Writing

Women and Power in Western History

The Femme Fatale and the Liberated Woman

In one weekend, I was given a fast-forward fictional portrayal of the femme fatale in Saint Saens’s Opera Samson et Delila and a film version of the beginnings of the modern liberated woman in the movie, Colette

The film was based on brilliant writer who eventually broke away from a patriarchal husband who used her writing talents, under his name, to gain personal fame.

Colette reaches a tipping point when she discovers that her husband sold the rights to novels she essentially wrote.

It is her moment of truth when she storms into his office and confronts him with the tragic reality of what he has done to her: completely sold her artistic identity to someone else— the final and unforgivable transgression, in her mind.

On her arduous journey of independence, she discovers she no longer needs her husband’s name and power to succeed as a writer. Her talent is enough.

Seduction as Power, the Adulterous Lover, the Fleshless Saint

With some glowing exceptions (Queens Elizabeth and Victoria), it seems to me the only power women in the West have been allowed to have is the power of seduction.

Innocence, sanctity, maternity, and mediation found in the cult of the Virgin Mary during the Middle Ages reduced women to fleshless creatures of domesticity, quiet piety, and silent submission to God’s will (at least that’s the orthodox Christian version).

The courtly love tradition portrayed women as moaning lovers writing love letters hinting at a poetically inspired sexual tryst when a lover returned home from war or a military obligation (Granted the courtly love tradition may have been more myth than reality).

The women as seductress, however, seems to have been a constant in Western mythology, especially in the Old Testament. That role appealed to men because it obviously gave the male the innocent-victim status.

“The devil made me do it,” as an old tv comic character used to say. And the sexual devil was always in the form of a woman—- Salome, Bathsheba, Delilah, Jezebel

So, women it seems were given power in Christian myths as seducers (whores, most likely) or as adulterous, but bloodless lovers by mutual consent in the courtly love tradition.

On the dry side, women were permitted to have some iconic status as saints or martyrs, but, as we’ve seen with the cult of Mary, only as fleshless domestic servants of God.

Women and the Arts

On the other hand, in the arts, women really had no power. Their roles were to reproduce, to cook, and to clean. Or to help with the farming.

What we think of as their nurturing role may have been non-existent given all their harsh duties, not to mention how many births they had to have just to make sure that a few of their children would survive.

In any event, prior to very modern times, most women didn’t have time to compose an oratorio, to write a a play, or to paint, especially for a living.

Even if they married into wealth, they were prohibited, by tradition, from either exposing their talents (unless to “perform” as a vocalist or pianist in a salon setting) or establishing an independent career in the arts.

Colette certainly broke that tradition as an independent writer.

Thanks to her, thousands of women have been inspired to find their unique power in the arts as fiction writers.

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The Moon

 

It is round
It arrives
It shines
It reflects
It is the sun’s stepchild,
It comes out
It stares without blinking
It draws us to it
It approves.

It hangs out in cemeteries
It sometimes sleeps in a cradle
It watches without judgment
It hides
It is silent
It is still
It waits for brides to stop dancing,
It wonders

It is the desert’s flashlight
It is the night’s open eye
It sleeps.
It whispers to werewolves
and drunks
It blushes
It caresses schizophrenics

It permits
It reveals
It sings the same song to all
first-time lovers
It cannot hear politicians
It stays when relatives leave
It holds the gun to your head,
Makes incisions that don’t hurt.

It grieves like an old man
It cries for limping dogs
It is never jealous your friends,
It won’t say goodbye.

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I Am Not Your Negro, Review

I am not your negroEDITEDDirected by Raoul Peck, the documentary, I am Not Your Negro, is based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin about the three modern iconic black leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.

All three represented the three distinct movements in contemporary black history and culture: the NAACP, the peaceful resistance movement of MLK, and the more activist Nation of Islam Movement of Malcolm X.

The documentary, on so many levels, is almost impossible to take in in one sitting. Its sweep is large, including archival photos and footage of lynchings; some of the divisions among the black leadership; the civil rights era, including the school integration crisis in the south prompting visceral white reaction: the riots and the Black Panther confrontations with the police; footage of the trauma within the black community after the assassinations of Evers, King, and Malcolm X.

All of these historically momentous events became more compelling with the brilliant language of Baldwin’s text woven into the documentary and footage of Baldwin’s provocative speaking and debating skills (Baldwin had early training as a preacher).

Peck’s brilliant directing made use of images of the volatile civil rights era seamlessly blended in with the more contemporary images of Obama’s presidency, the Black-Lives-Matter protests and the photos of some of the young blacks killed by the police, prompting the protests.

Peck managed to brilliantly incorporate brief excerpts of classic films showing either how blacks had been demeaned and stereotyped as characters or how they began to be slowly given substantial character roles. He also included snippets of some classic white films with characters who were portrayed as western heroes or as romantically desirable, two characterizations denied blacks in the Hollywood film industry for decades.

Be prepared for an emotionally engaging film at the top of its game in presenting a comprehensive look at post-World War II black America under the exquisite direction of Raoul Peck and the literary brilliance of James Baldwin.

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William Pitt, My Blind Grandfather

He was blind, his eyes suffocated
Into silence,
In his grief, imagining,
His body’s stark opposition to
The innocent flow
Of children in bow ties
And full pink skirts,
Or an aging oak’s
Craggy shreds of skin
Once seen by the
Boy he used to be,
Eyes wide open,
Squinting against
An orgy of sun
His pupils knew
Could not absorb.

But now, in old age,
His eyes cannot remember
What they saw yesterday,
Austere, naked emptiness,
Burglarized by time,
Bargaining with his body
To hear more than
He could endure

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My Fear, My Lover

Stretched bodies
On hospital gurneys,
Fear in the air,
With outspread wings,
Curved talons,
Gliding through
The willing sky,
Its startled prey
Once more
A skin-soft lover,
Aching, in real time,
To be fondled,
Wet-tongued
Into sweet surrender.

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Ours

These words are mine,
No other’s.

On mornings
When I hear your arms
Tumbling through
The shower spray,
I wonder if it’s worth
My while,
To keep still,
Holding my breath,
Reluctant as I am
To hear strangers
On subways
Spewing curses and odd
Remnants of
Schizophrenic tales:

Mothers left on ships,
Sons in thick forests
Of their ambitions,
Daughters bartered
Through every truce.

Secrets catch us
By our shirttails,
But they are ours,
My love,
They are ours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Cannot Tell a Lie, Sometimes

I said yes to you once
Because the angle
of the sun seemed right
At the time.
But now, in this
More cordial season,
Formality requires
My truant distance.

Remembering our
Backyard sandbox
Below the dining room
Windows, observing
The sweet chaos
Of your hands, I knew
You, even then,
As one requiring
Royal loyalty
I could not give.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Love, Passion, Ecstasy, and the Ordinary

Love as Constancy

Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments,” says the bard.

So, my friends, are we to believe about “true” love that it is constant, as the poet would have us believe? Or, if you are a cynic, relentlessly constant?

We are consistently reminded in this famous Shakespearean sonnet that love does not change; “it is the ever fixéd mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken.” It is the stable “star” in the heavens, the guide to every lost ship (“wandering bark”). Continue reading

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