Saturday, October 2, 2010

Andrea Dworkin on Female Rebellion

In her book Intercourse, Andrea Dworkin includes a chapter on female virginity, citing Joan of Arc and the two female saints who inspired her as examples of celibate women refusing to live the narrow, cramped lives to which their societies consigned them. For these women, their virgin state was both a practical strategy (since it's easier to risk your life when you have no children who depend on you, and no husband whose property you legally are) and a defiant gesture in itself:

The Church that killed [Joan of Arc] may now identify her as a martyr; but for women inspired by her legend, she is a martial hero luminous with genius and courage, an emblem of possibility and potentiality consistently forbidden, obliterated, or denied by the rigid tyranny of sex-role imperatives or the outright humiliation of second-class citizenship. Women have many martyrs, many valiant pacifists, sung and unsung; few heroes who made war. We know how to die, also how not to kill; Joan inexplicably knew how to make war. At her trial, Joan insisted that she had never killed on the battlefield, improbable since the combat was hand-to-hand; but she was known among her own men for standing against the commonplace practices of sadism on the battlefield. It is hard to believe that she did not kill; but whether she did or did not, she was an exemplary martial liberator -- nearly unique in the iconography and history of the European female, that tamed and incomprehensibly peaceful creature. Joan's story is not female until the end, when she died, like nine million other women, in flames, condemned by the Inquisition for witchcraft, heresy, and sorcery. Precisely because she was a hero whose biography brazenly and without precedent violates the constraints of being female until the terrible suffering of her death, her story, valorous and tragic, is political, not magical; mythic because she existed, was real, not because her persona has been enlarged over the centuries. Her virginity was not an expression of some aspect of her femininity or her preciousness as a woman, despite the existence of a cultish worship of virginity as a feminine ideal. She was known as Joan the Maid or, simply, The Maid ("La Pucelle"). Her reputation, her declaration, preceded her, established her intention and her terms; not in the context of being a holy or ideal female but in the context of waging war. Her virginity was a self-conscious and militant repudiation of the common lot of the female with its intrinsic low status, which, then as now, appeared to have something to do with being fucked. Joan wanted to be virtuous in the old sense, before the Christians got hold of it: virtuous meant brave, valiant. She incarnated virtue in its original meaning: strength or manliness. Her virginity was an essential element of her virility, her autonomy, her rebellious and intransigent self-definition. Virginity was freedom from the real meaning of being female; it was not just another style of being female. Being female meant tiny boundaries and degraded possibilities; social inferiority and sexual subordination; surrender to male force or violence; sexual accessibility to men or withdrawal from the world; and civil insignificance. Unlike the feminine virgins who accepted the social subordination while exempting themselves from the sex on which it was premised, Joan rejected the status and the sex as one thing -- empirical synonyms: low civil status and being fucked as indistinguishable one from the other. She refused to be fucked and she refused civil insignificance: and it was one refusal; a rejection of the social meaning of being female in its entirety, no part of the feminine exempted and saved. Her virginity was a radical renunciation of a civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice. She refused to be female. As she put it at her trial [a full transcript of which is available online here - Lindsay], not nicely: "And as for womanly duties. She said there were enough other women to do them."


We have role models; Joan had voices. Her voices were always accompanied by a radiance, illumination, an expanse of light. She saw angels and was visited by saints. Her two special voices, guides and consolation, were St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch. While many of the elaborations on their legends show the iconoclastic individuality of the two saints, the main outlines of their lives -- the substance of their heroism -- were virtually identical. Both were desired by powerful men (heads of state), turned them down, were tortured and decapitated. Both were in mortal combat with male power, were militant in their opposition to it, did not capitulate, and were killed for resisting. Both were virgins.

St. Catherine was the patron saint of unmarried girls and also of philosophers and students. She was famous for her erudition, one of the rare and great women of learning. Her father, a king, wanted her to be married but she kept turning down suitors. One night she dreamed that Mary, holding Jesus, asked her if she wanted to be his bride. She said yes, but Jesus turned her down because she was not a Christian. She got baptized; that night Jesus, surrounded by angels and saints, put a wedding ring on her hand. When the Emperor Maxentius ordered all the Christians in Alexandria killed, Catherine went to him to argue for her faith. The Emperor made her debate fifty learned men, skilled orators; she won each debate and the fifty men were burned. The Emperor wanted Catherine for his mistress and promised that her image would be worshipped everywhere if only she would make a sacrifice to the gods. She refused, for Jesus and her faith. The Emperor threw her into prison and she was terribly tortured. The Catherine wheel, an instrument of torture, was invented for the purpose of eviscerating and killing her; but an angel destroyed the wheel. Catherine was killed by decapitation.
St. Margaret was the patron saint of peasants and women in childbirth, the latter not because she had children but because she was swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon, and her purity and resistance were so great that he had to spew her up again whole and unhurt. Viewed as someone miraculously reborn uninjured, she became a symbol of hope in the life-and-death agony of childbirth. Margaret's father was a pagan priest, but she was secretly baptized. She tended animals in the fields. The governor, Olybrius, saw her, wanted her, and had her brought to him. She refused him and declared her faith. She was imprisoned, flogged, and terribly tortured. In prison she was swallowed by the dragon; and when she triumphed over the dragon, the devil confronted her again, this time in the form of a sympathetic man who told her that she had suffered too much:
But she seized his hair, hurled him to the ground, and placing her foot on his head, exclaimed:
"Tremble, great enemy. You now lie under the foot of a woman."
She was burned, torches applied to various parts of her body, but she acted as though she felt no pain. She was killed by decapitation.
The legends of both saints were well known in Joan's time and environment, common stories for everyone, not arcane anecdotes for the educated. The narrative details were so familiar that an evil and stupid person was even referred to, in the common parlance, as an "Olybrius." Women were named after these saints and celebrated name days. These saints were figures of mass adoration in stories of adventure, romance, and heroism. There was an elaborate and epic imagery in the churches to communicate visually the drama and scale of their bravery and martyrdom. The artifacts and paintings in the churches told the stories of the saints and their heroism and suffering in dramatic, graphic pictures; a bold, articulate, mesmerizing iconography not rivaled for effect until the invention of the wide screen in cinema. St. Catherine was pictured with the wheel named for her, St. Margaret with a dragon, both with swords. They were shown with swords because they had been decapitated, but the abridgement of the narrative into a martial image conveyed militance, not just martyrdom. Each faced what amounted to a state-waged war against her person: the whole power of the state -- military, physical, sadistic -- arrayed against her will and her resistance and the limits of a body fragile because human. This goes beyond the timorous ambition of today: a woman fights off a rapist. Each of these women fought off a rapist who used the apparatus of the state -- prison and torture -- to destroy her as if she were an enemy nation. Each refused the male appropriation of her body for sex, the right to which is a basic premise of male domination; each refused a man in whom male power and state power were united, a prototype for male power over women; and each viewed the integrity of her physical body as synonymous with the purity of her faith, her purpose, her self-determination, her honor. This was not a puerile virginity defined by fear or effeminacy. This was a rebel virginity harmonious with the deepest values of resistance to any political despotism.

Joan identified deeply with these women ... [s]he learned from them the way a genius learns: she did not repeat them in form or in content; she invented new form, new content, a revolutionary resistance. Joan did not die because men desired her; but because she refused the status, including the outward trappings (female clothing), of one who could be so desired at all. Virginity was one dimension of her overall strategy, one aspect of her rebellion; and, interestingly, her refusal to have sex with a man was not a dogmatic or ideological one. As Marina Warner points out in her book on Joan, the name Joan called herself and by which she was widely known, La Pucelle, "denotes a time of passage, not a permanent condition." Her own testimony at her trial seems to confirm this nuance:
Asked whether it had been revealed to her that if she lost her virginity she would lose her good fortune, and that her voices would come no more to her.
She said: That has not been revealed to me.
Asked whether she believes that if she were married the voices would come to her,
She answered: I do not know, and I wait upon Our Lord.
Had Joan simply learned a Church precept by rote or had she wanted to conform to a theological code of sexual purity, she would have held virginity to be a sacred state of being, one that would ennoble her for the duration of her life, a passive state intrinsically holy and magical with God's blessings. In her society, virginity was "an ideal wreathed in the finest poetry and exalted in beautiful Latin hymns and conventual chants." It was a common belief cited as fact by Church authorities with whom she came into contact that "God had revealed to virgins ... that which He had kept hidden from men." Instead for Joan -- and Catherine and Margaret -- virginity was an active element of self-determined integrity, an existential independence, affirmed in choice and faith from minute to minute; not a retreat from life but an active engagement with it; dangerous and confrontational because it repudiated rather than endorsed male power over women. For all three women, virginity was "a passage, not a permanent condition," the precondition for a precocious, tragic passage to death. As rebellion, virginity amounted to a capital crime. No woman, however, had ever rebelled the way Joan of Arc, virgin, rebelled.
Later in the chapter, Dworkin contrasts Joan's rebellion with the rebellion of a much later --- and fictional --- French heroine, this one created by a male novelist:
[Gustave Flaubert] wrote what a current paperback edition of his masterwork hails as "the greatest portrait ever written of a woman's soul in revolt against conventional society." The book is not about Joan of Arc. It is, instead and on the contrary, about Emma Bovary, a petite bourgeois whose great act of rebellion is to commit adultery. With this woman, called "my little lady" by her creator, the modern era begins: the era of the petite bourgeoisie seeking freedom. Female freedom is defined strictly in terms of committing forbidden sexual acts. Female heroism is in getting fucked and wanting it. Female equality means that one experiences real sexual passion -- driven to it, not faking. There is an equation between appetite and freedom, especially promiscuity (as one form of appetite) and freedom. A romantic distinctly not in the traveling, lyric tradition of Shelley or Byron, indeed, a female romantic with lightness in the head and fragmented fantasies feverish on the brain, "she had a cult for Mary Stuart and enthusiastic veneration for illustrious or unhappy women ... who stood out to her like comets in the dark immensity of heaven ..." For Emma, Joan was such a comet, a figure of fantasy, in the ether, not ever having lived on earth in the framework of real human possibility. Emma's mind, murky with religious and romantic fantasy, wanted "the rare ideal of pale lives, never attained by mediocre hearts." In her sentimentality, "she loved the sick lamb, the sacred heart pierced with sharp arrows, or the poor Jesus sinking beneath the cross he carries"; and in her effete impotence, "[s]he tried, by way of mortification, to eat nothing for a whole day. She puzzled her head to find some vow to fulfill." Alternately agitated and bored, having a mind filled with fantasies rather than ideas or possibilities, having no purpose or commitment, having no action, no vocation, only the boring chores and obligations of domesticity; too self-involved to find either passion or emotion in commonplace human relations, including motherhood, she is incapable -- to use the language of Iris Murdoch -- of moral or artistic excellence, defeated because she is immersed in personal fantasy, "the chief enemy of excellence," "the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is outside one." ...

Preoccupied with fantasy, Emma does not see or experience the world outside herself except as a deprivation of attention from her inner fog, and so she remains essentially untouched -- by the husband who fucks her and by human possibility in the wider world of real events. Virginity is redefined through her, given a modern meaning: a woman untouched is a woman who has not yet felt sexual desire enough to be made sick by it, experienced sexual passion enough to crave it, and broken rules in order to be carnal; a woman fucked by her husband but feeling nothing, or not enough, no lust, no romance, no brilliance of sensation, is still a woman untouched. This new virginity of body and soul survives marriage, and marriage itself generates new, incoherent fantasies of romantic or sexual grandeur: "Domestic mediocrity drove her to lewd fancies, marriage tenderness to adulterous desires." There is no freedom, no heroism, no ambition, no equality, outside the domain of sex experienced as carnal passion and also as the breaking of a rule. Danger is in the extremity of feeling and the risk of flouting convention; and the danger verifies the authenticity of the event, hidden from history yet having the significance of a male act of freedom inside history. The large, brave world of Joan becomes the tiny, suffocating world of Emma: and in it we still live. The old virginity -- with its real potential for freedom and self-determination -- is transformed into the new virginity -- listless, dissatisfied ennui until awakened by the adventure of male sexual domination: combat on the world's tiniest battlefield. It took Freud to call the refusal to fight on that little battlefield "repression" and to name the ambition to fight on the large one "penis envy." The cell door closed behind us, and the key turned in the lock.


Alison Cummins said...

It's so refreshing to see second-wave feminists being taken seriously again. Thank you.

kurukurushoujo said...

This is my favourite chapter from "Intercourse"! *___*

What I also found especially telling was how Dworkin writes that Joan was constructed as undesirable because her soldiers didn't want to have intercourse with her ALTHOUGH there are accounts of soldiers calling her fair. Because no desire for intercourse = unattractiveness. Most likely, they didn't have any desire because they considered her an equal. The socially degraded women and prostitutes who followed the army around where obviously suitable for intercourse. It really sickens you since you begin to see sexual attraction as depending on subordination.

(And I'm possibly named after St. Catherine! How cool is that? I also do her justice, hehe.)

Clay said...

Reading your blog is always an education!

Adelaide Dupont said...

So exciting!

It was great to read about Joan of Arc and also Madame Bovary.

Dworkin knows how to work strength and spice into her writing and her discourse.

(Thinking a lot about the people in Democratic Congo who are being raped because of war...)

It's very interesting that the soldiers considered Jehanne an equal.

Lindsay said...

@kurukurushoujo - It was my favorite chapter, too. I've always been really interested in, and identified with, warrior-maiden archetypes. (I also liked the other part in the chapter you mentioned, about Joan's assumed ugliness because the soldiers she fought alongside didn't think of her in a sexual way. I thought about also including that part in my post, but I was worried about the quoted section getting too long).

@Adelaide - Yeah, that comparison intrigued me, too. I'd like to know whether Dworkin ever read George Eliot's Middlemarch, and what she thought of the heroine of that book, Dorothea Brooke. It seems to me like Dorothea almost occupies a sort of middle ground between Joan of Arc (or Teresa of Avila, whom Eliot invokes at the beginning as sort of a historical foil for Dorothea) and Madame Bovary - she has a strong religious faith and moral grounding, and she wants above all to do some good in the world, but she's stuck inside the same tiny horizons that contain Emma, and ultimately is only able to act vicariously through the various men in her life.

Greenconsciousness said...

This is a tremendously powerful post - I put an excerpt on my blog and sent an excerpt to Phyllis Chesler.There are women today being crush by the legal system - tortured - impoverished = Phyllis Chesler is writing a revised edition of Mothers On Trial and writing of this process.

We all have seen the legal system behave like the Inquisition against women and the poor. I found these words especially powerful:

"They were shown with swords because they had been decapitated, but the abridgement of the narrative into a martial image conveyed militancy, not just martyrdom.

Each faced what amounted to a state-waged war against her person: the whole power of the state -- military, physical, sadistic -- arrayed against her will and her resistance and the limits of a body fragile because human.

This goes beyond the timorous ambition of today: a woman fights off a rapist. Each of these women fought off a rapist who used the apparatus of the state -- prison and torture -- to destroy her as if she were an enemy nation.

Each refused the male appropriation of her body for sex, the right to which is a basic premise of male domination; each refused a man in whom male power and state power were united, a prototype for male power over women; and each viewed the integrity of her physical body as synonymous with the purity of her faith, her purpose, her self-determination, her honor.

This was not a puerile virginity defined by fear or effeminacy.

This was a rebel virginity harmonious with the deepest values of resistance to any political despotism."

Lindsay said...

Glad you liked the post, Greenconsciousness!

I'd like to reiterate that everything you excerpted was written by Andrea Dworkin, not by me, though. I just reproduced her words because they resonated with me in a big way.

Interesthing that you mention Phyllis Chesler - I just read her Women and Madness not too long ago, the revised and updated version from 2005, and loved it.

I'll have to check out Mothers on Trial, too, when she finishes revising it.

Lindsay said...

Also, in her post in response to this one, Greenconsciousness mentions the Greek goddess Artemis, who I think is germane here.

She was a virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt who, among other things, protected women in childbirth --- kind of a parallel to St. Margaret there.

Greek mythology was one of my passions when I was younger, and Artemis and Athena were my favorite gods from that tradition.

If I were a spiritual person I would consider myself a follower of one or both of them; as it is, I relate to them as characters and embrace them as symbols.

Anonymous said...

This is Greenconsciousness - blogger would not accept my password and I am tired of trying.

Read Chesler'book "The Death of Feminism" That is for our time now.

Her Blog is here:

You would follow Artemis - Athena was the patriarchal distortion of Artemis - born not from a woman but from her father Zeus' head. The patriarchs were always trying to surplant women as the great mother, but the people knew it was BS. Just like they tried to take over the nature holy days (thus the winter solstice became Christmass).

Anonymous said...

Greenconsciousness here again:

Artemis became protector of the hunt during the transition to patriarchy. In her oldest archetype she was the protector of animals and wild places. She would kill, with her dogs, any man who killed her deer in her woods. She was the green woman. Just as the old ones had the green man, the vegetation/plant god who died for the people annually; they also had the green maid who was eternal; and she became Artemis, protector of the wood and wild things. The virgin of the Wood - the first ecofeminist.

mayra said...

hahahah, rebelling by being celibate.. oooohhh! sounds a little bit like standard religious practice, and thats how we got all those pregnant 13 year olds...
try reading a feminist who isnt so petrified by the idea of being vulnerable that shes actually willing to engage in sex, and maybe even considers being submissive, not becuase shes bowing down to man, but becuase thats what gets her off