Monday, November 21, 2011

Talking to Strangers

When I was a kid, I was afraid of talking to strangers, especially under certain circumstances. I was scared of picking up the phone to call someone, or of knocking on someone's door to sell Girl Scout cookies or what have you. Even recently, working on political campaigns that involve phone banking or door knocking fills me with dread. When I was in college I tried to write for our school paper. I remember interviewing a professor of mine - not a stranger, but close enough - about a new policy on student-faculty dating. I remember sitting there trembling while he said something about how student-teacher relationships were inevitably erotic, but you couldn't get such a subtle point across in an article, so please don't include that. (Yes, he was an English prof.) I didn't include it and the story went on the front page and soon after I switched to writing reviews.

I've always looked at this as a kind of political as well as a personal failing, as if a little timidity was all that stood between me and becoming Studs Terkel or Anna Deveare Smith, two folks whose work fascinates me probably partially because the thought of doing what they do is so terrifying to me.

One thing about being pregnant is that it involves a good deal of talking to strangers. I haven't had the experience people talk about where strangers try to touch you, but lots of strangers and casual acquaintances will engage short conversations with the standard questions - the answers are easy enough, and it's not like you had to initiate - but there's something about it that takes me back to that fear.

Miranda July is no Terkel or Deveare Smith. Like other indie filmmakers, her work is apolitical in a specific way - it's a world where people exist in the thinnest of social environments. In her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More than You, this isolation works to brilliant psychological and existential ends, but it feels like a fun house mirror version of the world, where everyone's ultimate unknowability becomes literal. They can't really connect - ok, fine who can - but they also can't have a normal conversation.

So perhaps the high concept premise of her new book It Chooses You - interviewing people who place ads in the Penny Saver while procrastinating endlessly over the completion of her new screenplay - isn't so odd or surprising. It's exactly what you'd expect when a performance artist tries to force herself to overcome social phobias and normal taboos and make herself into an existential Studs Terkel. At first glance it's an odd book even for her - she describes her own struggles with the screenplay in the same elliptical, beautiful, searing weirdness as we get in No One Belongs Here. Except that fictional characters have a reason to speak in heightened metaphors; it's odd to hear a somewhat public figure use this for her own state of mind. Except, you realize, it's not a literary conceit: she actually thinks things like: "it was as if he'd just thrown some confetti in the air and called it words."

July says at the beginning that it's a book in part about L.A., which makes a lot of sense. A lot of the obsession with atomization in indie films might have something to do with that city. There you have to seek out strangers to talk to; here in N.Y. you have to dodge them. And not only when you're pregnant. It's also in part about older people in a younger world - the people who sell things in the penny saver don't have computers. July seems to think they exist in a different emotional space than the rest of us - I'm not so sure. If nothing else it reminds us that the internet sure as fuck didn't invent shut-ins. July works hard at being her best Terkel-like populist self. When she interviews Andrew, a seventeen year old trying to sell tadpoles, she seethes when he tells her how he was shunted into special ed classes for no reason he understands and encourages him to see his obvious gift with animals as something he can use, test scores be damned. But then she runs up against Ron, also known as the kind of person who makes you think you're right not to talk to strangers:
Ron was exactly the kind of man you spent your whole life being careful not to end up in the apartment of. And since I was raised to go out of my way to make such men feel understood, I took extra-special care with his interview. But as he talked on and on (the original transcript was more than fifty pages), I realized that I don't actually want to understand this kind of man - I just want them to feel understood, because I fear what will happen if I am thought of as yet another person who doesn't believe them. I want to be the one they spare on the day of reckoning.
Later she notes how much more willing to run from the situation she is than she was at sixteen, when she corresponded with a prisoner. But it would be too glib to say, ah yes, well, there's talking to strangers and then there's going to the houses of strangers when you're a woman and when it's the latter you know where the fear comes from, and that it may be a gift, like the self-help books say. What is being an artist or a creative person if not the fantasy that we will be something other than another person who doesn't understand, and that the understanding may spare us? Ron may not deserve it, but we do.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More Gaitskill

When I was about eleven, I wrote a story for English class about a teenager who wanted to be a model. Which was kind of crazy: around then I wanted to be a dancer, a writer, a therapist or a lawyer. Of course a few years later the topic would seem like the most ridiculous and embarrassing thing, the sort of thing written by an eleven year old reading certain magazines, the worst possible topic for a young girl who understandably wants to write about the only thing young girls can write about, which is wanting. But having just finished Veronica - and with it, having read all of Gaitskill's books, the first time I'm managed that with an author for a while - I have a little more compassion for my younger self. Who knew modeling could be a theme for a great novel? Well, not modeling exactly, but all that goes along with it. As Allison, the novel's narrator, puts it, "I said I had not gone to New York to be a model, and I hadn't. I'd gone there for life and sex and cruelty. Not something you learn in community college." Beauty, Dorothy Allison wrote, tells an ugly story, and it is the thing that teaches Allison life and sex and cruelty. Beauty and the things that go with it - youth and sophistication, or at least the appearance of it- separate Allison from Veronica, a woman with whom she forms an unlikely friendship. Beauty and the power imbalance that it creates and embodies challenge our sense of ourselves as good and kind people, and of our world as one where empathy is possible. Good liberals who reject the cruelty of winner-take-all ideologies hesitate - and with good reason - when it comes to beauty and sex. It's no good for the rich to say more and more is never enough - not everyone agrees on this, of course, but the imperative is clear enough for many of us. But if the beautiful and talented want more experience, more sex, more life - who are those of us with less beauty and talent to stand in their way? Certain strains of feminism have challenged women on this point - perhaps this is why its ideals seem so particularly arduous. Allison's friends tell her how good she is for standing by Veronica as she struggles with AIDS and her other friends abandon her. Allison knows better. She understands the cruelty of pity. In less extreme circumstances, I've had friendships where I was close to each of these roles, and her brilliant evocation of the dynamic is devastating.

Throughout the novel Gaitskill uses variation on a haunting image: after she describes a scene, Allison says, "Imagine ten pictures of this conversation. In nine of them, she's the fool and I'm the person who has something. But in the tenth, I'm the fool and it's her show now. For just a second, that's the picture I saw." It's the possibility of the tenth picture which brings Allison back, and that makes ten pages of the seemingly "personal" or "apolitical" Gaitskill more worthwhile than a dozen thick tomes of so-called voice of a generation authors whose lukewarm, smoothed over sociology of the middle class somehow passes for "realism."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Me, Elsewhere

I have a review of Vivian Gornick's short biography of Emma Goldman up at the November issue of Open Letters Monthly.

In the same issue, be sure to catch Rohan Maitzen's great takedown of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot. It does sound pretty dreary - really, deconstruction-bashing, how novel! There's nothing worse than a novel editorializing and theorizing to you about the superiority of art to editorializing and theorizing. Well, yes, then, why don't you get on with it? Even Roth is completely dreadful when he gives in to this. Because I'm a masochist, I recently caught Sam Tanenhaus on his podcast bitching about Eugenides not being nominated for a National Book Award: as with Franzen, supposedly it's a conspiracy against "major" or "popular" authors by judges who don't recognize that books that sell can also be good. It's a clever way (well, not that clever really) to give a populist spin to a standard lament for the eclipse of your pet white males, who by definition have something big to say, no matter how parochial their subject matter. Can't it ever be that sometimes they're just not that good?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Poetry Corner: Dedication

Right now I'm working on a review of Vivian Gornick's new biography of Emma Goldman for Open Letters Monthly. Over at The New Inquiry, The Jacobin's Bhaskar Sunkara takes issue with Gornick for spending too much time on her romantic life and failing to present an adequate analysis and critique of the limits of Goldman's brand of radicalism, deeming the book "a trite celebration of the 'good fight' and some parlor gossip."

But what does it actually mean to fight the good fight? Are the contours of a life of struggle really so familiar to us? Of course, from a certain radical perspective, this is besides the point: one struggles to change the world, not to live a meaningful life. Yet given the precariousness of radical victories, part of the story is always the lives left behind across decades of difficult and sacrifice, and, often, seeming failures. By aiming for more than a meaningful life for oneself, meaningful lives are constructed: this is one of the central tensions at the heart of Benjamin Balthaser's wonderful new collection of poems, Dedication, (you can get it here.)

Drawing on experiences and interviews with relatives who were activists and members of the American Communist Party, the book meditates on the lines of blood and memory that extend from the long-ago epiphanies, cherished books, and conversations across decades that erode their power, both through the active repression of HUAC and named names and the less deliberate but no less intolerable diminishments of age, separations, and silences. "Dedication for Arrival" implicitly rebukes all those who have seen American repression as somehow insignificant because it lacks the familiar icons of state repression:

When they came, they did not come,
in darkness, as they did,

they did come with greased faces,
black with smoke, as they did,


They came in the middle of the day,
they came in suits, they knocked on the door,
and read from a warrant, signed by a judge,
and when the children wept, they patted them on the head,
and gave them sweets, and the neighbors
peered from darkened windows
not knowing and prayer but silence, and rumor.

Finally, though, it is in the construction of meaningful lives that the losses and gains are measured. In "Dedication 4 for Sid Grossman: Service," we see a captain ridicule his commitment - ("we know what your background is"),
to run their logistics, the Lieutenant called on you.

Grossman will talk to those niggers, and when
you walked through the tropical darkness,
and onto the other side, and you spoke
with the ease and directness one grants to men,
it was obvious you had not learned this in the Army.

I don't buy or recommend poetry that often, but do yourself a favor and pick up Dedication here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reading for the Plot

I remember, back when I was still a student (I say this as if it was some little brief fling instead of how I spent more than half of my life), reading a preface to one of Doris Lessing's novels. I think it was Martha Quest, although it might have been the namesake of this humble blog. In any case, the preface quoted Lessing crediting her literary accomplishments to her lack of formal schooling. It gave her the freedom, she said, to read the way one should read: haphazardly, without a plan, wherever one's interests and fancy took one. Well. I set her aside for awhile and guiltily went back to whatever I was supposed to be reading for a seminar. Now that I'm out of school (as much as a teacher can be), working on fiction as much as anything academic, I read more this way than I probably ever have. I don't know if I agree completely with Lessing: there's something to trying to discipline oneself to read deeply into a certain topic, even through the boring parts. In any case, I had something of an odd summer, and at the end of August I realized that what I'd read over the last two months - the good bad and ugly, made no sense together whatsoever, except that it made perfect sense. One feels, nonetheless, some need to account for What is Found There (the remnants of the good student, perhaps).

In any case, then, some discoveries and some embarrassing confessions:

- Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland. I came to read this in a way that's probably something like Lessing's ideal, but that almost never happens with me: I saw it at the bookstore, was struck by it although I'd never heard of it, and read it right away. I'd heard of Myles as a poet: this is a collection of prose pieces: some you might call reviews, some you might call essays, I suppose. There's a lot about art, but the best, for my money, are the responses to Times articles and the like: she takes some throw away, completely conventional line and runs with it, as if the writer had actually meant what he wrote. Her anti-advice commencement speech is pretty great too.

- Jane Green, Babyville. On to the ugly. Every once and a while I get momentarily fascinated by "chick lit." I kind of liked Bridget Jones and the one Candace Bushnell book I read. I tend to be of the "if it's popular there must be something there, and well-done pure entertainment is harder than it looks" school. But good god, this was awful. Somehow one can take a TV show where there is "the career girl with her one night stands" and "the housewife obsessed with babies" - just being played by an actor inevitably gives them at least a touch of something recognizable. But sitting through descriptions explaining to you that's who they are, in case you missed the point. Blech. The sex scenes sucked too.

- Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking. Borrowed from a friend while at a country house. I imagine that, good or bad, celebrity memoirs are far more entertaining that chick lit with "relatable" characters. There were funny pictures, plus it makes you curious to re-listen to mid-period Paul Simon.

- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude. The only reread among the bunch, for an online reading group. My first read was in a grad seminar, overburdened by its reputation in Latin American literature and how much my Latin Americanist friends get annoyed by it as a result. I did enjoy it more this time, but it was still all a bit much for me. I think I'll always be a minimalist or a realist at heart, and usually both at the same time.

- Leslie Chang, Factory Girls. A bit of a cheat on the arbitrary reading plan, since I'd taught a chapter in my composition class on work, and wanted to see how the other pieces fit together. It's a great read. Chang isn't a lefty, and she clearly doesn't want her story about young migrant workers in China's new cities to be primarily a story about exploitation. What she does instead, though, works well, showing us how her subjects navigate a truly strange world. The chapters on the instant schools that have cropped up to teach the ways of the capitalist world and on the dating market among young migrants are particularly captivating. After reading the latter, at least, it's really really hard to complain about how "artificial" OkCupid is.

- Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. J.K. Rowling gave this classic from 1948 a boost with her blurb, and you can see why. I guess you'd call it Y.A., though not everything with a teenage narrator and point of view merits that, does it? Is Catcher in the Rye YA? In any case, it brought me back to a lot of childhood reading - the Britishness, the propriety, the girl discovering the library in the old house, the way first crushes or loves bump against trying to be a good person. I wonder how many books for teenage girls stage this conflict, about what is given up to win someone else. It's probably not up there as a theme for the vampire and end of the world types, but it still does it for me.

- Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. The best of the bunch and probably the best novel I read this year. I have a New Yorker cartoon on my fridge that shows two farmers looking over a pen of cattle. "Before we slaughter them," one says, "we give them each an achievement award." Yes, the novel is about clones, but it's really about kids who are like us, only more so: they go to schools where they are told they matter, that they are cared for, that what they think and feel matters. That the teachers are interested in their art because it reveals something about them. The unwinding is in discovering that this isn't true, that they are a product, being prepared. And unlike our visions of youthful liberation, this is one set of raw materials that, despite any Mario Savios lurking among them, doesn't love the machine, but isn't about to throw itself into the gears, either. Taking it a step further, you think about what it means to create children - of the regular non-clone kind - and have to explain to them they're going to die. Cheery stuff! But way less depressing than Babyville.

- Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer. A delight from the first infamous sentence, as I knew it would be. Takes one of the oldest and well-worn topics - the problem of subjectivity, and plays it out in the concrete in all its horrors. Worth several shelves of philosophical monographs on the nature of truth.

- Annie Murphy Paul, Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Read this for the obvious reason. The subtitle tells you exactly why this book might be terrifying for a lot of moms-to-be, but I really appreciated actually reading some of the science behind all the recommendations, speculations, and confusions. Reading blog posts at Babble or wherever I just want to go around with a red marker and write "citation please." It's especially interesting to read about the "natural experiments" a lot of these ideas rest on, given that obvious ethical problems with traditional studies, and the history of what used to be believed is pretty hilarious. Paul was pregnant herself when she wrote the book and does a good job trying to frame the information without mother-blame, though her confidence that this is how it will be used seems overblown, to say the least.
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Another cheat, since I'm teaching some of it in my America in the World class. An ethnography of the Green Zone from the bad old Bremner/CPA days. He sides a little too much towards the "hubris/mistakes were made" interpretation, I think - giving the stories of well-intentioned young staffers and their disillusionment leads one a bit to the conclusion that things might have been different if there had been more competence, intelligence, what have you, instead of to the point that, as Jamaica Kincaid said of the British in one of our readings for the class, the problem was that they just should have stayed home. Still, an important document. The little "scenes" in between chapters - descriptions of things like where young staffers lodged in big communal bunks went to fuck, or the support group for Democrats - are the best part. Ah, remember the aughts? How much younger we were then.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gloria: Four Decades of Not Taking the Bait

"Our job is not to make young women grateful, it's to make them ungrateful."

This quotation from Susan B. Anthony serves as something of a touchstone throughout the recent HBO documentary about Gloria Steinem. It's a short film, just 60 minutes (Stephen Colbert quipped that it's 75% as long as documentaries about men), and because it takes a personal approach, structured around interviews with Steinem, it doesn't offer a comprehensive history of the second wave movement, or a lot of context for viewers unfamiliar with that history. Dana Goldstein has a good piece about the shortcomings of the film, especially regarding the treatment of race. It's too bad, because I think a lot of that history is really under-known and discussed. I don't mean the frequent specious charge that younger women are ignorant and therefore ungrateful about what the movement did for us. First of all, as Steinem points out through the Anthony quotation, gratitude should not be the goal. Certainly it's hard for any of us to really have a visceral sense of what the pre-(this round of)-feminism world felt like, which I think is part of the spell that Mad Men casts on so many of us. But as Steinem, who always rises above the media's attempts to bait her into trashing younger feminists, has pointed out, young women, when you look at actual poll numbers - let alone how we vote with our feet - are far more feminist than earlier generations. What I mean is that feminism often isn't really integrated into people's sense of social movements and how they work. Most well-educated progressives probably couldn't name the main civil rights laws except the non-passed ERA or the main court cases except for Roe. This doc. does little to address this, but the personal angle works well on its own terms, as Steinem talks about how she came to politics as a young journalist sent to cover a hearing on abortion laws, the ways the pre-feminist world led to her mother's breakdown, how her mother's own aborted writing career spurred her own ambitions and drove her from her family, the impact of being in the media spotlight, and her first marriage at 66. And it does a great job with what documentaries do best, showing us photographs and archival footage that evokes lost worlds: all the talk shows where, as Steinem points out, they hadn't yet gotten to anger against feminists and were still stuck on ridicule, and she navigated with wit, humor and grace, never taking the bait, gamely avoiding all their cajoling of her to diss other feminists, to diss on wives and mothers, to talk about nothing but her personal life - they made her deny she was dating Henry Kissinger after a White House visit, which tells you about what you need to know. As Gandhi said, first they ignore you, then they laugh, then they fight, and then you win - or, you sort of win and then you keep fighting.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Stakes

A couple episodes into the fourth season of Breaking Bad, my fears about the direction we're going in seem to have been justified: now that there's no facade, now that there's just Walt, criminal mastermind, it's more of a really well-written and beautifully shot crime drama than anything else. Skyler's own transformation as she "breaks bad" promises to be very interesting this season, although it's unclear if this will be treated as more than a side plot. Amanda has an interesting post arguing, persuasively to my mind, that what's happened is not really a moral transformation on Walt's part - he's just become fully realized as the asshole he always was underneath the nerdy facade of his previous life. She's responding to an interesting but odd post by Chuck Klosterman, which argues that Breaking Bad is the best of the widely agreed-upon group of "TV as great art" shows of the last decade (the others being The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men). As always, what's interesting is not which is actually best, but the reasons given and what the tell us about the reader, and Klosterman's are odd, if not unfamiliar. Klosterman likes Breaking Bad's clear morality:

Breaking Bad is the only one built on the uncomfortable premise that there's an irrefutable difference between what's right and what's wrong, and it's the only one where the characters have real control over how they choose to live.
This is different than The Sopranos, Klosterman argues, because it was always clear Tony and the people around him were fundamentally immoral (again, he's assuming that this can't be true of Walt, because he's not actually killing people at the start.) The Wire is too morally nuanced, its characters existing in a world where the lines between doing good and evil, intentions and results are hopelessly convoluted. As a result,
The conditions matter more than the participants. As we drift further and further from its 2008 finale, it increasingly feels like the ultimate takeaway from The Wire was more political than philosophical. Which is not exactly a criticism, because that's an accomplishment, too … it's just that it turns the plot of The Wire into a delivery mechanism for David Simon's polemic worldview (which makes its value dependent on how much the audience is predisposed to agree with him).
Ah yes, the old the "political makes things narrower" argument - which is odd since Klosterman has just said that The Wire is the most morally complex of the shows, but because that moral complexity takes place in a context (which is by and large what makes it complex), it must be somehow diminished, less than universal (as opposed to Breaking Bad, which is I guess universal because it involves a middle-class while protagonist who presumably makes his purely immoral decisions in a social vacuum.)
But the discussion of Mad Men is odder still:
Mad Men is set in the 1960s, so every action the characters make is not really a reflection on who they are; they're mostly a commentary on the era. Don Draper is a bad husband, but "that's just how it was in those days." Characters can do or say whatever they want without remorse, because almost all their decisions can be excused (or at least explained) by the circumstances of the period. Roger Sterling's depravity is a form of retrospective entertainment, so very little is at stake. The people on this show need to be irresponsible for the sake of plausibility, so we can't really hold them accountable for what they do.
I hear people say things like this all the time, and I just don't get it. Isn't it clear that the characters do navigate their restricted environment in very different ways? That they not only exist within its strictures but help enforce them on one another? I guess people who say things like that think that they live in morally correct times, that their own choices and morality aren't shaped by anything but their own inborn and universal compass. Maybe the drama of choosing to act badly in a fundamentally morally correct world has a purity that Klosterman appreciates, but it's not the world anyone (even Walt) lives in.

Perhaps the most revealing moment came in this aside to the discussion of Mad Men:
Semirelated: Of these four shows, Mad Men is the only that doesn't regularly involve violence. This also changes the gravity of the characters' decision-making, because the worst thing that can happen to anyone is merely losing a job or being humiliated.

It shouldn't be necessary to belabor what's wrong with this: the stakes on Mad Men are never a problem, given the gut-wrenching emotional violence that "merely" being humiliated entails. Also: the "worst that can happen" also includes being raped, regularly sexually harassed, the daily violence of living the closet, having to conceal a pregnancy and giving up your child, having your life choices thoroughly constrained by sexism and racism, being a young child and having parents who are completely emotionally distant if not abusive. So yeah. (Of course then your definition of 'anyone' has to go beyond Don and Roger.) People rail on about violence in popular culture, but what's often under that discussion is the assumption that violence, when properly dealt with, is the necessary condition of moral seriousness, that anything else is just an updated costume drama. It doesn't matter to me which of these shows people think is best, but I do think Mad Men has done something important in how it dramatizes emotional violence - which can be particularly challenging for the viewer as we aren't given the release physical violence often provides. This should put to rest the "costume drama" insult once and for all - except that Wharton, Forester, James et. all knew a thing or two about emotional violence as well. . .

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Critique of Pure Feminist Reason

Although The New Yorker has been called out for the relatively low proportion of female bylines, they've gone a long way towards winning me over by making Ariel Levy a regular. She's brilliant on any topic, but it's especially gratifying and sanity-restoring to read articles on feminism, or feminist-inflected pieces, like her brilliant profile of Cindy McCain, in a mainstream publication that not only don't make you want to throw things across the room, but that actually make you say, yes, that's it exactly.

I didn't have quite that reaction to Jane Kramer's profile of Elisabeth Badinter, in last week's issue, but I was fascinated by it. Badinter is a French philosopher, the author of a "three-volume social history of the French Enlightenment"and co-author with her politician husband of a biographer of Condorcet. She's also the author of five polemics on what, in her case, it doesn't seem archaic to call "the woman question," from a 1980 attack on the idea of maternal instinct through her recent indictment of "what she regards as a spreading cult of 'motherhood fundamentalism' in the West."

Badinter's books, Kramer tells us, are popular in the provinces and found at supermarket checkouts, but the context is very different from, say, the last time this was true of feminist polemics in this country. Friedan and Steinem, whatever their flaws, were extremely effective popularizing writers, but they were also of course crack activists, organizers, and institution builders. Badinter tells Kramer that "The daily work of militancy is not for me. As a feminist, I can only do one thing - put into relief something that has been ignored." Which is of course her right - but the intellectual-turned polemicist poses certain problems distinct from the polemicist/activist. Badinter's popular works sell, but outside of a movement, we end up with the equivalent of dueling bloggers saying, "I'm not judging the choices of other mothers, but . . ." - This is pretty much where Badinter goes when it's pointed out to her that there's little evidence her country is in the grips of some maternal cult: France actually has low rates of long-term breast-feeding and high rates of mother's participation in the workforce. The empirical is accidental; it's the polemics that matter.

Part of this seems to be about the role granted to "public intellectuals" in France. Anyone who's been unfortunate enough to have more than five minute's exposure to Bernard Henri-Levy's imperial gasbagging should suspect that the much vaunted greater stature given to "intellectuals" in that country is at best a mixed blessing. Even in a case, like Bandinter's, where someone has done serious, intense archival work, it takes us to the the idea that everything someone has to say thereby becomes important regardless of how it stands on its own merits. Sometimes the results are mostly silly, as in a Princeton talk Joan Scott recalls in Kramer's article:
Badinter was saying all sorts of banal things about how the French were sexier than Americans, better at sex, how American women washed too much, how they were embarrassed by bodily odors, by oral sex. We asked hostile questions, like, 'How can you say these things off the top of your head?'
Of course, feminism has long had this effect on people, and it's not feminism's fault: gender, sex, family, mother, work: these things cut so deep, matter so much, who can stop from saying these things off the top of one's head? But sometimes the results are not just silly but dangerous - as in Badinter's advocacy of the headscarf ban in French school and the more recent ban on niqabs in public (incorrectly referred to as burqas, as Kramer notes.) More on that in a minute.

There's something going on here besides the temptations of a public platform. From her beloved Enlightenment figures Bandinter has inherited a love of categorical abstraction. Atheists hate it when people point out any similarities between their approach and that of religion, but in this case it's hard to avoid. For Badinter, attachment parenting is bad because it coincides with the "naturalistic ideology" that's been ruining things since Rousseau. How different is that from the religious position that birth control is bad because it's "unnatural"? She concedes that 'motherhood fundamentalism' isn't actually a major trend in France, but it could be. This gets even worse, not surprisingly, when she turns her philosophical devotion to secularism on the hot button issues of the moment:
She sees her defense of the burqa law as consistent with her concern for the rights of Afghan women . . . There are five or six million French Muslims, and, for now, she says, the percentage of Muslim mothers with full-time jobs is no less than the national average; she wants to keep those women out in the world assimilating.
In other words, there's no evidence that religion is keeping women from the workforce, but she wants to ban their religious expression - just in case it does! Badinter is upset that women are have abandoned the liberating ideas of her beloved Enlightenment - "never mind," Kramer points out, "that the citoyennes of 1789 lost those rights before they ever had them, or that they got to vote only after the Second World War." And never mind that, at its best, "the personal is the political" meant that there was something important in testing the abstract categories passed down by tradition - be that tradition religious, secular, intellectual - against the realities of one's lived experience. Kramer makes Badinter seems like a compelling figure in a lot of ways, and points out that she deserves credit for embracing the label and intellectual work of feminism, unlike most of her peers in the French elite. But I couldn't help but find the way Kramer describes the debate depressingly familiar, echoing the worst press-driven "debates" that pit one group of women against another. The intellectual weight (or baggage) Badinter brings to the table doesn't help matters. She may reflect the problems of the current xenophobia among European secularists, of intellectuals in the public sphere, or just of philosophy as a discipline, but in any case, it all seems, as Joan Didion once said (wrongly in my estimation) of the women's movement itself, to have become a symptom rather than a diagnosis or a cure.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


After reading Mary Gaitskill's amazing "The Other Place" in The New Yorker a while back, I poured through her three short story collections over the spring: Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To, and Don't Cry. What to say about Gaitskill? I guess she's best known for the way she writes about sex, partly because of the story that was the basis for Secretary. And understandably so. She makes Roth look like a Victorian. (If Katie Rophie had any sense, she'd be raving about what balls Gaitskill has, but of course she doesn't count.) It's not because she's more "explicit," whatever that might mean. Partly it's generational: go back to Goodbye Columbus with the hidden diaphragm that ruins everything and you remember, this is a writer who's always living in the shadow of the newness of the sexual revolution. No matter how old his (male) characters get, you can always hear little Alex Portnoy somewhere in the background: look at what I'm getting away with! Gaitskill, some twenty-one years younger, has her characters simply live in the world that Roth's can't stop proclaiming from the rooftops. It's become somewhat usual to say about this, across the aesthetic and political spectrum, well, now that sexual liberation is taken for granted of course sex has lost its sacredness/meaning/profundity/metaphorical possibilities/aesthetic interest, transcendence. It's such a commonplace we don't think about how odd it is: if more people were to engage in a wider variety of, say, artistic and political activities, would we say, oh, now art or politics has lost its meaning? Perhaps we would. ("If everyone's an artist, no one is, etc."). The logic of scarcity runs deep, and yes, this is saying that sex under capitalism is still thought of primarily as a commodity, but so are all experiences, so we shouldn't dwell on this too much.

In any case, Gaitskill shows how ridiculous all of this is. There's a lot of S&M in her books, which is perhaps an imperfect way of heightening the stakes, of recasting sex as a metaphor. But in any case, it works. Which is the other, deeper way in which she departs from someone like Roth: sex as metaphor works because it's about something besides breaking taboos or trying to cope with aging and mortality. Call it the sublime or just call it the soul, as Gaitskill does in "Mirror Ball."

So I decided to kick off this summer's reading by moving to Gaitskill's novels. I've been thinking a lot about my preference for short stories over the novel, but in Gaitskill's case I also think she may be better suited to the form: the intensity and strangeness she does so well are just that much harder to sustain with a single story and set of characters over a few hundred pages. Reading Gaitskill sometimes feels a little like having sex: not because the writing gets you off, although it might, and you don't get the sense she'd mind. People talk so carelessly about being "transported" by a good story, but most of the time we don't mean it - we mean, oh, a couple hours went by and I didn't notice. But distraction and transportation are not the same. With Gaitskill, you might forget and hour has gone by but probably not three. At a certain point you want to or have to come up for air, and go back to pretending you are this well articulated person in the world, that there is a boundary between you and that world, that you a person with opinions and ideas who just happens to have a body you must tend to now and then.

So I wasn't surprised that I found Gaitskill's first novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, less satisfying than the stories. It felt, as so many novels to do me, like a story stretched beyond its size. Two women who seem very different meet by chance: in this case, because one, Dorothy, responds to an ad from the journalist Justine for an interview. We start with their early interactions, are then presented with alternating scenes from their childhoods, and then reconnects them on the way to some kind of climax. What I wasn't quite as prepared for was the strangeness: all of Gaitskill is strange, but here it's less the uncanny perfection achieved in so many of the stories but the strangeness which leaves one perplexed. Let's just say this is probably, thankfully, the only novel whose main themes are S&M and the followers of Ayn Rand. If anyone could pull this off, it would be Gaitskill, but it doesn't quite work. I like the idea of playing with a relationship between women with disparate amounts of power, and the Ayn Rand stuff (she calls her "Anna Granite" and the philosophy "Definitism") is interesting, especially as she manages to show why this would appeal to women, and to people without power more generally. After all, if everything around you already affirms your superiority, you don't need a bullshit philosophy and thousand page novels to confirm it. But we're still left with a story stretched beyond its normal life. And the treatment of Dorothy as "fat girl" - well, it just feels like something a thin girl would write. (Though as a thin person I obviously might be as clueless as anyone about this.) She's trying to do the thing the "Definitists" or whoever have contempt for, to write about someone without power clearly, without sentiment or pity or condescension or cheeriness but still not take you to pure despair - it's just a really hard thing to do. Interestingly the more widely known and praised Veronica seems to work with a similar dynamic between two women - on to this one next.

I also kicked off the summer with the completely strange - in the wonderful, sublime sense of the Gaitskill stories - collections of essays and assorted prose by the poet Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland. More soon.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Artifact from the History of Trolling, 1970

I've been spending a bunch of time poking around the wonderful site,, which curates longer works of journalism and creative non-fiction from around the internet - including some pre-internet era pieces that are available online. Recently in their archive I came across Ellen Willis' review from the NYRB of Alice's Restaurant and Easy Rider. It was fascinating to read that, watching Easy Rider at the time it came out, someone immersed in the counterculture reacted to so many things in the same way my friends and I did when I saw it for the first time in a frat house in the midwest, inexplicably going through a Phish-inspired tye-die revival in the mid-nineties. (I know, I know.) But what really made me smile was the exchange of letters between Willis and one Thomas M. Kando, of Sacramento State College. True, a few of the touches are very 1970, like addressing her as "Miss (Mrs.?) Willis" and the reference to "Momism," but by and large the whole thing could come straight out of the moderation queue of your favorite feminist blog, with a quick pause to use the search and replace function and put in "feminazi" for "women's lib" and "child support" for "alimony."

Using "females" as a pejorative noun? Check. Calling Willis emotional? Check. Saying that
because she's in "women's lib" she's not objective? Check. Heightened gestures designed to make his argument seem logical, a la a bad term paper? Double Check ("While I have not seen Alice’s Restaurant, I have gone back to see Easy Rider a second time. Therefore, although my observations will be restricted to the latter film, they will reflect thorough knowledge and deep preoccupation with the issues it raises." Yes, our Mr. Kando is more grammatically equipped than today's trolls, but is it really correct to call him a better writer? The sloppiness of today's trolls is at least less dishonest.) Mentioning that she is an "active member" of a feminist group as an accusation? Check. Accusing women of "wanting it both ways"? Check. Complaining that men have been emasculated on the basis of a comic figure from pop culture? Check (Dagwood, no less.)

Not having the option of a delete button and and IP ban, Willis responds: beautifully, of course. She even takes on Dagwood: "Who is really taking it out of Dagwood—Blondie, or his boss?" So to Willis, then, the last word:
I’m all for abolishing alimony—which is far more oppressive to second wives than to men—so long as we simultaneously abolish all job discrimination and guarantee housewives a minimum wage, higher pay for overtime, unemployment and retirement benefits, paid vacations, maternity leaves, and the right to strike. How about it, Mr. K.?
How about it, indeed.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Writers who Sit on Your Face

In the brilliant comic novel U.S.!, in which Chris Bachelder imagines what a continually resurrected Upton Sinclair would make of our world, there are many brilliantly hysterical riffs, jokes, and parodies, but my favorite is the review of Pharmaceutical!, the novel our 120 year-old hero would be writing. (I remembered it as a Times review although it's actually not labelled as such, but hey, it's a Times review.)
Sinclair never understood that art and polemic do not mix, that great and lasting art has no authorial agenda. Novels are not tracts or pamphlets; they do not serve to convince readers of anything. A novel may ask questions, but a good one never supplies an answer. In the long history of Western Literature, in the Natural Selection of Great Books, we can clearly see that the survivors are those that aspire to a timeless and organic Beauty and not those that are written to support an autoworker's strike.
Only the Natural Selection bit is a tip off - the rest you could find on any given Sunday. And just like on the editorial page, it's always anyone tainted red, or some progressive variant thereof - who has to answer for the great sin of Ideology against Beauty.

I think of this riff every time I read something like this. Carmen Callil is an Australian-born author who has spent her writing life in England, the founder of Virago Press and the author of a book on Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy's go-to man for aiding the deportations. She made the news recently for resigning as a judge from the Man Booker International Prize because she didn't like the winner they picked. Now, this is perhaps an odd thing to do, but normally you'd expect it to be discussed in terms of how much more contentious the British are about books, something American writers often describe with not a little longing and envy. But because the writer whose book she didn't like is Philip Roth, and because Virago is a feminist press, she had clearly committed the sin of Ideology against Greatness. She was a accused of "ideologically inspired illiteracy" and, of course, "misunderstand[ing] what a novel is" - that by Jonathan Jones who wondered if she was disturbed by "a terrible scar of monotonous male sexuality" - whatever that might possibly be. Laura Miller gamely tries to defend Callil, pointing out what Callil actually said, which was in part
Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist.
This is a pretty straight-forward and non-controversial thing to say - in fact, it's something Roth's alter-ego Zuckerman might have said about himself. Miller tries to argue that these are "legitimate aesthetic reservations" that don't deserve to be branded as ideological. One understands the impulse, but this hard line between the aesthetic and the moral never works. After all, if Roth's only and ultimate topic is the self (and yes, one could argue this is true of every novelist, but leaving that aside for a moment), surely one manifestation of this is that every woman one comes across will likely be a projection of that self, its desires, or its fears. I happen to enjoy all of this - I like listening to a self wind and weave, I like sex, ego, and self-involvement as themes, and I prefer a world in which women are projections to a world like Cormac McCarthy's where they mostly don't exist. But surely this is a matter of taste - and one not unaffected by my own particularities of class, temperament and Jewishness - and not a question of Greatness.

Which is of course the point: it would be much better if, when Callil said "he goes on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe" - his defenders had said something to the effect of "how interesting! I for one enjoy this topic enough for a hundred books, and in fact, I rather enjoy having my face sat upon." (Because come on, it's a pretty accurate description.) Wouldn't that be a better tribute to the liberation of sex and ego than the usual pap about Transcendent Greatness and Beauty?

Of course, then, how would we know who to give the prizes to? Maybe it's the need to award and rank that's the real ideology here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Opium Feels Good

In high school, we had a semi-famous writer come and lecture us about drugs. Looking back I can imagine he was probably an ok guy, who'd been persuaded to get into the motivational/anti-drug business that, in an early nineties post-Nancy-Reagan haze, was probably a better career move than, oh, being a semi-famous writer. At one point during his speech, he tried to be "interactive" by pulling kids from the audience and asking them questions. I remember that he pulled out this kid named Troy, and everyone started to snicker. Troy wore a worn black leather jacket over Tesla t-shirts (I know), so obviously, I guess the thinking went, by both the semi-famous writer and the snickering kids, he knew something about drugs. He asked him why people did drugs. Troy said, "because of the way it feels?" and everyone snickered some more before the semi-famous writer said, no, no, clearly it was all about trying to fit in, and Troy looked embarrassed and sat down. On my way out of the assembly I heard one kid say to another, "God that was awful. I need a drink."

I think about Troy sometimes when you hear some smart-ass atheist talk about "the opiate of the masses." Jonathan Kozol had a good reply when asked about this in the context of a South Bronx church and he said "here, opium is the opiate of the masses." But the point is, each in their own way, opium and religion can make us feel good. The fact that this feeling is temporary or purchased at some expense does not make this feeling "false." In The Corner David Simon talks about the bargain we've made with people our system has rendered disposable. The puny welfare checks people bitch about are a very small bribe to keep the real demands at bay, and we should pay them gladly. You can say you want to take drugs away from people, but you have to give them something in return. Same thing with religion, which the political atheists don't really understand. They say, condescendingly, that they understand religion gives some people meaning and hope, but the implication is always that needing this is a sign of underdevelopment, and that if those people would just wise up they wouldn't need it: as if anyone among us lives without taking pleasure from something that could be called an illusion.

All of this came to mind as I recently finished watching the first season of Simon's current show, Treme (highbrow television being of course one socially acceptable way to get pleasure from an illusion.) Like The Wire, it's the portrait of a city, in this case New Orleans. The feel is so different, though. Instead of drug dealers, cops, politicians and teachers, we have musicians, a bar owner, a chef, a dj. All the systematic injustices are there - and are heightened even further by the storm - but there's so much more joy. How often did we see folks in the Wire take solace or pleasure in each other? If we did, it was usually a sign something bad was around the corner. Here, the musical scenes, of the manic Davis riffing on what he'd play if he didn't have to stick to the station's playlist, the scenes of Janette running around her kitchen and managing to pull something beautiful out of the chaos are all such joys to watch, not to mention Clarke Peters (Lester from the wire) as the Mardi Gras Indian Albert, stitching his costume and getting his crew back together. (If only Lester had had a whole crew of miniature makers to run with!) The lawyer and the academic are naturally partial exceptions, but even they get in on the fun at times.

At one point a young musician whose success has taken him to New York wonders if all the effort being put in to the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras is worth it, if it would be better put into rebuilding the city. It's an interesting question: if you looked at the usual statistics (and taking into account how how Katrina and the post-Katrina exile of the city's poor) you'd look at New Orleans like people look at Baltimore, as as series of outrages and problems, and of course Simon is the last person who'd deny this. But there's a lot in how people get by and resist and make beauty in their lives that can't be measured. It's a tricky point, one that can easily sound sentimental. A lot of my lefty friends probably think that talking about resistance through culture or the resistance of everyday life is some kind of weak-kneed cultural studies wishful thinking best left back in the eighties. And I agree that it's important not to confuse this with something systematic: Albert triumphs in getting his tribe together but can't make any progress with his protest about public housing, because it's mostly just him. Still, how we carry ourselves, reflect ourselves back to ourselves, celebrate and mourn really matters. In the end any guard against inevitable suffering and loss can be thought of as a kind of opium, but there's still a big difference in the fact of being soothed, and the ways in which we do it.

ETA: Based on the first three episodes of season 2, it's going in a very different direction which puts what I'm saying here in a very different light. More soon.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Rabbit Done Died

One of my favorite episodes of Mad Men is the one where Betty gives birth. I love the scene in The Group where poor Dottie sits in Washington Square Park with a diaphragm in some sort of complicated box contraption. I was completely transfixed by the horrific sex-ed scene in Frederick Wiseman's classic High School documentary. In short I have an unhealthy obsession with the horrors of pre-second wave medicine for ladyparts. Sometimes you hear people make a joke that the only thing the second wave ever did was get us women gynecologists, to which it made sense to me to say, even if that was true, daiyanu and we should make a shrine to them.

So I'm really really confounded that, until I came across this piece, I'd never known about the rabbit test. How could this be? What a crazy image, what bait for writers - this must be in The Bell Jar at least. Maybe it's one of those things you skim over and don't notice when you don't get the reference. According to our wikifriends, who love this sort of thing, it's been name-checked on lots of shows (including MM of course), but a full-on description, someone sitting at home waiting on the results of a rabbit autopsy - why I have I never read this scene? From what I could figure out with a little basic searching, it ended sometime in the sixties or early seventies - certainly recent enough to be part of our cultural memory. Is this something everyone but me knew about? Interesting that we're never too old for this to happen.

Interestingly, the linked article notes that, according to Kinsey's 1958 study, 80 percent of single women with unwanted pregnancies chose illegal abortion. On MM we've now had all three of the main female characters have unintended pregnancies, and we've had two consider abortion but decide against it, and one be completely unaware until giving birth and then having a coerced adoption. Three more unlikely outcomes. Now, of course, only Peggy was single (though statistics on women married to one person and pregnant by another would be interesting, though impossible to obtain), and of course drama rests on improbabilities, but it's still revealing. I asked a friend who used to work at Planned Parenthood and she said, of course, we gave counseling to tons of people and they made all the different decisions you can make, but once they're in the waiting room like Joan was, they're not changing their minds. Again, drama rests on improbabilities, and no one story has to be another story. People often respond to the dodge of this issue in contemporary-set films by saying, well, if Juno or whoever had had an abortion, there would be no movie. That doesn't apply to Mad Men, with its ensemble and multiple plot lines. If Mad Men is a story about what it was like to be a woman at this time, an actual illegal abortion should be part of the story. Not that I'm not feeling ungrateful this week of assurance of its return, in whatever form.

On a somewhat related note, reading this made me wonder if, along with the attack on reproductive rights, the fight against asshole doctors will continue forever. No one cares about writers, except to ask for free books when they're come out from anesthesia. Jesus.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Against Professor X

In this political climate, it's tempting to say nothing about teachers or teaching other than politicians should stop messing with us, stop lying about how we created your problems, just stop. At the same time, as this article points out, a lack of a real progressive discussion about the real challenges and failures of teaching causes lots of smart and well-meaning people to get sucked into the current vogue style of "reform." It doesn't work, but at least people seem do be doing something, right? Whereas lefties are usually left to say, nothing will change unless fundamental inequalities change, but because people don't have hope that this can, they hear this as a surrender to the status quo.

So, I guess I should preface what I have to say about this article by saying, the exploitation of adjuncts is a scandal, and also that we should be wary of expecting all teachers to be heroic, and I respect teachers being realistic and self-critical about what they achieve.

That said, "Professor X"'s original piece in The Atlantic, and this excerpt from his book are truly crazy making. They are basically an account of someone failing at a job and therefore determining that the job can't be done by anyone, anywhere. Maybe it's in the book someone, but in neither of these pieces is there ever a hint of something like, "I tried this, it didn't work, so I tried this." There's not even really anything about teaching - he mostly describes handing out assignments and then his anxiety about how to handle their inevitable failure. The portraits of the students are generalized and stereotypical and give you a sense he didn't get to know them very well - which isn't his fault - as an adjunct with a day job, this would be very, very difficult to do. But if you're going to write a book about teaching, one that will most likely lead readers to conclude that there's no point in trying to make higher education available to working-class students, you have to be self-aware about what's going on. Maybe there's more context in the full book, but in both these pieces, there is fake self-criticism ("I feel so bad about giving Fs, but I do it because I believe in standards") but no real analysis (if "whole classes" are failing, is that really because they are so woefully unprepared, or that there is something wrong with the way I'm preparing them and/or assessing their work?) There's a little bit about how unprepared he is, but instead of calling for better training for adjuncts or trying to learn himself, he figures that there just must be nothing to be done. In the original Atlantic piece, he laments the students' inability to do research, but is profoundly uncurious about learning anything about teaching, and doesn't consider that his pedagogy (at least twenty years out of date when it comes to composition) might be a problem. And he knows that the likes of David Brooks, who blurbs his book, will praise his 'hard truths' when, like the 'hard truths' of a Chris Christie, they are the exact opposite of telling truth to power - they are telling power exactly what it wants to hear. For all that the "reformers" talk about every kid succeeding, there's the point at which you know they don't believe it. What they want is a way to be able to sort kids into successful and not successful with a good conscience. In What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain points to a study that says the most universally held quality of great professors is that they believe students can learn. They believe it's their job to teach all of them, wherever they're starting from, not to sort them. Of course there's a difference between graduate students and undergrad majors, between undergrad majors and folks in a survey, but you treat all of them seriously. This should be obvious, but if you don't believe your students have a right to be in college, things look different.

ETA: Looks like if anything I was too easy on Prof X. . . . In this great common sense response,
Lorraine Berry says much of what I'm saying here, with examples from her own teaching. . . apparently Prof X. also thinks the problem is that caring women are too nice to fail their students. Not like our manly Prof X. Glad to know I wasn't imagining the sexism of the Atlantic piece (he actually says his students have too high a sense of their abilities because of Oprah.) Some folks have written about the sexism of the current attacks on teachers. It's a dark triumph of propaganda that's managed to paint a female-dominanted profession as one of self-satisfied incompetents, because, while of course women teachers and women in all professions have the normal ranges of success, one thing women tend not to do is write books about how much they suck at their jobs and expect to be praised as truth-tellers.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The End of Don?

Now that the long form television as 19th-century meme has official reached its stunning apex (though I still think the Wire is more Zola than Dickens), it seems appropriate to be reminded that the two forms are also classic examples of all that can happen when art and commerce collide: from piracy and fanatical enforcing of spoilers bans to things like this. So, on the off, unbearable to think about possibility that there is to be no season 5, we are left with these thoughts: If this were really the end, and the official end of Don is that he goes off into the sunset with Megan, does this represent a very meta ending about the final triumph of the ultimate pitch? Or better yet, did Weiner set up his negotiating position perfectly: ie make an ending that cannot possibly be the ending, so that he really really really has to be brought back at any price. Of course not: networks don't care about the deep existential confusion brought about by the possibility that Megan is the last word on Don. Still, 2012 is a long way off; it's hard not to give way to all the fallacies of fiction ex-grad students like me should be immune to: where are Don and Megan all this time? By 2012, it'll feel like it's ready to be 1971, at least.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Some Thoughts On Identification and Viewing While Female

So, Daniel Mendelsohn doesn't like Mad Men. Well, to each their own and all that. It's a very stylized show, obviously, and I could understand why some people might find it mannered or stilted. I do agree with his assessment of how the show fails on race, and his point about fans being drawn to the shiny surfaces is a fair if obvious one, I suppose, but I don't think it's quite right. The Sterling Cooper world has to be attractive enough for Peggy to want to join it but corrupt and hollow enough that her success can't be purely triumphant. It's not just that she's trying to succeed among people who can't or don't respect her, it's that she's succeeding at a job that is ultimately about nothing - think of the brilliant episode from last season around the award show. Peggy's hurt that Don gets the credit for her idea, but the sycophantic silliness of the whole procedure make you relieved for her that she didn't get brought along.

But what I found most interesting about Mendelsohn's piece was that he seems very bothered by the uniform unlikeable nature of the boys over at SC/SCDP. Sure, the show wants to make a point about sexism, but do they all have to be so sexist all the time?:
the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.
He criticizes the show for inviting us to feel superior to its characters, a criticism I've heard before but which really doesn't make sense to me:
For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering.
But showing both the appeal of the world and being unflinching in its depiction of its injustices is precisely the point. I don't trust this notion that depicting the sexism of the past has nothing to teach us but how superior we are. The idea that there's nothing in the show's sexism viewers can relate to doesn't seem right. Mendelsohn thinks it's hypocritical for the show to depict the men around Joan as louts but then show us how good she looks and invite us to leer. But what about a female viewer who is invited to share Joan's dilemma about the role she plays, and think about the double edged sword of beauty and being leered at? And even when the show does serve to show us how far we've come, isn't this a valid role? Take the scene in the first episode when Peggy goes to the doctor and tries to get the pill. (One of many, may scenes that belies Mendelsohn's claim that the appeal of the show is how the characters are 'unpunished' for what they do - and no, the men don't go free and clear either, even if the rations are skewed). If they're anything like me, viewers would leave that scene rushing for their credit cards to make a donation to Planned Parenthood - and is this such a terrible outcome, to feel so sharply what other women went through and feel grateful that we don't have to?

Mendelsohn gives a sense of where he's coming from at the end of the essay, when he argues that their real point of view on the show is the kids, and that the appeal to viewers is to see our parent's lives. There's certainly a lot to that, although my parents are a little too young for this to be largely the case for me and many of my friends who soak up the show so avidly. He seems relieved to have this point of identification, relieving him from being forced to identify with those unappealing lecherous boys of SC/SCDP. He seems to argue that somehow it's easier to see as complex the morally compromised figures of The Sopranos or The Wire, but in showing men who are attractive and intelligent to varying degrees and also refract, in their differing ways, the prejudices of the day, Mad Men just wants to rub it in. Well, I for one am glad the show dares to show sexism as the stew in which these characters simmer all the time, not just when it's topical, because that's how sexism works. If that makes some viewers uncomfortable because it makes them not want to identify with the protagonists they otherwise would, well, a discomfort in identification is nothing new to lots of viewers, especially those who have the unfortunate habit of viewing while female.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

One Fewer Reason to Vote Democratic

Back in 2000 when I was a wee thing, all my friends were voting for Nader. Everywhere I went people were talking about him with lots of excitement; when he drew a full crowd and lots of celebs to Madison Square Garden I was ambivalent about him for lots of reasons, and went back and forth on how I would vote right up until I got into the booth - I even remember reading and thinking about all the 'swap a vote with swing state' schemes that were going on. Seems quaint, doesn't it? Folks who've been made to feel embarrassed in retrospect that they voted for Nader can take heart that at the time I was very embarrassed that I didn't end up voting for him.

One of my roommates at the time wasn't having it. All her friends were voting for Nader too and I remember the button she was wearing that she also gave me, that's probably lying around in my collection somewhere. It said, "it's the Supreme Court, stupid." Nobody had to tell me or anyone else what it meant: fall in line, vote Democratic, or else Roe gets overturned. I've known plenty of people for whom this was a deciding factor in not going third party, or in motivating them to vote when they were otherwise apathetic, as well as otherwise apolitical or centrist women (and men) who felt motivated to vote Democratic because of choice. One of the things that frustrated me about the discussion around What's the Matter With Kansas and the whole cultural versus economic issues frame is that, aside from drawing artificial distinctions (how is the denial of benefits for one kind of health care to millions of poor women since the Hyde amendment not an economic issue?), it led people to talk as if all the juice was on the prolife side, as if getting rid of the issue (which is difficult and who likes to talk about it anyway?) could be nothing but a boon to Democrats, in spite of the fact that their stand on the issue was being used to keep Democratic voters who had highly legitimate questions about what their party stood for in line.

This week a lot of folks are rightly up in arms about HR3, which has gotten the most attention for its 'redefining rape' bullshit, since withdrawn, but is terrible for lots of other reasons too. Nine of its co-sponsers are Democrats, and so when the DCCC sent out a petition attacking Republicans, Sady and others have done a great job calling them out. As many have pointed out, even the existing rape exception is pretty feeble, given the hoops it sets up for anyone who would want to access it. The longstanding existence of the Hyde amendment is yet another example of how successful Republicans have been in washing wielding their 'taxpayer's rights' crap while the rest of us are stuck paying tons more for torture and fail to make more than a peep about it.

Is this the plan of the new Congress - a kind of inversion of Frank's thesis: vote for tax cuts and get abortion restrictions?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gornick on Bellow, with assist from Baubie

My beloved Baubie, who passed away on December 15th, was for many years a faculty wife extraordinaire at the University of Chicago. When my grandfather's department was recruiting new faculty, she would take them and their wives to the CSO or the art institute to show off the city she loved. She would help them find doctors and apartments and synagogues or churches to help them with the move. She nurtured many of his graduate students, some of whom were there at her 90th birthday party so many years later. I've thought about her sometimes during one of those endless conversations about the squeeze on academic labor - yes, of course, it's the switch to part-timers, but is there also not something in the loss of all that free and invisible labor done by the wives? (Of course, many times the part-timers are the wives, but that's another story.)

Baubie loved the intellectual stimulation of the Hyde Park Community. She was unfailingly warm, in her Minnesota way, about pretty much everyone there. (We once had an argument about her insistence that Milton Friedman was a really nice guy). One time when we were going through some old books, there was a stack of Bellow and I asked if she'd met him. "Oh, sure." I asked what he was like. "Well, you know," she said. Of course I didn't, but I did: that was as close as she would come to saying someone was less than wonderful. "His wife was a doll, though," she said then. "Well, you know, one of his wives." God bless Minnesota nice.

So there's a volume of letters of Bellow's out. As I've mentioned before, I love letters and diaries and the ephemera of writers, so I was curious about them. Unfortunately I couldn't get through the reviews of them I'd seen, as each one began with a long lament about the eclipse of the great masters, how Bellow's readers were dying out, and on and on. Isn't after someone's dead a good time to stop kissing up to them? So I was delighted to see that Vivian Gornick had a piece about the letters in Bookforum. Reading it brought home what should have been obvious: the lamenters weren't only trying to win Bellow's favor, they were imitating him:
Then there is the unhappy transformation of his attitude toward the culture in which he found himself. In 1952, he wrote to Lionel Trilling: "Are most novels poor today? Undoubtedly. But . . . things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it! To identify oneself with a better past! No, no!" A decade later he was in the full, relentless cry against "the present" that made his books rise repeatedly to crescendoes of ridiculing bitterness against his own time.
Of course, you could argue he really was just growing wiser with age and able to see the corruptions around him more clearly, or that the world really was just getting worse. But as Gornick outlines, over the course of the letters, the world goes sour in much the same way each woman, and women overall, and friendships, went sour. There's a difference between being enraged by the world and having contempt for it. Having contempt isn't critique, it's a way of rejecting the premises outright, the way Bellow or Roth's characters accuse women or feminists of doing. As Gornick wrote in The Situation and the Story, being able to imagine the other isn't a question of political correctness, it's a necessary function of the literary imagination.

There are a number of reasons why reviewers might glide over this or struggle to frame it in more heroic terms. There's the natural pull towards canonization, of course, along with a desire to counter criticism deemed 'political' - even if it means ignoring the writer's own obsessions. There's also a kind of deference that I think is greater for book reviewers than those working in say film, in that reviewers are writers, so you're writing about someone who does what you do, and within that likely does things that you can't do, so who are you to say they have become solipsistic, self-justifying, self-pitying or what have you?

Take a sentence from Herzog Gornick quotes, when he says of women, "They eat green salad and drink human blood." Now, that's kind of a brilliant sentence. Beautiful, maybe? Is that the right word? But it's power doesn't make it 'true' in any of the ways a statement like that could be 'true.' Yes, yes, it's Herzog saying it, not Bellow, so you could say, it's a truth-telling statement about the thought process of a certain kind of betrayed husband. But it's a truth obtained by absorption in this point of view, not distance. Then, in a letter, we get a sentence like this one:
In a 1984 letter to a former mistress, he says of the fourth wife now leaving him almost exactly what he'd said of the second when she left him: "Where a woman's warmest sympathies should be there is a gap, something extracted in the earliest years of life which now is not even felt, not recognized as absent."
A less brilliant sentence this time, its ironies more obvious and bare. Why should we take the laments for the culture any differently? Baubie once asked me, when she was taking a retirement class on Nobel Prize winning authors, why they were all so dark, why weren't there any who could write about the joys of life. I mumbled something about how much harder that is to express, a wholly insufficient answer, because it's not just with sexism or cultural decline that literary folks seem especially vulnerable to equating bad news with truth.

There's always a pleasure in writers with voice and craft, and there's lots of reasons to read Bellow, to find him compelling. But there may also be moments when one finds it all a bit much, that life is short and art long and that, contrary to popular belief, there are limits to a woman's masochism, even as a reader. A lovely thing about no longer being a student and no longer twenty-one is the ability to accept this with relief.

On another note, I was delighted to read in her author note that Vivian Gornick is writing a biography of Emma Goldman. I love her autobiographical essays and her book on Stanton, and ever since discovering the unbelievable genius B. Traven, I've been itching to learn more about anarchism. It's not quite Minnesota nice, but at least there will be dancing.