Fishtail

I believe at times that man created art out of fear of exploring woman. I believe woman stuttered about herself out of fear of what she had to say…She is a mermaid with her fishtail dipped in the unconscious. Her creation will be able to make articulate this obscure world. – Anaïs Nin

The essence of the feminine is creative. Anaïs Nin knew it. Coco Chanel knew it. And, as a result of my quest to explain the unanswerable within myself, I know it, too. Indeed, I have spent the greater part of the last year engaging in a form of creative introspection, which I have made public on this blog and which I have called, for lack of, perhaps, a better term, self-fashioning. I have confronted the unanswerable aspects of my femininity: those emotions, impulses, and desires that seem to consistently evade description, but through the use of vague, obtuse, or even trite phrases. The fishtail. Comprised of descriptors, such as: I feel like a woman; I feel sexy; I want to be taken (or to experience passionate aggression from a sexual partner); I need to be pampered; or, I need to feel pretty. Phrases that even other women seem to understand on an intuitive level only (and at whose mention most men simply throw up their hands, as there is no direct parallel in their experience). It is the elusiveness that attracts me. As a writer, in particular, it is the lure of the unsayable. The challenge to give voice to that which can only be glimpsed. That is, I believe this collection of experiences–the fishtail–points to something beyond itself that forms an integral part of my nature. That provides an alternative paradigm for understanding my being and, in some way, may contribute to an understanding of the being of every woman.

Last week, I hinted that a post on this subject was forthcoming. I’ve been struggling with the proper way to present this material. In preparing this post, I also found myself outlining ideas I’ve not encountered elsewhere in my readings. What, I asked myself, do I think I am doing? Am I constructing my own theory of the feminine? And, for God’s sake, why? In short, I was flinching all over the place. A dim sense that what I was about to say was worthwhile, coupled with an overwhelming desire to destroy it before it ever reached the page. Just give up. Hit delete. Hit delete on everything. Thoughts like little knives. The life of a creative. That said, my faith in my own ideas ultimately won out, and I’ve decided to proceed, despite all the flinching (still happening, by the way). So, without further delay, here are some thoughts on viewing femininity and creativity as equals, some reasons why, as a woman, you should consider fashioning yourself in order to grow in sexual, or erotic, self-awareness, and a smattering of scholarship and psychological theory to bolster my suggestions.

walking lady

The Wearable Personality

To my mind, the highlight of the Nin quote referenced above is its last line, a statement about the manner in which a woman examines and signals her own depths: Her creation will be able to make articulate this obscure world. Not her words. Not her appearance. Not her actions. Her creation. My smile was wide as I read that line because I knew, as is often the case with Nin’s thoughts on femininity and womanhood, that the author was thinking about this issue precisely as I was. The essence of the feminine is creative. 

It is easy to forget that when we examine our nature in context. I have come to view the most deeply influential part of the feminine within myself as an impetus to create that is unlike any other. Further, its greatest significance lies not in the content of the thing created. The magic is in the making itself. It’s not about “the look” we achieve through fashion and cosmetics. It’s not about the addition of frills or ornament to an outfit. It’s not about simply indulging the varying shades of our moods or caprices. It is not a code of conduct, nor is it a supplement to our personalities. It is about the desire that many of us have to stylize our personality and our sexuality, to indulge an inner impulse to constantly refine the outside so that it matches what we feel on the inside. It is the urge to burnish our identities (temporarily or cyclically) and create another that more appropriately reflects who we feel like in the moment, while keeping our centers intact. It is totalizing. This need to design our sexuality. It is, as far as I can tell, a manner of style, or a need to stylize, that is most often reflected in phrases like, I need to feel pretty, or I need to feel sexy.

Here’s an example. When I reflect on what it means to me to feel pretty, I cannot help but divide the experience into phases. To be sure, I rarely wake up this way. It begins instead with a simple yearning, erotic and soulful. A desire to soften myself. To convey an air of sweet sensuality. To be subtly playful, well put together, flirtatious, and decidedly girly. The urge to feel pretty is a need to stylize myself. To tweak both my demeanor and my physical appearance so that the outside matches the inside. Once this state of equilibrium is achieved, I can revel in actually feeling pretty. It is only in creation that I am able to express this otherwise inarticulable “feeling.” In the ritual. In aestheticizing myself to satisfy an urge. Because there is no other way to satiate or accurately communicate a desire such as that one. To state it outright is nearly impossible and, I suspect, far less gratifying. Once I re-create myself according to that impulse, I feel happier, friendlier, sexier, more confident, and more in sync with myself. In short, I feel expanded. Perhaps, its own kind of creative ecstasy.

Chanel knew all of that. And, it was precisely that knowledge—her ability to tap into women’s need to apply their imagination to their sexuality—that made her so successful. She created an empire around her own easily borrowed image, what a biographer calls “wearable personality.” Indeed, Chanel “dissolved and re-created herself a thousand times. But, more important, she figured out a way to let other women do that, too…to insert our own narratives into the blank space Coco left for us.”

Cocteau-Chanel2
Jean Cocteau’s 1933 faceless portrait of Chanel.

Pretty and Witty and…

Having recognized within myself the parallels between the distinctly feminine feelings and desires that comprise the fishtail and creativity, I felt it incumbent on myself to do some research. After all, it seems incredibly misguided to me that anyone should equate the feminine influence on their own personalities with weakness, lack, superfluity, or absence. It occurred to me that setting femininity on par with creativity could alleviate that problem. And, it might be able to explain a lot of other things, too.

Still, I felt I needed at least some theoretical or scholarly justification for my claims. Which I found from psychologist, Rollo May. (Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for awhile know what a huge fan I am.) Per May’s definition of the term, I would place these urges squarely within the realm of the female daimonic. “The voice of the generative process…the urge in every being to affirm itself, assert itself, perpetuate, and increase itself….A natural function which has the power to take over the whole person.” Energy. Genius. Creative fire. Rapture. Delectable sin. According to May. Physical arousal is the most direct (and obvious) expression of the daimonic in men. May proposes that the targeted expression of physical attraction to a sexual partner or potential partner is the female correlate. But, I think there’s more to it than that.

Imagination is an integral part of female sexuality. The urges we have to constantly fashion ourselves—to coordinate the external with the internal, our moods, to give expression to the varying shades of our sexuality—absent the presence of a sexual partner is, perhaps, the most consistent and significant expression of the daimonic in women. I don’t need a man to make me want to feel pretty, to feel like a woman, or to otherwise feel attractive and sexually alive. I have the capacity to experience and satisfy these urges singularly. Sometimes, I am motivated by the desire to get a particular man to notice me more carefully. Or because I feel like being outwardly seductive, to flirt with male attention more generally. Most often, though, I do it for myself. Because it is in me to do so. What man expresses naturally and outwardly in the form of sexual desire, a woman must create a vehicle of expression for. And not out of lack or weakness. The process itself is inherently and intensely creative. It is that kind of creation that, I believe, should define the female daimonic. For many of us, giving stylistic expression to our sexuality truly is the fun part. I know it’s something I would never willingly sacrifice.

And what of the origins of these impulses? Is the fishtail, as my introductory quote suggests, actually dipped in the unconscious? I tend to think that’s probable. Carl Jung would agree. Channeling female archetypes, maybe. Part of an inherited unconscious. I also think both May and his predecessor, Otto Rank, would give the fishtail primitive, or even archetypal, roots. (Although, Rank would insist on the further development of a paradigm based on a uniquely feminine perspective.) Jungian analyst, Nancy Qualls-Corbett, I believe, would agree wholeheartedly. The roots of these emotions and impulses exist well beneath the surface of our awareness, hence their inexpressibility. Conscious recognition of their influence could have profound effects on our capacity for joy, vitality, and experiencing the eroticism of everyday life. Which leads me to my final point…

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The Fashioned Self

It is true that the decision to confront the unanswerable elements of my experience was a matter of pure intuition. I feel pretty. I need to feel sexy. I want to be wantedThose phrases aren’t empty or outdated, it whispered. They’re timeless, and they’re communicating something. Look again. And, so I did. I then decided to make something out of what I discovered. Both a creative vision of the present and a future self. Self-fashioning. Turns out it’s actually (kind of) a thing.

Carl Jung would call this practice a form of active imagination. A way of getting to know oneself by consciously molding unconscious contents. Transforming emotions, impulses, and images into works of art. Into goals, ideals, and desirable endings. It is a means for using the imagination to create oneself. The stuff of life-enhancement and healing psychotherapies. My intuition was right. Jung suggests it’s natural for us to sense the healing power of the imagination and use it to discover ourselves, to integrate ourselves, and to mend ourselves when we are in need of repair. He’s right. No kidding.

14 thoughts on “Fishtail

  1. I have enjoyed this very much, especially the following sentence: “It is about the desire that many of us have to stylize our personality and our sexuality, to indulge an inner impulse to constantly refine the outside so that it matches what we feel on the inside.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A few thoughts from one “old man’s” point of view, and someone who is, admittedly, not a great writer:

    I often wonder if many of us “modern men” are left not knowing, unsure, lost, in how we can express our sexuality in our current time and space – how we can express our internal masculinity, and our internal femininity. I do not mean the expression of our sexuality as in “the pursuit of sexual intercourse”. What does it mean to be a man in today’s society? I don’t know.

    Exploring the masculine side is difficult for many of us. It seems harder to know just what masculinity is. The old roles we thought we had seem to have changed for many men, and are now not so well-defined. Are we needed as “protector and provider” in a world where women can protect and provide for themselves as easily – or better – than a man can do it for them?

    Maybe I’m missing many of the points you are trying to convey in your blog, and I have to remind myself that this is not my blog, but yours. I enjoy reading your posts. For me, they are very thought-provoking. I cannot add any thoughts on what it is like to be a woman – as I have never been, and doubt I will ever be, a woman. 🙂 As always though – great post! Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Tim! First, I don’t think you’re missing the point at all. One of the reasons I write about these topics, which I know would probably be very unpopular among some men and women, is because I don’t think either sex knows “how to be” with the other anymore.

      I, of course, don’t write about men and masculinity in detail, as I don’t know the first thing about being a man. But, I understand the issues that you raise here, and I think what you’re saying is significant.

      It is the creative side of femininity that interests me most. As women, I think getting to know that helps us get to know ourselves much better and to value our sexuality differently. Perhaps then we can better communicate to the individual men in our lives what we need/want/expect. I see those kinds of changes as beginning with the individual. As always, thank you for taking the time to read my posts—-even the girly ones! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “I thought perhaps she was crazy, but she was just highly intuitive.” — C. G. Jung

    As usual, you’re explorations are provocative and interesting. And I just happened to be cruising through Facebook’s “new friend” suggestions and one had the Jung quote at the top, just as the email from WordPress popped in with your latest.

    There’s a debate raging in some quarters about the old nature vs. nurture debate, only this time it’s morphed into a controversy about what DNA testing says or doesn’t say about differences between different ethnic groups, along with an argument about how much of our behavior and our attitudes are no different than the genetic basis for eye color, and how much is subject to us using our ginormous brains to simply think our way out of the tendencies that our monkey ancestors bequeath us. Seems to me the same sorts of questions can be applied to gender differences.

    But I’m not trying to start a boy v. girl fight, but did wonder if you can see any biological/genetic basis for any of the feelings you’re describing? Take “feeling pretty” for instance. You have the ability to think about it and fashion the way you’re feeling, and that’s taking your own well-being in hand and owning your own agency. But isn’t it also possible that, drilling down a little further into the “why” of feeling pretty, that this feels good precisely because it makes conscious something that is part of a fundamental and totally biological reproductive drive that’s programmed into our genes? In other words, these things — the conscious and the unconscious drives — seem to go together when a person is living in tune with herself. But where do you draw the line? Or maybe you don’t see a line at all? Or maybe it’s a squiggly one made up of a mix of sugar and spice, with a few puppy dog tails thrown in? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d prefer a conga line, thank you. You know, I am continually impressed and surprised by both your line of questioning and your knowledge base. A man who isn’t afraid of a little swagger.

      That said, I think you are correct–and I’m pretty sure Jung would agree–when you state that “conscious and unconscious drives seem to go together when a person is living in tune with herself.” It is a matter of balance, or more appropriately, reconciliation. To what degree are any of those drives genetic? I suspect those I discuss here, in large part, are. To what degree is any of what we think of as an unconscious genetically inherited? And why do some of us seem to have greater conscious command over and awareness of those influences in our lives? Do those capacities also have biological components, if not genetic roots? Sure, there’s a line. I’ll be damned if I know where it is. I prefer to think of these things as a kind of interchange. Maybe it really is as simple as doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

      You couldn’t have begun with a more appropriate quote, by the way. And the timing. Sounds like synchronicity to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Mmm, a fascinating read. Your writing is so immersive and authentic. But my brain has been flinching a lot while reading these ideas, battling a form of cognitive dissonance. I struggle to understand femininity and what it means for me, but I definitely agree that it’s linked to creativity. Now, I’ll just let your ideas simmer…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s funny, I have been writing about these ideas for several months now, and the only thing of which I am certain, aside from its links to creativity, is that every woman should define “the feminine” for herself. Thank you for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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