When invited to join the Liberal Studies Program at Simon Fraser University, I was deeply moved knowing that I would be learning about the ideas and beliefs that have guided human beings and shaped civilizations for thousands of years. This journey through the ages has provided an introduction to an amazing roster of authors. During this excursion into time, I was drawn to Hilda Doolittle and her Selected Poems. Often referred to as H.D., her work seemed strangely familiar, perhaps even – Sappho like, a centuries old text.
Struggling to understand her life as well as her work more thoroughly, my search for context led me down familiar paths of other passionately and equally creative women that I have been introduced to over the years. Each woman was fiercely talented, expressive and in search of her individual freedom.
These included Georgia O’Keeffe and Simone de Beauvoir in particular who appear to share similar lives and views. Gifted and involved in complicated, if not often conflicted relationships similar of H.D.’s, these relationships appear to interfere and restrict their freedom and creative expression as well as allow for the nurturing of a new creative spirit and soulfulness in their work.
In the following pages I hope to explore some of the themes that these amazing women share in common, get to know them a little better through their work and, perhaps, begin to discover a deeper appreciation of my role and understanding about my own significant relationships.
My sister and I were raised by our grandmothers. I believe that experience allowed me to grow up differently from many men. While only skimming the surface of the past one hundred years or so, thanks to the many women in my life I believe that I have a better appreciation of the struggles in the fight for equality and women’s rights, healthy loving relationships, and a deeper understanding of the complexity of relationships and how they impact our creativity. Each has taught me something new about myself, about love, speaking my truth, staying inspired, not judging, and being truly present, moment by moment.
The end of the nineteenth century saw tremendous growth in the suffrage movement that helped open doors to women into the next century. For decades, women became incredibly active and influential as writers, artists, photographers, business leaders and activists as they began to occupy more positions once dominated by men. By the middle of the twentieth century, women in the Western world had redefined their roles in almost every social, political and cultural arena. Hilda Doolittle, Georgia O’Keeffe and Simone de Beauvoir were just three of these women who caught my attention.
Hilda Doolittle was born in 1886 and the oldest of the three women; one year older than Georgia O’Keeffe and twenty-two years older than Simone de Beauvoir, who was born in 1908.
H.D.is primarily known as an imagist poet; however, she also wrote novels, memoirs and essays. Her work is considered innovative and experimental, both reflecting and contributing to the avant-garde climate that dominated the arts in London and Paris until the end of World War II. Immersed for decades in the crosscurrents of modernism, psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, mythologies and feminism, H.D. brought a unique voice and vision to her writing. The similarity and delicate writing in some of H.D.’s work is likely attributed to her fascination and love of Sappho. As well, the sensuality of Hilda’s work was often likened to the intense eroticism of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
Hilda had a difficult and challenging relationship with once fiancée and lifetime friend, Ezra Pound. “In-the End To Torment, ” H.D. wrote that “Ezra would have destroyed me and the center they call Air and Crystal of my poetry” (55). H.D. said that she felt “smothered and smudged out” by Pound (55). While Ezra Pound remained a close friend all of her life and was even present at her marriage to Richard Aldington, H.D. lived a life in open relationships that remained a central pattern that she discussed with Freud. It is reported to have been encoded in much of her writing
In her poem “Eurydice,” from the archives of the Poetry Foundation, H.D. writes:
At least I have the flowers of myself, and my thoughts, no god can take that; I have the fervour of myself for a presence and my own spirit for light; and my spirit with its loss knows this; though small against the black, small against the formless rocks, hell must break before I am lost; before I am lost, hell must open like a red rose for the dead to pass.
A heartfelt embrace in her aloness as H.D. takes in all that life has to offer.
Georgia O’Keeffe was considered an early modernist in the 1920’s. She was the first female painter to join her male contemporaries. Her exquisite flower paintings were sensual, as were her sculptures and collections, and gained her a reputation of rendering nature in shapes and forms that made them seem familiar and, at the same time, new and different. Georgia had a lifelong relationship and marriage with Alfred Stieglitz. His penchant for younger women, however, turned this into more of a business relationship, allowing, perhaps forcing, each to spend time apart with their lovers for the remainder of their distant marriage and friendship.
Of their relatively open marriage, O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz in 1934, “The difference in us is that when I felt myself attracted to someone else I realized I must make a choice—and I made it in your favour. . . . You seemed to feel there was no need to make a choice” (Collection of O’Keeffe Museum Research). While Stieglitz remained in New York until he died, Georgia found her most creative moments in an old pickup truck outside of her new home near Santa Fe in picturesque New Mexico.
In the collections carefully stored in the O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, Georgia O’Keeffe once said of her encounter with a hummingbird:
One day a hummingbird flew in. When I had it in my hand it was so small I couldn’t believe I had it- but I could feel the intense life- so intense and so tiny. And I am, at this moment, willing to let you be what you are to me- beautiful, and pure, and very intensely alive.
Simone de Beauvoir is considered a post-modernist and the mother of the second wave of feminism. A French existentialist philosopher and writer, she played and worked alongside the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau Pone and many others. She was prolific and wrote about ethics, feminism, fiction and politics. One of her best known works is The Second Sex that remains an important text in the investigation of women’s studies. Simone shared a loving yet seemingly tormented relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, who wanted an open relationship. While she appears to have reluctantly agreed to this, Simone was prone to depression and jealousy, walking the streets of Paris in search of him and his lovers.
In The Second Sex, Simone writes
When not encountering love, she may encounter poetry. Because she does not act, she observes, she feels, she records; a color, a smile awakens profound echoes within her; her destiny is outside her, scattered in cities already built, on the faces of men already marked by’ life, she makes contact, she relishes with passion and yet in a manner more detached, more free, than that of a young man. Being poorly integrated in the universe of humanity and hardly able to adapt herself therein, she, like the child. is able to see it objectively; instead of being interested solely in her grasp on things, she looks for their significance; she catches their special outlines, their unexpected metamorphoses. She rarely feels a bold creativeness, and usually she lacks the technique of self-expression; but in her conversation, her letters, her literary essays, her sketches. she manifests an original sensitivity. The young girl throws herself into things with ardor, because she is not yet deprived of her transcendence; and the fact that she accomplishes nothing, that she is nothing, will make her impulses only the more passionate. Empty and unlimited, she seeks from within her nothingness to attain all (374).
Hilda Doolittle, Georgia O’Keeffe and Simone du Beauvoir share a spirit and passion complicated by a world of human relationships, emotion, love and control. Clarissa Pinkola Estes perhaps best describes this in Women Who Run with the Wolves, “The psyches and souls of women also have their own cycles and season of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questioning and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul place” (276).
Misogyny functions as an ideology or belief system that has accompanied patriarchal, or male dominated societies for thousands of years and to this day, continues to play women in subordinate positions with limited access to power and decision making. While important figures in these women’s lives, Pound, Stieglitz and Sartre may have brought a shadow or corrupted old world belief system into their relationships where love and control could not co-exist, thus impeding and suffocating the creative spirit of all three women. In spite of this, each woman transitioned through the difficulties of complicated relationships and the cavities of depression to find herself and her creative freedom.
These women were all very distinguished and creatively passionate artists. The men who were instrumental to them remained close throughout their lives. but each woman sought the freedom to create the space to be in their truth, to be all that they could be, and, in the process, they had to allow and accept their significant loves to be all that they could be as well. Perhaps caught between their desire to live out a female destiny and to function independently both at work and in their personal life, they found their own unique freedom in this polarized world.
I find it interesting to be invited to explore these three incredibly gifted and talented women at a time when I am exploring my own feminine and masculine aspects and how they impede or restrict as well as compliment everything, including the relationships in my life. What do I and other men have in common with Pound, Stieglitz’s and Sartre that we have the capacity to change in order to bring about deeper, more loving, free and creative relationships? Forced to relinquish their focus from their lovers and traditional relationships, these women appear to fall back in themselves to discover an inner love, a different terrain from which to experience themselves and their creative worlds. A self-love to be all that they can be!