“To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Artistic creativity offers women an escape from the self-objectifying bind. The act of making or inventing emphatically asserts a woman’s autonomy, her existence as a subject, not an object. When a woman is creating — writing, making art, composing — it is most unlikely that she is giving any thought to what she looks like to any real or imagined observer. (Things get more complicated, obviously, in the area of creative performance, such as dance; I’m only talking about non-performative creation.) Her self, while she is engaged in this work, is not split. The work is the object, and she surveys it.

4 thoughts on “Apparitions

  1. This applies to all kinds of ‘othering’, I think. The moment we are considered different, we have to develop awareness of what we look like and control how we act when we are in the presence of those who consider us different. I’m not sure writing always gives us entire freedom to walk without this awareness, though, I think it certainly gives us some amount of it. I did a test of this, just out of curiosity, some years go. I wrote a novel entirely from within my own particular cultural background. It didn’t work for anyone who wasn’t female and of a certain kind of Jewishness. I modified it to put in that awareness of how things look to other people and my beta readers liked it much, much better. I think the problem with intersectionality is that one has to come some of the way to meet the reader, always. When there’s only one form of othering, it’s a bit easier. Its never easy, though. I look at writers who don’t hae to make these compromises and I want that privilege, but at the same time I realise that we have many more possibilities open to ourselves because we start from that initial choice as writing as us or as the aware-of-others us. Even if we choose quite clearly, one or the other (or something else entirely) we start with a choice. That’s a power people seldom have when they lack that awareness and those infringements of themselves in daily life. (THis is me in work avoidance mode – I suspet you guessed.)

    • I guess I was thinking purely about bodies, and the way the creation of an object asserts its creator’s personhood and existence as more than a body or an image. I still think about how the work will be received, but while I’m making it I don’t have to act any part — I don’t have to be unnatural. That said, I’m probably thinking mostly about art. It isn’t much consolation if the body gets a break from scrutiny while the soul feels watched — and maybe that’s more likely with writing, or perhaps we all have activities in which we tend to feel more or less self-conscious.

      Re meeting the reader, do you worry that people will only notice the stuff that meets them?

      • Sometimes I worry about that. Mostly I try to let go and let the reader meet the things they want to meet. I write enough into everything so that they have choices, surely it’s a good thing if they can create more choices than I put into my writing? I think I’ve taught for too long to not accept that some readers only skim the surface. I think the second and third sentences in this paragraph were me admitting I just have to deal with what I can’t change, except through teaching. And I can’t teach everyone…

        • > surely it’s a good thing if they can create more choices than I put into my writing?

          I don’t know. I’m a bit nostalgic for the days when an author could write an intro explaining the purpose of a work. (I was educated to be a good orthodox post-modernist, but I’m slipping badly.)

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