Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Pirate Looks at Infinity

Few in our time have lived Emerson's words better: "Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imaginations of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil."

Especially that "men" part...

Mary Daly's riposte to Emerson comes in the unforgettable line from her spiritual autobiography Outercourse (don' t you love that title? Say it out loud... I like saying it... ): "I wanted to throw my life as far as it would go." And, shot-put style, reader, she did.

I'm looking back at Emerson's "Divinity School Address" for a class I'm teaching and I'm seeing Mary on every page, seeing her there with Jesus, with Ramakrishna, with Andrew Harvey and Walt Whitman and my dear Guru, She of laughingdark Assamese eyes... Mary thought a cat could be a spiritual teacher--I'm pretty sure the one she's petting in the photo is Ailleolg, her [male] prankster and guide who used to chase bottle tops in the bathtub as single-mindedly as Mary chased etymologies in Skeat's. She acquainted us with divinity at first-hand, Mary did, as provocateuse, as questioner, as pain in the ass (she called Boston College her "little laboratory of patriarchy")... as philosopher, as Witch: magic happened around Mary, coincidences piled up, breakthroughs and breakdowns and double-takes dropped around her like snowflakes.

I knew Mary Daly and I feel compelled right now--by her spirit or by the force of memory-- to tell you something: it bugged the shit out of her that people constantly quoted Beyond God the Father. "That was so long ago," she'd lament, and I must say to you, as quotable as that book is, go read another if you're of a mind to see what radical feminism or old-school (the only school) feminist spirituality are all about. Mary considered BGF a transitional work, not yet "post-Christian" enough and not nearly as incisive as what came after: Gyn/Ecology and Pure Lust and the Wickedary--my vote for her best and one of my absolute favorite works of philosophy.

And yeah, Gyn/Ecology, about which a reviewer wrote that reading it was nearly as torturous as the injustices it documented. Mary Daly seems to have been surrounded by such telling ironies, by critics whose words told more about them than they did Mary's books, by the vociferous "yes, but!"s whose vigor reveals that there really are no buts about it: we still live in a patriarchy and supporting and sponging off that patriarchy is easier than most of us want to admit. Naming the game got Mary in trouble--the mere phrase "African genital mutilation" spawned dozens of brainless screeds accusing her of racism, as if all those other woman-mutilating cultures at which Mary leveled her rage meant nothing-- as if slicing up women and girls exists on a cultural par with basket-weaving and kente cloth.

Reading Emerson and thinking about Mary has led me to consider what it really means to Be-Speak, Mary's term for speaking and writing powerfully, life-changingly... "radically," she might have said, til the word got so over-used that at least one academic applied it to chewing gum under theater seats. Emerson can still disturb, so deeply does he confront what we think we know, while most writers, especially the most controversial, wear their expiry dates like Miley Cyrus's tattoo. I've no idea what names Emerson got called, but Mary got called, incessantly, a "man-hater," which she manifestly was not-- and the epithet could not have been more transparent code for "this lady makes me squirm because she just doesn't buy in to the whole sterile, pinky-extended pseudo-intellectual trip the rest of us are on." Turn on to your own gynergy, Mary said, tune in to feminism, and drop out of the whole "phallocratic mind-fuck."

[Speaking of discomfort-spawned distorted perceptions: a women's studies classmate of mine fairly wailed in class one day, "How many times did she have to say 'phallocratic mind-fuck' in this book [Outercourse]?!?" The magick of Google now reveals the answer: once.]

She did make us see the world differently, whether in paranoic defensive shades or glorious auroric hues... and this is the true function of the Seer, the Witch, whether or not we agree with him or her point-for-point, for chants like Pure Lust or "Circles" are not editorials, are not liner notes but symphonies, fantasias, concertos of thought. They disrupt our habits of mind just enough to show us Other worlds, Other possible realities and selves. This is why they're dangerous and must be domesticated, as Emerson was, or damned, as Mary was.

And ya know, I'm just re-membering something: one night years ago, probably 1995 or '96, way back before it could have made sense to me, Mary said on the phone quite earnestly "We need angels." Jolted, I sputtered out some kind of incredulity; I may have even said "What in the hell are you talking about???" Whatever my reaction, it was enough that she very calmly and patiently--despite how scrappy she could be-- repeated, "We need angels. Don't you know-- angels are real. I'm not talking about those tame, churchy ones..." and in my cluelessness I tuned her out and I thought, Well, Mary's finally gone off the deep end. Angels!--sheeeit. But she was right, and if a pagan, radical feminist Pirate can be right about angels, what else could she be right about?

And hadn't I already seen Them around her? Hadn't we-- a grad school friend (atheist, btw) and I, as Mary Be-Spoke onstage at the Tightassed Baptist College we'd accompanied her to? And hadn't we been spooked? Yes, we'd seen two Angels, or spirits, or-- hovering around her as she spoke, as she made us cackle and made the Baptists cringe... and yeah, knowing me as you do, you know I tried to dismiss these Angels as stage-light artifacts, as products of set and setting, of "the power of suggestion" ... substituting one set of magic formulae for another.

Except--why hadn't I seen anything like them before? I'd been to plenty of readings, heard plenty of enthralling words from plenty of powerful talkers on plenty of stages under plenty of lights, and--no Angels. W.S. Merwin hadn't had any, nor had Dorothy Allison nor Angela Davis nor even Kamau Brathwaite. But Mary'd had. And Vanessa, my friend, was no fool, either, and she, too, was dizzied by Whatever or Whoever'd hovered 'round Mary as she spoke into the aether and ravished our souls the way Emerson must have, so long ago, in another America before another war as the children of another Moloch either tuned him out or turned their ears prickling to his new tongue.


  1. I am sad to say I had forgotten what I'd read of Mary Daly's until reading this post. Thanks so much for this. I need to revisit her, now that my own thinking has evolved.

  2. yeah, I haven't read her in eons, either, and I'm looking forward to getting back into her work... thanks for reading. :)

  3. Anonymous4:40 PM

    Just found your website at Mary's memorial site. This is really amazing stuff. I too wondered how women would still fall back on "Beyond God the Father' rather than delve into the more transformative works like "Outercourse" "Gyn/Ecology" and "Pure Lust" and I think I know the reason, Mary was fearless in the academy the way "whimpy women's studies" classes were not. Mary came from a time that had no living feminist pioneers that she could meet, so she didn't get distracted by all the stupid comments of second vs. third wave etc.
    Women wanted jobs, the feminist movement ironically provided safe havens for women wanting to get ordained in UUC or Episcopal churches. So women learn to accomodate, and what I loved about Mary was that she never sold out. She never sold women out, she never compromised and she gave of her life and sacred fortune for women's liberation.
    Those of us who knew this, knew we had found a true heroine, a woman free of patriarchy, a woman willing to lead us out of it. To read her was to see a Medieval mind at work, a visionary feminist mind. The small minds clung to the reformist "Beyond God the Father" because they wanted to get ordained, they wanted jobs, Mary wanted freedom, something entirely different.
    Thanks for writing this, and I hope you will write a lot more about the visions of Mary Daly, because now you write for posterity, so that she won't be erased by the small minds, by people who don't get her, by people who call her racist just for talking about genital mutilation. I've never once read a Chinese woman call Mary Daly racist for exposing footbinding, but then again, it is easy for people to want to fix on her supposed faults and avoid the mind numbing/binding reality that we live in womanhatred, and that when a woman tries to take you to freedom, the habits of colonization kick in. Freedom is hard, and you are so right that colluding with male supremacy is so much easier than burning down the prison.

  4. Thanks for your comment! You're right--we have to keep Mary's vision alive and find our own vision of Goddess for ourselves. Yeah, Mary wasn't taken in by all that academic infighting, she just went her own way... I admire her courage so much, and it's only through people like her that the rest of us can learn to pilot our own Craft, as she would say.

  5. Anonymous4:58 PM

    It should be a commonplace these days Kalibhakta, but somehow, we need special people to really light the lamp, place it at the front of a pirate vessel, and launch our dreams and intuitions.

    Mary's greatest gifts were so many, but one was, she didn't really fight with other feminists. She kept adding new research and material, in hope that women would get the "vibrations at the highest level" of radical feminism. In a way, her work was for the ages, but she never condescended towards women, she raised the bar very high, thus honoring all who really worked to understand her message of freedom for women.
    I'm still amazed at all the people mired in the critiques of Mary, somehow the messenger is always at fault for revealing unpleasant messages, rather than taking a look at what she was really saying about the country of women.
    Her demanding work requires decades of thought and reflection, she describes how to fight a patriarchy, how to do your own work, how to stay with a "furious focus." So people like you, who reveal even more about the brilliant complexity of this feminist original who bowed to no group, and would never back down with her principles that were so simple: women band together and learn together, focus on the great intellects of women, do not allow patriarchy to distract you from your course, and remember women's liberation is hard work, because patriarchal conditioning is ever present. Those of us who were so moved and inspired by someone who would not, no matter what, sell out, still have so much to learn from Mary Daly. She is SO worth the effort over time!!

  6. I've been re-reading Pure Lust and it strikes me once more how collaborative Mary's work was... I hope when the big bio is written the author will look at Mary's circle of Cronies and the ways they all worked together.

    You're right, she always refused to war with her sisters, even when the temptation must have been enormous. Despite her reputation, she embodied a collaborative, supportive ethos.

    And-- there is so much more in her work than I ever saw before! Coming back to it after more than 15 years I see levels of Meaning I never suspected... I've got to find a nice excerpt to use in class this semester...

  7. Anonymous12:29 AM

    Yes, the collaborative aspect of Mary's work is striking. In footnotes, she always gives women credit for ideas they brought up in conversation. I can't think of a time a male academic ever did that in a book, other than to thank his wife for "editing" and doing slave labor to make her man look good.

    While many feminists attacked her, I don't ever recall her ever publically attacking them back. Her silence in the Audre Lorde episode reflects her belief in really wanting all women to be connected, to be sisters, to move forward.

    There are so many new levels of her work, as you reread things, and reflect on what actually happened in the lives of women in the past 40 years. But what remains is her unfailing belief in the sisterhood of women, her 100% dedication to women's liberation, and nothing would stop her from advocating for women as force for liberation. That's what truly remarkable about her. Would love to read more of what you learned from talking to Mary directly. Most of us know her as the author, or saw her in lectures, but many of us never had the privilege of one-on-one conversations and mentor relationships with her. This should be documented too now. Good luck with finding the best excerpt for your class!

  8. Thanks again for reading and commenting. I will have to dig up my old journals and see what's there about Mary...

    I just found out recently, btw, that the punch line of "l'affaire Lorde" is: Lorde lied. She claimed in the "Open Letter" that Mary had not deigned to reply to her, when in fact Mary had replied. See Alexis de Veaux, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, page 252. She not only wrote back, she called Lorde and actually met with her about the "Open Letter" well before its publication.

    I'm not trying to drag Lorde thru the mud, as she was and will always be a genius and a major feminist thinker, but--jeez... own it, Audre.

  9. Anonymous12:04 AM

    Yeah Kalibhakta, this never made any sense to me. But one thing I do know about Mary Daly is she never once, to my knowledge, publically attacked other feminists. She just would not do it, and I think this open fight with Audre Lorde was very confusing for her. And even when everyone was piling on Mary over this, she just kept silent, knowing that the truth would eventually emerge, which it did. Thanks for the citation, because people still believe that Mary Daly did nothing to attempt to deal with Audre Lorde's arguments. And this is still being said on the Internet today.

    Hope you can post some of your journal entries, because it would be a great service to all of Daly's devoted students worldwide.