In the first part of this essay, which appeared in Issue 162 of The Sun, Catherine Madsen describes two kinds of vision: the critical eye sorts all things into categories, comparing and judging, everywhere finding fault; the loving eye embraces all things indiscriminately, tolerating paradox, everywhere finding beauty. As a young girl living in Alaska, Madsen began to acquire double vision, which taught her “to keep both eyes open: to love critically.”
Inevitably, Madsen suggests, what is joined together in a pair will be divided into genders: the critical eye is therefore called male, the loving eye female. “To try to see clearly out of both eyes,” writes Madsen, “is not simply a difficult and absorbing trick of consciousness but also a crossing of gender boundaries.” In struggling to learn double vision, Madsen as a girl resisted identification with women, growing suspicious of her mother and scornful of her grandmother (whom she had loved deeply in her early years); and as a women she resisted first the state of marriage, then — having relented — identification as her husband’s other half.
In the second part of “The Law of Relation,” a crisis in her marriage — and her choice to disregard the easier solutions of conventional morality — compels Madsen to arrive at her own law. Thus she discovers what she calls 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.”
The critical eye alone might create an inflexible standard of morality; the loving eye alone might excuse the inexcusable. Honoring the discipline of double vision, the autonomian method enables one “to see moral responsibility in the light of human limitation without rejecting either.”
Catherine Madsen is seeking a publisher for a book-length version of The Law of Relation.
— Dana Branscum
They are lovers. He told me last night at 3 a.m., after we had taken several long walks, talking and coming to no resolution. After weeks of fighting, absolutely at cross-purposes, as though we were speaking entirely different languages. He absolutely abstract on the subject of “wanting to try other lovers,” so that I thought it was some academic question, something he’d picked up out of Penthouse. And I absolutely abstract on the doctrine of Christian marriage. And both of us as suspicious of each other as though we had just met, as though we had never been through those winters and summers, as though we hadn’t lived for four years the life of each other’s bodies. “Trust me,” he said — an expression he has never used with me before, and which is discredited by being spoken at all.
I had written a poem and given it to him:
Let us not labor to deny most of our love has been a lie, lover; speak and lay down your fears: we have been false these many years. Whose generous touch could satisfy our restless bodies that will die? And what glad vision could make whole the peering and bewildered soul? No, what we seek we cannot find. Resignation made us kind, but if in love we’d flame and burn we have pale kindness to unlearn. With what laborious patience we have nailed each other to the tree. But if Love’s images are true, the tree has sprouted, green and new, and death’s dry dust is wet with tears from a whore’s eyes as the dawn clears, and Love’s risen body bears his wounds across those rivers and those dunes. Therefore when I in sighing sleep harbor you in my body deep or passionate with tender greed taste the sweetness of your seed, I will take Love into my womb and taste Love’s Body on my tongue. And if a sacramental lust can purge in us what was unjust, Love will set all the trees in leaf if we should pardon without grief, or make, should we again dissemble, his image in us turn and tremble.
He read it and said at last, with terrible simplicity and literalness, “Does that mean it’s OK?”
Very late last night — after talking with friends and still getting no further (Paul and Karen, whom it turns out he’d already told) — I asked him outright because he talked of her by name. “Are you lovers?” O the mind, mind has mountains. To speak of it — to conceive that it might be so — was the hardest thing I have ever done. “There,” he said, “that’s good. If you ask me direct questions I can answer them.” Humble, relieved, anxious to tell me. They haven’t done “it.” They have done “everything else.” He has waited till I knew and could give consent.
Her of all women. The first friend of my own age who seems attached to life with her whole soul, the first with all her feelings written on her face. The first who is really excited about Piers Plowman and John Donne and Charles Williams, not just pious about them. The first who has the mind of a scholar, not a student. To have met somebody like that and then be stopped, dead. To be sent back.
I realize I half thought she was a virgin. Can anybody who’s had lovers go around with all her feelings written on her face? Has nothing destroyed them yet? Is that what I’m about to do?
Should I have been suspicious? Should I have believed that any time a man is friends with a woman it will inevitably come to this? Should I have nagged and insinuated and laid down conditions? Would I have gained anything worth having if I had? It would be as hateful as harassing him to lose weight.
We went to chapel this afternoon. Arrived good and early and stood around on the porch. Our friends are all waiting for me to fall apart. I wore my favorite long dress and earrings and my eyes were dry as a bone. When she drove up I walked out fast in front of them all to meet her, and hugged her, and meant it. Let them all talk to her instead of me; let them all go to hell; at least I can still make a gesture.
5/31/74. She must feel pretty awful about it. Knowing him, I know exactly what happened: exactly what happened with me. One naturally talks to him about emotional things: he knows how to talk about them, he hears what you say and doesn’t mock. And he comforts you, and sex is the way he comforts. And it is comfort, not taking advantage, not that accusation and agitation you get from other men. So what’s to be done? He would no more think of me at such a time — it shames me, but it’s true — than he would think of his younger sister.
What is a wife? Something like an armchair. If nobody’s looking at her she’s not there.
And a single woman?
Come a landsman, a pinsman, a tinker or a tailor, Fiddler or a dancer, a soldier or a sailor, Rich man or poor man, a fool or a witty, Don’t let me die an old maid, but take me out of pity.
Indignity, humiliation, helplessness all round.
I have — of course — told him they should do whatever they want sexually. I remember too well what it was like when he and I were trying to do “everything but” in obedience to an outside prohibition. Intolerable to think of two people I like so much putting themselves through such stupidity, and for my sake.
6/1/74. It shouldn’t matter. It will stop. I should wait for it to stop. We’ve made all these plans to move to Seattle in just a couple of months, and then it will have to stop anyway. All this is only a distraction in my life, it’s not where I am going. I’m going to grad school in Seattle and then I can get a job in Alaska. This will not stop me.
I will hate to leave her — having just met her, having had this awful division between us instead of all we could have said. When they are no longer lovers I will write to her. I cannot have her thinking I hate her. Clearly she needs whatever he is giving her; her own existence sits uneasily with her. She seems unsure she ought to be alive.
Damn him, is it his job to go around comforting women in distress?
6/5/74. I’ve seen her, and we talked mostly about things that matter to us — books and ideas; even a little about trees, which she also has loved and named and talked to. She is from Florida and doesn’t know aspens. She is very much taken with dragons — not the silly buffoonish ones that turn up as stuffed animals and on calendars, but the real Worms, Ouroboros, Beowulf’s dragon, the fierce Chinese dragons that always hold a pearl in one claw.
She has the finest bookshelves I’ve ever seen — so many things I think I’ve been afraid to buy, because they seemed beyond my deserving or beneath my parents’ contempt. Greek and Hebrew and Gothic dictionaries, Kabbalah and Paracelsus, African fiction and radical newspapers and sociological studies. What we have in common is kids’ books and English lit and fantasy. I feel timid and impoverished compared to her — not so much that I have less money to spend on books than she does, but that I’ve passed so many things over, not been interested in them. I’ve always thought interest was fixed and automatic, but it’s an act of will, a decision not to turn things off. I could as easily read those things as she does.
She wants to be a saint, too, as I have secretly wanted for years. So hard to talk about that without its sounding like girlish aspiration or high-church insularity. But it means something. Even under these conditions — especially under these conditions — it means something. A kind of stripped-down acceptance of things, a kind of stamina.
I told her it was all right about their being lovers, which wasn’t how I meant to say it, but words seem to evaporate under pressure; we were both so afraid to mention it. The inevitability is what makes me feel so helpless: she doesn’t want to cause me pain, and I don’t want to cause her pain, but we’re going to do it anyway.
The man who just broke up with her called while I was there, and she got terribly upset talking to him — just a mess, even in front of me. I’ve always felt graceless and awkward trying to comfort people who were upset, but I must have learned something about plain old creature-comfort from being married, because I held her and kissed her hair. How insane it all is. You’re not even supposed to talk to somebody who’s your rival for a man. You’re not even supposed to know what she looks like.
6/19/74. How considerately he informs me of everything. Their first consummation. Her past boyfriends. Her doubts and fears about sex. Does she know he’s telling me all this? What does he expect me to do about it? Can I bear to know it?
I would have shared any relationship with him in which we were both freely involved; but if he wants to do this in private he had better know all the details in private.
6/22/74. What I cannot bear is the knowledge that somebody else knows everything about his body that I know about it; that he knows everything about somebody else’s body that he knows about mine. Not in the past, something he did before he knew me, but a deliberate and independent connection with somebody besides me. Something I must take into account when we make love. The brutal immediacy of it: that firm penis which has been my comfort, my relief, my delirium, is now slick with somebody else’s juices. My clinging to him and my crying out are not now a secret regeneration we share together but a generic trait of women. I have become a set of parts, comparable to any other set of parts.
How does one endure such things in life? How does anyone go through this? How is it possible to make anything of this pain, to keep on living and emerge a person?
Take these broken wings and learn to fly: all your life you were only waiting for this moment to arrive.
7/4/74. Our friends are very kind to me: they invite me on picnics while he visits her, they say no word of blame. They are sympathetic toward all of us. But I am the inert quantity in this, the one who takes no risk. All I can do is wait for it to stop or change. I am the least interesting person in the situation. They watch me sit there like a lump, waiting for something to be different.
7/8/74. From The Figure of Beatrice: “Saint Augustine is reported to have said that he often could not make adulterers understand that they were doing wrong. . . . Perhaps denunciation is not the best way of correcting the error; or perhaps the error cannot be properly corrected until jealousy is denounced as strongly as adultery (whether with or without divorce). An awful truth lurks behind the comic figure of the complacent husband or wife; they are indecent, but the true decency is on the farther side. If it were possible to create in marriage a mutual adoration toward the second image, whenever and however it came, and also a mutual limitation of the method of it, I do not know what new liberties and powers might be achieved.”
7/20/74. He tells me she has been seeing a counselor of some sort — some conventional, ignorant philistine straight out of Ladies’ Home Journal who told her, “Fix yourself up! Wear a little makeup! Lose a little weight! Take care of yourself and you’ll feel so much better!” This leaden, impersonal jollying. Good God, can anybody still not know that not wearing makeup and not shaving your legs and liking your weight the way it is is an aesthetic in itself? Can anybody believe that anxiety about your appearance is a sign of mental health? Has this woman even looked at her closely? She dresses with more confidence than anybody I know — homes right in on things that are soft and comfortable and look interesting. Whoever this counselor is, I bet she wears things that itch.
7/31/74. We’re not moving to Seattle. We agreed on it the way we used to agree on everything, no grief, no disagreement. The money’s running out, of course, but for once that’s not the main reason. Going to an entirely new place and being in school is the last thing I want to be doing in the middle of all this. And it is the middle, not the end: whatever is going on, it shouldn’t be interrupted. Of course he wants to stay because of her, but in a way I’m glad he does: it shows he gives a damn about her. I’m sick of people assuming that this sort of relationship is a matter of trivial pleasure for the man who undertakes it. Anyone who loved her and wasn’t serious about it would be a fool and a boor.
She is happy we’re not moving: it shines in her face. Happy two of her friends aren’t leaving? Happy her lover is staying? Shut up.
8/13/74. It’s not the impulse toward goodwill that’s so hard in this, it’s the trivialities of phone calls, visits, presents: watching them be in love. And going to work in the morning half worn-out with grief, knowing I should leave and let them have each other, but being too afraid and too angry and too dependent. Spending the whole day convincing myself that I can stay and still be a person of integrity, getting home and being able to be civil at last, and having the whole thing fall apart the next morning. The falling tower.
She says I shouldn’t think of leaving him — that she doesn’t want that. Doesn’t she? Why doesn’t she?
He says he doesn’t want that either, that he loves us both and wants me to stay. I’m not supposed to believe that; it says in the script I should laugh in his face. But I do believe it. It’s just that he does one thing about love and I do something different altogether.
I know nothing about marriage. People say, “Oh, every marriage has its rough spots.” People say, “You have to learn to compromise.” How much? How much is too much? If you can formulate the question, do you already have the answer? Does everybody tear themselves apart and put themselves back together every day, trying to stay married? What is a normal amount of suffering? Every time I think this is insupportable it gets worse, and I discover it still doesn’t kill me. It doesn’t even impel me to change.
Should I have been suspicious? Should I have believed that any time a man is friends with a woman it will inevitably come to this? Should I have nagged and insinuated and laid down conditions? Would I have gained anything worth having if I had? It would be as hateful as harassing him to lose weight.
8/22/74. What a misery work is, and what a distraction. If I had a couple of weeks with no interruptions I might be able to figure all this out. No wonder he knows exactly what he wants: he sits at home and writes, he has both the time and the excuse to feel. I have to sandwich it all in between galleys. The disintegration of your life must not interfere with your job performance.
My job means the least to me of anything in my life, but it’s the thing that can’t be moved. All I can do about my life when I’m at work is worry. After 5 o’clock I can feel again.
9/4/74. Our third anniversary.
People say sex isn’t everything (and it isn’t of course, we still do a lot of it and it doesn’t change a thing), but it is the one way we can always talk to each other and be understood.
9/17/74. I have always tried, on principle, not to be dependent and clinging, not to be one of those devouring women you read so much about. But I can’t bear it that he leaves me at home and goes to visit her, that he loves her not merely in addition to me but in preference to me.
I think of it too much. I think of nothing else. The books I read, the clothes I make, the music I listen to, are all tinged with the desperation of this time. I cannot live this way. My mind cannot function under this paralysis — this poisonous jealousy.
9/20/74. I went to see her and tell her how unbearable it was, and couldn’t talk at all, only cry, and she came over and held me and we stood together swaying with that little automatic motion that just takes over, as though we were comforting each other, as though we liked each other! And she said — her heart in every word — “I hate to cause you pain”; and I said, every word dragged out of me against my will, “Then why — don’t — you stop?” And instantly apologized and said it was none of my business. Ass! Coward! Why don’t I settle for one thing or the other? Either think she’s wrong and tell her so, or think she’s right and get out of her way? He dreamed they had a baby together; as soon as I give up this burdensome, worthless claim they can get on with it.
10/16/74. But it is none of my business. It goes on entirely apart from me: it’s part of their lives, not mine, that’s the whole nature of it.
I’ve told him I don’t want to know anything more about it, even whether or not it’s still going on. This is cowardice and deliberate blindness, but I can do no better now. I’m afraid to leave, and I don’t think I should have to leave, but I can’t think about it anymore. This is in any case the death-knell of our relationship as surely as if I had left, because our whole concept of marriage meant telling each other everything. No more. Silence, lies and silence.
1/2/75. But I am somehow a genuine presence in all this: she never ceases to see me. We can all three go to parties together and it can be clear to everybody that they are the lovers and I am the one who is inert, and yet she can sit beside me at Christmas Eve mass, and even when I turn into a bundle of wet sniffling misery, can embrace me and say she has always loved me. What I do is not unseen; what I have undertaken is not unnecessary. Something holds, some bond that was there when we first met and which has only been solidified and assured by this unhappy time.
4/6/75. I’ve gotten a job in the university library where she works (so do Paul and Jeannine and several other old friends). It’s a great relief to work with people I can talk to, to be in the same context the rest of my life is in. The work is actually less interesting than proofreading, but at least life isn’t suspended for those eight hours.
Working with her all the time, I see more and more how entirely admirable and sensible she is. When she doesn’t know the answer to something, she says so; when somebody on break is talking about movie stars, she asks who these people are. She isn’t ashamed of not knowing things. Why did I never know that was possible? Is the condition of not having one’s feelings written on one’s face due to fear? conformity? not knowing how to behave?
And why did I think that forthright vulnerability of hers was a sign of virginity? Does sexual experience so invariably destroy it? Do all the rest of us feel we’re supposed to know what we’re doing, and go around pretending we do? God knows I’ve always felt that way about marriage: there are rules to follow and I’m not sure why or even what all of them are. She seems, even when not following the rules — even when pained by not following the rules — to be twice as awake as the rest of us.
Percival came to the Grail Castle and saw the miracle of the blood-filled chalice and the dripping spear, and said nothing — acted as if he was supposed to know. Not until he asked, in all foolishness, in all innocence, “What is it?” did he achieve the quest.
5/8/75. My life is beginning to belong to me a little. He and I don’t go to the same things very often now. He stays home or sees other writers. (Real writers, of whom of course I am not one.) I’ve been going to Paul and Karen’s Monday night discussion group about sexuality and religion. The two of them have been going through as hard a time as we have, facing the fact that Paul really is homosexual, but like us they’re trying to face the thing in their own way and not according to some soap-opera script. (One real virtue of unconventional sexual experience is that you find out people don’t have to behave the way they do on TV.) All kinds of people come to the group — the whole range of ages, occupations and classes, mostly white but not all, mostly gay but a fair number of straight people too, including a couple of priests and (of all people) Leigh Sebastian, who ought to be a priest if they let women do that, and whose erudition I’ve always admired. (She makes a great point of not being gay and also of being tolerant, which is a little tiresome of her, but it’s still an honor to have her there.) I don’t say much at these meetings — what I know about sexuality and religion is much too messy and much too eccentric to make sense to anyone else — but I find that my shame and helplessness are much less than they were. It’s especially interesting to get some firsthand knowledge of lesbian feminism, which my infallible husband has been informing me about from time to time (I suppose he finds it a welcome change from my dependency). Curious thing for him to know more about than I do — though he does keep up with modern writing more than I do. Curious thing for him to approve of, too. I may be abject, but at least I’m still with him.
7/22/75. At this point it isn’t even that she’s the right woman and I’m the wrong one — I’m just the wrong one. I think he’s been ignoring her as thoroughly as he’s been ignoring me, in favor of his writers. He gives me suggestions and advice as if I were spineless, insubstantial. If I am, how does he suppose I got that way? Yes, I may have chosen it — I may have had no courage left for anything else — but I didn’t start out having no courage. If he values my courage so much, why did he wear it down?
From the very beginning he’s been wearing it down. Stay up late and talk to me, lend me five dollars, marry me, marry me. I never wanted to marry him. I wanted to stay in bed with him for six solid months. But no, he wanted to take care of me, he wanted permanence and stability, we were Christians. (What would John Donne have thought? When did everything in the Nicene Creed boil down to the difference between heavy petting and intercourse?) My parents were no help either — if I didn’t want to marry him that was fine, even preferable considering my age, but then I had damn well better stop going to bed with him because that was immoral, particularly in a new convert. What I saw as some complex and finely tuned ambiguity between sex and religion, they saw as ordinary looseness and intellectual dishonesty (even my father, who taught me about ambiguity; even my mother, whose regard for people usually outweighs her regard for convention!). Everything I knew I wanted was out of the question; everything I knew I didn’t want was apparently the only compromise. Did I say that asking him if they were lovers was the hardest thing I ever did? Not quite true: giving in and getting married was worse.
Well, I’ve done what they wanted now. I’ve tried to live within the common morality and respect it, and still respect myself. I worked harder at being a faithful Christian wife than I’ve ever worked at anything I believed in. Now I’m going to do something I want to do. I make my own living: nobody can punish me for having the lovers I want. The next person who attracts me, man or woman, I will ask — no excuses, no apologies. If I’m desperate on the inside, let me be desperate on the outside too. Then I may somehow arrive at confidence or calm. I will never arrive there by trying to pass for right.
8/18/75. Gave her a ride home from the Monday night group tonight. They’re all going on a weekend retreat next month and I have recklessly decided to go even though I can’t afford it. Had a curious impulse to kiss her goodbye as I let her off, no doubt the result of rampant sexuality newly unleashed. I do realize there are some limits. Her of all women I really would not ask — as though I wasn’t the person who could hurt her most in the world! All I want is someone to frivol with, and what could be more unfair to her?
Does everybody tear themselves apart and put themselves back together every day, trying to stay married? What is a normal amount of suffering? Every time I think this is insupportable it gets worse, and I discover it still doesn’t kill me. It doesn’t even impel me to change.
8/20/75. Dreamed about the mountains last night. Hayes, Hess, and Deborah uplifted on the horizon, Denali almost translucent at the end, the lesser peaks running between them, ponderous and white. Such a blessing when it happens — I can’t regret not being there, it’s as though I have actually seen them. It just makes it possible to go on.
No, I don’t only want someone to frivol with. I just don’t think anything else is possible between people. If it could be with people the way it is with a place — the acuteness, the attention, rapt up in the otherness of the other without embarrassment or distrust — but people won’t do that, they fidget, they get careless or hasty or interfering, they get simple and whine, “Does that mean it’s OK?” If I were really going to do something I wanted it would probably be with trees.
9/16/75. Has everybody gone crazy? Am I invisible after all? She told me at lunch today that she’d had a couple of amazing revelations. First of all — and this one I understand and heartily concur with — she realized that she doesn’t have to have a man to be real. That she’s twenty-eight and unmarried and is real NOW; she doesn’t need any more credentials. I wish I’d understood that at eighteen — wish I understood it now. That one makes plenty of sense.
Second, that THEREFORE she doesn’t have to believe in monogamy — and that one I don’t understand at all, I don’t understand how it follows, I don’t understand what it has to do with her situation, I don’t understand why she said it to me. Isn’t it enough that she was the occasion for our own precarious monogamy’s falling apart? Does she have to dismiss the whole concept to my face?
I’ve been waiting a year and a quarter for some occasion to be justifiably angry with her, and now that it’s come I can’t bear it. It makes no sense that she would have meant it callously or maliciously. He’s insensitive enough to do that, but she’s not. And I feel that old, expected, conventional outrage rising up in me, that outrage that all along I have fought because I knew it was ignorant and false, “How dare she! Doesn’t she know she’s talking to Me, the wronged wife? Doesn’t she know her place as the Other Woman?”
If it’s that outrage that reacts to what she said, I cannot pay it any attention. I will not trade on the privilege of being married. I never wanted it in the first place. I will have her as a friend and not a rival: I will do it if it kills me.
9/18/75. What I am going to have to do — and this scares me far worse than just asking her what she meant about monogamy — is to tell her what I have felt and suffered and tried to do all this time. And I will have to listen to the same things from her, without protection. This is long overdue between us.
9/20/75. I’m writing this at the retreat. She and I are sharing one of these ascetic little rooms, where we talked nearly all the night. I’ve tried to improve the place a bit with some purple and white asters and some goldenrod in a jar. There are fields of flowers all around. Whatever happens from now on, she and I have spoken to each other as I, at least, have never spoken to anyone before. Such sympathy and such emotional intelligence I never expected to find in another person — certainly never to be capable of myself.
Her remark about monogamy turned out to be almost a misstatement when she explained it. She said she has always had the disturbing feeling that if women didn’t need men for sex they wouldn’t need them (qua men) for anything at all — and she has always felt much easier with women, less anxious, less constrained. But of course one does need a man because he confers reality: without a husband or at least a lover a woman doesn’t quite make the grade as a human being. But realizing that she was in fact quite real, now and at every time before, with and without a lover, she felt released from all those bonds — the need for marriage, the need for a lover, the need to have only one lover, the need for all her lovers to be men. What had been bitter and insoluble personal failures became part of a pattern. What drove her was what drove all the rest of us. All of us blindly moving away from each other, trying to find the Other who would complete us, when all along the key to making sense of it lay with those who were like us.
But all that seems almost beside the point now. The sheer amazement of it was to say and hear all that we felt and neither of us to get angry or try to justify herself. No accusation, no defense: only a steady concentration on what really happened. Like a couple of brain surgeons, dispassionate and mortally tender.
Later. An hour or two ago I spilled my whole sad story to the group. Of course our closest friends already knew, but it was news to the rest of them. It was awkward since she was there too — all this circumlocution since I didn’t want to say it was her — but at least I had told her all of it first and knew what she felt. It was a great relief to talk about it publicly. I don’t think people want advice when they come out with these dreadful painful stories — only to know that they can be spoken, to feel the dead weight come off the chest and the cankerworm out of the brain.
Leigh Sebastian seemed really not to understand that the whole thing wasn’t just some trivial adulterous fling. After all she’s told us about her own long life I find that incongruous and sad. Surely she’s seen enough . . . but she insists on being wise and intuitive before she’s had the whole story; I’ve heard her do the same to other people. The other side of erudition, I suppose: you must never appear at a loss. At any rate she kept dropping remarks about “tawdry affairs” and “fooling around on the side” till I was exasperated and embarrassed. And my husband’s lover, splendid in her anger, sat up and said, “As the woman he fell in love with I can assure you he was not ‘fooling around’!” Glorious nerve. Later when I talked of my own resolve to find another lover (have made tentative overtures to Karen, who’s also looking, but apparently she’s not looking for me), Leigh told me anxiously to wait and see how things turned out before looking for another man, and I said — half playing to the audience and half genuinely astonished — “Who said anything about men?” Not at all glorious and more than a little snotty, but it’ll learn her.
I feel as though I’ve been scrubbed out with scouring powder, head and body, hollow as a shell. In more romantic days I used to think about purgatory fire and the soul’s being forged, annealed like tempered steel — all those lovely words — but apparently that isn’t how it happens. (Maybe that isn’t what’s happening; there’s also that pleasant little cautionary tale about having one devil cast out and getting seven worse ones.) It isn’t felt as sober exhilaration but as suffering and confusion. It doesn’t mean consciously and purposefully walking in God’s way but having all one’s wisdom turn out to be inadequate — having to flounder for something to do and say that is not the wrong thing. “The soul recovers radical innocence” — the state of not knowing a damn thing. And all you can do is look like a fool, and ask. All you can do is look, even at the brimming chalice and the bloody spear (shut up, you are supposed to know) and say: What serves the Grail?
9/21/75. Trembling like a leaf at the finality, the importance of it: now I’m an adulteress too. The terror of deliberately doing something wrong, taking a second lover. The sense of forging through the terror like an iceboat, making love with somebody because I chose to. The forthrightness of choosing and knowing myself chosen. The hilarious shock of the obvious (“the true decency is on the farther side,” indeed!): who is most important to me in the world, who would I always have chosen if I had thought she would choose me? And the extraordinary grace of reconciliation. Her warfare is accomplished. Her iniquity is pardoned. She hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Her body is smaller than his, her face is thinner, her tongue is small and strong-willed. No one else has a voice like hers.
She says it was simple: when she realized she didn’t need him she could see it mattered that she loved me.
For me too it is simple: no one else has moved me to be honest, careful, respectful of their feelings. I have never treated anyone else like a lover.
She, she, she of all women! Who hurt me, and I took no vengeance; whom I hurt just by being her lover’s wife, and she did not resent me. We have grown so strong on this restraint that we cannot fail each other.
O water where there is no well, Viny flower and rosemay tree, Water where there is no well, What name will my true love tell? Viny flower and rosemay tree.
This is the most moral thing I’ve ever done. People will say that can’t be, that as soon as a relationship includes sex it becomes corrupted with self-interest, but they’re wrong. Sex doesn’t alter the character of a relationship. Self-interest and detachment and interest in the other will exist to exactly the degree they did before.
Lust? You can’t make love without feeling lust, but lust is a benign and comfortable and familiar thing, a language we both know how to talk in. Good Lord, it’s not difficult to be sexually attracted to someone; nor difficult to resist, if that’s what you want. What is difficult, and rare, is to be intellectually attracted — for two people to find each other worth thinking for.
I feel as though I’ve been scrubbed out with scouring powder, head and body, hollow as a shell. In more romantic days I used to think about purgatory fire and the soul’s being forged, annealed like tempered steel — all those lovely words — but apparently that isn’t how it happens.
But what boundary have I crossed? The word lesbian conveys nothing. Or rather, it conveys several overlapping things, but none of them the essential one: a sexual proclivity, a political stance, a rebellion (though not always) against marriage and religion, a revival (though not necessarily) of women’s mysteries — everything but what my lover and I began to practice at that time.
It was not a question of sexual identity. (It was not a question of “identity” at all, that two-dimensional catchword of the critical eye; I did not live through Alaska and exile, marriage and betrayal, to get an identity.) It was a kind of attention I had never been on the receiving end of; indeed I had never yet known another person to whom I could give it. An attention without impatience, making no claims and demanding no particular response; utterly without illusions about the other’s character and capacities, but also without resentment; in awe at the other’s existence, but not abject. An attention something like that which exists between a person and a place: an alternation of passion and detachment, praise and appraisal, which never settles into casual romanticism or casual contempt. In it my choices began once more to be essential, my acts to have consequences. I had re-entered the realm of magic; I had ceased to be a woman and a Yes.
Her unconventionality — worn sometimes awkwardly, sometimes despairingly, sometimes with angelic sureness — had reclaimed me to unconventionality. Because she was herself, taking no refuge in the usual camouflage against feeling, I could only see her as herself: not as adulteress, challenger, breaker of homes, but as a soul in pain, as I was a soul in pain. The more conventional response merely short-circuits attention; it substitutes an idea for a personality, it is uninterested in who people are and what has really happened. But once having seen with attention, one cannot return to uninterest. The otherness of the other begins a metamorphosis: as though something in our bodies changed, cell by cell, to acknowledge the other’s presence.
The wonder — miraculous as a speaking tree and shocking as a cold shower — of learning that she has a different opinion on some question and that her opinion is not wrong simply because it is not mine. It is not possible to mistrust each other. Her subjectivity is her perfection: it widens and mitigates and expands my own. The similarities between our dissimilar bodies, the differences between our similar minds, the catastrophic events of her past and mine, the things we are each ashamed of: all these things teach us and heal us, by showing us things outside our experience that we cannot dismiss, by dissolving limits we thought were absolute.
Even the things that most drive us and distress us lose some of their power. Metaphysical Man and Woman, those monoliths whose presence so shadowed my early life, have dwindled and flattened; now they look like mere shallow reliefs carved on a wall, posed in quaint and formal attitudes. I can study them without fear; they will not threaten or consume me. All they can do is continue to enact their metaphysic, the sacred story by which they interpret the world.
And the story is as simple as a jigsaw puzzle, and as easy to believe in. One has a protrusion, the other a vacancy; therefore putting the protrusion into the vacancy will solve estrangement, heal enmity, cancel loss. Male and female bodies fit together, male and female souls complement each other; if each play their part well, and man and woman be in union, then even God and the people will be in union, earth and sky will couple and bring forth. The metaphor can be intensely moving and seem the answer to everything, as intercourse often does in life; but it can be urged by dishonest persuasions and have ruinous consequences, as intercourse often does in life. Men and women are persuaded by every means at their elders’ disposal to believe the pieces fit: to divide their roles and their territory and to see their bounds as contiguous at every point. They must try to fashion their lives like a great yin/yang symbol (with — if they are sophisticated — a little bit of their “opposite” in each, safely immured within them like a cyst). Everyone must become a half, and seek the other half.
But the pieces never fit. There are always somehow too many or too few, or some from a different puzzle entirely. People go seeking their other half and find themselves mated to mermaids and selkies, satyrs and chimeras: lovers who are tender and kind but cannot listen to them, lovers whose ambitions are at odds with their own, lovers who treat them like delinquents to be reformed, lovers who have wounds from the past that will not heal. It is never a question of anatomy, that is the merest schoolboy brag, as though the persistence and thoughtfulness of human love were all a matter of plug and socket. Two personalities, two lives, are never shaped so as to fulfill each other. If you live with a lover for fifty years, you will still live partly alone, partly overlapping.
But what if your companion were an equal — not the “other half” but simply someone else, someone who partly confirmed your experience, partly expanded it, but did not live the unlived part of your life for you or take risks in your place like a canary down a mine? What if all the differences between two lovers did not come down to “just like a woman” or “that’s just the way men are”? What if the living of love were its own end and not an expedient? A nakedness surpassing anything the body knows; a nakedness at long last worthy of what the body knows.
It is not the fitting of the pieces I occasionally miss about being a man’s lover, so much as the unconscious quality: the symmetry of having all your limbs free, being joined at the bases of your bodies by parts that are otherwise private and ungovernable; being submerged away from decision and daily labor, unreflective as love takes its course. Yet what moves me about women’s lovemaking is how it honors and incorporates consciousness: how it uses the instruments of daily labor, of speech and of writing, the hand and the tongue. Consciousness becomes coequal with ecstasy. Conversation, the meanings of words, the writing of letters, are images that recur over and over in lesbian feminist writing as though they were also acts of love, esoteric definitions of lesbian.
All lovemaking that uses the neuter parts of the body wakens consciousness; even between men and women it is often not intercourse itself but these other acts that bring out the strongest response of tenderness or revulsion. What you touch with the genitals you can believe is set apart, that it has to do with lust and not real life; what you touch with hand or tongue you touch with the mind. The mystical discipline of kundalini yoga seeks to send erotic energy up the spine; these acts send intellect down the spine, infusing lust with recognition and awareness. Hand and tongue, being common to both sexes, are charged not with polarity but with attention itself. They proclaim not complementary roles but random differences. They do not fulfill the social contract between two opposites: they expose the real relation between two personalities.
Yet touch itself is the meaning of lovemaking; no metaphysic can equal it. The moment itself, not its causes or its consequences, is the end of desire. The plummeting from an identity into time being. Skin against skin, the ineffable soft dryness of it, dryness dissolving into the outpouring of primal waters, the intake of breath. The depth of softness and the insistence, resistance within it of fingerbones, pelvis, spine. Shiftings of weight, plungings and rollings, the movement of face and hands and body over the other’s body. What is a body? Mortality, ecstasy, awkwardness, inspiration. Nothing we say to explain it can make it less.
One afternoon, as my lover and I lay silent between conversations, staring into space, I felt some inner guardedness in me unlock: the loosening of a tension I did not know existed, a sensation old and uncommon and familiar as tasting some forgotten food from childhood. Someone has loved me like this before. How is that possible, I have never trusted anyone like this, surely no one else in my life — my grandmother.
And my whole consciousness turned inside out. Everything in my past made sense, though a different kind of sense than I expected. For this is no spider-love, no humiliating dependency; she does not try to buy me with gifts, she does not worry when I love something that is not herself. Yet some thread of feeling runs in both of them, as sure and astonishing as straw spun into gold. Was my father wrong about my grandmother? Is there such a thing as a devouring woman? Did he see her only through his pity and impatience for my mother, never knowing how I might have seen her? How long have I seen her only as he did, and not as I remembered?
At any rate I know this: her love is what I still call love. This is what my skin and my viscera have remembered and sought. The unhurried intimacy, the deep ease of trusting one another, the directness and thoughtfulness of even our disagreements; the patience with our bodies and with time. It should terrify me: it should prove that women are, after all, the loving eye, all-merciful and all-accepting. It should prove that this is, after all, a question of sexual identity, in the most fundamental and unpardonable way: that lesbian feeling is infantile, desiring only the mother’s unconditional love. But it does not even disturb me; it only interests me profoundly. For the trust and intimacy between my lover and me arrive too late on the scene to prove anything: they are not the cause but the effect. What came before them was intellectual attraction, emotional sympathy, and the long forbearance of letting her love my husband. There was never a time when we did not treat each other as adults. There was never a time when moral questions were not between us. If some spirit in her reminds me of my grandmother, still our connection does not repeat that earlier attachment but transforms it. It brings intention and restraint into passionate love, and not to curb or castrate it but to make it ineradicable.
But there will never cease to be moral questions between us. And because of the attention we give each other, they will never be simple moral questions, never the kind that admit of compromise; only the harder kind in which one gains and the other loses, in which one wants what the other does not want. For instance: she does not want to live in Alaska.
There is no reason why she would. She loves a warm place with the same passion as I love a cold one, she dreads the darkness of the winters, it is a great distance from her friends and family. She has gone there with me in the summer and tried to imagine what I felt as a child; we have lain in a tent and heard dogs howling miles away in the white June midnight, and wakened to the croak and croodle of the raven in a tree above. But it was not enough. She does not want to live there.
I swore to live there again; and I am faced, more painfully than before, with the choice of keeping my word or keeping my lover. The first time I made this choice it distressed me, but I could see no way out of it; I did not belong to myself. Now I do, and the first act I should undertake to be true to myself is the very one I cannot do with her.
I have never grieved so at being faithless. Marriage and adultery were not so hard. My whole relation with my husband was one of abdication; I made my promise to him in the absence of my conscience, and by breaking it I restored my conscience. But now that my conscience is restored, it has outdistanced my earlier life: I am rooted here and not in Alaska.
What if the living of love were its own end and not an expedient? A nakedness surpassing anything the body knows; a nakedness at long last worthy of what the body knows.
The place has changed greatly since I left, of course. What else could I have expected? Could I have wanted it to stay the same? But the changes have all happened without me: I have had no responsibility for them. Other people live there and it is their ordinary life: in the sight of those mountains and those roads, in the midst of that severe munificence and that ludicrous human waste, they make their choices and pursue their paths. They are as good or bad or ambivalent as they are; some ethical, some unscrupulous, some innocent of purpose. I live elsewhere — not because I am worse than they are and do not deserve the place, or because I am meant for some higher purpose, or because my soul is being perfected by suffering: it is only because I am elsewhere. It is a madness: for twenty years I have eaten my life in longing for the place, and other people live there as though it were simply life.
Should I never have loved anyone? Should I have tried to do without people? Should I have saved all my passion for the place, a place that cannot care whether I live there or not, a place that cannot return my passion? Should I tear myself out of this companionship, the first real one my soul has ever had, in which I am both heard and answered? Am I so weak that I prefer being loved to keeping my promises? Or is it simply that, once the continuity is broken, the pieces of a life do not fit, any more than two lives can fit each other? I have fallen in fragments, and the fragments cry out for one another but cannot be joined.
I have promised nothing to her. Not because we do not hope for permanence, but because our experience rules it out: a promise built on the ruin of a marriage is ridiculous. Yet no promise could be more binding than our habit of attention; no promise could do more than brush the surface of our years-long conversation. I know, too, that my promise to Alaska was in one sense inessential, a sort of heroic pose. In Tolkien and the Bible people made vows, and so I made a vow; it was what one did about something one loved. And even my longing to go back was carefully nourished, acted as well as felt. It was a part of how I invented myself, as consciously as I invented the kind of woman I would be. None of which means I did not love the place; only that the vow was calculated and self-conscious in a way that the love was not, and so I cannot trust it. I do not think the pose was contemptible; it was the only way I knew of insisting that the loving eye existed and mattered when everything around me insisted it did not. But I never knew how to support the vow with action, only with feeling.
And indeed the loving eye knows little of action, even in its own support. It looks; its business is not to do but to bear witness. It cannot tell me what to do. It cannot help me make this choice; it cannot divide one thing from another, my lover from my place, my vow from my obligation: it accepts both. Time and distance are not obstacles to it. Vows and principles are not guideposts. All these things are only phenomena: the loving eye sees the horns of my dilemma, how carefully I cling to both of them, how gracefully I squirm. Love contends with love, and neither is wrong.
Whatever the outcome, the loving eye will accept it. But the loving eye is the one that connives at violence, it will accept anything at all. It offers no method for decision.
But neither does the critical eye, not by itself. It might decide to honor the vow on the grounds that all vows are valid; but how could it be certain that the child who vowed to live there was any more competent than the adolescent who vowed marriage? Perhaps it might rule that the last relationship was most valid, being made in maturity; but how would it dispose of the choices I made without maturity, the obligations I still have to the place and to the man I married? Time and distance, vows and principles, are its means of judging; yet all these things are tumbled in confusion, cause and effect are fractured, there is no sure way to make sense of them. Both eyes must look together: they must endure the dissonance of double vision. They must find the law that can comprehend the question: they must discover the autonomian.
Music illuminates where argument cannot: it was in music that I caught that law alive. A friend and I were arranging a song together, the ballad of Pretty Polly; we sang it as a lament for four women who had been murdered in our town. The harmonies we made for it traveled in slides and wails, in and out of the minor mode, our two voices sliding toward each other as though tugged together by gravity, or sliding in parallel as though moving together around a hairpin curve. Another friend told us on hearing it that we seemed to find notes between the ones of the common scale, and to hold each pair of notes in a deliberate tension, a precisely calibrated disharmony. She said she had begun to listen not to tune or harmony but to the voices in relation, the shape of the intervals themselves: as though the two voices were merely the outer edges of the music, and the music itself took place in the space between.
Between. Not sent down from above, not “a gift from God” as untrained people say when overwhelmed by art. Not “God’s command” as bitter people say of laws they do not want to question. Between; made; proceeding out of the conditions of one’s work, though never quite known and never quite controlled. This is the key and secret to all relationships, and the reason why the pieces never fit. There is a space between them, and the space is inhabited. The people are the outer edges, and the relationship itself fills up the whole space between them.
We are so used to thinking of God as “beyond” that we look up, or out, or elsewhere, for our answers; or we rebel against all that transcendence and look within, hoping to produce what we need out of ourselves, since God does not produce it for us. But there is a third term. It is as though visible matter were not the only thing in the world that had weight and resistance, as though it existed partly in tension with the space. As though the space must be contained and defined by matter, but once defined is stronger and fuller and more authoritative than matter, the thing matter obeys for dear life until its dissolution. Bodies and their belongings are pushed and pulled and changed by the relations people make together. The very elements of life, earth, air, fire, and water, are inanimate by themselves; but with the space between them, like a fifth element, they are joined and quickened, they become minds, voices, bodies, trees, conversations and roads and herds and cities. The third term, neither beyond nor within, is between. It is said that God is in the midst of the people; the operative word is not God but midst.
And the law of the midst is the organic law, the law of relation. Not the law that is simply obeyed because it is given; not the denial of law that comes from the hopelessness of trying and failing to obey; but a law that evolves from the shape of the space itself.
The law of relation is more specific, and more strict, than the laws of marriage. What matters is not what you have promised, but what in fact you owe the other. A debt of shared experience cannot be tidied up by vows, or by prescribed acts undertaken with ignorant diligence (“can this marriage be saved?”). Nor can it necessarily be ended by desertion or divorce. What the other is to you, what you are to the other, is inexorable: between person and person, between person and place, between friends, between enemies, between the living and the dead, it will persist. Relation requires not that certain universal conditions be fulfilled, but that the particular conditions be served.
Relation cannot be described, only enacted. Words fall short. Anyone who writes knows this; or anyone who has tried to defend her lover to her parents, or describe some great turning point in her life to a casual acquaintance. Transformative events, crucial histories, mazes of thought and feeling are reduced to commonplaces and slogans. Like journalism, like catechism, such descriptions must try to catch the truth in a formula; but intangible as light and motile as quicksilver, truth escapes through the cracks, slips back into the space between.
A vow is a simplification of relationship into formula. It congeals what can only be enacted into what can be described, as a photograph congeals a face into one expression. It leaves out of account the shifts and nuances of shared life, compressing it all into a few set words. It is the lowest common denominator of intentionality.
But there is a faithfulness stronger than any vow; a faithfulness that can neither be promised nor abandoned; a faithfulness which is not even consciously undertaken, but informs consciousness more surely than any deliberate act. It is seen in the persistence of memory, in the way that one’s early experiences become the measure of all later ones, in the continuity of one’s character and the consistency of one’s judgements. It is the living and half-conscious presence in you of all you have seen, suffered, and done. This faithfulness is bodily, it enters not into your religious observances but into your synapses. It is not a social or personal obligation but something between a lifework and a fate. It is this, and no strenuous, grudging effort of the will, that draws you back to the people and the places you love — and draws you on the terms of the relationships themselves, not the terms you promise or expect. It is steadier and more austere than any promise: you promise only to the things you have chosen, but you are faithful to the things that chose you.
If you have chosen two things and cannot truthfully deny either, you must answer by the way that chooses you. How have I chosen before? What method emerged in that other hard choice, when my husband took a lover? How did I (and did I?) keep faith?
First by inertia: by waiting, by enduring what could not be changed. By learning what was whole and what was broken. And I have not wanted to do this with Alaska. All I have wanted is not to have been taken away: not to have lost the place already at thirteen, not to have it be an episode in my life, begun and ended without my consent. I have kept on thinking that the swearing of the vow could reverse every accident that came after: once get rid of the false starts — the marriage, the education, the job — and everything could be retraced. But nothing can be retraced. There is only one chance, one continuity: the false starts are also the true ones. If I make no practical effort to go to Alaska, then I must accept the fact that I am not there. It was all broken the minute it was spoken; I made the vow because I did not know how to make the effort.
Next by refusing the refuge of formula. As much as I refused to trade on the ambiguous privilege of being a wife, I refuse to put the vow ahead of what I felt for the place. To do that would obscure what the place in fact taught me — which was not honor, consistency, singlemindedness, but regeneration and tenacity: how to recover from what you cannot avoid. Not how to be like stone, resisting adversity, but how to be like weeds, ingesting it. How to clothe your failures in your own flesh and language, to live so that nothing can be lost.
And next, by discovering where the greatest possible relation might be: the relation where one could speak and the other reply and both know what was being said. But the place will not answer when I speak. Its indifference is its answer; that is its glory and its mystery. How could the place be grieved by my absence? And how could my lover not be grieved? And how could I choose to cut off that conversation, to turn away deliberately from what we were about to say and hear?
Yet there is another way to think of it: impossible, irrational, yet unmistakable once seen. And that is that the place does answer me. It answers me with her. Hers is the mind and the soul I have sought ever since I lived there. She mirrors it: her woundedness and her confidence, her pity and her irreverence, her courage and her patience, all command the same attention it commanded. Her body holds the smell of wildness I first encountered there: when she and I are most alone, suddenly the place itself is no longer absent. The place I lost with such bitterness and the woman I won with such pain are compounded of the same elements. And the fifth element, relation, insinuates itself between us all.
In choosing her I do not deny the place. Living with her follows from living there, it does not negate it; we affirm together everything I learned there. This is a way of keeping faith with the place. If it is not the way I wanted, and not the way I promised, it is yet a way that takes the place into account. It is a way chosen with double vision. If I had looked only with the loving eye, I could not have chosen at all; if I had looked only with the critical eye, I would have chosen one or the other on principle and chosen wrong. But the faithfulness of double vision lies not in principle but in responsiveness: in shaping and being shaped by the space between. It is the difference, perhaps, between barrenness and photosynthesis.
I have sometimes thought I had to go back to Alaska in order to save my immortal soul. It may be that in not going back for reasons of relation, I am on the track of a more essential thing: the compassionate uses of a mortal mind and body. If I learn that, what can salvation matter?