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It's not to see myself in everything I want, but to find everything at home in me. Robin Morgan, "The Duel" In Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978), one of the most unusual books produced by the women’s movement, Susan Griffin reconstructs from within the voice of the patriarchy, demonstrating its evasions, its pontifications, its cognitive dissonance, its metaphysical dishonesty, its hidden agenda. The genius of this unclassifiable book—part scholarly treatise, part narrative, part poetry—is, as I will argue, its polyphonous method.
In the table of contents we are told that Griffin’s first chapter, “Matter” will reveal “man’s ideas about nature and his attitudes toward women . . . side by side and in historical order.” And that is precisely what we do find. For over forty pages she allows the patriarchy to speak in its own words, always in passive voice, about matter. Citing (often quoting or paraphrasing) the writings of philosophers, scientists, theologians, and writers from Plato to Saint Augustine to Edmund Spenser to Newton to Nietzsche (the sources are attributed only in the notes at the end of the book, although many of the allusions are identifiable by an astute reader), Griffin allows each to incriminate himself. Virtually every paragraph begins “it is written,” or “it is discovered,” or “it is said that,” or “it is decided that.” We listen in as Rorty’s “conversation of mankind” progresses. This conversation, as Griffin depicts it, has a cumulative effect, assembled in this way. It reveals the mind of the patriarchy to be irrational, guilty of extreme psychohistorical cognitive dissonance, despite its pretensions to pure rationality and consistency.
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Thomas Kuhn had, of course, already taught us that, in keeping with “the structure of scientific revolutions,” historical mind‐sets, paradigms, change over time—that the scientific “truth” of one era can metamorphose, slowly, painfully, and not without fits and starts, into the “truth” of the next. Griffin shows us more: in Woman and Nature we witness the patriarchy falling all over itself to save face as it changes its mind. Caught in historical contradiction, guilty of changing its mind, the patriarchy struggles to maintain at least the appearance of consistency. In contemporary brain science, we can perhaps detect similar cognititive dissonance in process. There is preliminary evidence, cited in a revealing article a a few years in the reborn Ms., that, in light of the now‐commonplace understanding of lateralization of brain function (with the left hemisphere essentially rational, verbal, and logical, and the right imaginative, holistic, and intuitive) the patriarchy is quickly revising the paradigm—in which the classic male mindset would appear to be primarily left‐brained, and the classic female characteristically right—so that it may claim that, in keeping with a current change of fashion in preferred‐brain‐dominance, “it is now decided that” men actually are (and no doubt always have been) right‐ brained. Hannah Arendt once contended that female thought should follow the example of Penelope, who as she waited for Odysseus’ return and stalled the advances of her suitors, unraveled by night what she wove by day. The patriarchy, Griffin makes clear, does not like to weave and reweave. Preferring the monolithic and the linear, it would have knowledge progress in a uniform wave front, never stepping back to leap, never circling back upon itself, never falling into minor errors like the Ptolemaic cosmos that take centuries to rationalize away. The warp and woof of western thought, as Griffin dilineates, maintains consistency on some fronts, however: whatever its particulars, it distrusts matter, finds women irrational, remains, as Griffin’s epigraph to the chapter (from Tillie Olsen), presages, “remote above the dwindled earth, the concealed human life.”
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Epigraphs are essential to Griffin’s method. Beginning with the chapters which follow “Matter”—on “Land,” “Timber,” “Wind,” “Cows,” “Mules,” “The Show Horse,” “Her Body”—chapters which imaginatively reconstruct, based on meticulous research, the strange history of each topic under the reign of the patriarchy, Griffin uses epigraphs in startling way. Strange encounters take place: Simone de Beauvoir meets an expert in soil science; an art historian’s assessment of the perfect nude is juxtaposed with a treatise on dairy cattle’s dictums on animal posing; Emily Post meets Jean‐Jacques Rousseau. Consider, for example, the epigraphs which top the first of these chapters, “Land: Her Changing Face” (we will look at the text of that chapter momentarily—as an example of Griffin’s prose poetry). I saw everything as no man had ever seen before . . . I felt like an explorer in medicine who first views a new and important territory. Marion Sims, M.D. (on the invention of the speculum) Consider Him who chose to be born of a virgin. . . . Freely he penetrates viscera known only to Himself and with greater joy enters paths where none has ever been. These limbs, He feels, are His own: unsoiled and unshared by any man. . . . Fortunatus (bishop of Poitiers 530‐609), Opera Poetica . . . a countrey that hath yet her mayden head, never sakt, turned. nor wrought. Sir Walter Raleigh, "Discovery of Guiana" The reader is immediately struck by the pattern of sexism—the ubiquitous metaphor of the world of knowledge as a virgin female in medicine, theology, geography— revealed by the meeting of these quotations. The intensions of most epigraphers are more that a little obscure. Why does an author use an epigraph? An epigraph may be used pedantically to special plead in advance for the author's wide reading. Or authors may use quotations out of context in epigraphs as arguments‐from‐authority on the behalf of their own, about‐to‐be‐ presented thesis. A third, related, motive is discernible. As Harold Bloom has chronicled for us ad nauseum, writers suffer from the "anxiety of influence," and this
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is, I suppose, as true of scholars as it is of poets. Compulsive epigraphing (not to mention compulsive footnoting) may thus be the result of a bad dose of such anxiety. Afraid of speaking for themselves, scholars often resort to epigraphs in order to establish up front their pedigree, to show they are not alone in thinking as they do, to evoke precedent for their sometimes dubious passions. For Griffin, however, epigraphs play a methodological role: they become for her n a revealing means of psychohistorical exploration. Selected according to the strict principles of her own radical feminist “sampling theory,” Woman and Nature’s epigraphs stand as patriarchal signatures, or if you prefer genes isolated out of the whole double helix of the western mind‐set.
As we have already seen in the example of Griffin’s use of epigraphs cited above, her method relies heavily on juxtaposition, but her bringing together of the seemingly dispirite is not limited to epigraphs alone. Consider, for example, the following unusual text, from a chapter entiteld “Exploraion.” It is said that in his old age (Automatically, at their command the shovel extends) he fears he is losing his powers (and extracts a sample) that the aging of his body (of soil) makes him frantic (which is placed) and thus frantically (in an incubation chamber) he searches (aboard the spacecraft) for a young woman. (The soil is kept) Some say (perfectly dry) being close to youth (and is incubated) makes him younger (for five days at 50 degrees) or at least he feels younger (under an arc lamp that simulates Martian sunlight). Others say (A quartz window) that proving he can still (filtered out ultraviolet light) attract a young woman (that might have caused) restores him (spurious signals). And still others point out (on radioed commands from Earth) that in capturing (the test chamber was filled) a young, even virginal woman (with Martian atmosphere) he has proven his prowess (Then the experimenters) once again. (sent up a radio command) But in all cases (that added a whiff of radioactive carbon) he must
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Prior to the publication of Woman and Nature, Susan Griffin was best known, of course, as a poet, and much of her book might best be described as prose‐poetry. Not a line of Griffin’s own verse appears anywhere in the book, but passage after passage in each of Woman and Nature’s four books—”Matter,” “Separation,” Passage,” and “Her Vision,”—are written in highly charged, very personal and very evocative prose that creates the effects, even if it does not have the typographical format, of poetry. Poetry, Gaston Bachelard, once observed, “puts language in danger”; that is it to say, it foregrounds, in a Gestalt shift, its figurativeness and makes its literal meaning subsidiary. It never takes language for granted, as prose almost always does. Poetry, Emily Dickinson contended, “takes the top of your head off.” The difference between poetry and prose as modes of intellectual transport, as T. E. Hulme once explained, is like the difference between an express train across country and a walk through the woods. Prose is anxious to get to its destination, to achieve its payoff, and deliver its literal goods; poetry takes its time, ponders the terrain, examines, carefully, the landscape. Disinterested in the delivery of pre‐established meanings, poetry’s passage (and passages) is the meaning. Griffin’s prose poetry meets all three of these litmus tests: it puts languages in danger; it takes the top of our heads off (passage after passage carries us into unique realms of psyche and
1 For a discussion of this term, coined by Krafft Ehricke, see my Late for the Sky: The Mentality of the Space Age (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993).
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offers us new visions of our relationship to the natural world); and it explores the terrain slowly and with care, equating the careless mentality of patriarchal thought, in effect, with Hulme’s express train. Consider the following, for example, the actual text of “Land: Her Changing Face” which follows the epigraphs I have already discussed above: Sea. Mountain. River. Plain. Forest. Gorge. Field. Meadow. Rock. Plateau. Desert. Mountain. Valley. Sea. He is the first. Truly he has come farther than any man before him. His eyes have beheld what has not been seen before. What newness he is blessed with, what freshness! None of the beauty of this land has been brought down, no part soiled. He is the first to tread here. Only the mark of his shoes effaces the soil. Pine. Otter. Canyon. Musk ox. She gives up her secrets. He is the first to know, and he gives names to what he sees. He records the existence of these things. He is thinking to preserve these moments for posterity. He draws a map of his way across this land. And he charts the shape of the place. Behind the mountain range. On the other side of the valley. Down the riverstream. Across the gorge. He finds the unknown irresistible. He believes what is hidden in this land calls to him. He feels undiscovered grasses tremble in wait for him, he imagines mysterious lakes glistening revelation, he knows there are meadows, ignorant of his being, which will open to him. He has a taste for knowledge. Missouri River. Council Bluffs. Sioux City. Despite all dangers, he penetrates farther. Cheyenne River. Knife River. White Earth River. He vanquishes darkness. He vanquishes despair. Bearpaw Mountains. Big Belt Mountains. Great Falls. He places his life in the balance. Clark Pass. Yet he is brave. Lewis Hellgate. Yet he is ardent. Snake River. And the wilderness embraces him. He is taken up by wildness. He becomes wild. Now the secrets of this place are his and each of his footsteps is a triumph. Windstorm. In facing down danger, he has become more than himself. Thunderstorm. He is conqueror. Lightning. He has pierced the veiling mountains, ridden the rivers, spanned the valley, measured the gorge: he has discovered. Now nothing of this place is unknown, and because of his knowledge, this land is forever changed. This was his dream. (47‐48) Here and elsewhere, Griffin’s prose poetry is often psychohistorical in intent. By assuming, as she does here, the point of view of western exploration, she seeks to
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disclose the psychic underpinnings of an historical process. Griffin’s radical feminist “frontier thesis” imagines the push westward driven by a particular “taste for knowledge,” a desire to vanquish both darkness and despair. Like the feminist philosopher Susan Bordo, who has characterized the pursuit of rationality since Descartes as a “flight to objectivity,” and the psychologist Karl Stern, who finds the same pursuit a “flight from woman,” Griffin, in her poetic recreation of the “lay of the land,” discovers unearthly, anti‐female motives governing history. The eradication of mystery, the dream, that fueled modernity’s advance across the American continent, was, at the same time, the macho taking of a virginity. “For what underlay our clearing of the continent,” Frederick Turner explains in Beyond Geography, were the ancient fears and divisions that we brought to the New World along with the primitive precursors of the technology that would assist in transforming the continent. Haunted by these fears, driven by our divisions, we slashed and hacked at the wilderness we saw so that within three centuries of Cortes's penetration of the mainland a world millions of years in the making vanished into the voracious, insatiable maw of an alien civilization. Musing on this time scale, one begins to sense the enormity of what we brought to our entrance here. And one begins to sense also that it was here in America that Western man became loosed into a strange, ungovernable freedom so that what we now live amidst is the culminating artifact of the civilization of the West. Woman and Nature meticulously reconstructs, from the perspective of radical feminism, “the enormity of what we [Western man] brought to our entrance here.” But Susan Griffin’s method is not, like Turner’s, or Bordo, or Stern’s, discursive and argumentative. Chronology, epigraphy, juxtaposition, prose poetry—these are the methods that enable her to find her voice. That voice, the “roaring inside her,” is, early on, silenced. In the face of the patriarchy’s “it is said thats” and “it is decided thats,” Woman and Nature’s narrator is made dumb. Over the book’s two hundred and fifty plus pages, that voice re‐
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emerges, slowly, fearfully, painstakingly, until, at book’s end, fully in italics, it offers an alternative poetic vision of woman and nature, teaching her child to heed for generations to come “the scent of the enemy, learning the hardest lesson: “to find everything at home in me,” for, as its final words vouchsafe, “the light is in us.” In The Myth of Analysis, archetypal psychologist James Hillman laments the ascendency in the West of “Apollonic consciousness,” the monolithic worship of light, and reason, and unity, which have made “the elevation of the female principle and a new psychic recognition of female physicality seem structurally impossible.” At this stage in our history, according to Hillman, we find ourselves “driven to repeat the same misogynist views, century after century, because of its archetypal base.” Indeed, “There must be recurrent misogyny presented with scientific justification because the positivism of the scientific approach is informed by Apollo.” And so it will continue to be Until the structure of the consciousness itself and what we consider to be "conscious" change into another archetypal vision or way of being‐in‐the‐ world, man's image of female inferiority and disbalanced coniunctio in every sphere of action will continue. Until the male Weltanschauung moves, until Maria returns to Eve and Eve to Adam; until Maria assumes with her body and within man's body a place in consciousness itself, shedding the abysmal and the only passionate; until the coniunctio affects consciousness itself; until another archetypal structure of our cosmos informs our view of things and our vision of what it is "to be conscious" with another spirit, we shall remain endlessly repeating and helplessly confirming with ever more subtle scientific observation our misogynist fantasies of the male‐female vision. Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature not only dismantles and exposes Apollonic consciousness for what it is; it offers us as well a glimpse of another “vision of what it is ‘to be conscious.’” Therein lies its greatness.
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