Thursday, April 28, 2011


"it makes toward me brothers"
Leonard Cohen

A woman's body is the site of much injustice.

Honesty is the appearance of truth, decency the surface of justice. The immediate presence of injustice in the experience (whether hers or mine) of a woman's body is called indecency.

In general, it is the task of a poem to extricate an experience from its history. History weighs like a nightmare on the bodies of women, as it does on a man's experience of the body of a woman.

History impinges on experience immediately in our institutions. A woman's body is an institution, it is a way of doing things. There is, take note, an immediately right and wrong way about a woman's body. A way to do it justice, immediately. But be warned: every body is different.

"No matter how broad and changeable the relative morals of styles may be, there is always an absolute norm to be kept after having heard the admonition of conscience warning against approaching danger; style must never be a proximate occasion of sin." (Pope Pius XII, 1957)

A woman is, willy-nilly, indecently dressed. Whether she is compelled by her culture to dress like a whore or to dress like a nun, or simply to be a whore or a nun, and in whatever degree this be the case in whatever culture and whatever woman we consider, she is, in any case, immediately subject to injustice. (And what a whore dresses like? Yes, that too is decided by culture. A whore's body is an institution, no less than a nun's.)

In general, the injustice is that she is dressed in the first place. From the incompleteness of the attempt to hide her body, indecency immediately follows. (The weather is merely an excuse. A spring day exposes the sham instantly.)

No matter how much pleasure her body might give her, she is willy-nilly too fat or too thin[1], and she is robbed of the pleasure her body could give her. Or she is too chaste or too promiscuous. And she is robbed of the pleasure my body could give her. This is the culture working through the institutions, depriving us, immediately, of pleasure. Pleasure is the momentary experience of beauty, despite everything.

Beauty is difficult. All women are beautiful. All women are... (it's a syllogism).

The difficulty of a woman's beauty is not itself an injustice. A woman's justice, after all, may constitute the difficulty of her beauty.

A woman's body is intensely political—and something ought, indeed, be done about the injustice. But poetry is not politics.

It is the task of a poem to extricate a woman's beauty from the justice and injustice her body is subject to. To extricate her body from its history. To untangle her unfathomable hair from the policies in which it has been implicated.

The poet has only his style with which to do it.

I'm just putting this out there. It is spring.

A number of comments, online and off, have made me recognize certain (perhaps inevitable) weaknesses in this presentation. I will enumerate them here as I find them, fixing them if possible. Feel free to help out.
[1] This image is too tired, perhaps because too true. While I tried to avoid letting this remark target how women (supposedly) feel about their bodies, it can't help but participate in that boring exercise in liberal indignation. The problem is not, of course, how women "feel", but that they, in fact, are too fat, or too thin. But explaining (my way out of what the reader probably thinks I mean by) this is only likely to occasion indignation all the more directly. What is needed here is a different image of how we are, as Cohen put it, "oppressed by figures of beauty". I'll work on it.


ayeh said...

"It is the task of a poem to extricate a woman's beauty from the excessive justice or injustice her body is subject to."
what justice? and what is "excessive" justice?
a poem may do some justice. beauty can't be extricated. beauty is moulded.
by the way, i'd say, a woman's body is not merely an institution. it defies "the rules"...

Thomas said...

I will have to think about this. There is an almost transcendental relation between institutions and rules. (See Wittgenstein on this. Not D. North!)