May 30, 2014
In May’s issue of Bookslut, Sessily Watt pairs Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, suggesting we should think of these two novels not in terms of genre, but in terms of mode. The unreal mode. A mode that “plays with our accepted ideas of reality.”
The work of Shirley Jackson has lived for too long in the shadow of her -- at the time -- controversial short story, “The Lottery,” published in The New Yorker in 1948. We Have Always Lived in the Castle has lived for too long in a tiny box put on a shelf labeled “horror & fantasy.” For more on Shirley Jackson’s writing beyond “The Lottery,” here are some sources that bring her work to the surface, that make her work visible.
Joyce Carol Oates writes about the witchcraft of Shirley Jackson, with a focus on We Have Always Lived in the Castle and its (“wicked”) witch, Merricat, whose unique witchcraft becomes an expression of her marginal living:
Like other similarly isolated and estranged hypersensitive young-woman protagonists of Shirley Jackson’s fiction—Natalie of Hangsaman (1951), Elizabeth of The Bird’s Nest (1954), Eleanor of The Haunting of Hill House (1959)—Merricat is socially maladroit, highly self-conscious, and disdainful of others. She is “special”—her witchery appears to be self-invented, an expression of desperation and a yearning to stop time with no connection to satanic practices, still less to Satan. (Merricat is too willful a witch to align herself with a putative higher power, especially a masculine power.)
Elements from Oates’s essay are mirrored in Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to Castle: the absence of sexuality that only emphasizes the presence of an erotic subtext; Jackson’s own tendencies towards reclusiveness. In contrast to Oates, Lethem is more interested in looking past the witchcraft and any other paranormal elements:
Though she teased at explanations of sorcery in both her life and in her art (an early dust-flap biography called her “a practicing amateur witch,” and she seems never to have shaken the effects of this debatable publicity strategy), Jackson’s great subject was precisely the opposite of paranormality. The relentless, undeniable core of her writing – her six completed novels and the twenty-odd fiercest of her stories – conveys a vast intimacy with everyday evil, with the pathological undertones of prosaic human configurations: a village, a family, a self. She disinterred the wickedness in normality, cataloguing the ways conformity and repression tip into psychosis, persecution, and paranoia, into cruelty and its masochistic, injury-cherishing twin.
The New Yorker has published a couple of Shirley Jackson’s newly discovered short stories, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia,” and has an interview with the writer’s son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, who speaks of plans for a new collection of her work, Garlic in Fiction. The interview focuses on Shirley Jackson’s interest in mythology and magic:
Shirley wrote in a wide variety of styles and voices. In “The Man in the Woods” she has created a story grounded in mythology, told like a fairy tale, with her typical hanging ending, though in this case the clues suggest pretty clearly how it will end. Shirley was very interested in mythology, and she was naturally drawn into the study of myth and ritual, which my father, Stanley Edgar Hyman, became so passionate about, refining his theories with Kenneth Burke and others at Bennington College, in the forties and fifties. In the midst of that, of course, Shirley wrote “The Lottery,” in 1948, bringing ancient ritual shockingly into the modern day. Burke often pointed out that, while Stanley was a serious scholar of myth and ritual, Shirley’s work embodied it.
Nicholas Rombes writes about the strange, unsettling darkness of Jackson’s novel The Hangsaman:
Reading Hangsaman is like entering a dark labyrinth, only to discover that you have always been [in] it, and that the novel has merely awakened you to this fact, something you have tried all your life to forget. How and why is this so? How does a book whose ostensible plot is as simple as young-woman-goes-to-college-and-awakens-to-herself assume gigantic, monstrous proportions in your mind? It’s impossible to say, of course; that’s the weird magic of the book.
It might be “the weird magic of the book,” or simply the good writing of Shirley Jackson. In her introduction to The Hangsaman, Francine Prose writes:
She’s an elegant prose stylist who expands and compresses language into complex, cadenced sentences, occasionally reminiscent of Henry James, of whom Jackson was apparently a fan.
Shirley Jackson, “the master stylist,” is celebrated by Nicholas Vajifdar, who writes about the eeriness of her prose and how that effect is created in The Bird’s Nest:
At first glance, she seems to be writing in a flat style, with a Strunk and White sobriety and forbearance. But then you hear the frenzy congealing underneath like a sustained, broken chord that, with its last note, makes your heart chambers expand like parachutes.
May 28, 2014
Image: Abstraction by Natalia Dumitresco
Another reason to go to Romania is of course Emil Cioran. I'm carrying A Short History of Decay along with me, it is maybe the 8th country I've carried it into. It is good for late night "what am I even doing?" moments. Actually, it's so horrible for those moments, so just inappropriate and diminishing that it somehow then comes around to being good again.
"What am I even doing, Emil Cioran?"
(Opens to random page, slams fingers down randomly onto a sentence.)
"Courage and fear, two poles of the same disease, which consists in granting an abusive sense and seriousness to life... it is the lack of nonchalant bitterness which makes men into sectarian beasts; the subtlest and the crudest crimes are perpetuated by those who take things seriously."
"Ok, thanks, Emil."
But one of my favorite travel books of the recent past was On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk, and he travels to Cioran's hometown. I love this book so much. The Cioran section is below:
"Infested with lice and placid, we should seek the company of animals, squat beside them for a thousand years, breathe the air of the stable not the laboratory, die from disease not medicine, keep within the borders of our wild and sink mildly into it."
All day, it blew from the south. Under the sky's blue glaze, the dry light etched black outlines on objects. On such days, the world is as delineated as a cutout. Look too long in one place and you could go blind. The air carries a dazzle we are unaccustomed to here. The African, Mediterranean light flows over the Carpathian range and descends on the village. The landscape is stripped, transparent. In the leafless branches you can see abandoned nests. High up, along the edge of a meadow burned to bronze, a herd of cattle. Then they have vanished in the woods, where it's still, dark, and where green brambles spread. The animals retreat a few thousand years, leave our company, return to themselves, until in a day or two someone finds them and drives them home.
"We should seek the company of animals, squat beside them." I read this in July. In August, I went to the village where Emil Cioran was born. Never able to accept that an idea is an abstract thing, I had to go to Rasinari. Across the gorgons, across the Ukrainian and Romanian Bukovina, past Cluj and Sibiu, I reached the southern border of Transylvania. Right after the last houses of the village, the Carpathians began. Literally. The way was flat, then immediately you climbed by cattle path, stopping to catch your breath every several steps. To the north, in a gray mist, lay Transylvania. The steep, warmed meadows about Rasinari smelled of cow dung. It hadn't rained for many days, and the earth exuded its accumulated odors.
A few days later we witnessed the evening return from the pastures. Along the road from Paltinis, in the red rays of the sun, came hundreds of cows and goats. Over the herds rose heat and stink, grizzled, wide-horned cows led the way. People stood in the open gates of the paddocks and waited. All this took place in silence, without yelling, without pushing. The animals separated themselves from the herd and entered their pens. They disappeared in the twilight of shaded yards, and the carved stable doors closed after them in a very civilized way. Enormous buffalo shone like black metal. Two steps of their equaled a cow's three. They were monsters, demons. The wet, quilled muzzles brought to mind some distant, sensual mythology. In a jerky trot, the goats came last. Piebald went best with motion. Goat reek hung over the herd. The asphalt shone from the cow slobber.
This was Rasinari, the town in which Emil Cioran was born and spent his first ten years. The sun fell vertically on the paved little streets, on the pastel houses, on the red husk of the roofs, and brought out the oldest smells. At first I didn't know what it was that hung in the air, that penetrated the walls, the bodies of passersby, the chassis of old vehicles. Only after a couple of days did I realize that it was the mix of animal effluvia. From locked yards came pig shit; the soil between the cobblestones had collected a century of horse piss; wisps of the stable rose from innumerable harnesses; from the fields came the choking air of pasture, from the gutters the cesspool seep of barns and sties; and one day in the river I saw entrails floating. The current was carrying the opalescent, flickering red in the direction of Sibiu. From the mountains the wind brought the sharp, acrid smell of pens -- a melange of trampled herbs, sticky, fat fleece, and dried green balls of excrement like stones. And occasionally a thread of hickory smoke in the air, a whiff of fried onions, a puff of gasoline fumes.
"It would have been better for me had I never left this village. I'll never forget the day my parents put me on the cart that took me to the lyceum in town. That was the end of my beautiful dream, the destruction of my world."
Now a tram goes from Rasinari to Sibiu. The line loops at the edge of the village. You sit on the steps between the bar and the cobbler. In the bar they sell vodka that tastes of yeast; it's thirty-six percent and cheap. Before the tram arrives, several men down a glass or two. Like that gypsy we kept meeting for a few days in different places. Once he was waiting for a bus to Paltinis; another time he was hanging around the station in Sibiu. A black felt hat on his head, a folded scythe and handle in his hands, an old knapsack on his back. It was August, hay-making time, and it's possible he was simply looking for work but couldn't find any or didn't want to, so he killed time, waiting for this to pass so he could go back to wherever he came from.
Mornings and evening we went to the pub on Nicolae Balcescu Road. You enter down a few steps. Inside, the flies flit and the men sit. We drank coffee and brandy. You could take the same steps to the barber, where there was an antique barber's chair. The place was open late, to ten, eleven, someone was always in the chair. We also drank beer, Ursus or Silva. From the street came the steady clop of horses. Sometimes, in the dark, you saw sparks from a horseshoe. Every drawn cart had a license plate. The shops worked late into the night. We purchased salami, wine, bread, paprika, watermelon. When the sun set, the shops glowed like warm caves. Our pockets were full of thousand-lei banknotes with Mihai Eminescu on them and hundred-lei coins with Michael the Valiant on them.
"Now at this moment, I should feel myself a European, a man of the West. But none of that; in my declining years, after a life in which I saw many nations and read many books, I reached the conclusion that the one who is right is the Romanian peasant. Who believes in nothing, who thinks that man is lost, can do nothing, that history will crush him. This ideology of the victim is my idea as well, my philosophy of history."
One evening we went down the mountain to the village. Rasinari lay in a valley filled to the brim with heat. I felt its animal proximity. The village gave off a golden blaze, but in the tangle of its side streets there was almost no light at all. The blinds, which during the day kept out the sun, now sealed the homes. It was once that way, I thought. Unnecessary things were not made; fire and food were not wasted. Excess was for kings only, their duty and privilege. In the square before the Church of St. Paraskeva, young people had gathered. In the dark, the gleam of chrome from their bicycles. Eighty years ago, little Emil spent the last of his vacation in the shadow of this very shrine. It was August then too, evening, and the boys teased the girls. There weren't as many bicycles, and the Hungarian rule still hung in the air, and a few people kept using the name Resinar or Stadterdorf. He would be leaving the next day and would never return.
Today, across from my house, four men gather wood. They pull to the forest edge stumps of spruce, stump by stump. When they have three or four, they load them onto a court. They work like animals -- slowly, monotonously, performing the same movements and gestures performed one hundred, two hundred years ago. The downhill road is long and steep. They used stakes to stop the cart. Even braked, the wheels slide on the wet clay. Wrapped in their torn quilted jackets and cloaks, the men seem fashioned from the earth. It's raining. Among the few things that distinguish them from their fathers and forefathers are a chain saw (Swedish) and disposable lighters. Well, and the cart is on tires. All the rest has remained unchanged for two hundred, three hundred years. Their smell, effort, groans, existence, follow a form that has endured since unrecorded time. These men are as primeval as the two bay horses in harness. Around them spreads a present as old as the world. At dusk, they finish and leave, their clothes steaming like the backs of animals.
I went to the veranda to look south again. A truly November dark there, but I was looking back, to last August, and my sight stretched across Bardejov, Sarospatak, Nagykallo, the Bihor Mountains, Sibiu, to reach Rasinari on that day at three in the afternoon, when we descended, the black-blue clouds thickening behind us. We went down and down, finally to that mercilessly beshitted field on which stood and lay dozens of red, gray, and spotted cows. Below the field the village began. The first houses were makeshift, scattered, resembling more a camp than a settlement. Over the road and river rose a cliff with young birches; they clung to the vertical rock with the aid of some miracle. Several dozen meters over our heads, a solitary man felled saplings with an ax. Then he tied them together in a knot and let them fall. These sliding bundles knocked stones loose, and the rattling plummet echoed through the valley. At the bottom, women and children waited to pull all this across the river and pile it into wheelbarrows. They were in no hurry. Along the road lay blankets, a campfire, a mangled doll. Their home was not far, yet they had set up another shelter here. Near the fire lay the remains of a meal, plastic bottles, mugs, other things, but we didn't want to pry. One clump of saplings caught halfway down the cliff, and the man slowly lowered himself to free it.
Rain began to fall after we were back inside. I sat at an open window in the attic, listening to the patter on the roof and on the leaves of the grapevine that filled the yard below. The pale mountains in the south darkened like a soaked fabric. A herd of white goats took cover in a thicket. I reflected that he would now be 89 and could be sitting where I sat. This house, after all, belonged to his family. Our host was Petru Cioran. He had Emil's books on his shelf, though I doubt he ever opened them. They were in French and English. He and his wife showed us washed-out photographs: this is Emil when he was eight, and this is Relu, his younger brother. The stock 50 year old man was proud, but every day he ran his store. He got up early, put crates in the van, drove to town for merchandise. At breakfast, we had a shot of slivovitz. It smelled like moonshine, was as strong as pure alcohol, and went well with smoked pork, goat cheese, and paprika.
So Emil could have been sitting here instead of me, could have been watching the rain wet the sacks of cement piled on the platform of the van parked in the street. The pavement shines, the smoke from the chimneys disappears in the gray haze, the water in the gutters swells and gathers trash, and he has returned, as if he never left, and is merely an old man alone with his thoughts. He no longer has the strength to walk in the mountains, nor the wish to chat with the shepherds. He looks, he listens. Philosophy gradually assumes physical shape. It enters his body and destroys is. Paris and traveling were a waste. Without them, things would have gone on a little longer, and boredom would have taken a less sophisticated form. From the kitchen on the ground floor comes the smell of heated fat and the voices of the women. The grapevines gleam and rustle in the rain. Then, from the east, dusk arrives, and the men assemble in the shed by the store. After the long day, they will be tired and dirty. They'll want a bottle of yeast vodka. The woman selling it will give them a thick glass, and they'll finish off the bottle in fifteen minutes. He will hear their talk, which becomes louder and faster, and smell the smell of their bodies through the foliage. The first man will give off tar, the second smoke, the third goats in a stable at the threshold of spring, when the animals begin to reek of urine, musk, and rut. The third will get drunk the quickest, and his friends will hold him up, prop him against a wall, with no interruption in the talk. A path of Carpaty cigarettes will be empty in an hour, and by then they will be drinking yellow beer from green bottles.
"My country! At all cost I desired to connect with it -- but there was nothing to connect with. Neither in its present nor in its past did I find anything genuine... My mad lover's rage had no object, you could say, because my country crumbled under the force of my gaze. I wished it were as powerful, immoderate, and wild as an evil power, a doom to shake the world, but it was small, modest, and without the qualities that make destiny." So wrote Emil Cioran in 1949, returning to his mind to his adventures in the Iron Guard.
The cows have disappeared into the woods. They moo in the December dimness. Romania Mare, greater Serbia, Poland from sea to sea... The incredibly stupid fictions of those countries. A hopeless yearning for what never was, for what can never be, and an adolescent sulk over what is.
Last year in Stara L'ubovna, at the foot of a castle, I overheard the jabber of a Polish tour group. The leader was a 40 year old moron in gore-tex and sunglasses. He knocked at the gate of the museum, which was closed at that hour. Finally he kicked the gate and told those assembled, "It should be ours again, or Hungarian. Then there would be some order!" Indeed. In this part of the world, everything should be other than it is. The discovery of maps came here too early, or too late.
I drink strong coffee and think constantly about Emil Cioran's broken heart in the 1930s. About his insanity, his Romanian dostoyevskyianism. "Codreanu was in reality a Slav, a kind of Ukrainian hetman" he would say after forty years. Ah, these cruel thoughts. First they devastate the world like a fire or earthquake, and when everything has been consumed and dashed into tiny pieces of shit, when there is nothing around them but desert, wilderness, and the abyss before creation, they throw away their self-won freedom and submit to a passionate faith in things that are hopeless and causes that are lost. Exactly as if trying to redeem doubt with disinterested love. The loneliness of a liberated mind is as great as the sky over Transylvania. Such a mind wanders like cattle in search of shade or a watering place.
I did finally return to Rasinari. Before the house in which he was born stands a bust. The house is the color of a faded rose. The wall facing the street has two windows with shutters. The facade is done with a cornice and pilasters. The bust itself is on a low pedestal, Cioran's face rendered realistically and unskillfully. A folk artist might have done it, imitating refined art. The work is "small, modest, and without qualities" aside from its resemblance to the original, but it suits this village square. Every day, herds of cows and sheep pass it, leaving behind their warmth and smell. Neither the wide world nor Paris left any mark on that face. It is sad and tired. Such men sit in the pub next to the barber and in the store-shed under the grapevine. As if someone made his dream come true, granted his final wish.
- Copyright, Andrzej Stasiuk, On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe
May 27, 2014
In a wonderful little coincidence, I'm on my way to Bran's Castle (the inspiration for Dracula's castle) just as it's going up for sale.
The lawyer handling the sale said, "If someone comes in with a reasonable offer, we will look at who they are, what they are proposing, and will seriously entertain the idea." Well, then! My proposal will be something along the lines of the Literaturhaus of Sex and Death (won't even have to change the name despite the change of venue). You'll all come to Romania, yes? I mean, I know that when I told friends I was going to spend some time in Bucharest they all said the same thing: "Rabies." Bucharest has dogs. The dogs bite you. The dogs maybe have rabies who knows, you have to get the rabies shots. This is maybe the best publicized thing about Bucharest tourism ever. But otherwise it's pretty nice over there.
(Plus, have you ever heard someone speaking Romanian? It's deeply sexy, I don't know why, they could be telling me the price of eggs, and I'd be like, "Do you want me to take my pants off now or later, either way I'm up for it.")
So let me see what I can make as an offer. I have like $200 in foreign change, easy, I also have a 5 Swiss Franc coin, that has to be worth about $1,000,000 in the current exchange rate. That could at least be a down payment. I've got a jar of Hungarian honey and some herbal liqueurs made by Bavarian nuns. I'm kind of running low on everything else as I'm traveling. But once they look at who I am, I'm sure they'll be swayed. And by "who I am" I of course mean that I am a person with absolutely no qualities that would make me attractive to a real estate seller, but surely these are men of letters, and they are not going to hand over the property to anyone who can pull out $135 million and turn it into some sort of tourist freakshow right? Right.
May 25, 2014
Image: Nijinsky by Leon Bakst
You take a risk, when you write about travel, about mixing things up. About experiencing something new and saying, look, this is how they do things here, isn't that weird, when in fact it's just a weird thing that happened once here and then never again. You can mistake coincidence for characteristic.
But it's happened in front of me four times, all right? So it has to be a thing.
I've been going to a lot of dance performances here in Budapest. I used to want to be a dancer, and was deeply serious about it as a child, so I will go see just about any dance performance when I'm traveling. I'm less likely to go see ballet, although that was and remains my dance practice of choice. But I think I chose ballet because I am secretly a masochist, not for any aesthetic value. Ballet, classical ballet, I find so dull, as I'm uninterested in ballerinas. It's the fragility, the otherworldliness, I get bored. I know how difficult it is to do what the ballerinas are doing, and I know the deformity of the body it causes, but maybe that's why I can't appreciate it. I can't think, oh, how gracefully she floats, I think about her big toenail coming off, I think about the way your bones throw off spurs from the pressure, I think about the discipline and the pain. It's hard to see past that and see grace.
I go to see dance to see the men. Men are frequently not given much to do in classical ballet. Here, I will present the woman, I will lift her up, maybe I can get in a few nice leaps across the stage before the girl squad comes in prancing. But when I was a kid, I had a Baryshnikov VHS tape when I was a kid, I kind of imprinted on male dancers, or maybe just on him, that contradiction of strength and fragility, grace and brutality. One doesn't want to see that reigned in with something like La Syphilde. One wants it to fucking go.
So I bought tickets to pretty much every performance during a dance festival I could find where male dancers were on the promotional posters. And there was this night, at a contemporary filtered through Hungarian folk dance performance, that took my breath away. Folk dance does not deny that you are a body, or try to disguise that the way ballet does. Ballet always seemed like an attempt to transcend the body, somehow expressing divinity. But sometimes you need mud and flesh.
And oh, men are wonderful, aren't they? The strength and the power when it is combined with that openness, the way they would power themselves across the stage and then drop to the floor, their chests pulsating with their heavy breaths and their racing hearts, like the breasts of frightened birds. And the way they were there for the women, and the bravery of those women. The women fell face first, they were caught. They flew across the stage, they were caught. The women dropped from heights without hesitation or fear and why would they, they knew they would be caught.
But then the Budapest thing, the thing I will claim is a Budapest thing, because it happened all four nights. And the nights when I was here before. The audiences of Budapest do not applaud like um normal people do. It is scattered at first and then they clap in time with each other. Until it becomes a thunderous beat, everyone at the same tempo. Not in an "encore" kind of way, this is during regular curtain call. Everyone finds a common beat, and it slowly increases in speed, until suddenly the clapping halves its speed and everyone complies and slows down, and then the tempo increases until it drops back again, a rise and fall. And you can stomp your feet along with it, or you can think I am just going to clap like a normal person, this is madness, but it's infectious, you soon match your clapping to the audience's.
It has a word, vastaps, the Iron Clap. Why is this a thing? What does it say about the culture? Who knows.
I do wish there were better writing about dance. I read a theory that the reason good dance and good writing doesn't coincide because there is something about a person who needs an audience there as they perform, they can't sustain a long writing spree, off in a room for so long by themselves. I suppose that is why actors are also such terrible writers. (For the most part.) But Nijinsky, and his loony diary, will always have my love. Nijinsky and his beautiful thighs.
And for more men, there's always our Masculinity issue, which includes writing by Friend of Nijinsky, Leon Bakst. I thought about the men in that issue as I was watching the dance, the strength, the power, the openness. It made me dizzy for the love of men.
May 23, 2014
A piece of mine about ghost writers has gone up at the Smart Set.
Since the nation's beginning, American politicians have looked to others to give a written form to their ideas, and since the beginning the writers have had a complicated time letting their words go. Alexander Hamilton wrote for George Washington, and when his audience praised Washington as being so thoughtful, so erudite, Hamilton's wife fought for years for her husband to be credited. It was so shocking, so hurtful for early Americans to learn Washington did not write every word he spoke. Now, however, we come to every publication, every speech and press release knowing that every celebrity and politician has a team to manage and control the public perception. President Obama may have written his own books, but the second, written in campaign mode, may as well have been ghostwritten, as managed and bloodless as it feels. The Audacity of Hope lacks the passion and bite of Dreams from My Father. But then maybe the politician Obama was ghosting for the man the second time around.
May 22, 2014
Image: At Kranzler's by Jeanne Mammen
"But in terms of what you ask, in terms of interviewing people, I always start from the position that the person I'm interviewing is more interesting than I am. It seems like a daft thing to say -- of course David Bowie is more interesting than you are -- but some interviewers just can't manage to properly adopt that position. And if you are the sort of person who thinks yourself cleverer than Seamus Heaney, say, or Paul Auster and you'd like to attempt to prove your theory on TV or radio, then you're in the wrong job.
"Now, I appreciate that I'm in quite a unique position. I'm not working in print these days and I was never a critic so I do enjoy a rather different role. A print journalist might get ten pages out of someone like Lou Reed not cooperating, but my job is to make sure the person talks -- and so I'm lucky. In many ways, I'm a facilitator as much as an investigator and I'm certainly not there to showboat and be a wise-ass. Again, simply because my role doesn't call for aggro. I'm not, after all, grilling politicians or world leaders. I'm talking to artists and I genuinely want to hear what they have to say about the work, about the creative process. So I just talk, try to extract the wisdom and, with any luck, we all might learn something."
That's from last month's interview with John Kelly, conducted by Jesse Kohn. I had commented a few months before that we were having trouble finding good interviewers, and Kelly's comment seems to be the key. Humility and genuine interest.
Which is maybe the problem of writers interviewing writers, it can be a very competitive industry, and there's always that potential problem of, I'm going to show you how smart I am. You're more successful than me? I'll show you why you don't deserve it. And I can do a good interview, but only in very limited circumstances. People who are really good at the art of the interview, kind of no matter who their subject is, they possess a gift.
It's funny because the thing that writers complain to me about the most is not a bad review, it's a bad interview. The interviewer who clearly didn't read the book, the interviewer who is doing all of these gymnastics to one-up them, the interviewers with agendas, the ones that make you feel like you're at a bar, trapped in a terrible conversation and cannot get away and you feel your lifeforce draining from your body. And yet the magic of conversation, of chemistry between two people, that's really wonderful when it's done well.
After I posted about the difficulty of finding great interviews, we found some great interviewers, I'm happy to say. This month is particularly strong in that area, with Coco Papy's interview with Breanne Fahs, author of the new Valerie Solanas biography, which ranges from this kind of inspiring tirade about contemporary feminism's inability to tolerate radicals to a really compassionate conversation about alienation and mental illness, and Tom Andes's talk with Moira Crone, author of The Not Yet, as they talk about how American betrayed New Orleans and environmental devastation and political fiction writing, are particularly strong.
Reading tarot cards has, weirdly, made me a better interviewer, I think, although there is still room for improvement. But it's about slowing down, letting other people's stories come out, rather than trying to be witty or trying to steer the conversation in a direction you decided on in advance. It's the moments that surprise you that are the strongest in an interview.
May 20, 2014
In May’s issue of Bookslut, Coco Papy interviews Breanne Fahs about Fahs’s biography of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto and subject of the film I Shot Andy Warhol. Decades ahead of her time, Solanas paid dearly for her radicalism, but her incendiary thinking and uncompromising attitude helped lay the groundwork for radical feminists in her wake. The SCUM Manifesto, which advocated for the destruction of men, continues to shock and delight (as well as enrage) readers to this day; AK Press last year issued a new edition of the manifesto with an introduction by Michelle Tea.
For more on the life and legacy of this incendiary activist, here’s some further reading:
“Feminists who want feminism to be respectable are afraid the ‘radicals’ will go ‘too far.’ That is, manhating gives the show away -- we aren't merely liberals; our complaints are drastic; we're demanding, not asking; we're breaking the mold in the most thorough way possible; we really mean it.”
-- Joanne Ross, “The New Misandry” | The Village Voice
Feminist science fiction author Joanne Ross wrote this essay in defense of misandry in 1972, arguing for misandry as a way of reacting to and exposing the normalized oppression of women by men.
“But my attraction to misandry not only had to do with being a young woman who has been used, abused, and in some ways destroyed by men but also a frustration with what seems to be a faddish feminism, whose tenets seem to propose that the only thing you need to do to be a feminist, or participate in feminist activism, is reblog a picture of an unshaven vulva on your blog and embellish your jean jacket with a pin that says ‘Consent is sexy!’”
-- Madeleine Alpert, “Where’s Valerie Solanas When You Need Her?” | xojane.com
Madeleine Alpert reflects on the value of rage and man-hating in an age where feminism has become increasingly commodified and compliant.
“Firestone’s recollection of Solanas in Airless Spaces -- a book categorized as fiction but widely considered to be a memoir -- is haunting, in no small part because of Firestone’s own sad demise, 24 years later. Hers contained eerily similar elements: an unpaid rent bill leading to a grisly discovery by a building superintendent.”
-- Barbara Spindel, “They Got Angry--And Then They Went Mad” | Dame
Barbara Spindel draws parallels between the lives of Shulamith Firestone and Valerie Solanas, both radical feminists ahead of their time who suffered from mental illness and fell victim to social defeat.
Last but not least, cartoonist Gabrielle Bell has a highly enjoyable four-part comic, “Manifestation,” on adapting the SCUM Manifesto and the influence Valerie Solanas has had, in some ways unwittingly, on her life.
May 19, 2014
Ami Tian has been writing wonderful blog entries this past year, giving us context and supplementary reading for the items in our new issues. But with new work obligations, she has to step down. We'll miss her and her smarts.
But that means we're looking for a replacement. Someone who can compile some links to essays, interviews, videos and other etc, relating to what we're discussing in the issues or with one of our side projects. Like so.
May 18, 2014
Image: Krakow Monster by Pierre Boaistuau
I met a young woman at the Katowice train station. I was trying to find the platform for the bus to Krakow, but it was eluding me. People assured me it existed, but I couldn't seem to find it. I asked at information, she waved her arm in the direction of where I just had looked. As I took out my ticket to stare at it once again, hoping some lost bit of wisdom would reveal itself this time, I heard a woman at the information counter ask the exact same question I had just asked and receive the same arm gesture.
I approached. "Are you looking for the bus to Krakow, too?" She nodded. "Maybe we will have more luck if we look together?"
I don't normally talk to people when in transit, I prefer my head in a book and a go fuck yourself growl if someone tries to sit next to me, but I try to keep my eye out for women traveling solo. There are so few of us. We have to help one another, when two of us exist in the same space coincidentally.
Finally. We sat on the bus together, she was German, traveling for the first time on her own. She works at a kindergarten. She asked, did I want to go on this walking tour of Krakow with her? It's for Polish food, you eat a lot and walk around and see the city. Sure, I said.
She canceled at the last minute, texting from a broken down tram that would keep her from making it back to the city center in time. I decided to go anyway, I had nothing else to do that afternoon.
But here's the thing about Krakow: a lot of its tourism draw is Holocaust tourism. From Krakow you can take the bus to Auschwitz, and so a lot of tourists come to Krakow for that reason. There's also a tram tour of Krakow, a Schindler's List tour. Spielberg filmed that here, and so follow along as we show you the sights of a Holocaust film! And Schindler's List is already kind of Holocaust tourism, smeared as it is with sentimental gunk in many places. So, a shallow Holocaust tour of a shallow Holocaust film... I was having trouble not barking at the trams all painted up in bright colors, TAKE THE SCHINDLER TOUR it blared. I am sorry to be a terrible snob, but I am, so let's all just accept that reality and move on.
I was waiting in the square, watching these trams go by, waiting for the food tour to begin, and an older American gentleman just starts talking at me. These men exist everywhere, the men who Tell You Things. I met one in Budapest who was not a writer but started telling me About Writing. (Then he tried to lean in for a kiss and so I shoved him away from me, it was a weird night.) So this man starts telling me about the Holocaust.
In a desire to get him off subject, I asked him, "What brings you to Krakow?"
"Auschwitz. I always wanted to see the sights of the massacre of the Jews." (These are his exact words, I wrote them down they were so strange.)
"So are you going to Germany?"
"No. I still have not forgiven the Germans."
"Oh, are you Jewish?"
All right then. I abandoned the tour during the pierogi stop because this man would not stop "correcting" the tour guide. She was talking about borscht, and he said, "Which is served cold." "No, we eat it hot." "But it is a cold soup." "No, it is traditionally hot." "Well, in AMERICA..." I felt like I was going to set him on fire if I didn't get away from him, so I ditched.
Some Polish writers you should be reading:
May 16, 2014
We are putting together the new issue of Spolia, debating the Daphne Award winners, conducting and transcribing interviews, and so perhaps we can direct your attention elsewhere for today?
Perhaps these are of interest to you:
You will lose your whole day after reading Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy to videos about Reptilians and Illuminati on Youtube, it is inevitable.
Sinclair Lewis and his Minnesota hometown have made up after that whole hate-hate Main Street relationship. Well, "made up" except that his ghost still throws glasses in the hotel bar.
And your totally random book recommendation for the day: The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf by Kathryn Davis. Fairy tales, murder, opera, international romance, it is magic from start to finish.
May 14, 2014
People maximize the trait brought into play by the polarity on which the schismogenic interaction takes place, developing a sort of hyper-specialization. If the dimension in question is, for example, "strength/weakness," some will learn how to become stronger, while others will become skilled in weakness. As Bateson and systemic psychotherapy have shown, this is a risky process in terms of individual and social adaptation. Those who position themselves inside the culturally approved extreme of a relevant semantic dimension will develop a genuine excellence, because they will maximize a socially valued quality: courtesy, generosity, beauty, etc. They run the risk, however, of being one-dimensional. Every excellence is accompanied by some deficiency. In order to maximize certain qualities, a person has to neglect others. Hyper-specialization in one conversational context makes people unsuitable to take part in other types of conversation. As a result, participation in "specialized" forms of conversation that processes of polarization lead to, reduces their capacity to deal with changing circumstances and situations in life. Suffice it to consider those situations that maximize semantic dimensions that can only be fully achieved in youth, such as beauty or physical fitness. The very passing of time may become problematic. All languages are in fact multidimensional from the semantic point of view and the individual who tries to reach fulfillment in a single dimension -- the "pure type," to use Guardini's terminology -- ends up over the edge in disaster. It is what we learn from many myths in various cultures and from the experience of daily life itself.
The dangers are obviously even clearer for those who find themselves in a position with a negative cultural connotation. These people also externalize clearly defined qualities. Their position demands a considerable outlay of energy and much specialized learning. One learns to be passive in the same way one learns to be active. Being bad can be just as hard as being good. It takes a certain determination to be ugly in the same way it does to be pretty. But if a person positions himself at the negatively viewed extreme, as well as being exposed to the same risks as his polar opposite he also receives a negative self-valuation: his excellence has a negative value. Nature obviously helps to produce differences but it leaves the game open.
Nicholas Vajifdar was right. Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family is amazing, and should be read even despite that terrible title.
May 12, 2014
Daphnee Nominee Spotlight: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Ninety years after James Baldwin’s birth, this New York Times article chronicles the attempts by high schools to bring Baldwin back into the curriculum, where his work has made fewer appearances in recent years. In competition with other seminal works by Black authors, Baldwin’s frank and at times inflammatory perspectives on race may have made him unpopular at a time which many people prefer to think of as postracial, and in which Black classics must fight for the few token slots available on a whitewashed reading list. But although Baldwin may have fallen out of favor in the classroom, from Tumblr to Buzzfeed James Baldwin’s words continue to resonate with young people today. So we’re turning the Daphne Nominee Spotlight on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which collected two essays on black-white race relations in America: “My Dungeon Shook -- Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross -- Letter from a Region of My Mind.” The latter essay, which comprises most of the book, sparked controversy across the nation when it was originally published in The New Yorker.
Baldwin would later come under attack from all directions for his politics (too radical, not radical enough, too capitulatory, too stubborn), his sexuality (Eldridge Cleaver accused him, by virtue of his homosexuality, of possessing a “racial death-wish”), as well as the quality and content of his later writing, but complexity, nuance and self-assurance that made The Fire Next Time unattractive to its critics at the time have secured its relevance today.
For more on James Baldwin’s legacy and the resounding impact of his writing, here are a handful of perspectives from critics, and an interview with Baldwin himself:
“Was this man the author, I wondered to myself, this man with a closely cropped ‘natural,’ brown skin, splayed nostrils, and wide lips, so very Negro, so comfortable to be so? This was the first time I had heard a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country.”
-- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Fire Last Time” | The New Republic
Published in 1992, this essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines Baldwin’s trajectory as a spokesperson for civil rights advocacy and how his work and opinions, as well as their reception, have fared over time.
“Baldwin laced his writings with explicit warnings against the chill of self-exposure. However, it is not just because of his self-restraint that he remains a powerful tutelary presence in the uses of the first person. Though he found in his writing a permanence of self that the insecurity of his social condition could not threaten, his own experience interested him mostly for what it told him about the larger world.”
-- Darryl Pinckney, “The Magic of James Baldwin” | The New York Review of Books
In his in-depth criticism of James Baldwin’s collected essays, Darryl Pinckney examines the political tensions within Baldwin’s writing, the admiration and derision he received from his contemporaries, as well as Baldwin’s roles as a both preeminent literary figure and cultural thinker of his time.
In 2013 at the 50th anniversary of The New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney delivered this speech telling the story of how his personal views of Baldwin evolved throughout his lifetime.
“These essays are amazing acts of intellectual and emotional courage. I got off the plane here in Greenville and called my agent (who knew ‘Jimmy’ as she called him) and asked, ‘Does anyone still write like this?’ The question was rhetorical. No one does. No one had. No one will.”
-- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Is James Baldwin America’s Greatest Essayist?” | The Atlantic
Forty years after the book’s initial publication, Ta-Neheisi Coates reflects on his exhilarating experience reading The Fire Next Time.
“An essay is not simpler, though it may seem so. An essay is essentially an argument. The writer’s point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or a play you’re trying to show them something. The risks, in any case, are exactly the same.”
-- James Baldwin interviewed in The Paris Review | The Art of Fiction No. 78
James Baldwin sits down with The Paris Review to discuss his craft, the considerations specific to writing fiction and nonfiction, race and literature, and much more.
May 11, 2014
Speaking of spinsters and women's hotels:
On the floor above the dormitory were the rooms of the staff and the shared bedrooms of those who could afford shared bedrooms rather than a cubicle. Those who shared, four or two to a room, tended to be young women in transit, or temporary members looking for flats and bed-sitting rooms. Here, on the second floor, two of the elder spinsters, Collie and Jarvie, shared a room as they had done for eight years, since they were saving money now for their old age.
But on the floor above that, there seemed to have congregated, by instinctive consent, most of the celibates, the old maids of settled character and various ages, those who had decided on a spinster's life, and those who would one day do so but had not yet discerned the fact for themselves.
This third-floor landing had contained five large bedrooms, now partitioned by builders into ten small ones. The occupants ranged from prim and pretty young virgins who would never become fully-wakened women, to bossy ones in their late twenties who were too wide-awake ever to surrender to any man. Greggie, the third of the elder spinsters, had her room on this floor. She was the least prim and the kindest of women there.
On this floor was the room of a mad girl, Pauline Fox, who was wont to dress carefully on certain evenings in the long dresses which were swiftly and temporarily reverted to in the years immediately following the war. She also wore long white gloves, and her hair was long, curling over her shoulders. On these evenings she said she was going to dine with the famous actor, Jack Buchanan. No one disbelieved her outright, and her madness was undetected.
At the top of the house, on the fourth floor, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls had their rooms. They were filled with deeper and deeper social longings of various kinds, as peace-time crept over everyone. Five girls occupied the five top rooms. Three of them had lovers in addition to men-friends with whom they did not sleep but whom they cultivated with a view to marriage. Of the remaining two, one was almost engaged to be married, and the other was Jane Wright, fat but intellectually glamorous by virtue of the fact that she worked for a publisher. She was on the look-out for a husband, meanwhile being mixed up with young intellectuals.
From Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means, set in the May of Teck Club, house for young ladies
May 9, 2014
Image: Piero Nanin, La dama e il cicisbeo
Do you remember that book Sex at Dawn? That book was weirdly misogynistic and kind of empty, despite my agreeing with its general premise. The premise was: lifelong monogamy is not only difficult, but should probably not be the standard for a good relationship. Their reasoning came from a not great understanding of evolution and anthropology, though, and there were a few weird statements about how women were probably happier in traditional societies where they could have sex with a lot of men, not somehow understanding that women were often considered communal property, and were not allowed to choose who they slept with. A woman was expected to sleep with not just her man, but also his brothers and so on. Also, there was a very strange, deeply sexist section saying women requiring sexual fidelity were hurting the health of their men and potentially killing them. There was no equivalent impassioned plea for men to allow their women to have sexual freedom as well, no guilt tripping or flat out bullying.
The point being: we are deeply socialized creatures, and even when we think we are being iconoclasts and breaking with the past, our ideas about men and women are deeply clouded by our upbringing and culture.
In the last installment of our conversation about Against Marriage, Bruce Benderson and I discuss the hormonal and evolutionary justification for male promiscuity, the attempts to control women's sexuality, love triangles and we hatch a business scheme. (Part one, part two.)
When I was reading Against Marriage, I was reminded about all of those books set in New York City, beginning of the century and later, set at women's hotels and apartment buildings specifically for single women, places like that. And there's no infrastructure in our largest cities anymore for single people. You have to be cohabitating to be able to afford New York City or London. It is a shame that young energy is being drained from our cities because they're too expensive to experiment, you have to work hard to be able to afford it, and there are no cheaper alternatives for single people.
I couldn't agree more. I think there's one more women's hotel left in New York City. They were always associated with strict morality, a man couldn't come up to your room, all that. But it's just what you said: it was an inexpensive, safe place for single women when they came to the city. But what I mourn is the bachelor hotel. In which unmarried men could live in these buildings, which are all now SROs [single room occupancy]. They were always clean, there was a restaurant on the first floor and they would deliver meals to you if you needed them to, someone would come in and change the sheets and vacuum once a week. For the entire time I was growing up and the early part of my young manhood, I assumed I was going to end up as a writer in a bachelor hotel. I'm not very domestic, and there's all kind of adventure associated with the bachelor hotel. It's often the setting of a noir, detective novels. I always assumed I'd either spend my bachelorhood that way or somehow exploit the post-colonial atmosphere and go to Morroco like Paul Bowles did, be well taken care of and also learn about a new culture. That's a contaminated desire. I see the fault in it now. But when I was growing up I assumed I would be able to do one of those two things and both of them are gone now.
In W Somerset Maugham novels, he wrote about being a struggling writer in his youth, and the guest houses in London he lived in. Just a tiny room in a house, with a desk and a chair and an overbearing but kind landlady who made his meals. It sounded wonderful! Why did we get rid of that?
I don't know why. I wrote a very acerbic novel that is partly about that subject. It's called Pacific Agony. It's a faux travel guide about the Pacific Northwest by a very acerbic narrator who wants to live in a bachelor hotel, and that's portrayed against the ultimate in futuristic America. All of those things are gone and family values are everywhere and the white population triumphed over everything, and there's a Protestant ethic to everything. My theory is that civilization used to be oriented towards the sun, like all the Latin cultures, Rome and Greece and all that. The moment the Northern tribes, which is Western Europe and North America, it was all of those sensual comforts and all of those rule-breaking possibilities went away with the Protestant mentality.
I think that's why it's gone. Suburban, Protestant American culture has infiltrated the entire world. Either oppressed it or taught it how to imitate its culture. When the world was controlled by the Catholic mentality -- I know these are gross generalizations -- there were all kinds of opportunities for rule breaking because you weren't in direct contact with God. You could dance on the table and have affairs and then hand it over to your priest and he would negotiate over it with God. But the Protestant believed that his confessor was attached to his back and he would confess to things he did as he did them. That doesn't create a very sensual environment or free behavior. I think that's why all those places disappeared. They created too much opportunity for breaking the rules and creating your own identity. A lot of those people in bachelor hotels and women's hotels were very eccentric. Like Marianne Moore, the poet who remained a maiden all her life by choice. That's just not going to cut it in a uniform society where everything is controlled by the same culture. And the gays are helping with that.
So are the feminists. It's also that we have such a shallow base of history, for whatever reason, we think marriage is just the way we organize society. There's a lack of imagination about the way these things can work.
That's now the only formula. Gays were the last hold out. Especially gay men who had such trouble maintaining stable relationships. Lesbians were better at it. Why were they better at it?
Are they? Well, women are still raised to believe their value is relational, rather than singular. Women are still indoctrinated with this idea of who is around you defines you, rather than I define myself.
You don't think there's a hormonal element?
I think it's possible, but the socialization is so thick with women. The part of your book that said, hold on, I'm about to say something potentially offensive about women, it's true, I was offended! With what you said about women policing and controlling male sexuality [in relationships, particularly in marriage].
Do you not think that's true?
I do think that's true! Often, at least. But I think it's because of several different factors that weren't given room. I felt you were being accusatory rather than understanding why that might be.
You want to know something? I'm not just saying this to be nice, I stand corrected. I only gave an evolutionary explanation. This idea that, it makes sense for men to have impulses to be more promiscuous, to preserve the species. And that's a conservative argument, about biological imperative, and you're right, I didn't talk about society.
My idea of this is that we have no idea what the so-called "natural" state of female sexuality is, because it's the most repressed thing in culture. All of Western civilization has been built around controlling women's sexuality. We think we have gotten rid of some of those bonds, but obviously we haven't. As I was arguing with the book as I was reading it, I was thinking about how women are raised to believe that their value comes from the man who loves them and wants them, but also growing up in this fear of male sexuality. Because a quarter of women have been sexually assaulted. Even if it wasn't you, everyone has a sister or a friend. That kind of fear makes you want to control and manipulate the source of that fear. I think that plays out in marriage, too, the fear of male sexuality.
Controlling male promiscuity isn't going to protect you. Probably if we looked at statistics there would be just as many female infidelities and male and my entire argument would collapse. It is possible. It's refreshing to agree with criticism, all I've been doing is defending myself against stupid criticism. I see your point. What I like best about what you say is that conditioning is so deep, we'll never get to what the biological imperative is. How could we possibly know? We'd have to raise someone in a closet.
I want to know what else bothered you!
Going back to the freedom of the Latin culture, or the Latin view of marriage. The idea of having emotional prostitutes. I want to bring that back.
I'm all for it!
Another feminist argument that bothers me is that all prostitution is wrong, that it exploits all women and turns woman into a consumable object. But I'm like, everyone needs to be touched and listened to. My problem is that there aren't men for hire. Certainly there were times in my life when I probably could have benefited from having someone on call.
God, I think it should be part of social security. As you get older, it's less likely that you'll be touched. It should be someone's job to touch you. Even if it's just to caress you. And social security should pay for it.
Now that you said that, I agree with you.
Oh, Latin cultures, that the freedom was mostly male, I'm guessing that's what you disagreed with.
Yes. I understand why your book was tilted towards men and their freedoms, but I wanted the other chapter about women's freedoms as well.
I do know that my best friend in France, she claims that just as many women have affairs in marriages as French men do. That's what she claims. But other than that, I'm very unaware of what female sexuality in France is like. I don't like French machismo. I don't like their idea of what an appealing woman is. And I've gone to many dinner parties with people from my generation where the woman actually did act like a '50s housewife, served the meal and was standing up and walking back and forth the whole time we were having a discussion with the men. It blew my mind. I hadn't seen it since the late '50s. But in general, there are sexual freedoms in Latin cultures for both genders that don't exist here. Mitterand's wife didn't seem to mind the mistress standing next to her at her husband's funeral was that because she knew she had to do it, or because it allowed her a certain freedom? Maybe the freedom it gives women is the freedom from sexual contact sometimes.
I shared a man with another woman for a while. It was a nice relief, oh, your emotional needs are going to be met by someone else for now, and I can have this space for my own needs, to work or travel or whatever. It's an arrangement we should be more open to in America, because infidelity is it, it's over. It's so shocking that somebody would dare to stray.
Those scenes, they're all the same. In films, you'd think they were written by the same scriptwriter. The moment when one spouse catches the other out in infidelity, it's the biggest thing. It outweighs the life they've had together, the children they have, everything. And there's absolutely no way to come back from it without being incredibly sorry about what you did. What I want to know is, have you ever had two men taking care of you?
How did that work?
It was more of an ego problem, it hurt their ego when I went between them. In our culture, we expect our spouse or romantic partner to supply everything for us, to be the source for all comfort, all emotional attachment, and it is exhausting and it is unfair. To have that possibility to take that pressure off, we should be able to consider it.
I'm involved in a relationship with a much younger person, because he's so much younger I give him total permission for free sexuality because I'm realistic and I knew that I couldn't have sex that many times a week, it'd kill me. So it's a relief for that. But I'm a little disgruntled that I don't have the same right. Even though I don't want it, I want someone to say, you can have the same freedom that I have. He doesn't say that, he said if he ever saw me with anybody else he'd throw a wine bottle at their head. He's intensely jealous, even though he has all that freedom. That bothers me theoretically. I should be more practical about it. If I had total fidelity, I couldn't satisfy it.
I thought you were a lesbian, in wanting to be the cicisbeo, wanting to be that for women.
Oh sure. I mean, I wouldn't have sex with them, but I'm totally willing to get into a tux and talk dirty to them, take them to the opera and then get a pizza, I can do that. I like women, I like paying attention to them.
We should do a tour together of the watering spots of Europe, we can make this profitable.
May 7, 2014
Image: Spinster Sisters by Rochelle Weiner
One of the most wonderful little bits of Bruce Benderson's Against Marriage is his introducing us to the cicisbeo, the emotional male prostitute. A woman, locked in a marriage with a man not of her choosing, would then hire a male prostitute of sorts. Not necessarily for sex, although that did sometimes happen, but for going to the opera with. For emotional attention. For conversation and art. He was called a cicisbeo, and his account of the cicisbeo's history was just another reminder that it's only very recently that we expected our spouse to fulfill all of our needs, emotional, sexual, financial, and so on.
We forget there are other ways to do things. We forget our own histories so very easily.
In part two of our conversation, we talk about the dangers of assimilation, the crimes of marriage, and ever more about spinsters. (Part one begins here.)
Bruce Benderson: I loved your wanting to be a cicisbeo [in a previous blog post]. A cicisbea!
I am so attracted to that idea. I will either do that or I will hire one for my own use, or I can do both at the same time.
I'm going to try to fix you up.
Where did you discover that history?
It just came along when I started researching marriage. There are academics who have written whole books on it. It's a specifically Italian phenomenon. The Germans and the British when they witnessed it were so disgusted by it, thought it was so immoral and an insult to masculinity. I didn't know about it until I started researching marriage. And I researched marriage the way someone collects ammunition.
Let's go through the crimes of marriage. Just the history of woman as property, who is passed from father to husband. Then there's legal manipulation of a person's sexuality. What else should we put on this list?
I know a good one! It's oneupmanship between nations, often leading to the battlefield. When one heir to the throne is fianced to another, it has nothing to do with love it is to form an alliance. Those alliances often led to war. It's a political tool.
I think if there are going to be marriages, they should be arranged. As I pointed out, this whole love marriage thing has only been associated for a tiny fraction of its history. When marriages were arranged, my grandparents came from that context, you didn't expect that your main source of happiness was going to be your husband or your wife. It was a practical thing, and it's going to help you survive better, and there will be an extra hand for tasks around the house, and families would be strengthened by it. Isn't it funny that there were so few divorces from arranged marriages and the second you can choose people are constantly tossing them over as if they have no value at all? Even my parents couldn't imagine divorce, they're scandalized by it. Because their parents had had arranged marriages. They come from an immigrant background. Russian Jewish.
At what point did the love aspect of marriage take over from arranged?
In a couple of books I read, marriage for love has only existed since the middle of the 19th century. It blooms with the Romantic age. And it starts to decline really dramatically after World War II, that's when the divorces start.
That's the strange thing about the switch over to love and passion. We all know now that marriage doesn't last a lifetime, but we all go through the big production anyway, and then we act surprised when it doesn't work out. It seems like this really illogical spiral people get stuck in.
Here's another thing I wonder: Jews in Germany, right before World War II, a lot of the more sophisticated, intellectual urban Jews said, I feel much more German than I feel Jewish. I'm an equal member of the society and I'm accepted by it. Now let's take some gay men, who have a high chance of being promiscuous men, because I think men are hormonally promiscuous and the only thing that stabilizes them is the presence of women. If a man is married, he still has these urges but he doesn't do it because he wants to be a good person, doesn't want to hurt his family, or hurt his wife. When two men are left together, quite often it becomes a promiscuous situation. What happens when two men get married and adopt some children and continue that promiscuous lifestyle? And their neighbors who thought they were being so generous and wonderful to let them into the marriage equation, see that they're not upholding some of the conventional rules. Like, don't sleep with anyone else. What happens when a neighbor sees John on his way to pick up little Billy from school stop on his way at a sex shop? And then add a little economic strain, add a few scandals, and they're going to start suspecting them in ways they used to suspect them. Are they going to corrupt my children? Should they be around children? What are they doing to their own when sexuality is such a big part of their lives? Let's put up a big fence. Or, worse, it could lead in the direction of the way Jews were exiled from German society. I know that's overdramatic. But I worry about the fate of gay men. The moment you kiss the heel of the boot of your oppressor, even if that oppressor accepts you and makes you part of the crowd, you're always going to be a second class citizen. That's the culture that did horrible things to you, and now you're joining it.
The other thing that makes me nervous is that the single people will become the old maids and mama's boys and the Peter Pans and spinsters of the future, and now we even have our homosexual brothers to look at us that way.
To take your first point, I think that was why it was so frustrating on the feminist front, how could these women not see that "family values" are not feminist values? You can have a child without becoming a fucking monster, but for whatever reason, assimilation became the goal rather than changing the mainstream. As long as I get my place at the table, even if the table is covered in shit...
I know! That's what I can't understand! They hypnotize themselves. I have not seen "family values" mentioned in the same paragraph as gay marriage in any same sex text, it's almost as if, well, marriage has nothing to do with family values, that's those people on the far right. I think they're repressing those associations. What do you think of after marriage? You think of family. What do you think of after family? You think of family values. Not here. Marriage is a blank license for them that will award them these rights, and it has absolutely no affect on them beyond that, on their lifestyle, that is what most people will say now. It's almost like mass hypnosis.
It's the same from the feminist angle. I don't understand, having read the last 200 years of feminist theory, and I don't understand how we got to this point, where we are just commenting on the culture, blogging about the television shows we like and don't like, rather than hacking away at the structure with a fucking axe.
The beginning of that was when the women's bank opened in the 1970s in New York. I immediately opened an account because I wanted to support the feminist movement. But that's exactly the same trajectory, they joined their enemies, hoping to change their enemies' attitudes in some way. There are other less visible things that happened with feminism, which goes back to my idea for my book Old Dames. What kind of image of woman came out from the feminist effort? Someone who is attractive and athletic and always looked young. And they all remain sexual until they're put into coffins. That's the idea. The whole idea of vitality got lost as feminist input gained attention.
We all do yoga and talk about our orgasms. That's feminism.
I assume you're not married.
No, not married.
And no children?
I am a spinster aunt, I have two nephews.
Are you close to them?
No. They're young and I don't find young children interesting. Which is a terrible thing to say! But I told their mother, when they hit 13, 15, send them to me in Europe, I'll take care of it.
How wonderful! That'll be like Charley's Aunt and all those old films. You'll be their Auntie Mame! That kind of happened to me, on a mild level. I never went to visit my nieces, maybe once every five years. The suburban culture they lived in made me uneasy. As children grow up, and even those who aren't close to them, if they're useful to their identity they absorb some of it. One of my nieces sort of started to become like me, alienated like me. As a young adult, I started to hear from her more and more. That was my strongest effect on her, growing up. We're still close.
What did you learn from your spinster aunt?
My spinster aunt was protective and I was a kind of sissy. She was the one I would run to for comfort. My mother was deeply involved in politics and community work, and I adored her but she wasn't home a lot. My parents had a feminist marriage. My father was a lawyer, and my mother would leave after many meals and my father would do the dishes and put them all away so she could go to a meeting. She was always coming home later from a meeting than she said she would, which gave me great anxiety. It was always my aunt who comforted me. My aunt was so ridiculously sweet that I remember I identified her with Melanie from Gone with the Wind. She was someone who never criticized anyone, who never had an argument with anyone. I idealized her, as almost a madonna figure. Someone who at their core was generous, sweet, and you could run to in any circumstance.
But what happened was all the sisters lived to be real old, one of them lived to over 100, my mother lived to 98, and my favorite aunt lived to 93. When she was dying, my mother would forbid me to spend more than a few minutes with my aunt. She was getting decrepit. Essentially my aunt died, almost alone. There were visits almost daily from my mother and her niece, but I was never able to give her back what she gave me. I still feel guilty about it.
She wasn't a clever or witty person, she was an infinitely kind person. I know that's not fascinating.
May 6, 2014
Image: Sleeping Juno by Karl Bryullov
Marriage is problematic. That is not a controversial statement to make. Its long history is mostly a history of oppression and treating women like they are property. It was a business deal and a way to manage money and inheritance, and it was not a decision made by the participants, it was a contract arranged by the parents. Only in the last 150 years or so has marriage had anything to do with love and passion, and yet redefining a marriage as an emotional bond rather than a legal one has not fundamentally changed its nature. The rules remain the same (if you give me your sexual fidelity I will give you access to my bank account), the legal arrangement remains the same, and the institution drags its ugly history behind it like a diseased tail.
My first thought when reading Bruce Benderson's chapbook Against Marriage was, FINALLY. Finally someone is clearly and passionately attacking this arrangement, from an historical, political, and philosophical angle, as a gay rights activist and a feminist. Because marriage, despite looking for a while like it might be tossed aside to let in new ways of arranging families, participating in romance, raising children, has actually gained power in the last few decades. The pressure to marry is enormous, especially for women. And then the whole self-help culture wants to make sure your relationship is arranged exactly like everyone else's -- any deviation (polyamory, triangles, communal living, even long distance relationships) are seen as expressions of childhood trauma or low self esteem or some other form of madness.
(I am in a long distance relationship, it is wonderful. But when I tell someone that for the first time, 80% respond with either "You know he's probably fucking other women, right?" or "God, that sounds miserable." It's amazing the horrible things people will say to you when you do something differently than they do it. See also.)
I've been writing and thinking a lot about spinsters lately, including this recent essay. So I wanted to talk to Benderson about why he's against marriage, what the response to his book has been, and what the alternatives are. And also: how great are spinsters? Spinsters are great. The first part of our conversation is below, another installment will run tomorrow.
I was reading about this book I was really interested in, about a woman who spent a decade or whatever being single, without being in a relationship. And she wrote this book for women, as a counter to all of this pressure women receive from the culture, that we must be in relationships, we must get married. But then I saw in her bio that she was married now, and I lost all interest in it. The goal is still marriage, no matter what.
Bruce Benderson: You should have seen that in my generation. If you weren't married with two kids by 28 you were a major failure. You're an old maid already! Everyone got married between 18 and 22 when I was growing up.
But shouldn't that experience radicalize you? I guess it can go either way, radicalize you so that you understand that this institution of marriage and the pressure to get into it is a bullshit construct, or it can make you desperate to get yourself locked away into a marriage.
That's the traditional attitude. I had an aunt who was the only sister who wasn't married. She was just one of my favorite relatives. I really loved her. It was like, she was always extra baggage. This summer, who's going to take her? Is she going to sleep on our fold-out couch or your fold-out couch? Not grudgingly, but it was like, if the building was burning I would be saved before her. She came last. Oh, we forgot about Aunt Lil!
It always bothered me, because I thought she had so much value. Then she got married at 47 and suddenly she had an identity and a household and someone to appear at things with. I don't think it would have ever occurred to her that there was any other option.
The spinster aunt is a great literary figure, but a great person to have in your life, I think.
I think so, too. Especially if you're different.
Actually, that brings up an idea I had. I'm like a big film nut. For years I've been thinking of writing a book called Old Dames. Before World War II, in 80% of films there were major grandmother and maiden aunt characters. The films were not centered around the person, they were asexual, obviously. It would have taken hours to get the corset off. But they were the wisest, quite often. They were the ones who would give the heroine advice, or they were the ones who would remain calm in a crisis.
What happened to that character? Shouldn't feminism have made that character more interesting rather than making her disappear? Now it's Jane Fonda, who can still compete for her son with his wife. That's what happened. All of that wisdom and step back from society so that you can value it disappeared from film. I have some very evil ideas about why that happened.
I would love to read that book. When I was reading Against Marriage, I kept thinking about feminism. You wrote about how the gay movement stopped thinking about anything other than marriage equality, every thing else was a distraction, I kept thinking about feminism.
Oh me too.
How did that happen with feminism? Instead of dismantling marriage, all the feminists got married. Oh, but it's different now! Except, it's the same.
Isn't it amazing they both went in a conservative direction? Feminists said, "Now we can be the evil people who oppress others, we can be lawyers and judges and bankers." Instead of saying, how do we convince men to become softer, all the women just became harder. It really bothered me.
What bothers me horribly, I just had the misfortune of writing a blog for the Huffington Post, and there are over a hundred comments saying I betrayed the gay movement and I am a dangerous presence. Their arguments over and over again are the same thing: Although I don't think that marriage is a good institution and it has a checkered past, it will immediately get us rights. Suppose the Tea Party said, "We are going to stay exactly the same, but we're going to give you full gay rights, would you please all join the Tea Party?" Does that mean they would? I think they would!
It's so out of the culture, out of the conversation, the idea that there is another way to live, other than marriage. I was trying to think, after I read your book, who else had written about this? All I could think of was the Laura Kipnis book, Against Love. That was it as far as a political view about this institution. It's not that marriage is still around, it's that marriage has gained power in the last couple decades.
I know! It's reversing, and gays are helping. I can't predict what's going to happen, but I'm glad I'm not going to be around that many decades to see it.
Why do you think it's so far out of the conversation at this point?
I'm not sure. I'm absolutely amazed by it. What they all said in response to my article was that it was the quickest, easiest way to guarantee equal rights. When I asked, what about domestic partnership? Their answer was, separate but equal has never worked. And I said, but maybe it would be one more standard, if people chose domestic partnership and refused to get married.
In France, at a certain point, more straights were going for domestic partnership than marriage, and they were far ahead of gays for domestic partnership. 90% of applications for domestic partnership were heterosexual. And still, half the population today are not married. All these well known politicians are having children out of wedlock. So what's the problem?
I live in Germany, and it's the same thing, no one gets married anymore. And the politicians realized, oh, it doesn't matter, it's not a crisis, we don't need to try to encourage marriage, it's fine.
All they needed to do is provide inheritance rights and the rights to visit the dying and take responsibility for estates and all of these rights that are protected by marriage. And then it could have been done in a much more objective way without all of these horrible associations. I believe that the symbolic is more powerful than the factual. The minute you participate in something that has a certain historical meaning, you're not going to be strong enough not to be affected by that meaning. Symbol is insidious. It affects your subconscious.
May 5, 2014
Image by Vali Myers
I am in Prague, eating dumplings and reading Graham Greene. That is an obvious sentence because, what else would one be doing in Prague and also, one should always be reading Graham Greene, so. I am aware, though, that I am in Prague 19 years too late for that to be interesting.
(Not only do the wonderful people at Deutsche Bahn get you to and from places in Europe cleanly and efficiently, their staff includes people who will sit next to you on the bus and tell you things about the Kingdom of Bohemia, which is pretty special.)
While I'm here, Bookslut is brand new, and it's a pretty great issue. We have a piece on the artist Vali Myers, alongside a call for a radical wing of feminism, by Valerie Solanas's biographer Breanne Fahs:
Something has to radicalize you; something has to push you toward that as a political solution or identity. Valerie Solanas didn't want to be a feminist, I think, because the early feminist movement was plagued with liberal sentiments and ideologies. Early NOW did not want to deal with 'the personal is political' (a phrase which came later in relationship to radical feminism) and issues of sex, marriage, the money system, and so on; they wanted to petition and lobby and make incremental change. They were liberals, and Valerie despised liberalism. As Valerie wrote, 'If SCUM ever marches, it will be over the President's stupid, sickening face; if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade.' We can read this as literal, or as a sort of mentality, a position from which she is arguing that we can't just preserve the status quo by asking for 'equality'; we have to destroy the foundations of inequality. There's a difference, and it's something we as feminists today still don't deal well with. We are very interested in what I call 'PR feminism,' a sanitized, nice, friendly, happy version of feminism that relies upon assimilation, liberalism, and openness. Valerie called it a 'civil disobedience lunch club.' While I do believe that principles of connection, friendship, and even love have a place in the feminist movement, I also believe that radical social change requires us to question everything, down to the level of how and why we connect with others, how we understand the category 'women' at all, how we imagine a place for outrageousness.
And as the Daphne Award deliberations continue, The Forgotten Twentieth Century column talks to itself about The Sailor Who Fell with Grace from the Sea. (I'd be most likely to be found under the "Skeptic" half of that conversation.)
As always, there's lots more.
May 2, 2014
In this month’s issue of Bookslut, Mary Mann writes about the diaries of Alice Dunbar-Nelson and the value, both personal and political, of keeping a diary. Mann notes that Dunbar-Nelson, as well as her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin, “all set aside precious time to write about themselves, for themselves -- a bold declaration of self-value in an era when society's value of women was effectively nil.”
For further reading on the art of writing about one’s self, here are some reflections on autobiography:
“For the woman autobiographer the major question becomes how to see one's life whole when one has been taught to see it as expressed through family and bonds with others. How can she convey its authenticity when linguistic convention subsumes the female within the male? How can she construct the life history of someone other than a sex object whose story ends when soundly mated?”
-- Jill Ker Conway, “Memory’s Plots” | The New York Times
Jill Ker Conway provides a brief background of women’s autobiography in the West and writes about the genre’s appeal to readers, as well as its challenges, in the first chapter of When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography.
“Which has the greater claim to liveliness, reality, truth? The ‘disorderly’ narrative or the ‘highly toned artificial’ one? Are the well-wrought and the truthful opposites, or can they be allies? And is apparent disorderliness (the escape from others’ narratives into one’s own unnarratable truth) as politically or personally liberatory as it claims to be?”
-- Emily Cooke, “The Semiautobiographers” | The New Inquiry
Emily Cooke’s fantastic essay on the “new semiautobiographers” (who include Dodie Bellamy, Kate Zambreno, Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti, and in certain ways, Alison Bechdel) poses an array of thought-provoking questions on what qualifies as “bad” writing, the limitations of conventional narrative form, and the relationship between truth and self-reflection, among other topics.
“Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader.”
-- Janet Malcolm, “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography” | The New York Review of Books
Janet Malcolm writes on the difficulties of reconciling journalistic writing (which makes one wary of using the first person and distrustful of memory as a source) with autobiographical writing, as a journalist attempting to write an autobiography.