Defending ourselves from women?

I’ve studied martial arts on and off for many years, and when I think of women I know who study self-defense or martial arts, there is often an implicit or explicit statement that they want to be able to defend themselves from potential rapists, i.e., men. Many defense courses even culminate in women pummeling a pretend-rapist in a padded suit. Men, too, often want to be able to defend themselves from men (though not always with rape in the fore, except in pre-prison consultancies.) Interesting, no? Add firearms and other weapons, and we have all these tools to defend ourselves from men, not women.

True, much of sport shooting and martial arts also stresses self-discipline, which is really a way of defending yourself from yourself, but even if you have an equal male-female population with an equal interest in self-discipline and self-defense, we are still fighting back men 75% of the time, or to use US incarceration ratios, 90% of the time. When we look around the globe, however, much energy and ideology seems invested in worrying that changes to womanhood destabilize society more than changes to manhood. Are women, then, really the universal aggressor, just slier?

My protagonist, Selma Saddiqi, like many a modern woman, arms herself against the world’s injustice with education, aikido, and, some may argue, near asexuality. Sure, she’s obviously feminine, just not flirty; at work, she prefers pants to something skirt-y. Keeping her womanhood out of the equation, especially in 1991, is necessary for her to play the game: national intelligence. But enough femininity must show, or else she ends up being stigmatized as was Janet Reno.

This balance poses another conundrum: do women feel a need to defend themselves against other women—not so much physically, but in opinion? The world presses heavily on Selma, and on other women, which makes her life noir more than thriller. As long as Selma’s reasonably female, which she must be to advance in her career at all, other women worry more about her behavior than men do because she sets a precedent for women, not men. Hence, if other women don’t like how Selma acts, they have more invested in transforming her. That doesn’t quite make a villain in my book, but it does make for someone else to watch out for.

My students, when they do their social rule breaking assignments, often say this: the harshest reactions they get are from women toward women who break rules, especially in front of men. It reminds me of the discussions, conducted mostly by women, of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or Lean In. Is it nefarious if social pressures lead women to worry most about the behavior of other women in the pursuit of liberation?

“The Waste Land” as endless revision

And where they make a wasteland, they call it peace. — Tacitus, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae

Why write about “The Waste Land” in 1991? Obviously, the world was falling apart then. Less obviously, the original working title for “The Waste Land” was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” and the security state was about to get a make-over. Not just that the Stasi and KGB went away, but that the US military draw down abroad brought lots of new technology back home–think of the now ubiquitous SWAT team uniform. Finally, we have a chance, however, to keep revising.

TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” attempts to salvage civilization even while recognizing that much of it was already shattered. Polyphonic and fragmented, the poem spans Greek myth to modern advertising. The poem acts as a revision of history, and is itself a product of revision.

The poem began as “He Do the Police in Different Voices” and initially used Conrad’s “The horror!” as its epigraph. The eventual epigraph (about a suicidal Sibyl) would extend the reach of the poem much further back in time (and language). Indeed, the horror inherent in ourselves had plagued humanity far longer than the 30 years from colonialism in the Congo to the end of World War I. Yet with the horror, we also harbored the hope for peace and wisdom that “passeth understanding.” The percipient human might obtain something beautiful from the personal and collective tragedy, the way a mosaic arises from shards. “The Waste Land” strives to be that mosaic; it seeks to reintegrate history in order to alter it.

Meanwhile, Eliot turned over his manuscript to Ezra Pound, who scrawled marginalia in multiple languages and pushed Eliot to cut many lines. The revised result was fewer words to cover more historical, cultural, and emotional terrain, making the poem into a flint arrowhead: the more that was chipped from it, the sharper it became, able to fly more swiftly to penetrate more deeply. Whenever it strikes us, we seem unsure what exactly hit us, even as we marvel at the shaft quivering in our chest. We explore the language as well as the many allusions in order to understand the poem, and we sense that some complete grasp is possible if difficult. Nonetheless, the poem leaves enough gaps that we can keep revising our interpretation.

Indeed, like many cultural artifacts,“The Waste Land,” emerged from collective effort, even if it is largely remembered as the work of an individual. Here, too, history revises. “The Waste Land” appears in print, pristine and final. The editorial assistance is hidden. Of course, the poem still needs a reader to mean anything. People don’t usually praise the reader but rather praise Eliot as the one person who could have made such a poem possible, although Eliot makes it clear in the poem that all of Western, and possibly global, history made the poem possible. Much later follow the facsimiles of the manuscript; the hands of many people become apparent again. The things we fashion, we fashion and re-fashion. The labor of the many and the individual alternate in coming to the fore. History repeats in a way, but each repetition is also a revision.

In WISECRACK, I wanted to revise and repeat “The Waste Land” once more. I’ll get into some of the reasons for this next time, June 25.  Until then, if you haven’t read “The Waste Land,” I recommend it–what are your experiences with it? What seems to keep repeating in your life? Are we in a worse waste land now?