OTI Online
Fall 1998

Quintessence...
Realizing the Archaic Future
Book Review by Elizabeth Millard


To Daly, where we are is in a constant state of siege, struggling against the encroaching enemy for our political rights, and for biological control


Quintessence...Realizing the Archaic Future
A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto
by Mary Daly
Beacon Press, 309 pages, $24


In the final work of her "trilogy describing the Metapatriarchal Journey of Exorcism and Ecstasy," Mary Daly interweaves discussions of time, physicality, identity, and especially dimensionality to offer tools for dismantling the weapons of patriarchy. Although the book expands ideas from several of her previous books, including Beyond God the Father and Outercourse, it follows most closely the philosophies explored in Gyn/Ecology and Pure Lust, fusing those works while encouraging fellow radical elemental feminists to spiral into a new galaxy of thought.

In Pure Lust, Daly focused on four elements (words, substances, the cosmos, and spirits) and on clusters of four. She now concentrates furiously on the elusive fifth element, the Holy Grail that makes sense of the other four. In its classical definition, the fifth element, "quintessence" (ether), underlies and bonds the other four (earth, air, fire, and water), acting as a kind of cosmic, unseen glue into which everything, and everyone, is irrevocably fastened. Daly's Quintessence is not so easily described.

The book begins in 2048, the 200th anniversary of the first Woman's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. A young philosopher named Annie has invoked the spirit of Mary Daly in order to learn about the horrors of the now extinct patriarchy, in anticipation of the 50th-anniversary edition of Quintessence. In Annie's world, women are living together on a rediscovered continent (which may be Atlantis), after having magnetized their collective psychic powers and thereby saved the planet from destruction in the early 21st century. Daly encourages Annie to add a "modern" commentary after each essay, but what is planned as critical notes turns instead into long, involved conversations, which take place mainly in an organic garden where the author discovers she can (gasp) drink the river water.

Isolated from the examinations of patriarchy that have preceded them, these forays into the effulgent future can sometimes be irritatingly pollyanna-ish, rife with passages describing Daly dancing with animals or grinning slyly as her naive host exclaims desperately, "But why didn't women fight back?" However, combined with the insightful stretches of philosophy at the beginning of each chapter, these narrative passages make Daly's occasionally labyrinthine arguments accessible and even amusing.

Defending her fictional device, Daly writes, "It may seem that my Act of claiming to have such Foreknowledge of Future acceptance is rash. Why not simply say that I have hope that there will be such enlightened Future Foresisters? The point is well taken that such knowledge is also hope. It is, in fact, Desperately Hopeful knowledge, and it is rooted in an understanding of our history, our Past."

More than a utopian fantasy or vision, Annie's nouveau-Lesbos continent represents a defense plan for the future of women. According to Daly, the Annies of the future will be influenced by their foresisters not just through writing and art, but through the literally magnetic power that comes with psychic and creative energy. Time itself, as defined by clocks and calendars, is irrelevant in the face of this collective dynamism. To Daly, where we have come from is represented by the Sphinx, and by the tales of goddesses rewritten by men. Where we are is in a constant state of siege, struggling against the encroaching enemy for our for political rights, and for biological control. There are numerous battlefronts, which she relates to one another. For example, she intertwines a discussion of genome research and rape as a military act, and adds in rising religious fundamentalism, including the misogynistic rhetoric of the Promise Keepers, and the intellectual oppression found in "academentia."

Into this amalgam of issues, past and present, she also stirs her precepts about the natural world, and the predominance of "5" as a mystical signifier of change. As well as the fifth element, she cites the fifth dimension, the fifth cause in classic philosophy, the fifth province of Ireland (the territorially elusive Mide), and the fifth spiral galaxy, into which she wants us all to careen with Unconquerable Courage. This repetition of 5s is interconnected and consistent, with each example supporting the last and setting up the next. In a way, this is analogous to Daly's vision of what women could do for one another to transcend patriarchal programming and tap into ancient intuition by loosening concepts of time and place. Suffused by her inimitable word play and stunning intelligence, and embodying a balance of mysticism and critical theory, Daly's clarion call to uncover the quint-essence of the universe is quite an intriguing tune.


Review by Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Ms., Publishers Weekly, and The Boston Phoenix.


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