The Thinking Woman
by Julienne van Loon
Published March, 2019
by Kate Richards
Published February, 2019
I have a very wonderful friend, Young Sun. Young Sun is one of the smartest people I’ll ever have the pleasure of knowing, and she is also very wise. Once, when I very much needed to hear it, she told me that it’s okay to live in two places at once; one, the life you are living in the place where your body is, and two, an imagined life with someone who is far away. She told me that these two lives did not make each other less, but together, made me more. She’s good, isn’t she?
One day Young Sun and I were sitting at a wine bar, contemplating life, but, characteristically for both of us, we were contemplating life without saying very many words out loud. The older I get, the less I say in conversation; the more I turn to the workable silence of writing. I’ve long known that my fear of being misunderstood is in large part what impels my conversational clandestineness. My father is one for specificity in language, both because that is his personality and also because he argues for a living. Growing up, I had to get good at saying only what I definitely meant, and nothing else. Extra bits are just that, I learned; ripe for misinterpretation, for muddying your point.
At the wine bar, Young Sun and I came to the topic of our emotional states. ‘Where are you at?’ One or other of us (it was probably Young Sun), said, ‘Ah, you know. All the feels.’ And we both nodded, and we both did understand.
‘All the feels’ is the ‘lol’ of millennial empathy. Two or more subjects mutually acknowledging the depth of emotion that a situation or experience can arise in us, and then, without saying more than what is strictly necessary for expressing emotional solidarity, laughing it away with a bittersweet, only half-ironic truism. Daily witnessing the micro-aggressions that women face when we share our tales of trauma, only to be chastened for being ‘too emotional’ to make any logical sense? That hits me right in the feels.
In my experience, ‘all the feels’ is a largely feminised term. It is most often used in conversation between women. Using ‘all the feels’ with your female friends is like a nod on the street to another woman, when you both see a man acting like an absolute dick, but you can’t speak up because you would fear for your safety if you did. It’s an acknowledgement that you and she share common ground, that you both exist in two places at once – being a person, and being a woman.
Ninety years ago, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observed that men’s writing is lauded for its ‘unity of mind,’ which is something that women’s writing, apparently, lacks.
I pondered, for clearly the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people on the street, for example… Again, if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilization, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.
This image of a woman observed in public, her distraction a sign that she is somewhere else, too, is one that arises again and again in texts that have women contemplate the minds of other women. And it hit me once more as I began to read Julienne van Loon’s first work of non-fiction, The Thinking Woman.
The opening image of van Loon’s introduction sees her working at a benchtop at a local café, observing a young woman at the other end of the room who is looking back at her.
She is looking back … not with recognition but with an open, contemplative gaze. She is thinking. For a second, I mistake her for another version of myself.
The Thinking Woman is van Loon’s nuanced and creative response to a foundational premise of our society: that logic and rationality are somehow separate to emotion and feeling, and that – taking this premise as truth rather than evidence of patriarchal sublimation – only men have the mental acuity to deal in reason free from passion. Van Loon begins by describing how women have historically been – and are still consistently – excluded from the annals of Philosophy. In The Thinking Woman she observes what ingenuity can prosper when one makes do outside of the hallowed halls from which one is excluded, unlimited by the rules inside. As Woolf wrote of being in Cambridge while being unable to study at Cambridge: ‘I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is perhaps worse to be locked in.’
In the six chapters of Van Loon’s book, she profiles seven living female philosophers (most of whom do not strictly work in academic philosophy) – Laura Kipnis, Siri Hustvedt, Nancy Holmstrom, Julia Kristeva, Marina Warner, Helen Caldicott, and Rosi Braidotti – and pivots around six central themes: love, play, work, fear, wonder, and friendship.
Van Loon’s own story – of leaving her partner for another man, of being a mother to a growing son, of finding ways of working that coalesce with maternal necessity – emerges within and through these philosophical analyses, as do stories from the personal lives of her philosophers. Like Young Sun’s evaluation of my geo-temporal split, this mixture of theoretical and lived makes the book more, not less. Philosophies are tested and expanded as they are applied to everyday reality.
Van Loon’s second chapter is titled ‘Play’. Thinking about the function of play in her own life, especially in regards to the psycho-social development of her infant son, but also to her writing life, van Loon talks to the writer Siri Hustvedt. Play can come in many forms, and serve many uses, and for Hustvedt, ‘intellectual life is also a form of play.’ Hustvedt is influenced by DW Winnicott, who thought that between our inner and outer reality, rather than being a lack or negative absence, there is ‘potential space’. This space is a liminal zone in which ideas can be tested, realities reflected and toyed with, other people reached. Explains van Loon, ‘The origin of potential space, [Winnicott] argued, was the physical, mental and emotional bond between a mother and her infant.’ Hustvedt describes how the academic study of political theory tends to ignore that potential space, which is linked to the maternal, and to human development through connection with the other.
Hustvedt is very interested in how play is different for women than for men, and van Loon points to the plot of Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, as an expression of this interest. In this novel, a female artist named Harry performs a playful experiment, whereby she hires three young men to in turn pretend be the artists behind her work. Harry wishes to demonstrate that maleness is the prerequisite for being taken seriously in the art world. She is proven correct each time, and her work is critically lauded. However, when she tries to reveal her hoax and come out as the work’s true author, no one believes her. Harry is ‘(mis)representedin the public domain as the bitter, hysterical woman whose artwork could never rise above the level of the trivial and the domestic.’ Discredited, she dies of cancer.
Hustvedt and van Loon are evincing that the world rarely appreciates a woman who plays. Because in play, with its simultaneous realities, and its constant tension and slippage between the real and the possible, uncomfortable truths can be revealed. The invisible power systems that bind us can surface, like ink through a palimpsest.
Hustvedt demonstrates that while the imaginary has been feminised, empirical knowledge is supposed to be the realm of men.In her chapter on fear, van Loon engages much with Julia Kristeva’s work on the self and subjectivity. From Kristeva, we see that where men are apparently unitary, autonomous beings, women have been seen as scattered and leaky – and that this ‘borderlessness’ has been taken to signify their incompleteness rather than their openness. In her chapter on wonder, van Loon talks with feminist mythographer Marina Warner. Warner’s study of depictions of women in fairy tales and myths requires openness to double meaning, to metaphor and association; van Loon counts the numerous ways in which Warner has been infantilised and belittled by male critics who seek to demean her creative, generous mode of looking by linking it to the feminine.
However, while van Loon gifts us with an invigorated capacity to see the ways in which the ascription of femininity is used as a slight in cultural valuation, an alternative approach – a kind of resistance to binaries by seeking out their connections – also emerges in her work. It’s a resistance that takes on a celebratory timbre in its radical embrace of both. As van Loon says, ‘A tendency towards dualism (and the dual) robs us of the possibilities of more imaginative responses to the myriad challenges we face…. A narrative imagination that is not disconnected from knowledge.’ The desire to transform fleeting feelings into art ‘requires a certain disease, often a rather deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction… or just an inkling, a subtle desire, for things to be, in whatever way, other than this.’ Wonder, imagination, and play must not be read as being against empiricism. On the contrary, they make experience possible, and more.
While each of her chapters considers the act of making as connected to the makeup of the self, it is in her final chapter, on friendship, that van Loon reaches a kind of auto-critical crescendo. Van Loon talks with feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti about the importance of acknowledging the interconnectedness of the self with others. ‘For Braidotti,’ says van Loon, ‘the subject is formed and re-formed continuously by change, movement, and upheaval. It is outward-facing, rather than inward-facing, and because of this, it is constantly energised through interaction with other energies, other life forces, other beings, including, significantly, through various forms of friendship.’
As van Loon and Braidotti discuss how much mainstream philosophy tends to resist the idea that the self is shaped by and with others, van Loon looks back on a relationship that was once – and still is – extremely formative to her own self. In her twenties, van Loon had a friend called Jo. She recalls how she and Jo became intensely connected – through late-night, tipsy conversations, through living together, through letters written across the world in the shorthand only beloved intimacy can birth – throughout a beginning stage of their adult lives. She suggests that an understanding of the self that would discount this inter-subjective formation would be an understanding that is egregiously limited.
Not without pain, (for it is soon enough revealed that Jo’s life was cut short at age thirty), van Loon considers that though she grew with and from Jo, she could never fully inhabit Jo’s consciousness. That while she and Jo shared so many of their ideas of the world with each other – what it could be, and what they could be in it – there was of course always the potential space between them, which lies between any two people, and which makes us grasp for each other. Again combining the big picture philosophical with the everyday personal, van Loon applies Braidotti’s conception of the self as the ‘joyfully discontinuous subject’ to her remembrances of her time with Jo. Doing so allows her to value what it is that she and Jo gave to each other, rather than what they could not. Braidotti uses the example of the eros-fuelled relationship between Woolf and Vita Sackville-West as a model of the intersubjective creative flow that can flourish in the discontinuous self between women. She says, ‘Woolf’s nomadic becoming – in, through, and with Vita – is crucial to her creativity, her imagination, and her affectivity.’ What gets activated ‘is a fluid sensibility that is porous to the outside and which our culture has coded as feminine. This sensibility is central to the creative process. As Woolf puts it, ‘I am rooted, but I flow.’
For van Loon, this is the crux: if, as women, we are going to think, then we must embrace and perpetuate the models of selfhood and cognition that allow for an ethics of interdependence, of care, of open-ended, constantly transmitting and changing feelings. ‘We need to see ourselves in relation rather than in opposition to one another… Relationality is exactly where our potential for transformation lies.’
But how do we relate to each other – truly, fully, wildly – when our capacity to speak our feelings is limited by the understanding that we have soaked up, as women, since childhood: that to do so is to provide testimony which can then be ridiculed, twisted, ignored? How do we begin to be brave enough to discourse freely, from the place where our minds and our hearts coalesce, from the place where we have not yet mediated our words to less-full versions of themselves, as an act of self-preserving attenuation? How do we go from ‘all the feels’ to actually trying to voice them?
Of spontaneous internal discursiveness in her book, Artful, Ali Smith writes, ‘Even things which seem separate and finished are infinitely connected and will infinitely connect… and this connection happens as soon as you let it, as soon as you engage—as soon as you even attempt to engage.’ It is perhaps no surprise, then, that when I went to read Kate Richards’ novel, Fusion, with my head full of The Thinking Woman, of relationality, of speaking feelings without really speaking, it seemed to me very clear that the two books were intertwined. But also, I mean, the parallels wrote themselves.
Fusion is a novel about conjoined female twins, Sea and Serene, who share one body but two heads, and who must, in every physical action they take, decide on their movements and aims together, manipulating the particular parts of the body that they each control. Sea and Serene have long been relegated to a life of almost-isolation deep in the Australian bush, because mainstream society is afraid of their physicality and of the intense connection they share. They also live with their male cousin, Wren, who came to them from his own type of isolation some years before. Sea and Serene, in their apparent monism, provide a stark contrast to the solo Wren, and Richards highlights this point of difference early and often: ‘We’re the only one to know his loneliness,’ say the twins, as if they were singular in personhood. The ‘action’ of the novel (if that is even the right word for this slow, ponderous, encircling book) occurs when Wren brings home an injured woman who is unknown to the twins (whom the twins name Christ), and the social dynamics of the house begin to shift.
Sea and Serene narrate the first half of the novel together, their voice a collective ‘we.’ Everything emitted from them comes from a plurality, so much so that we are lulled into a presumption that they share the same consciousness entirely. At moments, though, usually when full-body physical exercises like dancing and running are required, we are reminded that they are not just one, but two.
Four eyes and four ears and two whole minds for gathering ideas but only two arms and legs to act on it all, right? … All the things we’ve learned to do together are perfect. This is why we must be careful. No one understands us except us. This is why we must be careful.
At one point, Christ asks the twins how it is that they come to decisions: does one twin decide and the other do? How exactly do they relate to each other in synergy, or is it constant push and pull? And in the course of their explanation, which unfolds staccato line by line, the reader never sure which twin is saying what, Sea and Serene share something delightfully subversive about their cognition:
see, once we fused our thinking
Raised to believe, like most of us are, that feelings are merely the primal, pre-cognitive aspect of thinking, Christ interjects, ‘Doesn’t feeling come first and then thinking follow?’ To which the twins respond,
no no no
the mind is the
most mysterious thing on earth
we don’t know exactly how
we can only wonder
why does thinking have to be linear?
anything is possible
Such a model of cognition and feeling opposes the traditional gendered hierarchy ascribed to feeling and thinking. For if feeling is the thing that comes after, it would seem that thinking is the primal element; the reaction, the direct response to experience. Feeling, then, takes what is known and translates it into subjective meaning; feeling makes thinking matter. However, each element is incomplete without the other. The tendency to suppose that thinking and feeling can ever be separate is what is being objected to here. Serene and Sea are used as symbols of this cognitive synergy, with Wren even going so far as to compare them to atoms and particles in quantum entanglement:
The only way to define them, like how physicists explain the existence of something, is by their relationship with each other… And if you try to interact with one particle by itself, without the other, they both collapse into nothing.’
There is a conflict at the end of the book’s first part. The twins’ jealousy of Wren’s apparent desire for Christ drives them to skirmish, and their tandem turns to friction. Left alone as Wren and Christ traverse the bushland, Sea and Serene are forced to confront each other – to reckon with the different ideas they hold about which way of living is best, and about what they owe to each other. They must begin to speak their feelings to each other, to distend and disperse the deep wells of what has been left felt but unsaid between them.
The third part of the novel is where narration splits consciousness. For the first time, we are provided with markers before text, as if in a play: ‘Sea thinks:’ and ‘Serene thinks:’ cordon off paragraphs and sentences. It becomes apparent that the twins have different attitudes to their bond; while Sea sees their connection as one that makes them both more, Serene wants to be untangled and ‘free’. But they have never voiced this before; each has suffered in silence for fear of upsetting the other, or for fear of not explaining it right. The book ends at a beginning – with Sea and Serene tentatively committing to a future of voiced honesty, of collaboration out into words: ‘Help me. Tell me when you’re unhappy or – or mad or – because I’ll get it wrong and I wasn’t the chance to say I’m sorry and to tell you that I got it wrong and I’ll try again.’ They will only work together if they see their unity as made possible because of their difference. They are not same but both. ‘What if we first honour our difference? And only then try to be better at being whole… Sea. That’s the answer – every day we try – to figure out – how – how to – re-become ourselves.’
I am trying to get better at saying what I am feeling, even when I know that my words can only ever be a gesture to the spreading roots that flower them. Clumsy, reaching, faltering earnestness is the hardest thing, but it’s also the most powerful. The in-between space, between you and me; that’s where I can begin to articulate it. All the feels? Say it. Say them.
Madeleine Gray is a recipient of a 2019 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the second of three essays by Thorne that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Eloise Grills and Melissa Thorne.