Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Fallen foes

According to Susie Bright's journal,( Andrea Dworkin is dead. Bright's piece is intelligent and compassionate, surprisingly so given the acrimony between them.

There is a side of me, the side that used to be involved in Feminists Against Censorship and was trashed by separatists for being trans, that is not inclined to be that nice. That side of me is keen to recycle my old Feminist Review piece.
MERCY” by Andrea Dworkin

Polemical novels are problematic, both ethically and
aesthetically. When a novel is merely a novel, the aesthetic
questions around it have to do with how well it achieves its
artistic ends; a critic may prefer Alexandrian tricksiness, or
may prefer simple passionate” utterance, but these preferences are
matters of opinion. When we are considering a polemic, the
questions that have to be asked deal with the position advocated,
but also with the methods adopted; most would agree that a
polemic in favour of an egalitarian project which manipulates by
subliminal rhetorical cues is devalued” thereby, because to
influence rather than to argue is to adopt a position of
superiority at odds with the ideology promoted.

When a novel is both art object and argument, the weighing of the
two sets of judgments becomes complex. The duty to produce the
best possible novel, and the duty to put a case as clearly as
possible in a way that respects readers' understanding, might
sometimes conflict and have to be balanced. In this as in so much
else, Andrea Dworkin makes it clear that she would like things to
be simple 'I wanted some words; of beauty; of power; of truth;
simple words; ones you could write down; to say some things that
happened, in a simple way'. The bitingly satirical approach she
takes, in her prologue and her epilogue, to an imagined postªmodernist libertarian feminist opponent, makes it clear that she
will have nothing to do with irony, or tricksiness or moral
ambiguity. If we are to judge ”Mercy” by Dworkin's own standards,
we should expect it to be sensitive to both aesthetic and ethical
approaches, not only in what it says, but in how it says it.

Much has been claimed for ”Mercy”, not least by its author. It
weighs in as a leading contender for the title of Great Feminist
Novel of our time; we are told that its failure to find a
publisher in the United States is, as indeed it may be, the
result of the conspiracy to suppress the thought of a leading
feminist. (It has to be said, without putting too much stress on
the issue, that, in general, conspiracies to suppress are rather
more successful; having most of one's work in print, and freely
on sale, in one's native language, and regularly appearing on
talk shows and in newspaper interviews is a sort of suppression
to which many famous writers of the Twentieth Century might
aspire, many political and sexual dissidents vainly desire.

(Note for example the suppression in the UK of Kathy Acker's
short story collection ”Young Lust•. Acker regularly uses cut-up techniques, and the UK publisher of one of her sources demanded the book's withdrawal on the grounds of breach of copyright.Her feminist publisher was obliged by its mainstream owner to comply. This suppression took place almost entirely without public
comment or protest.)

It has further to be said that, within the novel, which generally
portrays the author as lone and embattled, the single oppositional voice heard is obliged to validate the protagonist viewpoint by acknowledging 'Sexual Jacobins ... are sexualised in the common culture as if ”they are the potent women. Everyone pays attention to them...') Dworkin attributes this phrase to her opponent, but seems to accept the title with pride. Does she not know what the historical jacobins did to the French feminists of the Revolutionary period?

We are told, often by mainstream literary critics like Lorna
Sage, that Dworkin is an 'essential' feminist writer because she
writes with such passion about intolerable transgression; we will
note, in passing, the assumption that feminist literature, and
feminism itself, should be about feeling rather than thought, the
further assumption that there is a division between those two and
a choice to be made. (The abusive caricature of her feminist
opponents offered in Dworkin's prologue and epilogue makes these
assumptions a clear part of her own discourse. Her opponent is
clearly, as they used to say in the Tory party, too clever by

This prologue and epilogue aside, the novel offers us a series of
monologues in chronological sequence, detailing the experiences
of a protagonist who shares the author's name, but specific
identity with whom the author has explicitly disavowed - 'I am not
the person in the book.' This woman is sexually assaulted,
sexually brutalised during treatment by prison doctors sexually
harassed, raped, subjected to wife-battering, involved in non-consensual fellatio and sado-masochism, and outraged by

She aligns these experiences to her intuition that
she partakes, perhaps by reincarnation, in the experience of the
concentration camps; there is a long sequence in which the mass
suicide of the Jewish zealots at Masada is at once praised and
blamed, and an earlier avatar of the narrator kills herself so as
to be a dissident participant in it. Her early involvement in the
peace movement leads her to identify in an abstract sort of way
with men who burned themselves alive to promote peace. She argues
for an aesthetic and a politics that will concentrate on
convicting men, and punishing them; to this end, the protagonist
fire-bombs pornographers and beats up random members of the
dispossessed substance-abusing urban male proletariat, hoping
that this will inspire emulation. To heighten our emotional
involvment, the book is written in long spans of declaratory
sentences hitched on to each other with semi-colons; its
monologue is rarely broken by speech.

“Mercy” is an ambitious novel, and its author's ambitions are
clearly not merely literary. It has always seemed like gratuitous

abuse to accuse Andrea Dworkin of Messianic fantasies, and most,
if not all, of her opponents in the women's movement have
accordingly refrained; this will no longer be necessary. One of
the two epigraphs to the book is a quotation from Isaiah, about
the imminent return of God as the redeemer; the endless Job-like
rebukes to a God who is not absent, but rather a sadistic father,
possibly make this ironic, but at various points Dworkin makes it
clear that what she is describing is a Stations of the Cross. Her
narrator's side is pierced, literally by an appendectomy
operation, and later in a receiving of the stigmata; when she
fantasises about the killing of her ex-husband by anonymous women
guerrillas, she uses the language of the Mass -'for this; do
this; for me' - to make it a sacramental participation in her
redemptive acts. The protagonist's central insight -' It is
important for women to kill men 'comes to her from 'a woman I
didn't know with the face of an angel', and presumably an angel's
origin and authority. This is a book which claims privilege at
various points and in various ways; principal among those
privileges is the claim to be regarded as a Holy Book, and thus
as, if not truth, gospel.

Even though the author has disavowed specific identification with
the protagonist, this is a novel which claims the special
privilege which confessional has traditionally held in the
women's movement; its first epigraph is from one of Sylvia
Plath's most famous confessional poems. Even a naive reader knows
that, beyond this text, the author has written other texts which
offer an analysis of women's lot, based in part on personal
experience, and specific programmes to combat sexual oppression;
that naive reader would accordingly be entitled to assume that
what is on offer here is analysis, experience and programme.

By disavowing specifically autobiographical intent here, Dworkin
does not so much remove the implied authenticity of the personal,
but add to it a claim of even more generalised authenticity; this
is the biography either or at once of a fictional character, of
Dworkin herself, or of Everywoman remade, by literary technique,
in Dworkin's own image. One could choose to regard this as a
post-modernist deconstruction of a particular feminist literary
technique, but, given the specific denunciation of post-modernism
in the text, it seems more likely that this is an old©fashioned
matter of having one's cake and eating it. It might also, by the
not especially naive reader, be taken as an abuse of the
reader's sisterly trust.

One of the ways in which this is done is by an at times highly
sophisticated, and at other times surprisingly crude, literary
manipulativeness masquerading as demotic simplicity. Generally,
this is a book which claims its moral superiority from its
appearance of simplicity, and that authenticity which the
appearance of simplicity often claims, but which achieves that
appearance by constructing webs of technique.

When Dworkin writes of childhood, she does so in a language
of simple declaration, with much repetition, and many sentences
that start with conjunctions and tag on to each other endlessly
without punctuation -'and you don't know the right words but you try so hard and
you say exactly how the man sat down and put his arm around you
and started talking to you and you told him to go away but he
kept holding you...'; this is not reportage of the actual language of an actual
abused eight-year-old, but rather the use of a literary
convention of representation of children's speech, itself based
on assumptions about what a child is and what concepts a child is
capable of forming. Innocence has a moral authority, which,
according to magical thinking, can be appropriated by miming the
surface of innocence.

There is a tradition in American literature, and demagoguery, of
using contractions aggressively to demonstrate commitment to
straightforward expression, ignoring effete correctness; this
tradition has been adopted by much representation of street and
black speech. When Andrea, the character, suddenly starts saying
'Ain't', as in 'Terror ain't aesthetic' or 'You may find me one
who ain't guilty, but you can't find me two', it is this
tradition, and the moral authority attached to it, which is being
invoked. (When Andrea is mocking the idea that any SM porn could
be a record of consensual acts, she invokes the struggle for
black civil rights: 'If I saw pictures like that of a black man I
would cry out for his freedom; I can't see how it's confusing if
you ain't K.K.K.' Any dissent from the Dworkin line is straight
complicity with fascism, it appears.)

Other examples of this appropriation have been referred
above in my synopsis, and it is worth citing at least one example
in detail : 'Birch trees make me feel sad and lonely and afraid. There's
astrologers who say that if you were born when Pluto and Saturn
were travelling together in Leo, from 1946 to about the middle of
1949, you died in one of the concentration camps and you came
right back because you had to come back and set it right. Justice
pushed you into a new womb and outrage, a blind fury, pushed you
out of it onto this earth, this place, this zoo of sickness and
sadists...I consider Birkenau my birthplace.'

At various points in the feminist debates around sado-masochism,
some startling claims to moral authority were flung around, but
for brazen cheek, and carelessness of offense to camp survivors,
this appropriation of actual pain to literary effect takes the

With the sole rivalry, perhaps, of the imputation to the
novel's straw-woman lesbian-SM, deconstructionist academic of the
view that the physical labour of the camps was good training for
those survivors that made it through to become Zionist settlers;
if at times the present piece seems hostile in its
pronouncements, Dworkin's own courtesy in intra-feminist polemic
itself lacks something, namely existence.

It is also stunningly clumsy in its movement between the poetic, the pseudo-scientifically specific, the personified and the merely outrageous.

The book adopts magic-realist techniques freely; or, to put it
another way, it complicates its realist description and analysis
by incidents of doubtful likelihood. When one of Andrea's rapists
kisses her body, his kisses open up as infected wounds; later in
the book her unhealed wounds bleed the green of rot and
corrosion. If these are to be taken as metaphors, which clearly
they are, what are we to assume about the claim that fellatio has
denatured the narrator's voice -'something hoarse and missing, an
absence, a mere vibration'-: is this a realist claim about
physical injury, or a metaphorical claim about the loss of
personal integrity and authenticity? In a text which is political
and ethical as well as literary, we are entitled to know which;
an author who is playing prophet cannot also play Trickster.

On another occasion, Andrea protests against what has happened by
setting herself on fire, by becoming flame; this is a metaphor
for rage, and an appropriation of the moral authority of actual
political suicides. What then of the narrator's fire-bombing of
porn stores? Is this a political programme, or a prophesy, or
another metaphor? Further, is this a complicated use of literary
techniques in a way that brings out the ambivalences so loved by
the post-modernism Dworkin ritually comminates, or is it a way of
recommending illegal acts while avoiding charges of incitement?

The novel uses traditional Romantic sentimentality to an extent
that is perhaps surprising, given the historic associations of
that sentimentality with disempowering images of women. When
Andrea consensually fellates a British taxi-driver, who proceeds
to abuse the trust he has won, by walking the dog she is too
drunk to walk herself, by thrusting deep into her, she swoons;
her pain and misery before and upon awakening from this swoon are
heightened by the presence of the innocent and unknowing animal
with 'its sweet melancholy look.' The streets of Andrea's passion
are mean and neon-shiny and rain-swept; this is a book in which
the pathetic fallacy is not only alive and well, but part of an
implied claim that Andrea has, as Woman, the right to the overt
sympathy of animals and the Weather.

The book sometimes makes eloquent, and intermittently effective,
use of the graphically unpleasant, but more often places a screen
of abstraction between what is shown and what is being described.
The aforementioned swoon is not the only one of its kind in the
book; Dworkin ritually denounces Sade, but has learned from him
the teasing avoidance of the specific in descriptions of the
sexual act that a heroine's momentary unconsciousness affords.
Dworkin uses the word 'pain' a lot, but rarely, save through
extravagant metaphors, is that pain described or made specific
and concrete. The act of fellatio, for example, is described as
disgusting on the ground that it is like the man trying to kill a
small furry animal in your throat, or because DNA from his semen
is colonising your brain; we find oddly little here about the
more obviously unpleasant aspects of oral-penile contact - the
presence of smegma and the disinclination of many men to wash.

It is legitimate, indeed probably necessary, that a novel which
takes rape as its subject make no attempt to understand it in the
sense of providing empathy with the rapist as well as with the
victim; it is rather more doubtful whether it is a good idea for
a study of rape, particularly one which makes extra-literary
claim to experiential authority, to be so entirely without an
analysis of what rape is, and the complexities of the ideology
which serves it,an ideology which regularly sees potential
victims as to be punished.

It is interesting, however, how much that ideology permeates some
of the novel's implied attitudes. Andrea talks of rape,
particularly the rape of children, of something which it is
impossible that the victim can survive whole; she argues that
most women with asthma are reliving paternal oral rape endlessly.
To say that to be victimised once is thereafter to take your core
identity from that victimisation is perilously close to those
patriarchal ideologies which kill rape victims as damaged goods.
When Andrea talks of sex workers, it is in terms which animalise
them; they are 'mules' and 'jackasses'. It is not always clear
that it is their employers alone with whom she is angry; her
language talks of the way they have been made, by pornographers,
into objects, but does so in a way that fails to restore their
humanity. The exception is Linda Marchiano, of course, whom she
sees as a mystical sister, but then Linda Marchiano is the brand
plucked from the burning.

Part of the purpose of this book must be to, by describing rape
in its various forms, enhance the insight of Dworkin's previous
book ”Intercourse” that heterosexual, and, implicitly, penetrative,
intercourse of all kinds is an untenable practice for women in a
sexist society, that consent is impossible. The refusal to write
in particularly evocative terms about bodily functions means that
this argument is not made especially effectively; Dworkin does
not appeal to common experience of the occasional awfulness of
sex, which runs the risk of reminding how it can also
occasionally be pleasurable, in specifics, but to a ritualised
abstraction from experience. It is important not to eroticise
rape, but, in a society where it is legitimised, it is also
important to concretise its offensive assault on human decency.

This of course tallies with the aesthetic practice implicit in
the Dworkin-McKinnon ordnance; if Dworkin disapproves of most
forms of sexually explicit representation, she cannot represent
graphically sexual activity of which she disapproves even to make
us recognise that we share her disapproval. Much of the ultimate
weakness of this ambitious book derives from the fact that
Dworkin's own positions on representation make it impossible for
her to achieve her artistic and political ends by accurate simple
representation rather than rhetoric and manipulation.

The real failure of this book though is not in the cheating, or
the calculated omissions, or the implicit elitism; it is in the
deep solipsism that characterises it from beginning to end.
Dworkin rightly mocks male writers like Norman Mailer for trying
to conquer the universe by an act of egotistical will, but the
list of male greats at whom she sneers indicates that she sees
herself as in some sort of competition with them. This is a book
in which, from the beginning to the end of the main text, there
is not a single other developed character.

The male characters are plot functions, who appear, rape the
protagonist and depart, while all of the women from mother to
friends, with a couple of momentary exceptions - Marchiano and a
friendly lesbian hooker in a gold lame dress -, are shadows who
fail to protect Andrea. This is a book which preaches solidarity
between women, but represents a lone individual's struggle
against an unfriendly universe, a woman of sorrows and acquainted
with grief. It is this self-regarding and self-constructed figure
that calls women together in a crusade of pointless retributive
violence; the worth of the crusade as an egalitarian project can
best be demonstrated by the way that Dworkin describes other
women in the text, and the contemptuous way she endeavours to
manipulate her women readers with rhetorical trickery.

But that is not the whole story. Andrea Dworkin died far too young. We had friends in common who will mourn her deeply.

The one time I actually met her was on a late night talk show where we were forced into alliance against Anthony Burgess at his most sexist and urbanely anti-feminist. Andrea was a good woman to have by my side in that context, if in no other; she was brave and crazy and smart. Even if she let me do a lot of the rhetorical head-banging... She had a book to promote, so she was on best behaviour.

She was manipulative and in an ideological place where she could justify that. I'd like to say she wasn't responsible for her fan-girls, but actually she basked in their approval, so was.

Rest, rest, unquiet spirit.
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