I’ve finally finished The Woman Destroyed (La Femme rompue), a collection of stories by Simone de Beauvoir. Each story in the collection is narrated by a middle-aged woman who experiences a nervous breakdown. I began the book four years ago and then again six months ago, and each time put it down before finishing, defeated by sympathetic anxiety. This time, I resolved to make it through.
Beauvoir, for her part, depicts her characters with only wary sympathy, emphasizing their self-delusion and complicity with patriarchal oppression: they are responsible for the crises they undergo. She was allegedly disappointed when female readers responded to the title story, published in Elle magazine, by identifying strongly with the self-repressed narrator, and commending Beauvoir on her acute psychological portrait. The character of the destroyed housewife was meant to caution women against tying their life’s work and worth to husband, children, and the household. That women so identified, it would seem, reflected poorly on their political self-consciousness.
But I, too, so identified with this broken character that I struggled to get past the first fifteen pages. While Beauvoir might identify her character’s unhappiness as a symptom of their false consciousness, I saw it as a symptom of their humanity. You don’t have to be middle-aged, married, anti-feminist, or cuckqueaned to feel choked by the inevitability of the haunting “destruction” that Beauvoir depicts. Being a woman, for me, was enough.
I know an older reporter who sometimes likes to complain about what she calls the “This-American-Life-ification” of journalism. She means the way that editors and writers can make a fetish out of sentimental storytelling: the revealing detail, the subject transformed into a protagonist by glossy magazine prose, the insistence that a set of still-unfolding facts be regarded as a humanist parable. She thinks Ira Glass, who dislikes Shakespeare because Lear is “not relatable,” has a lot to answer for.
I’m thinking about this while going through Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. It is “nonfiction that has the sweep of an epic novel,” Stephen King writes in a blurb. Perlstein rarely uses commas after introductory clauses, which makes the prose addictive—you binge-read it. In fact reading Nixonland does feel a little like pounding two seasons of Six Feet Under on Netflix over the course of a long weekend. Nixon is a psychotically talented anti-hero, filled with resentments. Is this the Soprano-fication of political history?
From a prose standpoint, though, I believe there is something basically false in writing history as though you are there with your characters, inside their heads. The specific literary thing about history as a genre of writing is that you were not there. Perlstein’s source materials can suggest what happened forty years in the past in great detail (and he does have a nice eye for the telling detail), but they can’t actually bridge the gap that separates him from his subject. What makes writing history-writing, specifically, is that you pay as much intellectual and literary attention to the gap as to the things on the other side of it.
If a title like The Politics of Reality doesn’t immediately suggest a collection of essays by a feminist philosopher, perhaps it should: Marilyn Frye’s 1983 book offers a far more lucid account of everyday “reality” than most books with similarly ambitious titles. Frye’s grounding in analytic philosophy gives her a uniquely clear-eyed approach to her project: teasing apart the terms that structure women’s (and everyone’s) lives.
I encountered The Politics of Reality several months ago and wish I had done so sooner, because I’ve found it’s the kind of book that insinuates itself into one’s day-to-day experience of the world and casts new light on its least interesting corners. A woman sitting across from me on the train, a gentleman insisting on the importance of my passing through a door ahead of him: Frye invites the reader to reinterpret such experiences through a series of fascinating and memorable metaphors, from a stage play in which men are the actors and women the stagehands, to men imagined as fetuses. Some of the book is dated, of course, at times uncomfortably so, but it’s no less useful for that, I think.
I’ve always secretly wanted to be the kind of person others refer to as “hard as nails” (ha), and if there was ever a primer on how to become a cool-headed individual who doesn’t hate the player or the game but instead treats both as inevitable entities to engage with—sometimes successfully, sometimes less so—John Gregory Dunne’s Monster would be it.
Here Dunne recounts how he and his wife, Joan Didion, in tandem with their illustrious careers as novelists, essayists and reporters, also worked the Hollywood beat as screenwriting guns-for-hire. Specifically, the book tells the story of the eight years and dozens of drafts it took to write what became the Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Up Close and Personal—a film that began as a relatively dark project about the troubled, coke-addicted news anchor Jessica Savitch and ended up as a crowdpleaser “about two movie stars,” as per its producer, the mega-powerful Scott Rudin.
If you’re looking for an outraged indictment of the greedy, treacle-making, middlebrow-at-best movie industry, you won’t find it here. Certainly, the book recognizes that Hollywood is all of these things and then some. But in order to become disillusioned, you need, first, to believe the hype, which it’s pretty much impossible to image Dunne and Didion ever doing. What we get instead is a clear-eyed acknowledgement that people need to make a living to support creative lives, and that power must be dealt with on its own terms. This might not be a good basis for a larger political strategy, but can still be quite satisfying to read about on a more micro level. You may not beat the industry monster completely, but if you work diligently and skillfully enough, if you’re smart—and hard—enough, you might occasionally get to tell influential assholes to go fuck themselves. Which is, it seems to me, its own special kind of reward.
Years ago I bought a skinny 1970s paperback of Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea at a used bookstore and, prompted by a sudden interest in Japanese literature, finally read it this past summer. Politically, most novelists lean toward good-hearted liberal humanism; it makes for an interesting vacation to read the work of those whose politics were dark and nasty. When I read a writer such as, say, Céline or Naipaul, I’m not only experiencing a narrative but also dueling with another darkness behind the words.
Mishima is such a writer, and his death was spectacular. In 1970, Mishima and four accomplices barricaded themselves inside the Tokyo headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and took the commander hostage, tying him to a chair. In a headband and crypto-military uniform, Mishima stepped onto a balcony to address the soldiers gathered beneath it, reading a prepared manifesto intended to inspire a coup d’état. The soldiers only jeered and laughed at him, and he returned inside and committed seppuku. How can one know that about the person who wrote The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea and not let it inform and warp the sentences? The eeriest moment in the story is in the beginning, when Noboru, a thirteen-year-old boy, spies into his young widowed mother’s bedroom: the coldness of the curiosity and lust with which he watches her undress is profoundly disturbing. As the novel chronicles Norobu’s descent into violence and rage, Mishima does not defang childhood by denying it the possibility of cruelty, bombast, evil. Wallace Stegner wrote that fiction “should be a house haunted by ideas, not inhabited by them.” The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a good example of such a fiction: a seemingly empty house haunted with invisible presences obtusely felt, and the tingle of awareness that someone else is in it, watching.
John Dewey had an unfortunate prose style—reading him is like drowning in a vat of moistened chewing gum—but he was one of the great social critics of the 20th century, and he should be better known on the left. He argued tirelessly on behalf of women’s rights and civil rights and workers’ rights, and he never stopped, during a career that lasted almost seventy years.
For someone interested in Dewey, Robert Westbrook’s John Dewey and American Democracy is a good place to start. Patiently and clearly ranging over virtually all of Dewey’s work, Westbrook makes a persuasive case for the unity of his views. What links everything Dewey wrote, according to Westbrook, is his lifelong preoccupation with the question of how we can build a genuinely democratic society. Westbrook’s Dewey is a radical democrat, a believer in a form of participatory democracy so thoroughgoing that achieving it would mean going beyond capitalism.
Dewey might have underestimated the political, social, and psychological obstacles to the creation of a democratic society. His hopefulness can seem bland or naive. But it’s a welcome contrast to the bloodthirstiness of much of the European socialist tradition. It’s been wonderful, during the last five or ten years, to see a revival of leftist thinking among young intellectuals, but sometimes one wishes that they were reading a little less Marx and a little more Dewey.
I recently finished Leonard Michaels’s diaries, Time Out of Mind. I was infatuated with his voice—the kind that still has what Michaels called “the Yiddish undercurrent.” I took so much pleasure in his jokes, how he heard things, how he said that he felt. Years passed this way. Women kept leaving him for mysterious reasons. Gaps in time were bridged by notes in italics: That year I moved to Berkeley. Soon he was old, paranoid, lonely, burdened by errands. Punishment for all the elided misdeeds, I thought. I felt sorry for him and for men in general, but also for myself, as if his fate were my fate.
All of my journal entries from this time are infected by Michaels’s voice, which sounds a little stupid on me. Still, I liked this one episode, much in his spirit, that spanned a few entries. I had borrowed my good friend’s copy and was captured, while reading, by the subplot of her annotations:
Love of L: I’m reading her copy of Michaels. She doesn’t underline often but I note what she does, as if to decode her inner life. All marks make me want to hug her. It’s not that they’re especially poignant or poetic; the opposite, she likes lines my eyes glide over, obvious or irrelevant things. But what do they mean to her? She underlines a bit of dialogue: “there is no insurance you can buy against old age.” Is she worried?
L underlined a paragraph both horizontally and vertically: “sustaining the fragile structure that passes for one’s life. Friends won’t discredit it, strangers accept it, and you needn’t worry about it, and eventually you get old and then die without having had to acknowledge, let alone live, any truth.” It’s the first thing she’s underlined that I would have, too.
L tells me she bought the book used and the underlines aren’t hers.