MWD43 - On Invisibility

Or why aging is an act of grace

Welcome to Midweek DinnerThere’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.

—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —

A week or so ago, as part of my Sunday Poetry series, I linked to this Paris Review interview with poet and artist Mary Ruefle. All these days later, I keep thinking about this exchange on becoming invisible:

INTERVIEWER: You write about a feeling most women experience as they age, the feeling of becoming invisible, of becoming more and more like a ghost because we’re no longer noticed in the same way we once were. But you settle on this, that “being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift that anyone could ever have given you.” What do you mean?

RUEFLE: . . . But this becoming invisible—all women talk about it. There’s a period of transition that’s so disorienting that you’re confused and horrified by it, you can’t get a grip on it, but it does pass. You endure it, and you are patient, and it falls away. And then you come into a new kind of autonomy that you simply didn’t have when you were young. You didn’t have it when your parents were alive, you didn’t have it back when you were once a woman to be seen. It’s total autonomy and freedom, and you become a much stronger person. You’re not answerable to anyone anymore. For me, it was a journey of shedding the sense of needing to please someone—parents, children, partners.

back when you were once a woman to be seen. That’s the line. As objects, especially visual or sexual objects, women have born and still bear the daily burden of someone else’s gaze. And for most of us, there is a profound relief when that Sauron-like eye has turned away.

To complicate matters, consider that in 1804, there was a wildly successful touring “exhibit” called The Invisible Lady. This episode of Jill Lepore’s podcast The Last Archive explains it all, but the gist of the thing was an empty box and some tricky sound techniques was set up, purporting to be an invisible lady who would speak to you, responding to your questions. Lepore raises some really interesting questions related to the burgeoning women’s rights movement and the issue of privacy and how putting a woman in a box is bad enough but making her invisible is worse. And then you dare to profit from this act?

To be forced into invisibility because a protective patriarchy deemed it safest is intolerable, a prison of questionable intentions. But to claim invisibility, to wear its freedom like a cloak, is an escape. It is a contradiction. It is true.

And, now, I find I have pulled down all my copies of Virginia Woolf, have paged through Mrs Dalloway convinced once again it is a book I must reread, have found in To the Lighthouse such resonance as this, when Lily Briscoe realizes Mr. Bankes is looking at her art:

One must, she said, one must. And if it must be seen, Mr. Bankes was less alarming than another. But that any other eyes should see the residue of her thirty-three years, the deposit of each day’s living mixed with something more secret than she had ever spoken or shown in the course of all those days was an agony. At the same time it was immensely exciting.

Ruefle gets it, too. Her interview goes on as such:

RUEFLE: . . .Men don’t become invisible in the same way. There’s a difference in power between men and women, and I know I’m using an archaic formula but I do belong to another century. For the longest time, male power was posited in the accumulation of wealth or experience, and experience was something every man could have. And a woman’s power was always posited on physical attractiveness, the ability to have children. So as a man ages, he gains power, and as a woman ages, she loses it, or feels as though she does. If you go back to this paradox, which I understand people may find antiquated, you find there are still shards and shreds of it everywhere. 

INTERVIEWER: Has this “invisibility” affected your writing?

RUEFLE: I think there’s always a certain amount of invisibility when you write. You’re alone in a room, no one is looking over your shoulder. When I was young, writing was the one invisible space I had, and it made me very happy because I could become invisible while writing. I still feel this way, except there’s much less of a difference between my inner, creative life and my outer life than when I was young. And that’s a joyful thing!

Woolf famously wrote about the necessity of that Room of One’s Own, a place where she can be, at least for a moment, invisible. To write, it seems, requires invisibility or does it grant it? When you send your work out into the world, you are no longer invisible. Not exactly. But neither are you a physical object, a thing to be looked upon. You are your thoughts and your words, or your paint and your canvas. It is a terrifying feeling to be seen.

At the same time, it is immensely exciting.

Now this, from the Unexpected Joy Department:

Robin Rendle and Robin Sloan are taking the raw ingredients of a newsletter and making absolute magic. Do take a look.

And this, from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion:

I loved this interview with Jenn Reese, author of A Game of Fox & Squirrels, one of my favorite MG novels of 2020 and an excellent depiction of fear and trauma and parental abuse.

Jenn Reese Interview

My admiration for YA author David Arnold knows no bounds. My thoughts on his latest, The Electric Kingdom, probably don’t do it justice, but here they are anyway.

The Electric Kingdom

This week’s Lexicon comes from J. D. Salinger’s Seymour — An Introduction, a novella that has kept me thinking for weeks now.

The Lexicon - Pentimento

Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.