A poetic and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist, a great woman, and a great human being.
By Maria Popova
“Stories are a meal,” one wise father told his eight-year-old daughter a long time ago. “But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life.” That’s precisely what poetry became for Cheryl Strayed as she hiked a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to put herself in the way of truth and beauty in a thoroughly transformative experience that became the magnificent memoir Wild that then became a major motion picture.
Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate
Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
What Strayed observes of Rich is perhaps the single most beautiful and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist:
Adrienne Rich … did not die a woman who denied that her wounds came from the same source as her power. In fact, she spent her life making power from those wounds [but] Marie Curie… didn’t have that luxury — she had to deny that in order to be who she was in her time. But we don’t. And I think so much of the work I’ve done … and the work I hope I continue to do, is about writing into those wounds.
“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.”
The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means for her the loss of control.
The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.
But the pathology of lying, she argues, doesn’t merely alienate us from others — it engenders the greatest loneliness of all, by cutting us off from ourselves:
The liar often suffers from amnesia. Amnesia is the silence of the unconscious.
To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.
The question of lies, Rich notes, invariably invokes the question of honesty and what “truth” really is:
There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no “the truth,” “a truth” — truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.
This is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler — for the liar — than it really is, or ought to be.
In lying to others we end up lying to ourselves. We deny the importance of an event, or a person, and thus deprive ourselves of a part of our lives. Or we use one piece of the past or present to screen out another. Thus we lose faith even within our own lives.
The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire.
Pointing out the long history of “the lie as a false source of power,” Rich turns to women’s particular responsibility to one another in matters of truth:
Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each other’s sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.
Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.
When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.
This notion of possibility, Rich argues, is central to the power of truth and the peril of lies in all human relationships:
The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.
When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.
Rich weighs the difference between honesty and oversharing — one particularly poignant today, in an age of compulsive oversharing and very little actual honesty — in the context of honorable human relationships:
It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you.
It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us.
To fully inhabit this possibility requires, it seems, understanding the subtle but vital difference between trust and faith. Rich considers why “we feel slightly crazy when we realize we have been lied to in a relationship”:
We take so much of the universe on trust. You tell me: “In 1950 I lived on the north side of Beacon Street in Somerville.” You tell me: “She and I were lovers, but for months now we have only been good friends.” You tell me: “It is seventy degrees outside and the sun is shining.” Because I love you, because there is not even a question of lying between us, I take these accounts of the universe on trust: your address twenty-five years ago, your relationship with someone I know only by sight, this morning’s weather. I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads, across statements such as these, statements made so unequivocally, which have no tone or shadow of tentativeness. I build them into the mosaic of my world. I allow my universe to change in minute, significant ways, on the basis of things you have said to me, of my trust in you.
When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.
Noting that common liar’s excuse of “I didn’t want to cause pain” is merely the liar’s unwillingness to deal with the other’s pain, Rich writes:
The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.
Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze itself; it has to be created between people.
Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity. But it’s a movement into evolution.
The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted-upon, and for women it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Rich considers the gendered nature of academia’s substance, a lament that seems dated only if we choose to remain blind to the hidden currents still sweeping society. She captures this with devastating succinctness:
One of the devastating weaknesses of university learning, of the store of knowledge and opinion that has been handed down through academic training, has been its almost total erasure of women’s experience and thought from the curriculum… What you can learn [in college] is how men have perceived and organized their experience, their history, their ideas of social relationships, good and evil, sickness and health, etc. When you read or hear about “great issues,” “major texts,” “the mainstream of Western thought,” you are hearing about what men, above all white men, in their male subjectivity, have decided is important.
And yet Rich is careful to counter any misperception that taking more “women’s studies” courses is the solution to this cultural imbalance:
While I think that any [student] has everything to gain by investigating and enrolling in women’s studies courses, I want to suggest that there is a more essential experience that you owe yourselves, one which courses in women’s studies can greatly enrich, but which finally depends on you in all your interactions with yourself and your world. This is the experience of taking responsibility toward yourselves. Our upbringing as women has so often told us that this should come second to our relationships and responsibilities to other people…
Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work. It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions — predigested books and ideas, weekend encounters guaranteed to change your life, taking “gut” courses instead of ones you know will challenge you, bluffing at school and life instead of doing solid work, marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short, simply to avoid conflict and confrontation… It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”; not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others — parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children — that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons.
Enacting this responsibility to ourselves, Rich argues, is how we can begin to imagine immensities and a choice monumental stakes:
The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.
Too often, all of us fail to teach the most important thing, which is that clear thinking, active discussion, and excellent writing are all necessary for intellectual freedom, and that these require hard work. Sometimes, perhaps in discouragement with a culture which is both antiintellectual and antiwoman, we may resign ourselves to low expectations for our students before we have given them half a chance to become more thoughtful, expressive human beings. We need to take to heart the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a poet, a thinking woman, and a feminist, who wrote in 1845 of her impatience with studies which cultivate a “passive recipiency” in the mind, and asserted that “women want to be made to think actively: their apprehension is quicker than that of men, but their defect lies for the most part in the logical faculty and in the higher mental activities.” Note that she implies a defect which can be remedied by intellectual training; not an inborn lack of ability.
Returning to the central notion that education is something we claim rather than receive, Rich turns to the student’s own responsibility in the equation — an assertion essential to the education and empowerment of women, but also one whose foundation applies to all genders across all fields of personal growth:
The contract on the student’s part involves that you demand to be taken seriously so that you can also go on taking yourself seriously. This means seeking out criticism, recognizing that the most affirming thing anyone can do for you is demand that you push yourself further, show you the range of what you can do…
It means assuming your share of responsibility for what happens in the classroom, because that affects the quality of your daily life here. It means that the student sees herself engaged with her teachers in an active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to the belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college — if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will no longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.
“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”
By Maria Popova
From her stirring poetry to her timeless wisdom on love, loss, and creativity, beloved poet and feminist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) endures as one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, a remarkable woman of equal parts literary flair and political conviction. In a monumental manifestation of both, when Rich was awarded prestigious National Medal of Arts in 1997, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, she famously became the first and only person yet to decline the honor in a protest against the monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
How beautifully this lends itself to paraphrasing Rich’s memorable words from two decades later — “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope” — to “I don’t think we can separate love from overall human dignity and hope.”