“Well-behaved women seldom make history” is a comment that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich made in a scholarly article in 1976. In 1995, it was picked up by a journalist. By the following year, it had entered a book of “quotations by women,” and, with Ulrich’s permission, it was printed on a T-shirt. I’d like to say that I was familiar with it, but I wasn’t, and that is probably why I flipped through Ulrich’s book when Kathleen brought it home. I noticed a chapter on Christine de Pizan, the educated courtier who, round about 1400, wrote The City of Women. There were also chapters on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf. I was intrigued by Christine, and irritated by not knowing anything about Stanton — except that, unlike Susan B Anthony, she was plump. And then I wondered what Virginia Woolf would look like in this company.
Ulrich is a historian; her subject, back in 1976, was the good women of Puritan New England, through whose obituaries ran a strange kind of praise: they were admirable because they didn’t make history. Ulrich wrote,
Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been.
History was made by men; everybody knew that — until it became clear, in the Seventies, that the traditional hierarchies of Western life were not going to survive the cataclysms of the Twentieth Century. The denial of civil rights to Jews in Nazi Germany turned out to be malignant not only to the Jews, but to the order that condemned them as well. As soon as the West recovered from the more percussive shocks of World War II, people who didn’t happen to be white heterosexual males decided, in millions of decisions made at millions of moments, in a cascade that has been pouring for decades, that white heterosexual males were not entitled to tell other kinds of people who they were and what they could and could not do.
As a corollary of this extreme revisionism — which, if you ask me, is responsible not only for the reactionary anti-politics, posing as conservatism, that has infected so many Americans with dangerous lunacy (and some Europeans as well), but also for the punitive anxiety of patriarchs throughout Africa and the Middle East — it began to seem, about fifty years ago, that the things that white heterosexual males had done were not the only things worth remembering. Hence the new fields of history that scholars like Ulrich began to plow.
Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007) is Ulrich’s meditation on women making history. It is lucid and interesting, particularly in its account of the struggle of black women for personal autonomy, a tangent opened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s encounter with a runaway slave in 1839. “Slaves in the Attic,” arguably the heart of Ulrich’s book, ends with the ironic observation that Stanton’s autobiography, written in 1898, completely overlooked the new shackles of Jim Crow (and somewhat milder correlatives in the North). This is a reminder that the fight for freedom is almost always personal: I want mine; you fight for your own. The tendency, once freedom has been attained, is to ignore the fact that other people lack it. And men, fifty years ago, had no trouble at all believing that women were happy homemakers; women who weren’t happy homemakers were usually ugly, and that explained everything.
It was the sixth chapter, however, “Waves,” that stirred me most. At the beginning of the chapter, Ulrich touches on the metaphor of waves: waves come and go. They wash over the land, and then they recede into the sea. It is already common to speak of “third-wave” feminism. Does this mean that the situation of women today remains provisional? I believe that it does, and that the situation of gay men and women is even more provisional. I’d like to think that recent victories over the patriarchy are secure, but I can’t quite believe it, because newfound freedom naturally invites men and women to express themselves personally, individually. Every day, the bloc of women who identify as feminists in a unitary way grows smaller, because “feminism” means different things to different women. The same is true of the same-sex “community”: it, too, is breaking up. Meanwhile, white heterosexual males are traditionally habituated to form teams to defeat their opponents. They ally themselves with other men, whom they may dislike very much, in order to achieve a common goal: this is called “the principle of the thing.” I look at Silicon Valley’s campaign to replace the open freedom of the Internet with the limiting convenience of the “app,” and I shudder.
“Waves” got to me, too, by reminding me of stages in my own consciousness of women. Feminism was so simple at the start. Feminists demanded “equality.” In fact, they were asking men to shut up, and some feminists even said as much, but the opening discussions concerned political access and employment issues. There ought to be more women in Congress, and so forth; and women ought to be paid what men were paid, and so forth. You could disagree only if you believed that women were inferior to men. Many men did, and do, believe this, but in the absence of any “scientific” argument (beyond a cluster of ignorant misunderstandings about menstruation), it seemed bigoted to say so. So the opponents of feminism stalled wherever possible, and encouraged renegades like Phyllis Schlafly to remind women that most of them do, in fact, hope to have children.
The other day, Gail Collins noted that the percentage of mothers who work is dropping, largely because child-care costs are too high. (The costs are too high, and yet, ironically, the rewards for child-care workers are too low. The same is true of schooling, but most people don’t pay for that.) It bothers me enormously that so little work has been done to explore volunteer neighborhood child-care, a truly social (and positively anti-socialist!) solution to the problem. I can’t begin to understand why an updated curriculum along the old “home economics” lines isn’t taught to all schoolchildren, especially in high school. Everybody needs to know how to keep house — and child-care is a big part of housekeeping. In a neighborhood of educated housekeepers, residents could be trusted to take on, for a few years at a time, the care of small children. Working parents would contribute to the upkeep of the facilities as well as to a fund that would ensure the education of volunteers’ children or grandchildren.
As the foregoing suggests, feminism isn’t simple anymore. It oughtn’t to be.
Last week, Kathleen and I went to our downtown storage unit, tried not to faint at the prospective difficulty of clearing it out (which we’ve been meaning to do for years), and brought home ten cardboard boxes of documents — the rough equivalent of two banker’s boxes. Culling them yesterday, I brought the number down to five, with only a few small stacks of paper — three inches in all; I just measured it — to worry about keeping. I expect that another wearying session will see the end of three more boxes.
I have written before about my unwillingness to read the journals that I kept from my teens into my late twenties; having opened one or two from time to time, I’ve been horrified by what I’ve seen. It’s a sort of Dorian Gray experience, in reverse. Yesterday, I came across a sheaf of onion-skin copies of letters that I typed between 1966 and 1973. At the top of the sheaf were letters to a friend from Notre Dame written in late 1970. I was working at the radio station at the time, but I was still living at my parents’ house; they would gently throw me out the following summer. They had moved to Houston in 1968, and I had worked two very different summer jobs before graduating from college and finding my berth at KLEF. I worked at night and spent the days in my room, evidently unhinged. Reading the carbons, yesterday — I quite violently didn’t want to read them, but I couldn’t bring myself to dump the lot of them without some kind of review. Mixed in were some papers written for a philosophy class. I didn’t look at them at all; I just saved them for the time being.
When I was done, I made dinner and tried to recover my amour-propre. (One of the papers was marked with the professor’s admonition to use fewer French phrases.) All right: my self-respect. It wasn’t easy. Kathleen said, “But you were practically a baby then.” No, I was not a baby. I was, by simple fact of age, a presumptive adult. Actually, now I think of it, no child would have been capable of the profound immaturity that I not only displayed but trumpeted. What was I thinking? Well, I can reconstruct something of my thinking. First, nothing made any difference anymore. I was not the only writing type of person to think that in 1970. All the old values were bankrupt — an idea that dated to the end of World War I at the latest. It was demoralizing, also, to know that I lacked the spirit and enterprise to get out of Houston, an environment that never ceased to be uncomfortable. So, in the interest of finding out what I really believed, I disabled my decorum. I transcribed the stream of consciousness without regard for writerly politeness. I announced, an amazing number of times, that I was “bored today.” I wrote to say that I had nothing to say. And then I demonstrated it.
Just to make the composition absolutely retch-worthy, I adopted the tone of a cosmopolitan eighteenth-century wag. Having expressed the hope that things were not going as badly as they might be for my correspondent, I flourished, tremo e palpito. (I wonder where I got that. I do know where I got another patch of plaster, eh bien, mon cousin — Der Rosenkavalier, not a work of the Eighteenth Century whatever its setting.) The insufferable combination of carelessness, fatuousness, insolence, and affectation on every page of those letters turned my blood to sludge. My ears and my cheeks burned. They burn right now at the re-telling.
I threw away all the letters to the above-mentioned, now very former, friend. I saved two or three that I wrote to a much closer friend who has since died. I held onto a sheaf of letters that I wrote to an art historian in the summer of 1973, oblivious of the fact that my marriage was falling apart. I didn’t read this last batch; that’s a pleasure that I’ll save for some other time. I saved a letter from 1966 concerning my account at Blackwells — did I really have a checking account already? It seems so. (I still have no idea how I paid for the books that I bought while at Blair.) Even what ought to be a simple business letter is pimply with pretension.
I have just become aware of the fact that my latest bill has not been paid. I thought that it had been, some time ago. [redundant!] Wanting to maintain my credit, I should, of course, like to pay this due. I have no copy of the bill, however [figures], and would appreciate your sending by air-mail (please bill me if necessary [redundant curlicue!]) my most recent statement.
Thanking you [&c]
Every other second, I jump. How dare you keep a public blog? How, having written that trash, can you show your face? Then I remember that the letters are now dust. “They can’t be that bad,” Kathleen sighed. I declined further argument.
In the end, my project, my search for a truly natural style of writing was a success. I believe that I have described what I called “slash style” elsewhere. It dispensed with all forms of punctuation except the slash (/), and I didn’t capitalize any words. I forced a procrustean justification upon my text, breaking up words (without hyphenation) at the right-hand margin. This, on top of all the other violations, made for as minimal an appearance as could be achieved without giving up words, but it made my prose style seem even more florid. The appeal of this way of doing things got stale pretty quickly. Bit by bit, my radicalism weakened. I resumed ending sentences in the normal way, and beginning them with capitalized letters. I strove to make sense — to write sentences that I should understand a year later. Somewhere around the time of the conversion experience that I mentioned the other day — the Trollope-inspired realization that I must my life change and be a gentleman — I adopted an editorial commitment to writing clearly and with interest at all times. I fail at it all the time — more often than you might think, because I fix a lot of stuff when I edit these pages. I’m still drawn to complicated sentences that appeal to me even though I don’t know exactly what they mean. (Am I a poet?) I get rid of most of them. If I’m going to be difficult to read, it’s going to be for a good reason.
But, oh, how dare I.
Loose Change: How surprised I am that the remarkable cover story in the current issue of The New York Review of Books has not generated more buzz. Am I living on a desert island? (Very possibly.) “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa” is not quite that (a conversation), but more of an interview, and the President is doing the interviewing.
The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?
Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves — and God knows, arming themselves and so on — against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know — I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.
But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive — “Love they neighbor as thyself” — which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.
The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as though it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?
It’s hard to know where to begin to take account of this published exchange. But it makes me proud. The President of the United States having a literary, spiritual conversation with one of his country’s most important writers! This may happen all the time in France, but I cannot recall anything like it happening here. It is true that Barack Obama talks like a man on the campaign trail. He is someone who is trying to get things done, or at any rate on his way to the next speech. And it is also true that the conversation is not a casual event. If it recorded a bit of quality time that a busy man got to spend with a thoughtful woman, it would not be published. And when I asked myself who the intended reader might be, I couldn’t help thinking of the former Secretary of State and Senator from New York. Not that anyone would want to hear Hillary Clinton discuss Christianity — heavens no! Perhaps Obama and Robinson are volunteering to do it for her. They can talk about these things with complete credibility. They can try to persuade voters that there is nothing Christian — really, nothing — about the Republican Party’s policies and anti-policies. They can delicately suggest that the “Christianity” of automatic weapons fanciers is a fabrication not unlike the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Something in yesterday’s entry left behind an irritating grain of sand. Why don’t white heterosexual men care to express themselves freely, as more recently liberated or enfranchised groups do?
Could it be that white heterosexual men are stuck with the datestamp of their hegemony?
I’m reading Simon Winder’s Danubia, an agreeably playful book about Central Europe. When it was published, a couple of years ago, I feared that it would be too playful, so I stayed away, but a friend gave it to me recently, and, dipping into it, I enjoyed the refresher. You can’t have enough refreshment where Hapsburgs are concerned. So many archdukes, so much geography!
Touring the Siebenbürgen — what Germans call Transylvania — Winder meditates on the fierce conformism that made the villages outside the German-settled towns viable. Everybody did what he or she was supposed to do, or else. There was no margin for creativity, no room for free spirits. The work was rarely very heavy, and often sociable, as Winder points out; but it was always the same. There were no new jokes.
And I thought, yes, that’s how life was everywhere, more or less. Men may have been in charge, but that hardly meant that they were free for caprices. They were as bound to their duties as everyone else, bound perhaps a little more tightly. They were expected to set an example, not just to boost morale but to instruct the young. Men were the fountains not only of virtue but of conformity.
Things changed. Being big and strong and free from child-care were no longer sufficient, or even necessary, to run things or to set society on the right path. What was necessary in the new, industrial world was intelligence. Amazingly, however — as any survey of executive suites will confirm — intelligence has not been a substitute for height and freedom from domestic concerns. Strength and freedom are still important criteria for top jobs. Intelligence has simply been added to the list of requirements.
And conformity has never been taken off the list, even though it’s very much at odds with the exercise of any kind of intelligence. This may be what has made courtiers out of business leaders. They hide in their suits and their golf bags and private jets, doing exactly what the other nabobs are doing. Meanwhile they scheme. They’re a useless lot, mostly, but that’s another matter. The point is that the new industrial order, which did eventually transform opportunities for people who weren’t white heterosexual males, did nothing for the guys. And not only that! Since being big and strong were no longer necessary, but somehow still required for success, it became difficult to demonstrate these qualities. It was no longer the case that the whole town saw you walk down the street with a ram over your shoulders. In traditional society, the markers of masculinity were tapped every day. At a certain point, a wife was acquired and children began to appear, and woe betide the man who could not keep his family in order. (In Lord Jim, which I’m also in the middle of, there’s an amusing little sideshow in which a petitioner claims that he beats his wife, but only a little, just to maintain his standing among the villagers.) You might clearly fail at being a man, but you needn’t worry about it, because, cuckholdry aside, there was so little room for uncertainty.
All that was swept away. Now you can win a shelf of trophies and marry the prettiest girl in the room — and find that it doesn’t salve the anxiety. Am I a real man? All that you can do is go on scheming, and do your best to look the part.
Oh, and you can “play the game,” whatever game it is. But games do nothing for society, local or otherwise.
So, men are bound to conform while at the same time being, thanks to their conformity, rather useless.
Something else clicked, too. Contact with the letters that I wrote when was young reminded me that I came of age at a peculiar moment. I was a misfit, but it seemed, for a brief period, that their might be a future in misfitness. It seemed that many things were changing, but the only thing that changed for good was style. Many years later, I would have a go at corporate life, and discover just how uncongenial it really was, and how confusingly hypocritical. But in 1970, there was a wonderful new word: alternative. It turned out to be French for broke. At the very best, respectably unsuccessful. More likely descriptors: eccentric and disappointing. It was my belief in alternative careers that kept me at the radio station for so long. I had a demanding job, and I did it well enough to keep it for more than five years. I derived a lot of satisfaction from it, too. But I was always running to my father for money; the job never really covered the basics. (And, in those days, books and records were my only luxuries.)
The declaration that I want to make now is that my parents — not my mother, and certainly not my father — had nothing to do with my growing up to be a misfit. There! What a relief to get that out of the way. I’ve been wondering what my parents did to make it take me so long to find real satisfaction in life, and it turns out: nothing.
They saw it coming, but, even though they did what they could to help me develop otherwise, and even though their efforts did nothing to make the problem worse, I was doomed, I think from birth, always to be odd. There was a period, about ten years ago, when I seriously looked into the possibility that I belonged on the Aspie spectrum — and I still haven’t ruled it out altogether, although the therapist whom I was seeing at the time laughed the idea out of court. (I am not currently seeing a therapist, by the way; it occurred to me that I was too old to fix.) What’s wrong with me? Well, for one thing, I’m almost pathologically rogue. Aside from cooking and talking, I do not enjoy doing things with other people. No; what I like to do with other people is to imagine what their lives are like. I’d love to say that I’m driven by empathy, but in fact it is the merest feline curiosity. I don’t envy anyone, especially as, now that I’m an old man, I know in my bones that people never truly appreciate those qualities that make them enviable. There is something awfully flat about being, consciously, enviable. Nevertheless, I wonder what it is like to be, not famous or brilliant or sexy, but just — somebody else. Novels have done nothing to diminish this interest of mine.
My imagination has developed a powerful inflection toward everything that is not, in fact, the case. This sustains my interest in history, which is all about people and places that are gone forever. (But history relates things that were, once upon a time, actual. This vital savor I find lacking in science fiction. Why follow Game of Thrones when you can watch Richard III?) It also makes me very annoying to work with. No sooner have I learned how things are done than I can “see clearly” how they might be done better. For a long time, the first thing that I would talk about after the curtain fell on a play was the scene that would certainly have been improved by a few changes in the dialogue, or maybe the blocking. You might say that I began to enjoy life only when I became too tired to sustain this impatience at times when I ought to be enjoying myself. I have tried hard to overcome the perverse variety of impatience that gets in the way of pleasure. I remain deeply impatient with the world in general, however, because it never turns at the proper speed, and is always falling off the counter onto this apartment’s unreasonably hard kitchen and bathroom floors, breaking, and making a mess. (!)
What nonsense! It’s true that I don’t envy anybody now, but, when I was a kid, I envied just about everybody. I wanted desperately to escape from my life. And my mother certainly had something to do with that; I wanted, quite openly at times, to escape her. I wanted to escape her because I was a misfit, not because she made one out of me. My mother tried everything short of incarceration and arsenic to make me one of the guys. And if she failed, I think anybody would have failed.
This is the point at which one might be tempted to lament the company of at least one compatible, congenial, similarly misfit parent, but I’m not stupid.
I think that there were more career opportunities for someone like me in the ancien régime, or even a century and a half ago. I’m thinking of Trollope’s Mr Dove, the barrister who knows all that there is to know about paraphernalia, in The Eustace Diamonds. (And you, silly you, thought that “paraphernalia” was just “stuff.”) I could have been
soft as milk to those who acknowledged his power, but a tyrant to all who contested it; conscientious, thoughtful, sarcastic, bright-witted, and laborious. He was a man who never spared himself. If he had a case in hand, though the interest to himself in it was almost nothing, he would rob himself of rest for a week should a point arise which required such labour.
Perhaps not. Mr Dove was probably easier to get along with when he was starting out. I might have had a dandy career on Wall Street, if only the Labor Department had taken its ERISA responsibilities regarding pensions and IRA plans more seriously. But let’s not play that old song. I am definitely the kind of man who could bone up on obscure points of the law and still ask for more. All I ask is that they be obscure. The law was much more fun, you’ve got to admit, when it was still tangled up in medieval roots. My legal career was probably sealed when they stopped speaking Law French.
That kind of misfit. The pre-electronic smarty.
We love our grandmothers, and we’re thankful to them, but we don’t want to be them. When I look around this room, at the faces of the women of my generation, I see women who want to express all the different sides of themselves. There are times when we want to speak out against the injustices of the world. And there are times when we want to put on stilettos and a little black dress and find a party.
That’s Willa Ruth Stone, allegedly the voice of younger feminists, in Brian Morton’s novel of last year, Florence Gordon. The title character, a leading grandmother, so to speak, is sitting on the stage right behind the young and pretty Willa, who is wearing a wireless microphone, so that, unlike the other speaker at this symposium, she can “glide around.” Florence is supposed to be the honoree, but Willa upstages her. We see what’s going on not through Florence’s eyes but through those of her granddaughter, Emily, the book’s actual heroine. Emily is appalled by Willa’s remarks, and her being appalled is a sign that her education is well under way. (Emily has dropped out of Oberlin in a state of highly appropriate intellectual confusion.) Florence, as we also know, has something else on her mind, something personal that is not and cannot be political. Emily is surprised that Willa’s virtual assault does not prompt her grandmother’s fiery rebuttal. Instead, it seems to drain Florence’s energy. From this moment on, the novel proceeds in diminuendo. For everything in life begins, at some point, to recede. Emily, as I say, is the heroine, but her advance is reserved for another time; her bildung begins with her grandmother’s recession.
What does it mean to say, I love you, but I don’t want to be you? The thought nominally expressed is gratuitous: you can never be anybody else. So it must mean, “I love you, but I don’t want to be like you,” which rather undercuts the meaning of “love.” What the statement really means is this: “I love you, but I wish you would go away and die.” Florence Gordon hears this, loud and clear.
What’s wrong with putting on a little black dress and going to a party? Nothing. I’m sure that Gloria Steinem has always had a few slinky numbers in her closet. The problem is in the words. Again, the real meaning, discoverable in the syntax, is not as sweet and anodyne as the words draped upon it. “Sometimes we are angry at the world; sometimes, we just want to forget about it.” The anger at the world is just as transient, just as much a costume, as the little black dress. There is no outrage, but only the appearance of it. The truly outraged remain truly outraged even when they’re out partying. They may smile and flirt — we are complicated animals — but they don’t leave their sense of injustice behind. There is no either/or here, and to claim one, as Willa does, is to preach a very different sermon.
What I take to be Willa’s real outrage is the outrage that has broken out across American universities. It is the outrage of young women who want to find a party without running any of the risks that party-going entails. They want to drink as much as they like, but they want their dignity to be respected even if they cannot stand up. The want to be caressed by casual boyfriends (or even strangers), but not raped. That girls are violated at fraternity drink-a-thons outrages them. When does yes mean yes? This is a question that I wish Joan Didion would take a crack at answering.
Didion’s dismissive essay of 1972, “The Women’s Movement,” is not her best work; it tries to score too many points in too small a space. It falls into two inadequately related pieces. First, she takes on the ideology, the notion that women are an oppressed class, their plight susceptible to Marxist analysis.
If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, “the very organization of nature,” the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, “that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.”
Didion is not impressed. “Ask anyone committed to Marxist analysis how many angels stand on the head of a pin, and you will be asked in return to never mind the angels, tell me who controls the production of pins.” (That’s a good one, but it sounds to me like something that Didion heard one of her dashing, scalawag men-friends say. It doesn’t sound quite like her.)
Then there is the romance, the feminism of women who don’t really understand “the movement” but who want more “fun” out of life. Didion takes this fancy more seriously; she responds to it with a sense of existential tragedy, of the human condition.
No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told that she should. The power of sex is just an oppressive myth, no longer to be feared, because what the sexual connection really amounts to, we learn in one woman’s account of a postmarital affair presented as liberated and liberating, is “wisecracking and laughing” and “lying together and leaping up to play and sing the entire Sesame Street Songbook.” All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it — that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death — could now be declared invalid, unnecessary; one never felt it at all.
Didion, usually lucid, gets pretty mythological herself here; references to living underwater and dark involvements with blood are explicitly murky. The mention of “irreconcilable difference” demands at least a few words about men. I think that Didion is mistaken, but on principle, not because she has the facts wrong. There are no facts, really, which is why I resort to something like Marilynne Robinson’s gloss on “love thy neighbor”: as my neighbor, a woman must be regarded as no less human than myself, no less worthy of respect. Differences may not be “reconcilable,” but they can be overlooked.
But the key paragraph in “The Women’s Movement,” the awful truth, as it were, follows a bizarre catalogue of errors that romantic, not ideological, women make in living out their femininity, such absurd things as amputating their toes to fit pointy shoes (did anyone really do this?).
The half-truths, repeated, authenticated themselves. The bitter fancies assumed their own logic. To ask the obvious — why she did not get herself another gynecologist, another job, why she did not get out of bed and turn off the television set, or why, the most eccentric detail, she stayed in hotels where only doughnuts could be obtained from room service — was to join this argument at its own spooky level, a level which had only the most tenuous and unfortunate relationship to the actual condition of being a woman. That many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and self-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package.
I read this with something like the expression that Cary Grant makes when he says, “If it gets dull, you can always go to Tulsa.” What do I mean by that? Too many things! That’s the problem with “The Women’s Movement.” There’s so much, all pressed up together. The “elitism” — I feel obliged to put the word in quotes, as if it were dangerously radioactive — of Didion’s outlook is breathtaking. (Oh, that reference to room service! Less-expensive hotels did not offer it even back in the day.) Elitist life has always bristled with feisty, independent women who made their own way in this man’s world. If you’re smart and determined and endowed with a modicum of independent wealth, you can work out an accommodation with the boys’ club. I should like at this point to say a few things about my wife’s experience, noting, among other things, the intellectual autonomy that that was annealed when she was passed from the clever hands of the mothers at Sacred Heart to the rigorous academic demands of the Brearley. But it is her story to tell, not mine. I will say just this: only lately, in her early sixties, has she stopped simply accepting and begun resenting the condescension and exploitation of many of the men with whom she has worked in the field of securities law. There was no other package. If someone (Joan Didion?) might counter, “Well, why not do something else,” I should reply, rather heatedly, that there is nothing about securities law per se that men excel at. And Kathleen has excelled; as I write, she is participating in panels at an ETF shindig in California, after which she will be interviewed (as she was last year, I recall), by Bloomberg News. Some of her male colleagues admire her with open enthusiasm. Others are, no two ways about it, condescending and exploitative. Kathleen is a woman; ergo.
At least as allergic to Marxism as Joan Didion — although I see its handful of truths more clearly every day — I have never been tempted to regard women as an oppressed class. I can’t approach feminism ideologically, beyond, that is, bearing the Golden Rule in mind, as outlined above. The political aspect of feminism, as distinct from the problematics of the little black dress, has, however, engaged me ever since it resurfaced in cosmopolitan discourse. I should like to see an Equal Rights Amendment. Equal pay for women is a no-brainer. Almost everything else, though, is more complicated. I’m not sure that we are ready to address child-care politically, because we have not even arrived at a viable politics of teacher pay. There is this idea in America, holding that billionaires shouldn’t be taxed redistributively, that rests on the assumption that, while billionaires create value, teachers don’t. If teachers don’t create value, then why do we require education? Teachers create more value than billionaires do; the billionaires simply monetize it. Until we get our thinking straight here, I don’t think that we’ll develop realistic programs for relieving some of the stress and anxiety of young parenthood.
And then there are the housekeeping issues, which aren’t even questions yet. No one is going to get anywhere by complaining that her husband washes a plate and two glasses and thinks that he has “done the dishes.” Again, it’s an educational problem: men should emerge from secondary schools knowing what housework is, and that good housekeeping is not something that women take care of but a badge of self-respect, not unlike the one earned by keeping fit.
Finally, there seems to be a structural limit to the development of a feminist, as distinct from a more comprehensively humanist, politics. Just as few men, after a certain age, dream of “running things,” so it is that not every woman seeks genuine independence. Does this mean that, like Mrs Wilcox in Howard’s End, any woman is genuinely happy about being unable to vote? Who knows? It is not incumbent on us as human beings to clarify our positions on any matter whatsoever, unless we wish to change our condition. In that case, we must have a few ideas. But many people, whether from luck or lack of imagination, seem to be genuinely happy with their lot, with what used to be called their “station in life.” It is all very well for enthusiasts to preach “fulfillment,” but, as I think Didion suggests, people in search of something generally know how to ask for it. Educated people do, anyway, and our official objective, since the Enlightenment, has been to educate everyone. It’s an ideal, but it is not a pipe dream.
We love you, but we don’t like you. And why would it be otherwise? Every generation begins as an ignorant invader and ends as an indignant guardian. Happiness in this life, over the long haul, begins when we accept those truths and look beyond them.
In one indication of their fervor, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is from Guinea and leads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, told the synod, “What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.”
How is any family that is headed by a single-sex couple to feel safe, when an official of a global religious organization says such a thing and is permitted to keep his job? I am so offended on behalf of my friends and of plain decency that it is difficult to write more.
The Roman Catholic Church has long claimed that its teachings are immutable. This is always presented as a great virtue, as something remarkable to be proud of. It rests on the assumption that human society is unchanging, so that the Holy Spirit, believed to guide those who promulgate teachings, can speak at once for all time. This is to my mind the most ridiculous thing about the Church, vastly less plausible than the doctrines of the Holy Trinity or of the Redemption of the Body. We can’t, on this earth, be certain that the Church’s Trinity does not exist. But we can be certain that human society changes — that it changes whenever it has the chance. And no one reviewing the changes in human society over the past five hundred years can reasonably conclude that every change was for the worst, and thus attributable to the work of “the Devil.”
And the Church has changed its teachings. Take bastardy. This is something that I made a study of in law school, and I could floor you with dates and details, but my notes are in storage, so you’ll have to trust me. The Church’s original position on bastardy was one of enlightened indifference. At a point not too far from the first millennium, however, a very practical problem presented itself. Parish priests were bequeathing church property to sons who were also priests. It was already settled that priests could not marry; therefore the sons must be bastards. The simplest way to put an end to this testamentary abuse was to declare bastards unfit for ordination. Hence: a new teaching. I’m not entirely sure that the rule that bastards cannot be made priests has been replaced. (A workaround — ahem! — must have been developed by the Fifteenth Century.) It sounds like one of those things, those many things, that simply don’t come up anymore — like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
(Yes, painful as it is to say, human beings seem to have utterly lost interest in understanding exactly how three Persons can subsist as one God. They are no longer eager to kill people with different opinions. Is this change the Devil’s work?)
We know why Cardinal Sarah says what he says. His African flocks are engaged in mortal competition with Muslims. Leaders on both sides exaggerate their distaste for deviations from the conservative social standards that are common to all in that part of the world. (Observe the segue from sexual/reproductive matters to the entirely unrelated issue of “Islamic fanaticism.” All the bases are being covered.) It is regrettable that Cardinal Sarah says such things anywhere, but that he says them as the head of a Vatican Congregation ought to be impermissible. He may dislike and disapprove of homosexuality and abortion as much as he likes, but he may not compare them to Nazi and Communist horrors. He simply may not.
But, so long as he does with impunity, my friends are not safe.
Among the many bits of paper that I discarded last weekend as I sifted through the boxes that Kathleen and I had brought home from the storage unit was a wedding invitation from nearly thirty years ago. A Wall Street colleague of mine got married in a picturesque service at a farm in Dutchess County; Kathleen and I went. The colleague and I had lost touch; I made contact. We’re going to have lunch in two weeks.
At some point, we will talk about what I’m doing these days, and I will be asked what this site is about. And here’s what I’m afraid I’ll have to say: “I’m writing a couple of thousand words nearly every day, hoping to find out that very thing.”
Hey, it’s an improvement. When asked the question in the past, I’ve stalled, hemmed and hawed, looked at the ceiling, and generally behaved as though the effort of reducing my titanic opus to a descriptive word or two might bring on a nervous breakdown.
I am still smarting from a remark made six or seven years ago. “Your blog is about books, after all.” I hoped not, but I didn’t say anything. Because what could I have said that it was about?
I am looking for something, but I don’t know what it is. Mulling over this since the lunch date was set, I been worried that what I’m looking for is the central piece to a complicated puzzle. The missing piece will show how all the different regions of the puzzle connect, and also provide the key to thinking about them in ways that illuminate the puzzle as a whole. In other words, I’m as mad as John Nash, searching for a pattern in everything I see. Look for one long enough and you’ll think you’ve found it. The key to all mythologies.
Here’s something that I don’t think I’ve said before, but that feels as if it was been waiting to be said: The Daily Blague is a performance, a series of performances. I run through ideas and histories much as a jazz musician runs through standards. I do think that that describes what happens here, but I don’t think that it answers the “about” question. What’s it about?
Two years ago — almost three, now — when I was devouring Hannah Arendt, I quite often felt that I was seeing the world clearly for the first time. I was standing off in space and there, right in front of me, was the world and all its parts. (The World, I ought to say.) Without appearing to talk philosophically, Arendt laid out the universe and showed how everything related to everything else. My enthusiasm was as robustly green as any adolescent’s. I have not become disenchanted with what Arendt taught me, but I have recovered the sober awareness that nothing is ever going to explain everything.
There was a time when I would reply to the “about” question by laughing villainously and proclaiming myself to be a scourge of the elites. If I have a passion, it is a longing for education to work for other people as it has worked for me, by inspiring them to go on learning; but the problem is that my education was largely my own stubborn and inefficient doing, and no kind of model for anyone else. Instead of focusing on a career, I focused on nothing at all. I let things bump around in my mind, and I saw what stuck. If I were the beneficiary of a trust fund, you could argue that my intellectual freedom justified inherited wealth. But why? What have I done with that intellectual freedom? What’s it about?
This question did not occur to me when I started out. Like most blogs, this one began as a diary. A diary’s only justification is that it be interesting and readable. For a long time, I wrote about this and that, concerts and plays, and, yes, books, and cooking and housekeeping. A few years ago, however, I made what may have been a fatal mistake. I felt that I had gone to enough concerns and enough plays, and that my cooking wasn’t really serious enough to write about. The serious part of my life was all in my head. The serious part of my life was a memory, a history. It was serious not because I was me but because I had thrown myself into my brain, a brain. I had conjured my own way of being mindful.
And yet, at the very same time, I was discovering that we are not interesting in ourselves. This is ancient wisdom, but it was occluded in our time by Freud’s critique of the Enlightenment. The philosophes had posited an idea of unitary human nature. If reasonable people were given an adequate education, they would agree about all the important things. The difficulty is, however, that people are not reasonable. Freud sought to demonstrate not only that people are very, very unreasonable, but that irrationality is a powerful, positive force, not a mere defect. One side-effect of his case histories was the sensational lure of psychological monstrosity. We all harbored ids (James Strachey’s translation of Freud’s much simpler “it”); we were all potential werewolves. The unexamined life became an accident waiting to happen. The psychopathology of everyday life eventually produced the Weekly World News and reality television. Not to mention Oprah.
Although I never saw her the show, I happen to believe that Oprah Winfrey was on the right track, or at least heading in the right direction — away from that psychopathology. Her message seems to have been (at least as it reached me) that, if they can find connections to the world that work for them, even the most damaged people can find satisfaction and contentment. Perhaps we do have to figure out how screwed up we all are. But that’s the beginning, not the end. The end, which has no end, is the interrelating web of love and friendship that sustains us through adversity. And that web is what is interesting — interesting in a different way to everyone plugged into it.
I call the study of this web “humanism,” which is perhaps unwise. The word has been claimed by others, for whom it means antithetical things. There are the atheists who mirror libertarians, seeking an individual freedom not from government but from ideas of God. A smaller but much more traditional group calls upon men and women to take their places in a scheme of Creation in which humanity is second only to God. Now, I am not talking about God in any way. Nor am I talking about uniformity. Other people, with their other ways of doing things, can be very annoying, but when you take yourself out of the picture, they become wonderful.
The human web connects us to everything that we know about. The words that we use to express the thoughts that we think are the product of a massive and venerable group effort. The money that we earn, save, and spend is the product of another. History is the source of our understanding of these efforts. Because it has a lot to tell us about efforts that have failed, it teaches us the limitations of ambition. I no longer think of my mind as a ball of brain that’s locked inside my skull. I think of it as a rover on the network of human connection
My blog is about what it’s like to be a rover on the network of human connections. A statement that needs work, to be sure — but perhaps it answers the question.
Last night, I finished reading Lord Jim. Then I read the introductions to two different editions (Penguin, Oxford World Classics), and learned that Joseph Conrad considered ending the novel at Chapter XXXV, with Marlow sailing away and straining for a last glimpse of Jim on the strand. I can’t help feeling that that would have been better.
I’ve even imagined another ending to prefer. In this alternative, Jim sanctions the destruction of Gentleman Brown’s party of desperadoes.
As it was, I could hardly read two paragraphs of the final chapters without putting the book down and sighing. It was like following a log on its way to the saw. I was utterly engaged in the slow-motion horror of Jim’s extinction. But by the time I finished reading the introductions, both of which harped on the revival of chivalry that was flourishing when Conrad wrote Lord Jim (and would continue to flourish past the outbreak of World War I), I had calmed down, and by the clear light of the next morning, I can see that Jim interested me only to the extent that he interested Marlow. It is Marlow who keeps Jim from sinking into the “bottomless pit” that would have yawned beneath him had not Marlow acted to shore him up, first as Denver’s water-clerk, and then as Stein’s agent in Patusan. Why does Marlow go to the trouble? Because, I suspect, he wants to test his supposition, broached to the French lieutenant (who rejects it utterly), that heroism might “reduce itself to not being found out.” When Jim jumped off the Patna, he did so because he was certain that the ship would sink. What if it had? Jim would not have been a hero, but he might not have been a disgrace, either. Marlow wants to put Jim somewhere beyond his record, to see what he might become in a world that has not found out about the Patna. He wants to give Jim a chance to redeem himself; unlike the French lieutenant, Marlow believes that redemption is possible.
Putting a stop to Gentleman Brown in the only really reliable way would, I think, have redeemed Jim’s abandonment of the Patna. Whether or not it restored his honor, that vexed baggage, preserving Patusan from the depredations of a psychopath would have been a good thing, a very good thing. Keeping the peace at Patusan would be the best way to show respect for his work there; the peace at Patusan was Jim’s doing. But of course this couldn’t be allowed to happen; the author must prevail over Marlow. Readers of the day would have been horrified by Jim triumphant at the end. He had to die, for that is the only possible redemption for dishonor. Marlow accomplishes nothing but a prolongation of the tale.
Conrad waxes fairly Freudian himself, through Marlow, in the “bottomless pit” passage that I mentioned.
It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope and flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp. (XVI)
This sounds like an argument against trying to help one’s fellow man, but of course Marlow proceeds, and keeps proceeding, to do just that. Marlow’s agonies over Jim’s character are immeasurably more arresting than Jim’s own would be, precisely because Marlow is another man, standing outside the envelope of flesh and blood within which we are mysteries to ourselves. (We must remember that Freud did not recommend that people try to figure themselves out; they must seek analysis conducted by someone else.) Marlow is in fact Jim’s redeemer: he holds Jim up for us and obliges us to share his concern. Our caring about Jim is his redemption.
The mystery to me is why educators have considered Lord Jim a novel for high school readers. I can’t remember precisely when I was supposed to read it; I know only that I didn’t. The title alone made me uncomfortable: was Jim a lord, or wasn’t he? If he was, he ought to be minding his grand estate, which I’d much rather read about; if he wasn’t, then he was an imposter. Plus, the boat loaded with pilgrims was highly unsavory. Most boys and young men might, unlike me, enjoy the adventurous particulars, but how on earth would they get through the prose?
To the white men in the waterside business and to the captains of ships he was just Jim — nothing more. He had, of course, another name, but he was anxious that it should not be pronounced. His incognito, which had as many holes as a sieve, was not meant to hide a personality but a fact. When the fact broke through the incognito he would leave suddenly the seaport where he happened to be at the time and go to another — generally farther east. He kept to seaports because he was a seaman in exile from the sea, and had Ability in the abstract, which is good for no other work but that of a water-clerk. He retreated in good order toward the rising sun, and the fact followed him casually but inevitably. Thus in the course of years he was known successively in Bombay, in Calcutta, in Rangoon, in Penang, in Batavia — and in each of these halting-places was just Jim the water-clerk. Afterwards, when his keen perception of the Intolerable drove him away for good from seaports and white men, even into the virgin forest, the Malays of the jungle village, where he had elected to conceal his deplorable faculty, added a word to the monosyllable of his incognito. They called him Tuan Jim: as one might say — Lord Jim.
That’s from the second page, and, while far from dense in the manner of late Henry James, it is thick stuff. It is a paragraph that reads easily only after you have read the novel. Until then, it is a mass of teases, in which all the important information is withheld. The most important fact about Jim — more important by far than the “fact” mentioned here, or the “deplorable faculty” behind it — is not disclosed until the middle of the book, when Stein diagnoses Jim as “a Romantic.” Yes, that is Jim’s problem all over. While he dreams of rescuing the drowning, his classmates are scrambling toward an actual emergency. (The third page.)
The worst of it is that Jim is not really bright enough to be a successful Romantic — to discipline and harvest the fruits of his imagination. He is as reckless as a yellow Lab puppy.
I was going to read Heart of Darkness next, and I shall read it, when I find it. Meanwhile, I’m gripped by the brisker thrills of Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer.
Bon weekend à tous!