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un(der)known writers

Un(der)known Writers: Silvia Federici


Women are present in the history of heresy as in no other aspect of medieval life. According to Gottfried Koch, already in the 10th century they formed a large part of the Bogomils. In the 11th century, it was again women who gave life to the heretical movements in France and Italy. At this time female heretics came from the most humble ranks of the serfs, and they constituted a true women’s movement developing within the frame of the different heretic groups. Female heretics are also present in the records of the Inquisition; of some we know that they were burned, of others that they were “walled in” for the rest of their lives.

Can we say that this large female presence in the heretic sects was responsible for the heretics’ “sexual revolution”? Or should we assume that the call for “free love” was a male ploy designed to gain easy access to women’s sexual favors? These questions are not easily answered. We know, however, that women did try to control their reproductive func­tion, as references to abortion and the use of contraceptives by women are numerous in the Penitentials. Significantly – in view of the future criminalization of such practices dur­ing the witch-hunt – contraceptives were referred to as “Sterility potions” or maleficia, and it was assumed that women were the ones who used them.

In the early Middle Ages, the Church still looked upon these practices with a cer­tain indulgence, prompted by the recognition that women may wish to limit their births because of economic reasons. Thus, in the Decretum, written by Burchard, Bishop of Worms (circa 1010), after the ritual question–

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do when they fornicate and wish to kill their offspring, act with their maleficia, and their herbs so that they kill or cut the embryo, or, if they have not yet conceived, contrive that they do not conceive?”

–it was stipulated that the guilty ones should do penance for ten years; but it was also observed that “it makes a big difference whether she is a poor little woman and acted on account of the difficulty of feeding, or whether she acted to conceal a crime of fornication.”

Things changed drastically, however, as soon as women’s control over reproduction seemed to pose a threat to economic and social stability, as it did in the aftermath of the demographic catastrophe produced by the “Black Death,” the apocalyptic plague that, between 1347 and 1352, destroyed more than one third of the European population.

We will see later what role this demographic disaster played in the “labor crisis” of the late Middle Ages. Here we can notice that, after the spread of the plague, the sexual aspects of heresy became more prominent in its persecution, grotesquely distorted in ways that anticipate the later representations of the witches’ Sabbat. By the mid-14th century the Inquisitors’ reports were no longer content with accusing the heretics of sodomy and sexual license. Now heretics were accused of animal worship, including the infamous bacium sub cauda (the kiss under the tail), and of indulging in orgiastic rit­uals, night flights and child sacrifices. The Inquisitors also reported the existence of a sect of devil-worshippers called Luciferans. Corresponding to this process, which marked the transition from the persecution of heresy to witch-hunting, the fig­ure of the heretic increasingly became that of a woman, so that, by the beginning of the 15th century, the main target of the persecution against heretics became the witch.

-Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 2004



Un(der)known Writers: George Jackson


There was a four-state alarm out on me. I don’t know if the pigs knew it was me they were after, but at several railroad yards across the country they surprised me. Each time it was dark night and then the roar of the .45 smokeless and the blue-white flash of heavy revolvers lighting the night for a few brief seconds. Bullets bounded off the steel of rolling stock sometimes, splashing rust and bits of metal right in my face. But it’s almost impossible to catch a man in a large freight yard without an army. I got through. And melted into the populace of the town of my birth, Chicago.

It was winter, cold and wet. I was dressed for the California summer except for a few articles I’d taken away from a hobo or two I’d met along the way. I had boots, gloves and a heavy wool shirt which I wore over a very light Pendleton jacket. A lady saw me and guessed by the state of my greasy apparel and red nose that I was in need of kindness. She took me to her apartment on the Near North Side and introduced me to the bath. The next day she bought me bullets and a huge warm navy surplus pea-coat, scarf, gloves, and heavy woolen trousers. I put the word out that I was looking for a relative who might be able to help me get out of the country, and gave the woman’s address. The woman was white or Italian brown, whichever you wish. She was early forty and a little plump, but generally well-preserved because I guess she had the nerve of ten King Cobras. She was a dealer in narcotics. I dug her.

I spent most of my time hanging at the side of a front window overlooking the entrance. There were side windows to this particular apartment and telephone lines running not too far from the window. This was my planned escape route in the event of a surprise or betrayal. Picture a fool, gloved and pea-coated, hand holding from window to roof across a set of icicled telephone wires three stories up.

When she could get me to relax, we would sit on the couch. She would pretend that we were in Vera Cruz or Algeria, perhaps. They were still fighting in those countries then. There was a cracked plank in the hallway just outside her door. Every time someone walked past and stepped on the loose planking, my reflex would kick over her coffee table. I would flip out my .45 smokeless and grovel on her carpet trying to hide behind a coffee table the size of perhaps two postage stamps. But if someone had been breaking in the door, all they would have seen before I sent them to that big pig pen in the sky was the muzzle of that .45 army Colt and my mastery eye peeping around the table.

From Soledad Brother by George Jackson. This excerpt, along with a long passage giving advice about how to make bullets and learn how to shoot, appears in some editions but not in the original (nor many re-publications based thereon) for legal reasons.

George Jackson was one of the greatest prison organizers in history, but is less-well remembered as a writer and theorist…unless you’re a prisoner, prison abolitionist or prison administrator. Even having reading material or letters that mention George Jackson’s name has been used as evidence towards getting people thrown in a SHU. It is also arguable that Foucault’s concepts of biopolitics and the carceral state made famous in Discipline and Punish are appropriated from Jackson’s (and his comrade Angela Davis’) work on prisons. Jackson was murdered by prison guards in 1971.


Un(der)known Writers: Jane Bowles


“I’ll tell you,” said Mrs. Copperfield, leaning over the table and suddenly looking very tense. “I am a little worried–not terribly worried, because I shan’t allow anything to happen that I don’t want to happen–but I’m a little worried because Pacifica has met this blond boy who lives way uptown and he has asked her to marry him. He never says anything and he has a very weak character. But I think he has bewitched her because he pays her compliments all the time. I’ve gone up to his apartment with her, because I won’t allow them to be alone, and she has cooked dinner for him twice. He’s crazy for Spanish food and eats ravenously of every dish she puts in front of him.”

Mrs. Copperfield leaned back and stared intently into Miss Goering’s eyes.

“I am taking her back to Panama as soon as I am able to book passage on a boat.” She ordered another double whisky.

“Well, what do you think of it?” she asked eagerly.

“Perhaps you’d better wait and see whether or not she really wants to marry him.”

“Don’t be insane,” said Mrs. Copperfield. “I can’t live without her, not for a minute. I’d go completely to pieces.”

“But you have gone to pieces, or do I misjudge you dreadfully?”

“True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Mrs. Copperfield was getting drunk and looking more disagreeable.

-Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, 1943


Un(der)known Writers: Frank B. Wilderson, III


After Alice and I had been together for a while, I convinced myself that the looks we got from people in Santa Cruz when we went out were starting to change. Perhaps I’d just been paranoid. Perhaps she was right, I told myself, when she insists that the looks meant no more than, Aren’t those two so in love. Or: Isn’t that cute, a forty-something man and a sixty-something woman. Or: He’s no ageist. Or: She’s really lucky, a second chance at love (not to mention the sex!), when all is said and done, and love conquers all. Maybe they didn’t see me as King Kong screeching from atop the dome when they saw us together. In fact, it seemed as though they liked me. But more importantly, they seemed to trust me. I was soon called upon to counsel. I was called upon to heal. As at an End the War march, when you hear your name being called. Huffing and puffing, she pushes through the crowd and catches up to you. Can I march with you for a little while? she says. Sure, Dorothy, it’s good to see you. Another hour and your lungs are tired from chanting, Hell no we won’t go, we won’t fight for Texaco! Look, she says, pointing to a park bench across the street. She takes you by the hand and together you minnow through the flow of demonstrators to the other side of the street.

On this march the two of you renew your pledge to keep fighting that Son of a Bush! Arm in arm, hand in hand, Black and White and all the Rainbow colors in between are marching with you down the street. You and Dorothy catch your breath on a park bench. You let the sea of signs, towering puppets, and noisemakers flow past. Mind if I ask you something, Frank? I’m troubled. Deeply troubled. Ask me anything, Dorothy. She tells you: I couldn’t even dream of saying this to you if I didn’t know how you and Alice are. You’re the perfect couple. Well, you say (your signature well), we work at it: that’s the key, Dorothy, hard work and commitment. Then you take her hand and you ask her what’s troubling her. It’s really embarrassing, but I’ve got to get it off my chest, she says. You place your other hand over hers. It’s Erica, she says, my daughter, you remember Erica. Frank, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I feel so empty. Dorothy, you say, just breathe deeply, let it all out. Erica’s pregnant, she exclaims, and…and the father is Black. She won’t have an abortion. What is this fixation of hers, Frank? It’s not that she’s with a Black guy, we all dated Black guys in the sixties, it’s not a racist thing with me. But Erica only dates Black guys. It’s unhealthy. A fetish. And now this. I had to talk with you, Frank–anyone else would’ve called me a racist. I’m not racist. I’m a mother. It’s a mother’s pain, Frank: that’s not Black, or White, or Red or Yellow. That’s human nature. No mother wants to think of her daughter falling in and out of bed with a fetish. Tell me, Frank, lay it on me like folks laid it on each other back in the day: Does Erica need therapy? Is she psychotic? She must be psychotic. Frank? Frank, your palms are sweating.

From Frank B. Wilderson, III’s Incognegro


Un(der)known Writers: Clarice Lispector


Animals don’t laugh. Though sometimes dogs laugh. Besides their panting mouths their smile is transmitted by eyes that start to shine and become more sensual, while their tails wag in joyous expectation. But cats never laugh. A “he” I know wants nothing more to do with cats. He’s through with them forever because he had a certain female cat who periodically got frenzied. When she was in heat her instincts were so imperative that, after long and plangent meows, she would throw herself from the roof and injure herself on the ground.


Sometimes I get electrified when I see animals. I’m now hearing the ancestral cry within me: I no longer seem to know who is the creature, the animal or me. And I get all confused. It seems I get scared of facing up to stifled instincts that I’m forced to acknowledge in the presence of the animal.


I knew a “she” who humanized animals talking to them and giving them her own characteristics. I don’t humanize animals because it’s an offenseyou must respect their natureI am the one who animalizes myself. It’s not hard and comes simply. It’s just a matter of not fighting it and it’s just surrendering.


Nothing is more difficult than surrendering to the instant. That difficulty is human pain. It is ours. I surrender in words and surrender when I paint.


Holding a little bird in the half-closed cup of your hand is terrible, like having the trembling instants inside your hand. The frightened little bird chaotically beats thousands of wings and suddenly you have in your half-closed hand the thin wings struggling and suddenly you can’t bear it and quickly open your hand to free the light prisoner. Or you hand it quickly back to its owner so that he can give it the relatively greater freedom of the cage. BirdsI want them in the trees or flying far from my hands. I may one day grow intimate with them and take pleasure in their lightweight presence of an instant. “Take pleasure in their lightweight presences” gives me the feeling of having written a complete sentence because it says exactly what it is: the levitation of the birds.

-Clarice Lispector, from Água Viva, translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler. Available from New Directions