Apologies to andread dworkin, who disliked book reviews and who, fourteen years after his death from myocarditis, at fifty-eight, is getting a round from us again. “I have never written for a cowardly, passive, or stupid reader the precise characteristics of most critics,” he wrote in the preface to the second edition of “Coitus,” the work that presented his alienating theory of heterosexual sex as rape. . “one use and one abuse at a time”, and “the key to the inferior human status of women”, among other descriptions. “Overeducated but functionally illiterate, members of a gang, a pack, publicizing their drive-by shootings,” critics seemed to deny him the authority of his personal experience of rape, prostitution, and domestic violence, which they did not understand. , and put aside the literary criticism of the book, which they also did not understand. “I’ll check back in a decade to see what everyone thinks,” she wrote in a scathing letter to the Times in 1987, responding to her first-edition portion of “coitus.” “In the meantime, I suggest you examine your ethics to see how you’ve managed to avoid discussing anything real or even vaguely intelligent about my work and the political issues it raises.”
Out of the fray emerged the idea that she believed all sex was rape, which, along with her frizzy hair, pudgy overalls, and uncompromising positions on sex work and sadomasochism, came to epitomize radical feminist hostility. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dworkin was widely regarded as sexless and “antisexual,” the embodiment of feminism’s image problem, hated by various denominations of liberals and, except when she was campaigning against pornography, conservatives alike. Though she tempered her contempt for establishment stupidity with a mischievously frank sense of humor and a deep belief that people could examine ethics and change them, her reputation always preceded her work, and she I knew it. foregrounding her cunning as her reader—or her pathos as a human being—didn’t help much. while she was working on “sex”, a colleague told her to include a “pre-chewed” introduction “to explain what the book said”, which she did, sarcastically. others advised her to use a pseudonym.
a new anthology of dworkin’s writings, “last days at hot slit” (semitext(e)), edited by johanna fateman and amy scholder, suggests that the drastic and fringe ideas he promoted, despite the personal consequences and professionals, they might seem less threatening today. it’s also an opportunity to reevaluate his style. The collection brings together writings from Dworkin’s major books, including excerpts from his two novels, “Ice & Fire” (1986) and “Mercy” (1990), as well as one of “My Suicide,” an unpublished twenty-four thousand word autobiographical essay from 1999, in which Dworkin’s long-time partner, John Stoltenberg, a gay man and an activist, found on her computer after her death. Dworkin was a lucid and terrifyingly persuasive writer, and much of this material reflects her argument, in “Porn: Men Possessing Women,” that “everything in life is part of it. nothing is in its own corner, isolated from the rest ”. The anthology is both an account of Dworkin’s life and a presentation of her work; Her project was to show how misogyny and violence against women were, like women themselves, “real,” a favorite word of hers, and from an early age she offered her own experiences as evidence. When she was a freshman at Bennington College, she was arrested at an anti-Vietnam War protest and taken to jail, where she underwent a brutal pelvic exam that left her bleeding and traumatized. At the urging of Grace Paley, a fellow protester whom Dworkin looked up in the phone book after her, she reported her story to the newspapers, prompting a grand jury hearing. the jail was finally closed.
between this exhilarating incident, which embarrassed her parents in new jersey, and the publication of “hate women,” nearly ten years later, dworkin worked as a prostitute, moved to amsterdam to write about the provoking anarchist movement, and got married an activist, who violently abused her. she left the marriage, blamed her escape on a feminist, and vowed to “become a real writer and . . . use everything she knew to help women.” the process of writing “hate women” showed her how much she knew; her experiences like his, with “male dominance in sex or rape in marriage,” were not yet “part of feminism” in the early 1970s. Perhaps anticipating the mocking and vitriolic scorn she would encounter throughout her life, Dworkin sets her intentions in her first sentence, with her characteristic clarity and purpose: “This book is an action, a political action where revolution is the goal”. what’s more, it certainly wasn’t “academic bullshit”.
the last statement is correct; The first, for those evaluating Dworkin, may have been too convincing. What’s so exciting to watch, reading “The Last Days,” is not his political trajectory but the way his style crystallized around his beliefs. Dworkin considered being a writer “a sacred duty,” one that many of her peers had violated for money, and her love of writing and her faith in her power were an inextricable part of that dedication. even when he acknowledged that he worked “with a broken tool, a language that is sexist and discriminatory to the core,” he set out to “write prose more terrifying than rape, more abject than torture, more insistent and destabilizing than aggression, more desolate than prostitution, more invasive than incest, more full of threats and aggression than pornography”. Her sentences shoot forward, arming the reader with implausible pauses or abrupt images; they force you to “breathe where I do, instead of letting you discover your own natural breath.”
You could call this a masculine way of writing, if you believe in that kind of distinction. It is almost like revenge, a contradiction of her rejection of mere “equality”: “there is no freedom or justice in changing the feminine role for the masculine role”. In his preface to the second edition of “Sexual Intercourse,” Dworkin describes the book’s style in terms of domination, using the same phrases that he applies to sexual intercourse itself. Of the male authors he reviews, he writes, “I use them; I cut and slice them for display.” the exposure is affecting. Although the book is organized by broad themes (“revulsion,” “stigma,” “possession”), Dworkin is more comfortable with the specifics, when he does extensive close reading in the manner of an old-school book critic. For those who associate it with acrid misandry, it may come as a surprise to discover that their disdain, to the extent that it exists, is based on considerate surveys of Bram Stoker, Kōbō Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, among others. . others. in a chapter on virginity, he turns to d. h. Lawrence, for whom “virginity was ‘her perfect tenderness of her in the body’”. then, in little more than a page—which includes three block quotes—he compares her attitude, unfavorably, with that of sophia tolstoy, before introducing a calvin script to prove that, “in the masculine framework, virginity is a state passive waiting or vulnerability. . . she tells when the man, through sex, gives her life.” It is Lawrence’s ideal “phallic reality” that leads her to one of the book’s central questions: “To what extent does sexual intercourse depend on the inferiority of women?”
reading dworkin, i often find myself trying to contort myself to agree, though ignoring what he said in favor of what you’d like him to say is exactly what he asked people not to do. at the time he was writing, his commands to read it and take it seriously, and his exasperated efforts to clarify her intentions, were directed more at his detractors; defenders of it could now be reminded to pay more attention to the text. Ariel Levy, a writer for this magazine, in her introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of “Coitus,” points out that the discomfort of reading Dworkin is that, “If you accept what he says, suddenly you have to question everything: the way you dress, the way you write, your favorite movies, your sense of humor and, yes, the way you fuck.”
if male dominance determines everything, including our language, believing in dworkin requires having the same hope she had: she wanted nothing less than a total reinvention of the world, a quest that even she only pursued sometimes, to varying degrees of specificity. Her numbered lists for addressing rape, which she believed to be a prerequisite for securing women’s freedom, comprise a rigorous program of simple definitions and practical recommendations; her suggestions to revise sexual intercourse, which to her was not necessarily rape, though she said rape is the prevailing model for sexual intercourse, and the ruthless way of thinking leaves few options for not interpreting it that way, are in her most vague or absurd. When she says that men will have to “give up their prized erections”, she makes sense metaphorically: men must “give up their phallocentric personalities and the privileges and powers granted to them at birth”. but she also seems to mean it literally, which without mandatory surgical intervention simply will not happen. She writes admiringly and at length about Victoria Woodhull’s materialistic “first female role model,” but though she insists that this is “not some silly role reversal,” it’s hard to see how the woman is required to be “the partner.” controlling and dominant. , the one whose desire determined the event”, is particularly different from what she calls the hollow exchange of “equality”.
the baroque logic of dworkin’s arguments is generally balanced by the direct conviction she gave them on the page. For Dworkin, “the favorite concept of masculine culture” was to replicate “in its values and methodology the sexual reductionism of the male. . . . everything is divided: the intellect of the feeling and/or the imagination; act accordingly; symbol of reality; body mind.” dworkin’s style worked against this; her best writing employs a precisely layered mode of argument in which no part can be separated from the rest. her prose has a fast, natural flow that reveals a holistic view of humanity; On a single page she packs together in-depth readings of novels, historiography, etymology, political crusades, and philosophical musings that themselves would feel right at home in a (great) novel. in “the last days in the hot slit,” the selection of “sex” includes a beautiful depiction of free will that builds on an optimistic demand that men exercise theirs more considerately: