Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” takes a form that is different than previous works we have read. She both partakes of an academic structure and deconstructs it. Her writing is like a bridge between how writing is expected to be and how it might become a revolutionary act.
Again and again, there are attempts to define how to write as a woman, how a woman can possibly write as a woman using the language of the patriarchy. If a woman writes in a way that is too radically different from a reader’s expectation, then the writing will be either ignored or misunderstood.
Rich explores the issues that a woman looking for herself in literature and poetry must face, and, indeed, overcome. The young woman who looks to literature to find a way of being herself “comes up against something that negates everything she is about: she meets the image of Woman in books written by men. She finds a terror and a dream, she finds a beautiful pale face … but precisely what she does not find is that absorbed drudging, puzzled, sometimes inspired creature, herself, who sits at a desk trying to put words together” (273). When woman is defined by man as the Other, she naturally cannot occupy any place that he sees as his sovereign territory. She is mysterious, terrifying, filled with unknown motives. And that constructed creature of woman is what the young woman writer must gaze upon and try to understand as being a reflection of herself, even as her instincts cry that what she sees is not what she is.
By analyzing the evolution of her own poetry, Rich provides an example of how one woman writer came to understand the need for what she calls “re-vision.” This is not simply revision, not a polishing or rewriting of the existing body of work. Instead, it is “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction … not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us” (269-270). Without breaking that hold, and finding the language that needs re-vision, we simply perpetuate the modes of the past. We allow those who come after us to face the same dilemmas.
I have a degree from a Great Books college, and I would call much of what I did there the learning of tradition. We poured over the great works of the past, the majority of them written by white men, of course, and we analyzed, debated interpretations and no doubt came to similar conclusions to those that came before us. The goal is to get a broad education in how to think. But it is still focused, I think, on how to think in a certain way. I learned to communicate in the style that they wanted, well enough to graduate at any rate. But for me, it was always an unnatural mode. Is this a matter of personality or a matter of gender? Sex? Culture? It is all too easy to deny a feminist point of view when reading the Great Books canon, because there are always justifications for doing so - in those days, such things would not have been spoken of. Why should they consider women to be thinking creatures, when the wisdom of the time decreed them to be incapable of rational thought?
Of course, I know not everyone felt the way that I did. Voicing opinions was not a struggle for every woman, which, brings up the other important point that I found in Rich’s essay. The idea of the special woman, or, as I like to write it: the exceptional exception. “An important insight of the radical women’s movement has been how divisive and how ultimately destructive is this myth of the special woman, who is also the token woman” (272). We are told not to complain that there are not more women in whatever given field at whatever given time, because look, here’s one, one single woman included in the boy’s club as a sop to the egos of the rest of us. Don’t get selfish now, girls, don’t you realize one is enough?