What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.
– Susan Sontag
Back in October last year, I took up strength training as part of my fitness routine.
Since then, I have been lifting weights every week in full badass mode; headphones in, West Coast hip-hop on, huffing and puffing while I bust out 20 squats with 20-pound dumbbells in each hand.
Not the most flattering self-portrait, I know, but no one looks flattering when they’re working out. And if you disagree, you’ve either not worked out before, or you weren’t actually working out when you thought you were.
#FACT #sorrynotsorry #keepinitreal
Apart from the obvious physical rewards, I’ve noticed that strength training has changed the way I approach and think about things in daily life. Whereas carrying grocery bags on wet market excursions with mom used to be a chore, I now find it a welcome opportunity to sneak in a cheeky workout during the day.
The way I see myself has changed a lot as well, because guuurl when you can bench press for 20 reps straight, there ain’t nothin’ you feel like you cain’t do. Comments that used to irk me no longer matter that much, and with most unpleasant hiccups I come across in work or relationships, I’m now able to get over them pretty quickly.
Overall, lifting weights has given me a really positive sense of self-reinforcement, as I’ve come to realise that there’s more strength within me than I have ever thought possible, be it physical, mental or emotional. And if you doubt this, you’ve probably not strength trained before, so definitely try it out.*
Of course, this being the Classic Jenisms blog where ‘life and lit intertwine’ (thoughts on this as the tagline for my epitaph lol), it just so happens that I read two books this month that touch upon this idea of female strength.
Poignant and intimate, Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour (2015) is an essay collection on six authors at the brink of death, among which only one – Susan Sontag – is a woman, although she is given pride of place as the first author mentioned in the book.
The other work is South-African Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1993), a novel I’ve long wanted to read but somehow never got round to doing, which portrays gender and racial tensions against the backdrop of Apartheid and rape culture in South Africa.
I picked it up on a whim during my lunch hour stroll to the bookstore near my office, and I’m really pleased I did. It’s a fantastic, albeit harrowing, book (perhaps fantastic because it is so harrowing).
What struck me most, though, is that despite the contrasting ways through which Roiphe and Coetzee show how women assert their strength at the hands of compromised fate, their understanding of female strength ends up being an acceptance of vulnerability, mortality, and knowing the parameters within which one as a woman can be strong – on her own terms.
Susan Sontag – Survival is sexy
In the weeks after Susan is diagnosed, Sookhee, [her friend], notices that sometimes she says, “Wow wow,” and closes her eyes. Susan tells her it’s the pain.
Inevitably, this latest illness brings back Sontag’s first, dire cancer diagnosis in 1975. She was in her early forties when she discovered that she had stage 4 breast cancer. None of the doctors she initially consulted thought she had any hope at all, but she sought out aggressive treatments and she survived. From that point onward, the transcendence of ordinary illness and ordinary endings became incorporated and entangled with who she was – the person who seeks treatment, who solves her disease like a math problem, like a logical puzzle of the highest order. “I am gleaming with survivorship,” she wrote in the eighties. The brush with death was incorporated into her dark glamour, her writer’s pose. In an essay on photography, she wrote about “the sex appeal of death”, and this was a sex appeal that she took on, the danger and thrill of coming near to it, of breathing it in, and turning back.
During her early treatment for breast cancer, Sontag wrote, “Being ill feels like a diminishment. I’m no longer the owner of my own body. Can I turn that into a liberation? For a moment I felt myself clad in steel. Let them do with my body what they want. I’m here not there. Catch me if you can.”
Personally, I think no woman is more representative of strength and self-sufficiency in the realm of modern lit than Susan Sontag. Never one to settle for ordinariness, she did not see herself as an ordinary person. Like so many artistic souls, her presence was larger-than-life, and no matter what she did, right or wrong, she would be able to convince others by virtue of the incredible vitality that her actions and words exuded.
To Sontag, the threat of death is the best source of life, both cerebrally and sexually. Cancer, a concept that should be anathemic to anyone who cares about living, is for Sontag normalised into “a math problem”, “a logical puzzle of the highest order” that stimulates her mind and shocks her out of the mundane. As such, it is much welcomed, as a diversion in life that ironically elevates her awareness of life.
Because she was once so intimate with death, she saw it – him – as someone with whom she’d share a bed, as a thing whose “sex appeal” can bring her back to life, despite its inherent nature to the contrary. That wry paradox of her “breathing it in”, with “it” being death, is the ultimate assertion of Sontag’s defiance: having come face to face with what kills, she is not afraid to confront it once again, and to do so in a wholesale embrace, hidden dagger in bust.
Come at me, you stealthy bastard, she mutters under her breath, “catch me if you can”.
These can only be the words of a master temptress.
Towards the end, of course, Sontag dies, and having once “snapped, ‘I have no spiritual values!’” to her doctor’s assistant, she surrenders her final days to the altar of belief, all too aware of what is to come:
A few days later, Sookhee sits with Susan, holding her hand. She can’t talk at this point, so Sookhee says, “If you want me to pray for you, squeeze my hand.”
Sookhee believes that Sontag squeezes her hand.
Sookhee says, “Lord, I am asking you to give Susan peace. She needs peace in whatever situation she is in. Touch her body, Lord, touch her mind, touch her spirit, Lord.”
Sookhee thinks that Susan wants to hear her pray. Others might think that Susan just wanted to squeeze her hand, or they might think, Too abstract: death. Too concrete: me.
Abstract or concrete, wanted to or not, Sontag, once the valiant Joan of Arc against all decaying forces, ultimately had to concede, to acknowledge that she is, like everyone else, only human.
The extraordinary energy with which she lived out her vision now sees ordinary extinguishment in the form of death, who has returned to vindicate his thwarted attempt at “diminishment” when Sontag triumphed against her breast cancer back in the 80s.
I think Sontag feared ordinariness much more than death, but what could be a better mark of ordinariness than dying?
J. M. Coetzee – Stoic victims, or victimised stoics?
On the other hand, Coetzee’s presentation of female strength in Disgrace seems like the opposite of strength upon first read.
The two main female characters are Melanie Isaacs, a student at the Technical University of Cape Town, and Lucy Lurie, a farm worker whose dad, David Lurie, a communications professor at the University, has a scandalous affair with Isaacs and is subsequently fired for his breach of trust.
True to his suggestive surname, the 60-something year old David ‘lures’ young Melanie into his bed, whose response to her old teacher’s advances is a mix of curiosity and disgust:
He makes love to her one more time, on the bed in his daughter’s room. It is good, as good as the first time; he is beginning to learn the way her body moves. She is quick, and greedy for experience. If he does not sense in her a fully sexual appetite, that is only because she is still young. One moment stands out in recollection, when she hooks a leg behind his buttocks to draw him closer: as the tendon of her inner thigh tightens against him, he feels a surge of joy and desire. Who knows, he thinks: there might, despite all, be a future.
“Do you do this kind of thing often?” She asks afterwards.
“Sleep with your students. Have you slept with Amanda?”
He does not answer. Amanda is another student in the class, a wispy blonde. He has no interest in Amanda.
“Why did you get divorced?” She asks.
“I’ve been divorced twice. Married twice, divorced twice.”
“What happened to your first wife?”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you some other time.”
“Do you have pictures?”
“I don’t collect pictures. I don’t collect women.”
“Aren’t you collecting me?”
“No, of course not.”
She gets up, strolls around the room picking up her clothes, as little bashful as if she were alone. He is used to women more self-conscious in their dressing and undressing. But the women he is used to are not as young, as perfectly formed.
(p. 29-30, Vintage)
The first instinct is to judge David as a morally defunct sleaze, but if you look closer, you’ll realise that the focus in this vignette isn’t him, but Melanie, who initiates both action and speech: “she hooks”, “she asks”, “she gets up”.
She is the one with agency.
Whereas David is a slave to his desires, Melanie is remarkably blasé and in control of the situation, navigating their bedroom theatrics with tactical agility, all the while interrogating her teacher with a sort of journalistic bluntness that tells us she feels nothing for the man.
At no point, then, is she passive in this scene, and her swift departure, a move so cold yet matter-of-fact, highlights the upper hand the woman has in what would normally be regarded as a a scene of victimisation.
As twisted as it comes across, Melanie’s response to David is, in its own way, a demonstration of strength against the powerful assault of desire and circumstance.
Compared to Melanie, it is harder for Lucy Lurie to hold up a strong face, because her encounter – being gang raped by three African vagabonds – is motivated by nothing more than racial hatred and base lust. From the outset, she has absolutely no control over the men who force themselves onto her, and by the time she realises the implications of the incident, there is already no turning back: she is pregnant with one of her attackers’ child.
And yet, Lucy’s response to her tragedy recalls the clinical rationality that Sontag shows upon hearing about her cancer, as well as the crystal self-awareness that Melanie possesses about her relationship with David.
Opening up to her father about the rape, Lucy points out that –
“It was so personal, it was done with such personal hatred. That was what stunned me more than anything. The rest was… expected. But why did they hate me so? I had never set eyes on them.”
[David] waits for more, but there is no more, for the moment. “It was history speaking through them,” he offers at last. “A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.”
“That doesn’t make it easier. The shock simply doesn’t go away. The shock of being hated, I mean. In the act.”
In the act. Does she mean what he thinks she means?
“Are you still afraid?” He asks.
“Afraid they are going to come back?”
Unlike Sontag back in the 80s, whose entire premise in life was based on fearlessness in survivorship, Lucy accepts the fact that she is afraid, if only because fear is a natural part of living. This is why, when David offers to send his daughter away from South Africa, she refuses on grounds of principle:
“Lucy, it could be so simple. Close down the kennels. Do it at once. Lock up the house, pay Petrus to guard it. Take a break for six months or a year, until things have improved in this country. Go overseas. Go to Holland. I’ll pay. When you come back you can take stock, make a fresh start.”
“If I leave now, David, I won’t come back. Thank you for the offer, but it won’t work. There is nothing you can suggest that I haven’t been through a hundred times myself.”
“Then what do you propose to do?”
“I don’t know. But whatever I decide I want to decide by myself, without being pushed. There are things you just don’t understand.”
When life throws such a curveball at you, it is scary not to know what countermeasures there are to make things better.
As a white person living in post-Apartheid South Africa, why doesn’t Lucy leave for a place where she isn’t hated for the crimes of her ancestors?
As a woman living in a place where rape culture is rampant, why would she want to put herself at risk of even more humiliation and abuse?
The reasons, for the purpose of this post, don’t matter as much as the fact that she is the one who chooses not to leave, that she is the one who claims full autonomy for how she wants to live her life, despite the challenges she knows will inevitably come her way.
By taking back control from the men around her, be it the violent transgressors or her father (who is also a transgressor of women), Lucy declares in both action and speech that nothing, not even as devastating a tragedy as rape, can dent her inner strength.
* * *
Being strong, then, can mean many things. I’m strong for being able to deadlift a 60-pound barbell, I’m strong for stepping out of my comfort zone and traveling to new places, and I’m strong for confessing that there are still times when I can’t be strong, when I need my friends to hear me moan and my family to lean on.
But perhaps the greatest kind of strength lies in the acceptance of one’s vulnerability, in the moments when we slip and trip and feel embarrassed about ourselves, only to rise up again with the understanding that slipping and tripping and feeling embarrassed about ourselves is what makes us so interesting as human beings.
What does being strong mean to you?
*I follow exercise routines on Fitness Blender, a YouTube channel created by a husband-and-wife team who used to be personal trainers. Their stuff is free, effective and comprehensive, with videos spanning HIIT, strength, cardio, yoga, pilates and more. Highly recommended for those who don’t like spending long hours in the gym, but still want to get the benefits of a complete workout in under an hour. Awesome shiz, check it out.
Photo credits: NYTimes, artfuliving, unsplash