The Feminine, Land of Welcome

Christiane Singer

Illustration by Dianna Xu

The feminine?

In the past, one would certainly have answered too quickly: maternity, housekeeping, etc.

Today one rather falters, one looks for words, one worries about keeping up with current tastes or being suspected of hostility. One strays, one babbles.

Not knowing represents a good start.

I don’t know what the feminine is either.

But what I know vigorously is that it makes all the difference.

The secret of life is difference.

A simple law of physics teaches us that if the temperature is the same in two adjacent rooms, the air stagnates. If the air is warmer or colder on one side or the other, an intense exchange of mass occurs.

Uniformity suspends the dynamic between men and women. The space for difference threatens to be too small for love to grow.

“Whoever confuses feminine and masculine perpetrates an assault against gestating worlds” (Rilke).

Difference is what creates movement, what creates life. Civic equality—this formidable and heroic conquest of the 20th century—I do not question, let that be understood. Equal in rights and duties toward society, men and women are nevertheless not similar. A terrible disease takes hold when the distinction between politics and ontology is no longer perceived.

The dream of equality is a gruesome dream, an engineered dream. We feel compelled to build equality, yet it’s the house of the dead that we have constructed.

The function of egalitarian ideology is to spare oneself the encounter with the other and his/her values, to avoid at any cost the insecurity it creates, this inevitable hiatus from which one does not emerge unscathed: the arduous transformation by a stranger. Every encounter creates an insecure space that frightens—where am I, where does the other begin? And to expose oneself to this adventure, to dare move forward toward the other, toward what is new, is the first issue in any education. E-ducere: to lead outside of . . . to take out of. To be educated is to take the risk of the encounter.

Any leveling sacrifices this relationship and sets in motion a process of entropy. The acts of violence forced on the earth by extensive agriculture are similar to those suffered by humans. When all the hedges, all the tree lines, all the mounds have been leveled, a deadly silence takes hold. Both human and agrarian cultures require diversity, the rhythmic alternation of closed and open spaces, of vast clearings and fences. When secret gardens, palisades, and hedges vibrant with birds are wrecked, it is the dawn of an era of barbarism.

Homo economicus is constantly outdoing himself in functional triviality. The game he makes the whole earth play has only one rule: profit, deadly economic growth. No social game, in the huge diversity of human cultures, has been more trivial and more short-sighted. Now that many men have sacrificed their natural rectitude, their goodness, their sense of justice, it is women who in turn are excelling at becoming like these men. That they excel in any position will not surprise: whoever has experienced the trying diversity of real life’s stakes is unfortunately capable of learning this simplistic and univocal game in no time at all. To tumble down a slope—intellectually and ethically—is always easier than to climb it. And that’s when we, women, sharpen our teeth and take men’s strongholds by force, under the applause of male and female fools. We’re winning! And we’re losing ourselves.

Flaubert’s impertinent sentence: “Democracy’s dream is to elevate the worker to the idiotic level of the bourgeois” can be cruelly adjusted thus: “The dream of the advanced industrial society is to elevate women to the level of synthetic functionality of (some) men.”

Everything that contributes to the singular nature of women is belittled. Worse: snatched from the natural secret of being and exposed by harsh spotlights. The lunar cycles that connect them to the planetary movements, the silent alchemy of pregnancy, the metamorphosis of the fertility of the womb into the fertility of the spirit. Everything that was experienced by women as high distinction becomes hindrance or handicap, with the promise of deliverance by genetic research.

This just shows how medical and chemical subjection have abruptly taken over the parental and conjugal submissions of the past. Charybdis passes on the baton to Scylla.

But some will say, haven’t these feminine particularities and the weakness they cause plunged women into servitude and dependence? Isn’t it understandable that women aim to free themselves of them, as if of cumbersome rags?

What a misunderstanding!


These very specificities were their royalty in other times and in matrilineal civilizations.

Subordination is only possible when the subtle mechanism of self-denigration, of self-deprecation is put in place.

It is the abdication of their own nobility, belittling—consented to, and contempt of themselves (often inherited) that pushes women into subordination—oblivion of the old alliance between women and gods.

No yoke, no domination can defeat from the outside if, inside the citadel, the surrender hasn’t already begun. By judging their biological and creative specificities cumbersome, women have agreed to be promoted . . . to their own destitution.

A dash of memory: the rite an old Hopi Indian woman recalled—or better—transmitted, because how would it otherwise have remained imprinted around my pupil like a mandala for so many years?

“That’s how it goes,” she would say. “In the center, we place the little white girls, pre-pubescent, then around them, in a circle, the young nubile girls who have barely entered the blood cycle, then the red women in the glow of their fertility, then the white women who have exited the cycle and the ancient ones outside watching over the spiral of the living . . . ”

This mandala only needs to act for an instant in order for it to heal me from the acrid controversy into which I’ve slipped.

“That,” she would say, “is how we do it.”

I don’t know what the feminine is, as I was saying.

I only know one thing with certainty: it represents an immense and impressive mystery. And for having traveled right through it, from the core and soon to the outer circle, having given myself over to it, I no longer have the slightest reason to cultivate the fashion of the day.

“He who espouses the spirit of the time will soon be widowed,” according to Kierkegaard’s warning; cuckolded, I even fear.

Without the feminine, a society is doomed to die.

Who will take care of life in its multiple and infinite manifestations? Who will sing the husky threnody of the created world? A dear friend used to say to me, sometimes only women can save us from ourselves. Women, and the feminine in the heart of men.

I call ‘feminine’ this quality a woman awakens in the heart of man. I call ‘feminine’ the forgiveness of offenses, the gesture of sheathing the sword when the adversary is on the ground, the emotion one feels when yielding . . .


I am back from Israel where I met peace artisans gathered around Albin Michel. Many were desperate, but with a despair that was not without fissure: light could filter through at any time. From the great number of women I met—Arab students at Elie Chakroun's university, Palestinian women in Gaza, or Jewish women in Jerusalem—emanated a powerful desire to reinvent a life, a country. One of them, Dorit Bat Shalom, built The Tent of Hagar and Sarah, where, from the initial schism of the repudiation of Hagar, the faltering dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian women reinvents itself. 

“Beyond good and evil is a meadow where I await you.” This line from Rumi is their kingdom. Far from the malevolent distortions of the media, far from the barking and roaring of political parties and functions, exists a space in which they believe, which they fix up, invent, and bathe in the light of their love: a space beyond wanting to be right or wrong, beyond the violent pulling in opposite directions, beyond justified or unjustified protests, beyond the terrible wounds and revenges, beyond even war and peace. A mad space, a space logically impossible, politically incorrect, rationally indefensible, where the dead from all sides—terrorists and victims, kamikazes and assassinated passers-by, killed combatants and civilians—come to be lulled (soothed) in silence. And from that space a field of consciousness is born, which spread like a subtle fragrance that no wall is able to stop. It has a contagious effect on whoever breathes it in.


One thing is certain: nothing sensational will happen to make the front page. Certainly not! But the day will come when the peace agreement will succeed, to everyone’s astonishment. Hatred will come out of the fruit like a worm—without anyone understanding why—and no questions will be asked. Without any fuss, a new era will begin.

Many international or civil wars come to an abrupt end this way. Who took the steam out of the colossal machineries of hatred? Who found the diodes and valves? Men and women, thousands and millions, have come and continue to come together.

“Beyond good and evil, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, is a meadow where I await you.”

This is the kingdom of women.


In this attempt to apprehend the quality of the feminine, I am not nostalgic. I do not deplore the decline of something that might have existed before and has become lost far behind us on the axis of time. No. I am referring to something that is there, in this instant, while I write—right here—in the depth of time and of the womb.

I appeal to its sudden resurgence from the black water of our memories.


Remember the Alliance.

Remember that, when you came to this earth, you promised to take care—oh of what you like!—of some beings and of yourself, of some trees and bushes, of some animals who will eat from your hand, or of a whole school, a hospital, police headquarters or a ministry—in any event, a kingdom! You have the choice! The only set clause, do you remember it? The only prerequisite, do you recall it? Yes, memory is coming back to you now: do everything that you do lovingly.


To liberate memory is not so difficult.

It is the game of hot cockles we played as children.

What do we love on this earth? What do we honor? What thought moves us? What gives us ardent nostalgia? You’re moving in the right direction: it becomes hotter! It becomes hotter! You are so very close to the real life . . . Continue! You're already there.

What thought costs you such considerable efforts? What recalling causes you back aches, neck pain, makes you lose interest in moving forward? It is icy there, icy, do not keep going under any circumstances! It would kill you!

This force that drives us in spite of ourselves, against our soul and our body, where we do not really want to go, is social coercion. It is the usurper in us who came to power and put the queen to sleep. It leads us according to criteria imposed from the outside: appearance, social and professional image. It sells us to consume, to fads, wants us presentable, hairless, odorless, subjects us to the obsession of the smooth, the sterile, the aseptic, forces us to swallow psychoses, fears, and crazes, intoxicates us with alcohol and drugs.

I will remain dumbfounded to the end that creatures who, by their constitution and function, should resemble the earth, can be so very artificial!

Behind the “so very artificial” usurper, stand bewitched and ready to leap: the queen, the sister, the lover, the friend, the mother—all those who have the genius for relationship, for welcoming. The genius for inventing life.

These women we are and that we are becoming when the usurper is unmasked, fired!

The women!

Pierre Rabi evoked how, in the most desolate places of Ethiopia, deserted by men who fled to the city, women keep life going! They are there, running to greet the guests, welcoming them with laughter, an inexhaustible generosity, lovingly cooking thistle and burdock soups for them, filled with enthusiasm for the new perspectives open to them.

In Kafka’s Friend, Milena, Margarete Buber-Neumann describes the special welcoming warmth of Milena Jesenská, journalist and woman of wisdom. In her Ravensbrück shack, three or four minutes stolen from the guards at once abolished the horror and transformed her visitors from the dying men they were into cherished, feted, and loved guests.

If I chose these extreme experiences, it is because they illustrate the faculty women possess, when they are brought back to themselves and to their inner lives, to welcome what is, what comes, what presents itself—in such a regal way that they do not have to be subjected to anything.

The feminine is a bowl, an empty receptacle.

A land of welcome.

In our century, so cluttered, it is enough to create terror.

Everything that is not listed on the stock market is in the hollow of the feminine: suspended time, burning patience, silence, gift, disinterestedness, the Eros of expectation, the forced transition through multiple necessary deaths during life and death.

It is to this exacting, austere, and radiant adventure that we are invited.

And we will not throw millennia of memories, fervor, tenderness, and engagement with life out of the window for a little sordid fad called current affairs, which paralyses the creative soul.

translated from the French by Hélène Cardona

Christiane Singer, N’oublie pas les chevaux écumants du passé, Éditions Albin Michel (2005).