Adrienne Rich’s Alternate Model of Literary Aesthetics and History

Adrienne Rich in her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” discusses several concepts that are required to be understood by women writers for them to cross over the conditioning of a patriarchal sense of literary aesthetics and history. The essay, which was originally a lecture delivered by Rich at a women’s writer convention, understands and emphasizes the need for re-visioning of old texts, renaming of the various aspects of women which have been distorted by a male point of view and developing a new form of writing that is free of the haunting male gaze, of convention and propriety and of the ‘male’ language and its implications. She says that the act of re-visioning would help women to analyze and to act on “how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, how we can begin to see and name – and therefore live – afresh.”

The essay begins with her observations about the then existing literary traditions. The entire profession of writing was considered a ‘male’ activity and every writer’s convention was filled with male writers, professors and students. She goes on to say how feminist criticism has challenged the “astigmatic’ male view as far as women’s writing and language was concerned. She also observes how major parts of feminist writings such as black writing and lesbian writing have challenged the white feminists for having overlooked their presence. She views the emerging feminist consciousness as a whole and as parts in black or lesbian feminist movements as important for feminist writing to save itself from “misogynist” male readers, writers and critics.

“Re-vision – the act of looking back” she says is not a mere exercise in cultural history but is essential for the survival of women as a gender. Re-visioning seeks to break free from a tradition of viewing things from a male perspective, thereby forming a female point of view and adhering to it. Re-visioning is an attempt to view old texts with new eyes as there is a need for a dynamic politic vision and a demand for a fresh vision on what has been portrayed of women in history and literature.

Speaking of Virginia Woolf, Rich observes though Woolf tries to sound “cool”, “detached” and “casual”, there are places where it is evident that Woolf’s way of writing is constantly governed by the fear of being read by men. The calm and cool Woolf is devoid of the passion and anger that lurks within her, for she is haunted by the male world and its criticism.

Rich considers these exercises in re-visioning a must for women, for women often lose touch with their own inner selves, for fear of upholding patriarchal values. She wonders as to why women have hardly written poetry representing men as sex symbols or as a dangerous mystery, the manner in which men usually write about women. She figures that this is because women see men in a different light altogether. While the man names every activity of a woman as meaning something, judging her as incapable of doing certain things, surprised or irked when she attempts to do those things, the woman cannot name the activities of men except in a language system which in itself, is patriarchal.

A woman writer tries to say things that are different from the things that men have said. However, she uses the man’s language for it. This language cannot entirely compensate for her feelings. Adrienne Rich has chosen the title “When We Dead Awaken” from a play by Ibsen. The play talks of a woman who realizes what use men, as artists and thinkers, have made of her. The struggle that leads her to this awakening and the consequences of the awakening comprise the play. Rich believes that astounding social changes are possible when this “awakening” happens.

Rich chooses to illustrate the need for a new way of writing, making an example out of her own self. She explains her struggles as a girl to write something that would be approved of by male readers. She says that while a man hardly writes for a woman, the woman essentially writes for a man. Thereby, she wishes to stick to the norms of emotional restraint. In the fifties, Adrienne Rich was a leading a family life. She slowly found herself becoming depressed, negative and lost. She had lost the girlish joys in her. What she wrote seemed too literary with her remembering to put down her own experiences as someone else’s, as a ‘she’ and not as ‘I’. She remembered to use a strategy of objectivity and detachment or to use a male persona in her works. As time went by, she began to feel the urge to be herself and react in her own way to the situations in politics, society or economics. The male way of looking, analyzing and writing had killed what could have been her personal work of love.

At this point, Rich began to write “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law” which she wrote in pieces and put together later. This poem too she says refers to the persona as ‘she’ and not ‘I’. Rich felt the constraint of the family honour and her children before she could let herself go with her imagination and with whatever she wanted to write. She could not write about pain, victimization or her own body because she was expected to be leading a normal life with a happy family, with absolutely no cause for depression.

Rich talks of a dream where she saw herself beginning to read a poem at a convention and slowly the words of a blues song emerge out of her lips. She realizes that the writings of women were indeed like a blues song. They were a cry of pain, of victimization or were lyrics of seduction. She feels that this feeling of anger and victimization was necessary for every woman to pass through because they were real. They helped the woman write better, be in touch with her own inner self better and to counter the oppressive male writers with her own soulful writings.

Rich feels that an alternate model of re-visioning history and old texts, accompanied by renaming with a fresh eye, would chalk out new territories for women to explore in their writings. While male writers are engrossed in conforming to their own constructions and patterns, to analyze political problems, socio-economic disturbances or acts of violence from a rational male perspective, women could clearly understand them from gendered humanitarian grounds.

Though Rich identifies herself as being a “special woman” who had been given privileges to read and to express, she feels that the model of re-visioning and renaming would only be justified if it brought out the women who were still trapped within the patriarchal confines of the society, morality and language.

Note: This is an answer I wrote in an examination paper. Please forgive any misquotations or errors.

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5 thoughts on “Adrienne Rich’s Alternate Model of Literary Aesthetics and History

  1. Hmm…nice answer I must admit. But IMHO tools are always designed for the convenience of the powerful.

    Language is one such tool for expression. Its evolution would have been influenced by the ones with the power, which were the males. They would have influenced language and tailored it to suit them. Obviously every powerful group would do just that. If we did a role reversal over the centuries assuming women were the more powerful group, then it is quite likely that language would sound very different and perhaps would not be convenient for men to use at all.

    The past and, to a large extent, the present, is dominated by the male of the species. That is an undeniable fact. The women need to find their voice, tailor the language and hold their own. Maybe a few centuries down the line, words will sound a lot more balanced and both males and females will have room for their unique voice to be heard.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post, very fascinating, i am a 2nd year college student, just tapping inot Rich for the first time, and your paper definitly helped me understand and solidify many of my thoughts, thank you so much. 🙂

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