Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Reading Lydia Davis, "Can't and Won't"


A woman is reading a book by an author she admires. It is inadequate, in fact, to say she admires this write, as the author is one of the few whose work prompts the often uncomfortable and shattering yet delectable experience which readers refer to as “identification.” This particular woman rarely feels this for the usual reasons– because one has a similar biography, a common experience, or even a similar temperament to the author. It comes instead when a writer displays their habits of mind in a particular way such that the woman feels her very brain is being invaded. This woman has experienced this before with this author, but never to the extent as with this book. The first delight came when she noticed that a number of these stories are labeled dreams at the bottom. This delighted her because the old saw about being bored by the dreams of others has never seemed correct to her. Go knock on her door, ready tell her a dream, and she is sure to let you in. Imagine then her delight to see excerpts from the correspondence of another author she admires, one this author had translated. Just the week before she had thought, one should read nothing but the letters and diaries of dead authors – on quiet shelves and in boxes these letters and diaries sit the way the prospectors thought California would be: all that the gold, just lying there for the taking. And imagine how that delight turns uncanny when she discovers the author has dedicated a story to her method of working through back issues of a certain glossy review, when just that morning the woman had been joking about her own organized stack, and even more so when the author included an imagined  letter to the head of a foundation, when just the week before this woman had written exactly such a letter. At this point the woman is working hard to keep herself in check, not to shout at the author on a crowded train to get out of her head, and worries about the fact that anything she writes in the next few weeks will be inevitably an imitation of that author. This seems a problem because 1) She is too old to be imitating other writers, or so she imagines, and 2) Such an imitation might be seen as parodic, as is often the case when writers have a style as specific as this author. Nevertheless it seemed the only fitting tribute to this author to see this necessary imitation through to the end before setting the author’s book back on the shelf with the neurotic precision she sees in a new light knowing she shares it with this particular writer she admires.

****************
Edited to Add: God knows I slack on the Times book review a lot, but after writing this I looked at some reviews and this one by Peter Orner is very good and describes a lot of what I was trying to. "To read Davis is to become a co-­conspirator in her way of existing in the world, perplexity combined with vivid observation." Precisely.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Men Writing On Women

"In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct of morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathetic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the 'other' as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing. When someone writes a Mommy Dearest memoir - where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster - the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life." 
                                          Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story


When I read something and am trying to figure out why and how it works, or does not work, Gornick is the writer I go back to more than anyone else, and to this passage above all.  Gornick talks about this need for imaginative sympathy when discussing a passage from D.H. Lawrence that troubles her - it is not that his view of women is "incorrect" but that there is no attempt to imagine a woman as she might imagine herself - no exploration, only reaction. In a sense I go this passage when I am looking for "permission" to be troubled by an author, especially a renowned one, especially a man when it comes to women.

The passage came to mind for a different reason while reading Hilton Als' The Women. I've loved Als' writing for the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for a long time, and I've always been struck at what I can only inadequately term empathy - his deep love for artists and their work, for the imaginative intricacies of the craft and those attempt it, even when they fall short.

The Women is a beautiful example of one of my favorite genres - a collection of biographical essays, reflections on the meanings of lives, extensively knowledgable but unabashedly subjective in its interest and these lives and their meanings. The subjects of the essays are first, Als' own mother, second, Dorothy Dean, the third Owen Dodson.  Because Dean and Dodson are not household names, the convention would be to briefly attach a label to each by means of introduction. The difficulty of accurately doing so is, in some sense, the subject of these essays. Dean's wikipedia entry leads with "an African American socialite connected to Andy Warhol's the factory . . . and Max's Kansas City, where she worked as a door person." The back of Als' book describes her as "brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men." And so Als' empathy and identification with her reflects and refracts her own. Dodson can perhaps be more easily classified as a poet, novelist, and playwright. Yet Als' focus is more on the disappointments of his later years, when Als knew him as a mentor and lover, and on his identification with women, as suggested in his inclusion in a book by this name.

What unites these figures is the ways they responded to and crafted themselves out of their disappointments. We tend to think of those who don't find suitable outlets for their talents burning out in a blaze, as Virginia Woolf imagined the fate of Shakespeare's sister, or retreating into silence. But we all know from our experience what is more often the case: frustrated talents (frustrated by a tangle of external and internal circumstances which, Als demonstrates, are impossible to pull apart) drink too much, pester their more successful friends, host parties, read and edit manuscripts, take refuge in snobbism, sleep with people whose work they admire, and so forth. In the case of his mother, who lacked Dean and Dodson's the artistic and social outlets, love and disease become the vehicles. When tragedy comes, it comes slowly and excruciatingly: "In the end I think my mother's long and public illness was the only thing she ever felt experienced as an accomplishment separate from other people." And a doctor who examined Dean after she had lost her home declared that she "must be delusional: 'She keeps saying she went to Radcliffe.'" Which, of course, she had.

And yet very often, Als suggests, they are more effective mentors than those with smoother paths could ever be - and richer subjects.

The feminist complaint against stereotypical female characters is by now well known. But less recognized, as Als' own criticism has shown, is how male writers, especially queer ones, have been actively attacked for imagining women more fully. In this fascinating piece about A Streetcar Named Desire, Als recalls Mary McCarthy's attack on the play: noticing Williams' identification with Blanche DuBois, she accuses him of deceit, just as Blanche is accused of in the play. Seeing only the grating aspects of Blanche's femininity, she misses Blanche's discomfort with convention, her inability to play the role:
Perhaps McCarthy, like Stanley and Mitch, was ultimately too uncomfortable with Blanche’s queerness. She is unmarried, but she has loved. She has no money, no property, and no social equity, and yet her memories of the boys she took to her breast are a kind of sustenance, too. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” Blanche to the Young Man she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….”

The other other artist I immediately associate with these two traits - empathy for, and identification with, the feminine and female characters, Pedro Almodovar, famously dedicated my favorite of his films, All About My Mother, "To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. . . To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother." Gender and its associated identities are here both performative and not: a woman or a mother is something a man might become, but it is not an empty category.

Another wonderful Almodovar film, Talk to Her, tells the story of a male nurse who talks to a woman in a coma, a dancer who has been struck by a car. He says he has learned his care taking skills from caring for his mother. In one sequence, we are presented an invented old surrealist film the nurse remembers: a man drinks a potion that renders him tiny. In his new state, he crawls across his lover's body and blissfully disappears into her vagina.  In his New Yorker review, David Denby says that one way of looking at the film, "I suppose, is as a story shaped by a homosexual's longing for women, a longing that can only be expressed as irony or as a nightmare." I suppose. But only if one supposes that longing for women is the only stance a male director can take towards women - as opposed to curiosity, empathy or identification. (The extent to which heterosexual longing for women is so often expressed as irony or nightmare comes through in Denby's swift takedown of Brian DePalma's Femme Fatale, with which his review of Talk to Her is paired.)

Back when New York magazine asked a number of writers about Philip Roth's legacy, Keith Gessen took a lot of flack for saying "Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?" As I wrote then, critics were right to note that taking male heterosexual desire as a central theme doesn't mean one isn't a misogynist - but it doesn't mean one is, either. Or, to reframe the question aesthetically, away from the moralism that gets people so upset, it doesn't mean one can credibly create real female characters - and it doesn't mean one can't. It is of course too simple to say that Als, or Almodovar, or Williams, or Allen Ginsberg, who beautifully gave his mother the last lines of his elegy to her - are successful in imagining women characters with empathy and nuance because they don't, by and large, want to fuck women. It is probably far too simple as well to say that their experience of sexual other-ness or outsider-ness, allows them this success. All I can say for sure is that their work confirms for me how essential and undervalued these qualities are in writers and artists and how much our categories of gender, sexuality and desire - completely real and completely imagined at the same time - can both get in our way and get us there.














Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Intractability of Op-Ed Habits

The first paragraph of The New York Times's obituary for Vincent Harding, scholar and co-author of Martin Luther King's brilliant and always-relevant anti-war speech, "Beyond Vietnam," refers to that speech as "polarizing" and notes that it "touched off a firestorm," condemned by Life Magazine and the NAACP.

Not mentioned is the Times's own exquisitely condescending editorial, "Dr. King's Error," which is just awful in just the ways you'd expect. the war is a very complicated issue, you see, and calling for peace is just too simplistic. Yes, there have been some horrors, but calling them war crimes is just a bridge too far. And besides, civil rights is hard enough, anyways. (I'm sure King was grateful for that needed reminder.) The connection between Vietnam and the war on poverty is "too facile" - the real obstacles are "conservatives" and "the intractability of slum mores and habits."

The obituary also describes the anti-war position in 1967 as "relatively unpopular." As Penny Lewis outlines in her important study of the anti-war movement, support for immediate withdrawal was indeed low in the Spring of 1967, reaching a low point of six percent. But by the end of 1968, the majority supported and end to the war and by 1970 the majority had come to support immediate withdrawal. Yet  the the Times' obituary, referring to the "furor" and "firestorm" the speech caused, finds it notable that "neither Dr. Harding nor Dr. King disavowed the address." Given their success in convincing the American public in the face of ridicule from the elite, a better question might be if the Times has ever disavowed theirs.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Podcast, Tweets, etc.

I had a fun chat with Dave Parsons of The Nostalgia Trap the podcast is now up. You can get the rss here and iTunes here. I talk about a whole mess of stuff, including a post about "special snowflakes" and Fight Club, that you can find here.

I have also broken down and joined the twitter machine: you can follow me there at the the highly original handle, @LauraTanenbaum.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Rise of Peggy Olson, the Fall of Don Draper and the Affective Life of Capitalism

So the new season of Mad Men started last night. The official posters, with Don looking at a pyschadelic print, aren't out and out historical gaffes like this Netflix ad, but they point to a lot of the problems the show had last season. Season six was, I think, one of false starts and frustrations.  A lot  them came from having to sustain a long-running show that's worked through a lot of its premises, but others point to something interesting that's been there since the start. Mad Men started out as fundamentally a show about hierarchies. ("It's a hierarchy!" Ken cried desperately in last night's premier.  Well, it was - and largely still is - but more on that later.) Peggy's first day tour of the office showed us the lay of the land in all its beautiful horror. We knew part of the long arc would be about how the people at the top - whom we'd more or less been asked to identify with - had their positions challenged. But the show's strength was always in showing the everyday cruelties of the old order.  Many of the best episodes, like "The Gold Violin" from season 2, or "Signal 30" from season 5, have the feel of a certain kind of old school New Yorker story. As Vivian Gornick described it in "The End of the Novel of Love":
In the fifties John Cheever's stories of marital disillusion seemed profound. That famous climatic moment in Cheever when the husband realizes holds him in contempt, or the wife knows husband is committing adultery, these moments delivered an electric charge. The knowledge encoded in them seemed literally stunning, leaving the characters riven, their lives destroyed. Who, after all, could go on after this? Then came the shocker - the thing that made the story large, awesome, terrible - they did go on like this. 
This describes the lives of many of Mad Men's characters throughout the early seasons. Then, of course, as Gornick recounts "within a generation . . there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs . . . " Some of the suspense came in who would crack first, and how, and at what cost.  Betty seemed doomed if she was forced to live outside her illusions - this was true and not. Would it be Pete unable to live with his own contempt, or would Trudy beat him to it? Don and Roger, while threatened by certain aspects of social change, are poised to benefit from others - they trade in their spouses with little reprisal. Except, of course, that they discover nothing has really changed. For Roger, this works insofar as we can experience his semi-nihilistic questing as a comedy, but it's left us impatient with Don.  The wonderful Emily Nussbaum pretty much nails  the corner into which Don had been painted by the end of last season. The aside about sneering and swingers is interesting too: in an odd way, our favorite horn dog is a bit of a prude: Roger might have the most depressing stoned group sex ever, but he's still game and mildly amused. Don's still caught up in the guilt and secrecy. (The show's attempts to show him as kinky, like with the prostitute who smacks him, fall flat, the way so many shows still use mild kink as a shorthand for sad people having sad sex.) I remember reading somewhere about when the Diggers who set up a free store, they had to explain to people who tried to shoplift why that was impossible at a free store. There may be sex in the streets in 1968, but Don still prefers the neighbor and hotel rooms with heavy curtains. No one needs to tell Don there's no such thing as free love. The scene when his daughter discovers him is devastating - but where can we go from there?

The problem gets more complicated - but it still feels like a problem - when we think about the show's broader historical and social canvas. Here too, the show was wonderful in its depiction of the repressive Before. But once that order is shaken, it has been largely unable or unwilling to present anyone who stands for this challenge in a serious way. African-American characters appear in the background, and occasionally make a telling comment. The counterculture mostly exists insofar as it embodies aspects of Don's psychodrama. (Or, Betty's, in the first and strongest episode of season six. Her implicit sympathy for the hippie kids was a fascinating thread that was unfortunately dropped.) And then there was the hippie punching throughout season six. Or, rather, hippie stabbing. When Abe and Peggy argued about civil rights and women's rights a few seasons back, some of it was an easy gibe at Abe, but some of it actually got at the ways it's easier for people to support justice from a distance, when it doesn't bring their own position into question or even just make for an awkward conversation. But by the end of season six he was mostly shown as a fool. He becomes absurd the way the Beatniks Don smokes up with in the first season is absurd.

Now, it's certainly true that in any time period, even one of mass political action, the majority of people are not activists, and mostly experience change through the mundane of their daily lives. The episode on King's assassination was trying to show that in an interesting way. But there's something perverse in the way that the show keeps suggesting that while the old ways were unjust, those who directly challenge them are fools. 

Which brings us to Peggy. Some of the publicity for this season - along with the shot late last season of her in Don's characteristic pose - suggests this will be "her season." It's an intriguing possibility - perhaps the most radical and astute solution to the Don Draper problem would be if he simply fades away - like characters in The Wire, who are significant only for the ecological niche they inhabit. It also points to show's ambivalence about social change, though. That awful Netflix ad isn't just grotesquely historically ignorant. It also points to a certain reading of Peggy - she's a feminist, kind of, but not part of feminism: she represents change and the struggle for respect through her story, but doesn't have a relationship to the organized social movements of the time. Now, when you point things like this out, everyone rushes to explain to you, yet again, the difference between art and politics, or to complain you're looking for agitprop. What is interesting to me about that is the idea that any portrayal of collective movements - or even of characters having some relationship to them - would automatically detract from complexity. Certainly it is easy to imagine a poorly executed story line where Betty or Peggy or Joan get their Consciousness Raised. But would it really be so impossible for some one in the Mad Men universe to have some real relationship to this movement, or the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-war movement, which captured the imagination of so many? And if we can't imagine it doing so, what does that tell us? 

At the same time, though, I think Peggy's story does reveal something interesting about contemporary feminism and its discontents. I cringed a bit at the end of last night's episode, when she cries alone in her apartment after a bad day at the office, so lonely she wanted the plumber to hang out.  But the thing is, Peggy's rise has always been more interesting precisely because it's in advertising, a field that can't possibly live up to the creative and personal energies she has put into it - as so many of our jobs cannot, not because we more properly should put them all into our home and family lives, but because of that little thing the show is actually largely about: capitalism. Much is made about Don and Peggy's affinity for each other because they are both outsiders who struggled for respect. But that outsider status also gives them a certain take on what they are doing - they take advertising seriously and are good at it precisely because in some ways they aren't taking it seriously - they know how to manipulate want and need, if often unconsciously, and they know it can always be manipulated because it can never be satisfied. We want Peggy to triumph, but we don't have illusions about what triumph looks like in the venue she's in. (Not, one should note, the venue she has 'chosen', simply the one she found herself in.) This doesn't mean that Peggy is an unappealing, proto-Sheryl Sandberg or some such. It just means that when it comes to work, we are all still living in the Before. 












Friday, April 4, 2014

Before Feminism



So says Netflix.


"A hundred years of brilliant personalities and important events have also been erased from American history. The women orators who fought of mobs, in the days when women were not allowed to speak in public, to attack Family, Church and State, who travelled on poor to cow towns of the West to talk to small groups of socially starved women, were quite a bit more dramatic than the Scarlett O'Haras and Harriet Beecher Stowes and all the Little Women who have come down to us. . . But most people today have never even heard of Myrtilla Miner, Prudence Crandall, Abigail Scott Duniway, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ernestine Rose, the Clafin sisters, Crystal Eastman, Clara Lemlich, Mrs. OHP Belmont, Doris Stevens, Anne Martin. And this ignorance is nothing compared to ignorance of the lives of women of the stature of Margaret Fuller, Fanny Wright, the Grimke sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Stanton Blatch, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Paul."

So said Shulamith Firestone. (Dialectic of Sex, 1970)


Thursday, February 6, 2014

On Movie Stars and Being Moved

In 1997, I was just out of college, having gone straight to graduate school and moved to New York where I knew almost no one. I had one friend from college who'd come here to try to be an actress who was living in this dorm-style residence for women where I'd also lived briefly in college and I remember going to the lobby to meet her and feeling like I was some girl from the fifties destined to be a shopgirl while pining for life on Broadway.

One weekend that summer, I went to see two movies that stuck with me for very different reasons. The first was Neil LaBute's first movie, In the Company of Men, which was then making something of a stir for the way it shows bad man doing bad bad things - basically, a bunch of corporate assholes doing asshole stuff, one of whom fake seduces a deaf woman in order to dump and humiliate her. I haven't seen it since then - I imagine I would find it fake-daring, as I do so many of these films that "dare" to show people as completely and flatly evil - as if that were any more psychologically insightful than a Disney cartoon. Inevitably these characters are still charismatic because they are being played by attractive movie stars good at making themselves liked, so these performances are seen as "brave" and "complicated," making them "more than monsters," etc. Probably if I saw it now I would note the ridiculousness and offensiveness of the premise that a woman who happened to be deaf (and who of course also happened to be beautiful) would be so desperate as to fall for this ploy, inexplicably having no friends or romantic prospects of her own. In any case, I don't remember who I saw the movie with, but I remember afterwards we both looked at each other and said something like, ok, we each have to go home now and take twenty showers with bleach.

The second movie was Mike Leigh's Career Girls. Its world was as grounded and measured as LaBute's was absurd. I don't remember a lot of the plot but I remember the dynamics between the two main characters, college friends whose bond and struggles the movie charts moving back and forth over six years in their twenties filled with crappy jobs and desperate doomed romantic obsessions. I especially remember the game they would play of "Miss Bronte, Miss Bronte," turning to a random page of Wuthering Heights for the "answer" to a pressing question. (Roger Ebert beautifully ends his largely positive and somewhat perplexed review by apply this trick to understanding the movie. It works.)  And I remember the amazing face and performance of Katrin Cartlidge, who died way too young and was also breathtaking in Breaking the Waves.  I do remember that I saw this one with a female friend who I could tell was also very affected by it, in probably painful ways, and saying, ok, time to go home and read the Brontes. I got home that night and turned on my little clock radio to set the alarm and heard someone weeping because Princess Diana had died. I turned it off and thought, but the Brontes! Later that week I had an argument with a friend about why people were sad about the deaths of famous people they had never met, which in my young self-righteousness I saw as grandstanding and parasitic. It didn't occur to me that I hadn't been moved by the news because I'd been too busy being moved by fictional people.


Three times in my life I have been moved by the death of someone famous. Of course there are many many people I admire whose loss saddened me, but most often it's an abstract rather than visceral reaction. It's not the thing I couldn't understand when people felt it about Diana,  thinking about them something in the way I would about someone I had known. Two of these were recent: James Gandolfini last year and Philip Seymour Hoffman this week. Partly this is for obvious reasons: they were such commanding presences, and ones whose performances I'd spent so much time with, that it was hard to imagine that force just disappearing. Interestingly, both were most famous for the dark characters who are often delicately referred to as "complicated" - meaning they do really terrible shit and meaning I might likely have reacted to them with the impatience I had with LaBute's movie, but I didn't. I do wonder what they might have done if we didn't have this way of associating the powerful physicality they both had with violence or deviance. By far my favorite role of Hoffman's was Phil Parma, the kind nurse who engineers a reunion between Jason Robards' dying patriarch and Tom Cruise's misogynist "motivational speaker."  What if, I wonder, more of our best writers and artists thought that damaged people who do what most damaged people do - struggle, drink too much, take it out on themselves - were as interesting as revealing, time and again, that people who do terrible things are also damaged?

The other death that moved me was Heath Ledger's. In this case it wasn't because of any of his performances, but because of something that had happened a few months before. It started as a funny story - my first good New York celebrity story despite being a decade since that night when Diana died and I just wanted to read the Brontes. At the time I was volunteering at Housing Works bookstore in Soho. One day Heath came into the store. People started to whisper - was it really him? His companion, a woman with an Australian accent, asked if we had a copy of a certain book.  I explained that since the books were all used and donated, we didn't have database, but mentioned the section where she might find it. When I pointed to it, she asked if I could walk with her. I explained that I was working the register. And then - at least the way I remember it  - Heath said - why don't you look yourself - and gave me a look of sympathy. That's right I thought. Heath and I are having a moment. It's me and him against her.  It reminded me of what people always said about Bill Clinton - the making you think you are the only one in the room thing. Eventually he bought a couple hundred dollars worth of mostly elegant hardbacks. I remember one of them was Chomsky - one of the linguistics ones. He said "you have a beautiful store." He joked about whether his credit card would work. I think I have enough on that one. There it was on his American Express - H Ledger. It didn't work at first, so I rubbed it on my shirt. A week later he came in again, this time with his daughter. A couple months later, he was gone.

Sometime after that, I read what is probably my favorite short story, Miranda July's "Roy Spivey." It begins like this: "Twice I have sat beside a famous person on an airplane." The first part of the story is the narrator's account of the odd conversation with she has with the second of these, a movie star.  At the end of the flight he explains that they won't be able to talk when they get off.  They come up with a code: he will say "Do you work here?" and she will say, "no." But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. work here, she says. will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her.  This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to give weight too:  the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside. The narrator wants to mark that her connection was real, but it was too late. "His eyes were mute. He was acting."

In a brilliant n+1 essay, Christopher Glazek talks about the psychic space taken up by those who die while young and beautiful, thinking about how Joaquin Phoenix's response to his brother River's death has resonated with his own experience of his brother's mental illness. I realized while reading that if I had seen My Own Private Idaho and Running on Empty before rather than after River's death, his would have been the first to have shaken me, the way it did so many about my age.

The idea of separating an artist from his or her art can mean a lot of things in a lot of different contexts, most of which I think are largely impossible, even if desirable. This is especially so in the case of movie stars, who live inside the instruments of their art.  At the end of July's story, the narrator finds the movie star's number after many years and thinks about how the idea of their connection has promised to save her. At the end of Glazek's essay, he describes why we cannot help but read our lives through those of the stars, especially the damned stars, no matter how complicit or parasitic that may make us.
When art fails to provide catharsis — when the movies won’t resemble reality, or admit their own unreality — the tabloids take over. Here, at least, the world is half-acknowledged, if not transcended. Recognition, of course, is not the same as resolution: the only thing like life is life, which is so much longer than a movie. The story seems never to end; the suffering does not stop.