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The Digital Self : Anaïs Nin & Our Internal Lives in the Internet Age

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My first proper introduction to Anaïs Nin’s work occurred when I happened upon a tattered copy of her journals in a second hand bookshop. Until that point, the only writing of hers I’d encountered was the oft-quoted observation, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ Young though I was, the insight of those words – which, since the advent of the internet, have spawned many a cheesy ‘motivational’ meme – stuck with me.

The rational, structuralist mind presumes a knowable, evidential truth: if we logically and clinically examine a situation, we can arrive at a clear consensus. There is comfort in this approach. It provides a kind of order that our lives lack and a sense that something is knowable, amongst all the chaos. However, our collective reality, if such a thing exists and can be considered to be ‘shared’, is a mishmash of understandings, interpretations, presumptions, all tainted by human fallibility. For all that empathy allows (and it allows a great deal), we can only ever see things as we are  and how we are determines how things appear to be. As a consequence, our vision and the reality that flows from it is incomplete. Truths are not absolute, they are specific, context-driven and oh so messy, just like the selves we harbour within us. To make sense of our lives however, and in order to exist in the world and in society, and in order to change the world and society, we have to buy into, sometimes strategically,  ‘absolute’ truths, problematic though they maybe. It’s a messy, messy business we are all doomed to struggle with.

A piece by the consistently excellent Brain Pickings, In Defence of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down A Harper’s Bazaar Profilerecently got me thinking about Nin’s insights in a modern context. The piece references Nin’s infamous diaries, specifically an entry which explains the motivation behind her decision to decline a profile with Harper’s, a hugely popular publication. According to Nin, her decision stemmed from an unease and an unwillingness to be pinned down or explained away, as if the complexities of her creative being – and by extension, anyone’s creative being – could ever be fully realised or described outside of the internal terrain and the dangers of trying to definitively capture or spotlight these precious parts of ourselves for consumption or recording while we are still evolving. As Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova so beautifully puts it, ‘the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing.’

Would the fluidity that characterises the internet age – the constant churning of information and opinion, the ease at which ideas and work can be created, shared and altered – have appealed to Nin or would she have balked at the so-called freedom afforded by the likes of social media, allowing us to create our desired selves (or should that be ‘brands’?) within strict parameters? Or would Nin, like Jaron Lainer, see such technology as regressive, demanding we reduce our identity to a carefully mediated/manipulated ‘image’ that acts as little more than a shopfront, obscuring if not downright denying the complexities of true self, a phenomenon which is so fragmented, so influx it is beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated computer program or social network.

Perhaps this remains the point. For our all gadgetry, for all our digital bells and whistles, technology cannot, as yet, replicate the vast, messy oceans within us, capture our multiple selves or remedy the flawed truths that define the human experience. And even if someday it could,  would we really want it to? As Nin might ask, where would be the adventure in that?

Photo Credit: michmutters via photopin cc

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All Posts, Fiction

On Academia & Climbing A Tidal Wave: The Sibéal Conference 2014

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“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

John Williams, Stoner 

Over a reader’s lifetime there are a handful of books that linger in the mind forever. Often these titles are consumed in the blaze of youth, when life’s possibilities – actual and intellectual – spill forth like a psychedelic tapestry. For many of us, as we age, life becomes less about the highest highs and more about the eternal questions of what life is for and what constitutes living well. To this end, John Williams’ reclaimed classic Stoner blew me away in a manner I associate with the usual literary suspects of youth (The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, etc. both of which I still love, without apology).

William Stoner is possibly the greatest literary hero many people have never heard of and perhaps that’s the point. Williams’ exquisite reflection on life and living is a gentle antidote to the 21st century’s obsession with a specific type of bombastic, materialistic version of success. In Stoner we see the quiet majesty of a life well-lived. It is not perfect, it is not constructed with technicolour and jump-cuts but it is imbued with purpose and passion.

Stoner is also in many ways a love letter to academia, the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and those who create and share it. Williams’ insight about the art of learning came to mind this weekend as I presented my own work and delightedly binged on gender and feminist research at the Sibéal Network’s annual conference for early career and postgraduate researchers. To say that it was a pleasure to listen and absorb the wealth of thought and research that comprised the programme is an understatement, not to mention the excellent, equally invigorating chats over wine and coffee. The theme ‘Gender and Metamorphosis’ was brilliantly chosen as so much gender research is concerned with transformations of society and the self. The papers I enjoyed are too numerous to list here but among the issues tackled were performing masculinities, intersectionality and international human rights law and the gendered construction of perpetrators and victims in sexual assault cases (the full programme is available here).

As Williams observed, our lives are short and there is so much to know and sometimes, for me at least, it feels like trying to climb a tidal wave. As a scholar it’s so good, so important to be reminded that you’re not alone and also to see the fantastic work being done to address and give voice to the myriad of inequalities sheltering under the umbrella of gender and feminist research.

To read more about the great work Sibéal do, to get involved and see their slick new website click here. And if you’re thinking of getting the fiction fan in your life a book that will warm their hearts while simultaneously breaking them (in a good way, I promise, it’s what all the best books do) then I recommend Stoner a thousand times.

Photo Credit: FuturePresent via photopin cc

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Read: On Radclyffe Hall, Judith Butler & ‘The Well of Loneliness’

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“…we’re all part of nature. Someday the world will recognise this…”

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

Recently the universe conspired that I would be reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness while preparing to give a lecture on Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble revolutionized gender theory when it was published in 1990.  Hall’s novel caused a quasi-revolution of its own upon publication in 1928, albeit for different if not entirely dissimilar reasons. Hall’s frank depiction of lesbian desire had the British chattering classes foaming at the mouth with indignation and the book was subsequently banned.

By today’s standards The Well of Loneliness is a terribly tame affair, far from the obscene and corruptive force early 20th century moral guardians considered it to be. Although Hall’s writing can be sentimental (she does like to ponder, at tedious length, on the wonders of the natural world and religion) there is no denying the bravery in her depiction of protagonist Stephen Gordon and her plight, which cut close to the bone of Hall’s personal experiences.

Throughout The Well of Loneliness, Hall explains Stephen’s predicament – a biological female but manly in appearance, who desires other women – as that of an ‘invert’, a now discarded term coined by sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a man ‘trapped’ in a woman’s body or vice versa. The reader sees Stephen struggle to find acceptance and purpose in a society which shuns her. Even her own mother, the delicately feminine Anna, ultimately rejects her daughter to whit Stephen replies, ‘…I forgive you, though whatever it is, it is you and my father who made this body – but what I will never forgive is your daring to try to make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me.’

Today, thanks to the work of gender theorists like Butler and countless campaigners and activists who refused to accept heteronormativity’s stranglehold, more and more people are waking up to the realisation that gender is not the neat little binary we are socialised to believe it to be.

Butler’s assertions that biological sex is constructed via gender, that gender is a phenomenon, not a fact, which creates what it names and requires constant repetition to maintain its illusion of authority and naturalness, strike at the heart of Stephen’s predicament. Through her, Hall draws our attention to the subtle yet effective ways gender reinforces itself in our lives, regulating and policing our behaviour right under our noses. As Stephen observes while still a child, forced to play with a little girl she despises, ‘Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended. People said: ‘Look at Violet, she’s like a little mother; it’s so touching to see that instinct in a child!’ Then Violet would become still more touching.’

Stephen’s incredible wealth allows her to relocate to Paris and it is there that she finds true freedom and love. Unfortunately, back in the real world, the types of resources and let’s face it, privilege which allowed Stephen to be her true self were afforded to very few. For example, her governess, the long-serving, long-suffering Puddle, has hidden her own Sapphic desires in order to survive, a fact that makes her hugely sympathetic to Stephen’s struggle perhaps at cost to her own. If The Well of Loneliness reminds us of anything in the present day, it is that while great strides have been made to loosen gender’s grip, for many those strides came much too late and for others across the world, they have yet to come at all.

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Read: Be Your Own Hero

imeldaBehold the bootiful new edition of Irish Country Magazine with the super-talented, super- stylish Imelda May on the cover. Inside I’ve a feature entitled ‘Be Your Own Hero’, which you can read the opening to here. The premise is that we – hello, ladies – are often the ones that hold ourselves back from going after what we want because, sadly, we lack the self-belief required to really go for it. Life, I’m sure you’ll agree, is too short and too precious for that. The article has plenty of good advice on cultivating self-belief and testimonials from women who went after what they wanted and succeeded, so if you fancy a read skip down to your newsagents tout de suite mes amis, tout de suite.

 

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Sunday Times Style Magazine, September 21st

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Sunday Times 1The internet and social media have been significant drivers in what some social commentator’s are calling Feminism 4.0 or feminism’s fourth wave in a Western-context. As someone who has distinct memories of being the only feminist in the village prior to the arrival of widespread internet access in Ireland, it is great to see how new media is bringing like-minded women together here and across the globe. To that end, it was lovely to be name-checked in the Sunday Times this weekend in an article on Ireland’s new breed of young feminists. Here’s to all the great women and gals in Ireland and across the world fighting for equal rights and opportunities and ‘thank you’ to all the women who fought for those rights in bygone times. We are forever in your debt.

 

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