I usually shy away from work this lengthy or demanding. But Catherine Madsen, whose writing is amazingly lucid and lyrical, rewards our attention. This is the first of a two-part essay, to be continued next month.

— Ed.


When is a confession not a confession? When it is not in search of absolution; when it is not given in remorse or shame, but in illustration of a point. What I intend to say about myself is what I want to know about other people: what makes them think what they think. I give essential details of my life because ideas are incomplete without them. If I speak of ethics or epiphanies, how will my meaning be clear unless I say why I mean it, what caused these thoughts and not others to make sense to me? Absolution would be pointless: what can it matter if I am “forgiven” — how, in any case, is it forgivable to be forgiven — when all I have done and been still exists, with results that unwind into a continuity?

It is not that I have no use for abstractions. More than some people, I have tried to live by moral principles, which are surely abstractions before they are ever actions. At some times in my life I have been ravenous for integrity, conscience, responsibilities I could respect. Yet I have not arrived where I am particularly by adherence to principles, but by a peculiar confluence of inertia, expediency, accident, and mistake. At times I have doubted the possibility of living by principles, either by effort or by accident. I have doubted whether it is wise at all to hold one’s morality beforehand, as though the authority of law could be enough to overcome the ambiguity of circumstance. And I have heard things I did for the sake of integrity and conscience dismissed, as though they were somehow unprincipled in the very act of being principled.

Principles are a distillation of the specific into the abstract; but the specific is the unavoidable critique and test of the abstract. All principles must eventually be reimmersed in the acid bath of experience, where some of them may dissolve. What remains after this immersion is what interests me most: the residue, the metamorphosis, the mutation. I am in search of the autonomian, the laws that make themselves in a life, growing out of one’s own dilemmas: not the imposed law but the organic law, rooted in the whole mind and heart.

I am not sure that anyone lives by any other kind of law. No one accepts all of the imposed law in any system: even the most orthodox must interpret, and to interpret is surely to evaluate according to one’s own inclinations. And no one does entirely without law; even those who reject every public regulation they can identify still rage at being made use of or betrayed.

The autonomian is a species of authority, but it is an authority that changes: it is hard to pin down. It is objective in one sense — as objective as the body, as the past, as our own and our parents’ and our neighbors’ lives. But that is subjective: we can never know any of those things but through our own attentiveness and will, and we may have more or less of these. It is not a stable or consoling system. But stability and consolation may be too much to ask of a moral system, seeing that subjectivity is never all we need, but it is all we can have.


There is a tension in the world that skews all principles. It is the tension between ethical consciousness and mystical consciousness, between action and adoration, between doing and letting be. It is as though people have two kinds of vision. There is a critical eye that can see things as separate components, that can order and divide and choose; and there is a loving eye that sees things without dividing them, that accepts disorder and chaos and pain as well as justice and contentment and peace, and takes them all as inevitable. The critical eye is a vision of engagement, capability, responsibility for how things turn out; the loving eye is a vision of beatitude, of perfection in imperfection.

The two eyes see exactly the same scenes; the critical eye does not see in tunnel vision, nor the loving eye in soft focus; but the critical eye is like a laser that can cut through granite, and the loving eye is like a sunrise that illumines granite, every bump and speckle. Only the critical eye can conceive of good and evil, and only in particular cases; then it can name the kind of wrong that is being done and judge how to right it, though its vision is so acute that it seldom judges two cases alike. Meanwhile the loving eye gazes into the world, registers all, suffers all, and rejects nothing.

The two capacities are simultaneous and different — not antithetical, not entirely incompatible, but not entirely sympathetic either, and sometimes bewilderingly estranged. The stress of double vision can give people a kind of metaphysical migraine that incapacitates either kind of sight: they simply have to lie down and sleep until it stops. Or they may try to alter the proportions of the two kinds of vision, or habituate themselves to using one eye and shutting the other. But what is made habitual becomes less acute: each kind of sight, if unchallenged by the other, begins to function badly. The disease of the critical eye is to objectify things, to treat them as pieces of a puzzle with only one possible solution; it becomes the eye of a moralist, an organizer, a maker of systems. The disease of the loving eye is to become parochial, to value only one aesthetic, one idea of perfection; it becomes the eye of a romantic or a sectarian or a snob. When this happens, each eye hiddenly begins to adopt something of the other’s function, but unconsciously and badly: the critical eye begins to take its own categories for perfect and unalterable laws, and the loving eye begins to put conditions on what can be loved.

But if both eyes are kept open at once, each comes under the other’s influence consciously and with humility. Each learns relativity from the other: the critical eye, which knows that not everything can be loved, insists on judgement and action, but it learns that there are limits on action. The loving eye, which sees all action as part of an endless web, partly intentional and partly unfathomable, persists in adoration, yet it learns to love not only things as they are but things as they change.

As far as I can, I choose to keep both eyes open: to love critically. It might seem that this is impossible, that love must be blind to keep on loving, that critical thinking must be impassive to be trustworthy. Yet I think it is the key to the autonomian method: to see moral responsibility in the light of human limitation without rejecting either. Nothing in life is so morally uncertain, or so humanly necessary.

I first learned double vision in Alaska. I lived there for three years, when I was on the cusp between childhood and adolescence. The city was small and new, a motley collection of log and cement-block buildings dropped on a patch of wilderness. The wilderness still ruled it: moose wandered into town in the spring and stopped traffic, ravens picked restaurant garbage in the winter, dogs ran in packs. The severity of the climate intensified the power of the wilderness: cesspools were dug over permafrost and would not drain, cars froze up overnight in winter and would not start, whole bulldozers disappeared into the mud at road-building time. Snow lay on the ground from October to April. Some people did not depend on cars: they skied to work in the dim winter light, along trails marked by orange plastic ribbons tied to the trees; narrow trails where spruce, birch, willow, aspen stood in a wide silence. We were cut off from the rest of the world by a solid wall of white mountains 200 miles to the south, at the rightmost extremity of which, sometimes, Denali would show itself like a ghost, and people would tell each other, “The mountain is out,” as if there were only one. Not only the States but everything beyond those mountains was “Outside,” and we lived in isolation under the shifting boreal lights, with the Big Dipper turning straight above our heads. We measured time by the return of the geese, the breaking of the ice, and the light’s year-long dilation and contraction.

But we measured space otherwise. There was wild land and cultivated land, town and military base and resort and university. Every year something else was hewn down and paved, thrown together and painted. Land so fragile and austere it seemed too precious to look on was bulldozed and its pores stopped with motels and laundromats. As I watched this happen I began to think that human influence on the land was all a profanation and a blight. Whatever capacity human beings had for order and deliberate change, it was manifested mostly in trivial conformity and sweeping destruction.

Yet at the same time the buildings and roads and junk heaps, all the signs of human habitation, seemed as organic to the landscape as if they had not been made by hands. Whatever stood through those winters took on the character of the place; in the interplay of human tenacity and the land’s will, all human things came to seem as small and stunted, and as blessed, as the black spruces of the bogs. Even the junk jewelry in the dime store glittered like the stars; the pink stucco of the university dorms mirrored the pink and gold dawnlight on the mountains; the roads and electric lines winding over the dark hills and cutting notches in the skyline seemed tattoos or scarifications we had given the place for its beauty. The land could not be profaned, because it was itself profane; it turned all our thoughtless pollutions into graces. It grew woods, wild roses, radar stations, foxes, bears, dairy farms, school buses, apartment houses, carrion birds, and wolves, all without distinction and according to the same laws. It turned none away. No human being could suffer with such passivity the scratchings and hewings it endured, nor recover with such cunning, the cleared forests sending up acres of purple fireweed, the pastures supporting thousands of migrating geese, the gouged hillsides harboring cities of swallows. It accepted all that was done to it, and claimed it: helpless to resist but irresistible in its invention, it took roads and gold dredges and supermarkets and clothed them in the wedding garment of entropy: dust, rain, and weeds.

I was also learning to think of political relationships and social conscience; what I learned of land development and military expansion made my feelings seem like nonsense. There was civilization and there was wilderness: one could not be the other. There was expediency and there was worship: one could not be the other. There was deliberate change and there was passive acceptance: one could not be the other. Was I being sentimental? Was I being romantic? And on whose behalf? If I loved the place as wilderness, how could I tolerate the yielding of bog and forest to lawn and parking lot? And if I loved it as it was, did I not accept economic bullying and nationalistic posturing, and the myth of American “manifest destiny” that supported them? The native people who were there before us had built no cities, their influence was not a profanation and a blight; if I loved the city, did I not sanction the bitter mixture of relief and devastation the whites had given them? If I loved being there, was I not implicated in the means of its possibility?

Yet if I tried to love the place without loving all of it — the ridiculous, frail roads and buildings, all the people as they were, even to the busloads of gawking summer tourists — did I not love it only as a fantasy, denying that they or I could have a place in it? Most of us had no real control over the developers or the military; most of us owed our living to them, in one way or another. We were circumscribed by American history and obsessions without having created them; we were their inheritors, but only accidentally. If the Alaskan Natives lived under the shadow of those eagle wings, most of the whites were merely the fleas between the pinions: we flourished, indirectly, on the eagle’s prey, but we were not the hungry children for whom it hunted. Nor could we (democracy notwithstanding) direct which way the eagle flew, or make it cease to be a predator. Life on its terms compromised integrity; life on any other terms was not possible. Yet when people cannot keep integrity, they may still keep a measure of dignity and sanity. They love each other; they love the places they live in; they love what they build, even if it is built under duress or in despair, even if it is not beautiful. It is too bitter to see the wilderness only as a place that needs protection from oneself. And the land says both: it changes under our hands, but it changes us also.


All I have known, all I have sought since then, is built on that initial vision. But it is a strange, equivocal vision, and it gives no clear idea of how to live. I saw that we live in a curious double realm, where we can neither disclaim responsibility nor fully claim it. We are ethical animals: we are both subject to instinct and capable of intention. We are the part of nature that can purposely alter nature. And still we can never stand outside of nature. We can see life both in sequence and in cycles, unique and intentional or recurrent and inevitable; both are simultaneously true, and mutually exclusive.

And what is an ethical animal? A contradiction in terms. If we have an instinct for ethics, how can we be at peace with any of our other instincts? How can we even be sure what they are, know what comes naturally to us and what we ought to alter? Everything we can do we can doubt; everything we can conceive we can reconsider. The critical eye is relentless. It finds fault with all our desires, it mocks our holiest feelings, it unravels imponderable mysteries into strands of cause and effect. It goads us into action when we want to be still. It shows us the endless chains of accountability in the world — who owes what to whom and the history of each debt — and demands that we bring justice into them all. We are not the kind of animal that can refer all contingencies to its chromosomes and get a ready answer. Our life as a species consists of rejection and revision, the tearing down and rebuilding of everything we have made. We are continually trying to transcend our limitations.

Yet at the same time, nothing in nature is unnatural. Whatever we do, whatever we conceive, takes its place in the pattern. Human beings build and tear down just as cats hunt and locusts swarm and roads ice over, all serenely and without malice. We are part of the weather of the world. We may try as much as we like to transcend our limitations, but nature expands to accommodate our efforts and we remain its creatures. Our very doubts and anxieties are as natural to us as peristalsis or goosebumps, or turning in our sleep.


To get angry with nature, to hold it accountable, is useless: it will not respond. At most it will respond to cleverness, to technology, medicine, agriculture, electronics; some say also to propitiation, libation, sacrifice. But both cleverness and propitiation are tacit acceptances that we are limited. This is the realm not of ethics but of manipulation. We may still, with our compulsion to transcend our limitations, choose to love it rather than despise it.

There are further complications: humans also manipulate each other, for which we can be held accountable. We place limitations on each other that have nothing to do with ethics or unalterable nature, and everything to do with advantage. We use each other as natural resources. We reduce the critical eye to habit and squeeze the loving eye shut, and soon we have a convenient system with which to catalogue each other; those who are both arrogant and powerful can force others to adopt their system. There come into being the rulers and the ruled, masters and servants, the civilized and the savage, the white and the black, the masculine and the feminine, priests and laity, the elite and the vulgar, the elect and the damned. The critical eye glares fixedly, with a fanatical certitude. The loving eye’s ecstasy is forgotten, or stylized into religion and manners.

And what if the loving eye is reduced to habit, and the critical eye is shut? Then the manipulation of humans by other humans comes to seem entirely natural, and one does not question it; one tries to ignore it, or becomes resigned to it, even devout in its defense. The critical eye’s asperity is unknown, or thought to be unmannerly: “negativity” is considered a breach of taste. One can scarcely mistrust the system of cataloguing enough to recognize it as a human artifact, much less examine it closely. It seems merely part of the way things are — even part of the pain of the way things are — and with our capacity for enduring pain we may choose to love it, rather than despise it.


Before and after living in Alaska I lived in Detroit. In Alaska it was not quite possible to accept the social order as natural; the old habits had been broken and new ones were being established, and everything was in flux. In Detroit it was less easy: everything seemed long established, and we were being raised to accept it and to know our places. In Detroit we were not pioneers or innovators; we were people of no importance.

In my high school the circumstances of our daily lives were never mentioned. We went through a set curriculum which taught local history only in terms of French explorers, principal farm crops, wars, and “industry”; it ignored the history of the auto workers’ unions; mentioned race only ahistorically and always with helpless, innocent goodwill; never spoke of hopeless tedium in factories and little stores and menial jobs, or of how the boys were marked for Vietnam and the girls for early motherhood. To speak openly of any of those things was to practice something other than education — protest, perhaps, or bad citizenship; such talk earned a reprimand from the principal for a student or a teacher. But seldom did anyone try to speak of those things; it seemed we did not have to know them.

Nothing in nature is unnatural. Whatever we do, whatever we conceive, takes its place in the pattern. Human beings build and tear down just as cats hunt and locusts swarm and roads ice over, all serenely and without malice. . . . We may try as much as we like to transcend our limitations, but nature expands to accommodate our efforts and we remain its creatures.

Yet the city was marked for destruction. Urban planners were cutting its arteries with freeways to the suburbs, realtors were red-lining the neighborhoods, federal aid to the poor was being used to displace them. The whites in the city were divided between hostile suspicion of black “encroachment” and self-conscious, even self-congratulatory tolerance. For a white family to stay if they could afford to leave the city was considered an act of valiance by other whites. For a black politician to speak of black history, white oppression, and the need for restitution without making reference to Christianity was considered an act of militancy by everyone. Established habits began to break before our eyes, but most people I knew were desperate to hang on to them; they could see nothing else to do. They did not expect to participate in events, they simply hoped to weather them. They had no sense of effectuality. The sense of confusion and powerlessness before historical forces and social institutions was similar to what I had felt in Alaska; what was different was the degree of hopelessness, the primacy of habit over any kind of sight.

I noticed that through all of this I could still see with the loving eye. I wanted to shut it: if I could have chosen where to live and what to love, I would have chosen the desolate far north — radar stations, junk heaps and all — over those endless grimy blocks of houses, those narrow lives, the herding of bodies and the cramping of souls. Yet all the time I saw those houses and those people with a new acuity. I had gained awakened senses, and I could not lose them again. A friend at school told me derisively that I always seemed to love the unloveable, but it was nothing so saintly as that: it was simply that the loving eye sets no standards of beauty. Whatever it watches will seem utterly miraculous: the color of a freeway bridge, the curl of a young man’s eyelashes, the texture of an old woman’s skin, the shapes and sizes and colors of young women’s bodies in a locker room; the pitch and quality of a newscaster’s voice, the architecture of a common brick house, the smell of city bus. This is partly an exasperation, partly a saving grace. Most of all it is a way of letting inner life keep you alive when outer life will not.

For the loving eye carries the critical eye at times. When circumstances are so painful that the critical eye grows bloodshot, blinded with anger at the callousness of people toward each other, the loving eye offers it rest. Against all reason, often against all justice, it sees that what we are, whatever we are, is in some way right and acceptable. It gives us license to go on being alive, half-taught and halfhearted as we are; it does not even require us to hate ourselves. The critical eye would kill us all if it could, for our failures and for our ignorance, and no doubt it would be right. The loving eye sees us almost as if we were already dead: as though even our failures were precious evidence of our irreplaceable selfhood. It blesses what we are. No doubt it is wrong; it blesses violence and viciousness and greed as well as mere human weakness and befuddlement, and that is outrageous. Yet only the loving eye, finally, can keep us alive, can restore us enough to see critically again. The amoral life sustains the moral. It is, in moral terms, appalling; it is also the only way there is.

The search for the autonomian, the organic and self-creating laws, begins with the paradox: with our strange double inheritance, which is both limitation and infinity. Understanding that the world is perfect in imperfection, that the world does not even punish us for our misdeeds (though other people may, if they can find us), we ask, what am I to make of this knowledge? Understanding that nevertheless we have power to choose and to change some things, we ask, what am I to make of this ability? Understanding at last how little in life turns out as we intend it, we are reduced to asking only, what am I to make out of this suffering?

And even that it is not possible to find out; not definitely, not once and for all. But sometimes it is possible to answer.


Duality of vision is our condition, but it does not follow that all dualities are valid. The critical eye, with its inclination to order the disorderly, makes its catalogues of good and evil, subject and object, ethical and mystical; but then it begins, out of sheer uncritical enthusiasm, to range everything in two columns without regard for their actual relations. Anything that comes in twos is like anything else that comes in twos, whether it is bilateral symmetry or the war between God and the Devil. And so there is a right and wrong to everything — and also a right and a left, sometimes called by their more threatening names of dexter and sinister. And sooner or later — and strangest of all — there is also a gender to everything. The critical eye, as men have employed it in philosophy and religion, calls itself male, and it calls the loving eye female.

It is partly a social commonplace, partly a non sequitur. Whatever is analytical, juridical, discriminating, and objective is the “male principle”; whatever is intuitive, internal, inclusive, and accepting is the “female principle.” There are feminist activists, as well as defenders of tradition, who will argue that this is so. The male and female characters are seen as radically different, the male concerned with thought and the female with feeling. Some psychologists, in an effort at reconciliation, say that a man has a female side and a woman a male side with whom each must make peace; but this never seems to mean anything definite, since male and female characteristics are still clearly separated by the very definition. Meanwhile, men work on cultivating only thought, and women work on cultivating only feeling, with the self-conscious accuracy of life imitating art.

Thought — to honor it with the title it lays claim to — offers two main defenses at present for the equation of the critical eye with manhood and the loving eye with womanhood. (There are simpler and more familiar defenses, but they tend to come from the loving eye in its habitual state: it’s natural.) The biological defense goes that all women are potentially mothers. The mothering of children requires tolerance of messes, tenderness and forgiveness, the unconditional love of small screeching things. An ethical mind would be overwhelmed by the sheer tide of tears and piss and mucus; thought would be beside the point. Whereas men (who can escape from what they beget) can go elsewhere and elaborate on their passion for thought, they can live among adults and suppose that the world is a clean place. They can invent high abstractions, ideologies, and national boundaries, and go to war over them in the name of purity. That the actual process of war is spectacularly messy and thoughtless, and its rewards even more ambiguous than those of raising new human beings, is for some reason not a challenge to this argument.

The psychological defense goes that women have no boundaries. They are permeable: the vagina is visited by another, the womb is inhabited by another; the female body is an amorphous receptacle that changes shape and size to accommodate others. This being so, how can women take seriously the idea of separateness, which is the foundation of analytical thinking, the guiding principle of the critical eye? Whereas a boy’s first significant knowledge is that he is unlike his mother; differentiation is a male imperative, and is tied from the start to differentiation from women. Some men argue that if women insist upon having a sense of separateness, if differentiation comes to be seen as a human ability and not a male one, then men will be emasculate — for if women are capable of the same intellectual acts as men, how will men know they are men? The breasts and buttocks, the menstrual cycle, the signs of pregnancy are not enough to identify women: it is the mind that must be different.

There is a terror here, which is both a terror of likeness and a terror of loss; the critical eye’s terror, perhaps, of the very amorality of the loving eye, and yet also its terror of being without love. Else why would some men fear that if women live out their separateness, if they speak their own minds and make their own livings, all the softness will go out of the world? Or — incompatibly — that women will bring chaos and sentimentality into public life, driving out the clear distinctions of reason? And why would so many women insist that the humility, foresight, and mutuality needed in public life (and so obviously lacking) are specifically maternal virtues? Both sexes fear that likeness would destroy them, that likeness would be loss. One could believe that the terror was innate, if it were not so obviously contagious.

Yet the differences of gender, other than the anatomical, are mere caricatures, sorting the endless detail of particular lives into the Men’s and Ladies’ bins. All merely individual differences are cast in the role of opposites — “complementarity,” we say when we are being polite, and “the battle of the sexes” when we are not. Men are encouraged in the public, dominant virtues and women in the private, generous ones, whether their personalities incline that way or not. And this carefully regulated unlikeness is a great loss: the loss of all possibility of a shared ethical understanding between the sexes. For those who try to adhere to their assigned gender role, all concepts of right and wrong become confused with what is right or wrong for a woman (where wrong can be called “aggressive” or “mannish”) and what is right or wrong for a man (where wrong can be called “weak” or “effeminate”). Insofar as the critical eye is claimed for men, it in fact belongs to no one. No one can judge a moral question disinterestedly, without reference to one’s own gender; everyone, to some degree, is trained to a kind of bad faith. This training is one of the severest ethical limitations in human life. It presupposes — and often enough it ensures — that women are not at home in the ethical realm. It also ensures that sexual differentiation will be more important than ethical behavior, even for men.

Both sexes fear that likeness would destroy them, that likeness would be loss. . . . Yet the differences of gender, other than the anatomical, are mere caricatures, sorting the endless detail of particular lives into the Men’s and Ladies’ bins. All merely individual differences are cast in the role of opposites — “complementarity,” we say when we are being polite, and “the battle of the sexes” when we are not.

And yet (does it have to be argued?) everyone must live both morally and amorally; everyone must be both intuitive and analytical, discriminating and inclusive. No one is ever delivered from ambiguity. Men may try to become the critical eye alone, and women the loving eye alone; but in the very act, they use both kinds of vision. The critical eye uses its laser gaze to cut all ties of understanding between the sexes; and the loving eye, sentimentally, weeps a gluey substance that cements these two uncomprehending creatures back together in spite of their disparate understandings.


The ideology of gender is complex enough — and difficult enough to sustain — that in individual lives it breaks down somewhat. Most people accept some aspects of their prescribed role and ignore others, and so manage to circumvent the limitations for part of the time. In my own family my mother’s work was taken as seriously as my father’s, and they divided the housework between them, and no subject was considered unfit for a young girl’s ears; so I grew up believing that women were equal to men. Yet my father (who was reading Shaw and Nietzsche at the time) had a wealth of cruel adjectives for women, and my mother was concerned to teach me the arts of attractiveness; so I grew up believing that women had some defect. Also, in Alaska, femininity in dress was an option for women, in Detroit an ironclad necessity, which made the whole question seem stranger. Impossible to make sense out of it all; impossible to dismiss it and go on to something more important. Only one thing seemed certain about it: femininity was not a natural development but a crisis of conscience.

Before this crisis of conscience, what was there? What came before the anxiety, the sense of failure, the feeling that moral duty and sexual duty were the same thing? How far did I understand what was ahead of me? What was I before I was a woman?


I remember that I had a powerful sense of magic.

That is a wrong word: it does not begin to convey the feeling. Magic is an adult word, it condescends a little. It suggests a childish thing to be put away, a fanciful belief in spells and potions and fairy godmothers. Adults speak of magic to children gaily and kindly: they think it is a toy to pass the time, a consolation for the powerlessness of childhood, a decoy from the dangerous adult concerns of sex and ideology; all make-believe, a way of getting around the implacable rules of time and space and getting home in time for tea. No one ever practices magic, of course; magic is, by definition, what is impossible to practice. On adult terms, magic is a bit like faith: something you believe in in spite of the evidence.

But to children magic is not so safe, or so impossible. Certainly it is not something to take on faith: it is immediate and practical, a means of accomplishing something when no other means avail. The fairy tales and fantasies that move children are fierce and passionate; they entangle their characters in horrors and heavy responsibilities and unappeasable longings; they demand the surpassing of limits and the escape from insupportable conditions. Magic, by this definition, is not an entertainment but a calling, governed by laws as serious and immutable as those of wind and water, requiring intelligence and humility to practice. Children are sure that adults would practice it all the time, had they kept their integrity and their courage. Its practice demands acute observation and reveals secrets; it trains the loving eye to be still and open, and the critical eye to be keen and just; it results in the impossible becoming possible through one’s own efforts. It stands as proof that one’s own choices are essential and one’s own acts have consequences.

Thus when children reach the age of having to give up magic, they believe their lives are being taken from them. Adults are only telling them that magic is not “true,” that there are not magic rings and flying carpets and doors into Faery; but what they hear is that their choices are not essential and their acts cannot have consequences. They see that what they thought serious and practical is somehow trivial and irresponsible — perhaps, if carried into adult life, even a little sinister; that the things they were preparing for in life are the very things they cannot have. The rite of passage into adulthood is not, after all, the assumption of one’s full powers; it is the putting on of a pair of metaphysical prescription lenses that will slowly break down the vision of both eyes.


When I was a child in Alaska, the truest form of magic I knew was nature worship. People often talk as though nature worship necessarily meant a fertility cult with a Great Mother and an annual (human?) sacrifice, but I did not know that and did not invent it on my own. Nor did I care for what I knew of Greek and Norse myths with their personified suns and moons and trees who behaved like my father’s university colleagues on a drunk. To me the whole point was that the inanimate things were inanimate; or rather, they were miraculously other, what souls they had were unlike ours. There were holy places, holy plants, a dry fresh air that conferred holiness on everything it touched. I read Tolkien, and he came closest to saying what I knew. Most of the time his trees were treelike, and his elves were not foolish, and he had felt the constant undertow of time and distance and gravity: “now all those lands lie under the wave,” “the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone.” I heard that sound in my bones from the hills and mountains.

Nonetheless, fertility — or rather fecundity, a lush and steamy word that sounds close enough to fuck to be embarrassing — was a subject I heard a good deal about in those years. It was one of my father’s intellectual passions. He was also much taken with the yin/yang symbol and its attendant dualities, which (it seemed to me) defined the sexes as two mutually repellent halves and then labored to put them back together. Man does, Woman is. Man is rational, Woman emotional; Man forceful and independent, Woman stagnant and possessive; Man bright and steady as the sun, Woman dark and fickle as the moon. Man is culture, Woman is nature; Man historical, Woman cyclical; Man warm and dry, Woman cold and damp, swampy. (Cold and damp? Well, if he’s rational he must know.) Hogamus-higamus, Man is polygamous. Higamus-hogamus, Woman monogamous. Man the horse and Woman the cow. I was twelve years old and had no breasts and was intensely embarrassed by menstruation. My favorite pastimes were reading children’s books and satires and arguing about religion and walking in the woods. What did any of this have to do with me?

I soon gathered that it was my doom, and that it had to do with my grandmother. I had been very close to her when I was little; she had helped raise me when my mother was in college and later when she began to teach. All the time we were in Alaska she sent me gifts and letters in a steady stream, as if (my father said) to maintain my connection to her over four thousand miles by the umbilicus of greed. She had always given me everything I asked for, and now that I did not ask for anything (he said) it had become a devotion. My father railed against her and called her a spider, a devouring woman, bloated with emotion. He said she was so capable in a crisis that ordinary life did not satisfy her: she had to precipitate crises so she could be capable and resolve them. He compared my crises with hers, mocking my high voice and my “squishy little feelings”; though his own furies and agonies were the cornerstones of our family life (perhaps it was the pitch of his voice that assured it). Her letters made my mother cry, and that made him furious with both of them; and I understood that I would be next, because my body came out of theirs in their likeness. Whether I wanted to or not I would eventually secrete those powerful and debilitating emotions as involuntarily as I secreted blood. My mother’s mother and my mother, drawing me into the web.

Still, there were times he did not treat me as female at all: he explained all his Army swearing to me and taught me his best arguments against religion. Perhaps, if I were careful, I might still escape being found guilty of womanhood. Perhaps the poison was transmitted by tolerance, by loving women or being happy in their company. I became wary and contemptuous toward my mother and grandmother, thinking of them as emanations of the same toxic essence. Perhaps if I were stoical and wild (for both my father and Tolkien agreed that women were tamers) I could escape the web.

There was a smell in those woods that meant wildness: aspen and evergreen and willow-bog, soft underfoot with moss. There I could escape all those racking definitions and breathe under trees and sky; there being female was a fact like any other, but it did not confer obligation or attract misery. There nothing would explain to me what a cock-teaser was or make merry little nervous jibes about menstruation. The moon’s power was nothing so simple as the cycles of the womb; it was sure, hieratic, remote, a granter of vision and bodily wisdom, it conferred the ability to skate, to sing, and to speak strong words; and it was not a goddess but a stone. The elaborate humiliations surrounding my own fertility were elsewhere; here there was another kind of fertility: photosynthesis.

Magic is neuter. It does not belong more to one sex than to the other: it is wrought by the hands, spoken by the tongue, conceived by the senses and the wits. Is that why it cannot survive puberty? For at that time one learns what is possible to practice, and it is all divided in half: manhood, motherhood, marriage.

What a person thinks of a landscape is entirely projection — the landscape is indifferent and makes no response — but it need involve no fantasy, no personification, only a surge of awe. Thick yellow-gray clouds over hills in earliest spring can cause an instantaneous opening of the spirit outward, a tugging of the body toward the sky that begins at the clitoris and flowers upward toward the solar plexus, a burning of all the muscles on the front of one’s body. Still water at sunset can pull at the thighs as insistently as one raindrop on a windowpane draws another. The shoulders of a familiar mountain against the sky can call forth vows as bullheaded and difficult to keep as those of marriage. The cold air filling the lungs, the fierce gratitude. There is no fulfillment possible between a person and a place, not unless living there is enough or death dissolve us into the same compost; but I thought that there could be honor. The tenacity of those bitter black spruces and the tenderness of those horsetails and mosses, oldest of plants, were a pledge of persistence to all who could understand. And I pledged also. I named one hill Estel — hope in one of Tolkien’s languages — because its public name was Ester Dome and I had no other hope; and I promised to it and to all it overlooked that I would live there again. But the honor between us went deeper than any promise: it was another understanding of how life is passed on.

At first I thought the wild smell could only be found in the far north, like the sun’s extreme changes and the pitch of the stars overhead. For years I forgot it, until the first time I visited Alaska again, stepping out of the plane and breathing the land’s breath. Later I found that plane-trees have that smell, and that even in Michigan the air could be transmuted into wildness. Latest of all I found the smell again where I least expected it: the smell of a woman’s desire on my fingertips.

But my father never told me that about women and swamps.

One can take a hated metaphor and turn it around, of course; finally I learned to look even at the hateful, lumpish Venus of Willendorf and see not grossness but an earthy dignity. But the correspondence of women and swamps was for me not only a conscious, mutinous reclamation of an image but this curious ratification of a promise that a place and I made to each other. The place I lost with such bitterness and the woman I won with such pain were compounded of the same elements: rare earth, subtle air, dark fire, living water: the philosopher’s stone, the stone the builders rejected.

But what does this mean? Do lesbians practice photosynthesis? Have I found out something real about how life is passed on, or is this only some trivial, irresponsible, and faintly sinister childhood notion?


For magic is defined as what is impossible to practice. What the child wants, and what she promises, are unimportant; she can be made to outgrow it. Anything a child does of her own volition is merely a magical adventure, and the end of all magical adventures is a return to the real world. We can whisk her round the globe, breaking the rules of time and space (the sun in the sky at midnight, the city kid in the wood) and have her back in time for puberty.

Magic is neuter. It does not belong more to one sex than to the other: it is wrought by the hands, spoken by the tongue, conceived by the senses and the wits. Is that why it cannot survive puberty? For at that time one learns what is possible to practice, and it is all divided in half: manhood, motherhood, marriage. One is no longer a free agent: one is a good girl, a real man, a wife and mother, a breadwinner, a little old lady, a patriarch. It lasts until death. Even those who do not marry, who do not have children or who do not achieve the standard of manhood or womanhood, are constantly reminded that they should have. And those who do are swallowed by family and gender obligations, they have little time for anything neuter. Still, at least they have the reassurance of simple conformity: if everybody is supposed to live this way, it must be all there is.


I was brought back to the paved world, and anchored firmly to the web. It was a question of money, no decision of mine; one of those obscure adult reasons that children must simply accept. My grandmother welcomed me back as if from exile, and I looked at her with eyes like razors and would not bend to her hug. This was exile, this was privation, not homecoming; and I could not say so to anyone. Honey, it’s not as bad as all that; this too shall pass; it’s just another of your squishy little feelings. But some essential ingredient was missing from the air; did no one else notice its absence? All my senses ached continually, feeling the ghostly presence of the amputated place; did my parents feel it not as a missing limb but merely as a discarded piece of clothing?

I wished I could go mad, but I was too weak even for that, and too spiteful. I preferred to become bitter and sarcastic and always have the last word. If I could not be in my own place, at least I would find my own compensations.

Friendship was impossible: people in Detroit (at least the ones I knew) did not make the kind of friendships people in Alaska made, easy, direct, patient with their bodies and with time. People in Detroit wanted to kill time. The girls in my neighborhood had nothing to do; they gossipped and fidgeted, waiting for high school to end. They wore flimsy shoes and thick makeup and talked only of church and boys. I had nothing to say to them. I had been in a place that transformed everything, made it serious; I had no time for anything that was not direct and focused.

But there was music; in some ways that was a compensation. And words, especially poetry and the Anglican service on the radio. They did not bring back the air of the place, but their shape and strength had the inevitability of the place. And they also were not hasty or impatient with bodies and with time: they were spun out of bodies, slowly, raptly, as though in love with time. To make music with other people, to act or recite with other people: only in these could I reach something approximating friendship.

Boys and church began to matter to me, because they were so much talked about. But I was an agnostic and an intellectual, and I would not be as the other girls were: for me at least it would be sex and religion, grand abstractions instead of trivial obsessions. And there was music for both: the irresistible, urgent beat of Motown that was heard everywhere in the city, and the sober, measured bliss of Bach and Britten in the high school choir. And at home, in secret, a heresy that combined both: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Music convinces where argument cannot. Listening to it I began, tentatively and hiddenly, to think that women were not all spiders or devourers. Some were lovers, who might suffer or cause pain yet still be loved; one was Magdalen, one was maris stella; a few were even wise or brave. I began to listen to another side of what my father said, and to look (daring greatly) for myself. I decided, provisionally, that there were also interesting women. Interesting was what my father thought my mother was, and when I forgot to be guarded toward her I thought so too: thoughtful and secure in her opinions, a little earthy in her expressions, beautiful without makeup or much attention to fashion, calm and self-possessed and a little rumpled. (I perceived other qualities in my mother that worried me: a corrosive anxiety about what the relatives thought of us, a habit of wanting me to be polite rather than interesting, a smooth gentility with salespeople, and a knack of restating people’s hardest-won ideas as trivial cliches; but I would wait and see.)

I had one friend I was sure of. She was a faculty wife thirty years older than I, an artist, still living in Alaska. She was no devourer: she was a friend to whoever could feel strongly and think about that feeling, whether child or adult. Her letters were all of spiritual doubts and discoveries. She had gray flyaway hair and gray flyaway sentences; she painted rapidly and punctuated her letters with dashes; she could function as a gracious feminine woman but was too enthusiastic and too direct to quite bring it off. Nothing ever shocked her. I measured everyone else by her, and trusted no one in whom I did not find that absorption and that response. Yes, there were interesting women. And unless spiderliness were specifically a family curse, I meant to be interesting too.

I read and listened and invented myself, what I wanted to grow up to be: intelligent, compassionate, mindful of serious things; sexually forthright, not a flirtatious impulse in me. An occult sort of bravery, a courage to quietly defy convention and do what I would. There was a woman in a Yeats poem:

O what to me the little room
That was brimmed up with prayer and rest;
He bade me out into the gloom,
And my breast lies upon his breast.

And a woman at the moment of choice in the Carmina Burana, choosing her responsibility, her song the pivot on which the whole work turned:

In trutina mentis dubia
fluctuant contraria
lascivus amor et pudicitia.
Sed eligo quod video,
collum iugo prebeo;
ad iugum tamen suave transeo.

“I am suspended between love and chastity, but I choose what I see, and take upon myself the sweet yoke” — the suave sung twice with a little catch-breath between. The persuasions of music! No boy my own age moved me to anything but laughter. No man older than I understood sexual love as a chosen responsibility for a woman; to men it was a preordained obligation, not chosen but consented to. But the secret, scattered company of interesting women, they would understand; they would accept their new initiate.

Really I wanted not only to be like the interesting women but to be with them; but I knew that was impossible. I thought I had to find a man as much like an interesting woman as I could. I thought one could only find interesting women in classrooms, at parties, at unexpected times between work and family obligations — in all those brief and incalculable moments when talk was suddenly transformed into the bread of life, those times one could not hold on to anyway. I thought there were not enough interesting women to go around, that each, like a healer or a priest, had her own constituency; that it would be foolish and selfish of me to want one all to myself. I would have to be content with those rare conversations.

There is no “other half” who can supply the answer suddenly or bring out from safekeeping all the attributes one has abandoned. There is no moment — or lifetime — of union that can make anyone less alone or less responsible.

It never occurred to me that there seemed to be so few interesting women because to be interesting was to be outcast; that most women spent their lives trying with all their might not to be interesting. I did not understand what it meant that my artist friend had twice been crazy and had been subjected to shock treatments; I knew she was a good deal more vital than most sane people, but I did not understand the shock treatments as an antidote to this. I did not understand that courage, defiance of convention, the choosing of one’s responsibilities were not female prerogatives, that artistic or intellectual or sexual courage in a woman was a neglect of her gender obligations.


There is a terrible resignation in feminine attractiveness and an equally terrible pathos at the heart of masculine confidence. In both women and men, there is a consciousness of need: not so much a personal need as a socially arranged need, not so much a desire for some other real person as a desperation for their opposite, who will give them confirmation as a sufficient woman or man.

This is the knowledge women gain at puberty, the knowledge that supersedes the possibility of magic: “You must have a man. Almost any man will do. Otherwise you will live in poverty and ignominy and leave no trace in the world. It is shameful not to get a man, and if you get him not to keep him, and if you keep him not to have children. These things are more important than anything else in your life. But you must never ask a man outright, only attract him. If your body is not sufficiently attractive you must try continually to improve it, and if your mind has other occupations you must keep them from interfering. This is your life work. What you are in yourself can never be sufficient.”

This is the knowledge men gain: “A woman — almost any woman will do — has a certain essence you do not. It is a softness and fluidity, partly sexual, partly emotional, which is the sweetest thing on Earth. You must never have it in yourself, because that is effeminacy, an abomination and a crime; besides, any softness is a hindrance to you in your life work. But, though it must be separate from you, it must be available to you; life without it is not worth having. It is both your need and your right to have it whenever you wish: in lovemaking, in caretaking, in the nuances of conversation and casual flattery. Women are there to fill this need for you. Conceal your need, if you can, under love, friendship, and civility; but if you cannot, or if those will not answer, you are permitted to use force, to plead, bribe, bully, and mock. Call it a sacrament, call it a drug, what does it matter? — but never leave off pursuing it.”

Of the two, perhaps femininity is the worse loss of innocence, because it is a constant, serious effort — thoroughgoing artifice in the guise of artlessness — and one’s whole purpose in life is at stake. Whether a woman gets a man or gives up trying, her real defeat takes place when getting a man becomes worth sacrificing for. Men too make a constant, serious effort — not to be like women; but since not-being-like-a-woman can encompass intellect, activity, work, a man’s life can be defined by all these things rather than by getting a woman. Next to all those possible occupations, men’s need for women seems almost superfluous, and somehow trumped-up, ideological rather than actual. Yet they are not lying. In fact it may be that masculinity is a gaining of innocence, rather than a loss of it: men’s idea that women, by being other than men, are all one and interchangeable and theirs, is far more innocent than women’s simple, practical desperation. It is also far more fragile, for every woman who does something unexpected is an outrage to men’s innocence.


I was seventeen, and alone for the first time, at college. There I did two things for no good reason: joining the church and losing my virginity. Incipit vita nova. Baptism of water and baptism of the seed, two kinds of salvation; two magic fluids in a world that denied magic.

I was no longer ugly, which amazed me. I had not changed — I had not grown an inch since I left Alaska (a decision I retrospectively regarded as deliberate) — but popular taste had changed: it was no longer ugly to be thin. And I was no longer an unbeliever, and that amazed me too by its very simplicity. If physical attractiveness was mere luck, then faith was only a game: a question of deciphering a code and treating it as though it alone were valid. That was all anyone was doing who spoke for Christianity. I loved the church: I was drawn to it by the power of its words and the beauty of its music; but I knew that love was not sufficient, that I must believe in its gospel, that without belief I did not deserve to be there. But as I watched and listened I came to see that the leap of faith everybody talked so much about was only the courage to lie, to say you believed it and stop worrying whether you did; the willingness to adopt a ready-made context as your own. I was enormously relieved. Credo ut intelligam: say you believe, and belief will follow.

There was a man in the group of friends I went to the college chapel with who reminded me a little of my artist friend in Alaska. All of us in the group were somewhat shy and inept, but he had a sympathy with other people, a way of putting them at ease. We were both disappointed in love: he wanted a certain pale, saintly young woman who had broken her engagement with him to join the Peace Corps, and I wanted a frustratingly ethereal young man who seemed to keep his emotions and sexual urges in perfect check (it was whispered that he loved his roommate). We turned to each other almost at random, glad there was somebody in the world who was not fastidious, glad that love could be simple and robust. In the manner of the time we tried not to have intercourse outright, but came closer and closer to it until there was scarcely a difference. Of all the men I knew he seemed most capable of treating women as friends and sex as pleasure; he shocked me immeasurably once by not making a further move in lovemaking when I asked him not to. We read silly poems to each other, we talked endlessly of our friends and how their minds worked, and we never bothered about what was womanly or manly.

“You’re living your life in a fog.” “We didn’t want you to drift into something like this.” My mother’s voice. How can anybody drift into sex? I’d never been so wide awake in my life. The shock of another naked body, radiating warmth; the stunning atavism of that rocking motion, its meaning instantly understood; conjunctions of skin and fur, the excruciating sweetness, and the indecency of it, wet-mouthed and wet-clefted as an infant, and all of it perfectly right. Astonishing not to be afraid of him. Submerged, slow, grounded, going heavy on the earth as though weighted at feet or knees; ashamed of having no resistance and dazzled at my body’s courage when it took the lead; but not drifting.

Going to church, that was more like drifting: waiting to hear something difficult said, something that was not consoling or a foregone conclusion. Not criticizing or arguing because these were my first real friends in years. Wanting to undergo some transformation, to move always among powerful words and spiritual forces and high mysterious music. I had read some of Tolkien’s friends by this time and come to Charles Williams; I wanted to live like one of his characters, lucent with courtesy, daring to unite the work of the body with the work of the soul. “Eros,” he wrote, “is often our salvation from a false agape, as agape is from tyrannical eros. Redemption is everywhere exchanged.” But in church we learned only the false agape.

The gestures of piety, when to stand and kneel and bow the head. The language of piety, that suffocating blanket of jargon: faith, works, free will, atonement, eucharist, incarnation, problem of evil, sin of pride. The exaggerated willingness to help in an emotional crisis, the modulated lovingkindness of charity, the inner helplessness in the face of people’s real lives. Not a soul I knew had any problem that could be solved by faith or doctrine. If there was anything we all needed in common — and there was not much — it was to be told by each other, not by Christ’s vicar, that we were not ugly, that we were not worthless, that our lives were our own and we could live them on our own responsibility. What can Christ do about the past — about your parents, your work, the person who will not love you? Save you? Salvation is a form of abdication: your past is merely redeemed, which means traded in. We exchanged our lives and our doubts for bland white wafers and sweet wine, and a succession of sermons as bland and sweet as Green Stamp goods.

Then the terror of pregnancy. O fortuna, velut luna statu variabilis. The hidden meaning of the cycles of the moon is the roulette wheel. I never felt less female than when I was desired; never less maternal than when I feared I might have a child. Sex made me feel like a body and a will, not a woman: every prescription for womanhood vanished before the pure focus of the acts themselves. But the fear of pregnancy robbed me of significance, convicted me of being not only female but inconsequential, a mere statistic of teenage motherhood. What Alaska meant to me did not matter, what music and words meant to me did not matter, what my lover was to me did not matter. All that mattered was the bloodsucking parasite in my vitals, the foredoomed fourth daughter in the chain of generations, who would be born clutching my integrity in one tiny fist, who would change me into my mother just as I had changed her into hers. New shoes, piano lessons, allergy shots. How had I thought I could escape? “You treat Jesus like a greasy idol that will excuse anything if you abase yourself far enough. Don’t talk your religion to me!” My father’s voice. How does one answer, if abasement will not serve? Nolo contendere; noli me tangere. My mother, balancing between sympathy and fury, went with me to a church near their house. There is a hymn called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, but this was Martin Luther’s Bludgeon: a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. All human acts reduce to two dimensions, God and the Devil perpetually at war. Nevertheless, some states not too far away permitted abortion. I went up to the rail for communion; surely those in a state of sin need it the worst; is the Body and Blood of Christ a human life? Whatever happens I am lost. If I am pregnant I will not have the child; if I have an abortion I will have to leave him; if I am not pregnant I will have to stay with him. On the walk home I felt my blood start to run, damp and insouciant in the place of knowledge, the hidden mouth sticking out its tongue. Here, kid, have a miracle. Your father’s right, you want Jesus to get you off the hook; and St. Paul’s right, that’s what justification by faith is all about; and your lover’s right, you should have never told your parents; and your mother’s right, you’ve got to watch it, being a woman is a hell of a life. And you’re right too: sex and religion are twins, you must know them both together, and be damned to right and wrong.


Men and women are offered to each other for mutual society, help, and comfort; and also for mutual dependency. Neither is allowed any longer to be alone; the child’s consciousness of singularity and responsibility is worn away. Marriage reaches back before childhood to a romanticized reenactment of infancy, in which each partner is metaphysically necessary to the other, in which each provides the other (by virtue of gender, not personality) with something they could never provide for themselves. All responsibility, even moral responsibility, is divided between the two opposites: they set each other’s limits, one leaves off where the other begins. The solidity of their personalities, the continuity of their lives, is bounded by the phantasm of partnership, the abdication of each one’s power in favor of the other’s role.

No wonder that in marriage, as nearly everyone drearily says, “the magic fades.” Being in love is the last magic, the one that feels like deliverance and is really the bait in the trap. It is the powerful stirring of the remembered child in each of the lovers, each sensing the other’s presence, each making ready for the connection that will help them both to their full power; each seeking the soul’s friend and getting instead a husband or a wife. So little, so little in life is possible to practice.


My mother said, “I didn’t think you went to college to get your M.r.s. degree.” I was so unworldly, and it was so far from the truth, that I had to spell it over to myself to understand her. No; I had never wanted marriage; she and my father had never told me it was required, though other people had. But she despised me for wanting to live with him, and my father raged and threatened to cut off my money. I could not live with their contempt. My body was already pledged, to a place, not a person; no human being could ever mean to me what Alaska meant; but I must marry him to appease them, and also to escape them. I must marry him because he was the only one who did not despise me. I must marry him because he wanted me to. Could I suppose there would be another man as kind?

So I broke my first vow with another. I understood then how childish the first had been: I had said, I will come back, but I had assumed I will get someone to bring me. But no one would ever do that. No one else would care if I went there or not. Even the land itself — that was its mystery — was wholly indifferent to one person more or less on its slopes. It would not help me either.

Not smiling for the cameras at the wedding. Learning to be called by his name. Man and wife is one flesh, and that one is the husband’s. The tension between sex and religion ludicrously emphasized by my schoolwork in Christianity and Literature and the job I shared with my husband showing pornographic movies. Writing calm and lucid prose about Milton and George Herbert and Julian of Norwich to a background of exaggerated sighs and moans. The high language of the one and the ugly grunts of the other: “While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave”; “Sorrie I am, my God, sorrie I am”; “I saw that the token of sin is turned to worship.” “I wanna put my COCK in your CUNT.” “Come on, DO me.” “Did you COME?”

No wonder that in marriage, as nearly everyone drearily says, “the magic fades.” Being in love is the last magic, the one that feels like deliverance and is really the bait in the trap. It is the powerful stirring of the remembered child in each of the lovers, each sensing the other’s presence, each making ready for the connection that will help them both to their full power; each seeking the soul’s friend and getting instead a husband or a wife.

It was true, I was saved, nothing in life was my own anymore. My past belonged to Jesus, my future belonged to my husband, my sexual experience belonged equally to the church and the pornographers, who shared it amicably; my integrity belonged to my parents, who held it in trust in case I should ever have a daughter. But I ate birth control pills as though my life depended on it: I would not pass this helpless life on to a child. I doubted that any life worth having could be passed on by any means. Being an interesting woman was a mistake or a misunderstanding; there were no interesting women, only wives or whores or women too unlucky to be either. No one had welcomed me here. The best choice was to be a dull woman, and try to stay out of the way.

Courage was not a female prerogative. Every occasion that moved me to courage — conversion, consummation, the making of promises — only proved me unfit to act on my own. I must let him have the courage for both of us, and I must cast about for some other attribute that I could have for both of us. My actions must diminish from choice to consent.


In accepting the obligations of her gender, a woman becomes a perpetual Yes, a caricature of the loving eye: accommodating, affirming, nurturant, willing to love the unloveable because it is dangerous to turn down an offer of love. And a man becomes a caricature of the critical eye, being permitted still to offer, to judge, to make comparisons, to say either Yes or No. But since in any case the woman says Yes for him, it is the No that becomes his special attribute, the one that distinguishes him from her.

Then men become the ethical sex, and women the animal one; then the sight of the loving eye is linked with nature and sensuality and stasis, and is called feminine, and the sight of the critical eye is linked with intellect and activity and clarity, and is called masculine. Yet now the critical eye cannot think: it has thought once and bound itself to the thought, and conferred stasis on both sexes.

Thus to try to see clearly out of both eyes is not simply a difficult and absorbing trick of consciousness but also a crossing of gender boundaries. Even to conceive of the problem in terms of two eyes and not two genders is a crossing of gender boundaries. It brings the dilemma of the ethical animal to life again in a more painful and ambiguous way. It casts the responsibility for vision and moral choice back upon the individual. There is no “other half” who can supply the answer suddenly or bring out from safekeeping all the attributes one has abandoned. There is no moment — or lifetime — of union that can make anyone less alone or less responsible. There is only a perpetual scrutiny, a perpetual balancing, a perpetual straddling of two worlds at once, seeing alongside of what is given.

In children’s stories it is often the fairies who live in two worlds at once and see alongside of what is given. What does it mean that homosexuals are sometimes called fairies? That homosexuality, like magic, is in a sense defined as something impossible to practice? Does it mean that the crossing of gender boundaries is only for children and outcasts and those who dare greatly? Does it confirm that marriage and even the hope of marriage, under the guise of moral rectitude, are ways of absolving most people from real moral autonomy?

Do lesbians practice photosynthesis?


When I gave up courage I began to dread death. Not what came after death — I read Dante but understood that he was writing allegory, and my church preserved a discreet modernity on questions of hell and heaven — but the fact of death itself, the inanimate body. I would lie next to my husband and think of his bones. I wanted in any case to love all his body, to love the fat which everyone else despised, the inner workings of heart and gut and lungs, the shape of his feet and the texture of his hair; but it came to this also, the bones that would remain when the organs of our lust were dissolved away. He had brought me to this safe and pleasant inertia, this heartbreaking physical passion, and he would die; then where would my life have gone, the work not conceived, the promises abandoned? He was happier than I was in those years, and called me “gloomy”; but I could not stop thinking of it. His happiness was not mine except by proxy. I thought of us sometimes as Baucis and Philemon who got to keep each other, transformed at death into two trees growing side by side, and the thought choked me: it seemed wrong and horrible, and apt as a punishment in Dante’s Hell.

There was a year when even happiness by proxy was withdrawn. I was working at a proofreading job I hated, and he was trying to make money by writing, and gradually I found that his heart and emotions had shut against me. We fought in inexplicable and irreparable ways. After one terrible quarrel we went walking in the woods together to try to heal ourselves. It was spring, and there were flood waters lying in a long channel up the valley, still as a mirror except where a muskrat swam silently straight up the middle. We went around the valley through mayapple and white trillium, and came to an old elm that had fallen down uprooted. Its roots were exposed in a flat circle like a web, in which they twisted holding clod and stone, their black bark damp and smelling of earth. I looked into the roots and thought of being buried there: of being held so tightly, like a punishment in Dante’s Hell, that even the trumpet of the Resurrection could not raise me. Then — not in a vision, but in an imagination so strong I almost saw it — I thought of a woman’s skeleton tangled among the roots, the face looking straight up into them, not in fear but in resolution, calm and steady as a buzzsaw. She was a witch or a madwoman who had refused to do her duty, refused to put on nice clothes and speak politely to her relatives and defer to young men, who had lived in woods and waste places murmuring to the weeds until she looked like something that shouldn’t be let in a house; and who had died requiring a tree to be planted over her, to subsume her whole body and hold her bones in defiance of that last and bitter trump. A spider in a web; but a spider who spat out the world instead of devouring it. She horrified me and I hungered for her courage. She made me think of a woman we had lately become friends with, a single woman who lived alone, who wore the softest shapeless cottons and spoke softly and killed roaches with her hands; whose apartment was scattered with gangling ferns, who threw the tea leaves loose into the pot, who went to our church but talked humorously of having worn a God-repellent amulet. An unthinkable isolation, an unthinkable strength.

And when courage and obligation and consolation all fail, it is the vision of the bones that remains. Bones wait at the center of the flesh, hiding the living marrow, and they call us to account. Not only death but a crisis of the spirit can uncover them to us; and then they become a talisman, a key, a password in questions of constancy and change. In the magic of some peoples the exposed skeleton, shown within the flesh in a painting or embroidered on ceremonial clothing, is the mark of a shaman; it signifies the dismemberment that the shaman undergoes during initiation. It is this dismemberment — if it does not kill us — that restores us; that makes us able to cross boundaries, to say both Yes and No, to practice what is said to be impossible.