The Decline of the West

  • Thomas Phillips


Diane Wakoski’s wonderful poem “The Belly Dancer” enacts a multitude of cultural critiques and astute potentialities of a liberated, embodied womanhood whose modernity has yet to be fully realized. Despite the “movements [of the dancer] which move themselves” (Wakoski 1988, line 1) and the defamiliarized snake movement that scares her female spectators and yet “could be their own[,] / the smooth movement frightens them” (19–20), these awkwardly observing women. They are “afraid” (7) and so “keep themselves laced and buttoned and made up / in hopes that the framework will keep them stiff enough not to feel / the whole register” (12–14) as they look on the dancer/narrator with various expressions of repudiation and discomfort. The male viewers merely “simper and leer” (26), projecting their collective gaze as though engaged in target practice. “They do not realize,” the narrator explains, “how I scorn them; / or how I dance for their frightened, / unawakened, sweet / women” (28–31). The poem’s critique is at once gentle and uncompromising. It ultimately communicates compassion for women who have yet “to feel the whole register” of themselves, their bodies, their intelligent becoming as desiring selves whose desire should never be limited by the men whose domination through objectification stunts desire and the fulfillment of wholistic embodiment.


Digital Humanity Digital Humanity Target Practice Male Viewer Threshold Space 
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  1. 3.
    For insightful analyses of psychological identification as a common and largely negative condition of lived experience, see Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977; andGoogle Scholar
  2. P. D. Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution. New York: Vintage, 1981, 12.Google Scholar

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© Thomas Phillips 2015

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  • Thomas Phillips

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