Susan Griffin

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We know ourselves to be made from this earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature.. .Nature speaking of nature to nature.1

Contemporary feminist poet Susan Griffin, who began writing at the age of 14, has published more than fifteen books of poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction on subjects ranging from rape and pornography to war, eros and illness. She has received many book awards and honours, including the Ina Coolbirth Prize for Poetry, an Emmy Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Malvina Reynolds Award for cultural achievement, a Schumacher Fellowship, a Commonwealth Medal, a Women's Foundation Award, a MacArthur Foundation grant, and nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. Although nature is a concern throughout Griffin's body of work, her long prose-poem Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) stands out as a key text of environmental thought and a germinative work of ecofeminism, a movement that originated in the 1970s and that has become an influential voice in environmental discourse of the twenty-first century.

Griffin's background is pertinent to understanding her work, for, concurring with the feminist insight that 'the personal is political', Griffin at times interweaves autobiography with cultural critique, a literary form she calls 'social autobiography'. Born in California in 1943, Griffin came of age during the Cold War, years marked by nuclear testing, anti-communist propaganda and social conformity, resistance to which caused her to identify herself as a radical. Griffin's parents divorced when she was 6, and she and her older sister were separated and sent to live with different relatives, their mother's alcoholism rendering her unable to care for either child. This early experience of abandonment and separation struck deeply into the psyche of Griffin, whose later writing would probe these wounds to provide insight into Western culture and whose years of therapy pre-disposed her to view the collective mind of Western civilization from a psychological perspective. Griffin was raised by conservative Republican grandparents near Hollywood, California, where she grew up loving movies and becoming a fan of Eisenstein, whose film montages and juxtaposition of images almost certainly inform the associative collage technique of much of her writing. As a teenager, Griffin lived with a close friend's Jewish family, where her consciousness was raised about the historical treatment of Jews; in later years the Holocaust became an important image and racism a recurrent theme in her work.

Attending the University of California, Berkeley, during the student unrest of the 1960s, Griffin became involved in the Free Speech movement, the Civil Rights movement and protest against the Vietnam War. She transferred to what is now San Francisco State University, where she graduated cum laude in English in 1965, received her M.A. in 1973 and worked for the radical magazine Ramparts as an editorial assistant, becoming troubled by the sexist attitudes of the staff. During the late 1960s and 1970s, Griffin married, became a feminist, gave birth to a daughter, divorced and became a lesbian. Simultaneously, she taught writing and developed her own writing career with several volumes of poetry, short stories and an award-winning play, Voices (1975), which were published by feminist presses and reflected her experience as a woman in society. Early exposure to the diverse worlds of gentile and Jew, conservatism and radicalism, heterosexuality and homosexuality, marriage, motherhood and divorce, allowed Griffin to become what she calls a 'bridge figure', someone who straddles boundaries rather than reinforcing them.2 'As a writer', Griffin says, 'I have always felt myself to be a kind of crucible, my mind a medium in which the many voices, spoken and unspoken, belonging to our age, are melted, mixed and transformed.'3

As Griffin reflects on her classic work Woman and Nature she notes that two voices (each set in a different type face) engage in an extended dialogue, 'one the chorus of women and nature, an emotional, animal, embodied voice, and the other a solo part, cool, professorial, pretending to objectivity, carrying the weight of cultural authority'.4 The book opens with a stunning, heavily researched and annotated, chronologically arranged compendium of statements, or, rather, parodies of statements from Plato through Einstein—magisterial voices of science, philosophy, and religion from Western civilization—proclaiming parallel 'truths' about nature and women. For example, referring to Aristotle, Griffin writes, 'It is decided that matter is passive and inert, and that all motion originates from outside matter.. .It is decided that the nature of woman is passive, that she is a vessel waiting to be filled.'5 Later, paraphrasing Lamarck on evolution and the Marquis de Sade on women, Griffin writes: 'It is declared...[t]hat "the stronger and the better equipped.eat the weaker and.the larger species devour the smaller". And it is stated that if women were not meant to be dominated by men, they would not have been created weaker.'6 Only occasionally, in this first section, do the voices of women and nature speak, anguished cries such as 'Our voices diminish...We become less...And they say that muteness is natural in us'.1

The next section of the book focuses on the tandem mistreatment women and nature have received at the hands of a patriarchal culture dominated by the mind-set chronicled above. In 'Timber', for example, drawing from her reading of forestry manuals and office management textbooks, Griffin juxtaposes the economics of timber harvest (where trees are referred to as so many 'board feet') with the efficient supervision of stenographers. Other chapters compare factory farming with modern childbirth, horse training and dressage with facelifts and breast implant surgery, nuclear waste disposal with hiding the body of a murdered woman, and strip mining with rape. Needless to say, these pages are deeply disturbing. Casting her extensive research into a poetic form, Griffin's goal is to evoke feeling even as she awakens consciousness. These pages convince the reader that the comparisons Griffin makes point beyond metaphorical similarities to systemic unity; namely, that these various cruelties are all part of the same system, founded on, in Griffin's words, 'a philosophy that is also a submerged psychology'.8

In Woman and Nature and throughout her later work, Griffin develops a diagnosis of the illness of the Western mind; we are suffering from a form of insanity that lies at the heart of our destruction of the environment. According to Griffin in essays such as 'Split Culture' and 'Ideologies of Madness' (the latter collected in The Eros of Everyday Life), we live in a culture of fear. We are afraid of physical pain, illness, change and death, and we are likewise terrified by the power of nature over our lives. In the face of such terror, we resort to denial and domination. We deny our physical natures, imagining instead that we are our minds, that we possess an immortal soul. We attempt to control nature, to master it, subdue it, shape it to our desires. However, argues Griffin, the repressed always returns to haunt us in our dreams. So, we project onto an 'other' the parts of ourselves that we wish to disown. In our culture, white men have been in power; thus, men have defined themselves as above matter, and they have construed women as closer to nature. Man's domination of women, of racial 'others', and of nature can be understood as part of his ongoing efforts to be in control of himself, to triumph over the body and to deny death. 'In a culture of delusion', Griffin writes, 'women symbolize a denied self who experiences what it is to be human, to be in and of nature. This self knows that we die, this self feels, suffers pain, knows love without boundary, grieves loss, knows the world through sensation, through the body, accepts that we are sometimes powerless before the powerful circumstances of this earth.'9

Why have women come to be allied so closely with nature in men's psyche? Griffin, paralleling the work of Dorothy Dinnerstein, reasons that mothers are a child's first experience of nature: she has the power to feed and to comfort; likewise, she has the awful power to withhold food and to abandon the child. It is this early feeling of helpless dependence on mother/nature that causes the grown man to strive for independence, creating a culture built upon fear of connection and alienation from nature. Paradoxically, though, in dominating nature, we threaten the very grounds of our continued existence. Griffin writes: '[W]e belong to a civilization which is bent upon suicide, which is secretly committed to destroying Nature and destroying the self that is Nature.'10

What is the way out of this madness? In psychotherapy, the first step in healing is naming. We must become conscious of the problem. Griffin conceives of herself as a witness, someone who is 'able to speak the unspeakable, to break the silence'.11 She explains, '[B]ecause the assumptions that belong to a culture are often invisible in their fullest dimensions and consequences, one must make them visible before discerning change. The very process of seeing the structure of thought is itself a crucial kind of change and genesis.'12 She contends that the root of the problem is our culture's construction of masculinity. Griffin notes differences between socially masculine and feminine values: The roles society [has] given to men and women [have] produced different thinking and different ways of being in us.. ,[M]en, valuing power, produce nations, conflict and wars, and.women, valuing life, produce relationship, continuity and peace.'13 '[T]here are lots of reasons why males are violent', she observes, 'and they have more to do with tradition than testosterone.'14 What is needed, according to Griffin, is 'a deep transformation of consciousness'.15 Hallmarks of this shift will be the celebration of sensual knowledge, respect for a multiplicity of views rather than a single perspective, a view of the earth as being imbued with intelligence and intrinsic meaning, and, most important, the reunification of body and spirit and nature and culture in our conception of humanity. Griffin hopes, 'If human consciousness can be rejoined not only with the human body but with the body of earth, what seems incipient in the reunion is the recovery of meaning within existence that will infuse every kind of meeting between self and the universe, even in the most daily acts, with an eros, a palpable love, that is also sacred.'16

In her analysis of patriarchy and articulation of a healthier cultural alternative, Griffin, along with mutually influential writers Carolyn Merchant and Adrienne Rich, is widely regarded as a leading ecofeminist thinker. Woman and Nature has been called 'fundamental to an ecofeminist library', a 'cultural feminist classic', and a 'touchstone text' for 'virtually all ecofeminists.'17 Ecofeminism joins feminist thought with ecological thought, insisting that one cannot fully understand the oppression of women without understanding how Western civilization has regarded nature, and, conversely, one cannot adequately understand our civilization's abuse of nature without taking into account how our culture conceptualizes women. As Griffin explains: '[T]he social construction (exploitation, destruction) of nature is implicit in and inseparable from the social construction of gender.'18 Although scholars have noted that there are different varieties of ecofeminism, all versions seem to agree that patriarchy rests upon a conceptual foundation of hierarchical dualism in which reality is categorized by oppositional pairs (such as spirit/matter, intellect/emotion, mind/ body, man/woman, culture/nature), in which the first term of the pair is accorded greater worth, privilege and power than the second. In this system, man is allied with culture, spirit and intellect, while woman is identified with nature, the body and emotion. While some feminists seek to liberate women from the sphere of the natural and some separatist ecofeminists wish to bar men from that sphere, Griffin and the majority of ecofeminists celebrate the woman-nature bond and urge that men likewise cultivate a closer relationship with nature and their own material bodies. In general, ecofeminists aspire to move beyond dualistic thinking and to establish relationships based not on hierarchy and domination, but on caring, respect and awareness of interconnection.

Griffin's writing, which since 1976 has been published by major trade presses, reveals an exceptionally broad understanding of interconnection. Her studies of rape and pornography reveal motivations and mechanisms of domination that also explain our relationship to nature. Her poetry is intimately related to her prose, which itself is highly poetic, reflecting her conviction that poetry is 'a powerful way of knowledge' that arises out of bodily experience and 'teaches political theory imagination'.19 Griffin's A Chorus of Stones draws connections between the private psyche formed in childhood and public acts of violence in war, showing conversely how war creates violence in private life. Her recent What Her Body Thought connects the story of the flamboyant nineteenth-century courtesan featured in the movie Camille with Griffin's own illness from Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction

Syndrome, which in turn, 'like canaries in a mine', becomes 'a signal of the sickness of the planet'.20 Revealing the economics of illness, Griffin indicts society for failing to support those in need. As one supporter has noted, 'By refusing to respect the "commonsense" distinctions among historical, social and personal issues, Griffin creates a kind of network of meaning in which everything illuminates everything else.'21 In the context of environmental thought, Griffin's profound insight that gender issues and ecological issues are interconnected has been responsible for transforming both feminism and environmental thought.

Notes

1 Woman and Nature, p. 226.

2 Griffin, quoted in 'Susan Griffin', Utne Visionaries: People Who Could Change Your Life, 1995 Profiles, http://www.utne.com/visionaries/95profiles2.html.

7 Ibid., p. 26, original emphasis.

8 'Ecofeminism and Meaning', p. 216.

9 Made from this Earth, p. 18.

11 The Eros of Everyday Life, p. 12.

13 Made from this Earth, pp. 14-15.

14 Griffin, quoted in 'Susan Griffin', Utne Visionaries.

15 The Eros of Everyday Life, p. 20.

17 Judith Plant (ed.), Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, p. 255, 1989; Ynestra King, 'Healing the Wounds: Feminism, Ecology, and Nature/Culture Dualism', in Gender/ Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, ed. Alison M.Jaggar and Susan R.Bordo, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, p. 124, 1989 ; Patrick D.Murphy, Literature, Nature, and Other: Ecofeminist Critiques, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, p. 40, 1995.

18 'Ecofeminism and Meaning', pp. 219-20.

19 Made from this Earth, pp. 16, 242.

20 Griffin, 'The Internal Athlete', Ms. v. 2.6, p. 38, 1992.

21 'Susan Griffin', Utne Visionaries.

See also in this book

Aristotle, Lovelock, Plumwood, Schumacher

Griffin's major writings

Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, New York: Harper & Row, 1978; new edn, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 2000.

Pornography and Silence: Culture's Revenge Against Nature, New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Made from this Earth: An Anthology of Writings, London: Women's Press, 1982; New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

'Split Culture', The Schumacher Lectures, vol. 2, ed. Satish Kumar, London: Blond & Briggs, pp. 175-200, 1984.

The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society, New York: Doubleday, 1995.

'Ecofeminism and Meaning', Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, ed. Karen J.Warren, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, pp. 213-26, 1997.

Bending Home: Selected & New Poems, 1967-1998, Port Townsend, Washington, DC: Copper Canyon Press, 1998.

Further reading

Adams, B., 'Susan Griffin', Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, ed. Sandra Pollack and Denise D.Knight, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 244-51, 1993.

Macauley, D., 'On Women, Animals and Nature: An Interview with Ecofeminist Susan Griffin', American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, 90, 3 (Fall), pp. 116-27, 1991.

Merchant, C., 'Earthcare: Women and the Environmental Movement', Environment, 23, 5 (June), pp. 6-13, 38-40, 1981.

'Susan Griffin', Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 50, ed. Pamela S.Dear, Detroit, MI: Gale Research, pp. 169-72, 1996.

'Susan Griffin', dialogue with Nannerl Keohane in 1980, collected in Women Writers of the West Coast Speaking of Their Lives and Careers, ed. Marilyn Yalom, Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, pp. 40-55, 1983.

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  • antero
    Is susan griffin a lesbian?
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    What is split culture by susan Griffin?
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