Monday, May 28, 2007

The Rage of Jadis

Although the children’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church took place over thirty years ago, it is still embedded in the memory of that community. It happened at a golden moment, when a group of brilliant friends had gathered there and decided it would be wonderful to write a play for their children. My friend Nola played the White Witch. Dressed in a red slip covered by a black lace dress, a black cloak rippling down her young teenaged frame, she made her grand entrance to the strains of Jimi Hendrix' Purple Haze:

Purple Haze all around,
don't know if I'm coming up or down.
Am I happy or in misery?
Whatever it is, that girl put a spell on me”

Jimi Hendrix and a black and red dancer may seem a far cry from the White Witch as she appeared in C. S. Lewis’ original novel, but when the magical land is entered from California by the sea rather than Great Britain, perhaps a hot, purple haze is a better curse than a frozen whiteout. “Some say the world will end in fire, others say in ice,” wrote poet Robert Frost. We are just as likely to be burned by our appetites as frozen by them. California does not understand ice, or maybe our climate permits us to refuse to admit that we’re icy. We are closer to the equator than the pole. We fancy ourselves a people of heat, restless, always trying to manage, deal, control.

When, this many years later, I asked Nola what it felt like to play the White Witch, she laughed. “Powerful. I’d never danced in public before. It still amazes me that I got the role and Linda Bellarmy did not.”

It was my turn to laugh. I met Linda Bellarmy ten years ago when she came west to visit friends and turned up for services at St. Bartholomew's. Elegant and fine boned, with hanks of auburn hair, Linda still radiates star quality. Her parents were both writers. After their Inklings days at St. Bartholomew's, they rose to international fame as sages and took up residency on the East Coast. Linda’s parents had adapted the novel for the play, and both Nola and Linda were utterly surprised when the independent casting group awarded the part to Nola. Maybe that’s because they decided that Nola was, and is, the perfect girl to navigate the purple haze. She is powerful because she is so perfectly herself.

To be perfectly oneself is a remarkable achievement, especially in a culture where women are still raised to fulfill others' desires and embody others' projections of beauty. My mother grew up believing that if a woman lacked beauty, there was no other gift that could compensate. There are no funny looking newscasters named Larissa on CNN. While Beauty is a wonderful ideal in philosophy and religion, when it is applied to imperfect people, it becomes a tyrant. Helen of Troy, that great embodiment of beauty, held no office or power beyond herself. Her power was solely her effect upon others. Think about this for a moment. Imagine that the only thing you have is an effect. What else, I ask, is magic, but that? Why else, I ask, have men been lauded as movers and shakers and women burned as witches?

To be the object of desire results in a very paradoxical and deceptive form of self absorption. Lily bound feet, extreme thinness, neck rings, veils, so much energy expended to cast beauty's spell, to shape shift, to turn from being myself into someone else. In traditional societies, men have worn the honor, women the shame. Men have moved through the public sphere and women have guarded the private. With the American home now a shrine of consumerism, the spheres are melting into one another, with the masculine corporate world a pervasive influence now in the most tender and intimate moments of our lives. A former housewife myself, I did not care to be invaded, not at all.

Because girls are raised so deeply in the shadows of others’ expectations and so many other people’s dramas are played out across our lives, a great many of us carry a great deal of frustrated anger. You would, too, if you kept flying into a glass ceiling. We know the difference between biology and self interest. Do not forget for a minute that Sophia, wisdom, is also a woman. Despite the fantasies of medieval monks, Jesus healed Mary Magdalene of wrath, not prostitution, as the recently discovered Gospel of Mary suggests. And so, the aging mother, ignored by a society that can only see women as young and sexy, is cruel to her young daughter. A submissive wife in Texas sinks into black depression and drowns her husband's hateful "seed." A hotshot young attorney sells her body to Playboy believing that to market herself sexually as well as legally is a liberated gesture. Sister turns against sister. Fire in the belly can freeze the soul – such is the pathology of the White Witch and the purple haze. And, I might add, it was precisely this that Nola escaped by playing her. To be able to play that kind of power, to express it, is to begin to understand it and the only cure for the ravages of power I’ve found, is to stand right under it and get wise.

Because the kind of Power that is ravaging the world today expresses itself by crushing the Other, women, as Other, always risk being crushed. Atrocities against women are on the rise. (By nature, anything that is done to a woman cannot be done to a man, which is what makes crimes against women a "safe" way of consolidating power.) When she was just a little girl, Helen of Troy was raped by a Theseus, enraged by her effect on him. Amnon raped Tamar in the Bible and in one generation, brought down the House of David. Power is not clean. In many, many cases, men and women, even as they struggle with one another, love each other deeply. That said, something is still very wrong. Things have grown more wrong in my lifetime. Something is wrong when war becomes the theater of character, where women are victims and men perpetrators. Something is wrong when a woman named Jessica Valenti writes a sober article stating that rape is not acceptable, and is teased and heckled by her interviewer in the name of “setting the stage” for their talk. Here’s what he wrote. (I will spare you the cite, because I am not going to be kind, but if you want to know where the interview is, you can email me.) “As far as explosive signifiers go, there are few more combustible than the word "feminism." It was forged through suffrage and the ERA and Roe v. Wade, and has survived through first and second and third waves to the tunes of Helen Reddy and Ani DiFranco. Dogged by the image of a spectral harpy with hairy legs and an apocryphal burned bra in her hand, it has been declared dead, then resurrected, then declared dead again. But god bless it, there's life in feminism yet.” Would anyone dare preface the racial struggles of African Americans as, “a spectral Hottentot with hairy crown and a drum, but god bless them, we’ve still got the blacks?" Has anyone ever been patronizing toward that poster boy of world development, Columbia professor Jeff Sachs in his book lined ivory tower, pontificating on the necessary evil of shop girls and sexual harassment in the name of economic improvement?

Thank God Valenti knows how to handle these guys."Do you think it's fair that a guy will make more money doing the same job as you? Does it piss you off and scare you when you find out about your friends getting raped? Do you ever feel like shit about your body? Do you ever feel like something is wrong with you because you don't fit into this bizarre ideal of what girls are supposed to be like? Well, my friend, I hate to break it to you, but you're a hardcore feminist. I swear."

Which brings me to back to the White Witch. Are you surprised that she got so sick of the whole thing that she finally just did it, and uttered the Deplorable Word?
(More to come. . .)

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