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Quintessence: Realising the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto by Mary Daly

Terri Murray samples Mary Daly’s highly individual style and concludes that it enhances her ‘desperate’ message.

Mary Daly is refreshingly unapologetic about the long and obscure title of her latest feminist treatise, which continues the pattern, established first by her famous Gyn/Ecology:The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1979) and elaborated in subsequent books, of naming and repelling the ‘mind-binding’ trappings of patriarchy. In an era when ‘feminist’ has become an epithet, Daly is a threat – radical, provocative, confident and direct, she is not afraid to lift her head above the crowd and say that the Emperor is a bare naked man.

For the uninitiated reader of Daly, her quirky style can be off-putting if not downright annoying. She is self-referential on almost every level – citing her own works, conjuring a future utopian era peopled with her own fans, and inventing a whole new lexicon of ‘Daly-isms’. But stick with Daly long enough and these stylistic flaws transform themselves into an elaborate and ingenious strategy, contributing powerfully to what is, by her own admission, a desperate message. The aim of Quintessence is to convince the reader of what the author herself knows: that a terrible war is being waged against women and all of nature and that it is impossible for life-loving women to go ‘too far’ in their fight for their lives, for all Life.

We are living, says Daly, in the ‘necrophilic era.’ This claim, extreme though it may be, is difficult to deny in the face of her observation that the 1990’s are characterised by rampant deforestation, the choking of our rivers, lakes and oceans with pollution and the ongoing daily extinction of more species of plants and animals. Denial is out of the question if you add to this the genocidal rape of Muslim women by the Serbs in Bosnia- Hersegovina and the use of pornography by the Serbian rapists; the world wide surge of religious fundamentalism and its explicit suppression of women; the apparently pointless use of scientific knowledge and resources for the ‘creation’ of mutant species and clones; the academic taming and watering down of serious criticism of these atrocities by pseudo-feminism; the colonisation of female spirituality by Eastern patriarchal ‘gurudom’ and the supreme narcissism of the new reproductive technologies (which will revoke inherent knowledge of life cycles from the genes of seeds, animals and women). In each of her five chapters Daly analyses one of the various strategies currently being employed by the ‘sadosociety’ to destroy women’s bodies, minds and souls, and this she associates with a further attempt to annihilate all Elemental Reality.

Daly’s habit of naming the escalating atrocities committed against women and nature in the necrophilic era can make for a heavy read, but each chapter maintains a difficult balance between being totally depressing and positive about the future – summoning courage, hope and rage to transcend the atrocities. By breaking the man-made taboo against naming the reality of such violation, we cast ourselves further into what Daly calls ‘the Fifth Dimension’ – a state of natural grace in which journeying women dis-cover their elemental harmony with the universe.

At the end of each of the five chapters Daly inserts a dialogue with her futuristic friend Annie. It is somewhat telling, however, that in order to preserve some sweetness and light she must adopt a fantastic strategy of communion with other like-minded women who inhabit a future feminist utopia called ‘Lost and Found Continent’. Daly writes ‘ahead of her time’ and in doing so she imagines herself to be participating already in the Biophilic Era of the future … which is testimony to how utterly defeatist any attempt at such a project is in the present. But this is precisely the point.

The other side of the coin, however, is that we bring the future into being by starting here and now to think differently and we must resist the lies we are being fed daily. The ability to recognise their own powers to exorcise patriarchal patterns, is, for Daly, itself an exorcism of that pattern within the minds of women, and this is the crucial point of departure for the further changes she envisions, for example, in healing the relationship between ourselves and the rest of nature. The future is implicitly contained in the present, the ‘real future’ transcends the stagnation of what she calls ‘archetypal deadtime’. It is reality created now by original acts/actions.

The institutions of patriarchy, she says, foster a state of separation from our real present. They do this through the manufacture and marketing of imitations of reality. The society which produces this meaninglessness Daly dubs ‘the state of con-fusion’. One of the culprits she identifies in this drive to distance women from their own natural thought processes and passions is ‘academentia’ – a Daly-ism for the institutional complexities wrought by ‘post-modern feminism’. Daly claims that a de-feminism of women’s studies has dominated academia for the past several decades. First, she attributes this ‘castration of women’s minds’ to the fact that many academic institutions only allow into the curriculum a brand of ‘post-modern feminism’ that refuses to identify, and hence cannot challenge, relations of male domination and subordination. She suggests that the only reason feminist post modernism is viewed as a legitimate feminist theory in the academy is that it is utterly unthreatening to male hegemony. She concludes (citing Denise Thompson) that ‘post-modernist’ feminism is a contradiction in terms.

Her loose use of English and her constant coinage of new words, self-indulgent though it is, succeeds in deconstructing and re-constructing latent meanings and reveals the hidden powers of language. She shows us that the medium can indeed be the message. Her style makes us think about thought itself, and about who is controlling it, and how.

Mary Daly is not a mainstream feminist writer, and this book explains why. Even if some of the explanations and connections are all ‘in her head’, she has at least succeeded in showing us why that is precisely the only place in a patriarchal world where they could be.

© Terri Murray 2001

Terri Murray is an American scholar who has degrees in philosophy and theology from Heythrop College, University of London.

Quintessence: Realising the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto by Mary Daly, Beacon Press (US) and Women’s Press (UK).

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