To Love And To Work
Revelations: Diaries of Women edited by Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter Random House; $10.00, 404 pp.
Why do women keep diaries?...Dissatisfaction with the way love and work have been defined for the female is the unconscious impulse that prompts many to pour out their feelings on paper and to acquire the habit of personal accounting on some more or less regular basis. --from the Foreword to Revelations
WHY DO women keep diaries? Listen to a shrink. Better yet listen to two. When asked what a normal person should be able to do, Freud answered "to love and to work." When asked about the relation of woman's mental health to her productive activity, Otto Rank replied that "when the neurotic woman gets cured she becomes a woman. When the neurotic man gets cured he becomes an artist." Many women's diaries were born of the madness of the double standard so preciously summarized in these musings.
Often, the diary proves the only haven for the "person" whose human status is abrogated by her absence of maleness. Denied expression in self-defining work (as in Rank's man-as-artist equation), woman is excluded from participation in half of Freud's definition for normal human existence. She is left in the inert limbo of existence as gender. Although women and men are both possessors of particular sexes and participants in human existence, a woman is defined in terms of her possession of a sex ("woman"), while a man is defined in terms of his human status ("artist"). With a psychological frame-up like that, it's easy to see why women turn to paper and ink for human companionship.
It is a remarkably little observed fact that women have been people as long as they have been women. Yet these conflicting demands have shaped women's fates as long as men have tried to determine them. The energy women have summoned in an attempt to integrate the human and the female within the bizarre distortions of male-invented roles has been awesome; and it has been as little-heralded as the conflicting conditions which gave it birth. Revelations begins a tribute to that awesome energy.
The genre of the diary is a particularly revealing record of woman's struggle for coherent self-definition. The diary is traditionally the ultimately personal, direct model of expression. Surely Revelations derives a measure of its power from the personal intensity of the diarists' experience. But it was the insight of editors Mary Jane Moffat and Charlotte Painter to recognize that much of woman's personal experience is often universal and always political, a recognition which gives the collection its over-riding force. "For all the differences in their individual temperaments, social circumstances, and historical periods," write the editors, "the...diarists sound as if they were in conversation with each other, asking the same question, 'Who shall I be?' in relationship to love and work."
The editors' organization of entries into sections entitled Love, Work, and Power provides for powerful articulation of this generic reality. The Love section deals with the contradictions inherent in the male vision of woman in terms of her function for others. This reduction goes to the extent of suggesting that love, whose essence is response to and support of another, is woman's "work," a concept of a fundamentally different order. However much sacrifice and abnegation involved, work has for the male remained a willful manipulation of ideas and material in the external world. The entries in the Power section are testimony to the perspectives of women who were able to attain sufficient distance from male distortions to examine life from a human perspective. Each section is an enlightening approach to the ever elusive "self," whose pursuit has fascinated the keepers of journals.
AND FASCINATED with good cause. Especially in the Love section, the diary entries form a vibrant and terrifying portrait of society's near overwhelming threats to a woman's right to her own self. With devastating poignancy, the women of Revelations describe the heavy-handed social negation of woman's right to authentic expression of independent personality, of her right to growth through personally challenging work, and even of her right to direct participation in the forces in her life. For Anais Nin, the diary itself proved her only haven of authenticity: "Playing so many roles, dutiful daughter, devoted sister, mistress, protector, my father's new found illusion, Henry's needed all-purpose friend, I had to find one place of truth, one dialogue without falsity. This is the role of the diary."
The search for an authentic self is deflected in many ways. One of the saddest stumbling blocks to self-definition is the needless and wasteful alienation of values presented to the 15-year-old Nelly Ptashkina. She writes:
In the plans of my future life, which does not seem to be cast on feminine lines, there should apparently be no place for love and such like tender and sentimental things, but it is not so at all.
I have written more than once that in my nature there lives a tendency toward that 'other' world. And with all my longing for social work and public activity, it hurts me to part from the beauty of life and the thought of love.
Society's message to this adolescent female seemed horribly clear: a woman could be a worker or a lover, but could neither be both, nor be satisfied with either. For Ptashkina at least, the choice got easier when reduced to essentials. Love being what it is, pure gambler's odds for survival put it out of contention. "I shall arrange it, so as not to depend on love...I shall live," she writes. Love lost out to survival for Hannah Senesch, too, when to love meant "to disrupt my plans, give up my independence."
The fears of these young diarists were hardly unjustified. Sophie Tolstoy chose love. And marriage and kids and everything else. Her diaries record a carnage of the human soul that will inspire the staunchest to nausea and terror.
Early in her marriage, Tolstoy began the hellish experience of life as an intelligent woman trapped in the stupidities of a sexist society. She could neither obliterate nor accept her insistently complex self.
I sometimes want to break loose from his somewhat somber influence, to ignore it--but I can't. His influence is depressing because I begin to think in his way, to see things with his eyes and I am afraid of losing my own self and yet not becoming like him.
Drifting without an identity of her own, Tolstoy fell prey to the nemesis of sexist marriage. The holy imperative to devote one's soul to another human being whose primary devotion is to work brought possessiveness, analysis, self-reproach and despair. As if this weren't enough, Tolstoy's perceptiveness forced her to see the vicious source of the entire fiasco--woman's exclusion from meaningful work.
...the real source of all my troubles and bad moods is my egotism and my idea that his whole life, his thoughts, and his love must belong to me.
And yet one ought to have something else to love as well, just as Lyova loves his work, so that I could turn to it whenever he is cold to me...I can see it quite clearly now, for I have nothing else to occupy my mind; he of course, is too busy to notice all the details of our relationship.
Tolstoy's diaries mesmerize the reader into a weird state of catatonic horror.
I have always been told that a woman must love her husband and be honorable and be a good wife and mother. They write such things in ABC books, and it is all nonsense. The thing to do is not to love...
I want nothing but his love and sympathy, and he won't give it me; and all my pride is trampled in the mud; I am nothing but a miserable crushed worm, whom no one wants, whom no one loves, a useless creature with morning sickness and a big belly, two rotten teeth, and a bad temper, a battered sense of dignity, and a love which no one wants and which nearly drives me insane.
For Tolstoy, the grim treadmill just continued; age brought no respite, maturity no fulfillment.
I am so used to living not my own life but the life of Lyova and the children that I feel I have wasted my day if I haven't done something for them...It is sad that my emotional dependence on the man I love should have killed so much of my energy and ability; there was certainly once a great deal of energy in me...
Upon reaching the George Eliot entries, few readers will have cause to question the author's observation that "Few women, I fear, have had such reason as I have to think the long sad years of youth were worth living for the sake of middle age."
Middle age assumes a more engaging aspect for the women who damn the conventions of their male oppressors in a bid for a more human reality. In the section entitled Work, Virginia Woolf writes:
Perhaps Bob T. was right in his poem when he called me fortunate above all--I mean in having a mind that can express--no, I mean in having mobilized my being--learned to give it complete outcome,...that I have to some extent forced myself to break every mold and find a fresh from of being, that is of expression, for everything I feel or think. So that it is when it is working I get the sense of being fully energized--nothing stunted.
The truth of the matter seems to be that human beings--even those with breasts and vaginas--often expect a great deal more from life than any series of relationships with other human beings can be reasonably expected to provide. The nationally reknowned German graphic artist Kaethe Kollwitz once wrote:
...What he (her husband) always speaks of, what seems to him still the sole worthwhile goal of our long living together--that we should grow together in the deepest intimacy--I still do not feel and probably never will learn to feel.
Are not the ties with the boys also growing slacker? I almost think so. For the last third of life there remains only work. It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying--I am obliged to finish it. This seems to me to be the meaning of all the babble about culture. Culture arises only when the individual fulfills his cycle of obligations...
A meditation on our own society's obstacles to the individual's even defining her cycle of obligations yields a vision of our barbarism which both shocks and humbles.
IN POWER, one finds a revealing analytic perspective on some of the dynamics of that barbarism. Here the fusion of the personal and the political and the creative application of structural analogy would bring Karl Marx himself to orgasm. From Mary Boykin Ches nut, a nineteenth century wife of a southern slaveholder:
I have seen a Negro woman sold upon the block at auction. I was walking. The woman on the block overtopped the crowd. I felt faint, seasick...The woman was a bright mulatto, with a pleasant face. She was magnificently gotten up in silks and satins. She seemed delighted with it all; sometimes ogling the bidders, sometimes looking quite coy and modest; but her mouth never relaxed from its expanded grin of excitement. I dare say the poor thing knew who would buy her. My very soul sickened. It was too dreadful. I tried to reason. 'You know how women sell themselves and are sold in marriage, from queens downwards, eh? You know what the Bible says about slavery, and marriage. Poor women, poor slaves?
And when Lincoln, Sherman and company found it in their hearts and guns to bring freedom to black male America.
General Ches nut said many people were light hearted at the ruin of the great slave owners. He quoted some one: 'They will have no Negroes now to lord it over! They can swell and peacock about and tyrannize now over only a small parcel of women and children, those only who are their very own family.'
There's nothing like an historical memory to endear a woman to the charms of male society.
Luckily for all of us, the charms of male society have often enough been overlooked. For several Power diarists, reality is experienced in a more direct relation to underlying cosmic forces. Psychologist Joanna Field's experiments with the parameters of consciousness and perception reveal that exhilarating breadth of vision which is the essence of freedom.
I began to have an idea of my life not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know...I came to the conclusion then that 'continual mindfulness' could certainly not mean that my little conscious self should be entirely responsible for marshalling and arranging all my thoughts, for it simply did not know enough...I began to suspect that thought, which I had always before looked on as a cart horse to be driven, whipped, and plodding between shafts, might be really a Pegasus, so suddenly did it alight beside me from places I had no knowledge of.
It is a heady vision; a vision which comes from a world far removed from woman's oppressed sphere in man's socially stratified vale of tears. There is an explosive intrigue in the confluence of these realities. A woman once was wise enough to contemplate woman's struggle in man's hell from the strength of universal vision. Florida Scott-Maxwell was eighty-two and "fierce with reality" when she wrote about the Virgin Mary.
The selfless, tireless one, the rich giver and the meek receiver, with life giving energy flowing like milk from the breast, costing her nothing, is too, too much. Looked at in the grey light of daily living the concept is the demand of the ravening child, and we cannot respond to such a claim in man or child...At my age I care to my roots about the quality of women, and I care because I know how important her quality is.
The hurt that women have borne may have immeasurable meaning. We women are the meeting place of the highest and the lowest, and of minutia and riches; it is for us to see, and understand and have pride in representing ourselves truly. Perhaps we must say to man...'The time may have come for us to forge our own identity, dangerous as that will be.'
Hasta la revolucion.