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Charlotte Raven on Andrea Dworkin: Body of evidence

Reviewed: Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Militant Feminist by Andrea Dworkin.

Like many of her fans, I thought Andrea Dworkin was brilliant but reductive. Without realising it, I'd absorbed the popular image of her as the man-hating sloganiser who'd boiled down all the complexity of the sex war to a few simple maxims. "Women need land and guns" - I liked that one. "Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice." Was that her? When she died in 2005, I joined other feminists in mourning the loss of one of our great originals. The nice obituaries presented her as a "tireless campaigner" whose self-appointed role was to testify on behalf of the voiceless victims of male violence.

I didn't think of her as a writer, and so was surprised, on reading this memoir, written a year before her death, to find it peopled by individuals with conflicting emotions and complex motivations - characters, in fact, like the ones you get in novels. I wondered if Dworkin was aware of this, or whether she just couldn't help herself colouring in her polemicist's outlines, differentiating people even as she demanded that they conform to type.

The drama and pathos of Heartbreak are generated by this conflict between her yearning for simplification and her often inconvenient awareness of complexity. The high-school tea-cher flagged up as "The Paedophile Teacher" is fleshed out as a charismatic hepcat with a "dazzling" intellect and a finely honed sense of how to flatter the egos of his rebellious protégés. We aren't surprised to hear that Dworkin fell in love with him. The shock comes at the end of the chapter when she muses: "Lordy lordy I do still love that piece of shit."

I found this passage really moving. The words seemed to have more weight than in those lurid accounts of unspeakable acts which figure so much in her work. I was planning to praise Dworkin for keeping it real and not straying into hyperbole when, just in time, I realised that this would be falling into the trap of treating her work not as an artistic project, but as a body of evidence that needs weighing up.

Her misreaders can't be blamed for assessing her work in terms of its veracity, as if it were testimony. Dworkin herself demands that we trust her to tell the absolute unvarnished truth, then challenges us to retain this faith in the face of some glaring omissions and elisions. These would not be heinous in a novel - an absent mother and idealised father would provide a fascinating back story for a fictional feminist heroine. No one would ask, as the critics certainly will of Heartbreak, why the mother was written out, or criticise the heroine for failing to provide plausible explanations of her subsequent behaviour. My irritation at Dworkin's refusal to account properly for the actions that lead her into trouble with men is not a proper critical response, but the reaction of a judge confronted with a barely coherent rape victim. I found myself tutting at her rambling account of sleeping with strangers in Athens "for dinner and a room" and wondering why on earth a young woman in her precarious situation would give away all her money to some woman on a train.

I feel guilty for responding like this. Rereading Dworkin's oeuvre, I was reminded of the many reasons why victims of male violence offer up holey or unreliable narratives. The most plausible, least crazy woman with a clear recollection of what happened may still be stumped when it comes to finding words to convey it. As Dworkin wrote in Mercy: "Such things do not happen and such things cannot occur - and there's no words for what cannot happen and if something happened and occurred and there are no words for it, then you are at a dead end."

Marginalised and excluded from male language, the woman writer describes the view from this impasse using a "a sign language of rebellion". In the same manner, Dworkin's work explores the paradoxes of the modern female condition - its constraints and curious freedoms. "The less we are, the more we have, the less we matter the more chance we get; the less they care, the more freedom is ours." At its best, it is an imprecise account of why the precise truth about us can never precisely be told. As much as she knows this, she also wishes for incontrovertibility. She wanted to be a lawyer and finds it hard to countenance the endless, open questions posed by her writing. It makes her sad to think that she can never be credible in the Helena Kennedy sense, and is more likely to be regarded as "deranged not in the Rimbaud sense".

One can't imagine the French symbolist wishing to supplant his complex vision with lawyerly simplifications. A bit of Dworkin does, but another bit of her revels in the "deeper truths" accessed by an artistic process she experiences as a kind of jamming. The same themes are repeated and reworked hundreds of times, and you think she's just banging on until you realise that the effect is cumulative. Reading Heartbreak again after two weeks immersed in her work, I was able to appreciate the subtle shift in perspective. The familiar biographical episodes are compressed in a way that is haiku-like compared with the lengthy elaborations in Mercy and Ice and Fire. The effect is pleasingly bathetic - her persecutors are finally reduced to their proper size.

Dworkin seems to have more freedom to manoeuvre, but one also feels her discomfort in this comfort zone. In Mercy, she quotes Sartre: "We were never as free as under the German occupation. As an omnipotent police force kept forcing silence upon us, every word we uttered had the value of a declaration of rights."

The revelation of her work's dependence on the immutability of the forces of oppres- sion makes sense of Dworkin's refusal to heal. Her widely disbelieved claim to have been drug-raped in 1999 seems less baffling if you think of it as a kind of artistic housekeeping - an attempt to replicate the conditions of impossibility that enables her to continue her project of learning to write "without words".

As painful as it was to find herself back in this psychic dead end, she responded to the situation, as usual, by trying to write her way out of annihilation. The result was Heartbreak, her most lucid attempt to convey the (un)truth of her being. On page 8, the statement at the end of her rape confession is revised. "I want to die" becomes "the bitch ain't ready to die. Brava, she says alone in a small room."

Charlotte Raven is writing a book about feminism


This article first appeared in the 19 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Can America go green?