By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published as the second part of "With Norman Mailer at the Sex Circus" in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1971.
...a day had to come when women shattered the pearl of their love for pristine and feminine will and found the man, yes that man in the million who could become the point of the seed which would give an egg back to nature, and let the woman return with a babe who came from the root of God's desire....
Norman Mailer, The Prisoner of Sex
It is appropriate that Norman Mailer has become the central target of the fiercest and cruelest of Women's Liberation attacks, not because Mailer is prejudiced against women, or bullying about them, not even because he claims to know much about them, but because he is so dangerous a visionary, a poet, a mystic—he is shameless in his passion for women, and one is led to believe anything he says because he says it so well. He is so puritanical, so easily and deeply shocked, like any hero, that his arguments, which approach the fluidity and senselessness of music, have the effect of making the dehumanized aspects of womanhood appear attractive.
Here is Mailer: "...why not begin to think of the ovum as a specialized production, as even an artistic creation?" And: "Yes, through history, there must have been every variation of the power to conceive or not to conceive—it was finally an expression of the character of the woman, perhaps the deepest expression of her character—" What, are artistic creation and the expression of character, for women, not detachable from their bodies? From the mechanism of their bodies? It is terrible to be told, in 1971, that we belong to something called the species, and that we had, throughout centuries, a mystical "power to conceive or not to conceive." Why didn't we know about this power?
No matter if we protest that sexual identity is the least significant aspect of our lives. No matter if we hope, not absurdly in this era, that technology might make our lives less physical and more spiritual. None of this matters for, to Norman Mailer, "the prime responsibility of a woman is probably to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself, and conceive children who will improve the species."
But we don't know what the species is. A post-Darwinist name for "God"? A scientific concept? A mystical concept? A word? An identity? An essence? Do we locate ourselves in it, or does it push through us, blindly, with the affection of a stampeding crowd? And how long is "long enough"? Should we remain on earth for twenty years, or forty, or dare we hope for an extravagant eighty years, though our last several decades will be unproductive and therefore unjustified? The machine of the female body is thought by some to be a sacred vessel, designed to bring other sacred vessels into the world, for the glory of God; but it is also thought to be rather foul, as in Lear's words:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiend's.
There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sul-
phurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, con-
It is also considered a means of improving the species, that is, a machine designed to improve the quality of other machines; and the proper artistic creation of a woman is not a novel, a symphony, not a political theory, certainly, but the cultivation of her womb. The "power to conceive or not to conceive" is, after all, the "deepest expression of [a woman's] character ...." Not one kind of expression, not even the most pragmatic expression, but the deepest expression! One sees why the mystic is the most dangerous of human beings.
There is a famous remark of Freud's that ends with the question, "What does a woman want?" A good question. And a woman is inclined to ask, with the same exasperation, "What does a man want?" Indeed, a woman must ask, "What does a woman want?" The question is a good one, but it is fraudulent. It suggests that there is a single answer—a single "want"—for a multitude of human personalities that happen to be female. Many women are angry today because they are only women; that is, they possess the bodies of women, the mechanisms for reproducing the species, and they are therefore defined simply as "women." But there is no reality to the class of "women," just as there is no emotional reality to the "species." There are only individuals. The individual may be compartmentalized into any number of compartments, the absurd boxes of the poll-taker (the "Irish Catholic," the "suburbanite, affluent," the "35-year-old divorcée," etc.), but he exists in none of these compartments, and his personality will reject them. The only reality is personality. Not sex. Not sexual identity. No categories can contain or define us, and that is why we draw back from the female chauvinists who claim a biological sisterhood with us, just as we draw back from the male chauvinists who have attempted to define us in the past
"If we are going to be liberated," says Dana Densmore, in a pamphlet called "Sex Roles and Female Oppression," which is quoted in the Mailer article, "we must reject the false image that makes men love us, and this will make men cease to love us." But this viewpoint is not acceptable. It assumes that men demand a false image, that all men demand false images. It does not distinguish between one man and another man. And it assumes that women do not demand, from men, images that are occasionally false. Can an "image" be anything but false? The perfect mate of the toiling, distraught housewife is not a free, marauding male, but a husband stuck to a job that is probably as demeaning as housework, but more grating on the nerves because it is played out in a field of competition. If the woman has become trapped in a biological machine, the man has become trapped in an economic machine that pits him against other men, and for mysterious and shabby rewards. Man's fate may be to languish in imaginary roles, wearing the distorted masks of ideal images, but he can at least improve the quality of these roles by using his intelligence and imagination. But only by breaking the machine. Only by abandoning and climbing out of the machine, the traps of "maleness" and "femaleness."
Freud has been attacked from all sides as a representative of typical male prejudice, but his views on the subject are always worthwhile. In that wise, complex essay Civilization and its Discontents, he speaks of sex as "a biological fact which, although it is of extraordinary importance in mental life, is hard to grasp psychologically ...though anatomy, it is true, can point out the characteristics of maleness and femaleness, psychology cannot. For psychology the contrast between the sexes fades away into one between activity and passivity, in which we far too readily identify activity with maleness and passivity with femaleness." Obviously, the distinctions are not simple.
For if the female finds herself locked in a physical machine marked "passive," the male is as tragically locked in a machine marked "active." As Sylvia Plath says, ironically, "Every woman loves a fascist." What is left, then, but for the man to play the role of a brute? What is masculinity in any popular sense, except the playing of this stupid, dead-end role? In our culture men do not dare cry, they do not dare to be less than "men"—whatever that means.
The mechanical fact of possessing a certain body must no longer determine the role of the spirit, the personality. If Women's Liberation accomplishes no more than this it will have accomplished nearly everything.
But there are further problems, further areas of masculine uneasiness. Mailer criticizes Kate Millett for believing in "the liberal use of technology for any solution to human pain." Yes, that sounds like a heretical belief so long as human pain is valued as sacred, or important as an expression of personality, or helpful for salvation ...or even conversation. But it isn't. It is nothing, it is a waste, a handicap, a mistake. What good is human pain? We are all going to experience it soon enough, regardless of technology's miracles, so there is no point in our ignoring it or romanticizing it. Human pain—the acceptance of the bodily machine without any rebellion—a way of making us human, yes, but the rewards are chancy and might be as well accomplished by an act of the imagination. Why shouldn't we ask of technology the release from as much pain as possible? Why not? Why not the disturbing Utopian dream/nightmares of the "extra-uterine conception and incubation"—if they are a means of diminishing pain? Mailer, like all heroic spirits, places a primitive value on suffering. And one feels that he would not shy away from suffering, even the suffering of childbirth, if that were a possibility for him. Yes, to suffer, to feel, to be changed—it is a way of realizing that we live. But it is also a way of becoming dehumanized, mechanized. In fact, a way of dying.
To be mechanically operated, to have one's body moving along in a process that the spirit cannot control, to have the spirit trapped in an unchosen physical predicament—this is a kind of death. It is life for the species, perhaps, but death for the individual. Throughout human history women have been machines for the production of babies. It was not possible for them to live imaginative, intellectual, fully human lives at all, if indeed they survived for very long. They lived long enough to find a mate, to have a number of children, many of whom would not survive ...but it was the process that mattered, the blind, anonymous reproductive process that gave these women their identities.
In a little-known story by Herman Melville, "The Tartarus of Maids," young girls working in a paper factory are seen by a sympathetic narrator: "At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper." They are the pulp that is turned into blank paper out of a certain "white, wet, woolly-looking stuff ...like the albuminous part of an egg," in a room stifling with a "strange, blood-like, abdominal heat." The process takes only nine minutes, is presided over by a jovial young man named Cupid, and what terrifies is its relentlessness: it is an absolute process, a godly machine that cannot be stopped. "The pulp can't help going," the narrator is told smugly. And he thinks: "What made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it." Melville, who seemed to have no interest at all in the relationship between men and women, and who created no memorable woman character in all his fiction, has given us the best metaphor for the existential predicament of most of the world's women.
No wonder that the feminists look to technology for deliverance! As they climb out of their machines they must find other, substitute machines to do the work of women. A body is no more than a machine, if it is not guided by a personality—so why not a surrogate machine, an actual machine, why not the escape from as much impersonal pain as possible?
Once we are delivered from the machine of our bodies, perhaps we will become truly spiritual.
At the start of The Prisoner of Sex, Mailer speaks of having taken care of his large family for several weeks during the summer, cooking, cleaning, turning into a kind of housewife, so exhausted with domestic chores that he had no time to write, to think, to contemplate his ego. No time to contemplate his ego! After a while, in such a frenzy, one loses his ego altogether ...one misplaces his personality, and sinks into the routine frenzy of work that adds up to nothing, that comes to no conclusion, no climax. Is this a human life? Can one call an uncontemplated life really a "life" at all? Or is it merely brute existence? One has the time to contemplate his ego—to achieve a personality—only when he or she is liberated from the tyranny of physical burdens, whether they are external in the form of housework to be done eternally, or a commuting distance to be traveled, or whether they are internal, the processes of a body unaltered by technology and human choice. And what grief, what anger and dismay, for the women who—to "liberate" themselves and their men from the possibility of pregnancy—began taking the Pill on absolute faith, only to discover that the Pill carried with it mysterious disappointments and possible catastrophes of its own!—for Technology is probably male, in its most secret essence male.
The problem is: do we control nature, or will we be controlled by nature? A difficult question. A Faustian question. To accept technology and to create surrogate machines that will bear our children—this sounds like madness, perversity. Yet, to deny human choice in the matter of reproduction, as we would never do in the matter of, say, ordinary medicine or dentistry, seems an empty sentimentality.
But after all this, after all these considerations, we are still left with the rage of Women's Liberation. How to explain this anger? And we understand slowly that what is being liberated is really hatred. Hatred of men. Women have always been forbidden hatred. Certainly they have been forbidden the articulation of all base, aggressive desires, in a way that men have not. Aggression has been glorified in men, abhorred in women.
Now, the hatred is emerging. And such hatred! Such crude, vicious jokes at the expense of men! Most women, reading the accusations of certain feminists, will be as shocked and demoralized as Norman Mailer himself. Somehow, in spite of all the exploitation, the oppression, somehow ...there are things about the private lives of men and women that should not be uttered, or at least we think they should not be uttered, they are so awful. Women have been the subjects of crude jokes for centuries, the objects of healthy male scorn, and now, as the revolution is upon us, men will become the objects of this scorn, this exaggerated disgust and comic sadism.
Nothing will stop the hatred, not the passage of legislation, not the friendliest of men eager to come out in support of Women's Liberation. It has just begun. It is going to get worse.
And yet, it will probably be short-lived. Hatred goes nowhere, has no goal, no energy. It has a certain use, but it has no beauty. There will be a place in our society for Mailer's heroic mysticism, at the point in history at which women can afford the same mysticism. Until then, it is better for us to contemplate the blank-faced horror of Melville's pulp factory, rather than the dreamy illogic beauty of Mailer's "ovum-as-artistic-creation."