Angry Women

Not Twelve Angry Men, but rather interviews with sixteen artists, activists, and writers: Diamanda Galás, Karen Finley, Linda Montano, Carolee Schneemann, bell hooks, Avital Ronnell, Valie Export, Lydia Lunch, Kathy Acker, Wanda Coleman, Annie Sprinkle, Holly Hughes, Sapphire, Susie Bright, Suzy Kerr and Dianne Malley. Editors of this book explain the cover image of Medusa as anger reflecting the systematic destruction of matriarchal history. “Anger is an emotion which must be reclaimed and legitimized as Woman’s rightful, healthy expression–anger can be a source of power, strength, and clarity as wel as a creative force.” The collection ends with a few pages of quotations and a catalog of the interviewees’ favorite poisonous flowers. I ended up with a long list of things to look into and glimpses of a feminist San Francisco in 1991 much different from the one I’m living in twenty-five years later. Does Susie Bright still live at 3311 Mission St. #143? When did the 1210 Valencia Street Sexuality Library go under? (It’s now a Buffalo Exchange.)

One of my favorite interviews was with bell hooks, who mentions her struggle with the phone which echoes the fragility of today’s communication methods, saying it’s “very dangerous to our lives in that it gives us such an illusory sense that we are connecting… the phone has really helped people become more privatized in that it gives them an illusion of connection which denies looking at someone. Telephone commercials can be ‘great’ because they actually let us see that person on the other end–see how they respond and give off this warmth that is never really conveyed just through the phone, so that we’re not just having a diminished experience of the non-person you don’t really see on the other end… we’re seduced. I love Baudrillard’s book, Seduction, because he talks a lot about the way we’re seduced by technologies of alienation.”

Also great was Avita Ronnell’s interview, her interest in the emerging technology of subjection, The Telephone Book a deconstruction of technology, state terrorism, and schizophrenia, offering “a fresh reading of the American and European addiction to technology in which the telephone emerges as the crucial figure of this age.” She muses in 1991 that “we’re in a historical depression right now, because everything has failed so entirely. This could be a great moment, because we have to re-think everything: ‘Okay, we’re at absolutely a dead end–an absolutely devastating impasse.’ Which means that one has to think one’s way out of it.” We’re no closer to thinking our way out of it twenty-five years later, actually appearing more mired in the much than previously with slactivism and addiction to apps that seduce people into thinking they have close relationships with other people. Ronnell mentions being at an international conference on feminism in Tokyo: “Now I believe in making trouble–if women have any duty at all, essentially it’s to be a pain in the ass. So I said: ‘Women have never invented anything… will never invent anything… nor will there ever be a woman genius… This is good news! Because this isn’t something that women should aspire to–concepts such as ‘genius’ and ‘invention’ always have a single male signatory. Genius is related to genitals. Evelyn Fox Keller has shown how a woman’s invention in physics can’t be received–there’s no ‘admission policy’ for the discovery a woman might make.” She goes on about hysteria:

I think that what’s important now is to mobilize hysteria as a quasi-revolutionary force. Hélène Cixous insists it is an inherently revolutionary power: it intervenes, breaks up continuities, produces gaps and creates horror–refusing conformity with what is. Feminism could benefit from an affirmation of hysteria; hysteria as a response to what is unacceptable and intolerable in life… as a response to emergency.

My favorite interviews with artists were with Linda Montano and Diamanda Galás. Montano blurs the line between life and art, making her actual life into art projects such as the 7 Years of Living Art 12/8/84-12/8/91, where daily for seven years she stayed in a colored space for at least 3 hours, listened to a single pitch for 7 hours, wore one color clothes, among other conditions. She also made “Becoming a Bell Ringer for the Salvation Army” in San Francisco December 1974. Also in SF, “The Story of My Life” in May 1973 where for three hours on a Wednesday she walked uphill on a treadmill while telling the story of her life into an amplification system, wearing a permanent smile device in her mouth. In 1973 she also handcuffed herself to another artist for three days, which lead to the longer tethering a decade later, tied to another artist for a solid year (Art/Life One Year Performance 1983-1984). Diamanda Galás is a singer, composer, performance artist who uses her voice to deliver “a pointed, focused message– like a gun.”
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Found via Shopping in Space

New York Jew

Add this to your list of books to avoid unless you enjoy plodding slowly through the glory days of New York intelligentsia, getting PTSD from all the name-dropping. I decided to speed read the entire thing after I found mention of an interesting woman hidden in the cracks of Kazin’s tale, wondering how many other hidden women I could suss out from this overindulgent autobiography. Sadly, not many. Instead I ended up cataloging typical misogynistic comments which I’ll include here to gleefully besmirch his strangely lionized name.

In bragging about his friendship with Richard Hofstadter, Kazin casually mentions Felice Swados whom Hofstadter had just married when they met. “Brilliantly temperamental and sometimes overpowering… She had a graduate degree in philosophy, wanted to be a novelist, and had no sooner become another lowly woman researcher on Time than she set out to write its medicine column. She came from a medical family.” This was the first hidden woman I found and decided to continue reading Kazin to discover more, having never heard of Swados. Naturally, Kazin doesn’t like her, she sounds too smart; Kazin married his own wife Natasha after knowing her for two weeks. Brilliant. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work, he cheats on her in a later chapter where he dreamily explains in painfully explicit detail about how much he learns about sex from his mistress.) But back to Swados. She apparently unmanned her husband, “Dick was directly afraid of power–including his wife’s power over him. Felice was probably the first to recognize just how brilliant he was, and fought him on it.” Kazin goes on a weird tangent here where he compares Felice to his mother “the ugly duckling in a family of just too many girls… she will never be happy or make her husband happy.” The final blow, Kazin accuses Swados of holding her husband back: “Felice’s hearty sense of her own powers [ed: good for her!] tended to put Dick into shadow. He was certainly not to emerge as a historian until he had doggedly looked after her in her sudden, shocking, fatal illness at the end of the war.” As a parting gift to the dead Swados, Kazin admits that he felt “endlessly challenged” by her, but not willing to give her full credit, “not her ideas impressed me, not even her bountiful and coy figure. It was her pride, her belief in mastery.”
Thus begins the name-dropping, not to let up until the bitter end.

Next up on my chopping block is his meeting with Edmund Wilson and his wife, Mary McCarthy. Both are critics, yet out of the sixteen paragraphs devoted to the meeting, McCarthy gets only a few lines despite her being the person who provides more interesting content in their conversation. Kazin heads to their NYC apartment to receive their opinions about his book. Wilson “dismissed my book to my face” so Kazin spends endless words trying to explain why: Wilson was in an irritable mood, he was too busy, he summoned Kazin and in “brief and conclusive” terms, admitted he “was not much interested in it.” Ah, but what about fair Mary?

Then the afternoon took a strange turn. Wilson had been merely impatient with my book. Mary McCarthy was much more thorough. She went into my faults with great care. Since her brilliance in putting down friends, enemies, and various idols of the American tribe was already known to me from Partisan Review and our first meeting at Provincetown in 1940, I was fascinated by her zeal. She warmed to her topic with positive delight; she looked beautiful in the increasing crispness of her analysis. I thought of my gentle, distinctly unliterary wife. Although Natasha and I were drifting away from each other, I thought of her with longing in this inhuman setting.

Holy shit, there’s so much here. Let me get out my knives. A brief dismissal by Wilson stung Kazin enough to dedicate many paragraphs into deconstructing it. But then McCarthy (how dare she!) spent more time showing him the flaws and he’s “fascinated by her zeal.” Let’s see, what’s the easiest way to defuse criticism? Turn the critic into an object, “she looked beautiful”… done! He manages to get in a jab about his distinctly unliterary wife, but yearns for her due to McCarthy’s critique… “inhumane setting” seems a bit strong, but men don’t like women with opinions much. Luckily Kazin manages to get in a zinger about Wilson’s work before he leaves, turning McCarthy’s “bite and spirit” towards Wilson. He’s walked to the door of their apartment and Wilson encourages him, grinning, “Write about her sometime!”

Later, Kazin scores a precious teaching assignment at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He of course can’t appreciate this place, there weren’t a lot of male students during wartime, so there were “constant wails of dissatisfaction from the highly charged, over-responsive students.” Perhaps they were dissatisfied because Kazin sucked as a teacher? He has a letter of introduction to Thomas Wolfe’s mother and sister, but upon approaching the house, “in their rocking chairs on the porch the Wolfes, avid for attention and expecting to be recognized, looked so flinty, leathery, and suspicious of Wolfe’s many admirers already collected on the front steps” that Kazin backed off and left.

Another hidden woman, although not entirely unknown to me, was Diana Trilling. Kazin discovers that he is “persona non grata with [Lionel Trilling’s] wife. Why? because she had been writing book reviews for Kazin’s magazine for years before he arrived, but her most recent review listed her as “the wife of Lionel Trilling.” Ah, but Diana, that’s all you ever are to Kazin, as he continues to “wife of Lionel Trilling” her throughout the remainder of these pages. “Despite all my efforts to explain away this stupidity and to make amends, Diana fixed me with an unforgiving stare that was to last forever.” 150 pages later, “Trilling’s wife, Diana, writing about Allen Ginsberg and other disturbances in ‘The Other Night at Columbia…’ ”
Hannah Arendt alone seems to have been a woman worthy of knowing, in an intellectual sense. And yet there is something dismissive about his description, “She quoted, quoted, quoted. ‘Nietzsche writes like a charlatan but is a philosopher. Schopenhauer writes like a philosopher but is a charlatan.’ The network of life was made up of the paradigmatic individuals, the great thinkers. They possessed Hannah, were the filaments of her brain.”

Unfortunately for us, Kazin discovers sex. “There were suddenly lots of girls, girls more plentiful, passionate, and proficient than I could have imagined… woman free in bed and dynamic life instructor out of it… women found the much-married man not without promise, but definitely in need of guidance. One by one they cheerfully made their way [to my house]…” He’s oblivious to the dispassion of one woman who he is providing zero pleasure, “Even on all fours, one woman… talked and talked that I was shocked by her relative inattention to the physical pleasure she was demonstrating…” This swirl of coitus ends in the lap of young, blond Beth who provided valuable editing services for his [terrible, couldn’t finish it] book, A Walker In The City, free of charge I’m sure, although he does later marry her for a brief time.

Rose in Bloom

Part two wraps up the story from Eight Cousins, picking up the thread a few years down the road as Rose, Phebe, and Rose’s uncle return from a few years traveling abroad. Once she sets foot onshore, Rose’s friends press her to have a coming out party appropriate for an heiress. Rose does enter society, telling her uncle that she’s going to experiment with it for a few months, then make her decision if she’ll continue or go back to more worthy pursuits. She finds her boy cousins much improved, and the handsomest (Charlie, or Prince) goes about trying to woo Rose with more of an eye to her fortune than anything. He’s unfortunately already an alcoholic, although he bravely tries to give it up for Rose’s sake. He ends up dying right on the cusp of leaving to live with his father in India, where he was sure to be saved from temptation. Luckily (as we suspected all along), bookworm cousin Mac blossoms into a hunky genius poet doctor and Rose finds that she can love someone as much as her uncle. Side plot is Phebe (the ex-maid turned singer) who cousin Archie falls for but the family rejects (no family! no money!), so she goes off to earn fame and fortune as a singer, returning with a hero’s welcome after she nurses beloved uncle back to health. This book has more of a feminist tone, where Rose continues to hammer on topics like the ridiculousness of women being educated for silly things and obsessed with fine dresses. Charlie’s unsuitability is early highlighted in his distaste for Rose’s strong mind, considers her “ruined” by the uncle’s teaching.

Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

Sadly yet another example of a full length book best suited for an article. Choppy and ungraceful writing like “There were nine people at the Socrates Cafe I attended– six women of various ages and three men (also of various ages).” Also ridiculous sentences like “Should women belong to the conversible world?” — positing an opinion he agrees with but hiding behind it as a question to deflect any blowback from this admission. Chockablock filled with references designed to make you swoon at the size of Miller’s brain: Hume, Swift, Montaigne, Plato, Socrates, Woolf, Johnson, Boswell. But then he includes hip misogynists like Henry Miller and Eminem to let you know he’s an academic on the outside but cool on the inside. The only valuable thing I got from perusal of this article that was stretched into a 313 page book is learning about Esther Johnson, a friend of Jonathan Swift who lived in Dublin, 14 years younger than Swift. She’s described in Swift’s “On the Death of Mrs. Johnson” (1728) as a lively woman (Miller deems this “unusual” of course), “Never was any of her sex born with better gifts of the mind, or more improved them by reading and conversation.”

Found by way of Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason which piqued my interested with what was referred to as conversation avoidance devices. Miller’s book was pub’d in 2008, and is almost laughingly outdated with its references to ipods as the conversation avoidance devices du jour. He also includes a clunky explanation, “Blog, as most people know, is short for weblog.” If most people already know that, I wonder why he had to parenthetically intrude an explanation… oh right, beefing up the word count! Miller writes about the Japanese youth who spend “countless hours on their wireless cell phones (keitai), which serve as a laptop computer, personal digital assistant, digital music player, and video game unit rolled into one. Many young Japanese… are keitai addicts, oblivious to the world around them.” The world of digital screens overtaking our entire population was just dawning, one can almost yearn for those simpler times.

Eight Cousins

A delightful book apologized for by Alcott for frailties due to the fact it was serialized, flaws she hopes to make up for in the sequel, Rose in Bloom. We find Rose as an orphaned thirteen year old living with her great aunts and expecting the arrival of her uncle at any moment. She meets her seven male cousins who jab and flaunt and tumble and cause a general ruckus. Uncle arrives and weens her off the ineffective potions and restrictive dress her aunts have put her in, letting her health get better with lack of coffee and increase in fresh air. Alcott takes great pains to describe the useless and constricting clothing women were asked to wear, the corsets and the heavy fabrics. One tragedy that hits near and dear to me was her cousin Mac (the bookworm) losing his sight for awhile after straining his eyes from reading too much, my own personal nightmare. Rose takes her maid, Phebe, who sings like a bird (phoebe! tricking Rose into thinking a mockingbird was in the house) under her wing, “adopting” her and giving her a 4th of July vacation where she stayed at home to care for the house. Cousin Steve/Dandy predates the current man-bun craze with a top knot of his own. It’s a happy and flimsy tale, and I’m gearing up for the sequel now.

The Discovery of Slowness

I had to discover slowness in order to read this beautiful book. Arriving home from the library with a bushel of books, I tore mercilessly through the first pages and tossed it aside, certain that it was a loser. Something nudged me back to the review I read about the book, in which the reviewer mentions throwing the book across the room before picking it up again to realize its brilliance. After a few days, I took it up again, and with plodding patience that doesn’t come easily to me, I slipped into the story of John Franklin. This is historical fiction, elaborating and spinning layers onto the real life of British explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847). In the book, Franklin is described as “slow,” having to rehearse responses to people before he says things, able to stand still for what seems like eons, wishing people wouldn’t talk so fast. In reality, he’s not dumb, he simply savors all the details of something to fully understand it. As a boy, he’s beat up by his father and other boys, eventually running away at age 10 to try to go to sea. He’s fetched back, goes to school, learns navigation, and does make it to sea as a soldier in the navy. Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson, and all. He studies boats, learns everything he can, eventually becoming a captain of his own boat and possessed with the interminable desire to sail to the North Pole by way of the not yet discovered Northwest Passage. His first attempt by ship fails, and he goes at it again via Canada with all its problematic natives and lack of food in winter. The first land voyage in Canada goes horribly wrong, and he writes a book about it, becomes known in London as the man who ate his shoe leather. The second land voyage much better but still failed to find the passage. He gets governorship of Tasmania for a few years then attacks Canada once again, this time having a stroke before reaching land.

Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of a Nineteenth-century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall

I came across this collection when I was trying to flesh out the realities of living in 19th century Boston, necessary wallpaper for a project I’m considering. But to call this backdrop would be doing Caroline Dall a grand disservice. I had no idea that the Massachusetts Historical Society had possession of this treasure– seventy-five years worth of diaries, letters, and papers. She was an intellectual heavyweight trapped in a bad marriage to a weak preacher who escaped to India (the “Boston divorce” to contrast with the “Boston marriage”), abandoning her and their two children. Born in Boston in 1822, Dall grew up under the strict eye of a father (Mark Healey) who encouraged her to speak her opinions and learn as much as possible. His fortunes changed and Dall became a teacher in Washington DC to earn money to send her siblings to school, something they did not appreciate and gave up without her knowing. Her Boston circle included Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Thoreau, and Theodore Parker. She began keeping a journal at age nine and kept up the habit for the rest of her life. “This Journal is my safety valve–and it is well, that I can thus rid myself of my superfluous steam.” At age twenty, she was already thinking of how to pass along her ruminations to the next generation:

I have been arranging and writing a list of my Mss. and other private papers. As I have glanced over my Journal, I have felt mortification and reproach. If the weak tears of which this index of my life bears record–have not yet washed out every impress of truth–they soon must–
Who will care for these many papers–who will ever read–or at my request, take pains to preserve that I have written? No one–Shall I then regret so to have spent my time? Oh no–. I have strengthened my own spiritual nature by the exercise–I have purged my heart of whatever is impure on my page–to write out has frequently been with me, to cast off. If I were likely to die wealthy and could pay an institution for taking care of papers so precious to me–I would do it–for to a psychologist, this journal would be worth the pains–but as it is, as it is like to be, I must trust the common chance.

Helen Deese does a wonderful job wading through boxes of journals and miles of microfilm to produce a well-edited condensed version that gives a complete picture of her life. Each chapter begins with a summary of what is to follow, so you are prepared for the major plot points that pop up. As she notes in the editorial note, she has taken care to “preserve the thread of Caroline Healey Dall’s life story… that the selected entries be not simply a series of vignettes of Dall’s encounters with the great and famous, but that they reflect as accurately as possible the fabric of her life and as fairly as possible the complexity of her personality.”

Work: A Story of Experience

Louisa May Alcott followed up the success of Little Women with this gem in 1873, dubbed Little Women for Adults by those less gifted with brains. We meet our hero, Christie, at the beginning of the book telling her aunt that she’s about to leave to make her own way in the world, to work for her living and be independent. From this cozy hearth, she sets out to the city and puts herself into service as a maid, then actor, then governess, then seamstress, eventually struggling with poverty and narrowly avoiding a watery suicide through intervention of her friend Rachel. She winds up in the countryside, living with David Sterling and his Quaker mother, learning gardening and welcomed into the bosom of their humble home. Love drama, rejected beaus, then David and Christie seem about to live happily ever after when you realize there are still 50 pages left. Enter Civil War, David wounded and dying on the front, Christie an expert nurse who can do nothing for him. Final scene is a group of women around the table watching Christie’s daughter Ruth and planning for their futures.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

Very slim volume to kick off the new year. Thankfully small, because there was very little of interest in it. A different title could have been Have a baby, stop journalling or Your life is over when you breed children. It had such great promise, the author confronting a diary of 25 years running… “The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I missed it… The trouble was that I failed to record so much. I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time–there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.” And to be fair, she does go on in this vein for a bit before baby amnesia overtakes her and she loses the ability and desire to think about her own life. Another woman lost to baby vapors, alas.