Tuesday, September 26, 2006

 
So, Blue at Alas, a Blog, has an interesting discussion about Andrea Dworkin and disability. Here's a tiny bite:

I’m not a big personal fan of Andrea Dworkin’s writing, but I appreciate her contributions to feminism and her work as a radical thinker. When she died in April, 2005, I read a couple dozen obituaries and blog posts that celebrated her life and learned more about who she was as a woman and activist. The Guardian released “Through the Pain Barrier,” reportedly her last piece of writing, completed just a month before her death. I was excited to hear that the topic was her experience with disability, and I couldn’t wait to see what the woman whose writing and speaking style had been described as “apocalyptic” might say about disability and civil rights.

And although the author of the post admitted to being disappointed, in the comments Blue also allowed as how maybe some expectations were unreasonable in the first place. So the post and its comments offered an opportunity for learning and growth, which is good.

However, I just gotta be a troublemaker . Not even a great big storm-the-castle damn-the-torpedos bull-in-the-china-shop troublemaker-of-influential-significance (like AD herself). Nah, I'm just a tiny little annoyance of a troublemaker, a mosquito on the hide of the rhinoceros of thought, an eyelash in the eye of all that is good and true and noble about the blogging process.

I had to go and ruin it for EVERYBODY, like this:

Somewhere in the comments, I think it was #129, I said:

Dworkin’s work in “Our Blood” was just plain groundbreaking - the discussion of the “real” vs the “true” absolutely shook me to my foundation. I find that particular book, and much of her other work, brilliant beyond question.

This does not stop me from wondering if she was at any point in her life mentally ill, in addition to physically ill, and whether such mental illness (if any) informed her politics and her writing to any observable extent.

And if so, when we read her work, should we adjust for mental illness? Or should we consider it (whatever mental illness as may have existed) simply part and parcel of the radical experience of her life as she lived it?


Now, the discussion could have gone a number of ways from here.

Someone could have spoken up and said "Well, she was clearly not mentally ill, as evidenced by X, Y, and Z - so what's your point?"

Or, someone could have said "no, her mental illness did not affect her work, as evidenced by A, B and C - so what's your point?"

Or, someone could have said "Well, mental illness can inform one's politics and writing, and may have influenced her opinion on fuba, fweeba and bleen, but nonetheless..." etc.

But instead, there was very little discussion of the actual question, and some significant response of the "OMG! STOP IT! STOP TALKING ABOUT THAT!" variety, and accusations as to how the thread had dissolved into rape-victim-disbelieving, Andrea-bashing, aspersion-casting, etc.

I don't really think the participants in the thread were much into Andrea-bashing. But I invite y'all to read it if you have the time and decide for y'allselves. Maybe I'm reading it entirely wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.

But I feel compelled to strongly state that I NEVER CALLED ANYONE CRAZY.

I believe there's a big difference between calling me crazy (with all its attendant cultural baggage) and discussing my behavior, or writing, or political opinions, in light of mental illness. I really believe it's a different thing. If some people don't believe there's a difference, that's okay too; but if I'd meant to say "Crazy Andrea is full of shit", believe me - I'd have said it. (maybe I'd have phrased it more politely, but I'd have said it nonetheless.)

I also feel that it might be an interesting exercise to determine what aspects of the larger physical disability discussion may be generalizable to mental illness, if anything.

And I further feel that questioners teach us to question. AD was a questioner. She taught us to question. As much right as someone has to question my behavior or opinions in light of...oh, I don't know, patriarchy or privilege or religious belief or any other sort of cultural myth - I have as much right to question the behavior or opinions of others. ANY others.

Ultimately, I have this to say, and invite comment upon: since when is it a crime to examine our favorite authors in light of what personal information we are privileged to know about them?

more politely (if clumsily) phrased - how does knowledge of the personal lives and beliefs and experiences of authors (or artists, or performers, or any other arbiters of aesthetics and opinion) affect the experience of writing/viewing/hearing them?

have at it. have at me. do what ya gotta do.

Comments:
more politely (if clumsily) phrased - how does knowledge of the personal lives and beliefs and experiences of authors (or artists, or performers, or any other arbiters of aesthetics and opinion) affect the experience of writing/viewing/hearing them?

ooo, great question! and one i think about a lot, specifically with reference to artists who are famous for being complete jackasses in their personal lives and whether or not the people around them tolerated that behavior because of their art.

i may have mentioned this before, and maybe here, but watching the movie "pollock" really crystallized that for me. i came away from the movie really hating jackson pollock. his art is less exciting for me now that i've seen a (granted, fictionalized) version of his life that presents him as reckless, immature and careless with the people in his life.

to be honest, sometimes i don't *want* to know how an artist or thinker is in their personal life, because finding out nasty things about them makes it more difficult for me to enjoy their work. i hate that big boi from outkast has a freakin' pole in his basement for women to dance on.

wrt to dworkin: i wonder if your question about her mental health, set off some alarms about dismissal. because if she *was* mentally ill, it might be easy for folks who disagree with her to toss her writings aside as the ravings of a mad woman.

so i wonder if the responses weren't a kind of "close ranks! close ranks!" response that folks often resort to when they feel besieged.

that said, sometimes i wonder if most thinkers or artists who go against the cultural grain are a little bit nuts. if they *have* to be in order to stick to their guns when so many people around them are calling them wrong and crazy.
 
ok, i've now read the thread from your comment down to the end and i see that it's on a different tack than the one that resonated with me.

so what we're talking about is context, yah? how useful it is in the reading of a writer to understand the context in which something was written? like BD's mention of Nietzche and his home life, how that played out in his writing.

i think context is grand, and i also think that folks come to different conclusions based on that context. some folks will say, "oh, hmm, nietzche had some issues with the ladies, isn't that interesting." some will say, "nietzche was a pig and we shouldn't read him." etc.

context as an end can be a bit frustrating for me, particularly in the realm of performance. i mean, gee, yes, it's great that i know that high comedies were performed in the midst of shit and sex workers hawking oranges but how does that affect my performance *now?* does the audience care? do i?
 
I found myself thinking about Hunter Thompson. I can't imagine discussing his work without putting it in the context of his mental health issues.

But saying that an author/artist has mental health issues doesn't negate that author/artist's contribution at all, at least not to me.

If the author/artist's contribution to literature/art does speak to the human condition in a way that is true and relevant, then that contribution is not necessarily diminished.
 
i see that it's on a different tack than the one that resonated with me.

that thread, yeah. but I like how you responded to this one. feel free to continue in whatever vein you choose.
 
it's great that i know that high comedies were performed in the midst of shit and sex workers hawking oranges but how does that affect my performance *now?* does the audience care? do i?

only if the sex worker is winging citrus fruit at you while you're on stage, I guess...I mean, it might be of at least passing academic interest while you're recovering from the concussion... ;)
 
I'm hypersensitive when people discuss mental disorders, and you didn't offend me. I thought it was an interesting question. And I've got a fair amount of Andrea Dworkin worship going on, too, so the fact that you didn't offend me says something.

But it's being portrayed as if you dismissed her by saying she was mentally ill. You didn't.

I also feel that it might be an interesting exercise to determine what aspects of the larger physical disability discussion may be generalizable to mental illness, if anything.

Things like this do get under my skin. "Mental" illness is a misnomer: it's the brain that's malfunctioning. What isn't physical about that?

Often, in discussing disability rights and disability issues, there's an exclusive focus (by able-bodied people) on "physical" disabilites. People behave as if "mental" disorders don't count. That's an incredible load of bullshit. Impairment is impairment. There's so much stigma associated with mental disorders that people can't get past their prejudice that mental disorders are all "in your head".

So, IMO, broad discussions of disability and/or impairment should always include both physical and mental disablities.
 
Things like this do get under my skin. "Mental" illness is a misnomer: it's the brain that's malfunctioning. What isn't physical about that?

well, yeah.

Thanks. That's totally what I meant to say.
 
maybe this speaks more then to how folks with mental illness are viewed culturally. because for me, knowing that someone was mentally ill doesn't negate their contribution, either.

if we view people with mental illness as capable of creating works that aren't solely about that illness; if they're seen as capable of thought that isn't tainted by the illness, then sure, the works are valid.

but if the view is that mental illness basically makes for unreliable narrators, then their work can't be taken seriously.

is it the illness talking or the person?
 
some of the greatest thinkers/writers/artists of our time have had mental illnesses...their brains just did not work like everyone elses; Einstein, Poe, Conan-Doyle, Van Gogh, Plath...all of them contributed some interesting stuff to the world.

And while we're on it...you know, no one discounts FDR as an amazing president because he was in a wheelchair, so the mere idea that one would discount all Dwokin said because she MIGHT have had an illness? Foolish. I think people are way defensive of AD, so they see insults and attempts to discredit her everywhere...chasing shadows and all...
 
some of the greatest thinkers/writers/artists of our time have had mental illnesses...their brains just did not work like everyone elses; Einstein, Poe, Conan-Doyle, Van Gogh, Plath...all of them contributed some interesting stuff to the world.

But in some cases, that mental illness has been used to limit interpretations of their work. Van Gogh, for example--people look at it and go, "That's some crazy shit!" instead of placing it in its proper context. That is, not actually all that strange, if you look at some of his contemporaries.

There was an article in the SJ Merc a few months ago about Sylvia Plath and the divergent reception on either side of the pond. Here, we respect suicidal poets. Over there, so the article said, they see her as being a tad bit overwrought.
 
But in some cases, that mental illness has been used to limit interpretations of their work.

now see, that seems a lot more reasonable to me than "OMG STOP IT!".

That gives me something to really consider and chew on.
 
In Andrea Dworkin's case, I think, the issue is a little different. No one argued that Van Gogh did not produce those paintings, or that they don't qualify as art; they might be evaluated as the work of a madman, but they're evaluated as artwork all the same.

Dworkin's mental illness is sometimes used not merely to evaluate her perspective, but to question her grip on reality, including both her reaction to events and her account of them. I'm not saying that that was happening in that thread, but people who value Dworkin as a theorist are right to be concerned about it in general.
 
And, you know, her whole point is rememory and post-traumatic feminism. Her thesis is that misogyny and misogynist violence reverberates through a woman's life--and that the threat of it sends shock waves through all women's lives. By her logic, her perspective is specially valuable and valid because she is a survivor of misogynist violence and because she shares that vulnerability with other women. Objectivity is distance is insulation. So to turn that around and say that stress has cracked her reality open and twisted it in knots--which, again, not what you were doing--must seem especially insidious to someone familiar with Dworkin and her work. IOW, "her mental illness could be an important factor" is a very ambiguous statement not just because of traditional conflation of "mentally ill" and "untrustworthy" but because of a traditional disjunct between intimate knowledge and deep insight.
 
that explains a lot, Piny.

Thanks for the insight.
 
Excellent question!

MT - I also thought about it while watching "Pollock," yet came out of the film wanting to see more of his work - liking the work in spite of the portrayal of the man. I was peeking over his shoulders as he painted rather than noting his belligerence.

I don't care less for Plato's ideas knowing he kept slaves. And one day a few centuries from now when people read the works of the great environmentalist, Sage, will they hate me when they find out I lived with a car-owner, and that I sometimes drove that environment- destroying machine? Let's hope not.

On mental illness, I've already been taken to task for applauding some of the efforts of Valarie Solinas. I maintain that mental illness doesn't make a person crazy, it just makes them less able to always function efficiently in our very demanding society. Words and ideas and images that wake you up and get you thinking are valuable no matter what the mental state of the person who created them.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
and Valerie Solanas could be funny as hell: her play "Up Your Ass" was performed on the LES some years back, quite successfully i thought.
 
The SCUM Manifesto is a thing of beauty. no question.
 
hell, i just read that whole thing, all 151 comments too. the temptation to reply was great, but i resisted. all i can say is in all honesty, I would NOT be surprised if throughout various times in her life AD suffered from Post-traumatic stress and depression. Lots of people do.

I also find the blasting of Blue ANNOYING. Yes, AD was an impassioned, often theatrical writer, which is WHY she reached and touched and changed so many...to me, it just sounds like Blue was hoping to see that in that particular piece and did not. No crime there, sheesh. Then again, I do not expect anything except bile outta Pony these days.
 
When one reads Shakespeare, does one take into account that he was in many ways racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and so on? Does it affect the way one reads it positively or negatively?

To me, that's the same question: it's just that we've had 400 years to come to terms with that part of Shakespeare (and that his values are ones that WASPs grew up with, even if in a milder form) so it's not so bad, to us.

It is different, though, since AD wasn't writing fiction.

In fiction, I don't think it matters to readers as much - mental illness (esp. depression or bipolarity) seems to be... if not par for the course, more common in the creative sphere. (Or made more obvious, by the fact that it DOES influence/prompt their work.)

In a political, sociological, or otherwise philosophical text, though, I think that it is an important question to ask. Not sure of my answer, though.
 
Alex - one would think, on the surface at least, that more knowledge of shakespeare = deeper understanding of shakespeare, and deeper understanding is an admirable and worthy goal, and so the more knowledge the better, right?

I'm put in mind of Germaine Greer (as quoted by John Stoltenberg) saying that the best way to honor AD's memory is to really engage her work.
 
I'm pretty firmly in that camp wrt to Shakespeare, yes. But I can definitely also see the issue where "discussing the writer in light of mental illness" could easily be read as/turned into "discredit this writer on the basis of insanity".

I think, to me, the understanding of the context of the work is important... but, in this case (and other similar cases), the real importance of the work comes from whether or not the text can be extrapolated to other, related situations.

So: if Kant wrote his Categorical Imperative while in an altered state of consciousness, be it from mental illness (dependent personality disorder, at random) or from chemical substances (came up with it while high)... it doesn't matter too much if you can argue that his premise is still valid.

I am totally picking examples at random. But... yeah. If you can argue that AD's work was influenced by but not detracted from because of mental illness, then I think the mental illness factor is great for context but relatively meaningless for analysis of concepts.

Does that make sense?
 
of course, as neither a psychologist nor an academic it occurs to me that my speculation on the subject is utterly pointless.

Maybe the world's just not ready for Andrea Dworkin: A Critical Biography.
 
Hmm, yes, have a similar issue with the object of my thesis.
 
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