They rarely make self-invented, self-defined provocateurs as disturbing and inspiring and life-changing as Andrea Dworkin. She was and remains one of the most important women, one of the most important voices in the twentieth century. Demonized and worshipped, Dworkin flung herself into the human sea, plunged to the basal rock of what a few naked philosophers and the haunted August Strindberg called the "only" true difference between human beings: the difference between male and female and the violent destruction of self that it provokes.
She cracked and smashed and stripped away all of the distractive layers that blur the historical reality of this male-dominated species where females are commodities to be traded, exploited, transacted and digested by males to fulfill their evolved inadequacies. She evokes angry, mindless fear because unlike anyone else, anyone, any other feminist, social critic, polemicist, or sage, Dworkin, at that stripped away 'basal rock', presents an undistilled clarity, the unforgiving face of the ugly truth. She did this in her writing, her speeches, her politicking and in the dangerous extremes of her own life.
But above all, she was a writer. She reflected what both her eyes and her mind saw with language skills both poetic and harsh in a formidable range of styles. One of her most revealing self-portraits is in an unpublished novel, called First Love. It is as explicit and edged and sensitive as Andrea Dworkin could be. Here are some excerpts.
It is so hard to write you. Why am I doing it this way, not intending ever to send this letter, still with one eye to publication, a grand concept for a book in some sense, and still with one eye, that poets conscience, to a future which becomes increasingly impossible to imagine. It seems the only way I can bear the passion behind the language, the memory, the desire, the only way not to be burnt up by what I feel. You come over me in waves of memory, especially when I sleep, and I wake up in sweat and trembling, not knowing where I am, not remembering the years that separate us.
So often I wanted to write, dear E, now I am this person, I look this way (you wouldn't like it), I do this, I feel this, lists, details, it was warm or cold on that day when that happened and then my life changed in this way and that--but I cant, I never could, and I cant now. In writing this letter, not to be sent, perhaps I can find the signs that will tell you who I have become.
Dearest E, I loved you. Now that love is memory, sometimes haunting, sometimes buried, forgotten, as if dead. I see your face, yes, I know, as it was, I remember you as I remember the sun, always, burned in my brain; somehow you are part of me, mixed up in me, for all the days of my life. I left you when you were life to me, when to be physically separated from you was sheer and consuming pain, as if a limb had been cut off, amputated. Leaving you was the hardest, and perhaps the bravest, thing I have ever done.
Dearest E, I want to describe in some way the drive to become that impelled me to go to you and to go from you, that has driven me from person to person, place to place, bed to bed, street to street, and which somehow coheres, finds cogency and true expression, when I say, I want to write, or I want to be a writer, or I am a writer. I want to tell you that this drive to become is why I left you and why I never returned as I had promised.
I was 19 when I knew you. I wanted to be a writer. I didn't want to go mad or suffer or die. I was 19. I Sant afraid of anything, or, as I sometimes thought, I was equally afraid of everything so that nothing held a special terror and no action that interested me was too dangerous. I wanted to do
everything that I could imagine doing, everything I had ever read about, anything any poet or hero had ever done. I loved Rimbaud. I loved Plato and through him Socrates. I loved Sappho. I loved Dostoyevsky, and sweet
Shelley, and Homer. I loved cold Valery, and warm D.H. Lawrence, and tortured Kafka, and raging tender Ginsberg.
I didn't have questions in words in my mind. I had instead these surging impulses that welled up and were spent. I had a hunger to know and to tell and to do everything that could be done. I had an absolute faith in my own
will to survive.
What I didn't want to do was to say, look I'm this height, and I went to school here and there, and then that year I did this and that, and then I knew so and so, and then the next one was so and so, and then this situation occurred, and then that one, and the room was red and blue and three by four, and then I was that old and went there and did that and then that and then, naturally, that.
I wanted instead to write books that were fire and ice, wind sweeping the earth. I wanted to write books that, once experienced, could not be forgotten, books that would be cherished as we cherish the most exquisite light we have ever seen. I had contempt for anything less than this perfect book that I could imagine. This book that lived in my imagination was small and perfect and I wanted it to live in person after person, forever. Even in the darkest of human times, it would live. Even in the life of one person who would sustain it and be sustained by it, it would live. I wanted to write a book that would be read even by one person, but always. For the rest of human time some one person would always know that book, and think it beautiful and fine and true, and then it would be like any tree that grows, or any grain of sand. It would be, and once it was it would never not be.
In my secret longings there was another desire as well, not opposite but different, not the same but as strong. There would be a new social order in which people could live in a new way. There would be this new way of living which I could, on the edges of my mind and in the core of my being, imagine and taste. People would be free, and they would live decent lives, and those lives would not be without pain, but they would be without certain kinds of pain. They would be lives untouched by prisons and killings and hunger and bombs. I imagined that there could be a world without institutionalized murder and systematic cruelty. I imagined that I could write a book that would make such a world possible.
So my idea of my book that I would write sometimes took another turn. It had less to do with the one person who would always, no matter how dark the times, somewhere be reading it, and it had more to do with here and now, change, transformation, revolution. I had some idea of standing, as one among many, my book as my contribution, at one point in history and changing its course and flow. I thought, imagine a book that could have stopped the Nazis, imagine a life strong and honest enough to enable one to make such a book. I began to think of writing as a powerful way of changing the human condition instead of as a beautiful way of lamenting it or as an enriching or moving way of describing it.
I had wanted to make Art, which was, I had been led to believe, some impeccable product, inhuman in its process, made by madmen, inhuman in its final form, removed from life, without flaw, perfect, crystal, monumental,
pain turned beautiful, sweat turned cold and stopped in time, suffering turned noble and stopped in time. But I also wanted to write a book that could be smelled and felt, that was total human process, the raw edges left as raw as any life, real, with a resolution that took one to a new beginning, not separate from my life or the lives of the multitudes who were living when I was living. I wanted to write a book that would mean something to people, not to dead people past or future, but to living people, something that would not only sustain them but change them, not only enhance the world in the sense of ornament, but transform, redefine, reinvent it.
When I knew you I was 19. I did not know many things. How could I? I wanted to make Art, and I had a passion for life, and I wanted to act in the world so that it would be changed, and I knew that those things nourished one another but I did not know how. I did not know that they could be the same, that for me they must be the same, for they all had to live in this one body as one or they could not live at all. The teachers I had had did not know or tell the truth. They did not care about how artists lived in the world. They seemed to find the lives of artists shoddy and cheap, even as they found works of art marble and pure.
They never talked about art as if it had anything at all to do with life. They thought that the texts were there to be analyzed, or memorized, one after another. They thought that art was better than life, better than the artists who made the art and lived their lives. They had no notion of process, how one made something out of the raw impulses of the imagination, how one cried out or mourned or raged in images, in language, in ideas. So they taught that ideas were fixed, dead, sacred or profane, right or wrong, to be studied but not created, to be learned but not lived. They did not seem to know that the whole of human literature is a conversation through time, each voice speaking to the whole of human living.
And I did not understand so much. I did not understand, for instance, that people really die. I did not understand that death is irrevocable. I did not understand the grief of those who remember the dead. I did not understand that the horrors of history, those textbook cases of genocide, rape, and slaughter, would happen in my lifetime to people I knew. And so I did not understand that the earth is real, and that what happens on it happens to real people just like me. I did not understand that as I grew older my life would continue with me. I thought instead that each event in my life was discrete, each person of that moment only. I did not understand that the people I knew I would always know, one way or another, for the rest of my life. I did not know that one never stops knowing anything, that time continues to pass relentlessly, though without any particular vengeance, taking each of us with it. I did not understand then that there is no choice, that one always writes for the living, that there is no other way to create the future or to redeem the past. I also did not know that each human life is precious, brief, an agony, filled with pain and struggle, sorrow and loss.
But now comes the harder part, how we were lovers. Who was I then, I barely remember her, that woman. She doesn't live in me very much anymore. I was in Greece (Athens, Piraeus, Crete). I was 19. I wrote. I saw, for the first time, the mountains, the light, that luminous Greek light, the ocean which from the shore was filled with bright strips of color. I had many lovers, all men.
I was a person who always had her legs open, whose breast was always warm and accommodating, who derived great pleasure from passion with tenderness, without tenderness, with brutality, with violence, with anything any man had to offer.
I was a person who always had her legs open, who lived entirely from minute to minute, from man to man. I was a person who did not know that there was real malice in the world, or that people were driven--to cruelty, to vengeance, to rage. I had no notion at all of the damage that people sustain and how that damage drives them to do harm to others. I was a person who was very much a woman, who had internalized certain ways of being and of feeling, ways given to her through books, movies, the full force of media and culture--and through the real demands of real men. I was a person who was very much a woman, accommodating, adoring of men's bodies, needful, needing above all to be fucked, to be penetrated, loving that moment more than any other. I was a person who was very much a woman, who loved men, who loved to be fucked, who gloried in cock, who called every sexual act, tender, violent, brutal, the same name, "lovemaking."
I did not feel what was being done to me until, many years later, I read Kate Millets Sexual Politics. Something in me moved then, shifted, changed forever. Suddenly I discovered something inside me, to feel what I had felt somewhere but had had no name for, no place for. I began to feel what was being done to me, to experience it, to recognize it, to find the right names for it. I began to know that there was nothing good or romantic or noble in the myths I was living out; that, in fact, the effect of these myths was to deprive me of my bodily integrity, to cripple me creatively, to take me from myself. I began to change in a way so fundamental that there was no longer any place for me in the world--I was no longer a woman as I had been a woman before. I experienced this change as an agony. There was no place for me anywhere in the world. I began to feel anger, rage, bitterness, despair, fury, absolute fury, as I began to know that they, those writers and their kind, had taken cruelty and rape and named it for me, "life," "sex," "lovemaking," "freedom," and I hated them for it, and I hate them for it still.
I arrived in Athens on my 19th birthday. I was very lonely. There had been riots in Athens, Papandreou Senior had been ousted from the government by King Constantine; the people rioted in protest. I met an officer in the Greek Army, we drank ouzo on a mountain top, we looked down on the thousands in the streets, then we went to some crummy hotel and he fucked me. It was a horrible moment afterwards, when I looked at him and saw him and said, you really hate women you know. I saw the muscles in his arm tighten, and the impulse to strike animate his body, and his insane vanity, and then the decision that it wasn't important after all. I had never known that, that there were men who hated women, and yet at that moment I knew that I had just been fucked by one. It was the gift of my 19th birthday. I never forgot that man or that moment.
I had been on Crete maybe three months when I first saw you. Glorious, a golden moment. I was drinking vermouth at an outdoor cafe. The day was dark and drizzly. You stepped out of a doorway, looked around, stepped back in out of sight. You were so beautiful, so incredibly beautiful, radiating light, your eyes so huge and deep and dark. I don't remember how we began to talk or when we first made love, but it really did happen that way, I saw you and the earth stood still, everything in me opened up and reached out to you. Later I understood that you were too beautiful, that your physical beauty interfered with your life, stood between you and it, that it created an almost unbridgeable distance between you and others, even as it drew them to you.
And towards the end, before I left, when we began to fight, to have those monstrous wordless fights composed of a passion as large as the love we were--what was that? What does it mean that two people, a man and a woman, who require each other for the sake of life itself, like water or food or air, who do not share a common language, who speak only pidgin bits of French, English, Greek, but know each other completely, understand whole sentences and speeches composed in three languages at a time, begin to tear and rend each others insides--using gestures, fragments, emblems, signs. What does it mean when these two people, a man and a woman, have a fight, a monstrous fight, that lasts all night, through every fury and silence (but he will not leave her, he will not go from her house), a fight that begins when she tries to kill him, literally to tear the life out of him with her bare hands because he dares to touch her (and she would die without that touch), and their pain is so great, so physically unbearable, that still they have only each other, because only they in all the world share that pain and grief? What is that? I swear I don't know, all these years later I still don't know. When I left you I thought that the pain would kill me, literally, physically. I felt a physical pain so acute, all through my body, in every part of it, for well over a year I felt this pain, it kept me awake, it filled my sleep, nothing around me was as real as the pain inside me, and still, ten years later, sometimes I wake up from a dream that has forced me to feel it again.
I have always wanted to know why I left you. I have wanted to know what in me was stronger than my love for you—what nameless drive, in me but not claimed by me as part of me, moved me to decide to leave you, to make the arrangements necessary to leave you, to walk to the boat, to get on the boat, to stay on the boat even as you called to me from the shore. I remember that you hated it that I was a writer. It was all right as long as it meant that I had been at home all day, nothing more. But when a small collection of my poetry was privately printed by some friends, on the day I held that book in my hands, you hated me. You were jealous as you never would have been of another lover. (I remember that one night I woke up to find you rifling through my papers, searching fiercely, not able to read English—searching for what?—searching, I think, for the strength that did not breathe in you and because of you.)I don't know exactly when or why your anger took explicit sexual forms. You began fucking me in the ass, brutally, brutally. I began to have rectal bleeding. I told you, I implored you. You ignored my screams of pain, my whispers begging you to stop. You said, a woman who loves a man stands the pain. I was a woman who loved a man; I submitted, screamed, cried out, submitted. To refuse was, I thought, to lose you, and any pain was smaller than that pain, or even the contemplation of that pain. I wondered even then, how can he take such pleasure when I am in such pain. My pain increased, and so did your pleasure. Once you stopped speaking to me (had I resisted in some way?). When finally (was it a day or two?) you came to me I waited for an explanation. Instead you touched me, wanting to fuck me, as if no explanation were necessary, as if I was yours to take, no matter what. Had I been strong enough, I would have killed you with my bare hands. As it was, you were weak in your surprise, and I hurt your neck badly. I was glad (I'm still glad). We fought the whole night long, with long stretches of awful silence and a desperate despair. In the course of that night you told me that we would marry. It was towards morning, and after you had raped me as is the way with men who are locked in a hatred which is bitter, and without mercy, you said, that's all that's left, to get married, isn't that what people do, isn't this the way that married people feel. Bored and dead and utterly bound to each other. Miserable and sick and without freedom or hope. your body moving above me during that rape, my body absolutely still in resistance, my eyes wide open staring at you in resistance, and you said, now I'll fuck you the way I fuck a whore, now you'll know the difference, how I loved you before and how I hate you now. I said, numb and dead and dying, no, I won't marry you, I can't stand this, its worse than anything. You said, we cant be apart, you'll see, it wont be so bad. I remember that then you lay between my legs, both of us on our backs, and we didn't move until dawn. Then you left.
Now, more time has passed. I don't think that I will ever come back to you or see you again. Sometimes I wish that were not so. But I have one choice to make in life, to make and to keep making—will I seek freedom, or will I dress myself in chains? I am on a journey long forbidden to women. I want the freedom to become. I want that freedom more than I want any other thing life has to offer. I no longer believe that your freedom is more important than mine, that your pleasure or pain is more important than mine. I no longer believe that the torture of a man in prison is worse than the torture of a woman in bed.
I began this letter in desire; I end in anger. I dream that love without tyranny is possible.
Excerpts from a chapter of an unpublished novel by Andrea Dworkin
Copyright © 1978, 1980 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.
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