Renate grew up in Germany and spent 20 years in Paris, doing multimedia/performance work and cultural journalism. She translated Gertrude Stein and major American feminists into German, and published the award-winning photobiography Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures. After falling in love with Kim, she moved to California, where she earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Her memoir, Kiss Me Again, Paris is forthcoming from IFSF Publications. Among her other publications are books for couples, True Secrets of Lesbian Desire: Keeping Sex Alive in Long-Term Relationships and Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Forever Kit. Her essays and articles have appeared internationally.
Renate is a senior cultural critic for the International Magazine for Arts and Media, Scene4, keeps a Gertrude Stein blog Quoting Gertrude Stein , and is a blogger for The Huffington Post.
A Collaboration Between
Kim Chernin and Renate StendhalIn their own words….
Renate Stendhal: “This is how Sex and Other Sacred Games began. We started with the one thing that was clear: we didn’t agree. Our experiences, with men and women, were as different as our theories. I claimed women participated in men’s sexuality and had no sexuality of their own. Kim maintained male sexuality had nothing to do with sex, because it had so little to do with sensuality. The most powerful thing walking the earth, she claimed, was a sexual woman.
When I started writing I envisioned two women in an archetypal opposition, a radical feminist and a “femme fatale.” Our different life experiences and the theories they gave rise to would become transposed, abstracted, and reembodied. Claire, footloose American on a heterosexual journey, and Alma, cool blonde lesbian from the German north . . . I knew, of course, that this constellation in itself could sound like a feminist cliche: Dyke courts hetera and wins her over. Forever.
Kim being my opponent, accomplice, and my inspiration for Claire, this fantasy could not work. Claire and Alma’s story would be at best a variation on the theme. Or perhaps I should say a provocation of the theme. These two—Venus and the Amazon—would be worthy opponents. They would equally provoke each other—as Kim and I consistently do—unmasking the weakness in each other’s costume, stance, argument. At the same time, each would grow aware of the power of the other, which might ultimately tempt her to surrender. When I started, I was not sure how the story of Alma and Claire would end. Each of them might seduce and conquer or be seduced and conquered by the other. And each might try her best to escape the challenge, avoid precisely what was so desirable in this passion sprung from difference, fascination, intrigue.
After all, the outcome did not depend on me, but on our “collaboration.” I simply set the stage. How would these two unlikely women meet? How would they take the bait of mutual interest? It had to happen at a cafe, over cups of cafe au lait. A particular Paris cafe where for years, I had been writing, translating, watching, dreaming. “My” cafe (Le Rostand, Rue Medicis, near the Pantheon) where one day, out of the blue, I had met Kim and learned that the same cafe for writing had been hers.
Nevertheless, this was fiction and I had to invent. At least to reinvent. Alma and Claire are fictitious (Kim thinks there is nothing fictitious about them) as is everything else in the book. Yet Alma is inspired by who I was in the past, in my years as an active feminist in Paris, and who I might have been had I met this woman called Claire.
We wrote our book in alternating sections, not giving each other more than minimal clues. We waited till the end to see how the story and the discourse fit together. Claire sent letters to Alma, I read these letters Kim had written. I had Alma mull over Claire’s provocation, brash stories of her uninhibited sexual coming of age, while I myself was mulling over them, fascinated and enraged at the same time, doubting that any of what I was learning about Kim (or was it Claire?) was true. My reaction, however, was Alma’s reaction, and the story of their relationship evolved…
Our second collaboration, Cecilia Bartoli: The Passion of Song, was again based on an intensely shared interest and a different view point. Kim’s fascination with Cecilia Bartoli as a concert performer was immediate. The minute the very young and still totally unknown singer appeared on a Berkeley concert stage, in 1991, Kim predicted that she would be recognized as the great voice of our time and immediately wanted to write about her emotional impact on an audience. My enthusiasm for Cecilia only took off after seeing her for the first time in an operatic role, a few years later. When I saw her acting, running, dancing, clowning across the stage and still showering her audience with the beauty, emotional intensity, and perfection of her voice, I was in awe. I had written about stage performances for many years as a cultural correspondent in Paris. Now I wanted to write about Cecilia Bartoli as a stage performer. I would investigate every operatic role she had sung in the first ten years of her career, find the archival audio-visual traces of each new role she had taken on, and analyze her artistic development. This role by role documentation is my part of the collaboration on what we have come to call our ‘portrait of the artist as a young woman.’”
Kim Chernin: “Perhaps no one thought up the idea of our collaboration, perhaps no one made a decision to write Sex and Other Sacred Games together. Maybe the idea of collaboration was always there and one day simply became self-evident, perhaps by a wish to reconcile ourselves to being different.
We got an advance for our project and then I dropped out. The fact was, collaboration unnerved me. For me writing had been an inviolable cave in which to shut myself away from the world, all relationships, for as long as possible. How could I let someone else enter that space, turn on the lights when I wanted things kept dark, move around in the confined space I kept to myself to have a self in?
Renate began writing. I cheered her from the wings, stubborn as always, my mind made up.
I remember the exact moment I returned to the collaboration. Renate had been writing a dialogue between two women meeting for the first time in a Paris cafe. When I was still part of the project we had decided we wouldn’t show one another our work in progress. We would each go our own way, see how it all fit together later. For some reason (hmm!) Renate had left her dialogue face up on the kitchen table. I moved her pages to one side, true to the spirit of the original agreement. (Somehow), a single paragraph caught my eye. It was a description of Claire, the character Renate had invented to represent me. I immediately noticed that Claire was more beautiful, better dressed, more self-consciously self-ironic. Nevertheless, Renate had caught me as I had been, in younger days, only with men.
I was back in the project on the spot! I didn’t read another paragraph, not even one more line. Renate had invented a character through whom I could tell the truth about myself, as I had not been able to tell it before. She had given me just enough of a disguise (bright red lipstick, matching nails) to let me present the forbidden self who had shown up in years of psychoanalytic conversation, but had never been introduced even to my most intimate friends. Renate, my collaborator, had invented me . . .”
Multimedia Show: In the Beginning…of the End —
A Voyage of Women Becoming
In the Beginning…of the End — A Voyage of Women Becoming (1980-81) was the first multimedia show in Europe (Paris/Copenhagen) made by women, reflecting revolutionary visions of the Women’s Movement. A co-creation by Renate Stendhal and painter Maj Skadegaard, with sound by Iben Haahr, the show is a provocative look at the Judeo-Christian origins of patriarchal thinking — and possible alternatives.
The show premiered in 1980 at the Berlin Summer University to an audience of 2000 enthusiastic women. Maj and Renate were on the road for a year with 12 pieces of equipment (4 slide carousels, Super-8 projector, amplifier, speakers). A year later, the show was produced on 16 mm film by the Canadian Film Board’s Studio D. The award-winning film toured for several years throughout Europe and beyond, was shown at several film festivals, followed by heated debates about the myths debunked in the show.
The French Women’s Ministery subsidized French subtitles when the film was archived at the Centre Simone de Beauvoir in Paris. A “comic strip” version appeared in the German feminist magazine EMMA in 1982, and the DVD can be seen at the Women’s Archive, Frauen Media-Turm, in Cologne.