18 April 2017
On Sunday, we had a pleasant Easter dinner. Ms NOLA and her family joined us, as did Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil. The weather was sunny and warm, and the menu was simple — mushroom soup followed by ham, sweet potatoes, and haricots with almonds. Ray made his glorious chocolate mousse. We talked our heads off as usual. I had a bit of difficulty carving the ham — there seemed to be too many bones — but everything else went smoothly, and now, two days later, the only thing that remains is to put all the dishes back into the china cupboard. I did nothing yesterday but go to the dentist. I slept until noon this morning. I will be back to normal tomorrow. My mind, having been in quartermaster mode for several days, is resettling into its ruminative coils.
I did read a book yesterday — Laura Kipnis’s Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation. I’m intrigued by Kipnis’s façon de penser, and I plan to read more. She has a new book out, Unwanted Advances, about academic paranoia, but I want to read The Female Thing first, because I think that it will help me with my thoughts about feminism, which, like everyone else’s, are a muddle.
To try to begin to clear the air, last week, I sketched a few paragraphs about women and liberation in the form of a letter to a friend; my thoughts were nowhere near clear enough for presentation here. I began with the various liberation movements that arose around 1800, and traced the success with which women’s demands for freedom from pre-modern shackles was met, first with political enfranchisement and then with economic opportunity. Despite this, a great deal of discontent about the position of women remains. Why? That’s what I wanted to know. I surmised that it had something to do with romance, or “romance,” and I won’t be surprised if The Female Thing helps me to understand this better. Kipnis seems (on the basis of Men) to be more likely than anyone to explain how feminism, by reconstructing romance in accord with the actual desires of women, might throw everyone’s expectations of “romance” into confusion.
By far, however, the most interesting thing about my little essay, which had a few interesting things in it, was that it did not occur to me until the next day that “women’s liberation” was the name of the movement in the late Sixties and well through the Seventies. “Feminism” came later. Kathleen remembered, with a jolt, having been called a “women’s libber.” But the term had been forgotten; I could write about it without saying it. Arguably, it has been forgotten because women’s liberation has been accomplished. There’s nothing more to expect from “liberation.” Such difficulties as remain lie elsewhere.
Kipnis is a curious thinker — my favorite kind, but hard to describe. In our ever more polarized critical climate, she stands apart — she stands for candor and common sense. She has a bit of thing about épataying the bourgeoisie, and she has bitter words for capitalist plutocrats, but she doesn’t seem to have an idea of a better world. This is undoubtedly sensible, but I’d still like to know more about her hopes. The most solid piece in Men, not surprisingly, is the transcript of her debate with Harvey Mansfield, whose reactionary book about manliness got everyone stirred up a few years ago. When Mansfield remarks that men take rejection better than women do, Kipnis cocks her eyebrow and shifts the perspective.
You know, until pretty recently there were many more consequences for women when it came to sexual expression than for men. When Simone de Beauvoir, whom you discuss in your book, wrote The Second Sex, birth control was actually illegal in France — she had to go to New York to get a diaphragm. It’s been less than fifty years that women have been freed from at least some of the consequences of sexual expression. So what women are “by nature” or whether women are any more modest or equally immodest — I just think we don’t yet know. Ditto the question of what women want from men, given that economic independence from men is also a fairly recent option.
To which Mansfield replies,
As important as careers are for women, what’s been more central in feminist thinking is this obsession with sex. And that’s what so wrong about feminism, and what has caused all the difficulties we see today and all the unhappiness that women have. Because most women do want to get married, and that’s because they’re smart enough to realize that a happy marriage is the most common and easiest way for a human being to be happy.
I quote Mansfield’s response because it is so archetypally deaf to what Kipnis has just said — it’s too early to tell. And it falls back on utter fatuity: a happy marriage is the easiest way for a human being to be happy. Well, duh — if the marriage is happy already. Making a happy marriage, as Kipnis points out, is another matter. Most marriages aren’t happy. Which Mansfield would undoubtely blame on the feminist obsession with sex!
Most of Kipnis’s essays are more relaxed, or at any rate less intellectually demanding. She is funny and clever and obviously very smart, but the pieces collected in Men veer too often toward entertainment. One exception is her piece on House of Games, the kinkily wooden film about a psychiatrist and a con man that David Mamet filmed in 1987. “If I say that the storyline of House of Games involves an overly cerebral woman spying on a bunch of sleazy but sexy men and then getting her comeuppance, possibly you can see why House of Games would be a movie that makes me nervous.” Kipnis compares the movie to sex with a bad man — she has a ball while it lasts but then hates herself the next morning. Kathleen and I watched House of Games a few months ago, so it was fresh enough in memory to make Kipnis’s essay especially pleasurable.
If it’s too early to tell what women want, it’s not too soon to smash the question. If you ask what men want, the answer, pretty obviously, is having their own way, which means that there are a million things than men want, or perhaps as many different things as there are men. (Most men have no real idea of the things that you can want if you have lots of money.) When Freud asked his infamous question, he was talking about a class of human beings who were defined by their common shackles. What happens when you remove those shackles is that women become as diversely purposed as men.
I’m on the verge of proposing that the body of thought called feminism ought to be broken in two. One half would concern the multiplicity of encounters that women experience as they express their newfound liberation. Many of these encounters will not be positive, and it will be important to judge them without sentimentality for a simpler, imprisoned past. The other half would concern the new relations between the sexes — or between the genders, as I’d prefer to put it, because sexual activity would not be included here. Powerism is an awful word, but it captures what I have in mind. If there is one thing that the mere liberation of women from legal and social constraints could not change, it is the constellation of male habits of mind about the manners of power. These habits are both unconscious for those who have them and obvious to others. They must change if women are to go beyond liberation and into incorporation, into running the world alongside men, encouraging — very much as courageous men encourage — us all to pay more and better attention to each other.