Monday, 11 January 2010
Only Women Bleed
I see radical lesbian feminist philosopher/theologian Mary Daly has died. The blog-obits have varied from the naffly saccharine to the excoriating, taking Daly to task for her failings, perceived or actual. (There's a hilarious piece over at Melissa McEwan's on Daly, in which McEwan, having come to praise her, contorts herself into a flailing ecstasy of right-on self-abasement in the Comments once she's told that Daly was once nasty to transsexuals.)
It's rather difficult to write about Daly, as a man, without being accused of bigotry. A keynote of her playful style was the making of very extreme statements forte con brio which might or might not have been merely throwaway. In this she was like a kind of philosophical performance artist of woman-rage, but the line she trod between radical art-speech and radical hate-speech was, sadly, a narrow one. I'm not sure becoming a kind of mirror-image Tertullian really did her, feminism, or the world much good in the end, nor how deliberate a pose it was. But more on this anon.
Credit where credit is due: Daly wrote some wonderful, profound, clever things that totally put the bomb under the 'kyriarchy' (great word). Beginning with work on the great Jesuit intellectual Jacques Maritain, she moved into skeweringly accurate analyses of patriarchal religious structures, especially in her early works like The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father. These did much to enable women and men alike to see the hierarchies of institutional Christianity as contingent and Kafkaesque, and in them she laid bare---with lacerating, scornful wit---how deeply that religion's pompous absurdities of practice are in fact rooted in the murky bowels of its theology. (A metaphor Daly would have liked, that.) I find this a tenable if intellectually-unsubtle view, but then Daly was never really interested in nuance: her favourite word was 'BIG!'. I respect Daly a great deal for her refusal to bill herself as any kind of dutiful patriarchal daughter, utterly rejecting any concession, and, sometimes, using language with a kind of bubbling, fierce humour. And may her name be forever blessed for the wonderful coinage academentia: don't we all just know what she meant.
Unfortunately, she then began a period which lasted until her death in which she gradually lost touch with the world around her whilst claiming to see it ever more clearly. As Lord Shaftesbury remarked, '[T]he most ingenious way to become foolish' is 'by a system.' For a deeply learned woman, Daly's scholarship became erratic: she clung, for example, to the notorious 'nine million women' figure for the number of deaths in the early modern Witchcraze, and completely ignored the emergent and specifically radical feminist scholarship of the 1980s which demonstrated that her view of the witch trials was simply mistaken---a note of intellectual high-handedness with other women scholars which sadly came to blight her work. She was not in any way a competent historian (except perhaps, once, of the Church) but ultimately a kind of philosophical propagandist; when history becomes martyrology and persuasion is replaced by propaganda---in however prankish a spirit and in however good a cause---then the scholar ensures the eventual academic evanescence of their own work, because it will have to be redone properly.
This propaganda settled into the form of a radical feminist Manichaeism, in which the world is divided down the middle into men (bad, intrinsically disordered, violent, oppressive and 'necrophile') and women (good, intriniscally oriented correctly towards life and each other, peaceful, oppressed and 'biophile'.) One of the saddest things to watch, as one reads Daly's later works, is the way that the first category grew ever more capacious and the second shrunk ever further as the ideological strictures tightened. By the late 90s, 'women' had come to mean radical feminist lesbians, or, as Daly might have put it, only Positively Revolting Hags who had Crone-ologically seen through the patriarchal pompenile parades, rejected intercourse in favour of Outercourse, and had joyously up-risen into Quintessential Be-ing. As her remaking of the dictionary, Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, makes plain, Daly was, alas, no Joyce when it came to wordplay. The experience of being trapped in the book's thuddingly-repetitive, elephantine punning makes me feel like Victoria Wood's wonderful character Kitty, a formidable Manchester matron of decided views, who tells us:
--She said, 'Kitty, do you like fun?' I said, 'No, I don't!--I had enough of that in 1958 when I was stuck in a lift with a hula-hoop salesman.'
(As Daly might have said, 'We may be overthrowing the patriarchy, but I want it to be fun fun fun.') As her throught developed, she appointed herself the arbiter of who of who was not 'a real woman' according to her own exalted criteria, eventually defining which women were and were not worthy of a feminist revolution. Sex-workers, transgendered women, Christians, straight women who enjoy straight sex, mothers of boys, women who love their male relatives, women who have undergone male-derived kinds of psychotherapy---all were eventually excluded in Pure Lust as 'imitation males.' Men, of course, had to go too, via a shady and unspecified process of 'decontamination'. I find it astounding that a woman of Daly's obvious intelligence felt able to use that term in a post-Holocaust world, in which it is a clear and sinister synonym for 'extermination.' As she said:
If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.
Change 'males' to 'Jews', 'blacks', or 'gays' and see how it reads. Whether or not she meant this statement seriously, and whether or not anything can be said on the grounds that it's merely playful, philosophical free-association, Daly struck here a genuine note of wistful Stalinism once too often for my liking.
There are a variety of questions that can be raised about Daly's career, beyond the infamous banning of male students from her advanced classes; on the latter, I can see her point, but on the other hand it's little better in my opinion than the ghastly Islington registrar Lilian Ladele refusing to perform Civil Partnerships: in other words, whatever wacko views you feel it incumbent upon you to hold, you have to perform the job you were employed to do fairly. I find it striking that Daly told women to leave the Church en masse, but continued to work for a Jesuit university for over three decades. Intellectually, the main problem is her apparent inability to conceive that there might be other axes of oppression beyond men vs women, and that perhaps class, education, race, and economic status might just possibly complicate such a simplistic binary. It mystifies me that such a sophisticated thinker could be so tin-eared at times. Hers was ultimately not a flexible mind; her intellectual style closely resembles that of that Eagleton-coined atheist pushmi-pullyu, 'Ditchkins', i.e. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchkins. Whereas Ditchkins sees religion itself as an irredeemably corrupting influence on the human mind and writes from a position of withering intellectual certainty, Daly saw the kyriarchical forms of religion as the monstrous leviathan to be slain by herself as a labrys-wielding female Marduk. Both often hit the target and hit it hard; both are often guilty an obtuse lack of imaginative sympathy and intellectual manoeuvrability.
There were other problems: the issues about Daly's unedifying fear and loathing of transsexual women (to whom she implied actual violence should be done) have been well picked over on the blogosphere, as has womanist poet Audre Lorde's famous open letter accusing Daly (in polite terms) of a privilged, colonialist and unconsciously racist mindset and methodology---to which Daly apparently never publicly responded. I'll let you hunt those out for yourselves should you wish to do so.
All in all, I'm glad feminism has moved beyond Beyond God the Father, as it were, jettisoning Daly's utopian flights of fantasy and lurid lesbian neo-hierarchies, despite her importance. Daly once wrote: 'I urge you to sin. But not against these itty-bitty religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism – or their secular derivatives, Marxism, Maoism, Freudianism and Jungianism – which are all derivatives of the big religion of patriarchy. Sin against the infrastructure itself!' I find in this---Maoism and Marxism aside---a recipe for the reductive suicide of human culture, and an extraordinary sense of intellectual contempt deriving from unconscious feeling of vulnerability to pollution. (She could have done with thinking about Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger a bit harder.) For Daly, there is no point even thinking about, say, the three-thousand year old legacy of Hindu culture, spirituality, literature, art, ritual, architecture, medicine, or philosophy: it is merely an instantiation of the patriarchy. (Someone had better pop Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty a note through.) I find myself questioning whether Daly was really learned enough in, for example, Buddhism or Jungian thought to pronounce them valueless and 'itty-bitty' in this way. Judging by her basic lack of attention to them and the historical errors of her scholarship, I rather doubt it. As she gradually lost interest in any account of literature, psychology, biology, history, or religion which conflicted with her stark worldview, she became increasingly ideologically self-marooned; a great loss to the world, as she had an exceptional mind.
There's one term in particular that I do wish that she had picked up from Jung: enantiodromia, that is, 'the tendency of polarised extremes to come to resemble one another via a process of compulsive unconscious compensation.' Ultimately, Daly was an extraordinarily powerful and yet limited thinker, who took the tools used to construct patriarchal religion and analysed them in great and mordant detail. Alas that she went on to use those tools to erect a house of mirrors, which came strangely to reproduce the original patriarchal edifice. By being hierarchically exclusivist, by claiming privileged access to truth, by erecting purity laws about sex and by anathematizing dissent, Daly created a house in which every surface reflected only her own face. In the end, perhaps the best---and the worst---that I can say about Mary Daly is that after a lifetime's striving in the service of feminist thought and nine or so books, historically she won't even be as important as Camille Paglia, another lesbian feminist and her thorough-going ideological opposite.
Anyway, despite my misgivings above, rest in peace, Mary.