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Credo of a Passionate Skeptic

ADRIENNE RICH is the author of more than sixteen 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 is, Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations, (W.W. Norton, 2001).
This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Sunday, March 11, 2001.

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—twenty to thirty 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.

It interests me that in “Women and Honor,” that poetically terse piece of writing, I first invoked the name of Marx—to dismiss Marxism “for women.” I was of course echoing the standard anti-Marxism of the postwar American cultural and political mainstream. But, as I indicate in “Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marx,” written more than a decade later, this anti-Marxism, uncriticized and uninvestigated, was present also in the women’s movement. Marxism was tainted there, both by garden-variety anticommunism and by the fear that class would erase gender once again, when gender was just beginning to be understood as a political category.

Sometime around 1980 I felt impelled to go back and read what I had dismissed or felt threatened by: I had to find out what Marx, along the way of his own development, had actually written. I began working my way through those writings, in the assorted translations and editions available to me, an autodidact and an outsider, not an academic or post-Marx Marxist. There were passages that whetted my hunger; others I traversed laboriously and in intellectual fatigue. I understood that I was sometimes overhearing early nineteenth century German philosophical diatribes I could just as well skip.

What kept me going was the sense of being in the company of a great geographer of the human condition, and specifically, a sense of recognition: how profit-driven economic relations filter into zones of thought and feeling. Marx’s depiction of early nineteenth century capitalism and its dehumanizing effect on the social landscape rang truer than ever at the century’s end.

Along with that flare of recognition came profound respect and empathy for Marx’s restless vision of human capacities and the nature of their frustration. I found no blueprint for a future utopia but a skilled diagnosis of skewed and disfigured human relationships. I found a Marx who would have been revolted by Stalinism, by the expropriation of his ideas in the name of tyranny, by the expropriation of his name: “I am not a Marxist,” he said. In the feminism I had embraced, as in the social field where it was rooted, there was a salient dialectic: racism as destructive presence, race as great social teacher. Time and again racial actualities pushed against the “primary oppression” of gender; time and again the lesson was forgotten. I came to realize that we were afraid: that a focus on class (read Marxism) might blot out a focus on gender and race; that gender (feminism) might blot out race and class; that you could look at history and see the big eraser wiping out each successive lesson of justice, so that collective knowledge could not accumulate. For the pressing motif of this excessive society was and is: There is not enough (space, livelihood, validation) for all.

I’m not sure that I could have read Marx with so much patience and appetite had I not participated in the inevitable shortcomings of the feminist movement in the United States. Though some feminists (mostly women of color) insisted on intersections of race, class, and gender, emphasis was more often laid on women’s individual class identifications and how they negotiated them, or on poverty and welfare, than on how class, poverty and the need for welfare are produced and perpetuated in the first place. (Both kinds of work, of course, are necessary.) Elsewhere, movement was being parochialized into “women’s culture.” Meanwhile, the expansion of capitalism’s force field, the impoverishment of women within it, and the steep concentration of wealth were all brutally accelerating.

We can think of second-wave feminism as a splinter off the radical movements of United States history, especially the Depression-driven movements of the 1930s and 1940s, movements always under fire, repressed in the 1950s, resurgent in new forms in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, again being deliberately defused and isolated. Above all, the political groupings of African Americans were under hostile surveillance. Earlier, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—both leaders with large constituencies—had been murdered just as each was unscrolling a map on which race and class intersected in a shared landscape. The blotting of those maps was accomplished by violence, persecution, censorship and propaganda. The energy, hopefulness, brains and passion of a women’s movement erupting in the United States at such a time was no match for these political circumstances. The important legacies of that movement reside not in the names of a few women starring in the media, but in the many lifesaving, stubbornly ongoing grass-roots organizations it had the power to ignite. I still believe what I wrote in 1971: A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution.

What prose I wrote in the 1990s was fired by a hope of bringing together ideas that had been forcibly severed from each other or thrown into competition: such as the making of literature and public education. Sometimes I felt ideas that attracted me mutually repelling each other. Or I felt the shortcomings of my own language pitted against a lethargic liberalism or a despicable rhetoric of “spin.” Sometimes it all seemed mere Sisyphean effort, pushing uphill and futureless a rock bearing sweaty handprints of so many others.

But Sisyphus is not, finally, a useful image. You don’t roll some unitary boulder of language or justice uphill; you try with others to assist in cutting and laying many stones, designing a foundation. One of the stonecutter-architects I met was Muriel Rukeyser, whose work I had begun reading in depth in the 1980s. Through her prose Rukeyser had engaged me intellectually; her poetry, however, in its range and daring, held me first and last. “Her Vision” is a tribute to the mentorship of her work. Another was Raya Dunayevskaya, who wrote vividly and trenchantly of the concrete revolutionary lives of women, and whose fusion of Marx’s humanism with contemporary feminisms expanded my sense of the possibilities of both.

I was also undertaking a kind of research into poetics, both as writing and as reading. I had always worked fairly instinctually and independently as a poet, distrusting groups and manifestos, which I found mostly unuseful in their exclusive male compadreship; I trusted their poetry more than their bondings. (I have had to reckon in and out of gender to do my work.) But it seemed to me that an accumulating incoherence and disruption of public language and images in the late twentieth century was something poets had to reckon with, not just for our own work. I had explored this challenge in my 1993 book, “What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics.” I was looking for poetics and practice that could resist degraded media and a mass entertainment culture, both of them much more pervasive and powerful than earlier in the century.

There was nothing new about this; artists have long made art against the commodity culture. And innovative or transgressive art has itself been commodified, yet has dialectically frictioned new forms and imaginings into existence. One of the questions that pursued me is whether, and how, innovative or so-called avant-garde poetics are necessarily or even potentially revolutionary: Do they simply embrace a language so deracinated that it is privy in its rebellions only to a few? The question is not unreasonable given the decidedly antibourgeois, anticonformist claims of avant-garde tradition. The obverse question is inescapable: Can a radical social imagination clothe itself in a language worn thin by usage or debased by marketing, promotion and the will to power? In order to meet that will to power, must we choose between the nonreferential and the paraphrasable?

I believe in the necessity for a poetic language untethered from the compromised language of state and media. Yet how, I have wondered, can poetry persist as a ligatory art rather than as an echo chamber of fragmentation and alienation? Can the language of poetry become too abstract (some might say elitist) even as it tries to claim what Octavio Paz has called “the other voice”? Is there a way of writing on the edge? Of course I think there is, and has been; I test my own work from that likelihood. “Language,” I find in Marx, “is the presence of the community.” In a 1979 essay by Gary Snyder: “The community and its poetry are not two.”

Are writers, poets, artists, thinking people still merely gnashing away at the problems of the early twentieth century? But this is not “mere.” These primal, unsilenced questions pursue us, wherever we are trying to live conscientiously in the time we have. A new century, even a new technology, doesn’t of itself produce newness. It is live human beings, looking in all directions, who will do this.

For more than fifty years I have been writing, tearing, up, revising poems, studying poets from every culture and century available to me. I have been a poet of the oppositional imagination, meaning that I don’t think my only argument is with myself. My work is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold.

At times in the past decade and a half I have felt like a stranger in my own country. I seem not to speak the official language. I believe many others feel like this, not just as poets or intellectuals but as citizens—accountable yet excluded from power. I began as an American optimist, albeit a critical one, formed by our racial legacy and by the Vietnam War. In both these cases it was necessary to look hard truths in the face in order to change horrible realities. I believed, with many others, that my country’s historical aquifers were flowing in that direction of democratic change. I became an American skeptic, not as to the long search for justice and dignity, which is part of all human history, but in the light of my nation’s leading role in demoralizing and destabilizing that search, here at home and around the world. Perhaps just such a passionate skepticism, neither cynical nor nihilistic, is the ground for continuing.


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