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.
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.”
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…
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 wanted. Those 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.