Friday, December 12, 2014

Quick Hit: Baldwin and the Magazines

In a 1984 interview,  Julius Lester asked Baldwin about his early days after the war as a writer publishing reviews and essays "for publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review" Baldwin described the people he met through these publications as a kind of "Olympus":  
"Dwight MacDonald told me that I was "terribly smart." I certainly learned a lot from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps." 
Out of curiosity, I looked up all the bylines where Baldwin originally published the essays in his now classic first two collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name. Here they are: Commentary, Harper's, New Leader, Partisan Review, The Reporter, The New York Times Book Review, Encounter, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Le Preuve.  The Fire Next Time was published in its entirety in the New Yorker, Baldwin's first published essay in a national magazine was for The Nation, where his later work frequently appeared, and he was on their board during the last years of his life.

Of course no recent particular event and no particular magazine of note that maybe would have been predisposed to miss the work of an African-American who is probably the greatest essayist in American history and any prominent "serious" publications missing from the list  are just a coincidence.

(The limitations of my library's archive are such that I haven't been able to confirm if Baldwin ever wrote for the publication that shall not be named. If so, would be very curious to see where and when.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

We Are All Close Readers Now: On Season Five

I wanted to be the 45,931th person to blog each episode of Mad Men this season, but it was not to be. I could try to be noble and say David Simon's arguments got to me instead of, you know, life.  Just as a counterpoint to Simon, though, I think it's kind of awesome that so many people spend so much time dissecting them, from acting and costuming to character motivations to each period reference. Sure, there are more important things we should be doing, but when is there not? When I was a kid there were lots of earnest pieces by the serious concerned types about how TV was making everyone "passive." Now these serious (semi-serious?) people say that TV is brilliant art and it's the interactive 2.0 stuff that's killing us, what with how we're all "distracted" instead of "absorbed."  I've spent more than my share of time around my English department comrades lamenting how hard it is to get people to close read, or how students resist analysis by saying "they didn't really think that much about it." But of course people love to "close read" as soon as there's something they're invested in, and no one is saying Weiner doesn't think this shit through. 

And so, at this belated hour with two of thirteen episodes to go, ten ways of looking at season five:

1) Over at slate, John Swansburg asks the big question: Is it possible Don is actually becoming something like a better person?  Weiner of course comes from The Sopranos, where the whole arc was about Tony setting out half-heartedly to see if he could be redeemed, when it was actually clear all along that he couldn't. As with Tony, we forgive Don too much because of his charms, but of course we're operating in a very different moral universe here (no matter what that stupid fantasy murder scene thought it was trying to do), one where redemption would seem to be more possible. The real obstacle seems to be the narrative one: this is a serious show, so it has to be a tragedy, right?

I remember reading Crime and Punishment way back and being struck by how Raskolnikov kept falling back into justifying his actions after he'd seemed to have a breakthrough. The Sopranos used the long form to capture this even more acutely. We think we have epiphanies, we think someone's "life can change in an instant," as the melodramas would have it, but more likely the change is just another thought we had about ourselves. Don sunk low in the fourth season, and seems to be crawling back up, but who knows. It's not just that these multi-season shows can have characters ebb and flow over years instead of having the one arc Christopher Moltisanti thought he should have, it's that we get the feeling we're dipping into lives that continue off-stage, a whole texture of experiences that are as much like the formless unfolding of lives - or history - than the constructed lives of tragic personalities.

Of course the tragedy could be that he becomes a better person too late: one of those men who becomes such a devoted husband/father the second time around, in part because the first set can never forgive him. I loved Ken's line about Don and Megan's cool whip act, how it's a twist on the normal schtick because "they actually like each other." Our girl from Montreal isn't at all the Betty 2.0 she seemed to be last season. That would be a very take-this-to-the-seventies outcome, but it feels pretty unsatisfying. 

2) I'm struck again and again by how, with all its bang up research, the thing that really makes the period detail work is that it's a little "off." And as with The Sopranos, the dialogue is also a bit off - a little over the top, a little too metaphoric. It fills in what would be outside the dialogue in a story, punching it up to where it feels real instead of being realistic in a mimetic sense. This shit isn't easy to do. Likewise the reference points are not inaccurate, just not the trajectories or reference points you're expecting. Even the Beatles thing hit at this - the unexpected choice, the last song off the album, after an episode of fake-Beatles. Being interested in the period I've seen enough films and documentaries that hit the exact same notes to realize how important this is. It's the sixties as lived before people knew what "the sixties" were.

3) Hey, do you remember when the woman who played Daphne on Frasier was pregnant and instead of writing the pregnancy into the character or trying to disguise it they put her in a fat suit? Yeah. Fat suits and fake chins need to die. I had a problem with the Peggy stuff in the first season but there you could at least make a case for it. There's no excuse for such a perfectionist show to have something so visually unconvincing, as if we don't know what non-thin bodies look like and will just accept the signifier. Find something reasonable to do with Betty Draper or let her go.

4) Speaking of pregnancies, what happened to little Kevin? Yes, yes, Joan's mom is at home, and yes there was no attachment parenting in 1966 but she seems awfully unencumbered.  Mad Men has done a great job with Sally, but Bobby, Gene and Kevin all seem to follow the pattern of existing as plot points. Obviously there are practical reasons for this but it would be nice to see a little of how these little ones affect the texture of these everyday lives.

5) Also speaking of pregnancies, is that memory out of Peggy's life for good? Narratively speaking it seems so. I want her to triumph as much as anyone (which is to say, a lot), but it doesn't seem likely that she would have put this behind her in any meaningful way - as far as we can tell she only discussed it honestly with Don once, in "The Suitcase," and even then somewhat obliquely. And from what we know, adoptions of this period proved highly traumatic in the long run.

6) How great that the least angsty of the bunch, Ken, continues his run as the show's one true artist? And too bad for Paul that wishing don't make it so. Like Pete, no one likes him, but unlike Pete, he's not an asshole, just kind of foolish. If he'd kept his mouth shut in his early romance with Joan she could have broke it to him gently and helped him find out he had a talent for gardening or some such and maybe they would have moved to the country together . . . 

7) "Signal 30" and "The Other Woman" were to me the strongest so far. "Signal 30" is a perfect short story - what Cheever or Updike would have written with the benefit of feminist insight. And putting them together, it's striking how much Joan's situation owes to this little worm. Pete's another example of the zig-zag in the long-form approach to storytelling: for a while it seemed like he and Trudy were actually the best-matched couple on the show, but like Pete and, like one suspects, Trudy before too long, we had another thing coming.

8) Speaking of which, Trudy seems the perfect candidate to get radicalized. I'm afraid the show won't totally go there in later seasons out of the misplaced fear of being too explicitly political, but for all the talk about how it would be ahistorical for people on the show to speak from contemporary values, there's a point at which ignoring radicalism will become the real ahistorical path. Joan's too caught up in the games she's learned to play - the feminist insight about femininity as role playing wouldn't be a shock to her at all. Peggy's too invested in her ambition, and Betty's just too Betty. But Trudy is still young, she's obviously well-educated and nobody's fool, and watch out if she finds out just a fraction of what the man she's hitched her star to has been up to. 

9) Speaking of radicalism and the ahistorical, there had really really really better be some payoff with Dawn in the next few episodes.  Seriously, I don't care how realistic you want to make the period's racism, there were, you know, still actual African Americans who have personalities and stories. Start telling them, like, way before yesterday.

10) Is it time for the Mad Men death/suicide pool?  Pete was the early and perhaps too obvious choice, Roger would have made more sense a while back, and Joan - well, can't bear to think about that. My money's on Lane.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Dancer and the Dance

This summer I published a poem about Lee Miller in Narrative.  Miller isn't exactly obscure - people interesting in photography, war journalism, or surrealism are probably at least somewhat familiar with her life and work. But she isn't a household name either - I didn't know anything about her until I read Francine Prose's collection of biographic essays about women - many artists in their own right - who have served as "muses." I've been working on a group of poems, short fiction and short essays on other artists I'm interested in for a variety of reasons - people like Jay DeFeo and Isa Genzken and Maria Lassnig and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Again, none of these people are unknown, but they all have fascinating, not-common knowledge stories that having fascinating things to say about obsession, passion, bodies, sex, death, and all the other good stuff. I've worried, though, about how to talk about wanting to do this - it sounds a little old-fashioned: ah, those second wavers with their projects of "rediscovery"! Haven't we found them all by now? Not by a longshot, as it turns out.  

This was on my mind recently when I read this great piece by my friend Joanna Scutts about the usually disappointning results and diminishing returns of the seemingly inexhastable genre of novels about writer's wives, and how they tend to smooth over the uncomfortable details literary biographers deal with. Being in love with a difficult man - who can't relate, these books seem to tell us. In wanting to bring women's stories "from the shadows," are we most interested if the shadow takes the form of a great man? Are we more comfortable with stores of talent squelched and repressed than those who worked through these paradoxes?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Three New-ish Books to Buy

The last couple years I've started keeping track of the books I finish, movies I watch and my favorite magazine articles from the year. Except for the magazine articles, very few are current or even recent, but I've been trying to correct that a little, partly because buying or writing about new books is the best way to support authors and also to have more of a foothold in some of the discussions out there. So, herein your humble blogger pretends to be one of those folks with a steady gig who gets paid to say things like "3 Must Buy New(ish) Books!"

1) The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden, available in a new edition from Phraros.  This is not a new book per say; it was first published in 1976, and its stories appeared in the New Yorker in the years leading up to that. I've written before about how going to college during the canon debates of the 1990s distorted my perception about the idea of "forgotten" works - there was so much debate about a few titles and replacing this particular one with that particular one you could forget all the nooks and crannies of forgotten pathways that were always there to be continually rediscovered. Even a New Yorker writer can get lost. Hayden's book found its way back into print by way of the New Yorker's wonderful fiction podcast, for which Lorrie Moore selected the masterpiece "Day Old Baby Rats," and the immensely popular Cheryl Strayed, who picked the book for Pharos's series of reprints.  Reading Hayden reminds me of Virginia Woolf - you feel more alive when reading her, like you're starting to see in color what you've been seeing in black and white. I wrote more about the book a little while back and have since had the honor of meeting a few of her surviving family members. Grab this book and put in the hands of every short story lover you know.

2) Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich. First, grab the greatest short stories anthology that's lying around your bedroom and read Bernard Malamud's classic story. By the time you finish, before you've even started reading Ulinich's graphic novel, you will realize the genius of its premise. Malamud's story tells of a matchmaker who brags he needs a magic barrel to carry around the photos of all the beautiful young women he has to offer. Read what happens when the shy young rabbinical student comes to seek his mate and his dating foibles and you'll be astounded Ulinich is the first to point out what seems obvious: forget superhighways, tubes, and clouds: the internet is a magic barrel. Ulnich's drawings and words are such a perfect distillation of recognizable and particular experiences that for a few days after reading it I was seeing her distinctive lines in every face I encountered. When Lena Finkle expresses frustration with a novel she's working on and says, as an aside that the novel's contrivances seem ridiculous to her, I immediately thought, yes! Every novel I'd read recently seemed to have exactly the flaws she described. Only this particular picture and words seemed to have any hope of breaking and preserving the artifice in just the right measure. When you go diving in the Magic Barrel, you need the right guide.

3) The Best American Essays, 2014, edited by John Jeremiah SullivanVivian Gornick, Kristen Dombek, Mary Gordon, Lawrence Jackson, Ariel Levy, Zadie Smith. Sometimes they get it right.  Appropriately enough, my very favorite writer, Vivian Gornick, has "Letter from Greenwich Village," while the amazing Kristen Dombek has "Letter from Williamsburg."  I look forward to "Letter from Maspeth" in ten years. Hopeful a LaGuardian will write it. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Fall Reading Challenge

Thanks to the wonderful Prof. Rebecca Hill, I'm taking part in a reading challenge for academics this fall. Teaching a heavy load, it's all too easy to set both writing and reading aside during the semester. Having a "writing" or "reading" day isn't realistic for me - it's more like an hour here or there. I don't know how we'll I'll do with this list, but filling it out was a lot of fun.

I'm starting with the American Quarterly issue and Kafka. I'm teaching the Metamorphosis for the first time in my composition class, and looking forward to rereading that one. Over the summer I tried to write a little about each book I finished and I'll try to do the same here and on goodreads, for stuff reading for the challenge and other stuff also. 

You can see more about the challenge and other people's lists on Rebecca's blog.  

Professors’ Fall Semester Reading Challenge 2014 - checklist version

Challenge Categories
Author,  Title,  pp. #
Date read
  any book for teaching/research 200 pp.
Swapped for J. Baldwin, The Last Interview.

J. Baldwin Devil Finds Work

J. Baldwin No Name in the Street 


achieved 35 points


book written by a friend, colleague or acquaintance
Chris Schmidt, The Next in Line, 71 page (poetry)

Also Anya Ulrich, Lena Finkel 

achieved 20 pts.

 book by a former  student or former teacher
Nikhil Pal Singh, Black is a Country, 304 pages

 Entire academic journal including reviews
American Quarterly, vo. 60, no. 2
achvd 10
 Book reviewed in the journal above
Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 388 pages.

 book about a country or region that isn’t part of research or current teaching
Alice Kaplan, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, 336 pages

academic book you always meant to read or never finished
Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, 616 pages

 Novel nominated for a National Book Award, 2014 (long list, Sept, finalists in October)
TBA when list comes out

Book on current events written by a journalist
The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimah, 224 pages.
 Finished 12/31
Pulitzer Prize winner before 1970 (any category)
Willa Cather, One of Ours, 206 pages

Book with “house,” “apartment” or “room” in the title.
Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes through the house: 395 pages.

3 books on same topic in different disciplines below:

Stephanie Gilmore (ed) Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the US, 320 pages.

Literary Criticism
Lisa Hogeland, Feminism and Its Fictions: The Consciousness-Raising Novel and the Women’s Liberation Movement, 224 pages.

Rachel Blau Du Plessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project, 495 pages.

EXTRA CREDIT – Double up in any category above

The academic books must be at least 175 pages long
Novels must be at least 200 pages long
Any book on the list, except where specified by category, can be a novel
Books can only count for one category, but you can switch them from one category to the other before you’re done if you like.
Only one book can be a re-read
Audiobooks are fine as long as it is unabridged and the print edition is at least 200 pages long.
Books must be started no earlier than midnight Sept.2 and finished no later than Dec. 31, midnight.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"That city which the people from heaven had made their home": Thoughts on Baldwin's "Another Country"

When I was volunteering at Housing Works Bookstore, one of the musicians who came to perform was a woman named Tift Merritt. I knew of her a little from my ex-boyfriend, and listened to a bunch of her music right around the time she played the show at Housing Works. Her most recent album at the time was "Another Country" and for a few weeks I kept listening to its title song, with its simple, sweet plaintive refrain:

I thought these things would come to me
Love is another country, and I want to go -

I want to go too. I want to go with you.I want to go too. I want to go with you.

She was incredibly gracious with the volunteers, and asked one of us if we had a copy of Baldwin's novel hand. (But only if it wouldn't be too much trouble). As I remember it, we managed to find one and she put it on her stand during her performance. 

I also remember her asking me if I'd read Another Country at the time and being embarrassed to say no, though my guilty student self may have invented that piece. I read Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room sometime in college. I think I read Giovanni's Room in preparation for my college year in France, knowing it was about ex-pats. I haven't read it since and I don't remember a lot of the plot, but I remember being devastated by it. I remember that the pages of the old paperback I'd found at my parents or grandparent's house fell apart as I read it, and how I tried to put them back together with scotch tape. When, after one move too many moves, I accepted that this particular copy had given up the ghost, I tore out a few pages and taped them on my dresser, the way writers do for inspiration, even though I never actually wrote at that desk. 

Since then, like a lot of people, I've spent more time with his essays, and had come to accept the line that they were his true form. After reading this piece about why Baldwin is taught less than he was, I recently made a vow to teach something by Baldwin in every one of my classes. I asked one class who had heard of him, and only one student had. ("I went to the Baldwin school," she told me, "We heard a lot about him. To the credit credit of that school, there wasn't a trace of irritation in her voice.) Until recently teaching him mostly meant teaching the essays, but as I've been teaching more fiction writing and literature classes, I wanted to revisit that. Last semester I did "Sonny's Blues" and a lot of them had read it before, thanks to its status as an anthology staple. I realized my mistake too late to fix it - and then I realized I didn't know his other stories, or how many he had. (One collection, as it turns out, Going to Meet the Man).  

So I decided to start remedying this by reading Another Country, Baldwin's 1963 novel, the next work of fiction after Giovanni's Room. I had a falling-apart paperback of this one also. I think I inherited from  my grandmother's library. I like to imagine her reading it as a forty-something faculty wife, when she looked like a happier Mona Sterling in her impeccable blouses and tailored skirts. Like a lot of the feminist books from later in the 60s I've been researching, the books packaging combines commercial hype and political import in a way that's almost impossible to imagine today. On the back, Granville Hicks intones "The book itself is, and is meant to be, an act of violence."  (It isn't, of course, and that Hicks thinks so - and thinks this is a selling point - would be another post in of itself).

As this cover illustration suggests, Another Country is first and foremost a New York novel. Like so many writers, Baldwin left the place he was from to write about it. The middle section takes place in Paris, but he didn't write it there either. Below the final scene, charting the arrival in New York of a character's French lover to New York and these "people from heaven," there's a dateline reading "Istanbul, December 10, 1961."  I happened to finish Another Country around the same time I read this New Yorker essay about Erich Auerbach, who famously completed Mimesis, a founding work of my original discipline of Comparative Literature, in Istanbul.  Auerbach was fleeing the Nazis; Baldwin was fleeing racism, fame, and all the things that make it as difficult to write in New York as it is to write about New York. He came at the invitation of his friend Engin Cezzar, and the photographer Sedat Pakay took amazing photos of him there. 

One of the many fascinating things about Another Country is the lost New York it gives us. Baldwin's group of writers, artists and drifting souls (there's no one central character, and a lot of fascinating misdirection around this), hang out mostly in the Village. Some characters like to go to Harlem for "tomcatting," as they put it. One white woman has run away from the south, fleeing an abusive husband who has taken custody of her children. Brooklyn is the place of childhood everyone runs away from. And much is familiar: everyone in the group is suspicious of the writer whose novel is having some commercial success, and everyone drinks too much. They hang out at Smalls.

Baldwin's characters are exiles of a different sort than Auerbach or Baldwin. They flee their isolation and  the repression of their families. They run headlong against the cruelties of the culture they come from, unable to treat each other better than they have been treated, but blessed or cursed with enough self-knowledge that compels them to keep trying. Their other country is their own, and Baldwin takes pains to render his own New York strange as well, as when we are given the city through the eyes of another exile, the actor Eric upon his return to France:
So superbly was [New York] in the present that it seemed to have nothing to do with the passage of time: time might have dismissed it as thoroughly as it had dismissed Carthage and Pompeii. It seemed to have no sense whatever of the exigencies of human life; it was so familiar and so public that it became, at last, the most despairingly private of cities . . . The girls along Fifth Avenue wore their bright clothes like semaphores, trying helplessly to bring to the male attention the news of their mysterious trouble. The men could not read this message. They strode purposefully along, wearing little anonymous hats, or bareheaded, with youthfully parted hair, or crew cuts, accoutered with attaché cases, rushing, on the evidence, to the smoking cars of the trains. In this haven, they opened up their newspapers and caught up on the day's bad news. Or they were to be found, as five o'clock fell, in discreetly dim, anonymously appointed bars, uneasy, in brittle, uneasy, female company, pouring down joyless martinis. 
Geography and sex and ritual: Baldwin stirs them so that it is impossible to maintain our convenient fiction about which part of ourselves comes from an "external" society and which from "internal" desires. This, I think, is why their  jealousies, adulteries, and drunken rages seem large rather than petty. Sexual and racial repression is part of it, but I don't think this is just a case of "when nothing is permitted, everything matters." Hipster alienation and rebellion have become such a cliche it is startling to view characters for whom estrangement from their families and communities are a real, definitive rupture that could easily leave them destitute and isolated. At the same time, in New York they have the means to peruse their desires and realize what this does and does not do. It is one thing to parse out all we know or think we know about desire, repression and "the other," when we see Vivaldo, an Italian-American "unpublished novelist" from Brooklyn peruse Ida, an African-American singer whose brother is probably the person Vivaldo is actually in love with. It is another thing to try, as Baldwin does, to imagine what both such people think and feel as they undertake this doomed but sincere bond. Here is Vivaldo watching Ida perform:
She was not a singer yet. And if she were to be judged soley on the basis of her voice, low, rough-textured, of no very great range, she never would be. Yet, she had something which made Eric look up and caused the room to fall silent; and Vivaldo stared at Ida as though he had never seen her before. What she lacked in vocal power and, at he moment, in skill, she compensated for by a quality so mysteriously and implacably egocentric that no one has ever been able to name it. The quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does to so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms - while still eating them standing, nightly, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and gives life, and kills. 

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.