Over My Shoulder #11: Andrea Dworkin, Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. After last week’s entry I’m running the risk of seeming as if I intend to use this gimmick as an outlet for all the Andrea Dworkin quotes that I find particularly apropos at the end of the week. I already have a running feature for that, but the fact is that other than fiction and material that I’m already transcribing for the Fair Use Repository, Dworkin’s most of what I’ve been reading for the past two weeks — in part as a result of a sometimes rather combative editing process over at WikiPedia:Andrea Dworkin, and in part because the stuff is nearly impossible to put down for long once you start reading parts of it. So rather than break the rules by picking up some item just to read it at the last minute to pick out another quote in the name of avoiding repetition, here we have some bus reading from earlier this afternoon: a passage from the Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse (first edition 1987).

My colleagues, of course, had been right; but their advice offended me. I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers–overeducated but functionally illiterate, members of a gang, a pack, who do their drive-by shootings in print and experience what they call the street at cocktail parties. I heard it onthe street, they say, meaning a penthouse closer to heaven. It is no accident that most of the books published in the last few years about the decline and fall of Anglo-European culture because of the polluting effect of women of all races and some men of color–and there are a slew of such books–have been written by white-boy journalists. Abandoning the J-school ethic of who, what, where, when, how and the discipline of Hemingway’s lean, masculine prose, they now try to answer why. That decline and fall, they say, is because talentless, uppity women infest literature; or because militant feminists are an obstacle to the prorape, prodominance art of talented living or dead men; or because the multicultural reader–likely to be female and/or not white–values Alice Walker and Toni Morrison above Aristotle and the Marquis de Sade. Hallelujah, I say.

Intercourse is a book that moves through the sexed world of dominance and submission. It moves in descending circles, not in a straight line, and as in a vortex each spiral goes down deeper. Its formal model is Dante’s Inferno; its lyrical debt is to Rimbaud; the equality it envisions is rooted in the dreams of women, silent generations, pioneer voices, lone rebels, and masses who agitated, demanded, cried out, broke laws, and even begged. The begging was a substitute for retaliatory violence: doing bodily harm back to those who use or injure you. I want women to be done with begging.

The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat that usually works. Men often react to women’s words–speaking and writing–as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women’s words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough dominance from men–control, violence, insult, contempt–that no threat seems empty.

Intercourse does not say, forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you. For a woman writer to thrive (or, arguably, to survive) in these current hard times, forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no.

Can a man read Intercourse? Can a man read a book written by a woman in which she uses language without its ever becoming decorative or pretty? Can a man read a book written by a woman in which she, the author, has a direct relationship to experience, ideas, literature, life, including fucking, without mediation–such that what she says and how she says it are not determined by boundaries men have set for her? Can a man read a woman’s work if it does not say what he already knows? Can a man let in a challenge not just to his dominance but to his cognition? And, specifically, am I saying that I know more than men about fucking? Yes, I am. Not just different: more and better, deeper and wider, the way anyone used knows the user.

Intercourse does not narrate my experience to measure it against Norman Mailer’s or D. H. Lawrence’s. The first-person is embedded in the way the book is built. I use Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flaubert not as authorities but as examples. I use them; I cut and slie into them in order to exhibit them; but the authority behind the book–behind each and every choice–is mine. In formal terms, then, Intercourse is arrogant, cold, and remorseless. You, the reader, will not be looking at me, the girl; you will be looking at them. In Intercourse I created an intellectual and imaginative environment in which you can see them. The very fact that I usurp their place–make them my characters–lessens the unexamined authority that goes not with their art but with their gender. I love the literature these men created; but I will not live my life as if they are real and I am not. Nor will I tolerate the continuing assumption that they know more about women than we know about ourselves. And I do not believe that they know more about intercourse. Habits of deference can be broken, and it is up to writers to break them. Submission can be refused; and I refuse it.

Of course, men have read and do read Intercourse. Many like it and understand it. Some few have been thrilled by it–it suggests to them a new possibility of freedom, a new sexual ethic: and they do not want to be users. Some men respond to the radicalism of Intercourse: the ideas, the prose, the structure, the questions that both underlie and intentionally subvert meaning. But if one’s sexual experience has always and without exception been based on dominance–not only overt acts but also metaphysical and ontological assumptions–how can one read this book? The end of male dominance would mean–in the understanding of such a man–the end of sex. If one has eroticized a differential in power that allows for force as a natural and inevitable part of intercourse, how could one understand that this book does not say that all men are rapists or that all intercourse is rape? Equality in the realm of sex is an antisexual idea if sex requires dominance in order to register as sensation. As said as I am to say it, the limits of the old Adam–and the material power he still has, especially in publishing and media–have set limits on the public discourse (by both men and women) about this book.

In general women get to say yea or nay to intercourse, which is taken to be a synonym for sex, echt sex. In this reductive brave new world, women like sex or we do not. We are loyal to sex or we are not. The range of emotions and ideas expressed by Tolstoy et al. is literally forbidden to contemporary women. Remorse, sadness, despair, alienation, obsession, fear, greed, hate–all of which men, especially male artists, express–are simple no votes for women. Compliance means yes; a simplistic rah-rah means yes; affirming the implicit right of men to get laid regardless of the consequences to women is a yes. Reacting against force or exploitation means no; affirming pornography and prostitution means yes. I like it is the standard for citizenship, and I want it pretty much exhausts the First Amendment’s meaning for women. Critical thought or deep feeling puts one into the Puritan camp, that hallucinated place of exile where women with complaints are dumped, after which we can be abandoned. Why–socially speaking–feed a woman you can’t fuck? Why fuck a woman who might ask questions let alone have a complex emotional life or a political idea? I refuse to tolerate this loyalty-oath approach to women and intercourse or women and sexuality or, more to the point, women and men. …

–Andrea Dworkin (1995), Preface to the 1995 edition of Intercourse, pp. vii-x.

This may help to shed some light, from a few different directions, on long-standing discussions on this site and elsewhere.

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