If you peel an onion, can you put it back together again?

by Yule Heibel on June 26, 2005

Brief observation on blogging: as though it were meant to turn a person into a reverse onion, writing off the top of your head in public (blogging) adds another sometimes tricky layer to the life. Let’s say you allow gaps in your blogging habits to grow, let’s say you don’t know if anyone even notices, but let’s also say you determine that simply by posting you will try to staunch the gaps and keep the blog-persona vivid. Maybe not every day, but you determine to try frequently enough. Meantime, you’ve made deep online friendships through your blog, and, since you’re a modern migrant, you also have (pleasant) obligations to keep in touch with precious friends from previous lives. You keep in touch typically with email, and as a result, you have richly invested your computer screen with your attention. And then there’s your family, regardless of any bumper-sticker wisdom which proclaims “I can’t relate to my relatives.” You owe them, too. Finally — though it doesn’t feel at all finitely — don’t forget your face-life or whatever you want to call it: your commitments to committees, your space, your friends and pets and immediate family, your job(s).

There’s the life of the mind, too, which has a pull all its own. It’s a pull that works intimately, in private, and that has a disciplining, even regimenting, aspect in public. It works its way into and compels your public and private discourse: you need to pay attention, but you’re distracted, too, downright pixillated.

In fact, you notice that you’ve started treating the many, by now openly separating, layers shoddily, and you start berating yourself, which merely increases the stress levels.

In a recent Open Democracy issue, Juliet Mitchell, a professor of psychoanalysis and gender studies at Jesus College, Cambridge University, comments on Jane Fonda’s ‘My Life So Far’. Quite interesting, in relation to this issue of spreading oneself too thin, or: separating the layers — and keeping them all moisturised and plump, even though they feel, individually, like they’re about to atrophy from neglect. Mitchell writes:

My Life So Far is a moving tribute to the importance of understanding and of being an activist around the gendering of humanity. Virginia Woolf, whose mother died, as did Fonda’s, at the high point of her daughter’s puberty, enjoined women to “think back through their mothers”.

Through most of history, womanhood has been defined in relation to motherhood. Woolf set out to find her dead mother through her autobiographical fiction, To the Lighthouse; Fonda has done the same through My Life So Far. But there has always been a neglected tradition of gendering: sisterhood. Jane Fonda has reached out to inhabit her gendered humanity through her sisters – Carol Gilligan, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steiner, Robin Morgan – to whom she pays tribute with the same generosity she shows towards her ex-husbands. (Generosity is the expression of “common humanity”, and surely the defining requirement of even the meanest great actor.)

Woolf’s mother would seem to have died from the lesser evil common to woman: emotional overwork. Abused in her gender, Fonda’s mother killed herself violently. These traumas probably made mothering (actual for Fonda, a much regretted absence for Woolf) unnerving for these loving artists.

Preoccupied with mothers, Woolf lived for and through her siblings; until Monster-in-Law Fonda had not acted mothers. Both women are testimony to the dialectic between these dimensions of femininity. In themselves, both mothers and sisters are potentially strong and positive places in which to find oneself; the rub comes in relation to the other gender. It is here that women so often have to play a part (as men do too).

For women, that part (at least in the west) is the dependent one of a sexy, childlike daughter while still carrying the heavy-duty, responsible work of mothers and heroic struggling sisters. Fonda’s film roles are not notorious sexpot icons; they reveal that such parts are parts. [emphasis added] More…]

Hmm, I never thought I’d want to read Jane Fonda’s autobiography, but Mitchell’s comments pique my curiousity. My mother was “absent” (severely clinically depressed, diagnosed far too late), unable to be present for any “coming of age” experiences I had: she was just not there. When I was very little, my sisters took mothering substitute roles in my life, but also “abandoned” me (when they married, when we moved away). Dealing with “emotional overwork” is certainly a …trope, to put it mildly, in my (de-)constitutive experiences. As for dealing with the other gender: Mitchell’s “playing parts” is a fine way of circumscribing the issue. Putting the parts all together is something else entirely.

Writing blog entries is playing a part, creating another layer. (Talk about “sexy, childlike daughter” vying with “heavy-duty, responsible work of mothers and heroic struggling sisters”!!) Sometimes it’s fun (and sometimes it isn’t) trying to keep those layers in form, keeping them in synchrony, and making sure one or the other doesn’t jump into the pan with the big fat ass hamming it up on centre stage. (And remember, the ass is played by different players all the time, too.) That’s when a layer gets hijacked, a piece goes missing, and you scramble to cover up the wound.

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