Monday, February 14, 2011


Despite saying that "Every woman has the right to maternity," (Loy's "Feminist Manifesto"), Mina Loy does not seem to have a favorable experience with it herself. Most of her poems relating to motherhood seem to be about childbirth and abortion, while there seems to be distance between her and her real children. Loy describes her nine-year-old daughter Joella as a beautiful Italian statue, a youthful Madonna: "But this small image of maternal plentitude was a temptation. "I must run away from it," Mina remembered thinking. Ambivalent feelings about mothering and being mothered--who was the parent and who was the child?--rose to the surface in a moment of panic [...] Parting may have resurrected the anguish of her first memory--of exile from home and the enchantment of beauty" (Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, 193-194).

For Loy, motherhood seems to be both a thing of beauty and a thing of pain. Her "Feminist Manifesto" reads favorably towards maternity, saying that the "complete woman" is both the mistress and the mother, and that "it is to your interest to demolish ... the division of women into [these] two classes" (154). According to Loy, "the woman who is a poor mistress will be an incompetent mother" because "the woman who is so incompletely evolved as to be un-self-conscious in sex, will prove a restrictive influence on the temperamental expansion of the next generation" (154). Un-self-conscious may be read two ways: i.e., confident and the opposite of modern self-consciousness, or conscious of self. In Loy's case I think it's the latter.

She goes on to say that "Every woman of superior intelligence should realize her race-responsibility, in producing children in adequate proportion to the unfit or degenerate members of her sex--" (155). In other words, if you are a complete woman, you should produce as many children as the incomplete women of your generation, to balance out the bad with the good. So she appears to be a staunch believer in maternity.

Her poems reflect the darker side of her ideology, and show the pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Parturition (found all the way at the bottom of that page) is an intense depiction of not just childbirth, but creation in general:
"Locate an irritation without
It is within
Within" (4)
Two things. First, yes, she did just refer to the coming infant as an irritation. Second, this sounds to me like the itch you get when you need to write and can't find the words, and nothing inspires you because whatever you're trying to say is completely internal. So this poem is not just the parturition (which means the process of giving birth) of a child, but the parturition of itself. It follows the progress of the birth, the stanzas are ideas strung together as Loy works out what she is trying to say. They are only loosely connected, jumping around with each emotion that she feels. The connecting idea is pain and her struggle to overcome it. Some examples:
"I am the centre
Of a circle of pain
Exceeding its boundaries in every direction
Pain is no stronger than the resisting force
Pain calls up in me
The struggle is equal
I am climbing a distorted mountain of agony
Incidentally with the exhaustion of control
I reach the summit
And gradually subside into anticipation of
Which never comes" (4-5)
"Songs to Joannes" is rife with allusions and sometimes outright mentions of abortion. See these two lines from the second stanza of number XVII:
"Red a warm colour on the battle-field
Heavy on my knees as a counterpane" (60)
Or the second stanza of III:
"We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings" (54)
"The procreative truth of Me
Petered out
In pestilent
Tear drops" (62)
So what we have in Loy's prose versus her poetry is a dichotomy between ideology and reality. Theoretically, maternity is just as full an expression of a woman's self as sexuality, and vice versa; but the theorizing forgets the pain of pregnancy, abortion and childbirth. Loy is still favorable of maternity:
"Mother I am
With infinite Maternity
I am absorbed
The was--is--ever--shall--be
Of cosmic reproductivity" ("Parturition" 7)
But in the real world, it comes with an edge. So maternity, childbirth, is both beautiful and painful. It is infinite, but comes with a price.

And speaking of that price, interestingly, at the end of the "Manifesto," Loy says this: "Women must destroy in themselves, the desire to be loved--" by men. In other words, they must focus more on their children than their husbands. While a complete woman must be both a mistress and a mother, as discussed earlier, these two states are apparently not concurrent for Loy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

XXXIV: Love -- -- -- the preeminent litterateur

I know this entry looks long, but don't worry; it just quoted poetry, which takes up a lot of space. This week, we're moving from theoretical texts to poetry: the poetry of Mina Loy. Another contemporary of Gertrude Stein, Loy is practically impossible to place within any of the literary and artistic movements of the early 20th century. She just skips among them all intermittently. She is most obviously a feminist, but even that title is questionable based on her reverence for virgins and mothers, both states of being typically rejected by the feminists of the age.

For this entry, I'm going to focus on a set of short poems collectively entitled "Songs to Joannes" or "Love Songs," generally understood to be the disjointed narrative of Loy's relationship(s), especially with a man named Giovanni Papini. A number of the fragments/stanzas are reproduced here, though without Loy's spacing and mostly mis-numbered; I also read this essay, which is a very interesting close reading of the poem.

Thematically, it's sort of difficult to understand "Songs" because Loy uses extremely ambiguous language. Interpretations may be plausible but rarely concrete. Yet, in anticipation of the young adult literature I'll read at the end of the semester, I will venture to consider the adolescence of the poem's speaker and subject. Mina Loy was 33 when she began writing "Songs," but there is throughout the fragments the feeling of hesitance and disillusion that comes with young love and young sex.

The first fragment (I, found at the "Primitive Modern" link) sets this up, citing such typical romance stand-bys as Cupid and "Once upon a time":
"Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
"Once upon a time"
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucous-membrane"
The speaker is the weed, a virgin "white star-topped" which Pig Cupid pulls "Among wild oats": men. She is lured by the fantasies, the once-upon-a-time, into the sexual world. The next stanza shows the cosmic attraction of this world, open, expansive, starry; but Loy says "These are suspect places/I must live in my lantern/Trimming subliminal flicker/Virginal to the bellows/Of Experience". So the speaker determines to remain virginal.

But not for long. See fragment IX:
"When we lifted
Our eye-lids on Love
A cosmos
Of coloured voices
And laughing honey

And spermatozoa
At the core of Nothing
in the milk of the Moon"
Again, there's the cosmic imagery of a Love fantasy which then shifts in the second stanza to become the sarcastic reality of insemination: "And spermatozoa/at the core of Nothing/in the milk of the Moon". The fantasy has ended in pregnancy, and the speaker is disillusioned. Interestingly, this comes after fragment VIII, which seems to show the speaker's state of mind post-impregnation:
"I am the jealous store-house of the candle-ends
That lit your adolescent learning
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Behind God's eyes
There might
Be other lights"
This fragment features some bitterness on the part of the speaker for her involvement in the young man's "adolescent learning", for which she pays the price and for which she is the "store-house," the pregnant uterus. The last three lines also speak to the disillusionment in the cosmic love fantasy: "Behind God's eyes/There might/Be other lights".

This theme continues in XI: "Dear one at your mercy/Our Universe/Is only/ A colorless onion/You derobe/Sheath by sheath/ Remaining/A disheartening odour/About your nervy hands". The cosmic love universe is an onion, the boy smells funny, and his hands shake. The last stanzas of fragment XIII show a conflict between the cosmic love fantasy and the patriarchal realities as the two young lovers struggle to understand what they're doing:
"Where two or three are welded together
They shall become god
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- ---
Oh that's right
Keep away from me Please give me a push
Don't let me understand you Don't realise me
Or we might tumble together
Into the terrific Nirvana
Me you -- you -- me"
The third possible person for welding refers to the fetus, the child. In the last stanza there's this fear of depersonalization, of losing identity. Pietroiusti argues that this fear is the man's fear rather than the female speaker's, based on the conversational rhetoric: "Oh that's right" (34). This is supported by the "Please give me a push," which seems to indicate that the female speaker is unwilling to keep this barrier between them. Like Dworkin, the speaker sees sex in which two bodies become one as ideal: "Where two or three are welded together/They shall become god".

I had trouble identifying themes in the beginning, but the more I read "Songs" the more there is. There is so much more to discuss, and if I were writing a paper on this set of poems (which I very well might) I could go on forever; but for the sake of this post I'll start to wrap things up. There are multiple references to the abortion of the unplanned pregnancy, which features in the linear story but which really deserves its own examination. One of the last fragments, XXIX, appears to look back remorsefully and plea for the prevention of young love.
"Let them clash together
From their incognitoes
In seismic orgasm

For far further
Rather than watch
Own-self distortion
Wince in the alien ego"
The fragment pleas against the merging, welding love earlier favored--probably because in this instance, it failed, and the speaker's disillusionment with the cosmic love fantasy is complete. The last fragment is the title of this entry: "Love -- -- -- the preeminent litterateur". The speaker is resigned to the idea that all of this has resulted in a good story.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


So tonight, we're moving on to some chapters from Luce Irigaray's This Sex Which Is Not One. The book is primarily a critique of Freud's psychoanalysis by Irigaray as a modern psychoanalyst. I'm not terribly interested in psychoanalysis personally, though the intellectual relationship between Freud and Irigaray is interesting. That aside, as I read more, a pattern emerges that's also consistent with Dworkin's work. This pattern is two-fold:

1. Female sexuality is constructed in terms of male sexuality.

We talked in the last entry about how women's bodies are designed to be entered by the penis, thus giving men irrefutable dominance. For Dworkin, this biological arrangement of intercourse created the basis for women's status as inferior to men. Irigaray takes a psychological approach, characterizing the penis as "active" and the vagina as "passive." Even the "activity" of the clitoris is attributed to its status as a little penis.
"In these terms, woman's erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing" (23).
Fairly self-explanatory. We've all heard this argument before.

2. Male pleasure precludes female pleasure.

Irigaray addresses the above problem of phallomorphism with the concept of female autoeroticism: "Woman "touches herself" all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact" (24). So, far from being passive, the labia and vaginal walls participate in constant self-caress. Now, obviously we're not all in a constant state of arousal because of this perpetual touch; rather it represents the plurality and fullness of female sexuality and being. When Irigaray chose the title C'est sexe qui n'en pas un, she meant that women have more than one sexual organ; a biological truth often neglected in phallocentric discourse.

Male pleasure is that phallocentric discourse: its focus is penetration, the envelopment of the penis. As we discussed before, penetration for Dworkin represents the invasion of the female body. For Irigaray, penetration disrupts the autoeroticism described above:
"the brutal separation of the two lips by a violating penis, an intrusion that distracts and deflects the woman from this "self-caressing" she needs if she is not to incur the disappearance of her own pleasure in sexual relations" (24).
For both authors, male pleasure, derived from the penetration of women, precludes female sexual pleasure by depriving her of self-caress, by invading her inner being as experienced through her body--or often by simply not lasting long enough.

Like I said, psychoanalysis isn't really my thing, but these two ideas can be related to other discourses. The first one still seems like a hot topic; the second one is perhaps a little less relevant by today's standards, what with the expansion of sexual positions that give women more control and by the growing societal acceptance of female masturbation. Ah, well; take it for what you will.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Violation and the Power of the Female Orgasm

"Violation is a synonym for intercourse" (154).

So says Andrea Dworkin in today's chapter from Intercourse, "Occupation/Collaboration." In this chapter, she begins her discussion of the body by saying that it is inviolate. Women, however, are penetrated during intercourse, and that "The discourse of male truth--literature, science, philosophy, pornography--calls that penetration violation. [...] At the same time, the penetration is taken to be a use, not an abuse; a normal use; it is appropriate to enter her, to push into ("violate") the boundaries of her body" (154). Women's bodies are designed to be entered; the vagina is like a curtain, which, even when closed, can be easily pushed open.

Female roles, social and biological, have been built around this assumption that penetration/violation of women is "normal" and "appropriate." If we think of it in the basest terms, it is only through penetration of women that the human race can continue; therefore, it is necessary to some degree. For hundreds of years, into the present even, women are defined by their childbearing ability, but the reproductive power has only in the last few decades been given to women. Previous to widespread birth control and pro-choice laws, it was men who controlled which women they penetrated and impregnated. Marriages and pregnancies were economic. A woman's purpose was fulfilled by the penetration of her by a man.
"There is a deep recognition in culture and in experience that intercourse is both the normal use of a woman, her human potentiality affirmed by it, and a violative abuse, her privacy irredeemably compromised, her selfhood changed in a way that is irrevocable, unrecoverable. And it is recognized that the use and abuse are not distinct phenomena but somehow a synthesized reality: both are true at the same time as if they were one harmonious truth instead of mutually exclusive contradictions" (154).
Yet, as Dworkin points out in the above, society also recognizes that penetration changes a woman. There are psychological components to having something inside oneself. Sometimes they're positive, with feelings of welcoming, trust, fulfillment, satisfaction, intimacy. Sometimes, they're negative: violation, pain, invasion, betrayal, derogation, humiliation. As modern women, we tend to think of the distinction as clear, with laws of consent and such; but is it? Remember the "Hazards of Duke" article: Karen Owen was humiliated by a one-night stand she consented to. Even with a partner one trusts, some positions and methods of intercourse are considered more derogatory to women than others by society.
"...that slit that means entry into her--intercourse--appears to be the key to women's lower human status" (155).
As I said earlier, women are designed to be entered, occupied, as it were--and Dworkin likens the situation to occupied countries, dominated by a foreign army. Out in the world, it's all political, superficial even, but when used metaphorically to describe the situation of women it is intrinsic. Unlike an occupied country or subjected race/ethnicity, women can't throw off male occupation, refuse male penetration, without being viewed as deviant. "Intercourse is a particular reality for women as an inferior class; and it has in it, as part of it, violation of boundaries, taking over, occupation, destruction of privacy, all of which are constructed to be normal and also fundamental to continuing human existence" (156).

So what can we do about this? If women are biologically made to be dominated, how can we be free, equal? Dworkin quotes another feminist and sex researcher Shere Hite, who argues that it's through orgasm: "the ability to orgasm when we want, to be in charge of our stimulation, represents owning our bodies, being strong, free, and autonomous human beings" (158). Interestingly, Dworkin does not discuss this quote--I guess she's more interesting in doom-and-glooming--but I find it to be one of the most important things in this chapter.

The female orgasm is a strange and mysterious thing. It seems impossible to quantify; you just know when it happens. These days it seems to be sought by men and women alike ("Was it good for you, babe?" You know what I mean), but in the past it was largely ignored, passed over, or diagnosed as hysteria. Remember Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the modern women who had to be "active" if they wanted to achieve orgasm. Connie (at least in the beginning of the novel, before she submits to rough male domination) seems like someone Dworkin would approve of: a woman who keeps herself aloof from sexual submission and who takes charge of her own stimulation when the man falls limp.

Fundamentally, female orgasm means that we're getting something out of sex too; it's not just the man invading and taking what he wants. It becomes two people working together so that both can be satisfied. In terms of give and take, female orgasm means that we're taking something from the man/he's giving us something too. It creates balance. So I agree with Hite: orgasm returns our bodies to us--so go ye forth and be satisfied, ladies.