Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Audre Lorde on the Erotic

For me, the radical feminist lesbian Audre Lorde's essay "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power", from her book Sister Outsider, was so instrumental in shifting my understanding of what sex was and could be that I want to link to it on this blog because it is likely I'll be referencing it in later posts critiquing dominant understandings and expressions of sexuality.

What follows are excerpted portions of the essay and then a short conversation on this subject between Audre Lorde (photo above) and Claudia Tate (photo below). Sadly, both women have passed on, each having battled cancer. The specific excerpts and discussion that follows is from a book I have gained so much from reading, Black Women Writers at Work, edited by African American Studies professor and literary critic, Claudia Tate.

The complete essay by Lorde is linked to here. Text below is credited to the appropriate sources.

Lorde's essay is one of the great classics of radical feminist theory and Sister Outsider is one of my very favorite feminist/Womanist books. I have returned to it often.

Audre Lorde on the Erotic

The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. . . .

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. . . .

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 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.

. . . [O]nce 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. . . .

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

Lorde, Audre. "Uses of the Erotic: The erotic as Power." Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984. 53-59.

Claudia Tate: I am frequently jarred by my sometimes unconscious attempt to identify the sex of the person addressed in the poem. Since I associate the speaker's voice with you, and since I'm not always conscious that you are a lesbian, the jarring occurs when I realize the object of affection is likewise a woman. I'm certain this disturbance originates in how society defines love in terms of heterosexuality. So if we are to see love as a "universal" concept, society pressures us to see it as heterosexual.

Audre Lorde: Yes, we're supposed to see "universal" love as heterosexual. What I insist upon in my work is that there is no such thing as universal love in literature. There is this love in this poem. The poem happens when I, Audre Lorde, poet, deal with the particular instead of the "UNIVERSAL." My power as a person, as a poet, comes from who I am. I am a particular person. The relationships I have had, in which people kept me alive, helped sustain me, were sustained by me, were particular relationships. They help give me my particular identity, which is the source of my energy. Not to deal with my life in my art is to cut out the fount of my strength.

. . . Women have been taught to suspect the erotic urge, the place that is uniquely female. So, just as we tend to reject our blackness because it has been termed inferior, as women we tend to reject our capacity for feeling, our ability to love, to touch the erotic, because it has been devalued. But it is within this that lies so much of our power, our ability to posit, our vision. Because once we know how deeply we can feel, we begin to demand from all of our life pursuits that they be in accordance with these feelings. . . .

I believe in the erotic and I believe in it as an enlightening force within our lives as women. I have become clearer about the distinctions between the erotic and other apparently similar forces. We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way. And when I say living I mean it as that force which moves us toward what will accomplish real positive change.

"Audre Lorde." Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Claudia Tate. NY: Continuum, 1983. 100-16.

Sister Outsider can be purchased here.
I couldn't find any Womanist/feminist bookstores online that sell Black Women Writers at Work. (Yes, there's always Amazon.com.)