All entries for January 2006

January 30, 2006

Silences by Tillie Olsen

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Tillie Olsen

Chapter 1

In Silences , Tillie Olsen writes of a number of different kinds of silence in relation to literature and writing. Her first qualification is to differentiate between natural and unnatural silences. Natural silences, to Olsen, are a necessary part of the writing process where the writer's halt is much like the farmer's fallow field that will yield fruit in the future. Olsen refers to Keats' expression agonic ennuyeuse, the tedious agony. Unnatural silences in contrast are 'the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot' (Olsen, 6).

Under the heading of 'unnatural silences', Olsen lists the following:

*Censorship silences: 'Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium [...]; paralyzing of capacity [...]. Publishers' censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as "not suitable for" or "no market for". Self censorship. Religious, political censorship [...]'(Olsen, 9)

*'One memorable poem, story or book, then the writer ceasing to be published' (Olsen, 9).

*Absence of creativity where it once had been

*Foreground silences i.e. silences before the writer achieves publication.

*The silence of lives that never came to write: 'Traces of their making of course, in the folk song, lullaby, tales, language itself, jokes, maxims, superstitions.' (Olsen, 10)

*Silences caused by competing interests: other demands on the writer's time meaning that s/he is unable to devote enough time to solitude. Olsen points out that many successful women writers of the twentieth century never married or married late and often never had children or if they did have children they also had household help. 'Where the gifted among women (and men) have remained mute, or have never attained full capacity, it is because of circumstances, inner or outer, which oppose the needs of creation.' (Olsen, 17)


Chapter 2

In this chapter, Olsen reviews the lives and work of literary women in the twentieth century. She notes the development in women's freedom, access to knowledge and experience and productivity, yet she also aware that at the time of writing (1965) the ratio of male to female authors published is five to one.

Unclean; taboo. The Devil's gateway. The three steps behind; the girl babies drowned in the river; the baby strapped to the back. Buried alive with the lord, buried alive on the funeral pyre, burned as a witch at the stake. Stoned to death for adultery. Beaten, raped. Bartered. Bought and sold. Concubinage, prostitution, white slavery. The hunt, the sexual prey. "I am a lost creature, O the poor Clarissa." Purdah, the veil of Islam, domestic confinement. Illiterate. Denied vision. Excluded, excluded, excluded from council, ritual, activity, learning, language, when there was neither biological nor economic reason to be excluded. (Olsen, 26)

Olsen recognises the need for women writers to retain self-belief and notes how women's concern for their appearance reflects a critical male gaze. Olsen believes that the institution of the university is male-dominated just as publishing is: 'women writers, women's experience and literature written by women are by definition minor.'(29)

Olsen asks whether creativity and femininity are incompatible quoting Anais Nin's thoughts on childless women. Olsen notes that women now are combining their roles, yet this was not always so. Olsen is ambivalent about Woolf's 'Angel in the House' at the beck and call of others in the domestic sphere. She notes that Sylvia Plath could not fit into this role.

Concern is expressed about the devaluation of women's writing and critical attitudes that see women's writing as 'the dancing dog phenomena'. For such critics, the phrase 'she writes like a man' is praise. Olsen extends such devaluation into restriction, constriction ('write about what you know') and self-censorship (difficulty in telling one's truth).

Chapter three consists of a kind of case study as Olsen looks at the case of Rebecca Harding Davies. I will not summarise this in detail here, but it is well worth a read.

Silence A Piano Concerto

Part Two

Part two consists of an extension and development of Olsen's points in the first two chapters of Silences. Her style is characterized by profuse use of examples, which do the talking for her.

Chapter 4

1. Silences of the Great in Achievement: Hardy, Manley-Hopkins, Melville, Cather, Blake, Austen.

On the period 1800 to 1811 in Jane Austen's writing career: 'Woman reasons: she was powerless in all major decisions deciding her life, including the effecting of enabling circumstances for writing,' (140)

2. Silence and its Varieties

*Censorship silences: repression due to society's taboos, self censorship: finding it hrad to tell the truth about one's self, work withheld (Olsen cites Twain and Forster) and publisher's censorship.

*Political Silences: involvement i.e. politics supersedes writing or silencing by governments.

*Political silences, a woman's form: numbness, fear, lack of time, lack of solitude as experienced by women.

*Perfectionism: 'the knife of the perfectionist attitude' (145).

*Sacrifice of Talent in Pieces to Preserve its Essential Value.

*Absences that are a Kind of Silence i.e. those who write to order, the topical, the popular, entertainment, ghost-writing.

*Virulent Destroyers, Premature Silencers: alcoholism, drug use, suicide thus obliteration of capacity, loss of power for work, impairment of critical judgment, logorrhea, blurredness, aridity, premature death, suicide. Eg. Dylan Thomas, Berryman, Artaud, Rimbaud, Baudelaire etc.

*Foreground Silences eg. Whitman – Emerson asked what did he write before Leaves of Grass?

*Where Lives Never Come to Writing

3. What do we need for creation to function and why?
Olsen decides on the following factors:

*Constant toil.

*Unconfined solitude.

*Need for time and rest.

*Subterranean forces – to gain creativity there is a need to wait receptively for the material to come to the writer.

4. Subterranean Forces
Where do these ideas come from? Olsen quotes Woolf's writers diary; she points to Woolf's trickle of ideas as she is involving The Waves through a process of reading, imagining and listening. Woolf's writing process involves a fruitful silence.

5. When Creation is Not Primary
When can creation not be the primary force? Olsen decides on the following factors:

*Dissatisfaction of bad work.


*Difficulties of technique.

*The effort to better one's self is primary.


*The distraction of work or other things.

*The incompatibility of earning and creating.

6. The Literary Situation
How is one to make a living via writing or in order to write? Olsen describes a literary atmosphere that sets writers up against one another. To combat isolation and loneliness, Olsen recommends setting up writers' communities.

Chapter 5: The Writer-Woman: One Out of Twelve

bq. Compared to men writers of like distinction and years of life, few women writers have had lives of unbroken productivity, or leave behind a "body of work". (178)

A Sense of Wrong Voiced
bq. Inequities, restrictions, penalties, denials, leeching [...] damaging differences in circumstances and treatment from that of males attested to. (179)

Women in Fiction and in Fact: 1815 - 1975
Olsen expresses concerns over men's control of women's representation. She quotes Walt Whitman's more subversive portrayal of four typical American women: a woman from a family of sisters seeks independence via her own intelligence, a woman of practical affairs, the wife of a practical man lacking education but abundant in wit and an elderly woman who is both defiant and resplendent. Olsen also gives the example of the portrayal of Jewish women and explains how the Jewish Woman in America society has defended itself against Roth's production of the Jewish woman.

Olsen points out that two thirds of women are illiterate. (Remember the publication date of this book). Does this refer us to lost writers?

One Out of Twelve - The Figures for Writers Accorded Recognition
1/17 of writers included on twentieth century literature courses at university are women. Olsen goes on to show similar figures for criticism, critical surveys, critical reference works, anthologies, textbooks etc. It averages out at 1 to 12.

The Baby; the Girl Child; the Girl; the Young Woman Writer

Olsen cites Plath's 'The Babysitters' as a testament to the malleability and fragility of youth. Making becomes a triumph, a conclusion. Yet the question remains: how is one to define oneself? Is the answer in independence (Rich), pride and solitude (Colette) or loneliness (George Eliot). Olsen describes how as a young woman she felt that she ' should find the solution to my life, not just companion ship, in a single, other person'. (197)

The Damnation of Women
Olsen sees a number of factors which prevent women's creativity from developing:

*Within the Injunction: women have different conditions for achievement which are not imposed on men. Olsen cites Cather who describes art as an exacting master. She also recalls how Glasgow was told to make babies not books by one male critic. What are the demands on these childless women producers?

*Might There Not Have Been Other Marvels? Olsen believes that a core of sexism remains in relation to motherhood. The convention of having children is used to undermine the achievements of childless women. There are other roles not just that of the mother to live.

*Writer Mothers: The Fundamental Situation. Olsen is adamant that mothers have to sacrifice their work for their children. She uses the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe trying to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. Olsen notes that interruptions are a necessary part of motherhood. For a woman who writes and works and is a mother, the writing always comes last on the list. Yet Olsen states that there is no regret. Children and writing are equivalent and not necessarily incompatible.

The Angel in the House
Olsen explores Woolf's 'angel in the house' a trope which seemed to restrict women's writing potential. How to remain sensitive to the needs, moods and wishes of others? Olsen states: 'Woolf recognized in the angel an artist-being having to be expressed for and through others, understood her human value in a patriarchal structure'. (213) Olsen argues that Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse are angels who reveal a generative and professional power.
bq. She did not see them as submissive, passive, nor despise them for constricted development. She knew, that born into her mother's generation, almost inescapably her capacities and life would have gone as theirs; that in her own generation, too, she was an exception – and that chancily; barely.(214)
Olsen cites a number of examples that show 'manifestations of the angel', such as Thomas Quincey's view of Dorothy Wordsworth, Henry James' thoughts on his mother, Yeats' 'On Woman' and examples of women who gave up their own selfhood and creativity for men eg. Katherine Mansfield and Katherine Ann Porter. Ultimately, Olsen agrees with Charlotte Perkins Gilman that the angel must be freed.

Wives, Mothers, Enablers

Olsen suggests that not many women have the harmony of love and work that George Eliot did. In fact, often women put their energies into the creativity of their partners rather than that of themselves. These women sacrifice work for love; men's mothers, sisters, wives etc. Olsen gives a number of examples: the woman helpers in Melville's Pierre, Jorge Luis Borges' mother who was his companion and secretary, Edmund Wilson whose girls created a harmonious writing environment, Mrs. William Carlos Williams who managed her husband's schedule and John Gardner who would ask his wife advice about characters in his books.

Blight: The Hidden Silencer: Breakdown
Olsen states that in cases where the woman writer is fighting the angel. Constriction of writing can be a result. Also, breakdown, extremity, depression. Olsen implies that this is not madness but the weight of trying to live beyond one's time, beyond one's society and its roles.

Hidden Blight: Professional Circumstances

*'Treatment, circumstances for the writer-woman and her work based not on capacities, attainment alone, but affected by her being of her sex: female'. (228)

*Devaluation: Critical Attitudes. Olsen returns to the notion of the 'dancing dog phenomena', a term which originates from Dr. Johnson's comment that a woman preaching is like a dog on its hind legs. Olsen quotes Margaret Atwood who complains of critics who concentrate on the minority of domestic images in her poetry. Sexual bias is obvious in such reviewers.

*Major Art: the activities of men versus men's preoccupation with women; where women cannot follow versus what women can do – the childbed etc.

*Sexual polarization.

*Climate: comradeship? The self consciousness of writers. How to be appreciated when one is judged by sexist standards? Whether to choose genius over normative societal roles? The punishment and exploitation of women who break the rules.

*Critical attitudes, exclusions. Olsen quotes Mailer who writes that the only good woman writer is a whore, the rest are passť. Auden describes poetry in terms of masculinity. These exclusions extend to language itself: Humpty Dumpty asks 'who is to be master?' In writing about Plath, Alvarex thinks of her only as her husband's appendage.


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