“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.”
Virginia Woolf, January 1915
Welcome to the first issue of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing. This journal owes its existence to bad news: specifically, the increasingly brutal toll human civilization is taking on this earth and its nonhuman creatures. The evidence has mounted in recent months, and the sources are no longer alternative ones. NASA reported that August and September 2014 were the hottest months globally since 1880. In October, the Pentagon announced that ACD (anthropogenic climate disruption) poses an “immediate risk” to national security. In May, the word “unstoppable” was used for the first time by a NASA scientist in connection with glacial melt, in this case a portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, reviewed in February by Al Gore on the front page of the NYTimes Book Review, observes that we are well into the first mass extinction event set in motion by humans and details some of its saddest casualties. And just weeks ago, The Living Planet Index (LPI) showed a decline of fifty-two percent in vertebrate species populations between 1970 and 2010. “Something between us and earth has broken,” Linda Hogan wrote in The Woman Who Watches over the World, published some ten years ago, and today it would seem the supporting facts are all in. Yet we humans have a seemingly endless capacity for looking the other way.
The times are dark. But as Rebecca Solnit points out in her recent essay on Woolf’s darkness from which the epigraph above is lifted, dark and murky places are where magic happens: “…the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.”1 The dark matter that scientists say makes up eighty five percent of our universe, and about which they admit they know very little, is also, they say, its animating force. “To me,” Solnit continues, “the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.” Writing of our planet’s mineral underworld in Orion (May 2012), Sandra Steingraber reports that “the biosphere extends a mile or so more into the dark heart of the planet.” And this deep and essentially unknowable life, which makes up more than half of all life on earth, she writes, may be “contributing to climate stability.” What we don’t know may yet save us.
Writer Joy Williams sounds a similar note in a recent interview in The Paris Review (#209), “…real avant-garde writing today,” she writes, “would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauty and wonders. No one seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves…” And later she goes on to muse, “I wonder if understanding the dream is really what must be done. Can we incorporate and treasure and be nourished by that which we do not understand?…”
In addition to bad news, Dark Matter owes its existence to the women writers, dreamers and visionaries with whom I have been sitting in council at regular intervals for ten years, gatherings in which dreams are our main source of guidance and understanding. I am always stunned by the clarity, insight and ingenuity of this material that comes to us from nonconscious, chthonic realms. The knowing that issues from this source—I leave every gathering with this conviction—is knowing that we desperately need today. It is knowing that, as Deena Metzger writes in this issue, was both valued and heeded in ancient times. Yet it is discredited and maligned, if acknowledged at all, in most of today’s institutions of higher learning. “The heart’s way of knowing opens the door to the stars, to non-limited seeing and healing,” writes Miriam Greenspan, also in this issue. “This form of perception and cognition is not recognized in our culture and is often pathologized.”
A word about myself. Some thirty years ago, I wrote a Ph.D thesis on two modern women novelists and essayists: Virginia Woolf and German (then GDR) writer Christa Wolf. “Feminist realists,” I called them at the time; today I would call them “seers”—and more, to use Greenspan’s phrase, “seers in the dark.” Both writers have been perched on my shoulder as I pulled this issue together. Both Virginia and Christa were highly schooled in the civilized languages of their time, and steeped in their respective cultural and literary traditions; by dint of their fearless vision, of their “freedom from unreal loyalties,” to use Woolf’s phrase, both came to see those traditions as deeply problematic—and to call them to account in their writing. Wolf’s novel Cassandra and Woolf’s last novel Between the Acts both offer at once a terminal diagnosis of Western civilization and a celebration of the power of female and elemental creativity. In Wolf’s Büchner Prize speech she wrote these extraordinary words: “`The state of the world is wrong2,‘we say, testing the phrase. And we hear that it rings true. We have found a sentence that we can stand by. It isn’t beautiful, it’s only accurate…. Could this phrase become the first in a new, accurate language which we would hear with our ears but not yet speak with our tongues?“3
I identify with Virginia Woolf and Christa Wolf because their story is mine. I grew up in a “cultured” home filled with books. My father punctuated his conversation with great thoughts from quotable European thinkers. I attended a private school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and went on to graduate from two Ivy League colleges. No doubt I owe my ability to write clear discursive prose and analyze literary texts to that elite education. But today it is clear to me that the assumptions on which it rested—about what is important to know, about how knowing takes place, and indeed about what knowing is—are the same assumptions that undergird our ongoing assault on the biosphere, and that cut us off from genuine sources of healing.
Some of you may know me as the ex-editor of Trivia: Voices of Feminism. I was founding editor of its original rendition as a print journal in 1982 and edited its online offspring till 2011.4 Like Trivia, named after the goddess who sat at the crossroads (tri-via), Dark Matter has arisen from gatherings of women—in this case circles of women dreamers: in Topanga, California, in Canton, Connecticut, and in both Montreal and Lac Café, Quebec. It is itself intended as a gathering place, though does not seek to be mistaken for an actual one. My hope is that it will lead to gatherings in actual places.
I see Dark Matter as carrying on Trivia’s original mission: to “restore to women’s ideas their original power and significance.” Except that “ideas” suggests an adherence to abstract, rational thought that this journal exists to challenge. “… how can we write under the glowing sun of reason,” Christa Wolf asks, in an essay published alongside her grimly prophetic novel Cassandra, “in this rigorously cultivated, arrogant, and deciphered landscape, robbed of our possessions, including our words, which could have the power to cast spells?… What is Cassandra’s message today, when of course she is mocked, unheard, described as abnormal, exposed, consigned to death?” Dark Matter exists to honor and to take seriously women’s spells, spillings, ravings and reason-defying leaps of thought and imagination (and welcomes all forms of embodied expression). But it also exists to acknowledge the other species that cohabit this planet with us, and in some cases have been here millions of years longer, by attending carefully to the signs they send us.
Which prompts me to mention that when I sent this editorial for review to Harriet Ellenberger, my collaborator for six issues of Trivia: Voices of Feminism and a contributor to this issue, she wrote back: “the interweaving of Woolf and Wolf reminds me to tell you that yesterday I had the incredible luck to see a grey-and-white wolf run and leap into the overgrown field; she leapt with her tail up and she had the fluffiest prettiest white tail imaginable; this is the first time in my life I’ve seen a full-blood wolf in daylight. I think it was a she-wolf…”
“Unabashed Knowing” was the theme of Trivia 7/8, which Harriet and I co-edited back in 2008. In my editorial for that issue I wrote that “…unabashed Knowing is itself the beginning of all true healing.” Unabashed Knowing is the foundation of all the writing in this first issue of Dark Matter. In “Woolf’s Darkness,” Solnit writes, “It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.” Going into the unknown, into the dark, with their eyes open is exactly what all the writers and artists in this issue are doing. Join them as they journey.
Montreal, November 2014
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