Adam Ash

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bookplanet: Naomi Wolf on her personal patriarch in the patriarchy

My absent heart
Literary success has made Naomi Wolf famous since her twenties. But, she reveals, her life took a wrong turning
By Naomi Wolf

During a year of chaos, right after I turned 40, I bought a nearly derelict house in the midst of a desolate meadow in upstate New York. After we closed the deal, I got what I had been so longing for: silence. I had been besieged by e-mail, CNN headlines, phone calls; by my weighty, warm, engulfing responsibilities as wife, mother, teacher. I sat in the desolate house for a whole afternoon, alone, on the wooden floor, missing no one — no context, no family, no computer, no byline, no phone — soaking in the silence.

Night fell. My family back in Manhattan knew I was gone overnight; our babysitter was with the children until David, my husband, could get home. Wildlife of all kinds lived in the forest around the little house — I had heard from a guy at the petrol station down the road that there was one last, lonely mountain lion in the woods — but I felt unafraid. I slept alone on the floor upstairs. I woke up in the morning to see red-gold autumn light against the mountain.

A while later my father came up to help Rosa, my daughter, and me build a treehouse. Rosa, who was then seven, had a baby brother Joey, who did not understand how to stay out of a big sister’s room, and we lived in such a noisy, crowded small apartment in the city; I understood her longing for a place in the trees that no one could get to.

My father wanted us to spend some time learning about wood before we learnt the basics of carpentry, the same way he wanted his poetry students not only to understand grammatical structures, but etymology as well.

My father, Leonard Wolf, is a wild old visionary poet. He changes people’s lives because he believes that everyone is here on earth as an artist; to tell his particular story or sing her irreplaceable song; to leave behind a unique creative signature. He believes that your passion for this, your feelings about this, must take priority over every other reasoned demand: status, benefits, sensible practices.

All my life I have seen how his faith in this possibility — that an artist inheres in everyone — actually does change people’s lives: the students he has taught over the course of four decades are changed, but so are the lives of people who are simply passing through. I have seen how his belief has led people with whom he has come into casual contact — friends of mine, friends of his, strangers he meets on trains — to suddenly drop whatever is holding them back from their real creative destiny and shift course; to become happier.

When people spend time around my dad, they are always quitting their sensible jobs with good benefits to become schoolteachers, or agitators, or lutenists. I have seen students of his leave high-paying jobs that were making them miserable, or high-status social positions that had been scripted by their families, and follow their hearts in the face of every kind of opposition.

My father believes in placing passionate love at the very top of your list of priorities, and in making room for passion at the centre of your romantic life, no matter how domestic it is. He believes no one should settle for less. His students are always leaving safe but not essential relationships and finding something truer — whether it is a fierce attachment to someone they would have overlooked before as being “unsuitable”, or whether it is taking the risk of solitude in a renewed search for their soul’s real mate.

During the time he and I worked on Rosa’s treehouse, we talked in a way that I had been too busy — or rather, resistant — to do since I was a girl. As we hammered and sanded, Leonard talked about his favourite poems, what they meant to him, the lessons they held. After each conversation I found that his insights called me, uncomfortably but unmistakably, to re-evaluate my own life.

Finally I decided I did not want to get just the glimmers of insight scattered here and there; I wanted him to teach me, formally, what he had taught his students for the decades during which he gave a famous class in poetry and creative writing at San Francisco State University.

He obliged me by finding his yellowed lecture notes. They came down to 12 basic lessons. It was awkward, after 15 years of expressing my own opinions for a living, to be once again an unskilled learner. But I realised — slowly and painfully, because I did not want to at first — that everything sensible that had ever guided me rightly was there in the 12 lessons.

I realised that when I had gone astray it was because I had deliberately ignored, or insisted on forgetting, as daughters do who are trying to forge their own identity in the world, one of those 12 lessons about literature — lessons that are really, or equally, about life.

As a child I had adored listening to him; of course, he knew everything. As a teenager I had taken on board what he had to say about poetry and the well-lived life, and had taken seriously a kind of apprenticeship with him.

In my young adulthood — of course, of course — he knew nothing, or nothing of use. His views were old-fashioned, I had learnt in my twenties; to learn from him was, among other things difficult for me, to subjugate myself. I had needed to topple the statue, find the fault, see the feet of clay. I had separated my sense of myself as a writer from his teaching, his world view.

But he was now 80; and I was 40; and, for many reasons, I knew I had taken a wrong turn.

LESSON ONE, he said, was about how you have to start with a healthy respect for silence.

“First, just be still; listen,” he said. “Matthew Arnold speaks of the leisure to grow wise. I would extrapolate from that ‘the silence to be attentive’. It is a disaster that we are losing the option of silence — with all these televisions, all these channels, these devices you carry that constantly interrupt you.”

With every weekend that I spent wrapped up, sitting in a rattan chair in the corner of the old sun porch, listening to nothing but the wind toss the trees, after working on the renovation of the old house, I realised I had lost contact with part of myself.

My father had raised me to honour the power of the imagination above all. Once, when I was about eight, he had held up a polished slice of whitish-cream agate, the kind you could buy for 50 cents in tourist shops. The outside of the circle of agate was rough, and the interior layers were swirling, alternately translucent and opaque. Against the bulb of a table lamp a world lit up within it.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“I see a . . . an ocean,” I said.

“I see a cityscape, with a set of towers,” he said. “Van Gogh painted like this.”

Then he showed me a reproduction of Starry Night and some prints of Van Gogh’s provincial cityscapes. I could see the swirls that nature had crafted in the slice of agate echoed in the technique of the artist’s paintbrush.

More than a decade later, in college, I dated a Marxist whom I will call James. At that time I still fully embraced poetry. I was reading and writing it and, like so many undergraduates, deeply believed in its magic. James, a graduate student, was the first person I met who rejected all of that in favour of historical materialism — the belief that nothing was real but politics; the rest was bourgeois affectation. God, verse, romance, beauty: all seduced one away from the hard work of analysing who has material power and who suffers.

James’s approach fascinated me, but its starkness also horrified me, and I wrote a love poem arguing with him about it, in which that agate surfaced again:

Let me hold the stone up to the light:
You see how, in the midst of a sea of milk
Rises a whiter city, of white onyx,
Translucent, barely visible? . . . This is it:
The glass seed in the milk-heart of each word.
“But here is where we live," you say. " And thought
Should be a laser cocked against the stars ...
... Consider jails and satellites, in terms
That slide home like a bolt . . .

By the time I was a graduate student I, too, had lost my way to the silent city in the slice of agate. I had become more like James, who was by the way a most unhappy person. I, too, had begun to believe that only words that slid home like a bolt, that did something in the “real world”, were valuable.

In the eternal daughter’s resistance I could not be loyal to my father’s allegiance to the heart over facts, numbers and laws, simply because it was my father who saw things this way. I needed to push against that world view to feel my path was really my own.

Then, in graduate school at Oxford, I became further “radicalised”. This meant that I was supposed to scorn the canon — those poems my father so loved. I had become persuaded, for various reasons, that poetry was owned by the power structure. Those words came from the heart? They were the hearts, I learnt, only of white men steeped in privilege. Feminist theory compounded personal experience: the words that had seemed to express my own soul’s longings could never truly do so, I was taught, because the writers did not know what it meant to be female.

Not surprisingly, during these years — they were years of bad hair and bad fashion, of bad food, being bundled up against the icy wind whipping down Merton Street, wearing the same straight-leg black jeans and black boots that every other young Marxist at that time in Europe was wearing; years of reading The Guardian while eating milk-chocolate cookies and thinking about “structures of oppression”, hunched against the electric fire in my room — I hardened myself somewhat in my relationship, transatlantic though it was, with my father.

I stopped asking him for advice or telling him what I was reading. I would get a tense feeling at the thought of trying to explain to him — though he was always interested in what I was working on; of course it was hopeless even to try, since you could never say a phrase like “phallocentric patriarchy” to your father, even over the phone.

I was being taught to be angry at the patriarchy, embodied in Milton and Shakespeare, Auden and Frost, those voices I had so loved. And it was hard to deconstruct “the patriarchy” without deconstructing — and demoting the wisdom of — your own personal earliest patriarch, your real dad at home. Our conversations became somewhat strained; he was eager to talk about what I was thinking, but I felt an impatience surge when we chatted: the impatience of someone who needed to break away.

On a personal level I did not feel that I could become authoritative without getting out of the shade of his authority. He had been a teacher, my teacher, for so long that I felt if I was to have a voice of my own I had to forget the sound of his.

Finally, when I was 26, another turn of events divided us. There was an early commercial success with my first book, and I found myself in a different world from my father’s — the world of green rooms and TV soundbites, of overnight deadlines and public controversies. This, I imagined in my young woman’s arrogance, was a field of experience that my father’s wisdom could not help with.

It was not until that field of experience left me spiritually depleted at 40 that I realised how very much his wisdom could have helped me through. I had forgotten there could be a world in which people did not have to argue a point, and win or lose, to justify a perception.

I remember a conversation I had with Leonard six years ago. I had just told my parents that I had agreed to be an adviser to Al Gore’s presidential campaign. I was advising on women’s issues, passing on what I understood to be many women’s feelings about things like equal pay, social security, healthcare, gun violence and education. These were all issues that I cared about. But I was appalled by the cynicism, the bullying, the cut and thrust of politics played out at that level.

To Leonard, my working on such a thing seemed like a kind of prostitution of whatever gifts I had. I saw exactly what he meant. But children always need to overthrow their fathers, especially when the fathers are right.

“But Dad,” I argued unhappily, “for 10 years I have listened to women say that they are struggling — for decent wages, for safety from domestic violence, and so forth. How can I live with myself if I don’t do what I can, given the chance?” “Honey,” he said sternly, “there are a hundred apparatchiks in Washington who can help him do that. Even if your guy does win, that is beside the point. He and his influence will come and go. But no one else has your particular voice. Someone speaking in his or her own voice — even if hardly anyone ever hears it — changes the world much more profoundly than someone just getting elected president . . . You’re a writer. You have more important things to do.”

There was a long, angry silence on my part, then we tacitly agreed to disagree and changed the subject.

I had pushed that advice away. Not just with my ill-fated role in the campaign but in all the years, before and after, of living as an activist and ignoring the — what? The soul? I had turned my face away from the grace of the imagination.

As I knelt now on the staircase in the little house, scrubbing with steel wool and Goo Gone, I felt some powerful drive inside me that was more than a wish for a house that was decently clean. It was only after days of steady work, when my clothes and my nails were filthy, and I sat in silence on the screened porch and looked at the waving of the trees, that I began to see a glimmer of what I had come out there to find. Of what I had misplaced — no, actively scorned — and needed back.

What had I lost? Was it peace? Was it the need to get closer to a sense of God? Was it the longing to quit work in the public dog pit — where one must strive, compete, and produce the way men have traditionally produced — and to do more of the traditionally “female” work of planting seeds and watching children? Was it a wish to have a sense of place — this mountain, this valley — rather than an address with a numbered avenue on a numbered cross street? To have neighbours, not a row of anonymous doors down a hallway? To be in a setting so quiet I could remember my dreams when I woke up and hear no sirens? I wanted to listen to a child, not a meeting. I wanted peace, not war. God, not Mammon. Family, not itineraries. Poetry, not polemic.

So, I thought, everyone needs at crucial times — especially in times of flatness or of crisis — to stop; to be silent. But this is hard, I argued with my inner voice, which I was reluctantly beginning to acknowledge. I can’t stay on my back porch for long. Even if we are lucky enough to have a quiet place somewhere, we — especially those of us who are mothers — can’t leave jobs, children, computers every time we need to be still.

AFTER I HAD cleared away some of the weeds, a thicket of yellow daffodils cropped up along the foundations of the house. “A crowd, a host, of golden daffodils!” my father exclaimed, glancing out of the window.

On this cool late-spring afternoon, Leonard was drinking black coffee. “Coffee should never be anything but black,” he remarked. “Especially if you are a writer.”

“I thought you stopped drinking coffee,” I said. “Um, last week.”

“Did I? Oh well — coffee is just too good to give up. As Emerson put it, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’.”

My dad is still a handsome man: six feet two and distinguished looking. He has fierce white eyebrows that seem to have lives of their own, grey-white hair that, depending on how it is brushed, makes him look like an elderly Lord Byron or like a homeless man having an alarming vision, and smiling hazel-brown eyes.

Today he had arrived wearing his red flannel Basque shepherd’s shirt, a black leather Argentine gaucho hat, and a three-quarter-length shearling coat. His grey-white beard had not been trimmed for a while, and it looked as if birds could nest in it.

He usually came with gifts. He knew that Joey was fixated on the inner workings of clocks, so he had scoured thrift shops until he found a rare non-digital one. He had brought it up to the house, along with a hammer. The hammer was for Joey to destroy the clock, so he could see what it looked like inside.

Joey was beside himself. He put the clock on the concrete floor and began smashing it open with rapt concentration. You could say it doesn’t make sense to give a child a present just so he can destroy it. But if destroying the present is the present, that is another way to see.

My father truly believes that creative vision can emerge only when you are willing to challenge and, if you have to — no matter how scary this may be — to reject every outside expectation about how you should behave.

“Before you can even think about finding your true voice, you have to reject boxes,” my father said. “Smash them apart.” In other words, he explained, look at what box you may be in and be willing to destroy it. Clichés are, among other things, boxes. Whenever you are saying or doing something that is too familiar to you, that does not let you surprise yourself, you should rethink your situation.

I was forced to examine the box I had created for myself. I was now the activist who thrived at the expense of the mother; I was the prose writer who disdained poetry.

All my adult life I had tried to use words to make change in the real world; I had believed in “us” and “them”: “the patriarchy”, “corporate collusion”, “the right”. I had got caught up in seeing my work, my words, primarily as a way to fight for certain outcomes.

Those outcomes were still so important to me, but was fighting my only reason for being? Was there a way to integrate politics and poetry, mind and soul — feminism and humanism — to make something larger than the sum of each principle?

My conversations with my father were starting to make me look at something I did not want to confront: I had stopped listening. I had stopped learning. At least one loved one had said to me, in the middle of what should have been a heartfelt argument, “You’re not on Meet the Press right now.” There had been more than a few moments when either Rosa or Joey had said in exasperation, “Mum, you’re not listening!”

I was starting to feel a little sick at my own mindset of certainties. By giving so much energy to argument, I had neglected the development of my own heart.

(Extracted from The Treehouse by Naomi Wolf)


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