Sunday, 7 June 2009

Habits of deference: a brief hymn to Dworkin

I stayed up until 3am this morning reading Intercourse, Andrea Dworkin's finest book. It's two years since I first skimmed it, and I hadn't appreciated before just what a shockingly good writer she is. What a stunningly brilliant and underappreciated thinker.

At the moment, I've got a book in the works. A book about feminism, and misandry, and politics and terror and power and hope. It's all very tentative at the moment, and I'm probably much too young and stupid to make a decent go of it. But the following passage, from Dworkin's 1995 preface to Intercourse, has filled my head with a clear dark fire:

Can a man let in a challenge not just to his dominance but to his cognition? And, specifically, am I saying that I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am. Not just different: more and better, deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user.
Intercourse does not narrate my experience to measure it against Norman Mailer's or D.H Lawrence's. The first-person is embedded in the way the book is built. I use Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tenessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flaubert not as authorities but as examples: I use them; I cut and slice into them in order to exhibit them; but the authority behind the book - behind each and every choice - is mine. In formal terms, then, Intercourse is arrogant, cold and remorseless. You, the reader, will not be looking at me, the girl; you will be looking at them. In Intercourse I created an imaginative and intellectual environment in which you can see them. The very fact that I usurp their place - make them my characters - lessens the unexamined authority that goes not with their art but with their gender. I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not. Nor will I tolerate the continuing assumption that they know more about women than we know about ourselves. And I do not believe that they know more about intercourse. Habits of deference can be broken, and it is up to writers break them. Submission can be refused; and I refuse it.

I am haunted by the lilting, assertive cadence of Dworkin's prose. What poetry in dialectic. And I am angered, deeply angered, by the assumptions that continue to be made about Dworkin's work - assumptions that I used to make myself not so long ago.

Yes, she has some ideas about men and about sex that I cannot agree with - although nowhere does she say or imply that 'all men are rapists'. But so did Malcolm X, and in just the same way it is absolutely vital that Dworkin's ideas remain in the public domain. The way she has been dismissed as a hag, as 'ugly' - and therefore irrelevant - as an uncomplicated misandrist, as other than the great and deeply challenging author she is, is truly disgusting. I believe that Andrea Dworkin understood a great deal, and if I can embark on this project with half the bravery and clarity of her writing I will be truly proud of myself. I'm going to keep a copy of her book by my bed as long as the project continues. I will attempt with every line to throw out my old habits of deference, to refuse submission, to advocate its further refusal. I don't think that's too much to shoot for.


  1. Yaaaa -

    ugliness and hagishness are important - it indicates that people don`t care about the views of broader society and are therefore to be avoided.

    Seems like her written work rather proves the point.

    We don`t like selfish egotists here on planet earth.
    Thinking leads to nothing.

  2. The Two-Thumbed Fist7 June 2009 at 18:15

    Dworkin was a misanthropic lunatic suspicious of all men, of all ages, who polluted feminism with the foetid spoor of her own sexual peccadilloes and psychological foibles. Write shit like this, Penny Red, and you can expect a very small readership for your endeavours (which sound destined to become a watered down Dworkinsian pastiche in any case). If I were you I'd consign "Intercourse" to the bathroom where you and you guests could put it to good use by utilising its pages to wipe your arses after evacuating your bowels.

  3. Don't talk such utter SHITE.

  4. The Two-Fingered Salute7 June 2009 at 18:34

    The Two-Thumbed Fist: boo fucking hoo.

  5. I am haunted by the lilting, assertive cadence of Dworkin's prose. What sweet poetry in dialectic.

    You can't be serious when you say this Penny Red? You can't really mean this? Surely not?

  6. I'm really shocked by how shocked people seem that I like Dworkin. Just because she has some dodgy ideas, does that really mean that she's a dreadful writer in every respect?

    If I met her, she'd probably call me a repulsive man-apologist, and I'd gladly put my hand up to that. I love men, individually, collectively and carnally. But just because I don't agree with her doesn't mean I can't read her work and be inspired.

    We read writers like Freud and Mark - or I do - knowing that they were repulsive, deeply messed up personalities, but we can still acknowledge their genius, acknowledge the importance of their ideas and the beauty of their prose. Why should Dworkin be any different?

  7. "We read writers like Freud and Mark - or I do - knowing that they were repulsive, deeply messed up personalities..."

    Heh - were you, by any chance, dwelling on the commenter at 17.21 when you wrote that sentence?

  8. The beauty of Freud's and Marx's prose? I've heard a lot said about Sigmund and Karl but I have to say I've never heard that one before. They're both notoriously obtuse in the best German tradition (i.e. write so badly noone sees how shaky your ideas are!)

  9. I don't know enough about Dworkin to criticise her*. I am shocked you like her prose, though, if that extract is at all typical.

    *Conversely, nothing I have read by/about her has made me want to find out more.

  10. What on earth is wrong with the way in which Dworkin writes? I happen to like it. She's got an extraordinary sense of rhythm. Her polemic is extremely provoking.

  11. I've always found Dworkin (and Engels, for that matter) a pretty good writer. Just sticking my oar in.

  12. Oh for goodness sake people. I too disagree with some of Dworkin's inferences, but I could say the same about Malcolm X, Voltaire, Richard Dawkins. What matters is that there is something important that needs to be communicated and will only be heard when it comes from the throat of a half-crazed prophet, so to speak, and not from the polite tones of the diplomat.

    Penny just stated she can't agree with everything Dworkin wrote so it's not as if she'd become some rad fem worshipping at the altar of Dworkin. Honestly. The woman said some pretty worthwhile stuff, and that can be acknowleged by anyone with a brain whether you like it or not.

  13. I guess it's partly taste, and partly stuff I don't have the background or vocabulary to talk about. But since I'd feel bad name-calling and then running off behind the bikesheds...

    Mainly I just can't figure out where you find the rhythm in it. Whenever she gets close to one, she slips in an extra word, or a clause between hyphens, to break it up. Same with the flow of the meaning: 'In formal terms, then, Intercourse is arrogant, cold and remorseless.' gets in the way of the rest of the paragraph, so you're left looking back two sentences to remember what 'them' refers to.
    Then the repetition of 'I use' in 'I use Tolstoy...Flaubert not as authorities but as examples: I use them' is either unintentional or an effect that doesn't work at all. And there's no contrast in 'I cut and slice into them in order to exhibit them; but the authority behind the mine'; what is 'but' doing there?

    Also -- and this is my fault, not D's -- 'formal' always makes me do a double-take, because I've never internalized its non-everyday meaning.

    It isn't terrible. But put it beside Wolf or Greer, or even Penny Red, and I can't see how it looks 'shockingly good'.

    Neuroskeptic: Marx was a bloody brilliant writer. Capital is impenetrable because of the subject matter, and translation takes the edge off much of the rest -- but the opening of the Eighteenth Brumaire, fr'instance, is genius.

  14. Penny Red, talking about Dworkin:

    "What sweet poetry in dialectic"

    Dracula, talking about Transylvanian wolves:

    "What sweet music they make"

    Out of the aforementioned pack of old canids I much prefer wolves howling to Dworkin ranting.

  15. Germolene Greer7 June 2009 at 22:28

    If Dworkin were alive I reckon she should "Intercourse" off!

  16. OK fair enough - Marx could turn a decent phrase. Sometimes. I'm not sure Das Kap is impenetrable just because of the subject matter though. And Freud... ugh.

  17. Hmmm... check out Richard Feynnmans thoughts on the subject - If you can`t explain something so that others can understand, it`s a sign that you lack knowledge of your subject. (Or that you`re a bit of an ass hole (a la newton)).

    ... and as for Mark, I`m rather a fan of his clear simple sentences, effective diction and flagrant use of brackets. We should acknowledge both his genius and also our good fortune at being able to share a comments section with him.

  18. Penny, what a wonderful gift to see this today. Thank you.
    I wonder how many of the above, um, let's call them critics, have actually read her work? How many of them know that her longtime companion was a man?
    What some men fear, or hate, about her writing is the mirror held up to them. It's easier to vilify than to engage, to be challenged and to change.
    I expect you'll find out some truths about your readership from this piece.

  19. Germolene Gree8 June 2009 at 07:13

    According to Dworkin the "love of her life" was indeed a man, John Stoltenberg, who was like Dworkin herself pretty much exclusively homosexual.

    Talk about dysfunctional...

  20. Why is that 'dysfunctional' Germolene Gree? Love isn't just about sex, you know. And much of the time sex has got nothing to do with love.

  21. It's only dysfunctional 'Germolene Gree' if you are brainwashed into the ways of the heterosexist orthodoxy.

  22. What disgusting style.

  23. Not sure about lilting and assertive - that makes me think of the Skye Boat Song - but I think Dworkin's a much under-appreciated writer.

    Heartbreak is probably the best political memoir I've read - not just for its content but also for the quality of the writing.

    I'd don't think I'd really have wanted Dworkin in a major position of political power but in terms of breaking through dominant mindsets to say stuff that other people weren't saying, she was invaluable - and a reasonable percentage of stuff she said was right.

  24. I've always liked her writing style too. The haters can fuck off.

    I also find it interesting which authors seem to come with a label requiring "I don't agree with all of their ideas but..." at the start of any comment. It must be pretty rare, surely, to read a book and agree with everything the author says? But normally that's just assumed (I was reading Descartes' 'Meditations on First Philosophy' the other day - though of course I don't agree with everything he said) But sometimes it's held necessary to ritually cleanse oneself...

  25. Well, I usually stick something like "I don't like all his ideas but... " in front of positive comments about Morrissey, too.

    And Kropotkin.

    And Larkin.

  26. Germolene Greer8 June 2009 at 17:52

    @ Fiona

    I say Dworkin and Stoltenberg's relationship was dysfunctional not because they were both strongly homosexual and yet maintained a meaningful asexual relationship of some kind for many years, but because while this heterodox relationship of butterflies was going on - two people touched but not touching - together yet apart - Dworkin made her living by viciously attacking men (and sometimes women) who enjoyed active heterosexual relationships with the opposite sex, by means of a series of specious and unworthy distortions, fabrications, accusations and deceits.

    My personal view is that all love is worthy and good whether it be expressed physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually or in any other way between consenting adults. Dworkin categorically did not believe this: in fact she devoted her life to challenging and denying this truth.

    I actually met the woman in the flesh. How many of you can say that? And, boys and girls, the old harpy was a fruit loop! Much worse in person than her writing would ever suggest.

  27. Laurie - there are plenty of feminists who love how Dworkin writes, even as they disagree with every word of it (compare her sidekick Mackinnon, of whom Susie Bright said 'writes like the typical academic who must publish but can't write'). It's what makes Dworkin's work so (superficially?) appealing, if not (dare one say?) seductive. What woman wouldn't believe, after reading Pornography, that all men (even the gay ones) really want to do is jerk off to seeing a woman stuffed intio a meat grinder or show off her breasts (which pretty much amounts to being stuffed into a meat grinder, if you read the whole book). Funnily enough, the 'great writer' tag is often applied to the similarly divisive Julie Burchill. These days, I've no patience with either. Still, good luck with the book proposal.


  28. Fuck off previous anonymous. Learn to write a sentence sans parantheses.

  29. Parantheses are *in*, you dolt.

    (So are little asterisks in place of italics.)

  30. Mark, *bold*, /italics/, _underlined_. It is documented in RFC 1855.

    Sometimes other extensions, such as +strikethrough+ are also used by some programs (e.g. Emacs), but are less common.

    Most widely used Mail/NNTP/IRC clients and some text editors support the convention automatically out of the box or can be made to with ease.

  31. Who the fuck is CJ to tell anyone else to fuck off?

  32. I like that Dworkin decided she would not put up with people thinking they knew more than she did.

  33. Julie Birchill was a hack writer of the worst kind. When I was a student my house mates and I used to make bets as to how far into her articles she would get before misusing the word "smorgasbord"! Even though she was supposedly "of the left" I always thought she was an absolute, unadulterated, unalloyed, unreconstructed, undiluted twat!

    But Dworkin was worse!

  34. CJ (you don't mind if I call you CJ?), I'd much rather you actually challenged my argument than my punctuation (but then maybe you're Lynne Truss under another name).


  35. Anonymous (you don't mind if I call you syphilitic cunt do you?), go fuck a well hung donkey!

  36. CJ - you can call me what you like: the fact that you don't seem interested in responding to the content of my original post is up to you - I had no idea that my punctuation would upset you so much. Oh well.


  37. Alright, here's the challenge:

    I want you, Penny Red, to deny to me directly that Dworkin is a misandrist.

    If you can't do that then why the fuck are you making posts praising her? & don't pull that Malcolm X shit, he was a thinker with some actual sophistication. See: white men in Mecca. Dworkin is just another bigot. She was better than the biological essentialist separatist lesbians, fine. That doesn't get you a medal. Doesn't prevent you being a prejudiced loon, too devoured by hatred to promote a genuine path towards a binary freed society.

    & she's a bad writer, too. Clearly delighted she knows how to use a semi-colon, but I'm unimpressed.

  38. I've spoken to the donkey, Anonymous, and it told me you were a bloody awful fuck. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Fuck off!

  39. CJ - No, I think I'll stick around; it's Laurie's blog after all.


  40. I agree with directionlessbones:
    "I don't agree with all of their ideas but..."
    is surplus to requirements, unless you're a follower reading a religious text - in which case you have to come up with reasons for disagreeing with G-D.

    and on a minor point: anyone here read Marx in the original German?
    I defy anyone not see the beauty in, say, this paragraph form the Manifesto, on the constant revolutionizing of the means of production in bourgeois-capitalist society:

    "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind."

    so it Karl or Samuel Moore who gets the credit?

  41. Hooray for you, PennyRed! There's gold in them there hills.

    And your book? Go for it. Do it anyway. I was once where you are now, and I let it go by.

  42. *ahem*

    I've given this some thought. Dworkin actually isn't a bad writer. That passage is very strong, I wasn't being fair. Not at all.

    But it doesn't stop her being a mad misandrist, any more than Mill being one of the sharpest writers in history didn't stop him being a smarming racist bigot who acted as an apologist for Imperialism against India.

    In much the same way that he backed the British Empire with his gifted writing, Dworkin used her talent to ensure that RadFemmery wasn't essentialist, but also was totally fucking useless, alienating men constantly and carelessly, basically establishing the bad name for feminism which you're seemingly dedicating your career to eradicating, pumping in the misandrist poison your writings are desperately trying to drain.

    Being a good writer isn't enough. Mill wrecked utilitarianism through inserting elitist snobbery and ranking pleasure (thus ruining Bentham's elegantly simple system, which has yet to be improved upon), Dworkin wrecked feminism through inserting misandrist rancour that was structured along distinct, but parallel lines to the lesbian separatist biological essentialists (thus ruining the chance for the movement to be both genders against the binary).

    I'm afraid that being a strong writer is useless if you do not think.

  43. @ James

    Oh, come on man! Dworkin was a terrible writer and a malignant influence in the feminist corpus. If Dworkin was a "good" writer you might as well concede that the Marquis de Sade was not only a "good" writer but a "great" one!

    Recant, my friend!

    Retract those hasty words!

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