I’m reading van Gogh’s Ear. I got it as a Christmas gift. I so love my annual Christmas read. I read a lot all year, but my Christmas read is so different from all the other reads. It is even better if the new book is a gift. The sheer delight that someone so gets you that they choose the perfect read for you. Delight in every page. The Christmas read is luxurious and extravagant. This year is no exception. Bernadette Murphy’s book reads like a biography, an autobiography, and a detective novel. It is her first book. I love reading a writer’s first book. It gives me bragging rights. I can say, “I knew her when…”.
Like new author, Bernadette Murphy, I have been fascinated with the painter, the art, and the mythos of van Gogh for many many years. His sunflowers. His olive groves. His lavender fields. His self portraits. His anguish. His vision. Was he mad? Was he a genius? Are the two synonymous? Or is that simply part of the mythos? At one time I was going to write my graduate school dissertation on the mythos of Vincent van Gogh. I did the research, formulated my thesis, but my soul was not completely in it. As much as I love my study of van Gogh, he stands second in line to my fascination with Emily Carr. I have been haunted by Emily Carr for some thirty years. She was the subject of my most recent writing: “Enearthed: The Archetypal Roots of Feminine Oppression as Seen Through the Art of Emily Carr”. Emily’s ghost is quite animated in my psyche these days. Maybe I have to lend her an ear before I can listen to van Gogh. Pun intended!
The Law of Dreams was another Christmas read. Christmas 2006. It was also another first book. It is an historical fiction novel about the Irish potato famine by Canadian author Peter Behrens. A story of the great Irish diaspora. In an interview, Behrens said that this was not the book he set out to write. Rather it was the book that insisted on being written before he could pen the novel he wanted to write. O’Briens was his second book. It is a biographical fiction novel. He had to know where he came from before he could tell the story of who he is. Maybe my first book will belong to Emily. Is she my muse or my madness? Maybe she is trying to tell me where I come from.
This morning I spoke with a friend about her fascination with Frida Kahlo. Following the conversation, I remembered a book comparing the sense of space and place of Emily Carr, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo. An exhibit at the Canadian McMichael Galley coined these artists, “The women of the Americas”. The women artists of the Americas: Canada, the United States, and Mexico. These maverick women of the 20th century dared to duel oppression with a brush and a pen. One article I read called these three, “The Women Who Rode Away”.
I once had a teacher who said that the problem with our current age is that we have confused cultural syndrome with culture. “We, in the West, are not a culture”, he decried. Although I grew to dislike the teacher and his misogynist agenda for his own brand of cultural redemption, some of what he taught stuck. Particularly with respect to the feminine and culture. In the West, we are a deformity of what culture is and should be. There are in fact academics who still argue, in 2016, that culture itself is a Page 3 of 5 Ears to Hear by Muriel McMahon masculine enterprise. They purport that the feminine is unconscious and by default, there is no such thing as women’s culture or women’s society. This is the misogyny that Anne Cameron takes on in her first book, The Daughters of Copper Woman. My Christmas read of 1981.
And now, it is 2017. Turbulent times. Cultural uncertainity. Global dystopia. We have surely lost our connection to source. This is the great feminine diaspora. A cultural famine that, in our collective hunger for the true feminine, we have culturally cobbled together a monstrosity without roots or wings. Worse still, we have been duped by our own creation. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was prophetic after all. Frankenstein was her first novel. My Christmas read of 1975. The monster that haunts us is the collective cultural syndrome that holds us fast. Like the red ribbon that replaces the iron chain on the foot of the tethered Elephant, we no longer strain against our oppression. We internalize it. We normalize it. We elect it. We even inaugurate it.
Robert Langs, the American psychoanalyst who gave us both the words and the ears to listen for Death Anxiety, like his forefather Freud, believed that culture was a defence against this death anxiety. As such, Eros is often reduced to an antidote for Thanatos. Creation strains against destruction. Creativity eclipses or contributes to madness. What does this all mean when a culture is dying? While a lauded Jungian analyst claims that 2500 years of patriarchy have given us the development of a strong ego, he conveniently ignores the trans-generational and systemic oppression of at least 1/2 of the human race. Our very psychologies oppress, traumatize, and misrepresent women.
We have to listen harder. Listen deeper. Listen broader. If we are to endure, survive, thrive, we have to broaden our understanding of culture to include women’s culture. We must challenge our psychologies. Our theologies. Our mythologies. We must reclaim our denied identities. While culture in part wards off the terror of annihilation and the unbearable truth of mortality, culture is so much more than that. We are so much more than that.
Culture at its best is beauty making. It is and it is more than a generative response to trauma. It is and it is more than a defence against death. True culture serves the future and is rooted in the past. It is inclusive. It is revolutionary. It is subversive. Culture, in contradistinction to our current cultural syndrome, helps us bear turbulence with grace. Culture does not go pop at the whim of the corporate Oz working the levers behind the curtain on Black Friday. Culture does not tweet vitriol when its feeling are hurt. Culture in not gilded in gold nor self serving. Culture serves. Women’s culture is glimpsed in the dedication of Emily Carr to record the decaying totems and vivify the fecund forests of Canada. Women’s culture is the apologia in paint by Georgia O'Keeffe to transcend and reject reductive Freudian interpretations of her barren deserts and vulvic blooms. Women’s culture is embodied in the sacrificial dismemberment of Frida Kahlo’s body and our previously unquestioned body politic.
Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear and presented it as a macabre gift to his ‘Rachel’. His ‘Rachel’ was a prostitute. And not unlike the biblical Rachel, she too is weeping for her lost children. With or without ears to hear, She is weeping. With or without voices to be heard, we are weeping. Weeping for the little girls sold into sexual slavery. Weeping for the prepubescence girls married off to old men or genitally mutilated. Weeping for the adolescent women caught up in the gears of campus rape culture. Weeping for the women who resigned their vote or voted in fear and forgot the mothers and grandmothers who took to the streets to earn them the right to cast a ballot.
I am 1/2 way through my Christmas read. I do not yet know which exclusive revelations about what happened that night on December 23, 1888 when Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear will be exposed. I am purposely reading slowly. Savouring the mystery. Revelling in the storytelling. Perhaps Bernadette Murphy will answer the question about whether the artist was mad. Perhaps she will separate truth from legend. Perhaps she will tell a good enough story to lay a ghost to rest. That is what good writers can do. We so need this in 2017. Maybe more now than ever before. We need writers, and artists, and dancers, and sculptures, and musicians, and journalists, and filmmakers, and teachers, and analysts, and activists, and mavericks, and everywoman to listen, to hear, and to make beauty. We need women’s culture.