Rebecca Solnit on Silence, Pornography, and Feminist Literature3 min read


What gets called second-wave feminism is full of accounts of revelations about oppressions that were not previously named or described, and of the joy in recognizing even oppression: diagnosis is the first step toward cure and recovery. To speak of, to find definitions for what afflicted them brought women out of isolation and into power. The writings of the 1960s and 1970s are a literature of exploration, even revelation: people stumble forward, not sure what they are encountering, describing it awkwardly, reaching for new language for things that have not been described before, seeing the new undermine assumptions about the familiar, becoming people who belong to this new territory as much or more than to the old one, crossing over to a world being invented as they go.

Voyages of discovery: a key part of the feminist movement of the 1970s was “consciousness-raising groups,” in which women talked to each other about their experience. Susan Griffin, an important participant in that era’s feminism, told me that first they complained about housework, and then they started talking about rape and violence and the grim stuff, breaking through the shame that had kept them silent and alone. The poet Muriel Rukeyser’s lines, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open,” were often cited. What happened when many women told the truth about their lives? Silence itself became a key topic.

In 1977, Audre Lorde addressed the Modern Language Association with her landmark talk and essay considering race, gender, and orientation together, “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action” (published in 1984). It’s a brief, dense, aphoristic essay with some of the urgency of a manifesto:

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My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength…

Lorde addressed the way that breaking silence was not only an act of courage but also of creation: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? … Each of us is here now because in one way or another we share a commitment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us.”

In 1978, Jamaican-born Michelle Cliff published “Notes on Speechlessness,” which dealt with avoiding the powerful speech that describes experience truly but also explored experimental means to get at elusive truths: “Both withdrawal and humor are types of speechlessness. The obscuring and trivialization of what is real is also speechlessness.” She wrote about bad dreams, wrote in fragments, wrote about herself but also about political and literary history, outed herself as a lesbian and addressed the way that passing as straight was a masquerade, another route around truth. Cliff’s essay concludes that she will seek to eliminate what has eliminated her: “This means nothing more or less than seeking my own language. This may be what women will do.”

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Her lover and partner, Adrienne Rich, titled one of her books of poetry The Dream of a Common Language. The crucial poem in that book is “Cartographies of Silence”: it speaks of a “conversation [that] begins / with a lie” and of “the scream / of an illegitimate voice.” At the end of the long piece, truth breaks out like a new-growing thing, green. Many of the women who spoke up about silence were lesbians, including Griffin and Rich; some were also Black, including Cliff and Lorde. Though intersectionality is a term that has only recently come into wide use, these women understood what it means to operate at an intersection or at many. Rich’s book came out the year before Cliff’s essay; it includes, for the first time in her abundant body of work, lesbian love poems.

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