Thursday, 21 January 2016

Things I Don't Want To Know, Deborah Levy

Sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose are George Orwell's four motivations for writing, as he articulates them in Why I Write.

In Things I Don't Want To Know, Deborah Levy takes these four apocalyptic horsemen and reorders them, tossing them about like pizza dough, as she offers her own, uncompromisingly female, version of why she writes.

In the first essay, 'Political Purpose', she reopens a notebook she has held on to, but not written in since 1988, when she went to Poland to write about an avant-garde actress. Irresistibly we are reminded of Doris Lessing's four notebooks, and wonder which one this is most like – black, red, yellow or blue (old depression, Communism, new depression, dreams)?

The title of that first essay might draw us towards Orwell or Lessing's Communism, particularly as Levy's own father was a member of the ANC, and particularly as she explicitly calls this her 'Polish notebook' and talks of Gdansk shipyards.

Yet the essay seems at first sight apolitical. It recounts a trip made to Majorca to try to come to terms with a personal crisis, and makes forays into motherhood, not politics:
I found myself thinking about some of the women, the mothers who had waited with me in the school playground while we collected our children. Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children (p. 14).
It is impossible, says Levy, to explain to these pursuing younger selves, these Furies, that we, we mothers, have metamorphosed 'into someone we did not entirely understand'.

In agreement with Kristeva, the Franco-Bulgarian literary critic, linguist and psychoanalyst, she speculates that the idea of 'the Mother' is a version of the Woman that 'the whole world had imagined to death'. It is well-nigh impossible, Levy feels, to get around this fantasy, and tell the truth about what it is to be a mother, because 'The world loved the delusion more than it loved the mother' (p. 15).

Part of the mystery of this deluded fantasy, for mothers themselves, is the feeling that 'the male world and its political arrangements […] was actually jealous of the passion we felt for our babies'. For this, it seems, women are to be punished: 'our children made us happy beyond measure – and unhappy too – but never as miserable as the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy made us feel'.

Ah..... here's the 'political purpose': Neo-Patriarchy – gosh! what a term, so lightly and casually thrown away, so brilliant in its coinage, with its dark threat that patriarchy simply cannot be done away with, that it will always manage to give birth to itself again, a sinister parthenogenesis like Frankenstein's monster made of body parts – the eternal return. Neo-Patriarchy, argues Levy, 'required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled'. This sentence, when I read it, made me feel physically sick. It named, acutely, the paradox facing 'Strong Modern Women' – the impossible struggle to achieve your personal happiness while attending to the needs and happiness of others as though it were your only purpose.

How else could a paradox be formulated except acutely? I used to enjoy naming paradoxes, and did it all the time. Before children. Nothing seems to get to the heart of a matter better than pithy paradoxes. Paradoxes name contradictions and conflicts. They name madness – the impossible possibility of holding two opposing thoughts in our minds – think of Medea, killing her children, but not mad. They are the very structure of tragedy, the flaw that will flip the hero into the victim. They foreclose debate, and invoke the gods of Pity and Awe, Fear and Retribution. They dominate political discourse triumphantly – Anti-Austerity Measures! Quantitative Easing! They define what it is to be alive and simultaneously to know that you will die. Paradoxes name that human pain of longing for freedom and… yet… craving security, all at once. Paradoxes conquer time itself, allowing us neither to have our cake, nor to eat it, but still to see it through the window and slaver for it.

And Levy's paradoxes, her poetic contradictions, reinforced by quotations exclusively from French female writers and intellectuals, that most self-riven of types (Duras, Kristeva, de Beauvoir), name over and over again what I feel every single day.

These women, these writers, are not wrong. They put their finger on the painful wound that is becoming a mother under Neo-Patriarchy. I have experienced, every day since giving birth, how impossible it is to be a Good Girl once you have a baby. It is no longer possible to hide in plain sight, to escape censure by doing everything society asks of you perfectly. You are caught out constantly, by having to infringe rules, codes, norms, conventions, boundaries, as your child screams lustily for its needs to be met, and you run before those screams, running from the equally outraged screams of your employer, your children's school, your doctor, your cafe owner, your handyman, your dentist… Oh – not loud screams (we're adults), but screams of disapproval, nonetheless, taking the form of averted eyes, curt emails, pursed lips, blocked promotions, social blanking, overly loud comments, trolling.

I read Deborah Levy's few pages and put down the slim volume, thinking in despair that I will never write about motherhood again.

And yet I must go on. I cannot give up the idea that mothers can find happiness, despite the impossible paradoxes they are asked to swaddle, clean, feed and nurture, without ever having signed a contract or receiving a pay cheque for the work they did not know was going to be asked of them – the work of looking after everybody's needs, not just the baby's.

Just as I was supposed to be grateful to Cambridge for allowing me a place and later a job – I was a supplicant and not an applicant – I was supposed to be Grateful to have a baby, because somehow, this was my greatest symbol of becoming, the most visible sign that I had been properly tamed, my impregnation by society itself. In fact, the almost exclusively male Fellowship at my former Cambridge college were pleased as punch when I and two other colleagues became pregnant at the same time. You'd have thought they were all responsible. It didn't stop them kicking one of those women out of her college rooms, even though she had nowhere else to live once her baby was born (because her partner taught at a boarding school the other side of London). Meanwhile, I was being done over by a female emissary of my Alma Mater. The third was abandoned by her husband, and left academia because she couldn't afford to raise two children, alone, on a college lecturer's salary. One way or another, they got rid of all three of us. No way of being a Fellow if you're a Mother.

Yet I will go on. Here is my own paradox: although it is, in theory, impossible to be happy as a mother, I will be happy, in practice, as a mother. How will I do it? Through dancing, listening, learning to love myself, doing what I want (I might as well be a bad girl), and cheering on others to do the same.

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