When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision – Summary

When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision is an essay by American poet and essay writer Adrienne Rich (1929-2012).


Adrienne Rich in her remarkable essay begins by pointing out to Ibsen’s play, which is also where the title of the essay is taken from ‘When We Dead Awaken’. This play highlights the ‘use’ of women by male artists in their life and works in turn creating a social culture that will always take women as objects to be utilized. But that is not the subject of the play; the subject is the slow awakening of women to this use and what her life has been put to.

Rich quotes Bernard Shaw who in 1900 wrote of this play, “…that men and women are becoming conscious of this; and that what remains to be seen as perhaps the most interesting of all imminent social developments is what will happen “when we dead awaken”.

The present time when women are becoming aware and men are also undergoing the process of understanding is both an invigorating as well as scary. The time of awakening consciousness is confusing and disorienting but it is affecting the lives of both women and men equally, even women who are unaware of it and men who deny its claim upon them.

The understanding of what leads to the discrimination has been studied for many years, some suggest that it is the oppressive economic system that sits at the heart of the civilization and leads to discrimination between men and women, some others suggest all other discriminations stem from the intrinsic sexual discrimination. In recent times the connection between sexual biases and political ideology is being established, this connection creates an understanding of the problem at a much nuanced and deeper level. These understandings are leading to the awakening of consciousness, but now not one at a time like a segregated event in history but as a collectively live reality.

Rich explains that this stirring up of self calls for looking at things in a fresher, newer perspective, for reading texts with a new critical lens and for re-visioning the already seen. The moment of awakening is not just any moment in history though; it is one that is essential for women’s survival, for it helps them understand the prejudices they have been immersed in for ages and helps them in turn to know their true selves. This awakening is a journey of self identification for the women, and also for them to avoid the destruction of self that the patriarchal society enables.

A feminist reading of literature, explains Rich, would create an insight into women’s lives, their reality, how they imagine their reality, how they are asked to imagine it, and lastly how language which is essentially patriarchal is their entrapment but can also be at the same time the point of liberation.

Tradition of the past has to be well known because only when one knows their past will they stop holding on to it and will be able to do away with it. Understanding the concept of sexual identity created by orders of the past traditions is essential because it should be prevented from asserting itself in the new order. A completely new exploration has to be undertaken by women writers, but these images of women liberation are both difficult to create and comprehend since these are not grounded in the past and there is little or no support of the past for their novel formulation. Nothing in history supports the new narrative so for them to create a ‘new psychic geography’ is difficult as well as dangerous.

Rich further mentions a quote by Jane Harrison referring to a representation of women by male characters–

“By the by, about “Women,” it has bothered me often-why do women never want to write poetry about Man as a sex-why is Woman a dream and a terror to man and not the other way around? … Is it mere convention and propriety, or something deeper?”

Rich agrees to Harrison’s statement and starts contemplating possible reasons for the same. In order to negotiate the answer to the question, she refers to two20th century poets Sylvia Plath and Diane Wakoski who were both able to present men as a fascination but mostly as a terror and the source of this terror is his power ‘to dominate, tyrannize, choose, or reject the woman’. The man is represented through that force and power that he exercises over the woman. As a result of such representation these women writers are also able to create a sense of their own identity. Knowing that such power is exercised by the man over them, they write ‘poetry of dynamic charge’, ‘rhythms of struggle’, ‘need, will, and female energy’.

Jane Harrison considers convention and propriety as reasons for men not finding space as a sex in women’s writing, are not too precise for Rich. According to her, up until very recently women were not aware of the power exercised by men over them and so were not in tune with their anger. The women writers as a result wrote about love as their source of suffering, and this suffering as inevitable to their female life. She mentions poets like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop who never talked of sexual relationships in their poetry and maintained their safe distance from the topic.

Another aspect of exploration that Jane Harrison’s question would require is an understanding of the roles men and women play in their artist partner’s life. Women have been a ‘luxury’ for male artists, playing the role of artist’s muse but also his ‘comforter, nurse, cook, bearer of his seed, secretarial assistant and copyist of manuscripts’. To highlight the role of man for a female artist Rich quotes an incident that Henry James mentions described to him by the male French writer Prosper Merimee when he was living with a female French writer George Sand, “he once opened his eyes, in the raw winter dawn, to see his companion, in a dressing- gown, on her knees before the domestic hearth, a candlestick beside her and a red madras round her head, making bravely, with her own hands, the fire that was to enable her to sit down betimes to urgent pen and paper. The story represents him as having felt that the spectacle chilled his ardor and tried his taste; her appearance was unfortunate, her occupation an inconsequence, and her industry a reproof-the result of all of which was a lively irritation and an early rupture.”

The women artist attempting to create art is an unfortunate scene for the men, her work is called inconsequential and this discouragement is the reason why women writers struggle to create works in tune with her true actual self, she fears the language and the form and it creates an overpowering dominance over her that she isn’t able to survive through her internal strength primarily because the discouragement is so sharp.

In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Rich recognizes her painstaking effort to maintain a calm, detached tone something she observes she herself does and a lot of other women authors do as well. They are in tune with their anger but take all possible effort to avoid seeming angry. Virginia Woolf, while she is addressing the audience of women, is also acutely aware of the men who would be certainly hearing her, Morgan, Lytton and Maynard Keynes and also her father, Leslie Stephen and so it a conscious effort to maintain the calm composure even when attacks are made on her integrity. She uses the language to create the identity for self but also uses it to protect herself from the male gaze and opinion.

No male writer, on the other hand has ever written primarily or even largely for a women audience. In the decision of themes, language and form, there is not even an obscure thought of female criticism for the man, but for the female writer even when she is writing and talking to women she is consciously also writing at the same time for men. Women have to stop feeling intimidated not only by conventions but also by their internalized fears, only then she can be herself and talk about her emotions honestly; this Rich exclaims would be an extraordinary moment for female reader and the writer.

Rich further discusses that it is easier to talk about women writers because they have a special place in the male psyche. It is much more dangerous to talk about women who could not be writers because they have to wash dishes and take care of their children, even more difficult to talk of women who have to take care of other people’s laundry, dishes and children and those that sell their bodies to feed their children. Women writers are special, romanticized by men until they remain in the periphery and do not threaten the central position of power men occupy. These special women then are ‘token women’, those that have been lucky, not just skilled because a lot of skilled women have been denied the space to grow. This ‘special woman’ then can only have meaningful existence when she can speak of the women whose specialness is thwarted.

Rich recounts her personal journey as an author to indicate the problematic power dynamics created around this special woman. She understands her privilege as she was born in a white, middle-class household where her father always encouraged her to read and write. In the early years of her life she wrote for him, to always please him and never displease. She also wrote to please other men, who were not a terror, a fascination but literary masters. There were a lot of books that she had access to as well, but these were all books written by men where women appeared frequently, but either as beautiful, or concerned about beauty or fearing the loss of beauty. Or, characters like Maud Gonne, who was represented as cruel because she denied being a poet’s luxury.

A women writer is met with a lot of confusion when she sits down to write, she is met time and again with images, narratives and language that men have created, these negate her own identity, all that she stands for. She finds no guides, she finds beauty, sacrifice, modestly, forced morality but not herself. Rich’s writing therefore, as she confesses was first formed by male poets- Frost, Dylan Thomas, Donne, Auden, MacNiece, Stevens, Yeats – even though she read all the female authors she could find with great keenness. In retrospect, she observes that in her early poems the confusion is clearly evident; she was writing keeping her literary masters and their themes at hand.

She talks of one of the popular poems she had written in her early life and one where the ‘split’ of two values that are presented before her were quite evident, between the girl who defined herself as a writer and the girl who was defining herself in relationships with men. The text she refers to is called “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” and is one that is often cited as one of her important feminist texts, for it talks of a woman in a difficult oppressive marriage who is trying to create an escape and a voice of her own through her art of knitting and sewing. The tiger she knits is to become a symbol of her own freedom.

Rich comments on the tone of the text being distant, intentionally cool and unnecessarily composed, something she also pointed out earlier in the tonality of Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘A room of one’s own’. In presenting her narrator in neatly laid rhymes, she denies her the anger that she would have culminated in years of a problematic marriage; she creates as a result a woman who is imaginary and not real. The woman she creates is extremely different and distant from the author herself, first separated due to the formalistic tone of the poem, and then in her age as well.

Her tone she says was strategic, like the protective ‘asbestos gloves’; it allowed her to say things she couldn’t otherwise. She talks about using another strategy she used in her poems, that of hiding. In the poem ‘The Loser’ she uses the persona of man who is thinking about a woman in two different phases of her life.

Adrienne Rich published her writings early; because if she had titles to her name it meant that others would agree that she was a poet. So she soon dived into traditional marriage life which seemed to her like the obvious next step, bearing three children by the time she was thirty. She was attempting to chose a life that was available to the men, one in which ‘sexuality, work and parenthood’ could coexist, with little realization as to how different her situation is in comparison to the men. She soon started feeling a looming sense of dissatisfaction, something that she didn’t understand at that time, and there were no shared narratives of women that could help her.

She wasn’t happy with what she was writing and even though she was still publishing books and fulfilling all the domestic roles of a woman, she knew something was lacking and she started looking at herself as a failed poetess and a failed woman. She was losing touch with who she was and what she wanted to say. In a poem called ‘Halfway’ she had written about herself, “A young girl, thought sleeping, is certified dead”, she just needed to find herself some thoughts. During this period in her life, Rich confesses that she hardly wrote anything and whatever she did it frustrated her further, because she couldn’t hear herself through the words.

It is based on the experiences of this period in her life, that she makes pertinent observations about women writing poetry. She states for creating art, one needs to immerseoneselfin an alternate space of imaginative experience, far from reality. In order to create alternatives one has to imagine and re-imagine, and allow imagination to be let free from the shackles of everyday reality. Women do not have that luxury, the traditional domesticity is such a constant reminder to her of her truth, of her reality that she cannot re- write. The fearless imagination needed to transcend the submissive ways of thought, do not come easy to her.

She also realized through her owning seeking of it desperately, that time was something that was hard to come by to women authors, time to think about self, about their politics, “about pacifism and dissent and violence, about poetry and society and about my own relationship to all these things.” It is only much later in life through these understandings that she could write poetry that was about the women experience and not universal as she was indoctrinated to do. She realized that political is not that which is outside, but is very much internal and she has to get in tune with it to create texts about true woman experience. She talks about a later poem she wrote called “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” which was much longer and looser in format than she allowed herself. She understands that how she still hid behind the distant ‘She’ than the first person ‘I’ but she was realizes how she was much more honest to her truth. Second Section of the text talks of a woman “who thinks she is going mad; she is haunted by voices telling her to resist and rebel, voices which she can hear but not obey.”

Rich later writes a poem called ‘Orion’ which talks of the reconnection with the part of the self that was denied to come forward. The contradiction that she explored in this poem was between the love women are destined to reserve for their male partner to the one that they have for self. This poem attempts to re-imagine the definition of love itself. Another poem that she mentions in the essay is called “Planetarium,” which was written after a visit to a real planetarium, where she read about the work of Caroline Herschel who was an astronomer and with her brother William, her name however remained obscure.

She ends the essay by recounting a dream where she is supposed to be reciting her poetry before a women’s meeting, and she starts singing a jazz song- which she thinks is extremely appropriate to inspire women writers for theirs too is a song of pain, of agony, of victimization and of anger. This anger should be not be suppressed because it is the result of extremely real and tangible subordination that women have been subjected to for years. And as women consciousness rises and she starts creating unheard narratives about herself giving true expression to her subjectivity, men will also have to find their own subjectivity.

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