Saturday, March 16, 2019

the future is female, John Keats

The other day, I was reading Annie Dillard's The Maytrees. Dillard’s protagonist, Toby Maytree, who is probably the most likable detestable straight white male I have ever met in fiction, contemplates a letter John Keats wrote to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds. In this letter, John Keats discusses the tragic propensity of intellectuals to constantly make connections and think about things, instead of being able to keep their minds focused, meditating upon one beautiful thing per day.

Keats bemoans this deplorable disposition for activity: why can we not just sit and ponder a single unplumbable beauty presented to us? There is more than enough—a saturated reality of enough—in a single beauty to keep us occupied for nearly an eternity. Keats then considers bees (do poets ever consider anything else?). And he meditates on how it is equally blessed to give as to receive, but no doubt “the flower receives a fair guerdon from the Bee […] and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted?”

Darling John Keats, I thought to myself in the shower later that morning (I was not delighting myself, I was simply contemplating John Keats). And it seemed impossible to me that John Keats would have been straight. And it his very comments about bees and the delight of the Woman that prompts this thought. This is narrow-minded of me, perhaps. Or perhaps means I have been overly influenced by the gay-interest-icon Ben Wishaw playing Keats in Bright Star (incidentally, probably the single most influential movie of my high school years).

But why do I think this? Keats, like most poets and intellectually-minded persons, presents like a very non-traditionally masculine man, because traditional masculinity, for all intents and purposes, in twenty-first century America seems to be an ideal that is predicated on power. Thus, it follows that men who are not much interested in securing their identity or asserting their self-worth through power over others have not been much interested in traditional masculinity. I think, as I pondered John Keats, this means less that they are interested in other men and more that they are interested in what is equal to them, what is on a similar footing, what is able to enter with them into their rapturous interest of contemplating the world, the bees, the blushing flowers of the spring—to be, like a best friend, the single strand of beauty they are able to exhaust, to gnaw to the marrow.

And, perhaps, historically, your chances of finding this among men was much greater than finding this among women. Fanny Brawnes are rare.

But also so are John Keats.

Anyhow, I am not ascribing the existence of homosexuality to the historical subjugation of women. The point is:

This afternoon, I was immersed in the ur-female ritual of a baby shower. While I have often showered (see above), I have never attended a shower for anything before. I didn't realize no men were invited. But there was not a single male in sight (barring the infant in utereo) and the man of the house quickly departed after being glimpsed in the shadows with a dog. I suppose the balloons and pastel paper is not the most female part of the ritual, although it may be feminine. No, there's something utterly primordal about a group of women offering up to one of their members blankets for a child not-yet-born, swapping advice about how to swaddle, coax an infant to sleep, or burp a baby correctly. It is viscerally female; the sort of rich, earthy female-ness of blood and flesh that the world is born from.

It is interesting to discover, after graduate school, that the very way one enters into conversations with women can be compromised. I stand outside of myself, shaking my head at my over-eager body getting trapped in my head and using too many hand motions at the blue-colored tablecloth, over word searches with words such as "pacifier" and "bassinet." My language does not belong here. But I also realize that I do. And I can bring this language—of lecture halls and seminars, and ridiculous talking-shop sessions in the lounge—to this space. None of these women here are not interested in ideas. Our lives are made up of ideas. One cannot help having an idea or operating on one. Ideas are part of who and what we are—to be able to express the ideas that lie at the center of our being is a great gift and is, according to Lewis' narrator in Til We Have Faces, a salvific necessity. We must be able to articulate the ideas at the center of our experiences in order not only to encounter our own identity, but the gods' as well.

Then, my sister-in-law's grandmother said something very much like Marilynne Robinson in her essay "Imagination and Community" in When I was a Child I read Books. I am listening to it in an audio version and it truly is like having the wisdom of your grandmother siphoned into your ear. It's glorious. Robinson's wisdom is the wisdom of grandmothers—the wisdom that defies rational argument. Marilynne, honestly, you're really not taking into account x, y, z when you discuss the market economy. She would most likely listen, as grandmothers do to the younger generation, realize there's no arguing with bull-headed youth who are intent on scientific correctness, and then continue with her point. When they were younger, these women inform us, they had only two options in their education: to be a teacher or to be a nurse. Perhaps a secretary, as a job, but the professions for women were education and nursing. Now, remarks Robinson, and the wise Carol Berg, women have so many more opportunities: all professions are open to women. She is delighted that we are taking our own selves with us into the foreign, alien worlds that have opened up to us.

How delightful that the experience of being in a sunny Minnesota suburban living room with other down-to-earth, earnest, hospitable, hard-working women who have the wisdom that comes from many children and building up their communities with their own two hands is no longer relegated simply to the sphere of home-building and person-raising. Perhaps I am a gender essentialist, I do not know, but it does seem that there is more to being a woman than my own individual experience. That to be "female" or "feminine" is not to be simply me, Renée, a woman, in the world, but participating in an experience of like-ness with other people who identify as women, to be "like" others who are feminine, whether male or female. We call a man "feminine" because he participates in these qualities that largely women share, and we call a woman "masculine" because she has some quality we see as originating in men. I do not know if this way of articulating this fact stems from the deep divisions in the past that are unhelpful and mostly should be done away with, but it does seem to be a deeper truth than any of the societal constructs which we have ornamented and confined each quality into.

Probably the wisest things to say about "feminine" or "masculine" begin with I don't know.

But it seems to me important and perhaps true that whatever quality it is that I share with the women around me, although I am different than them, is now part of the wider culture. This quality we share, where two and three of us are gathered, can create a different way of communicating, different management structures, perhaps different classroom cultures, different experiences and modes of experiencing the world coming into conversation with prevailing narratives. This wisdom and experience is vitally, viscerally important. I do not know that "feminine" is the life-blood from which the earth springs. But there's good reason that terra firma is called "mother earth." Life springs from the female, bloody and slicked in mucus.

I do not know, John Keats, if she delights more than the male. (I mean, as we all know, it is utterly contingent on him who seeketh to delight. Not all bees are equal, if you catch my drift.) But only when her delight, the force of her life, her desire, and her joy is truly and honestly considered is the world's severed halves made whole.

No comments:

Post a Comment