that this writer states.

Because: a Manifesto

January 5, 2011

Because the failures of a flawed system are not my personal failures.

Because I am tired of being made to feel like a failure because I have been failed by a flawed system.

Because doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is stupidity.

Because participating in a system that degrades, demeans, and disempowers you is masochism.

Because productivity for productivity’s sake is futility.

Because stupidity, masochism, and futility should not be rewarded.

Because obfuscation, elitism, arrogance, and self-righteousness should not be rewarded.

Because my talents, accomplishments, experiences, and hard work are not acknowledged or rewarded in this system.

Because I am not not nurtured, encouraged, or valued in this system.

Because those in a position to change the system do not.

Because I refuse to believe that a system that does not value me is the only one in which I can have worth.

Because I am enduring personal, financial, and professional hardship to no perceivable purpose.

Because I am being limited personally, financially, professionally, and creatively.

Because I already got what I came for — three advanced degrees and immersion in a subject I love.

Because I want to continue to love it.

Because life is short.

Because sometimes I consider how my light is spent.

Because I don’t want to live here.

Because I am prevented from doing the work I was trained and prepared to do.

Because there are other places where that training and preparation will be rewarded, respected, and used.

Because I am capable of more than I can do here.

Because leaving the system is a reclamation of the dignity and agency it has attempted to take from me…

I am leaving the academy.