Around eighteen, I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and absolutely hated it. I don’t remember what it was about, I just know that I found her voice irritating. But lately, friends have been raving about her. One said that To The Lighthouse is so much a part of who she is, that she rereads it every year. Another raved about Orlando, saying that with my interest in gender studies, it’s a must-read.
So I bought both books at warehouse sales, and dove into Orlando. I was surprised to find that I hate Woolf’s voice just as much now as I did back then. I haven’t arrived at some place of maturity and understanding where I can finally “get” her. Woolf has wit, and some stunning observations, but she talks in circles, and goes for pages without saying anything. I never find the intensity of her person within her writing.
A mock biography, Orlando begins as a typical spoiled nobleman, the darling of Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth century. Through the course of three hundred years, Orlando never dies, and while on an ambassadorship in Turkey, he mysteriously transforms into a woman.
“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for these desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline (Woolf, 156-157).'”
Despite the tedious hours spent in front of the mirror, very little changes about Orlando’s life. She retains her independence and remains devoted to poetry. She finds the Victorian obsession with marriage and romantic love amusing, and eventually gets swept up with the times when she falls in love and marries a sailor, who is never around much anyway.
Most enjoyable are the fictional photographs of Orlando. I was struck to find, that as a woman, Orlando has similar features to my own (though with a more sloped forehead). Woolf’s taste in women was from the standpoint of the 1920’s, and I think my looks are more suited for the style back then.
The book had me wishing that Woolf could have lived for three hundred years (like Orlando), to witness the world in which we live today. Men change into women, and women into men everyday. It’s so common, that there are days when I pass at least five transgendered people in an afternoon walk.
There is the middle-aged man turned woman with a red bob, straw hat, and crisp pink dress shirt tucked into acid washed mom jeans above white sneakers; the one with scraggly black hair and bright pink lipstick selling papers on the corner of Broadway and Thomas; and the one who looks like a New York Doll in really precarious platform shoes and long flowing dresses with ruffles. Then there are all the people who have had so much surgery, and such mastery of the art, that we’ll never know unless they tell us.
I’ve written before about how some of the artists of my generation believe that gender no longer exists. Part of the idea comes from how much has been done in regards to gay rights and women’s rights. But if gender doesn’t really exist, then why do people feel so strongly identified with an opposite gender, to the point of spending thousands of dollars, in painful transition, to get there? And when it comes to equal rights for all, we’re not quite as far along as we say we are.
The truth comes out on a Friday night at the bar. I used to work at Teatro Zinzanni, a local circus dinner theater. Sunday nights were like Fridays, and every week, performers and servers would all go out for an end of the week celebration. But the gays and lesbians never wanted to join us for karaoke at a bar called Ozzie’s.
I found out why a few weeks ago. It was our friend Oscar’s birthday. Oscar is from Peru, and is an openly affectionate person. Everyone was a few shots in. My husband, Michael, kissed a male friend on the neck as a joke. The guy behind them had a look of shock and horror on his face. Oscar was hugging all of his friends.
Security approached us, and actually said, “No guy on guy action here. You have to leave.”
I really couldn’t believe what was happening. I felt completely disgusted with the people working at Ozzie’s, and I’m never going back, not that I ever really wanted to be there to begin with. Meanwhile, it was no problem for another friend of ours to practically molest women on the dance floor.
A couple of weeks later, Michael was out for another birthday. A large guy stepped on a woman’s foot, so she pushed him. He came back with, “Oh really? You want me to put my big black dick up your ass?”
Here a man took a nonsexual argument, and used his sexual power to intimidate a woman who just wanted respect for her personal space.
If you’re gay (or presumed gay), and out at a bar, you might get kicked out for showing affection. If you’re a woman, the fact that you’re just standing there makes you fair game for a random male stranger to molest you or threaten you sexually.
I should mention, that the one time I was in a gay bar in the last two years, a young gay man did his best to intimidate me to get the hell out, by getting extremely up close and personal. So it all comes full circle.
Suffice to say, I rarely ever go out drinking anymore (though it used to be my favorite pastime). So when I go out now, I’m amazed by how completely stupid everyone gets. All of the impulses that people hide by day come to the raging surface at night. Nights become a place of conflict and aggression. The rich against the poor, the door guys verses the patrons, men verses women, gay verses straight, black verses white, young verses old.
“No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high (Woolf, 149).”
If in an instant, you became the person standing across from you, what would that reveal to you? What would change? Could we all get along?
I’m not an idealist, but I feel tired of all the conflict I experience on a daily basis. I live on a busy street, and working in building management we are fully aware of all the crime that goes down. In the last week, we’ve dealt with three different incidents. On the morning of July 5th, an untreated neighbor behind us was shot by the police for brandishing a Glock from his window. I’m never going to understand everyone, but my emotions are exhausted from feeling what everyone around me feels. Sometimes, I just want to escape.
“… while fame impedes and constricts, obscurity wraps about a man like a mist; obscurity is dark, ample and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded (Woolf, 104).”
Obscurity is nice for about a week, but then it’s good to get back to reality. I would just like a little bit of distance from the reality I live in. I feel that I am going through an enormous shift, and I have no idea where it will lead me. With it comes exhaustion and hopefully transformation. I am becoming something beyond what I am today; like Orlando, who sees beyond both genders, and knows that she is just a poet either way; a poet who loves solitude.
I’m not going to fill my coat pockets with rocks and drown myself, like Virginia Woolf did at the onset of World War II. She was going mad, and the only goodness left for her, was the love of her husband.
I believe that out of the worst, comes the best. If you watch nature closely, you see this happening over and over again. A natural disaster can unify people like nothing else can. A grit of sand can irritate an oyster into making a pearl. And when you send a radical new thought out into the world, it’s often met with hatred. But slowly over time, hatred abates, and new ideas become old ideas that are finally accepted. Life is a process.