‘Did we really massacre Indians, enslave Africans and poison rivers for this hellhole?’
Lucy Ellmann: Consumed by consumerism, the US is now the worst boy scout jamboree in history
Lucy Ellmann: ‘Due to a certain fatigue with conventional narrative, 'Ducks, Newburyport' is essentially one long sentence, with plenty of commas.’ Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images
You mean we massacred the Indians, enslaved the Africans, cut down all the trees, poisoned all the rivers and imprisoned all the animals for THIS, this hellhole of bombast and hamburgers and opioid addictions and cardboard-box houses and pretend ideas?
You mean we used up all the oxygen on 4th of July firecrackers and forcing kids to pledge allegiance to the flag every day, drank Coke till we choked, spat tobacky till we puked, fought cancer (but only for ill people with lots of money), nestled in Nestlé’s, slurped slurpees, burped burpees, handed on herpes, Tasered the wayward, tortured a million billion chickens (then fried and ate them), just so people can drive around and shoot each other, and create GoFundMe sites to pay the hospital bills?
And yet Americans still blather on about how “great” the place is. They’ll salute it until the whole shebang’s awash in radioactive waste. They’ll be clinging to the roof, barbecuing steaks up there, talking god and cars and rape fantasies until there’s nothing left alive but a few DDT-resistant bugs.
They seem weirdly oblivious to the past and future. Also, the present. Are they indifferent, intentionally unaware, or just too damn busy makin’ a buck? Consumed by consumerism, they wallow in their plasma screens, coveting the next dynamite Apple doodad or the ultimate in ugly trainers. They have ruined the Earth, without a qualm, all so that they can drink beer, make Sloppy Joes, watch football, listen to incessant rock music, wank away on their air guitars, object to the public display of bare female nipples, worry about whether the mailman shut the mailbox properly, and choose a new euphemism yearly for going to the toilet.
How can a woman thrive in a world saturated in patriarchy and porn?
Daily they wrestle with a world of distraction and fake facts, their minds ravaged in service of corporations and any other propaganda and indoctrination going – the American reliance on science, religion, and other self-congratulatory pretences, are among the many defensive mechanisms that gave us this male-order muppet show in the first place. The US is now the worst boy scout jamboree in history. Fifty American women a day are shot dead by their so-called partners. How can a woman thrive in a world saturated in patriarchy and porn?
My new book, Ducks, Newburyport, narrated by an Ohio mom, surveys the damage, with particular emphasis on motherhood, that hopeless task in the modern world. It also offers an alternative view of motherhood, womanhood, and life itself, in the form of a wild animal, a mountain lion – since, if women have been abused by patriarchy, the animals have had it even worse. Male supremacy is anti-nature. Otherwise the survival instinct would have assured women, as potential mothers, a prime position in society.
Motherhood has been downplayed as a subject for far too long. And by motherhood I don’t at all mean to exclude women who don’t or won’t bear children. Hooray for them – population growth is way out of control. But it’s pointless to deny that the whole history of women’s lives and women’s bodies is interwoven with childbirth and childcare. Thanks to misogyny, women have thereby encountered endless trouble, being shamed rather than cherished for their allotted organs.
Girls the world over are mocked for menstruating. Breastfeeding is frowned on by the well-fed man. Anything men can do, women can do better – but somehow everything women do, men say stinks. Men couldn’t oppress women any better if they really did get together in an underground bunker and plan the whole thing out. (Which I still half-suspect they do. How else can they all agree on high heels and what size breasts or arse are currently de rigueur?)
Vengefully they ridicule everything that’s different about women’s bodies from men’s, because childbirth is a power denied them. Forget penis envy, it’s vagina envy that causes all the havoc. In the absence of anything positive to contribute, male power rests on violence, violation and volatility, on booze, biz, bellowing and boring the pants off you. Not to mention a lot of plain old sneakiness.
It’s obvious to everybody that these skills come a pretty poor second to the power to bring forth whole human beings from your belly. But men sulkily cling to their death wish like a security blanket, using violence as their main riposte to women. Not all men, of course, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’m generalising. But it’s for a good cause: sanity.
As mothers or potential mothers, as daughters, sisters, aunts, or friends (and yes, of course, along with many nice, caring men), women know the work involved in planting a single human being safely on the earth. It’s a huge job, worth more than any Chrysler Building, Hadron collider or missile silo.
What have we got to show for putting up with five millenniums of male rule?
As a result, to kill any person is a terrorist attack on all women. It grieves and silences them, and keeps them down. MEN HAVE GLORIED IN THIS. How gleefully they’ve stylised their militarism, exulting in uniforms and hierarchies, in sneak attacks and death and epaulettes and the chastening of women.
Matriarchy worked with nature. Patriarchy dissed it, and in the last two hundred they’ve really trashed the place. Wildlife is pretty much finished now. Walruses have become lemmings. Soon there will be no orangutans. Sad to say, Ireland’s the worst polluter in the EU, which is no emblem of sustainability either.
What have we got to show for putting up with five millenniums of male rule? Some very good Roman mosaics, mummies (the Egyptian kind), the undervalued arts, capitalism, fascism, poverty, carnage. Women are exhausted, children are stabbed in the street! Tornadoes and tirades, nincompoops and nanoparticles and oceanic levels of plastic: everything putrid on the face of the earth is on the rise. The queues on Mount Everest fit right in. We’re all trying to carry on with life, under a mushroom cloud of male idiocy.
Ducks, Newburyport is not a feminist rant, though it may be destined to be called that. This is more of a mewl
And yet to take feminism seriously still strikes some as unseemly. Well, I like being unseemly, as did my mother Mary Ellmann, I think, in her more intellectual way. An Irish-American, she grew up working-class in Massachusetts, and got to university by chance, when her brother smashed his car and gave her the insurance pay-out.
Later, she published the most startling book, the much imitated (and occasionally plagiarised) Thinking About Women (1968). Though based on her background in literary criticism, the book pinpoints the ways men seek to discredit women in other realms too, through the usual stereotyping and physiological analogy.
Take the unamiable habit of forever identifying women’s minds with uterine processes. Men are the worst hysterics around, but they rush to characterise female thought as slow, passive, accretive and unproductive, supposedly in likeness to the ovum, which they depict as an immobile “pop art fried egg on a plate”.
As my mother pointed out, the ovum is actually much more like some kind of existentialist loner, a Lewis or Clark, setting off each month on a strenuous expedition from ovary to Fallopian tube to uterus, equivalent to going down the Mississippi on a raft or over Niagara Falls in a barrel. “One might say that the activity of ova involves a daring and independence absent, in fact, from the activity of spermatozoa, which move in jostling masses, swarming out on signal like a crowd of commuters from the 5:15.”
Still, it seems impossible to stop people equating balls with bravery. They never mention breasts, which could be applauded for boldly advancing through the world ahead of the rest of the body. (As do noses and paunches.) Instead, much is made of balls, and the importance of inseminating seminal thoughts all over the place. This preoccupation suggests a pretty indulgent estimate of the male’s biological contribution to reproduction which is, let’s face it, as minimal as it is haphazard.
Ducks, Newburyport is not a feminist rant, though it may be destined to be called that. This is more of a mewl, and takes the form of an approximation of the consciousness of one American woman, trapped in a trapped family, as all Americans are. However diminished she may be, she’s a human being and an example, among seven billion other possible examples currently on the planet, of human consciousness.
I know I’m up against the deeply ingrained habit of finding women’s voices exasperating. But my feeling is, if we cannot tolerate an in-depth look at the workings of one person’s mind, where does that leave the other seven billion? And what does it say about us as a compassionate and enquiring species? Joyce was asking the same question in Ulysses.
Due to a certain fatigue with conventional narrative, Ducks, Newburyport is essentially one long sentence, with plenty of commas. The object is to envelop the reader. There is a female cosiness factor involved in spreading out a big, fat, soft book for the reader to tramp around in. I wanted a certain gentleness to prevail too, in a novel that, if nothing else, offers an antidote to the priorities of testosterone.
Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press