February 20, 2019

Guest Post by Allison Pearl: Five Literary Excerpts That Made Me a Feminist

Allison Pearl is a summer intern at the National Council of Jewish Women/LA, a native of Los Angeles, a Marlborough high school graduate, and a current student at Vassar College. At Vassar, she is studying psychology and drama, as well as pursuing her interests in gender studies, writing and literature.

I did not come easily to feminism. I resisted the title because I was afraid of making the word a part of myself: that blurry, future person I was simultaneously trying to find and create throughout adolescence. Growing up and becoming myself was, and continues to be, a slow, delicate process, and I used to fear that dropping ‘feminist’ into the image that I was so carefully attempting to craft would be a clumsy mistake. And personally, I didn’t feel differently about the title after reading statistics, or after encountering sexism, or even after reading Simone de Beauvoir. My transition into seeing myself as a feminist grew out of something I have known and owned about myself my whole life: I am a reader. Both in school and on my own, I am perpetually in the middle of a book, with an ever-growing, unread stack waiting on my nightstand. I always begin a book hoping to lose myself in the balm of another world, another life. Yet, more often than not, a book will turn out to be a drifting embarkation which ultimately transports me back to myself: a quiet, familiar shore. I didn’t know while I read some of these books, nor for some time afterward, what my destination was, but when I arrived and then turned to look behind me, they were, of course, all right where I had left them. They had borne me back to myself, and when I turned around, this is what I saw:

“She, for an instant, delayed deadly purpose in tears and reflection,
Fell, ghostlike, on the bed where she uttered a few final phrases:
‘Spoils that were so sweet once, while fate and its god gave permission,
Take to yourselves this soul. Cut me loose from all of this anguish.’ […]
This said, she pressed her face to the covers: […]
‘This is the fire that, far out to sea, the cruel Dardanian’s
Eyes must absorb. He must carry with him these omens of our death.’”

I chose to take Latin in high school because I liked the dreamy, dusty seclusion of a dead language, the riddled grammar and crude pronunciations that create pictures, not sentences: once-sweet spoils, vessels on the shore, the path to the dead world, eyes absorbing. These fragments of Book IV of The Aeneid rise slowly up to meet me as I translate.  Doomed, sweet Dido meets her end on a school bus in afternoon traffic on Pico Boulevard. She is beautiful to behold, even out at sea. She flings herself on the smoking pyre, adding herself to the pile of Aeneas’ forgotten possessions, and the smoke billows into the sky. This is Dido’s final message to Aeneas, who watches from his receding ship, and to me, her reader, watching from my own drifting vessel. Anticipating a written assignment, I lift my eyes from the page and begin to formulate Dido’s defense, contemplating her actions, her victimization, and her place in a man’s story. Eventually, I will reread this with an analytic eye that will spread a frost over the page. But in this moment, when the language is not dead but dying, I witness her, I feel the burden of desolation she ignores in her unshared death. Fifteen, on a school bus, in my khaki uniform skirt, a highlighter in my teeth, I underline with pen beneath her message.

“I espied thee, fair indeed and tall,
Under a platan, yet methought less fair,
Less winning soft, less amiably mild,
Than that smooth wat’ry image; back I turned,
Thou following cried’st aloud, “Return fair Eve,
Whom fli’st thou? Whom thou fli’st, of him thou art,
His flesh, his bone; to give thee being I lent
Out of my side to thee, nearest my heart
Substantial life, to have thee by my side
Henceforth an individual solace dear;
Part of my soul I seek thee, and thee claim
My other half’: with that thy gentle hand
Seized mine, I yielded.”

Eve- on trial. I’m sixteen, hurriedly reading Paradise Lost for AP English Literature, and I underline her image with unease. Someone is here; someone is knocking at the door. It occurs to me that there is more here than what is written on the page, and there is more to her. Eve is in the garden, and it doesn’t feel quite right. Apprehension slowly rises in me as I ponder the possibilities of what would happen if I looked below, at my own image, and liked what I saw, unimaginable as that may be. I do not know why or how she wants to return to her own self, the image in the pond, but I begin to think that perhaps I do not empathize not because I don’t understand, but because she is designed to be misunderstood. I am still far at sea, and the gleaming signal of smoke is perfectly mistakable for so many different things. Perhaps it means pain, anger, desolation, danger, submission, or even something more sinister, and I can’t know for sure, but I underline nevertheless. I watch with fear and envy her attempt to follow instincts that I cannot discern. These are just details we will skim over in class, but even though she fails, even though it all goes perfectly wrong, I am a witness. Here is reasonable doubt, disguised by his flesh, his bone, an individual solace dear. I ask if Eve is possibly a victim more of Milton, rather than Satan, and a classmate quickly says no, of course not. I can see why you would think that, but definitely not. I hesitate, then yield.

“She became with all that power sweeping savagely in and inevitably withdrawing, hypnotized, and the two senses of that vastness and this tininess (the pool had diminished again) flowering within it made her feel that she was bound hand and foot and unable to move by the intensity of feelings which reduced her own body, her own life, and the lives of all the people in the world, for ever, to nothingness. So listening to the waves, crouched over the pool, she brooded.”

I am in bed, hypnotized and stricken. I am holding To the Lighthouse on my chest, pressing hard for air. Waves are crashing all around a woman alone on a shore, before an ocean. This feels both overwhelmingly old and new. I feel the words seeping into me as I take in this woman on the page now pressed to my chest. There are some words we read that are forever written on our faces. I am inside and outside, vast and tiny, bound hand and foot. I am all tied up. I cannot really fathom it all at once, but something is ebbing and flowing. I feel myself drifting ever closer to the distant  shore, with each book transporting me closer and each tide tempting me back. Relief, sorrow, confusion and envy are all flowering within me, and I guess as to why. These women have a witness to their pain, thoughts, bravery, love, reasoning, sensations, brooding: simply, to their experiences of self. I feel rootless, vast and tiny. I am feeling and listening and underlining them, but I am incidental. I am unseen and I think, quietly and timidly, that there is still more to me, in here.

“What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disc jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?”

‘What else?’ All the answers ebb away as the chapter ends. I am reading The Crying of Lot 49 for a reason I will not have again. All of the answers are unmistakably in the ‘what else’: whatever will be left unsaid, whatever I find alone, whatever I can never have explained. Oedipa Maas is going to open a door I cannot follow her through. I don’t think I know any better. The rest of the book feels nauseating and bitter cold, but this part feels like the tide pool remaining once the ocean harshly pours away. Drifting architecture, no within and no without. The tower is everywhere, albeit magically and dizzyingly incidental- but everywhere. I can press hard in every direction, measure its field strength, even towards myself, into myself, but I am inescapable. All the power sweeping savagely in and inevitably withdrawing. I think I knew the solution, even then. Retrace my steps. This is the fire that eyes, far out to sea, must absorb. Take root. Find a witness.

“But look, I am writing once again.
I write, I wrote, I took root.
I am again one- and I can pull
So much thought, pulled taut
But then I will be furniture again,
My split ends are decoration in one’s home
But look now I am not even one, but everyone’s.

I do not do what I will
I did not come to be a subject
When I was so good at playing the object
And now I am no one’s.
And now I cannot come, I am all tied up.
I am not what anyone wanted. So I won.

Amateur and immature
I take root so I can be my own,
Because when one is one’s own, one is
Never a little too anyone.
I wrote to prove you wrong, and I
Did by becoming some thoughts, pulled taut.
You taught me, and I have slackened
Now into just this one,
So no, my only one-
I will not come.”

Less winning soft, less amiably mild. This is the end of the poem I write as high school comes to a close. Several people who matter in my life ask me if it is about them. I can see the words on their faces. And when each of them asks me, my immediate thought is yes, of course, everything works out beautifully if it’s for someone else. But I always say no, of course not. I can see why you would think that, but definitely not. They are all individuals solaced, but I am hearing a knock at the door. Someone is in here. There is still more here. I want to apologize for it, avoid and deflect what I am reading and what I have now allowed everyone else to read. Maybe my poem is designed to be misunderstood. But somehow, quietly and timidly, I don’t apologize, I don’t let go, and I don’t let it be a misunderstanding. This is my wat’ry image: a picture, not a sentence, less soft, less mild. And no one will try to turn back to it, except me. I will try, and try, and try. I try for a reason that I will never have for anything else. I retrace my steps. This is the fire that, far out to sea, eyes must absorb. Even from a distance- even through the smoke, the sea, the waves, the frost, I have finally glimpsed what I had misunderstood about the word. The message found me. I am now perfectly unmistaken, perfectly unmistakable in myself. This was always the destination. When I reached myself, when I saw myself arrive from a history, from a sea of women, I became a feminist. I read these women, one by one, and I suspect that sooner than I realized, they were all written upon my face.

(Sources: The Aeneid by Virgil, Paradise Lost by John Milton, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon)