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It’s weird, talking about “books through the lens of feminism.” At its worst, it can make you feel like some state censor, creating lists of Approved and Unapproved Materials. At its best, it can make you question why you care about books, or feminism, in the first place: It can make you go back to your sources, the works that speak most to you, and ask yourself why you care and what you’ve carried away. I am not in a position to create any definitive List of Appropriately Feminist-Friendly Books. For one, I like D.H. Lawrence a whole heck of a lot. And for two, I question whether any book that is not a feminist-theory textbook (a) can exemplify perfectly feminist attitudes, or (b) should try to.
What interests me, in the writing that I care about and enjoy — I like memoir and poetry, more than just about anything; I like fiction all right, but am neither schooled in it nor a great critic of it — is how it works to create and establish a personality, a subjectivity, on the page; how it renders other people, who are difficult and impenetrable and often immense causes of suffering, more transparent. I like being given a way into someone else’s head. In a sense, politics have nothing to do with this: The worth of other people isn’t determined by how much they agree with you. But in another way, politics are crucial to it: If we say that we want to “stand up for women,” or “stand up for queer folks,” or stand up for anyone else, then we can only know what “standing up” entails by listening to women/queer folks/whoever, by dealing with people as individual realities rather than as abstractions.
Which is all to say: When I agreed to talk about books, I knew I was going to end up talking about Colette. Simply because she’s so hard to claim, to smooth the rough edges off, to sort into any one category; simply because she was so very impossible.
“Me, a feminist? You’re kidding,” Colette said, in 1910. “The suffragettes disgust me. And if any Frenchwomen take it into their heads to imitate them, I hope they’ll be made to understand that such behavior isn’t tolerated in France. You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.” Or, you know, there’s this gem: “A woman who thinks she is intelligent demands the same rights as man. An intelligent woman gives up.”
And yet! Colette would go on to publish a novel about a divorced music-hall quasi-stripper who chooses her career and autonomy over a wealthy husband. She would write about the struggles of middle-aged women to come to terms with their sexuality, in a society that regarded it as ugly or impossible. She would write about how some of those middle-aged women enjoyed objectifying pretty young men. She wrote about faking orgasms, about the misogyny of men who need to prove they can sleep with tons of ladies, about her time in the lesbian and genderqueer underground of turn-of-the-century Paris; she would write in defense of her own singleness, and her choice to dance naked on stage for a living. Colette, a feminist? Not in 1910, maybe.
In fact, Colette’s antipathy to feminism seems to have stemmed primarily from the fact that she was about three waves ahead of her time; as her biographer Judith Thurman notes, “the suffragettes” were primarily concerned with getting basic legal rights, whereas Colette was concerned with the things that would bother feminists much later, after we’d gotten those basic legal rights and found that our lives were still not a glorious frolic through the Utopian rose gardens of gender equality. She was worried about sexual satisfaction, about how to balance autonomy and intimacy, about The Social Construction of Gender. She was also worried, not coincidentally, about making bank. Because, in Colette’s view, it wasn’t a revolution if you couldn’t afford foie gras. And, optimally, some very impressive jewelry to wear at the restaurant where they served it to you. She was selfish, apolitical, a hedonist, defiantly individual: One doubts whether, even now, she would find it in her to identify with any given cause, to subsume herself into the social good. But just because she didn’t care for feminism doesn’t mean feminists shouldn’t care for her.
Colette’s favorite of her own books was The Pure and the Impure, the book in which she aimed “to treat sadly of sensual pleasure.” What she treated of, principally, was her own complicated sexuality, the rough time she had fitting herself into any currently existing ideas of femininity. But she casts herself as a spectator — a wandering ghost, unattached, whose knowledge of sex came primarily from looking in on other people’s love lives. It was fairly disingenuous: Colette’s many affairs were well-publicized, and at the time she wrote the book, she had just entered into her third marriage. But it was a way for her to speak of herself without having to give too much away, and it worked. Pretty much any variety of sex or gender she had encountered went into the book: Straight, queer; men, women, and people — like herself — who didn’t fit comfortably anywhere. Her findings: Everyone, everywhere, is having a huge bummer! But in a more elegant, turn-of-the-century French fashion. See, for example, her first chapter, about a woman who “indulges” herself with a boy half her age, but habitually fakes her orgasms to make him feel better about himself:
“I’m devoted to that boy, with all my heart. But what is the heart, madame? It’s worth less than people think. It’s quite accomodating, it accepts anything. You give it whatever you have, it’s not very particular. But the body… Ha! That’s something else again! It has a cultivated taste, as they say, it knows what it wants. A heart doesn’t choose, and one always ends up by loving.”
A feminist — like yours truly — might have something to say to this, something hearty and empowering and prescriptive: Stand up for yourself, lady! Make that boy do some time in the trenches! DTMFA, whatever that means! (I actually know what it means.) (I’m just irritated that it has so many more syllables than “dump him.”) (And people say it anyway.) Failing that, make a visit to Le Land de Babe! But the fundamental sadness of the statement sticks, and matters, and rings true. For this particular feminist, anyway. As does Colette’s statement that she possessed “a genuine mental hermaphroditism that burdens certain highly complex human beings.” Colette always had a dedication to the art of high femme — the dresses, the makeup, the feminine graces. She also had a survivor’s instinct, a taste for self-promotion and purely mercenary activity, and a rough, blunt insight that contradicted everything she’d been told about what a lady was supposed to be.
I happened to be making a particular effort at the time to rid myself of this ambiguity, along with all its flaws and privileges, and to offer them up, still warm, at the feet of a certain man to whom I offered a healthy and quite female body and its perhaps fallacious vocation of servant. But as for the man, he was not taken in; he had detected the masculine streak in my character by some trait of mine I could not identify, and, though tempted, had fled…
“There’s no reason to be so upset,” Marguerite Moreno said to me one day. “Why don’t you just accept the fact that for certain men some women represent a risk of homosexuality?”
“You and I may comfort ourselves with that thought, Marguerite, at any rate. But if what you say is true, who will realize that we are women?”
“Other women,” is Moreno’s answer. And Colette was involved with women, as well as men: Natalie Barney (the alcohol-and-anorexia downward spiral of one of Barney’s exes, the poet Renee Vivien, is traced in one of the book’s chapters), Josephine Baker by some accounts, women her first husband introduced her to in order to satisfy his own happy little kinks. In The Pure and the Impure, she doesn’t talk about them. Throughout the book, she’s explicit about the sexuality of others and carefully vague when it comes to her own. But she does talk about her longest queer relationship — five years of cohabitation, a relationship that started as her first marriage collapsed and only ended when Colette became pregnant by the man who would soon be her second husband — as a way into talking about gender, and how it fucks us all.
This clique, or sect, claimed the right of “personal freedom” and equality with homosexuality, that imperturbable establishment. And they scoffed, if in whispers, at “Papa” Lepine, the Prefect of Police, who never could take lightly the question of women in men’s clothes. The adherents of this clique of women exacted secrecy for their parties, where they appeared dressed in long trousers and dinner jackets and behaved with unsurpassed propriety… the sect’s most proselytizing members never crossed the street or left their carriage without putting on, heart pounding, a long plain cloak which gave them an excessively respectable look and effectively concealed their masculine attire.
At the home of the best-known woman among them — the best known and the most misunderstood — fine wines, long cigars, photographs of a smartly turned-out horseman, one or two langourous portraits of very pretty women, bespoke the sensual and rakish life of a bachelor. But the lady of the house, in dark masculine attire, belied any idea of gaiety or bravado. Pale, without blemish or blush, pale like certain antique Roman marbles that seem steeped in light, the sound of her voice muffled and sweet, she had all the ease and good manners of a man, the restrained gestures, the virile poise of a man.
This was Mathilde de Morny. “She is the person who has no counterpart anywhere. At one time she believed that she had her counterpart in the features of a young woman, and again in the features of a handsome young man — yes, of a young man, why not? — so handsome that love seemed to despair of him, and who, moreover, clung to no one. He gave to La Chevaliere a name that made her blush with joy and gratitude: He called her ‘my father.’”
A less poetic account comes from the diary of Liane de Pougy, Colette’s contemporary and enemy (they knew the same people, they slept with the same person at least once, they delighted in writing mean things about each other): “It was Missy’s way to call nice-looking boys her ‘sons’… When I became the wife of her ‘son’ she called me daughter and signed herself my ‘father-in-law.’ She wore men’s clothes, cropped her hair, smoked big cigars — and would have let her mustache grow if she’d had one! She exchanged the name ‘Mathilde’ for the debonair ‘Uncle Max’… To help the illusion, Missy used to flatten her breasts under a wide rubber band.” Colette also reports that she had an eye for the finer details: “The thing women in men’s clothes imitate worst is a man’s stride. ‘They raise their knees too high, they don’t tuck in their bottoms as they should,’ was the severe pronouncement of La Chevaliere.”
De Pougy never concealed her own relationships with women, nor was she ashamed of them, but she didn’t understand this: “It’s a ridiculous aberration, quite apart from the fact that it invites insult and scandal.” And Colette herself was hesitant, for reasons that don’t seem entirely self-protective, to call their relationship lesbian: “The seduction emanating from a person of uncertain or dissimulated sex is powerful. Those who have never experienced it liken it to the banal attraction of the love that evicts the male element. This is a gross misconception.” It would also be gross, maybe, to try to fit this person into any contemporary understanding of trans-ness, to apply labels from several decades and a few sexual revolutions away, now that de Morny can’t speak for herself or correct any misapprehensions. But it seems fair to note that de Morny’s gender was, as we say, queer. And Colette notes that her own sexuality, her own gender, always seems queer to her, even in her most hetero relationships: Something about the nature of her desire, her urge to conquer, is not the passive, receptive, purely female thing she wants it to be: “I who would willingly have been completely woman, completely and stupidly female, with what male wistfulness did I gaze at that man.”
All of this makes it into the book, because all of it was a part of Colette’s life. But those who go to it for a wholesome look at empowered, progressive sexuality will be let down: For one, Colette never spared her fellow ladies when judgment-passing time came around, and for two, her conclusions are just not always so enlightened. Even Missy doesn’t come out unscathed — her profound sadness is commended, because “there especially remains for the androgynous creature the right, even the obligation, never to be happy. If jovial, the androgynous creature is a monster.” There’s something eye-rolling in her declaration that “[gay men] have bequeathed to us only a one-sided and romanticized documentation. But up to now, were they ever observed by any woman for the length of time they were observed by me?” (Uhhhh… did they need to be, C-Monster?) And there’s a surprising, off-putting cruelty in passages like these:
A tyro in the career of diplomacy had the unfortunate idea of bringing along with him one day his intimate friend, Bouboule, decked out in a dress of black Chantilly lace over pale blue silk, his face sulky beneath a wide lace hat, as uncouth as a country wench in need of a husband, his cheeks plump and fresh as nectarines — such freshness not surprising in a seventeen-year-old butcher boy. We were frozen with astonishment, and aware that he was meeting with no success, kicking the hem of his skirt with his enormous feet, he left us. He did not go far, apparently, for only a few days later he committed suicide — the unexplained and clumsy act of a big boy, uncertain and chagrined.
It was 1931. Granted, no matter what year it was, Bouboule deserved better. Still, even with all this, Colette notes that “I am betraying a tolerance that some will condemn as strange.” (Another reason for the judgmental tone and bummer-ness of all the queer relationships in the book can maybe be found in de Pougy, who published a book of her own on her relationships with women: “Yes, having been witness to some distressing sights, some sinister results of the practice of that vice, I wanted to drive home my opinion rather fiercely. And anyway, it was necessary to do so in those days, in order to find a publisher who would consent to bring out a book on the subject.”)
What strikes one now, about The Pure and the Impure, is Colette’s ability to write her way through all these things, partly with a language that was just starting to emerge into the mainstream, and partly in langauge that hadn’t been created yet: How, by sticking close to the details of her own life, and her friends’ lives, she was able to find her way in to truths that affected her and perplexed her and had yet to be discussed. We can say that the problems of the individual aren’t the problems of feminism, or of any other identity politics; that we’re concerned with transpersonal forces, historical dynamics, and that people are only relevant insofar as they are affected by those dynamics or resist them. That the personal is political, unless it isn’t, at which point we can stop caring. But it’s by adhering so closely to the personal, by exploring the parts of it that were most strange and contradictory, that Colette the anti-feminist dredged up truths about gender and sex that theorists would only start to cover far later. She was ahead of her time because she stuck so closely to the shape of her truth; by being so fiercely individualistic, she came up with things that transcended her own life. “The word ‘pure’ has never revealed an intelligible meaning to me,” Colette writes, at the close of the book, effectively closing that half of the equation off with a shrug. Everyone is impure, is strange, is outside of what we’re told love and sex are supposed to be: Of that much, at least, Colette had every reason to be sure.
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