My Paris

My Paris (Lannan Selection)

I lingered long over the 140 pages of Gail Scott’s tremendous My Paris, sipping sections cautiously, trying not to wind up anywhere near the end. Alas, all books must end, and the book that accompanied me throughout the month is appropriately finished on the last day of April. It’s a book you have to be open to, to prepare your mind for by turning over some of the peaty ground, accepting the stretching that comes from the deliberately provocative style. Chopping sentences into fragments, present participling her way through the book. Causing you to be more aware, making you present. I’m trying to resist, but must insert the words: experimental, avant guarde. Any book that causes you to look up the difference between present participles and gerunds deserves a gold star in my book (verbs vs. nouns, for the curious). Scott says her technique is more “in between. They’re an attempt at moving backwards and forward at the same time in the sentence.”

This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that got me off my ass and produced pages of writing, using as an exercise her technique. Inspirational how things look from this different perspective.
So what’s it all about? The narrator is a Québécois who’s scored a “leisure lottery studio” in Paris for a few months to write. She retreats to bed reading Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, gives updates about the building concierge, obsessively watches the display windows across the street, notes the worker demonstrations below her window, and sprinkles in weather reports from Bosnia where the war rages on. She meets up with friends, jumps into bed with ladies, comments on the terrible treatment of immigrants from “the south” (Africa) while nervous about her own lack of visa. Circling around, becoming a flâneur (“maybe already less a traveller. Than a sort of flâneur (of interior!) Though Benjamin saying flâneur already hawking observations. Like simple journalist. By time of Baudelaire.” p10), coming back to the same themes consistently, even little themes like wanting to ask “C” if her mother would be jealous. Balzac’s Girl with Golden Eyes. Trying to sell a book on murdered women wanderers.

Dealing with the reality of Paris vs. the Paris she was expecting. “But. Loving this state of absolute unfeeling. Putting ‘one’ in total posture of receptivity. Why shouldn’t the flâneur be stoned.” (p 34). Quoting Rilke: This is what I want: to float on the waves/ Unattached to time then “38. It occurring to me — state of feeling-less. Precursive to state of floating. Possibly problematic. Because in hovering/observing. ‘One’ passively absorbing little external details. Arbitrarily pre-selected. By Paris ‘one’ expecting.”

“So much formal public space. Seeming impossible. Under late capitalism.” (p 10). “Chic small boutiques. Suffering capital’s latest conspiracy. Globalization.” (p 16) In conversation with S: “Art Equals Commerce. Plus que jamais, more than ever… I saying nothing. If art equals commerce. There is no artist.” (p 16)

Some similarities to SF:
“She and I pointedly bemoaning. Quantities of tourists. For benefit of houseguest. One hundred thousand daily. Television saying. Germans. Brightly dressed Scandinavians.” (p 36)

“To charm requiring anecdotes.” (p 16)

“6. The marvelous is to be had. I thinking at 5:30a. Looking out a window. Pale blue sky beyond anarchy of chimney pots. You just have to pierce the smugness of the surface.” p 10.

63. Waking. Happy. Thinking relationship to Paris. Now one of vague familiarity. Albeit people complaining letters not describing streets. As they used to. Clothes. Facades. In every little detail. I being increasingly caught up. In rhythm of trajectory. As if sentences. Like steps. Driven not by predicates. But by gerund. Or back-and-forth gesture. Possibly befitting subject. With foreign queen on dollars. E.g. walking down Saint-Germain. Thinking marvelous surely to be had. Simultaneously fearing 19th-century buildings. Over shoulder. About to dissolve into dust. (p 70)

After C argues with film critic about misogynous movie:
“Under glass canopy of metro she blurting. Homos worse than heteros these days. Meaning critic. I saying nothing. Wanting to stay afloat. To stay out of categories. Moving back and forth. Across comma of difference. A gerund. Or gesture.” (p 91)

Continually nervous about lack of visa, she sees on TV that there was a police raid at the metro she was just near, 350 checked for papers and 16 arrested. “Though I likely safe with DUNQUERQUE entry stamp. Unless nervous tic of physiognomy. Giving away. The trick being with dealing with cops. Or any authority. Hiding all capacity for disobedience. By keeping eyes empty.” (p 93)

On cover Fifteen Leading Intellectuals. Derrida. Lyotard. Deleuze. Etc. All worriedly reflecting on growing entrenchment of Right. Which Right they having spent lives striving to philosophically defeat. By en principe displacing. Deferring. Huge Western I. Casting unecological shadow. Over earth. Malheureusement issue not including Kristeva. Weil. Arendt. Irigary. Buci-Glucksmann. Collin. Witig. Nor any other woman. (p 105)

Projecting: 19th century subject. Waking post-Commune. Doubting reliability of species. Which doubt fostering “modern” psychiatric ward. Wherein master himself pacing. Narrating someone else’s dreams. They being someone else’s: impossible to pin down. Resultant shock. To ordered 19th-century mind. Ultimately spawning surrealism.
And “one” walking there near cusp of 21st. Mid countless objects representing point of convergence. Between 19th and 20th. Feeling certain — with hindsight — of genius. It being task of museum to make “one” feel lucid. Grizzled feast having been laid out for “one’s” unique consumption. Each item. Tagged with orchestrated (unconscious) association. By aura-conjuring hand of curator. Therefore — racing towards Champ-Elysees. In dark. (Days being extremely short now.) Feeling certain marvellous to be had. (p 109)

She leaves, flies home to Québec, overhears young architects talking about career opportunities post-war zone. Bosnia again. The final section of the book is cordoned off as “Le Sexe de l’art”, 5 additional pages perhaps of journal wherein she returns to Paris a few years later. Lots of dashes — and strikethrough orgasms. Not a fan of this last add-on section and still scratching my head over its inclusion. What does it amplify or provide? Is it there just for us to see her further confidence? — Drifting — Sauntering — Mist — Drifting — Drifting.
****
Discovered via Zambreno’s Green Girl where she quotes “Why shouldn’t the flâneur be stoned.”

Save Me The Waltz

I’m reluctant to list Zelda’s last name as Fitzgerald, that albatross seeming to have stifled most of her creative ambitions in later life, if not the name itself then the incessant meddling of hubby F Scott. And then posthumously, no one seems able to read this book without referring to him, as if she has contributed nothing. I’m due for a re-read of Heroines, wherein Zambreno diatribes rightfully about this. The preface to my 1932 edition contains some nauseating “thoughts” by Harry T. Moore, a forgotten and sad man: “She had at least a surface ability to write, as she had at least a surface ability to paint and dance in ballet… Hemingway saw that in this family the wife continually interfered with her husband’s work because she was jealous of it… Fitzgerald went through the manuscript and hanged some of the passages that dealt intimately with his marriage…” Moore goes on for several paragraphs detailing FSF’s life after ZF’s death, then “Of course Fitzgerald (FSF) was a great artist…Obviously [this book] is not at this height of achievement… it is a revealing portrait of a woman.”
The story was a bit difficult to get into, the luscious overwrought adjective-laden sentences choking my interest for awhile. Alabama is the third daughter of a Southern Judge, the early pages going into her shenanigans and eagerness to depart for grander lands. She marries David, who becomes a renowned artist, they live in New York. After her parents visit them up north for the last time, Alabama says “it’s very difficult to be two simple people at once, one who wants to have a law to itself and the other who wants to keep all the nice old things and be loved and safe and protected.” David agrees that people have discovered this already, “I suppose all we can really share with people is a taste for the same kinds of weather.”
They depart for Europe, daughter Bonnie in tow. On the boat, Alabama hums a song and is asked, “Are you artistic?” “No.” “But you were singing.” “Because I am happy to find that I am a very self-sufficient person.” “Oh, but are you? How narcissistic!” Once they get to Europe, they bounce about, ending up in the Riviera. One of the men they meet falls in love with Alabama, flees after giving her a letter she can’t read (in French). Then they were on their way to Paris, you can see hints of what remained from Zelda eviscerating FSF:

They hadn’t much faith in travel nor a great belief in a change of scene as a panacea for spiritual ills; they were simply glad to be going. And Bonnie was glad. Children are always glad of something new, not realizing that there is everything in anything if the thing is complete in itself. Summer and love and beauty are much the same in Cannes or Connecticut. David was older than Alabama; he hadn’t really felt glad since his first success.

Once in Paris: “Nobody knew whose party it was. It had been going on for weeks. When you felt you couldn’t survive another night, you went home and slept and when you got back, a new set of people had consecrated themselves to keeping it alive.” David begins to work in his studio on the Left Bank, “the frescoes were finished: this was a new, more personal David on exhibit. You heard his name in bank lobbies and in the Ritz Bar…” David begins to flirt with an actress (Gabrielle), “‘I imagine you wear something startling and boyish underneath your clothes… BVDs or something.’ Resentment flared in Alabama. He’d stolen the idea from her. She’d worn silk BVD’s herself all last summer.” After he has an affair with her, Alabama resolves to try dance. That’s when things get extremely lyrical and good in the writing.
Alabama begins to take lessons with Madame, the Russian ballet teacher, tearing her muscles and limbs, working hard at the bar, her lessons were agony:

At the end of a month, Alabama could hold herself erect in ballet position her weight controlled over the balls of her feet, holding the curve of her spine drawn tight together like the reins of a race horse and mashing down her shoulders till they felt as if they were pressed flat against her hips. The time moved by in spasmodic jumps like a school clock. David was glad of her absorption at the studio. It made them less inclined to use up their leisure on parties. Alabama’s leisure was a creaky muscle-sore affair and better spent at home. David could work more freely when she was occupied and making fewer demands on his time.
At night she sat in the window too tired to move, consumed by a longing to succeed as a dancer. It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her – that, in proving herself, she would achieve that peace which she imagined went only in surety of one’s self – that she would be able, through the medium of the dance, to command her emotions, to summon love or pity or happiness at will, having provided a channel through which they might flow. She drove herself mercilessly, and the summer dragged on.

David soon changes his mind about liking her consumed with the dance:

David drank with the crowds of people in the Ritz Bar celebrating the emptiness of the city together.
“Why will you never come out with me?” he said.
“Because I can’t work the next day if I do.”
“Are you under the illusion that you’ll ever be any good at that stuff?”
{David convinces her to fly around that day, drinks a lot, and tries to convince her to go out with him once they return to Paris}
“David, I can’t honestly. I get so sick when I drink. I’ll have to have morphine if I do, like last time.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to the studio.”
“Yet you can’t stay with me! What’s the use of having a wife? If a woman’s only to sleep with there are plenty available for that –”
“What’s the use of having a husband or anything else? You suddenly find you have them all the same, and there you are.”

Alabama works so hard, she receives an invitation for a solo debut in Naples. She turns it down, David doesn’t think it was much at all. But yet, when “she thought about giving up her work she grew sick and middle-aged. The miles and miles of pas de bourree must have dug a path inevitably to somewhere.” She decides to take the Naples invitation after all. She boards the train. “The carriage smelled like the inside of a small boy’s pocket.” She works and works and gets an infection from the glue in the box of her toe shoes, ends up in the hospital for weeks, blood poison. She survives surgery, but will never dance again, only able to walk with a slight limp. David says, “Try not to mind.”
They head back the US to tend to Alabama’s dying father. Alabama asks him for some last minute philosophy before he goes, “I thought you could tell me if our bodies are given to us as counterirritants to the soul. I thought you’d know why when our bodies ought to bring surcease from our tortured minds, they fail and collapse; and why, when we are tormented in our bodies, does our soul desert us as a refuge.” Her father asks her to ask him something easy. The Judge dies, the mother is packed away into a smaller house, David & Alabama have a final party before they head north. The two of them sit in the living room as the party has died away, in the late afternoon gloom.

Ice

In the secret, underground world of good literature no one knows about, Anna Kavan lurks (see Who Are You?). Ice is just as weird as Who Are You?, but there’s a more palpable sense of despair, sinister hinting at the end of the world. The narrator is a man we first encounter on the road, searching for the girl, “I myself did not understand my compulsion to see this girl, who had been in my thoughts all the time I was away, although she was not the reason for my return. I had come back to investigate rumors of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world.” The impending emergency is hinted at in the first paragraph, as he’s refueling the car, when the attendant mentions the area is in for a “real bad freeze-up.” We learn that the narrator had intended to marry the girl at one time, had patiently waited for her to trust him, and then she deserted him for her current husband, the couple he was speeding through the dark to reach at invitation of the husband. The descriptions of the girl swirl around her silver-white sparkling hair, her thinness, brittleness, a “glass girl,” transparent.
Already in the fourth paragraph, we’re being told what to expect from the narrator: “Reality had always been something of an unknown quality to me. At times this could be disturbing.” So we shouldn’t be surprised when he hallucinates seeing her dead white body among the snow as he’s hurrying toward their house. He drops in, discovers that their relationship has deteriorated, leaves her with her abusive husband. Chapter 2, she’s left the husband, disappeared. Narrator feels compelled to find her, drops all his own business to search for her. “Nothing else mattered.” As the story continues, the settings become colder and colder, the insatiable ice marches on. He discovers her living as a prisoner/companion to the warden who controls everything in town from the High House, the man with piercing & hypnotic blue eyes. Narrator appears to witness her rape, although at this point perhaps the narrator & the warden are the same person?
War breaks out, countries realizing it’s the end times and making their final power plays. Narrator spots silver-haired girl running through the forest and then dead, but of course she’s not really dead. “I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing.” Narrator tries to rescue the girl, she flees with the warden instead, ramming their car at top speed through the barrier at the border. It’s futile, the ice chases everyone, the warden/girl roam through battlegrounds where the warden is an important figure. Narrator helps broadcast from a transmitter on the enemy side, defects to warden’s side when he’s tired of things working so smoothly. He eventually gets the girl to safety, warmth, but even there he detects a chill in the air, tropical plants not doing so well, citizens curiously reluctant to admit that it’s colder than normal. When glass girl continues to reject him, he leaves, just as she suspected he always would. Narrator winds up a mercenary fighter, then decides he wants a more important role so goes to see the warden. When questioned about the glass girl’s whereabouts, the narrator faces insults from the warden, who decides that he will go and take her. This piques the narrator’s interest in the girl again, and he steals a car, goes to rescue her. The ice is barreling down on them the whole time, the last scene they’re warm in the car in a futile escape attempt, narrator reassured by the weight of the gun in his pocket.
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Bothered by the dust jacket’s proclamation that “Anna Kavan’s books have established her reputation as one of the most talented and original contemporary writers-comparable in stature to Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin and Djuna Barnes.” Ah, so writers who are women must be compared to other writers who are women. I’d say she’s fair competition to Ian McEwan’s creepiness, as lyrical as Rilke, and as capable of crazy as anyone.

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy

Well-researched book that presents the story of the brothers Tsarnaev in the context of their upbringing in Chechnya, Dagestan, Kyrgyzstan, then debunks the American dream myth of immigration. Gessen spends a lot of time talking to people who knew the family, mother Zubeidat the go-getter who raises perfect children (until they get to the US), father Anzor working at various jobs to support the family. Backstory I never knew about Stalin’s forced exile of the Chechnyans to Kyrgyzstan which annihilated many of the ethnic group as they were packed into trains and led away much like the Nazi solution for Jews only a few years prior. Only the world never heard about this purging, behind the Iron Curtain. As the USSR fell apart in the 1990s, Chechnya was the only republic/region to claim independence out of the 89 individual pieces. Naturally this would not do, so Russians blockaded Chechnya then dropped bombs from unmarked planes and amassed troops at the border (1994). This is when the Tsarnaevs fled to the US.
The book humanizes Tamerlan and Jahar by coloring in details that don’t fit in with our normal idea of someone who would have explosives tear up the Boston Marathon. Gessen continually points out research that says people capable of these actions can act quite normal, having parsed their experience of life onto two different tracks. She refers to this splitting again when talking about Jahar’s friends not believing that it was him on television, although they clearly could see that the photo was of him. We try to dissuade ourselves of that which seems impossible.
Gessen also tackles the issue of Ibragim Todashev’s mysterious death at the hands of the FBI/police, and even raises serious issues that could point to FBI-involvement in the actual bombing itself, trying to test the limits of imposing martial law in the US. Other holes in the FBI story: owner of hijacked SUV made contradictory statements about timing and sequence of events, police accounts of the chase call for incredible feats “cars turning around on a dime on narrow streets, individual cops being in three places at once, or on what appear to be thirty-six hour shifts, or both-and the explosive device that was supposedly thrown by one of the brothers in the middle of a tiny residential street harmed no one and damaged nothing.” Not to mention the fact that the FBI has a recent pattern of hatching plots (see Newburgh Four), also poor reputation (see Whitey Bulger and other drug-related crimes). More coincidence – 3 months after the Waltham triple murder (supposedly committed by Todashev) another person killed in same barbaric manner – 60 year old Gail Miles killed in Roxbury on Dec 3, 2011, a former police officer who made history becoming the first black woman on the force and then made history again 16 years later suing the department for racial and gender discrimination. “One of the men she accused of harrassment was Jeff Pugliese, the officer who would later engage Tamerlan in the one-on-one firefight on Laurel Street in Watertown. No one was ever charged in her murder, and the crime itself has not surfaced significantly in the Boston media since the initial few days of coverage – highly unusual lack of profile for the killing of a former police officer.”

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, both law enforcement and the American press corps focused their efforts on finding out who radicalized Tamerlan or both of the Tsarnaev brothers, and when and where. The possibility that their actions were driven by simple ideas acquired without any concerted outside help, that, as Gadzhiev said, Tamerlan “simply objected to U.S. foreign policy” like hundreds of thousands of other people, but unlike the overwhelming majority of them, decided to use a bomb to express his opposition-this terrifyingly simple idea was never on the table.

Girl In a Band

Terrible book. Sad that she considers writing is a talent she should display in addition to the other artistic feats she’s accomplished. Put off by the obsession with weaving her own tale with that of the males in her life – hubby Thurston, brother Keller, Mike Kelly, Kurt Cobain, and the thousands of other males that propped up her life somehow. There are straggling bits where she grasps at her female identity – mentioning reading Julia Kristeva but then immediately discounting it, saying who has time to read as a new-mother. Thoroughly soaked and saturated with woe-is-me-I’ve-divorced-my-soul-mate-husband-for-cheating-on-me. Cannot fathom the memoir coming from hubby Thurston as being nearly as obsessed with her as she is him. Painful reminder that although some women appear to have been awakened, it is only a surface wound. “I wanted to be an artist since I was five” she cringes when someone else says that exact thing because it’s “her line.” But the “I find it strange when people don’t know what they want to do in life” screams out for a thousand slaps of reality to come raining in on her. Like vapid books with lots of name-dropping? This one’s for you.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing

The title will scare off most folks unconcerned with unraveling the knotty question of why so few “great” writers who are women. This is yet another book begetting recommendations for other reading, my list staggeringly long at this point. Not being a sci-fi fan, I disliked the rambling prologue wherein Russ blathering sci-fi speak defining GLOTOLOG as an intergalactic word meaning information control without direct censorship. First up- prohibitions: poverty, lack of leisure, caring for family and home, lack of time, discouragement (“general discouragement of female learning still prevalent”, “discouragement takes less obvious forms”), open advice that women cannot / should not be artists, cultural messaging (the example of the 12 year old kid who loved Jean Rhys’ books but declared that she “never read books about women”, already having learned that women are not people). Then denying that women, after surmounting those obstacles, actually created the item in question (V Woolf accused of hiring male scholar to write her works, reviewers assuming a brother/sister wrote Jane Eyre, Mary Shelley simply being a receptacle for Frankenstein “provided a passive reflection of some of the wild fantasies which were living in the air around her.”) And if agreed that yes a woman wrote it, then complementing the masculine part of her which produced it (complements about writing like a man). Then questioning her right to have made it, critics of Jane Eyre “bluntly admitted that they thought the book was a masterpiece if written by a man, shocking or disgusting if written by a woman.” This pollution of agency has shifted – women can “talk dirty” and be sexually/economically dishonest in a way that’s acceptably cute, marked as “confessional” – where male accounts of intense, autobiographical experience are not categorized as such (Rousseau, St. Augustine, John Donne), but female art is labeled as such. Sylvia Plath? Confessional. Allen Ginsberg? Not.
The idea of “unloveableness” begins early – 1753 letter from Lady Montagu warning that her granddaughter must “conceal whatever learning she attains with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness since men have engrossed fame to themselves.” Russ quotes Mary Ellman’s Thinking About Women noting the change in tone in written opinion about the inferiority of women – “from serious lecturing to automatic contempt via feminine stereotypes, from hostility directed at the ‘wrong’ kind of women (childless or improper) to hostility directed at all women.” There’s the double standard that some women try to avoid with male pseudonyms (too many examples), the erasure through anthologies and classroom syllabi, it goes on and on. We must discover anew the writers that had been discovered by previous generations. Luckily, through efforts since the 1970s, books like Villette are back in print. Overall this is a good resource, but a bit meandering and lacks structure.

Silences

041815_tillieSilences
I was foolish to think I could read this book curled in an armchair instead of at a desk with laptop nearby. Sitting comfortably in my chair, I scribbled notes of the names of writers I hadn’t heard of and then decided to create a labor of love and list all the women writers referenced in the book (199 by my perhaps flawed count). For this, I needed laptop close by, so it was read, add to spreadsheet, then back to reading. Disjointed, yes, but so is the work itself. Its structure is centered around a 1962 talk, Silences in Literature, the topic taken up again in a 1971 talk, One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century. The bulk of Part 1 is then devoted to a deep dive into the life and writing of Rebecca Harding Davis, the completely ignored writer whose work has been revived with the help of Olsen. Part 2 encircles Part 1 by bolstering the argument with supporting quotations from varied writers. Part 3 is a mishmash of excerpts from Rebecca Harding Davis, Baudelaire, and an essay on the creative potential wasted by first generation who must struggle.
The silences explored are not just those of women– she begins with examples from Rimbaud, Melville, Thomas Hardy. Melville’s Pierre is filled with the agony of having to struggle to make a living as a writer. In the end, Melville gives it up and stops writing for 30 years until he retires from the custom house. “The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, – that, I fear, can seldom be mine” and “… most of the great works of humanity, their authors had given not weeks and months, not years and years but their wholly surrendered and dedicated lives.” Kafka’s struggle to make ends meet is documented in a few diary passages. Henry James: “The terrible law of the artist, the law of fructification, of fertilization. The old, old lesson of the art of meditation. To woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation.”
Going into the question of why so few published women writers (amazing, after dissecting the social causes, constraints, restrictions, devaluing, that there are any at all), of course the question of children arises. H.H. Richardson asked why she doesn’t have kids, “There are enough women to do the childbearing and childrearing. I know of none who can write my books.” But beyond that, how much it takes to become a writer:

Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft- but what beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.
The leeching of belief, of will, the damaging of capacity begin so early. Sparse indeed is the literature on the way of denial to small girl children of the development of their endowment as born human: active, vigorous bodies; exercise of the power to do, to make, to investigate, to invent, to conquer obstacles, to resist violations of the self; to think create, choose; to attain community, confidence in self. Little has been written on the harms of instilling constant concern with appearance; the need to please, to support; the training in acceptance, deferring… But it is there if one knows how to read for it, and indelibly there in the resulting damage. One–out of twelve.

What else causes silences? Those virulent destroyers of capacity: alcoholism, drugs, suicide. A beautiful/frightening quote from Antonin Artaud:

I am suffering from a frightful malady of the mind… a kind of erosion. My thoughts evade me in every way possible. There is something that is destroying my thinking, something that does not prevent me from being what I might be, but which leaves me in abeyance; a something furtive which takes away the words I have found, which step by step destroys in its substance my thinking as it evolves, which diminishes my intensity, which takes away from me even the memory of the devices and figures of speech by which one expresses oneself. What will restore me to the concentration of my forces, the cohesion that my mind lacks, the constancy of its tension, the consistency of its own substance?

Not to slog on continually is not to progress. Constant toil is the law of art, as it is of life (Balzac, yes I changed the pronouns):

If an artist does not spring to her work as a soldier to the breach, if once within the crater she does not labor as a miner buried in the earth, if she contemplates her difficulties instead of conquering them one by one, the work remains unachieved, production becomes impossible, and the artist assists the suicide of her own talent… The solution of the problem can be found only through incessant and sustained work… true artists, true poets, generate and give birth today, tomorrow, ever. From this habit of labor results a ceaseless comprehension of difficulties which keep them in communion with the muse and its creative forces.

The point that Plath’s Bell Jar is a portrait of the artist as young woman and one of the few that we have. We are exhorted to “read, listen to, living women writers; our new as well as our established, often neglected ones. Not to have an audience is a kind of death.”
This book is not without a few great new vocab words. Olsen cattily gives us one when dissecting a review of Harding Davis’ book by the Nation:

The Nation goes on to say: …”The intention has always been good, but the execution has, to our mind, always been monstrous. She drenches the whole field beforehand with a floor of lachrymose sentimentalism, and riots in the murky vapors which rise… It is enough to make one foreswear for ever all decent reflection and honest compassion, and take refuge in cynical jollity and elegant pococurantism.”
Pococurantism. I looked it up. It means caring little, being indifferent, nonchalant.

Discovered that Olive Schreiner’s 1883 From Man To Man included the unnoted predecessor to Woolf’s Shakespeare sister in Room of One’s Own, “what has humanity not lost by suppression and subjection? We have a Shakespeare; but what of the possible Shakespeares we might have had… stifled out without one line written, simply because being of the weaker sex, life gave no room for action and grasp on life?”
Also learned about the 1974 National Book Awards where badass Adrienne Rich won, yet “refused the terms of patriarchal competition,” rejecting the award as an individual, but accepting it in the name of all women in a statement written with Audre Lord and Alice Walker. And my to-read list grows ever longer.

Continue reading “Silences”

Prisons We Choose To Live Inside

A slim collection of five essays by the brilliant Lessing that all circle around the topic of how to harness the knowledge we’ve gained about ourselves to move society toward being less brutish. Despite dropping lines like “This is a time when it is frightening to be alive, when it is hard to think of human beings as rational creatures…” on us, Lessing ends on a positive note, she has hope for us and our reform capabilities. There are “equally strong forces on the other side, the forces of reason, sanity and civilization.” In When In the Future They Look Back On Us, she claims that we know more about ourselves now than in the past but we haven’t done much with that knowledge. We’re still struggling with the ability to look at ourselves objectively. We’ve got to strengthen the “other eye” which we can use to judge ourselves, and recognize that whatever today’s fad opinion is will be reversed in due time (e.g. attitudes towards Communism). She also brings up the point that whenever war is discussed, no one ever mentions that there’s a lot of people who enjoy the fighting… “it’s sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war – not only the idea of it, but the fighting itself.” She warns that the word “blood” is used by leaders to drive us into a frothy rage, but cautions us to simply be aware of this… “it is not too much to say that when the word ‘blood’ is pronounced, this is a sign that reason is about to depart.”
In You Are Damned, We Are Saved, she reiterates the concept that we’re not applying our newly acquired knowledge: “I believe that people coming after us will marvel that on the one hand we accumulated more and more information about our behavior, while on the other, we made no attempt at all to use it to improve our lives.” For example, groups will always split. Even the self-aware Bolsheviks told each other to learn from the French Revolution and not split violently over points of doctrine before turning on each other (which although they were aware, happened). Lessing points to the roots of our thinking in centuries of Christianity – belief that we need redemption through sacrifice and suffering, people must be purged of their sins. This us vs. them, and getting swept up in the fervor of it, “group lunacy” that all youth goes through, and ends with a hope that youth will end up understanding “how absolutely sane people, in periods of public insanity, can murder, destroy, lie, swear black is white.”
Switching Off to See “Dallas” dives into brainwashing, first come to light in the Korean War when US soldiers confess to all sorts of atrocities they didn’t commit after being brain washed by North Koreans. Lessing is surprised that people refuse to study how governments are using these techniques, “Our opponents have no such inhibitions.” She describes the theatricality of Thatcher’s second election, and Reagan’s success in America, “elected at the box office.” Government by show business… “our new terrifying technologies go hand in hand with new psychological information.” The technologies she’s talking about are TV and movies, “exposing us to brutality of every kind so that we lose our sensitivity to it.” She raises an excellent point about why the world glommed onto the Ethiopia famine but largely ignored the same disaster in Afghanistan.

We are all of us, to some degree or another, brain-washed by the society we live in… There is nothing much we can do about this except to remember that it is so. Every one of us is part of the great comforting illusions, and part illusions, which every society uses to keep up its confidence in itself.

Also in this essay, she mentions a custom in ancient times where kings paid government employees to pretend to be ordinary citizens to check the behavior of officials:

If an official was found to be stupid, or offensive, or bullying, or unjust, then he was removed. No official anywhere could be sure that the person standing in front of him, apparently helpless, was not a government inspector in disguise. And officials correspondingly behaved with more care, and the standard of public service was kept high.
That device for improving administration could only have been employed if the administrations in question were able to look very coolly at themselves, and to diagnose their own condition, and to prescribe for it.
There is nothing to stop us from doing the same.

In Group Minds, Lessing challenges the idea that we hold independent thoughts, bringing up the Milgram experiment (electric shocks administered by instruction), the Stanford prison experiment, and her own experiment trying to publish two books under a pseudonym (Jane Somers) after she’d become well-known (turned down by her two main publishers). The pressure of group needs, group beliefs consume us throughout life. She proposes that we lay our knowledge at the feet of children in schools:

Imagine us saying to children: “In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms; how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances. If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion. It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.”


Laboratories of Social Change
is the final essay along the same lines, beginning “sometimes it is hard to see anything good and hopeful in a world that seems increasingly horrific. To listen to the news is enough to make you think you are living in a lunatic asylum.” But she veers into the positive, pointing out the dictatorships that have become democracies between the sixties and the eighties. She again exhorts us to teach children that history is “a story from which one may learn not only what has happened, but what may, and probably will, happen again.”

Literature and history, these two great branches of human learning, records of human behavior, human thought, are less and less valued by the young, and by educators too. Yet from them one may learn how to be a citizen and a human being. We may learn how to look at ourselves and at the society we live in, in that calm, cool, critical and sceptical way which is the only possible stance for a civilized human being, or so have said all the philosophers and sages.
But all the pressures go the other way, towards learning only what is immediately useful, what is functional. More and more the demand is for people to be educated to function in an almost certainly temporary stage of technology. Educated for the short term.
We have to look at the word “useful” again. In the long run what is useful is what survives, revives, comes to life in different contexts… in the long run I believe that people educated to have a point of view that used to be described as humanistic- the long term, over-all, contemplative point of view- will turn out to be more influential.

She returns to the idea that we must put our faith in individuals:

Looking back, I see what a great influence an individual may have, even an apparently obscure person, living a small, quiet life. It is individuals who change societies, give birth to ideas, who, standing out against tides of opinions, change them… Everything that has ever happened to me has taught me to value the individual, the person who cultivates and preserves her own ways of thinking, who stands out against group thinking, group pressures. Or who, conforming no more than is necessary to group pressures, quietly preserves individual thinking and development.

Our blood: Prophecies and discourses on sexual politics

Another slim novel vibrating with an undercurrent of rage tightly reined in by thoughtful and clear intellectual argument. Dworkin’s second book, this one again a collection of speeches she’d given in the early 1970s. I admit to skimming the last few essays wherein she attempts to equate the female condition to slavery (broad strokes painted by a white girl) and her foray into a dissection of pornography. The other essays are brimming with worthwhile ideas, not to say that the previous essays aren’t worthwhile, but I’m just not in the mood and don’t think it’s a compelling discussion of the slavery question. She quotes the same section from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in a few of the speeches, the one that references Aristotle’s “the female is a female by virtual of a certain lack of qualities.”
From The Sexual Politics of Fear and Courage:

The kinds and categories of mythic male heroes are numerous. A man can be a hero if he climbs a mountain , or plays football, or pilots an airplane. A man can be a hero if he writes a book, or composes a piece of music, or directs a play. A man can be a hero if he is a scientist, or a solider, or a drug addict, or a disc jockey, or a crummy mediocre politician. A man can be a hero because he suffers and despairs; or because he thinks logically and analytically; or because he is “sensitive”; or because he is cruel. Wealth establishes man as a hero, and so does poverty. Virtually any circumstance in a man’s life will make him a hero to some group of people and has a mythic rendering in the culture–in literature, art, theater, or the daily newspapers.
It is precisely this mythic dimension of all male activity which reifies the gender class system so that male supremacy is unchallengeable and unchangeable. Women are never confirmed as heroic or courageous agents because the capacity for courageous action inheres in maleness itself — it is identifiable and affirmable only as a male capacity. Women, remember, are “female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities.” One of the qualities we must lack in order to pass as female is the capacity for courageous action.
This goes right to the core of female invisibility in this culture. No matter what we do, we are not seen. Our acts are not witnessed, not observed, not experienced, not recorded, not affirmed. Our acts have no mythic dimension in male terms simply because we are not men, we do not have phalluses. When men do not see a cock, they do not in fact see anything; they perceive a lack of qualities, an absence.

Every organ of this male supremacist culture embodies the complex and odious system of rewards and punishments which will teach a woman her proper place, her allowable sphere. Family, school, church; books, movies, television; games, songs, toys — all teach a girl to submit and conform long before she becomes a woman… Her arguments with the very definitions of womanhood are internalized so that, in the end, she argues against herself–against the validity of any impulse toward action or assertion; against the validity of any claim to self-respect and dignity; against the validity of any ambition to accomplishment or excellence outside her allowable sphere. She polices and punishes herself; but should this internal value system break down for any reason there is always a psychiatrist, professor, minister, lover, father, or son around to force her back into the feminine flock.
Now, you all know that other women will also act as agents of this mammoth repression… All women are supposed to vilify any peer who deviates from the accepted norm of feminiity, and most do. What is remarkable is not that most do, but that some do not.

From the essay Redefining Nonviolence:

I have never heard of a white male radical ridicule or denigrate a black man for demanding that the Civil Rights Act be passed, or for recognizing the racist values behind any refusal to vote for that act. Yet, many left-wing women have said to me, “I can’t quite figure out the politics of the Equal Rights Amendment.” … Let me tell you about “the politics of the Equal Rights Amendment” — a refusal to pass it is a refusal to recognize women as being sound enough in mind and body to exercise the rights of citizenship; a refusal to pass it condemns women to lives as nonentities before the law; a refusal to pass it is an affirmation of the view that women are inferior to men by virtue of biology, as a condition of birth. Among political people, it is shameful to be a racist or an anti-Semite. No shame attaches to a resolute disregard for the civil rights of women.

Feminism is an exploration, one that has just begun. Women have been taught that, for us, the earth is flat, and that if we venture out, we will fall off the edge. Some of us have ventured out nevertheless, and so far we have not fallen off. It is my faith, my feminist faith, that we will not.
Our exploration has three parts. First, we must discover our past. The road back is obscure, hard to find. We look for signs that tell us: women have lived here. And then we try to see what life was like for those women. It is a bitter exploration. We find that for centuries, all through recorded time, women have been violated, exploited, demeaned, systematically and unconscionably… It is not easy for us to bear what we see.
Second, we must examine the present: how is society presently organized; how do women live now; how does it work–this global system of oppression based on gender which takes so many invisible lives; what are the sources of male dominance; how does male dominance perpetuate itself in organized violence and totalitarian institutions? This too is a bitter exploration. We see that all over the world our people, women, are in chains. These chains are psychological, social, sexual, legal, economic. These chains are heavy. These chains are locked by a systematic violence perpetrated against us by the gender class men. It is not easy for us to bear what we see. It is not easy for us to shed these chains, to find the resources to withdraw our consent from oppression. It is not easy for us to determine what forms our resistance must take.
Third, we must imagine a future in which we would be free. Only the imagining of this future can energize us so that we do not remain victims of our past and our present. Only the imagining of this future can give us the strength to repudiate our slave behavior– to identify it whenever we manifest it, and to root it out of our lives. This exploration is not bitter, but it is insanely difficult– because each time a woman does renounce slave behavior, she meets the full force and cruelty of her oppressor head on.

Daughter of Earth

Fantastic novel about a woman born into poverty in 1890s Missouri who pulls herself free from the despairing life her mother leads (which causes her mother to die at an early age, beaten down by economic and social forces), getting herself educated, traveling the country, and ending up working for the Indian revolution against England which gets her imprisoned during the war as a spy. Lyrical writing with a punch of truth. “We were very poor. But that I did not know.” On seeing the celebration around her father after her brother was born, and told to go away, “‘Why?’ I have asked over and over again, but have received no answer.” Marie Rogers is an independent woman who loathes the slavery of marriage, and yet ends up marrying Knut Larsen as a lark. She insists on keeping her name, but others call her Mrs. Larsen. They divorce not long afterwards, but only after Marie endures the threat of two pregnancies. Thoroughly enjoyed the first six parts of the story, but it went a bit off the rails for me with her involvement in the Indian revolution.
First mention I’ve seen of asafoetide in a book, in Marie’s description of the hard life of her mother:

To her, the foreign miners were nothing but men who had lice that forced her to hang a lump of asafoetide in a little bag around the neck of each of us. Lice don’t like asafoetide.

Evaluating the life of her Aunt Helen versus that of her mother, Marie decides that prostitution would be the preferable route. Helen earned money and could do what she wished. Marie’s mother worked to the bone and popping out children as other mouths to feed then abandoned by her husband and taking in laundry during the cold winter to get enough money to eat.

In my hatred of marriage, I thought that I would rather be a prostitute than a married woman. I could then protect, feed, and respect myself, and maintain some right over my own body. Prostitutes did not have children, I contemplated; men did not dare beat them; they did not have to obey. The “respectability” of married women seemed to rest in their acceptance of servitude and inferiority. Men don’t like free, intelligent women. I considered that before marriage men have relations with women, but nobody thought it wrong–they were but “sowing their wild oats.” Nobody spoke of “fallen men” or men who had “gone wrong” or been “ruined.” They why did they speak so of women? I found the reason! Women had to depend upon men for a living; a woman who made her own living, and would always do so, could be as independent as men.

Helen generously helps to pay for Marie’s school early on. Later, Marie comes to stay with her in Denver en route to New York:

After a time she asked again: “Why are you going to New York?”
“I’m going to get work to support myself and Bee, and then I’m going to try and study in a university. I’ve a friend who lives there and she says I can work in the daytime and go to the university at night.”
“To a… college?… Your’e not finished studying yet?”
“No. I want to study a lot of things–history, literature, economics, and I want to learn to write.”
“But I thought you’d finished your education and knew all those things.”
“No. There’s always a lot more to learn. Every time you read a new book you find that you know less and less.”
She was silent for a time. “I guess no one can read all the books in the world, can they? But I suppose it’s nice to know a lot as you will.”

*** Discovered via recommendation from an appendix to Tillie Olson’s Silences, which sits on my table ready for a read.

Letters from the War Zone: 1976-1989

Another serendipitous find as a result of browsing for books in a physical environment. I stumbled onto this due to its proximity in the Deweys to a different book I was hunting (which ended up looking dull and boring, so I gladly pawed Dworkin’s text from the library shelf). Shamefully I know very little about Dworkin except what she revealed in this book; she hasn’t come up in my search for the essential feminist theory texts, why? For some reason she’s been deemed not as essential as Firestone or Millet. But she’s every bit as persuasive, eloquent, and intellectually curious. The book is a collection of essays and speeches written during this period, only 4 of which were published in mainstream magazines. It seems that Dworkin took to the road and eked out a meager living as a speaker once she encountered difficulty in publishing her work. She’s become best-known for her stance against pornography as inherently violent to women.
Nervous Interview, 1978, is a piece she describes as the most obscure and not published for money. She wrote this as a parody of Norman Mailer’s self-interviews, “none of which made much sense” but all of which were taken seriously. Some excerpts:

Q: Why don’t you give interviews?
A: Because they’re so false. Someone asks a question–very posed and formal, or very fumbling and sincere. Then someone tries to respond in kind. Cult of fame and personality and all that. It’s all wrong.
Q: So why this? Why now?
A: I couldn’t sleep. Very edgy. Nervous nightmares about New York. Going home. Cesspool and paradise. You see, I’ve lived many places. I keep leaving them. I keep returning to New York but I can’t stay put. But that’s what I want most. To stay still. So I’m restless and irritated.
Q: People are surprised when they meet you. That you’re nice.
A: I think that’s strange. Why shouldn’t I be nice?
Q: It’s not a quality that one associates with radical feminists.
A: Well, see, right there, that’s distortion. Radical feminists are always nice. Provoked to the point of madness, but remaining, at heart, nice.

That last bit about radical feminists reminds me of something she writes later, in the terrific Feminism: An Agenda, a speech given in 1983 at Hamilton College in upstate New York:

There is nothing that feminists want more than to become irrelevant. We want the end of the exploitation of women… and so you have to organize an agenda. I don’t have an agenda. My agenda is everything I can think of, everything I think of doing, all the time: movement, movement, physical and intellectual and political confrontations with power.

From the same speech, this is why it’s difficult to have the conversation with people. I forget their underpinnings sometimes.

If you believe that God made women to be submissive and inferior, then there is almost nothing that feminism can say to you about your place in society. A political movement against the will of God does not sound like a very reasonable form of organizing. And in fact frequently a misogynist will say: “Your argument isn’t with me, it’s with God.” And we say: “Well, since you’re created in His image, you’re the best we can do. So stand there and let’s discuss this. You represent Him, you do that all the time anyway.”

More from this speech:

The women’s movement in general, with many exceptions, with many failures, with many imperfections, has been dedicated to that process of finding out which questions to ask and asking those questions.
A lot of the questions are considered unspeakable. They are unspeakable questions. And when they are asked, those who ask them are greeted with extraordinary hostility. I am sure you have experienced something similar whenever you have asked a question that somebody didn’t want asked. Everything that you have been taught about the liberal tradition of education, about the value of books, the beauty of art, the meaning of creativity, is lost, means nothing, unless you retain the independence to ask your own questions, always, throughout your lives.

Someone tried to get me to read a book that just came out, Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy, boldly written by a dude (who gave himself full credit, his attempt is different BECAUSE he’s a man), but I couldn’t get through the hundreds of pages of comparisons to other animals. I was fresh off of Dworkin, who railed against this tactic.

In trying to discuss what rights women should have, many people refer to biology, and they do so in a myriad of ways… people point to primates, fish, they point to anything that moves, anything that is actually alive, anything that they can find. And they tell us that we should infer our rights from the behaviors of whatever they are pointing to. Frequently they point to things that aren’t alive, that are only postulated to have been alive at some previous moment in prehistory. One outstanding example is the cichlid, which is my personal favorite. It is a prehistoric fish – or to be more precise, some men think it was a prehistoric fish. The followers of Konrad Lorenz – and these are scientists, okay? – say that the male cichlid could not mate unless his partner demonstrated awe. Now is this a projection or is this… a fish? Kate Millett wondered in Sexual Politics how a fish demonstrates awe.

Green Girl

I caught myself thinking about this book as I was trapped in an office this afternoon for the first time in a long time. Dumb conversations floating about me, Ruth’s defense of going dead, empty, and hollow came to me as a good escape. And then I mentally calculated the hours before I’d be able to sit down with Green Girl to finish it off. Always a good sign. My first exposure to Zambreno was Heroines, which I enjoyed, but Green Girl knocked my socks off.
Ruth is the explicit creation of the author, pushed out into the world and encountering pain at the behest of the author. Zambreno honors her idols throughout the work, early on quoting the magnificent Jean Rhys, “Today I must be very careful, today I have left my armour at home,” layering each section with establishing quotes from the various greats of film, literature, poetry, drama (Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Clarice Lispector, Walter Benjamin, Colette, Virginia Woolf, Andre Breton, Jose Ortega y Gasset, etc.). Ruth is an American in London, working as a shopgirl, emptying herself and trying her best to become nothing, painting on a happy face (her armor) and dealing with the loss of her mother. “Sometimes she is struck by how much she goes through life almost unconsciously. She is being swept along. She is a pale ghost. Such a haunting, vacant quality.” Initially living in a women-only dormitory, she and Agnes move into a somewhat wretched and cold flat in the East End together, Ruth sleeping on a mattress on the floor beside Agnes’ bed. Ruth becomes briefly enamored with various men, but there is one back in Chicago who has a strong hold on her memory. She would smoke and watch the world from her flat, “Sometimes people would glance up and see her watching them. She appeared to be quite deep in thought, but actually she wasn’t thinking of much at all. Sometimes her mind was completely vacant. Sometimes no one was at home. The only thing she could mourn was herself.”

Everyone always tells her how pretty she is. You’re so pretty, they say. It is a fact. She could be described in the language of growing things. She is a tender sapling. She is green, she is fresh (yet the freshest ingenues can carry with them the most depraved resumes). Yet to be beautiful, fresh, young is a horrible fate if one feels empty inside… When Ruth is feeling her emptiest, the empty compliments keep on pouring in… She is anointed daily with these compliments. You have a beautiful smiles. Eyes lowered, the modesty of a saint. Thank you… She is a willing accomplice to this farce. She paints on the smile. She paints on the happiness… But sometimes life in the spotlight can be difficult. Sometimes she wants to be invisible. Sometimes walking down the street she sends out signals of distress. Look at me (don’t look at me) Look at me (don’t look at me)

The constant battle of being seen as an object weighs on her as she does battle with a boy blocking her way:

Alright, alright, I was just trying to be friendly. I was just trying to be friendly. That’s what they all say. The feign of innocence. The pretense of Samaritan impulses. In her mind she spits in his face. She spits in all the faces of the strange men on city streets who torture her with their stares. But on her face is that same, slight smile.

After a degrading scene where she plays the reluctant part in a threesome with Agnes and a boy she fancied, Ruth has a breakdown for a few days and then cuts off her blonde locks, eventually getting them fixed by a professional. Agnes’ reaction, “Now you’re interesting. You were a bit dull before.” Later, she becomes briefly involved with a slim and intense man from the store– Rhys (too obvious of a hat tip to Jean?). She pours out her story, finally having found a vessel for her thoughts and sorrow. When Rhys won’t sleep with her, she becomes obsessed about it, finally having him and then discarding him. She decides to sleep with someone else to seal the breakup, pretending to listen to this filmmaker, bored. As they have sex, “she digs her nails into his back, which he interprets as her being hot for him, more, more, when really she is steeling herself as he continues to pound away, while she looks at the green glow of the alarm clock, wondering how much time has elapsed.”
She quits her job, sits in the park watching pigeons. Ruth takes Agnes to get an abortion, meets a guy and gets bored with him. Finds a new salesclerk job. After a harrowing first day, she escapes into the crowds, loses herself among the Hare Krishnas. She wants to go to a church “And scream. And scream. And scream.”
***
So far I’ve read 3 G— Girl books this year– Gone Girl, Green Girl, and Good Girl. The first 2 were tops, but Good Girl wasn’t worth the effort.
2 random connections to the book I read immediately prior: abortions & Hare Krishnas.

The Last Night at the Ritz

Ahh — getting back into reading is like sinking into a hot bath. For a few weeks there, I was worried that I’d lost the ability to concentrate on words on a page, but it turns out that circumstances and surroundings do matter when you’re trying to read. Now back in my book cave, I can power through the pages and follow the plot line without having thoughts run through the back of my mind of things I had to take care of. Published in 1973, a woman in her 50s details the last night she will get together with her best friend Gay and Gay’s hubbie Len, along with narrator’s on-again-off-again affair subject: Wes. The threesome meet for drinks (“accidentally” bumping into Wes at the bar) and they all determine to make a night of it, which means drinks and publishing party and dinner with Len’s assistant Marta (with whom he’s supposedly having an affair). The two women (Gay & the narrator) met in college, became fast friends and bonded over literature. Excellent descriptions of Gay’s grandmother’s house staggering under a weight of books, chattering uncles smoking and creating havoc. Narrator is childless but considers Charley (Gay’s son) as her own, receiving his confidences and helping to pay for the abortion which, though legal, killed his love by septic shock. But back to the last night, they head to a publishing party with Marta and pick up Walter, a soon-to-be-published author who makes them a sixsome. Drinks at a place called the Merry-go-round which goes around and one must gather courage to jump on, getting off somewhat easier with a few slugs of alcohol making you fearless. Len is tense, Gay puts up with Marta’s presence, Charley (the son) is in Canada escaping the draft but in trouble. Everyone drinks too much, and at dinner Len tries to overturn his neighbors’ table in a fit of rage. Slinking out unsure of who paid, there’s an attempted mugging that goes nowhere and the six chase the boy into a Boston graveyard “There’s Paul Revere!” then the two women sit on a bench and talk, finally, about Gay’s problems. The narrator never mentions her own problems. They bedraggle back to the hotel and have a fitful sleep. In the morning, Gay & Len leave together, Wes puts narrator in a cab and steps out of earshot for the address. We end with the narrator in a hospital, awaiting treatment she doesn’t expect to do anything but kill her.
The posh narrator tosses out witticisms at a tight clip, some of my favorites below:

It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read… You can’t very well lug an encyclopedia around hotels. Fortunately, I did have my flask.

On why she didn’t really want to get married:

I rather preferred the hurly-burly of the chaise lounge to the deep peace of the double bed.

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power

I was looking forward to reading Steve Fraser’s book, especially after his Bill Moyers interview, and I really wanted to like it. But it did not captivate, perhaps due to circumstances under which I read it, or perhaps due to meandering quality of the text itself. My eyes glossed over words and yearned for the ending. That’s not to say that there weren’t some quotable bits, such as “Does it make sense to claim that we have been suffering from osteoporosis of the political backbone if the whole of society has become one gelatinous invertebrate mass?” and “Addiction to the multifarious delights of consumer culture, for example – from electronic gadgetry to crystal meth, from channel surfing to sugar-injected fast food, from buffo housoleums to logo-infested T-shirts – functions after all as a kind of deliverance, a part of daily life and an escape from it.” His main goal is to answer the question as to why we have no more resistance to wealth and power similar to what we saw in the early days of primitive accumulation (capital accumulation at the expense of others), the hotbed of resistance from the 1870s thru 1930s, what he calls the “long nineteenth century.” The best I can recap of his answer is that early resistance was easier because people had knowledge of prior times, they remembered being able to fall back into their own resources and farm or open a shop. The second half of the book I thought was going to focus more on why today’s climate doesn’t allow for much resistance (except the brief sliver of Occupy), but I confess to being made sleepy by his rambling on about the rapacious finance system that no longer produces anything, but creates money out of nothing.
A good bit from the intro:

[People went along with the system] so long as people had believed the country still offered them a credible shot at “the main chance” – an equal right to become unequal.

I learned something about the migration to Texas:

Throughout the South everyone knew that a sign posted on an evacuated homestead reading G.T.T. meant “Gone to Texas,” which in fact 100,000 beleaguered farmers did every year of the 1870s, and in similar numbers thereafter.

Also learned about Molly Maguires:

Big metropolitan dailies helped produce that terminal resolution by drawing a straight line between Molly resistance to the coal barons and “Indian savagery.” As the county district attorney put it, “The name of Molly Maguire being attached to a man’s name is sufficient to hang him.”

Strikes were common during this time:

Sympathy strikes and boycotts expressed solidarity as an organized social emotion, not merely a piece of inspiring rhetoric, but as palpable reality, the spirit come to life, discovering all the exfoliating networks of its social nervous system. The form of the mass strike was its content, the medium the message.

On the negative impact of Cold-War branding of reds & socialists:

The search for why the long nineteenth century boiled over with anti capitalist movements and ideas and sentiments, and the last half century has not, must measure the enduring impact of this long-ago moment of cultural repression. Language is, as a philosopher once put it, the “house of being.”

Perhaps this is part of his argument about why we are complacent:

Three fables of freedom in particular have marked the last half century: emancipation through consumption; freedom through the “free agency” of work; and freedom through the heroism of risk, a fable in which the businessman emerges as plebeian liberator. These tales were not invented when Ronald Reagan was elected president – their roots go far back into the American past – but they have substantially shaped the contours of our more recent remarkable quiescence.

***Updated to include the lyrics to the “Eight Hour Day Song,” the long 19th century labor movement’s anthem:

We want to feel the sunshine
We want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure God has willed it.
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from
shipyard, shop, and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest
Eight hours for what we will.