Sunday, December 13, 2009

Shakespeare's daughters, excerpt 2

In this context Simone de Beauvoir's assertion that one is not born a woman but becomes one gains a new kind of potency. If modern woman has no identity, her "becoming" is both more random and more mysterious. The danger, surely, is that she will "become" – violently – in those parts of life where her sex can be experienced as unitary. In other words, if the difference of gender goes unexamined – is made to seem as though it doesn't exist – the girl will be more, not less, magnetised and fascinated by that difference. And she will look around her and see that the politicians, the captains of industry, the bankers and the power-brokers and the commentators are mostly men. This may be the reason – if there can be a reason – for the woman writer to risk taking femaleness and female values as her subject. "The fact is that the traditional woman is a mystified consciousness and an instrument of mystification," De Beauvoir writes. "She tries to conceal her dependence from herself, which is a way of consenting to it." Some of the most passionate writing in The Second Sex concerns the ways in which women seek to protect their privileges and property under patriarchy by condemning or ridiculing the honesty of other women. This remains true today: woman continues to act as an "instrument of mystification" precisely where she fears and denies her own dependence. For the woman writer this is a scarifying prospect. She can find herself disowned in the very act of invoking the deepest roots of shared experience. Having taken the trouble to write honestly, she can find herself being read dishonestly. And in my own experience as a writer, it is in the places where honesty is most required – because it is here that compromise and false consciousness and "mystification" continue to endanger the integrity of a woman's life – that it is most vehemently rejected. I am talking, of course, about the book of repetition, about fiction that concerns itself with what is eternal and unvarying, with domesticity and motherhood and family life. The sheer intolerance, in 2009, for these subjects is the unarguable proof that woman is on the verge of surrendering important aspects of her modern identity.

So the woman writer looking for work will still find plenty in the task of demystification, of breaking the silence that forms like fog around iterative female experience. She won't win the Man Booker prize for writing the book of repetition: she will, as De Beauvoir perceived, irritate and antagonise rather than please. What's worse, she may have to give back some of her privileges to write it. She may have to come out of her room, and take up her old place behind the sitting room door.

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