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Thank you Joan: Thoughts on women’s hardness

By Emma Christie.

I think much of my body awareness, in addition to my literary awareness, comes from Joan Didion. In Play It As It Lays, her 1970 novel (less popular than Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but still beloved), bodies are unpredictable geodes. Protagonist Maria’s (Mar-eye-ah’s) insides are vibrant with colour and edges and productive capability, but also completely invisible. She mines for menstruation in there, hoping she isn’t pregnant, which of course she is. A doctor ‘scrapes’ her zygote (a geological-seeming name in itself) out in an abortion scene that is refreshingly without either cynicism or romanticised maternal strickenness. But it doesn’t particularly matter (at least superficially) what goes on in there, in the novel’s bright and weird physical and psychological interiors. Didion is more interested in the woman’s outside, and what it can control. Maria has dreams that a “shadowy Syndicate” occupy her home in an illicit disposal operation. The grey flesh of victims clogs sinks, and water in drains begins to rise. So, certainly, a fear of the watery interior banishes Maria from her home into a tiny apartment, and structures several chapters of the novel. But my impression is that, despite being a clear-eyed writer of insides (especially those of women like herself) and a notable mid-century explorer of what Maggie Nelson has called “a situation of meat”, the disturbing softness and fallibility of the body and of consciousness, Didion is more interested in the hard geological outside, and whether it is hard, and how hard it is. What is women’s hardness? In the end, Maria—whose character is a variation on and also a criticism of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ trope—smokes half a joint, accrues a new psychosis or fixation, and moves back into that fleshy house with a life of its own, braving the interior.

What is that other thing that makes a geode interesting? Mostly, the contrast of the inside with its uninspiring, potato-like exterior. In this way, Didion is interested in Maria’s “insanity”, but again I have the impression that the relationship between stable exterior and unstable interior life is what interests her most: the watery swishing and scary unpredictability of Maria’s thoughts exists in tension with her presentation, her image, her interaction, her appearance, her milieu, her visible body perhaps most importantly. Didion writes and overwrites and perhaps overdetermines this boundary of what is looked at versus what is beneath or inside. She’s already bored with the “dark continent”, as Freud described adult women’s psychology, and of the conscription of women’s consciousness, throughout literary history, in service of the unstable interior, even as she writes this interior compellingly. She’s more interested in the relation of inner madness to the outside, which is there for everyone to see: the hard exterior, the cell wall, the skin. The image I remember, as much as the gruesome knife and bucket, from Maria’s trip to the abortionist’s is the spot on her skirt that deeply annoys her. I can imagine it again and again: on tweed or jersey, greasy and tenacious, maybe from a pomade or a grapefruit. This stain sits on the outside boundary of the hard body—Donna Haraway’s boundary of the skin—as this body crests through Maria’s inhospitable world, containing multitudes (although not technically, after her medical appointment).

Maria is a kind of robot, if not yet a Haraway cyborg. Didion writes that inside-outside boundary over and over again (and I read the book over and over again in my teens, so my impression is ample). It’s about what the outside layer of the body, that might not necessarily be connected with consciousness, necessarily needs. The taut fabric of Maria’s skirt bears an indelible stain. Every day as she gets on the highway, she’s able to crack and peel a hard-boiled egg without taking her foot off the accelerator. She drinks bottle after hard glass bottle of coke. She lives in her brain, while people with sparkling bracelets dangling from thin wrists try, in vain, to communicate with her. All of these parts of the weird montage of the novel can be characterised by or as a shell: clothing, egg, glass, head or skull. It’s about efficiency, numbing, testing the limits of the most minimal, repetitive, stultifying things the body can do and still exist. The body churns and churns to form a barrier so the mind can be in absentia, to do whatever it does.

What happens to the body when it churns and churns like a machine? It becomes abstracted. Walter Benjamin wrote a lot about this in the 1920s: the assembly-line menace and the legs of the Tiller Girls. Didion’s prose obviously doesn’t have the same uneasy awareness of impending fascism, a politics which, Benjamin says, follows after perception and reality are untethered in this way, but it’s still a commentary on consciousness and a dissatisfied existence in a decade of social dislocation. So it is a commentary that tends in the direction of universalism, for women like Maria. The metaphor of a stylised woman’s body still fits. It is striking that Maria still goes to Saks to get her hair coiffed, even if her apparent indifference to her appearance is expressed in the fact that she brushes and therefore breaks her hair while it’s wet (unthinkable). Little of the dissolution of appearance that marks earlier (reductive) accounts of women’s mental instability is evident, or, perhaps more accurately, it occurs in moderation. Maria wears pristine white silk to a party to tempt her interior body into menstruating, but she also, more strangely, sleeps nude and alone for the same purpose. The connection between watery mind and solid body is granular, and not lazily psychomachic.

Play It As It Lays came intensely enough into my teenage life to become implicated in my first mental health crisis, and inform my personal style (lots of tweed skirts) and my sense of my body. Often, my body feels like a steel hull that crests through the world like Maria did through the parking lot, creating a barrier between my mind and the world. Of course this doesn’t apply to all people who have a marginal, frightening embodied existence, or even a majority—I have no way of knowing. But I do know that I walked around in a very ill haze age sixteen, and at various points of great psychological stress since, grateful for this early way of seeing my body even if it was perverse. Even when men (and even some women) looked at and touched my body in intrusive ways it felt like just skin: men have seen the stylised archetype, almost the machinery, of women’s bodies so many times that it felt completely impersonal. I dare you to get through that to my real brain: good luck. I suspect that a lot of people who are consistently at the mercy of men’s glances resort to this kind of self-stylising: turning into a geode. The stain on the skirt is so annoying because it draws attention to the boundary between outer body-layer and brain. There’s a triumph in bodily efficiency and self-sufficiency, and in using it as a shield like Maria does.

Today I’ve been listening to Anna Calvi’s “Hunter”, a new song, appearing many decades after Didion’s book. In an unnerving vibrato, Calvi’s musical protagonist talks about dressing herself in leather in the red morning light from the window, and of winding flowers in her hair. The song has the quality of a battle hymn, maybe for one already lost: “Nothing lasts… Nothing else compares”. Her leather and flowers aren’t, perhaps, within the same stylistic ballpark, but they are instruments of ritual adornment: hardness and the invocation of some herbalistic meaning (which? She withholds their significance). These ornaments are like Maria’s skirt, hair, and silk: an assertion of a firm, rich, stylised boundary in a moment of mind careening.


Emma Christie is a writer and poet. She has published essays on literature, migration, and artificial intelligence.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 5th, 2018.