Wien: A Love Letter

by Elise Wien | 10/12/16 1:05am

“Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance, how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?

The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need — the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.”

— Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”

This is an excerpt I read over and over again. It is from one of my favorite essays, one that I return to when I’m feeling down about my womanhood, or uncertain of its bounds, or proud of it.

Lorde urges us to recognize the erotic, as in the Greek eros, as in the deeply felt, “irrational” part of ourselves, as a legitimate force, a way to feel deeply our work and play. She defines the erotic as distinctly feminine, which I’m not sure I agree with. On the one hand, I want to leave room for gender-nonconforming folks and men working to deconstruct their masculinity; on the other hand, I recognize this eros as a position in opposition to a world dominated by empirical thinking. However, I will say that gender-nonconforming folks and men looking to deconstruct their masculinity have already embraced a type of eros in their queerness in privileging lived experiences and deep feeling over social impositions.

Two nights ago, on Kayuri’s birthday, we made a megabed and watched two episodes of “The Office,” the one where Dwight sets a small fire to test his co-workers’ safety skills. He also cuts the face off of a CPR dummy because he “didn’t think it was very realistic in the movie, and it turns out, it’s pretty realistic.”

We were looking for a horror movie, but my roommates were disappointed by the offerings, and I haven’t watched a scary movie since 2008. Also, the last time Corinne watched “The Babadook” she cried.

Lying with my two roommates, curled up on a Saturday night and eating watermelon sour patch kids, I felt this erotic fulfillment, not be confused with the sexual. It is a deep satisfaction, a warmth, a feeling of being present. Lately I’ve been associating feelings of erotic fulfillment with the womb. It is quiet, it is self-centered, it is exactly where I am meant to be. Or, on the opposite end, feelings of, “If I were to die right now, that wouldn’t be so bad. I would be okay to die, here, now, doing what I love and surrounded by loved ones.” This is not to say that immediate death need be the litmus test for satisfaction; plenty of ultimately satisfying work requires an interim period of suffering, but reminding ourselves of the limited time we have may make us choose wisely.

What does valuing the erotic look like in our daily lives? Certainly trusting our feelings when an interaction feels “off,” certainly giving value to the unquantifiable. Maybe curling up with your roommates instead of going out because you know this will give you the most satisfaction.

I think back to the recent denial of tenure for Dr. Aimee Bahng. She is beloved by so many students, and her tenure denial kickstarted a #fight4facultyofcolor movement. Bahng is known for many things, chief among them calling out students in her class to recognize their privilege and positionality, recognize where they’re coming from that might lead them to problematic conclusions or hateful comments and acting as a mentor to students, particularly women of color, who need advice or kinship or just to vent about what it’s like to survive as themselves at Dartmouth. The tenure board’s reasoning for denying such a renowned professor tenure was that she had not published enough. Rather than fighting this point (whatever amount of validity it may have), it is vital that we look instead at the emotional labor that Dr. Bahng puts in on campus. It is important to note that I absolutely owe learning about the concept of emotional labor to the women of color in my life. Bahng started the Ferguson Teaching Collective and the #Blacklivesmatter course (which garnered much positive publicity for the school). What, then, is the greater contribution? The mentoring of hundreds of students, to keep them motivated, give them hope, keep them in this institution? Or publishing? The answer of some readers is surely the latter, and I wonder if those readers recognize the source of erotic fulfillment in their own lives.

“That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.” — Lorde, again

Recognizing the erotic means demanding excellence from our life experiences, means prioritizing what we feel to be important and true over that which others tell us is important. The Dartmouth student who neglects a friend in need of comfort because they have a midterm to study for is rejecting the erotic force within themselves in favor of an institutionally-approved one. And studying for this midterm will be pocked with guilt and shame, for the erotic is not suppressed without a vengeance.

It is not easy to be a woman, here, now; it is doubly difficult to be a woman of color, triply a queer one, a poor one, a non-cisgender one, a disabled one, one far from home or family. It is not womanhood alone that makes this difficult but doubt in the power that womanhood can bring us. See your softness as a strength, your capacity for radical empathy as a superpower, your refusal to settle as an advantage. And if you ever feel alone, or doubting yourself, or just want to hang out, shoot me a Blitz. We can watch “The Office” together. I’ll bring snacks.