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EQUALITY ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

On the Progress of Feminism

The light of liberation can be blinding

The women’s movement has been under fire from the moment it drew its first breath. It’s enemies and detractors are many, though often they pose, in their own minds, as supporters — “Yes, yes, there is much justification in what you are saying, but good God! those awful women you put on tv!” … “Well, I’m willing to support you people, but you’re just gonna have to do a lot better in the way of propaganda. That mimeographed Marxism. Jesus.” … “Look, I’ve always believed in women’s liberation. I take my wife out to eat all the time, but my God, what’s going now is just incredible. These strident, man-hating bitches you people have for spokesmen.” … “You people.” If I hear “you people” just once more …

Those who have responded with open fear and anger to the movement — no doubt out of the illness of middle-class libertarianism — are too numerous to articulate properly on the sociological scale that will ac­curately place the many combinations of anxious self-interest they represent. (And, indeed, it is not now my intention either to castigate or to proselytize.) But there many who declared themselves partisans from the start, many who claimed to see in the women’s movement a hope of salvation denied elsewhere in the cultural politics that domi­nates our social passions, many who responded to the cause of justice for women with quick support and ready alliance, who are now beginning to separate themselves from the movement. For many of those partisans­ — both men and women, but most especially the men — are striking out now, in boredom and irritation, at the many apparently unwholesome aspects of the movement — and in that quick partisanship and early souring lies an instructive tale, one that is crucial to both an increased understanding of and a renewed faith in the movement that seeks to alter radically the psychic lives of men and women.

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I have a story to tell, a story that contains all the dramatic el­ements involved in this signifi­cant play of life:

Recently, I was visiting old friends in Berkeley, a couple who are both radicals of many years’ conviction, people who literally feel that the oppression of other people limits and corrodes their own lives. This conviction happens to be the best part of these people. Unlike many radicals whose radicalism is the worst part of them — that is, their radicalism is often rendered in mean-spirited and righteous be­havior, an arrogant excuse for emotional deficiency — in these people the disgust with capitalism and the social inequities that follow from the system is neither shallow nor fanatical: it has produced an extension of spiritual generosity, a genuine disavowal of worldly accumulation without an absurdly false asceticism, and, more often than not, an emotionally developed desire to understand what the other person is all about. It was, in fact, this man and this woman who introduced me, two years ago, to women’s liberation, and it was, at that time, the man’s understanding and persuasive elo­quence that I found most af­fecting. “I am just now beginning to understand,” he had said softly, “that my wife’s oppression has forced me into certain molds of behavior and all of a sudden I see a whole world of be­havior that has been denied me …” (It was after that conversation that I began, very fast, to feel a great number of connec­tions being made inside me.) Things went quickly for them. The woman became an active member of a women’s collective (that is, a group of women who meet regularly to talk, and also to plan women’s liberation ac­tions.) The man helped organize demonstrations and started a couple’s group.

Now it was two years later. I had seen them only once in the intervening time, and we were naturally anxious to see one another again. When I arrived at the house in Berkeley I found some changes. My friends, together with their two children, now occupied the lower half of the house they lived in; the upper half was occupied by three mari­tally estranged feminists and their collective five children; together, all five adults and seven children were attempting some variant of cooperative liv­ing.

Richard was out when I got there at 8 p.m. but Eva wel­comed me heartily and pulled me inside to the kitchen for coffee and kisses and laughter and words that tumbled one after another in some vague sem­blance of sentences meant to communicate meaning. After a while, one of the feminists from the top floor came down and joined us at the table. She was the estranged wife of a promi­nent New Left radical, life with whom she acidly described: “He was the intellectual and I was the earth mother.” It became quickly clear that she was now, heart and soul, given over to the women’s movement. Within minutes we were all embroiled in serious, fastmoving movement talk — and within the hour I was being told I was a revisionist … It seemed I had too loose an idea of what constituted properly revolutionary behavior.

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When Richard came home he walked into the kitchen; I was very glad to see him and leaped out of my chair to hug him hello. He responded, was friendly for a few minutes, and then left the room. I expected him to return and so I simply sat down again, resumed the conversation, and it was 1 a.m. before I realized Richard had gone to his room with no intention of returning to the kitchen.

We, the three women, con­tinued to talk movement talk until 3 a.m. Movement talk, of necessity, is composed of a constant intertwining of personal experience, tactical speculations (regarding acti­vity in and out of the move­ment), and theoretical projec­tions, all being fed continually through the mill of observation and analysis. Naturally, the men in our lives are part of the mate­rial we supply for model cases and situations. Naturally.

I wasn’t able to speak to Rich­ard, who seemed abnormally preoccupied, until late the next day, and then I asked him why he hadn’t come back into the kitchen the night before. He looked at me for a long minute, and then he burst out; “I’ve gotten to hate women. I can’t stand them gath­ering in cliques, the way they do now. I just can’t stand the con­stant cliqueishness. It reminds me of my mother, for God’s sake. When I was a kid, my mother and her friends would gather in the kitchen like that, pushing the men — me and my brother and my father — out with their eyes and their sudden silences … Jesus. Now it’s the same thing all over again. When I walk into my own kitchen I feel the invisible curtain suddenly coming down between me and the women. Suddenly, I am the enemy incarnate, I am the fucking oppressor, I’m the one to be watched and to be shut out …” He gestured in disgust. “It’s useless now. I really don’t know what to make of the movement any more, and certainly I don’t feel part of it at all.”

I was stunned by his outburst. A great blot of sympathy began spreading in me. But very quickly my sympathy began to be outlined in anger, and the outline thickened until it covered half the blot … and then I realized that both my sympathy and my anger were for Richard and for the women. For him and for me, for the cause and for the movement, for the depth of meaning sealed into this incident and for the insight it holds into the nature of the struggle that lies still so far ahead of all of us.

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  ***

What is happening to Richard is happening to men (from liberals to revolutionaries) all over this country who have considered themselves spiritual partisans of the women’s movement and feel, bewilderedly and angrily, that the movement itself is now beating them over the head daily with an indiscriminately wielded club marked “male chauvinist pig.” (A really unhappy example of this: John Leonard’s recent, startling battle in the Times with some of my sisters.) The entire action is amazingly reminiscent of the time only 10 years ago when thousands of white middle-­class liberals who had fought with patience and sincerity in the black civil rights movement were suddenly being called “ofay motherfuckers” by LeRoi Jones and Stokely Carmichael and told to get the hell out of their move­ment. It was as difficult then to sort out the right and the wrong of the matter as it is now, because the right and the wrong were then, and are now, all mixed up with the ugliness of emotional need so swollen and so distorted as a result of having been told so long it does not exist that blacks then, and women now, could not take in all at once both the full impetus of their previous condition and their roaring need to see it change­ and still retain their full capacity for humanist behavior. It is al­most as though the very act of declaring oneself ready to do battle for one’s humanity trans­forms one into something other: like the good and innocent men who go to war to fight for the sweetness of civilization and re­turn killers.

But of course that is the whole sickening trickery in life — the idea that one cannot fight for one’s humanity without, ironically, losing it — and it is a piece of trickery that the blacks some­times seem helpless against and the women now sometimes seem helpless against, and, in the final analysis, that trickery is the real enemy, and the very essence of the thing we must continually be on our guard against. For what shall it profit a woman if she gain an end to slavery in mar­riage and in the process lose her soul?

However, a liberal who was out­raged 10 years ago at the sheer “unreasonableness” of the blacks and is outraged now at the sheer “unfairness” of the women is a fool, and possessed of the kind of impatience that calls all of his early allegiance into ques­tion. For how is it possible that a man in one breath should proclaim his genuine under­standing of woman’s deeply subordinate position in our society, and in the very next exclaim savagely against the forceful and sometimes “unreasonable” ex­pression of rage now rising in women, an expression which inevitably accompanies the up­rising of those who suddenly real­ize they have been cheated of their birthright, and which dies down only slowly and with the healing passage of time that brings real change and increased understanding? Does a woman suddenly understand the need to reverse the behavior of over 2000 years, and presto! That  understanding  makes her saintly? Or is it exactly the opposite? “Ye shall know truth and it shall turn you into a monster. And only after a long siege of fever shall you become human again.” After all, why did it take Moses 40 years to cross the goddamn desert? Because God instructed him that he was not to return slaves to Canaan.

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Many women are acting ugly now because they feel ugly. For a long, long time these women acted sweet when they didn’t necessarily feel sweet. They did so because deep in their being, in a place beyond conscious thought, they believed their lives depended upon their being sweet. Now, when they think of that time, of all that life spent on their knees, they feel green bile spreading through them. and they feel that their lives now depend upon calling men “male chauvinist pig.” That sweetness, then, was infantile, and this viru­lent aggression, now, is infantile. But a people are not kept for generations as children and sud­denly, simply upon coming to re­alize that they have lived as chil­dren, become fully humanist adults, capable of measured proportion. That measured proportion is the kind of behavior that is learned, and it is learned only in a specific way: through the reinforcement of a repeated personal experience which per­ceives humanism, finally, as the only true and necessary and satisfying expression of the sell. A people who have only just begun to emerge from a state of sub­jugation are in no position to be even-handed in this manner, and it takes much patience and un­derstanding and good will on the part of the strong ones both in the subjugated group and in the group holding the power to provide an atmosphere of stabili­ty in which the frightened bravado on both sides of the fence can dissipate itself without increasing the chaos that is al­ready intrinsic in the situation.

John Leonard was appalled by the out-of-focus fury of the sis­terhood over his review of a number of feminist books, a fury that ended up saying a man shouldn’t be reviewing feminist books. Leonard, a long-time supporter of women’s liberation, flew into a rage and in reply said that in that case “Moby Dick” should be reviewed by whales, and ended, in his turn, with an attack on the stupidities of the women’s movement. It was so obvious to him that the feminists’ response was an outrageous at­tack upon every civilized notion that allows a reviewer of in­telligence and decency to call the shots as he sees them.

Leonard was right and he was wrong; the women were right and they were wrong. If I were in Leonard’s place, I would have done precisely what he did — and regretted it five years later. On the other hand, I am in the feminists’ place: I would not have done what they did, but I can see exactly why they did what they did.

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***

Women’s liberation is being called by many names today. It is called “the movement,” it is called “the cause,” it is called “the revolution.” Often, the lan­guage — as language does­ — begins to take on a life of its own, and then the idea of women’s liberation and the terms of description by which it is known begin to grow dangerously distant from each other. Even more important, those terms of description sometimes harden into dogma, and dogma in time becomes a kind of shorthand —  first for explanation and then for response. When that happens, experience is on its way to becoming institutionalized and the life at the center of that expe­rience is slowly sucked away.

The liberation of women is, in my view, at one and the same time, all of the things it is called, and none of those things. For me, feminism is, more than any other single thing, not a movement, not a cause, not a revolution, but rather a profoundly new way of interpreting human experience. It is a vital piece of information at the center of a new point of reference from which one both re-interprets the past and predicts the future. In that sense, it is parallel to the great cultural movements that have so altered the shape of the 20th century — Freudianism and existentialism. Feminism is a piece of emotional and intellectual insight that allows us to see that women’s lives represent the effects of a piece of culture that has come to be known as “sexism”: a determination — based on fear and the existential struggle for power­ — that women shall be declared natural inferiors, and taught that they are natural inferiors. The consequences of this insight, if it is perceived instantly, are as far-­reaching as Freud’s discovery of sexual repression and the exis­tentialists’ discovery of noth­ingness. For each woman and each man contains within herself and within himself a microcosm of the universe in feminist terms — just as each person also contains within himself and within herself a microcosm of sexual neurosis and existential angst — and thus feminism also is nothing less than a new form into which one pours old knowledge, thereby re-vitalizing and setting into motion anew the sources of psychic energy responsible for growth and change and altered behavior.

The conversion to feminism is also very much like the conver­sion to Freudianism and existen­tialism: for a long time one sees nothing, and suddenly one sees it all — whereupon absolute hell breaks loose. A woman suddenly sees herself in feminist terms (just as a prospect for psycho­analysis suddenly sees that his behavior is the response to repression); she grasps the fun­damental idea in a flash (and that, by the way, is the last thing she is going to grasp in a flash); immediately she is surrounded by the “panic and emptiness” of a world in shambles, on the one hand, and the drunken exhilara­tion of a world overflowing with new possibility on the other. Ut­terly dislocated, a newly con­verted feminist is then like the man in Plato’s parable who, coming out of the cave of igno­rance, is blinded by the light and must grope slowly and painfully toward some coherent re-assembly of the world — a groping, I might add, that is further re­tarded by the fact that the man is eager to accept each new ob­ject he stumbles on as the ultimate object, the one that really defines this giddy and fearful new atmosphere he now finds himself in.

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But more significantly and more directly, the newly converted feminist bears a striking resemblance to the novitiate into psychoanalysis who — for an amazingly long time — is over­whelmed by the fact that his fa­ther never made him feel loved and that his desire for his mother deeply affected his ability to love other women, as well as by this amazing discovery of a world within himself of emotional scars, complicated repressions, unbelievable defenses — all busily going into operation every time a stranger says hello all explained by an erudite world theory, all passionately seen as part of an enormous puzzle, there simply to be worked out — and shazam! on the very day the last piece of the puzzle is in place, those compul­sions formed by that unanalyzed self begin to wither and die, one sheds the worn-out skin of defen­sive behavior, and a whole, new creature is born inside the famil­iar but now psychoanalyzed body.

All that is romantic fancy, as the unhappy analysand is quick to learn; should he actually piece the entire puzzle together, he has just begun his trip, and it is one of the cruelest journeys in the world — that journey that must be taken from the stunning point of initial conversion, quick understanding, and unquestioned belief in the miraculous powers of the language of faith, to the disenchanting point of realization that insight must be reinforced by and ultimately (through the formerly impotent tools of intelligence and will) replaced by an act of hard, drudging work in which the emotional habits of a lifetime are slowly and continually chipped away — inch by inch, moment by moment, day by painful day — in order that the analysand’s life may perhaps ­begin to resemble that glorious possibility of existence glimpsed in the rarefied atmosphere of the analyst’s office, hour after cathartic hour.

For the feminist, it is exactly the same. The woman who suddenly sees that she has been forced by cultural decision to remain a half-formed creature, never to have known actual au­tonomy or direct power, is as overcome by her revelation as is the new analysand by his. So violent is the nature of her insight that she is able in a shot to gather into her previously resistant understanding a new explanation for almost every identifiable piece of behavior that characterizes her life. She is able quickly to see her life — down to its smallest detail — as a microcosmic example of the larger and more theoretical idea: sexism. She sees the cultural and political system under which she has grown, suddenly, not as the familiar capitalist West but as a patriarchy in which men have direct power and women do not; in which women have been kept, essentially, as children, and men have assumed the responsibilities and the rewards of adulthood. When the feminist comes to see her life in this light, it is inevita­ble that she should see men — all men, the men in remote places of power as well as the men in her immediate life — as agencies of her victimization. It is also inevi­table that she be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable and very unhappy fury — just as the analysand is overtaken by a furious anger against his parents when he first realizes what they did to him.” It is only with enor­mous difficulty that the fe­minist — like the analysand — can get past the point of initial understanding and primary response­ — for indeed, if she does not, she, like the psychiatric patient who cannot stop explaining his behav­ior in terms of how his mother or father affected him in early childhood, is lost to genuine change. Man-hating, for the feminist, then becomes a waste of energy and a force for retar­dation rather than progress. It is exactly like taking a trip down an unknown country road in the middle of the night. One goes a short distance and falls into a ditch. One steps on the gas pedal, again and again, but to no avail. The force of acceleration makes it feel as though the car is moving, but in fact the wheels are only spinning. One must get out of the car, lift it from the ditch, and proceed down the road — to the end of the trip.

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For in the final analysis, feminism, for me, is the journey deep into the self at the same time that it is an ever increasing understanding of cultural sexism … and, more than anything, the slow, painful reconstruction of that self in the light of the feminist’s enormously multiplied understanding.

Let me explain what I mean. Recently I was walking through midtown Manhattan with another woman. We had just had lunch and we were speaking warmly with one another. This woman is over 50. She is very beautiful, she has two broken marriages behind her, a grown son, an amazingly gentle nature, and a terrifying history of alcoholism. She does not call herself a feminist, and yet she is certainly deeply af­fected by the women’s move­ment; she is, in my view, a per­fect candidate for feminist con­version. As we were walking, she said to me: “You know, I’ve been reading Ti-Grace Atkinson, and I’m beginning to think perhaps she’s right, perhaps separatism is the answer for us. I realized, as I was reading her, that love, being in love, had always been to me exactly what alcohol had been. I mean, when I was in love, it was just like being high; I would experience exhila­ration, a sense of strength, and a marvelous conviction of freedom … do you know what I mean? And then, after a while, love­ — like alcohol — would begin to wear off, and the high would end in depression … Perhaps, then, I should abstain from love as I have abstained from alcohol.”

I felt a terrible rush of confu­sion and unhappiness as she spoke. “No,” I said hotly, “no.” It seemed to me that the lesson to be learned from that experi­ence is not that we must stop loving men, but that we have all been taught a corrupting version of romantic love and we must learn better how to love. That high of love is like something on the cover of the Saturday Eve­ning Post. It is falling in love with the ritual of love, not with a human being, and experiencing the emptiness that follows when ritual is perceived to be without substance; and women do it a thousand times more often and more easily than men because “falling in love” is what women wait to do. Imagine a bride as she is prepared for the ordinary American marriage: there she is draped in masses of queenly white, surrounded by adoring subjects, (family, friends, neighbors), ready to worship at her prize-winning feel, intent on absorbing every detail of this high-mass ceremony: the gather­ing of gifts, silver, wedding rings, honeymoon plans, dressmaker details, wedding-hall plans … the actual man who is actually being married slowly recedes into the unreal background … delicious! Suddenly it’s over. They are married and it is all over. Nothing remains but to prepare for the next high: having a baby. In one sense or another — ­given higher or lesser degrees of spiritual and intellectual pre­tension — thousands of people marry in precisely this manner, mistaking circumstance for per­sonality. Although we alone are not the victims, we, the women, are the ultimate victims of these marriages — because marriage is so damnably central to a woman’s life — and precisely because we are the more genuine victims, it is incumbent on us to understand that we participate in these marriages because we have no strong sense of self with which to demand and to give sub­stantial love, it is incumbent in us to make marriages which will not curtail the free, full func­tioning of that self. If giving up “romantic” love, then, is the price that must be paid for a new kind of marriage, let it be a price we pay gladly, and once and for all have done with the hellish lies attached to the whole damned business so that we can look for­ward with pleasure to a new, free, full-hearted, eminently proportionate way of loving. That, for me, is the feminist lesson to be learned from the re­alization that love is an institu­tion of oppression, as Ti-Grace so accurately puts it.

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***

breaks my heart to hear a woman speak of “ripping off” a man, or another calling a man she lives with — and has every intention of continuing to live with — a “male chauvinist pig” 29 times a day, or another reveling in the open hostility she displays toward every man she sleeps with. It breaks my heart because I know equally well the confusion and the despair and the frustra­tion behind such a woman’s words. I know that her emotional wheels are spinning, and that she can’t see her way past her present position. And I know also that somewhere inside her, perhaps well below the conscious level, she apprehensively feels that displaying the same emotional vic­iousness toward men that they have displayed toward her may be suspicious proof of the females crippled ability to assume respon­sibility for the making of her own life.

And I want to say: have faith, my sister. The place in which we now find ourselves is unavoid­able, but soon it will prove insup­portable; soon it will prove emotionally unsatisfying, and with that emotional dissatisfaction comes another leap toward un­derstanding, and with that, the automatic courage to press fur­ther and be off down that road once again. It is insufficient to the cause to concentrate on man-­hating; it exhausts your energy and makes you lose sight of the real aim of the struggle. It is not the action that will return your life to you; it is not the way to the end of that road, and the end of that road is all that counts.

None of which is to say that the fight against sexism is not very real, or that it must not be fought daily by the  woman’s mo­vement — in the courts, in the streets, in the offices, in the bedrooms — or that those in power are anywhere near ready to relinquish that power. It is only to say that I believe that the thrust of feminism should not be the reforming of old institutions so much as the creation of new ones:

— I do not wish to batter down the doors of male institutions, crying “Let me in!”, so much as I simply wish to walk away from those institutions, thereby causing them to fall, as women make of themselves human beings who simply will not participate in the male scheme of civilization.

— I wish to see every feminist take a solemn vow: “Let there never be another generation of women for whom marriage is the pivotal experience of psychic development.”

— I wish to see every feminist say to herself: “Yes, the pa­triarchy has taken my life from me, but also I have given it. I am not going to waste the rest of it in an avalanche of reproach. I am going to fight the patriarchy, but my real energy goes to the hard drudging work of making myself human — as well as humane. Men may have taken my life from me — but they cannot give it back to me. Only I can do that, fighting inch by inch to reverse the emotional habits of a life­time.”

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All much, much easier said than done — especially for us, the women between 30 and 40, the truly brave and sacrificial transitional generation. But it is, I believe, the only true direction that we — as women, as human beings, as intimate possessors of the final understanding of “liber­ation” — can travel. Yes, men are also in chains. Yes, “powerful oppressor” is, for most men, a painful farce. Yes, it is the sexual liberation of everyone that is required. But history has now passed the ball to us, the women, and it is our liberation that is demanded, our liberation that must be of paramount con­cern, our liberation that will, by default, insure the liberation of all. And it will come, all of it, not so much through the develop­ment of a political dogma or a revolutionary apparatus or a sweeping commitment to fem­inist ideology, as through the slow, irreversible conversion to a new psychology of the self on the part of thousands of women today, and millions more tomor­row. Against that force, the operating principles of the old male civilization will be utterly helpless. Against that force, the denial of female autonomy will be as a leaf in the wind.

It is for these reasons that I believe that the heart and soul of the feminist movement is the small, anonymous consciousness­-raising group. It is here that the real work is being done, here that feminism struggles to life, here that it takes hold with rooted strength, transforming the soul of a woman, biting deeply and slowly — like acid on metal — ­into the ready heart beneath the encrusted surface, so that it becomes forever impossible for that woman to turn back on what she now knows or to make whole again that old, false self.

The existence of the women’s movement as a source of support and strength for thousands of women who will come slowly to feminism is invaluable. On the other hand, the movement is also a source of apprehension in that it nurtures the irresistible ten­dency toward doctrinaire indict­ments, the easy out of man-hating, the often false solidarity of ideological “sisterhood.” In the short time since it first came into existence, the movement has already spawned hundreds of party hacks, women who are now “movement women,” women whose line of defense grows more rigid with each passing day, women who have often ex­changed one crudely held ideology for another.

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To travel down that ideological road is not fatal — nothing can be fatal to the feminist movement, for it is alive in all its parts and its desire for more life is omnivo­rous, feeding itself on anything and everything — and often, it seems the only real road to be on. But, it seems to me, in the end it is regressive and danger­ous to a movement that prides it­self on having as its ultimate goal the humane treatment of all human beings.

For myself, I can only say: I fight the polemicist in me daily. I fight not to destroy it, but merely to hold it in balance. To hold it in balance. And I must fight, because it is such a temptation for me to simply surrender to it. The excitement, the energy, the sheer voluptuous sweep of feminist ideology is almost erotic in its power to sway me. My mind grows vividly sharp, my responses come quickly, my illu­minations and connections are ir­resistible, as one piece of the puzzle after another begins to fall swiftly into place no sooner do I allow a single sentence to domi­nate my being: “Everything in man’s experience makes him an oppressor, everything in woman’s experience makes her a victim.” That’s all. Just a single sentence. No more than that. And yet …

Something in me holds back, some part of my soul struggles up in painful confusion to say softly: no, that’s not entirely true. That is certainly not en­tirely true. I cannot say to a man who has loved me: “You god­damn sexist” (as I have said) without feeling a terrible, numbing pain as I look upon his dismayed face and the whole of our deeply woven experience together flashes before me. No, I cannot say I am a total victim as I feel the energy of life rushing through me and I exult in my growing independence. I cannot say these things — and I think it is the best part of my feminism that will not allow me to say them.

Feminism has within it the seeds of a genuine world view. Like every real system of thought it is able to refer itself to everything in our lives, thereby rescuing the old, forgotten knowl­edge that is locked deep inside each of us. But if, in the end, in our ideological lunge toward retribution, we use it as a means of abdicating our responsibility to be true to every part of our expe­rience — we are lost. ❖

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A Fierce Attachment

A Mother and Daughter, Living Their Lives

I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second­-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apart­ment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her hus­band. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mothers says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx, ride the subway was a euphemism for going to work.

I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and 21. There were 20 apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly re­member the men at all. They were every­where, of course — husbands, fathers, brothers — but I remember only the women. And I re­member them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I — the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image — I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me 30 years to understand how much of them I understood.

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My mother and I are out walking. I ask if she remembers the women in that building in the Bronx. “Of course,” she replies. I tell her I’ve always thought sexual rage was what made them so crazy. “Absolutely,” she says without breaking her stride. “Remember Drucker? She used to say if she didn’t smoke a cigarette while she was having intercourse with her husband she’d throw herself out the window. And Zimmerman, on the other side of us? They married her off to him when she was 16, she hated his guts, she used to say if he’d get killed on the job it would be a mitzvah.” My mother stops walking. Her voice drops in awe of her own memory; “He actually used to take her by physical force,” she says. “Would pick her up in the middle of the living room floor and carry her off to the bed.” She stares into the middle distance for a moment. Then she says to me: “The European men. They were animals. Just plain animals.” She starts walking again. “Once Zimmerman locked him out of the house. He rang our bell. He could hardly look at me. He asked if he could use our fire escape window. I didn’t speak one word to him. He walked through the house and climbed out the window.” My mother laughs. “That fire escape window, it did some business! Remember Cessa upstairs? Oh no, you couldn’t remember her, she only lived there one year after we moved in, then the Russians were in that apartment. Cessa and I were friendly. It’s so strange, when I come to think of it. We hardly knew each other, any of us, sometimes we didn’t talk to each other at all. But we lived on top of one another, were in and out of each other’s houses. Every­body knew everything in no time at all. A few months in the building and the women were, well, intimate.

“This Cessa. She was a beautiful young woman, mar­ried only a few years. She didn’t love her husband. She didn’t hate him, either. He was a nice man, actually. What can I tell you, she didn’t love him, she used to go out every day, I think she had a lover somewhere. Anyway, she had long black hair down to her ass. One day she cut it off. She wanted to be modern. Her husband didn’t say anything to her but her father came into the house, took one look and gave her a slap across the face she saw her grandmother from the next world. Then he instructed her husband to lock her in the house for a month. She used to come down the fire escape into my window and out of my door. Every afternoon for a month. One day she comes back and we’re having coffee in the kitchen. I say to her, ‘Cessa, tell your father this is America, Cessa, America. You’re a free woman.’ She looks at me and she says to me, ‘What do you mean tell my father this is America? He was born in Brooklyn.’ ”

My relationship with my mother is not good, and as our lives accumulate it often seems to wors­en. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding. For years at a time there is an exhaustion, a kind of soften­ing, between us. Then the rage comes up again, hot and clear, erotic in its power to compel attention. These days it is bad between us. My mother’s way of “dealing” with the bad times is to accuse me loudly and publicly of the truth. Whenever she sees me she says, “You hate me. I know you hate me.” I’ll be visiting her and she’ll say to anyone who happens to be in the room — a neighbor, a friend, my brother, one of my nieces — “She hates me. What she has against me I don’t know, but she hates me.” She is equally capable of stopping a stranger on the street when we’re out walking and saying, “This is my daughter. She hates me.” Then she’ll turn to me and plead, “What did I do to you you should hate me so?” I never answer. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning, too.

But we walk the streets of New York together endless­ly. We both live in lower Manhattan now, our apart­ments a mile apart, and we visit best by walking. My mother is an urban peasant and I am my mother’s daughter. The city is our natural element. We each have daily adventures with bus drivers, bag ladies, ticket takers, and street crazies. Walking brings out the best in us. I am 45 now and my mother is 77. Her body is strong and healthy. She traverses the island easily with me. We don’t love each other on these walks, often we are raging at each other, but we walk anyway.

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The apartment was a five-room flat, with all the rooms opening out onto each other. The kitchen window faced an alley in back of the building. There were no trees or bushes or grasses of any kind in the alley — only concrete, wire fencing, and wooden poles. Yet I remember the alley as a place of clear light and sweet air, suffused, somehow, with a perpetual smell of summery green.

The alley caught the morning sun (our kitchen was radiant before noon), and it was a shared ritual among the women that laundry was done early on a washboard in the sink and hung out to dry in the sun. Crisscrossing the alley, from first floor to fifth, were perhaps 50 clotheslines strung out on tall wooden poles planted in the concrete ground. Each apartment had its own line stretching out among 10 others on the pole. The wash from each line often interfered with the free flap of the wash on the line above or below, and the sight of a woman yanking hard at a clothesline, trying to shake her wash free from an indiscriminate tangle of sheets and trousers, was common. While she was pulling at the line she might also be calling, “Berth-a-a. Berth-a-a. Ya home, Bertha?” Friends were scattered throughout the buildings on the alley, and called to each other all during the day to make various arrangements (“What time ya taking Harvey to the doctor?” Or, “Got sugar in the house? I’ll send Marilyn over.” Or, “Meetcha on the corner in ten minutes”). So much stir and animation! The clear air, the unshadowed light, the women calling to each other, the sounds of their voices mixed with the smell of clothes drying in the sun, all that texture and color swaying in open space. I leaned out the kitchen window with a sense of expectancy I can still taste in my mouth, and that taste is colored a tender and brilliant green.

For me, the excitement in the apartment was located in the kitchen and the life outside its window. It was a true excitement: it grew out of contradiction. Here in the kitchen I did my homework and kept my mother company, watched her prepare and execute her day. Here, I learned she had the skill and vitality to do her work well but that she disliked it, and set no store by it. She taught me nothing. I never learned how to cook, clean, or iron clothes. She was a boringly competent cook, a furiously fast housecleaner, a demonic washerwoman.

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Still, she and I occupied the kitchen fully. Although my mother never seemed to be listening to what went on in the alley, she missed nothing. She heard every voice, every motion of the clothesline, every flap of the sheets, registered each call and communication. We laughed together over this one’s broken English, that one’s loud­mouthed indiscretion, a screech here, a fabulous curse there. Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. She would hear a voice go up one octave and observe: “She had a fight with her husband this morning.” Or it would go down an octave and “Her kid’s sick.” Or she’d catch a fast exchange and diagnose a cooling friendship. This skill of hers excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, more interesting when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley. I felt a live connection, then, be­tween us and the world outside the window.

The kitchen, the window, the alley. It was the atmo­sphere in which she was rooted, the background against which she stood outlined. Here she was smart, funny, and energetic, could exercise authority and have impact. But she felt contempt for her environment. “Women, yech!” she’d say. “Clotheslines and gossip,” she’d say. She knew there was another world — the world — and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?

So this was her condition: here in the kitchen she knew who she was, here in the kitchen she was restless and bored, here in the kitchen she functioned admirably, here in the kitchen she despised what she did. She would become angry over “the emptiness of a woman’s life,” as she called it, then laugh with a delight I can still hear when she analyzed some complicated bit of business going on in the alley. Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator. How could she not be devoted to a life of such intense division? And how could I not be devoted to her devotion?

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We’re walking up Fifth Avenue. It’s a bad day for me. I’m feeling fat and lonely, trapped in my lousy life. I know I should be home working, and that I’m here playing the dutiful daughter only to avoid the desk. The anxiety is so great I’m walking with a stomach ache. My mother, as always, knows she can do nothing for me, but my unhappiness makes her nervous. She is talking, talking at tedious, obfuscating length, about a cousin of mine who is con­sidering divorce.

As we near the library, an Eastern religionist (shaved head, translucent skin, a bag of bones wrapped in faded pink gauze) darts at us, a copy of his leader’s writing extended in his hand. My mother keeps talking while the creature in gauze flaps around us, his spiel a steady buzz in the air, competing for my attention. At last, she feels interrupted. She turns to him. “What is it?” she says. “What do you want from me? Tell me.” He tells her. She hears him out. Then she straightens her shoulders, draws herself up to her full five feet two inches, and announces: “Young man, I am a Jew and a socialist. I think that’s more than enough for one lifetime, don’t you?” The pink-gowned boy-man is charmed, and for a moment bemused. “My parents are Jews,” he confides, “but they certainly aren’t socialists.” My mother stares at him, shakes her head, grasps my arm firmly in her fingers, and marches me off up the avenue.

“Can you believe this?” she says. “A nice Jewish boy shaves his head and babbles in the street. A world full of crazies. Divorce everywhere, and if not divorce this. What a generation you all are!”

“Don’t start, Ma,” I say. “I don’t want to hear that bullshit again.”

“Bullshit here, bullshit there,” she says, “it’s still true. Whatever else we did, we didn’t fall apart in the streets like you’re all doing. We had order, quiet, dignity. Fam­ilies stayed together, and people lived decent lives.”

“That’s a crock. They didn’t lead decent lives, they lived hidden lives. You’re not going to tell me people were happier then, are you?”

“No,” she capitulates instantly. “I’m not saying that.”

“Well, what are you saying?”

She frowns and stops talking. Searches around in her head to find out what she is saying. Ah, she’s got it. Triumphant, accusing, she says, “The unhappiness is so alive today.”

Her words startle and gratify me. I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her. “That’s the first step, Ma,” I say softly. “The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”

She stops in front of the library. She doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying, but she’s excited by the exchange. Her faded brown eyes, dark and brilliant in my child­hood, brighten as the meaning of her words and mine penetrates her thought. Her cheeks flush and her pud­ding soft face hardens wonderfully with new definition. She looks beautiful to me. I know from experience she will remember this afternoon as a deeply pleasurable one. I also know she will not be able to tell anyone why it has been pleasurable. She enjoys thinking, only she doesn’t know it. She has never known it.

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A year after my mother told Mrs. Drucker she was a whore, the Druckers moved out of the building and Nettie Levine moved into their apartment. I have no memory of the Druckers moving out or of Nettie moving in. People and all their belongings seemed to evaporate out of an apartment, and others simply to take their place. How early I absorbed the circumstantial nature of most attachments. After all, what difference did it really make if we called the next-­door neighbor Roseman or Drucker or Zimmerman? It mattered only that there was a next-door neighbor. Nettie, however, would make a difference.

I was running down the stairs after school, rushing to get out on the street, when we collided in the darkened hallway. The brown paper bags in her arms went flying in all directions. We each said “Oh!” and stepped back, I against the staircase railing, she against the paint-blis­tered wall. I bent blushing to help her retrieve the bags scattered across the landing and saw that she had bright red hair piled high on her head in a pompadour and streaming down her back and over her shoulders. Her features were narrow and pointed (the eyes almond­-shaped, the mouth and nose thin and sharp), and her shoulders were wide but she was slim. She reminded me of pictures of Greta Garbo. My heart began to pound. I had never before seen a beautiful woman.

“Don’t worry about the packages,” she said to me. “Go out and play. The sun is shining. You mustn’t waste it here in the dark. Go, go.” Her English was accented, like the English of the other women in the building, but her voice was soft, almost musical, and her words took me by surprise. My mother had never urged me not to lose pleasure, even if it was only the pleasure of the sunny street. I ran down the staircase, excited. I knew she was the new neighbor.

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Everything about Nettie proved to be impossible. She was a gentile married to a Jew like no Jew we had ever known. Her husband was a Merchant Marine, away at sea most of the time. (“Impossible,” my mother had said, “what Jew would work voluntarily on a ship?”) Alone and apparently free to live wherever she chose, Nettie had chosen to live among working-class Jews who offered her neither goods nor charity. A woman whose sexy good looks brought her darting glances of envy and curiosity, she seemed to value inordinately the life of every respectable dowd. She praised my mother lavishly for her housewifely skills — her ability to make small wages go far, always have the house smelling nice and the children content to be at home — as though these skills were a treasure, some precious dowry that had been denied her, and symbolized a life from which she had been shut out. My mother — secretly as amazed as everyone else by Nettie’s allure — would look thoughtful­ly at her when she tried (often vaguely, incoherently) to speak of the differences between them, and would say to her, “But you’re a wife now. You’ll learn these things. It’s nothing. There’s nothing to learn.” Nettie’s face would then flush painfully, and she’d shake her head. My mother didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain.

Rick Levine returned to New York two months after Nettie had moved into the building. She was wildly proud of her tall, dark, bearded seaman — showing him off in the street to the teenagers she had made friends with, dragging him in to meet us, making him go to the grocery store with her. An illumination settled on her skin. Her green almond eyes were speckled with light. A new grace touched her movements: the way she walked, moved her hands, smoothed back her hair. There was suddenly about her an aristocracy of physical being. Her beauty deepened. She was untouchable.

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I saw the change in her, and was magnetized. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if I was going to run into her in the hall that day. If I didn’t I’d find an excuse to ring her bell. It wasn’t that I wanted to see her with Rick: his was a sullen beauty, glum and lumpish, and there was nothing happening between them that inter­ested me. It was her I wanted to see, only her. And I wanted to touch her. My hand was always threatening to shoot away from my body out toward her face, her arm, her side. I yearned toward her. She radiated a kind of promise I couldn’t stay away from, I wanted … I want­ed … I didn’t know what I wanted.

But the elation was short-lived: hers and mine. One morning, a week after Rick’s return, my mother ran into Nettie as they were both leaving the house. Nettie turned away from her.

“What’s wrong?” my mother demanded. “Turn around. Let me see your face.” Nettie turned toward her slowly. A tremendous blue-black splotch surrounded her half-closed right eye.

“Oh my God,” my mother breathed reverently.

“He didn’t mean it,” Nettie pleaded. “It was a mis­take. He wanted to go to the bar to see his friends. I wouldn’t let him. It took a long time before he hit me.”

After that she looked again as she had before he came home. Two weeks later Rick Levine was gone again. He swore to his clinging wife that this would be his last trip. When he came home in April, he said, he would find a good job in the city and they would at long last settle down. She believed that he meant it this time, and finally she let him pull her arms from around his neck. Six weeks after he had sailed, she discovered she was pregnant. Late in the third month of his absence, she received a telegram informing her that Rick had been shot to death during a quarrel in a bar in port some­where on the Baltic Sea. His body was being shipped back to New York, and the insurance was in question.

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Nettie became intertwined in the dailiness of our life so quickly it was hard for me to remember what our days had been like before she lived next door. She’d slip in for coffee late in the morning, then again in the afternoon, and seemed to have supper with us three nights a week. Soon I felt free to walk into her house at any hour, and my brother was being consulted daily about Rick’s insurance.

“It’s a pity on her,” my mother kept saying. “A widow. Pregnant, poor, abandoned.”

Actually, her unexpected widowhood made Nettie safely pathetic and safely other. It was as though she had been trying, long before her husband died, to let my mother know that she was disenfranchised in a way Mama could never be, perched only temporarily on a landscape Mama was entrenched in, and when Rick obligingly got himself killed this deeper truth became apparent. My mother could now sustain Nettie’s beauty without becoming unbalanced, and Nettie could help herself to Mama’s respectability without being humbled. The compact was made without a word between them. We got beautiful Nettie in the kitchen every day, and Nettie got my mother’s protection in the building. When Mrs. Zimmerman rang our bell to inquire snidely after the shiksa my mother cut her off sharply, telling her she was busy and had no time to talk nonsense. After that no one in the building gossiped about Nettie in front of any of us.

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My mother’s loyalty, once engaged, was unswerving. Loyalty, however, did not prevent her from judging Nettie, it only made her voice her reservations in a manner more indirect than the one to which she was accustomed. She would sit in the kitchen with her sister, my aunt Sarah, who lived four blocks away, discussing the men who had begun to appear, one after another, at Nettie’s door in the weeks following Rick’s death. These men were his shipmates, coming to offer condolences. There was, my mother said archly, something strange about the way these men visited. And Nettie herself acted strangely with them. Perhaps that was what was most troubling: the odd mannerisms Nettie seemed to adopt in the presence of the men. My mother and my aunt exchanged “glances.”

“What do you mean?” I would ask loudly. “What’s wrong with the way she acts? There’s nothing wrong with the way she acts. Why are you talking like this?” They would become silent then, both of them, neither answering me nor talking again that day about Nettie, at least not while I was in the room.

One Saturday morning I walked into Nettie’s house without knocking (her door was always closed but never locked). Her little kitchen table was propped against the wall beside the front door — her foyer was smaller than ours, you fell into the kitchen — and people seated at the table were quickly “caught” by anyone who entered without warning. That morning I saw a tall thin man with straw-colored hair sitting at the kitchen table. Opposite him sat Nettie, her head bent toward the cotton print tablecloth I loved (we had shiny boring oilcloth on our table). Her arm was stretched out, her hand lying quietly on the table. The man’s hand, large and with great bony knuckles on it, covered hers. He was gazing at her bent head. I came flying through the door, a bundle of nine-year-old intrusive motion. She jumped in her seat, and her head came up swiftly. In her eyes was an expression I would see many times in the years ahead but was seeing that day for the first time, and although I didn’t have the language to name it, I had the sentience to feel jarred by it. She was calculating the impression this scene was making on me.

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It rained earlier in the day and now at one in the afternoon, for a minute and a half, New York is washed clean. The streets glitter in the pale spring sunlight. Cars radiate dust-free happiness. Storefront windows sparkle mindlessly. Even people look made anew.

We’re walking down Eighth Avenue into the Village. At the corner of Eighth and Greenwich is a White Tower hamburger joint where a group of derelicts in permanent residence entertains visiting out-of-towners from 14th Street, Chelsea, even the Bowery. This after­noon the party on this corner, often raucous, is definite­ly on the gloomy side, untouched by weather renewal. As we pass the restaurant doors, however, one gentleman detaches from the group, takes two or three uncertain steps, and bars our way. He stands, swaying, before us. He is black, somewhere between 25 and 60. His face is cut and swollen, the eyelids three-quarters shut. His shoes are two sizes too large, the feet inside them bare. So is his chest, visible beneath a grimy tweed coat that swings open whenever he moves. This creature con­fronts us, puts out his hand palm up, and speaks.

“Can you ladies let me have a thousand dollars for a martini?” he inquires.

My mother looks directly into his face. “I know we’re in an inflation,” she says, “but a thousand dollars for a martini?”

His mouth drops. It’s the first time in God knows how long that a mark has acknowledged his existence. “You’re beautiful,” he burbles at her. “Beautiful.”

“Look on him,” she says to me in Yiddish. “Just look on him.”

He turns his bleary eyelids in my direction. “Whad­she-say?” he demands.

“She said you’re breaking her heart,” I tell him.

“She-say-that?” His eyes nearly open. “She-say-that?”

I nod. He whirls at her. “Take me home and make love to me,” he croons, and right there in the street, in the middle of the day, he begins to bay at the moon. “I need you,” he howls at my mother and doubles over, his fist in his stomach. “I need you.”

She nods at him. “I need too,” she says dryly. “Fortu­nately or unfortunately, it is not you I need.” And she propels me around the now motionless derelict. Para­lyzed by recognition, he will no longer bar our progress down the street.

We cross Abingdon Square. The gentrified West Vil­lage closes around us, makes us not peaceful but quiet. We walk through block after block of antique stores, gourmet shops, boutiques, not speaking. But for how long can my mother and I not speak?

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“So I’m reading the biography you gave me,” she says. I look at her, puzzled, and then I remember. “Oh!” I smile in wide delight. “Are you enjoying it?”

“Listen,” she begins. The smile drops off my face and my stomach contracts. That “listen” means she is about to trash the book I gave her to read. She is going to say, “What. What’s here? What’s here that I don’t already know? I lived through it. I know it all. What can this writer tell me that I don’t already know? Nothing. To you it’s interesting, but to me? How can this be interest­ing to me?” On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared.

The book I had given her to read was a biography of Josephine Herbst, a ’30s writer, a stubborn willful raging woman grabbing at politics and love and writing, in there punching until the last minute. “Listen,” my mother says now in the patronizing tone she thinks conciliatory. “Maybe this is interesting to you, but not to me. I lived through all this. I know it all. What can I learn from this? Nothing. To you it’s inter­esting. Not to me.” Invariably, when she speaks so, my head fills with blood and before the sentences have stopped pouring from her mouth, I am lashing out at her. “You’re an ignoramus, you know nothing, only a know-nothing talks the way you do.” On and on I’ll go, thoroughly ruining the afternoon.

However, in the past year an odd circumstance has begun to obtain. On occasion, my head fails to fill with blood. I become irritated but remain calm. Not falling into a rage, I do not make a holocaust of the afternoon. Today, it appears, one of those moments is upon us. I turn to my mother, throw my left arm around her still solid back, place my right hand on her upper arm, and say, “Ma, if this book is not interesting to you, that’s fine. You can say that.” She looks coyly at me, eyes large, head half-turned; now she’s interested. “But don’t say it has nothing to teach you. That there’s nothing here. That’s unworthy of you, and of the book, and of me. You demean us all when you say that.” Listen to me. Such wisdom. And all of it gained 10 minutes ago.

Silence. Long silence. We walk another block. Silence. She’s looking off into that middle distance. I take my lead from her, matching my steps to hers. I do not speak, do not press her. Another silent block. “That Josephine Herbst,” my mother says. “She certainly car­ried on, didn’t she?”

Relieved and happy, I hug her. “She didn’t know what she was doing either, Ma, but yes, she carried on.” “I’m jealous,” my mother blurts at me. “I’m jealous she lived her life I didn’t live mine.”

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Mama and Nettie quarreled, and I entered City College. In feeling memory these events carry equal weight: Both inaugurated open conflict, both drove a wedge between me and the un­knowing self, both were experienced as subver­sive and war-like in character. Certainly the conflict between Nettie and my mother seemed a strategic plan to surround and conquer. Incoherent as the war was, shot through with rage and deceit, its aims apparently confused and always denied, it never lost sight of the enemy: the intelligent heart of the girl who if not  bonded to one would be lost to both. City College, as well, seemed no less concerned with laying siege to the ignorant mind if not the intelligent heart. Benign in in­tent, only a passport to the promised land, City of course was the real invader. It did more violence to the emotions than either Mama or Nettie could have dreamed possible, divided me from them both, provoked and nourished an un­shared life inside the head that became a piece of treason. I lived among my people but I was no longer one of them.

I think this was true for most of us at City College. We still used the subways, still returned to the neighborhood each night, talked to our high school friends, and went to sleep in our own beds. But secretly we had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents. We had been initiated, had learned the difference between hidden and expressed thought. This made us subversives in our own homes.

As thousands before me have said: “For us it was City College or nothing.” I enjoyed the solidarity those words in­voked but rejected the implied depriva­tion. At City College I sat talking in a basement cafeteria until 10 or 11 at night with half a dozen others who also never wanted to go home to Brooklyn or the Bronx, and here in the cafeteria my edu­cation took root. Here I learned that Faulkner was America, Dickens was poli­tics, Marx was sex, Jane Austen the idea of culture, that I came from a ghetto and D.H. Lawrence was a visionary. Here my love of literature named itself, and amazement over the life of the mind blos­somed. I discovered that people were transformed by ideas, and that intellectu­al conversation was immensely erotic.

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We never stopped talking. Perhaps be­cause we did very little else (restricted by sexual fear and working-class economics, we didn’t go to the theater and we didn’t make love), but certainly we talked so much because most of us had been read­ing in bottled-up silence from the age of six on and City College was our great release. It was not from the faculty that City drew its reputation for intellectual goodness, it was from its students, it was from us. Not that we were intellectually distinguished, we weren’t, but our hungry energy vitalized the place. The idea of intellectual life burned in us. While we pursued ideas we felt known, to ourselves and each other. The world made sense, there was ground beneath the feet, a place in the universe to stand. City Col­lege made conscious in me inner cohesion as a first value.

I think my mother was very quickly of two minds about me and City, although she had wanted me to go to school, no question about that, had been energized by the determination that I do so. “Where is it written that a working-class widow’s daughter should go to college?” one of my uncles said to her, drinking coffee at our kitchen table on a Saturday morning in my senior year in high school.

“Here it is written,” she replied, tap­ping the table hard with her middle fin­ger. “Right here it is written. The girl goes to college.”

“But why? What do you think will come of it?”

“I don’t know. I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s go­ing to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” I stared at her. Where had that come from?

The moment was filled with conflict and bravado. She felt the words she spoke but she did not mean them. She didn’t even know what she meant by an education. When she discovered that upon graduation I wasn’t a teacher, she acted as though she’d been swindled. In her mind a girl child went in one door marked college and came out another marked teacher.

“You mean you’re not a teacher?” she said to me, eyes widening as her two strong hands held my diploma down on the kitchen table.

“No,” I said.

“What have you been doing there all these years?” she asked quietly.

“Reading novels,” I replied.

She marveled silently at my chutzpah.

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But it wasn’t really a matter of what I could or could not do with the degree. We were people who knew how to stay alive, she never doubted I would find a way. No, what drove her, and divided us, was me thinking. She hadn’t understood that going to school meant I would start thinking: coherently and out loud. She was taken by violent surprise. My sentences got longer within a month of those first classes. Longer, more complicated, formed by words whose meaning she did not always know. I had never before spo­ken a word she didn’t know. Or made a sentence whose logic she couldn’t follow. Or attempted an opinion that grew out of an abstraction. It made her crazy. Her face began to take on a look of animal cunning when I started a sentence that could not possibly be concluded before three clauses hit the air. Cunning sparked anger, anger flamed into rage. “What are you talking about?” she would shout at me. “What are you talking about? Speak English, please! We all understand En­glish in this house. Speak it!”

Her response stunned me. I didn’t get it. Wasn’t she pleased that I could say something she didn’t understand? Wasn’t that what it was all about? I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing. I’d speak my new sentences, and she would turn on me as though I’d performed a vile act right there at the kitchen table.

She, of course, was as confused as I. She didn’t know why she was angry, and if she’d been told she was angry she would have denied it, would have found a way to persuade both herself and any interested listener that she was proud I was in school, only why did I have to be such a show-off? Was that what going to college was all about?

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I was 17, she was 50. I had not yet come into my own as a qualifying bellig­erent but I was a respectable contender and she, naturally, was at the top of her game. The lines were drawn, and we did not fail one another. Each of us rose repeatedly to the bait the other one tossed out. Our storms shook the apart­ment: paint blistered on the wall, lino­leum cracked on the floor, glass shivered in the window frame. We barely kept our hands off one another, and more than once we approached disaster.

One Saturday afternoon she was lying on the couch. I was reading in a nearby chair. Idly she asked: “What are you reading?” Idly I replied: “A comparative history of the idea of love over the last 300 years.” She looked at me for a mo­ment. “That’s ridiculous,” she said slow­ly. “Love is love. It’s the same every­where, all the time. What’s to compare?” “That’s absolutely not true,” I shot back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s only an idea, Ma. That’s all love is. Just an idea. You think it’s a function of the mysterious immutable be­ing, but it’s not! There is, in fact, no such thing as the mysterious immutable be­ing … ” Her legs were off the couch so fast I didn’t see them go down. She made fists of her hands, closed her eyes tight, and howled, “I’ll kill yew-w-w! Snake in my bosom, I’ll kill you. How dare you talk to me that way?” And then she was com­ing at me. She was small and chunky. So was I. But I had 30 years on her. I was out of the chair faster than her arm could make contact and running, running through the apartment, racing for the bathroom, the only room with a lock on it. The top half of the bathroom door was a panel of frosted glass. She arrived just as I turned the lock, and couldn’t put the brakes on. She drove her fist through the glass, reaching for me. Blood, screams, shattered glass on both sides of the door. I thought that afternoon: One of us is going to die of this attachment. ■

This article is an excerpt from Fierce Attachments, a memoir by Vivian Gornick that will be published later this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Scene

An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones

The Press of Freedom: An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones
March 4, 1965

Four men — each a well-known practitioner of one of the arts — appeared on a recent Monday night in the small basement room of the Village Vanguard to address an overflowing crowd on the grandly entitled subject “Art vs. Politics.” The men were Larry Rivers, painter; Archie Shepp, musician; Jonas Mekas, film-maker; LeRoi Jones, play­wright. The audience was predominantly — predictably — white, liberal, middle-class. They had come to be entertained and instructed. They stayed to be­come serious or delighted. They left in a roar of confused frus­tration, feeling as though they had, with unexpected stunning, been dealt a kick in the stomach and a few swift blows to the side of the head. For LeRoi Jones and Archie Shepp, whose evening it was, had told them repeatedly, “Die baby. The only thing you can do for me is die.”

It is almost impossible for me to train total recall on a con­versation which developed with the bewildering speed of a bar­room brawl. But here’s the gist of it:

Larry Rivers led off, reading from a prepared statement. Speaking of the artist’s relation to his audience, Mr. Rivers traced that changing phenomenon through Courbet, the Im­pressionists, the Futurists, the Surrealists, coming at last to the present time, in which, he concluded, the artist is his own audience; this not merely in the sense that a painter works for himself, but in the broader sense that in our time the art­ist’s greatest urge is to emphasize the similarity between his own fundamental desires and those of every other member of society. He put it something like this: I want to eat good, fuck good, work good … just like everybody else.

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Uneasy Stir

Archie Shepp, the next speaker, gaped for a moment at Ri­vers, seemed a bit nonplussed, muttered something about “Art, art. What the hell is all this talk about art?” and, with a shrug of the shoulders, launched into a comparatively mild ram­ble about a book he’d been reading the other night which described the first passage of slaves to this continent, a passage in which two-thirds of those slaves had died in the hold — and if this (Shepp’s) life and work didn’t represent an attempt to pay the homage of eternal remembrance to those two-thirds, well then … He ended by looking out at the au­dience and telling them that while he didn’t particularly want to put them down for the ofays they obviously were, still they couldn’t hope to understand what he was talking about.

Rivers’ head went back; the audience stirred uneasily (what was this? they were here as partisans — was this how you talked to partisans?); LeRoi Jones laughed softly and said “Take it easy, Archie. We’ve got all evening.” (The man is a veritable prophet.)

Mekas then struggled through a vague and rather incoherent speech (unfortunately because I suspect his point was, ultimately, the most worldly of them all) about how the experiences of wartime Europe had led him finally to understand that man’s only valuable occupation was his struggle to fashion for himself a more beautiful soul.

Theatre of Victims

Then Jones took the stand. He read a piece entitled “The Re­volutionary Theatre” (a piece, he informed the audience, which had been commissioned by the New York Times and then re­fused). In language of  poetic and highly imaginative insistence Jones claimed that it was the business of the theatre to reflect life … to stir up such hatred and such feeling that when the curtain comes down the theatre seats are soaked in the blood of split heads (needless to point out whose blood and whose split heads). This, he maintained, is a theatre of victims; by Western standards (sneer) perhaps a theatre of heroes … but victims all the same. He went on to quote the famous Oxford professor Wittgenstein as having said: “Ethics is aesthetics” and to point out that the white world has never understood or accepted this pro­position, intimating that the new Negro artist does understand it and will make damn sure that the whites do before they die.

In the long give-and-take (to be generous about it) that then ensued among the panelists, the dominance beat was one of unflagging insult from Shepp and Jones to the audience, the city, the country, the world — that is, to that section of it which was white, pure white. Nor did the other (white) panelists get off the hook. Mekas, who had been describing an interview between himself and Jack Smith and Mike Wallace, was suddenly asked by Jones: “Tell me, of you can, what is the difference be­tween Jack Smith and Mike Wallace.” To which Mekas had enough humorous composure to reply: “Mike Wallace would never be interviewed by Jack Smith.”

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The Different

But it was Larry Rivers who bore the brunt of the assault:

Shepp would turn to Rivers every now and then and say: “Man, you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.” And then: “They hire YOU at the Five Spot; they don’t hire me; that’s the whole difference, right there.” And then: “How do you feel about that? I know how I feel. How do you feel? What would you lay your ass on the line for? Nothing! That’s what. Or you? (To the audience, now.) You wouldn’t lay your asses on the line for shit!”

Jones told Rivers he was the exponent par excellence of the middle-class white world: “You aspire to the society of those faggoty uptown art dealers. You paint for them … ”

A round of protesting noises now went up from the audience. “What are you talking about?” cried a woman.

Shepp spoke with elaborate disdain or open anger of the pain with which he lived every day of his Negro life. Finally, in an eloquent outburst, he spoke of James Chaney, the young Negro who was murdered last summer In Mississippi:

“They beat him until unrecognizable. Unrecognizable! They only KILLED Schwerner and Goodman, but they beat Chaney to a pulp. They beat the humanity out of that boy. And in that act, in that heinous crime, in that unspeakable crime they accepted Schwerner  and Goodman and refused me. Even in death they are embraced and I am refused. Even in death America accepts its own. You” — he swung on the audience —  “you accept your own —and refuse me. And in that fact lies my pain.”

A boy in the audience, agitated now beyond endurance, jumped up and screamed, “Oh shit!”

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‘World ot Pain’ 

Shepp turned a glance of loathing on the boy. “Oh man,” he sighed,  “sit down. Just sit down. You hear that?” he ask­ed the audience, ”you hear that? Between me and that ‘Oh shit’ is a world of pain.”

“Oh shit, baby,” the boy screamed again. “I’ve been up tight for a year because of you!”

“Man,” said Shepp, “I don’t want to hear your life story. Will you listen to that? We’re getting a confession here.”

Then LeRoi Jones made a re­mark of stunning contempt. “His life story?” he sneered. “Why, you can turn on the TV set and get it any day of the week on ‘The Guiding Light.’ ”

From that instant it was cry­stal clear that the night be­longed to Jones — and had from the very beginning. (One had the feeling that Shepp had been tak­ing cues all along.) His anta­gonists multiplied by the min­ute … and, with incredible ease, he swung like a beam of light from one to another; his retorts came with deadly speed and precision; it was no sweat for him, no sweat at all, because it was abundantly clear that there were no separate faces in that audience for him. (For when it suits his purpose, Jones produces in his mind a vision of the “homogeneous American soul,” a soul whose only relevance consists in the fact that it dwells in a white skin.) The distinctions of age, sex, background, occupation were as though they never existed. Jones was talking to The Man and only The Man.

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What to Do

A small, round, bespectacled man, shaken with emotion, rose: “As a Jew and as a white man, I hear you.” (“Could you pos­sibly hear me in any other way?” interjected Jones.) “You say we are all guilty. What do you want us to do? What on earth do you want us to do?”

“Do, man? Do? There’s noth­ing you can do!” The malicious pleasure in his voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.

A woman with a contorted face and an eerie fluff of sil­ver-blonde hair shrieked: “What about Schwerner and Goodman? Don’t you care about them?”

“Absolutely not,” rapped out Jones. “Those boys were just artifacts, artifacts, man. They weren’t real. If they want to assuage their leaking consci­ences that’s their business. I won’t mourn them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”

A civil rights worker, his eyes popping behind his glasses, yelled: “These are not the facts! Maybe we are guilty be­cause we’re white. But God­dammit, we’re not all equally guilty. Some are more guilty than others.”

“Sort of like being ‘almost pregnant,’ Isn’t it?” laughed Jones.

A Women Strike for Peace type lady called out: “This af­ternoon 400 people marched on the U.N. to protest the bomb­ing in Vietnam. There wasn’t one Negro among them.”

“Why didn’t you send buses down to the garment district to collect some Negroes if you wanted to be all nice and representative? I mean, man, man, when were you marching? At three in the afternoon?” An answer for all eventualities.

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Clowns and Gorillas

A roar of anger began to fill the place; out of it Jones was suddenly saying: “You’ve all elected a Texas cracker to represent you, all of you!”

A sandy-haired man dressed in denims jumped to his feet. “Now that got to me,” he said in a soft Southern voice. He be­gan a rambling retort on the variety of pains to be suffered in this world, blurting out: “Man, I’ve paid my dues. And you know it, LeRoi.”

No-mercy Jones, a little tired now: “So you’ve been in jail and you write your confessions for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“I don’t write for the Satur­day Evening Post!” the blue-­jeaned man cried. “Just ’cause they buy it, don’t mean I write for ’em. I write for people … ” (Thus is passion seduced by farce.)

Casting a cold eye on the increasingly infuriated audience, Shepp said (straight into the mike): “Look at them. The clowns who come to throw peanuts at the gorillas. Only in this case it’s gorillas throwing peanuts at humans.”

Well, why go on with this? By now the direction of all this was obvious. By the end of the evening the audience was reduced to a screaming plead­ing, degraded, bewildered mob: Jones goal from the very beginning, of course.

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LeROI JONES LOOKS into my ofay face with cold steady eyes and in a soft, seductively rea­sonable voice accuses me:

  • You can never — but NEVER — understand the nature of my pain. To wake up in my skin, fall asleep in my skin, and live all the hours in between in my skin — this you can never know. There is nothing on earth you will ever experience that will give you the remotest clue to my life …
  • All whites are equally guilty — ALL — of the unforgivable crime of attempting to destroy my humanity.
  • The world under white au­thority has become a disgust­ing place: weak, shallow, cow­ardly. When we Negroes are in command things will be differ­ent. Your sins, your failings, your mistakes will be unknown among us; we will prove to be a better people.

As to the veracity of the first accusation: who is there to say him nay? Certainly not I. His pain, he claims, is relevant, and mine is not. I believe him. I believe every word of it. His ex­perience will remain forever foreign to me. This too I believe. Every now and then one looks into a man’s face or overhears an exchange or reads a page of print or sees a photograph and for one hideous instant there is revelation: blind, wordless, over­whelming. You stumble in your tracks, you have difficulty breathing, there is a terrible pressure in your head. That is the most, I think, that we who pass for white can ever know. That is the closest I can get to realizing the words of a young Negro woman I once knew — the intelligent, restrained, pro­foundly bourgeois daughter of a Harlem doctor — when she said, in an unbearable moment: “There are mornings when I get up and walk out in the street wishing I had a rifle with which to mow down every white face I see.”

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Lines Broken

As to the second accusation: where does one begin — in the name of reason and justice — to unravel the half-truths and the painful falsehoods? Now­here. Here the lines of communication are entirely broken down. Thus every white works now (in or out of the civil rights movement) on the side of the Negro does so in the knowledge that he is committing an act of conscience, an act which is essentially lonely and which to a large extent is unwelcome, unrewarded, unremarked. And rightfully so. The Negroes who tell us: “You’re doing this for yourself, baby, not for me,” are right. Or at least they should be. So now, in America, white men of conscience find themselves in the same ironic position that the Russian Jews who fought in that remote Revolution found themselves in. Anyone with half a brain could see that in anti-Semitic Russia, comes the revolution, the first ones to be purged as counter-revolutionaries would be the Bolshevik Jews … and sure enough. But what choice did those Jews have? By the same token, many white men know now that when the barricades are thrown up in the streets of this country, they will have no choice as to the side they find themselves on, even though comes the revolution, they too will probably be in the first purge.

In Jones’s eye there is blood and in his system a raging bile. The burning sword at his side (or is it the hatchet inside his breast pocket to which he continually and ominously alludes?) is his blanket indictment of white America. For him now there is only passion … which is not always the same as truth. His effectiveness as a revolutionary lies in the emotional power with which he seeks to wrest his humanity from his oppressors by in turn denying them — every last one of them — their humanity. From this wretched vantage point in these bloody terms, I supposed we ARE all guilty. Who is there to give the final judgement?

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Naive Belief

It is to the third accusation that I most strenuously address myself — this utterly wrong-headed insistence that when the Negro’s turn comes to rule, he will do things differently. Under his authority the precious fluid of the human spirit contained in a chalice broken in white hands will be scooped up and treasured as the white world never knew how to treasure it. In the lifetime of Negro authority a particular level of spiritual decrepitude, moral rot, and demeaning weakness will vanish. The human race will develop a lovelier form, occupy a handsomer skin. The Negro will, once and for all, show the white world how a man can and ought to live.

This entire speculation turns on the incredibly naive belief that suffering has ennobled the Negro, that his pain will continue to exert an influence over him even long after it has passed from his life.

What rubbish! The sad, sad point about suffering is that there is no point at all. The lesson to be learned is that there is no lesson. It is simply a fact of life which has no after-life. While it endures it is the entire universe. On the very instant that pain ceases, the process of forgetfulness already begins. (And this is an element of white experience that no Negro can comprehend for the simple reason that while a man is suffering, he is unable to en­vision a time when it will have no meaning for him.) The scars begin to fade, the memories be­gin to dull, the relaxed hand can hardly remember the shape of the clenched fist. If there is any single great lesson to be learned from the 20th century it is this lonely and barbarous fact (witness “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), which is at once the salvation and the irony  of our lives. If we retained the memory sharp and clear of every  wound ever inflicted on us, we surely could not survive; and the fact that we do not remember our wounds makes or our lives a primitive and unexalted thing. For all men in all conditions at all times this has been true. It is therefore hardly likely that it will be less true for the Amer­ican Negro. When it’s all over but the shouting, the American Negro will lose along with his soul-destroying fury the memory of that fury; his spirit, in time (in a generation, in two generations,) will become as flimsy and as shapeless and  as impoverished as the spirit of that decadent white bourgeoisie he now so comfortably despises.

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‘Starting Point’

Poverty of the spirit has nothing whatever to do with the life of a race. It has to do with the seduc­tion of men’s souls at the hands of that prosperity. For men do not thrive on the good life; they are, rather, atrophied by it. Thus very few men are in possession of the middle-class life; mainly they are possessed by it. And for the most part there is no escaping it. For the point is not so much that the nation has aspired to the middle-class life, but rather that, in the absence of certain specific tensions, it has acquired it. Without war, without depression, without foreign troops in occupation, without social oppres­sion, without combat with the elements … what is one left with? One is left with what nine­-tenths of the world spends its life fighting for: freedom from want, the so-called starting point of life. But freedom from want is not enough. Not enough? It doesn’t even come anywhere near the mark. The demons are still with us, in fact they loom larger than ever, and oddly enough, they even get harder and harder to identify. Thus freedom has become a desperate affair. Freedom from what? Toward what? FOR what? Very few men have the talent or the imagina­tion to know what to do with themselves once they have achieved the good life. They never did have it — in no class and during no age. In some remote and distant time (say, 50 years ago?) there did exist a belief in a unifying structure of principle, a perception of contin­uity, a conviction that he lived at the center of his universe, which allowed a man to live out his life relatively unshaken in his faith in the validity of the pursuit of life. In our time those principles have been shattered, and we have been left with nothing — nothing but the rotten hoax of he good life and the contemplation of futility. And so in the Land of Peace where the Meaningless is King, there exists an insatiable hunger, an unfillable emptiness, a numbing aimlessness — in response to which we open more supermarkets and more psychoanalysts’ offices. In a frenzy we seek the orgy of accumulation: the accumulation of more goods, more personal loyal­ties, more uncommitted opinions. The result, of course, intolerable isolation, so that instead of being the master of his split-level dovecot, a man finds himself wandering about its rooms as though under house arrest. And still he will not open his doors to strangers …

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There is no one in this country who understands the meaning of this condition better than the American ex-radical. What des­troyed him was his insight into the paltriness of the political vision, that long look down the road to Utopia which told him suddenly that the enemy was inside us, not outside us. The passion of the American radical was certainly as whole-souled (and as naive) as that of the Negro revolutionist, and the loss of that passion drove half of them into existentialism and made of the other half gibbering idiots, men terrified of the void, who — in the most literal sense of that word — copped out after 1938 by simply refusing to take further note of the world’s changing knowledge.

It is one of the bitterest ironies of our life that the tension that keeps men alive in their nerve­-endings and equipped with a sense of urgency is the tension of deprivation. And deprivation is what — with an imperative need  — we work to rid ourselves of. Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer have both written with understanding about the first half of this proposition. It is on the second half that they screwed up. To romanticize oppression in order to stimulate waning passions is a disgusting perversion, and the yearnings of these two finely confused men for the Ne­gro’s life-sense (knowing it is based on his unspeakable condition) are on a parallel with the Japanese tale of the businessman who encouraged an affair between his wife and a young doctor and then spied on them while they were making love in order to awaken his own failing sex­uality. It was with obvious truth and in perfect justice that James Baldwin declared that should Kerouac or Mailer get up on the stage of the Apollo Theatre and recite one of  their white Negro hymns, they would be stoned to death. If there is justification on any level for the Negro’s contempt for the white liberal, it is certainly on this one. Norman Mailer sitting in his Columbia Heights mansion, drawing thousands in royalties, complaining of his lost appetites … Christ!

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Rewards and Payments 

The point is that this is what we are stuck with. The rewards and the exacted payments of Western culture are the accumu­lation of goods and the existen­tialist’s sense of loss. “Western culture!” LeRoi Jones sneered the other night. But it’s ridiculous. After all, who the hell does the man think he is? He’s not a Chinese communist or an African soldier or a Hindu religious. He is a Western man, and the shape of his anguish and of his longings has been determined by Western culture. When he says he wants his, what he means is that he wants his share of this life — and no other. And he will reap the rewards and the losses of this life just as every other American has. For Negroes are, indeed, men like all other men, which means that for the most part they are weak and greedy and anxious, of limited imagination and hopeless mediocre ambition. While suffering depresses their spirits and causes rage to flare up in them, it is true that their sensibilities are dipped in fire. But when that suffering ceases (and as sure as the sky is blue and the grass is green, it will cease), the fire will die down, the holocaust will pass, its former existence will be marked only by ashes which eventually will be kicked into oblivion … and Negroes will live exactly — but exactly — the same lives as every other American now lives.

In answer to all of which LeRoi Jones will beyond a doubt reply: “Yeah, baby. But I want my chance. My time is coming, and I want my chance. You dig?”

I dig. And he will get his chance. He’ll get more than that, he’ll get everything he is now straining for. And then he will live, to his everlasting sorrow, to look up one day, aged 75, at his grown grandchildren, leading utterly ordinary lives — absorbed in taking Johnnie to the dentist and not opening the door at night to strangers and telling a psychoanalyst once a week, “Doctor, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. No matter what I do I have this strange feeling of emptiness … ” — and, remembering these draining days, he will say (as OUR revolutionary grandfathers have said to US): “Is this all? Is this what it was all about?” And his grandchildren will answer, with affection and mild irritation, “Oh, for good­ness sake, Grandpa! This is 2005, not 1965. All that stuff is over and done with!”

Like the man said: “That’s the way it is, man. That’s the way it really is.”

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Jack Kerouac: ‘The Night and What It Does to You’

Jack Kerouac: ‘The Night And What It Does to You’

October 30, 1969

LOWELL, Massachusetts­ — Jack Kerouac, the man who unwillingly named a generational sensibility and wrote an American classic, died on Tuesday, October 21. He was buried here on Friday, October 24, and I went up with mingled feelings (warmth, regret, a patronizing curiosity, an obscure kind of longing to pay homage) to witness his funeral.

I traveled by plane to Boston, and then by a commuters’ train the 26 miles to the small manufacturing town of Lowell where Kerouac grew up, and from which he continually, repeatedly bolted for the whole of his life. I decided to walk the mile or so from the station to the Church of St. Jean-Baptiste where Kerouac was to be buried. I wanted to look the town over and think a bit about what he might have seen on these streets.

It was a brilliant, very cold, very clear day, and the four and five-story buildings of brick or stone that lined Lowell’s narrow streets looked cut out against the cloudless blue sky; the sun danced, the air sparkled, the distant trees tossed their yellow and red and brown leaves and it seemed especially indecent that Jack Kerouac lay dead 10 or 20 blocks from where I now walked. What I found most remarkable in the town was the friendliness of the people. The garbage man said “Good morning, dear” and didn’t ogle me; a grocery delivery man said: “Oh, it’s a day for your mittens, dearie!” and laughed in the sun; a waitress in a diner gave me coffee and we talked for 10 minutes about how we were both getting colds, the weather was changing so suddenly; the counterman strained to give me exact directions to the church and in the end offered to take me over there himself.

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The church, on Merrimack Street, one of the large arterial streets of the town, was enormous, a testament to the position and prosperity of the French Canadian Catholics of Lowell, among whom Kerouac came of age: massive gray stone, lots of stained glass, statues in carved draperies, steep steps. I was early, the church was locked; but the rectory next door was open and I was made welcome there by Father Armand Morissette, the priest who would later deliver the eulogizing mass. He offered me coffee and proceeded to talk briskly and smilingly about Kerouac.

“Yes, Jack grew up in this church; he always came back here, always. He called me Father Spike; he said one day he would write a book named ‘Father Spike.’ But he never did. You know he used to come here often for comfort and for consolation and yes, we had many, many fine talks, Jack and I. You know, he had a real spirit, Jack did. He had such a zest for life; he understood that the universe belongs to each of us, not all of us, but each of us. And after all, that’s what Jesus Christ was all about, wasn’t He? Yes, Jack and I had lots of talks, lots of talks. Right here in this room.” I listened silently to the good father and noticed, curiously, that he wore a toupee.

In the rectory hall stood a man with a red face, a bulbous nose, a raincoat, a pad of lined paper, and a pencil. I introduced myself and he said he was from the Boston Globe. “Say, kid, what the hell is this all about? I mean, you know who any of these famous writers are who are supposed to show up? Can you point them out to me? I mean, I’m strictly a cops-and-robbers reporter myself.” I said sure, I’d point them out to him, and he agreed to drive me over to the funeral home where Kerouac’s body was laid out, and where the mourners were now all gathered.

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The funeral home was named Archambault and the street was Pawtucket. It was interesting and, of course, ironic that Kerouac had written of this street often; it had been the center of the distant and wealthy “town” he had had no part of and had resented so heartily and so complexly; now the street’s aloof mansions had been turned into French-Canadian and Irish funeral parlors and he was being buried out of one of them. I walked under a canopy extending from the curb to the door, up wooden steps, and onto silent, heavily carpeted floors filled with standing wreaths and standing mourners. At the end of the double room in which we all stood the open casket containing Kerouac’s body was placed, with two carpeted steps for kneeling in front of it. Couches and chairs were scattered, with people sitting on them, and others milling all around before them. The crowd was almost entirely composed of family and friends from Lowell. I realized there were two distinctive kinds of faces there: sharp-featured Northern faces, and sallow, drooping-eyed faces; I remembered then that Kerouac’s last wife was a Greek woman from Lowell, and realized that many of these people must be her relatives, as well as Kerouac’s. What was most interesting, however, was the resemblances rather than the differences among the people present. Nearly everyone there looked so well-fed. They generated the atmosphere of neat, decent, fairly prosperous burghers who have worked hard and steadily for what they have and whose lives are now in order. I was reminded, irresistibly, of the democratic and impersonal friendliness I had found in the town’s streets; I felt it everywhere in this room. It was hard to imagine, with all this composure, that these people had really known Kerouac; but then I remembered the funerals of my own family and I realized, resignedly, that of course they were probably all intimate relations.

Only one person in that room had upon her face that terrible, unmistakable confusion that deep and genuine grief causes. She was a middle-aged woman sitting on a couch in the seat nearest the casket. Her face, utterly void of makeup, was worn and sallow; behind rimless glasses her eyes were terribly anxious; her hair was short and gray, her dress black and long; she sat sort of hunched forward, responding distractedly to the procession of faces that bent, one after another, over her. At first I thought it was Kerouac’s mother, but quickly changed my mind; his mother was supposed to be really old. (I learned later that hie mother was hopelessly bedridden in St. Petersburg, Florida. It had been utterly out of the question, her coming up to Lowell to help bury her devoted son.) Was this woman a relative of his wife? Which one was his wife, anyway? Well, whoever she was, there was no doubt that she had loved Kerouac, and felt his loss keenly.

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On the other side of the room, and at the other end of the casket, were two chairs together, separated from the rest. On them sat Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, hands folded quietly on their laps, gazing intently at the casket. They looked calm and good, as though their emotions were in order, and they at peace; I had been told by Father Morissette that the night before they had placed a wreath of flowers upon Kerouac’s body, and that they had knelt and wept. Ginsberg’s long hair and beard were pressed neatly down; he wore a pair of chinos and a navy blue nylon parka and clasped a worn-looking woven Greek bag. Neither he nor Orlovsky appeared to have aged much in the last 10 years.

And then there was the casket. And in the casket Jack Kerouac. I walked across the room, took a deep breath, and stood beside the open box. Kerouac lay there, hands folded, eyes closed, dressed in a white shirt, a little bow tie, a hound’s-tooth jacket. His black hair was cut short and neatly combed aside. His face was a waxen cosmetic mask that bore no resemblance whatever to the appearance of a human face; in fact, it looked as though beneath the makeup and the rouged lips and cheeks there was surely some plastic composition, such as a mannequin in a window display might be made of. What can I say? He was hideous to look upon. He had been stripped of all his ravaging joy. They had turned him into what they probably thought he should have been all along: a decent, properly dead Lowell businessman.

I retreated into the open hallway and stood looking at the big guest book propped on a lectern; a man beside me began to talk to me; he was Joe Chaput, a proofreader for the Lowell Courier and an old, old friend of Kerouac’s; in fact, it was Chaput who had driven Kerouac and his wife and mother down to St. Petersburg the year before.

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“That was some trip,” Chaput said, “I drove all the way; Jack used to say there was only one driver in the world better than me, and that was Neal Cassady. We spread mattresses across the back of this station wagon and Jack’s mother and his wife spread out on them; and me and Jack in front. He talked and drank all the way down. Talked and drank. Never stopped. God, he was great.”

Chaput turned and introduced me to a large crowd of neat Northern faces over big bellies inside tweed overcoats; they were all Kerouac cousins; they shook my hand vigorously and smiled warmly. And then, suddenly, there was John Clellon Holmes in the crowd. Holmes had known Kerouac for more than 20 years.

“Were you shocked by Kerouac’s death?” I asked him.

“God, yes,” he said.

“Surprised?”

“No. Not really. The man drank so damn much. He’d get lonely. He was always living where nothing was happening, no one to talk to. But then, he seemed to want to be alone … ”

Gregory Corso appeared, in a long black coat and a black Indian headband around his black black hair, and threaded his way through the relatives, his eye pressed to one end of a big black camera with a snout a foot long. He moved in and out, he knelt, he hovered, he leaped back and forth, getting old Jack’s funeral responsibly on film.

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After a while, Ginsberg was sitting alone. I went over to him, introduced myself, and sat down next to him. He said to me:

“Have you talked to Mrs. Kerouac?”

“No. I don’t even know who she is.” He pointed to the grieving middle-aged lady I’d been watching. “That’s her,” he said.

“Oh!” I said. “Oh, no. I couldn’t go over to her.”

“Why not?” he eyed me coolly. “You’re a reporter, aren’t you? Well, that’s your job. Go over to her. Ask her about him, ask her what he’d been thinking about in the last month, what he’d been talking about. Other­wise you’ll have nothing but your own subjective impressions.”

I felt a sudden astonishing warmth toward him. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and feel his blue nylon back cupped within my arm, so firmly, so neutrally, so decently, did I feel him to be instructing me. But I did neither: I did not embrace Ginsberg and I did not disturb Mrs. Kerouac, although I did say hello to her. But when I looked into her miseried eyes I thought: O God, what could she possibly tell me? What correcting truth could she bestow on me?

And then suddenly everyone was leaving; it was time to bear the body to the church and begin the high Catholic mass celebrating the salvation of Jack Kerouac’s eternal soul. Ginsberg, one of the pallbearers, remained behind. Outside, I looked around for a ride, and entered one of the black limousines when the driver beckoned me forward. It turned out to be the family limousine, and I was wedged in between the driver and Mrs. Kerouac’s brother, while in back of us sat Mrs. Kerouac, her sister-in-law, and three Kerouac cousins. Mrs. Kerouac’s brother spoke dolefully and sincerely of Kerouac all the way to the church; he spoke of how Kerouac had been Lowell’s true biographer, of how every street in the town had had meaning for him, of how Kerouac’s life crossed the three main cultural strands of Lowell: he had been French-Canadian himself and had loved Irish Maggie Cassidy as a young man and then had married Greek Stella Sampas, this man’s sister. Behind us, his wife kept nodding eagerly at nearly every sentence; she was a well-endowed brunette in her middle 40s with a black pillbox on her head and a mink collar on her coat. She spoke smilingly of how crowded the town had become and how she had written something about it, and then one of the Kerouac cousins said: “You write too, don’t you?” and very quickly she said: “Yes, I do.”

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I heard her speaking for a few furiously fast seconds to Mrs. Kerouac, saying something like: “She’s going to write it … ,” then silence. I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do. Finally, I twisted around in my seat and said miserably: “Mrs. Kerouac, is there something you’d like to say to me?”

She looked so startled, the wretched woman. “No,” she said softly, bitterly. “There’s nothing I want to say.” And she stared relentlessly at the floor of the car until we pulled up to the church.

Inside, the 200 or so of us were scattered throughout the cavernous church. I sat down between the two Boston reporters there, and noticed Jimmy Breslin, looking burly and penitent, sitting directly in front of me. The priest began his mass. He read from St. John the Blessed in the Book of the Apocalypse: “They shall rest from their labors for they shall take their works with them.” And the mass went on and on; and they shook incense out of ornamental gold shakers; and then the lovely aching sound of Catholic voices raised in the sweetness of pure lament; and then the priest spoke again, this time in English; and then, again, the healing singing. And suddenly in the midst of the whole thing I had the unmistakable feeling that Kerouac was hovering somewhere, in the air above our heads looking down on all of us, sort of embarrassed, sort of bewildered, and saying: Jeezus, what’s all this got to do with  me? And I thought: God, yes! Where are you, Kerouac, in all this? What are you doing here among middle-class businessmen and pontificating priests and Jewish gurus and patronizing intellectuals and cops-and-robbers reporters? Where are you, you poor dislocated bastard, in this elaborate appropriation of Jack Kerouac: the Man and the Myth?

And Kerouac answered me sadly: Oh, I’m a little here. That’s the whole trouble. I’m a little here.

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* * *

In “On the Road” Kerouac’s narrator, Sal, explains why an affair he’s having is bound to end: “Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer except my own confusion.”

Sitting there in that church I remembered the passage and I felt then that that was what Kerouac was all about until the last day of his 47 years. And that, also, was why he was a “little here,” and why all these people could claim him in death as they had claimed him in life, and why he stood still and smiled, and let everyone pick at him for a while, and he even feebly picked back, because it gets so lonely, so damn lonely out there with the falling stars and the confusion, and a man needs to feel a part of things; but ah, then it would be no good at all, and he’d get off by himself and go leaping across the continent and get roaring drunk and those fabulous yellow Roman candles would burst again and then he’d come back, always back. And that compulsive lusting after life went restlessly on and on and on, and when he lost the will or the strength or the taste for it, he lost everything, because Kerouac was one of those men in whom the proportions are mixed just a bit differently than in the rest of us. In him that youthful lunging after sensation was wider, deeper, fuller than in most men; it filled him up and left no room for aging and for moderation; as a result, his youngmanhood was a metaphor for the entire adolescent sharpness of response; all that he had in the way of courage and conviction and sweetness and clarity and ripping urgency and glorious lunging was dumped onto that narrow ribbon of road, and on the pages of his books there is captured, for all of us, those amazing rhythms that sing in the blood and wash through the head and gratify the belly when one lives through the senses. At his best, Kerouac is a man strapped to the globe, first on his back and then on his belly, gulping and hugging, gulping and hugging.

Kerouac was a true American original, in the direct line of men like Jack London and Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and Norman Mailer; men not of exquisite European sensibility or tragic Russian depths but of enormous American appetite; men who understood appetite in their brains and in their balls and in their inflamed nerve endings; in their wet dreams and egalitarian surroundings, and in their amazing grasp of the raw sweep of this country; men who not only understood appetite, but also that appetite was what America was all about, and that America, like most of them, would die forever young.

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Kerouac, like all the rest before him, was powerfully dislocated by his appetite, and bewildered by what it brought him. He was bewildered by his fame, bewildered by being told he was a founder of the Beat Generation, bewildered, I am willing to bet, as much by the New York poets and intellectuals as he was, ultimately, by the good folk from Lowell whom he increasingly could not return to. For what he had, he had full strength, and to have anything full strength (especially something which outlives itself) is to insure increasing isolation; and isolation is an outrage to the emotions and a bewilderment to the soul. Lonely is hardly the word for what the inside of Jack Kerouac’s later life must have been like …

I took my place in the procession to a charming cemetery filled with sunlight and crunching leaves and tossing colored trees and we gathered around that meaningless box once more and listened to some more mumbo-jumbo for a while and then we all went away, and Kerouac was left alone to transcend it all, and I hoped that he could know that at any minute now another one, just like him, was getting ready to surface into American life.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Pop Goes Homosexual: It’s a Queer Hand Stoking the Campfire

Pop Goes Homosexual: It’s a Queer Hand Stoking the Campfire

Last August there appeared on the cover of the magazine One a photograph of a young man dressed as an ancient Roman warrior in a toga and thonged sandal-shoes; on the floor beside his chair there stand a sword, a helmet, a shield. His hair curls downward on his forehead, his eyes are dreamy and promising, his lips pout suggestively. He looks as though only yesterday he was plucked from the sands of Fire Island or the doorways of Christopher Street, hustled into some uptown studio, dressed in this outfit, and photographed — to the general amused satisfaction of countless homosexuals and the equally general slightly dismayed amazement of as many heterosexuals. But no. That’s not the way it happened at all. Inside the magazine the cover photograph is identified as follows: “Youth, Oh Youth!”; cabinet photo circa 1880.” This is, of course, camp. High camp. Double camp. And this, on the cover of a magazine which purports to be the serious spokesman for the homosexual viewpoint in America, sounds perfectly the note of garish hysteria which, as of this writing, presides over the general confusion known as popular culture. What it all boils down to is: the queers have it.

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Popular culture is now in the hands of the homosexuals. It is homosexual taste that determines largely style, story, statement in painting, literature, dance, amusements, and acquisitions for a goodly proportion of the intellectual middle class. It is the homosexual temperament which is guiding the progress of Pop Art, producing novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn, making “underground” movies, selling cast-iron lamps shaped like roses to sophisticated schoolteachers, and declaring the Gene Kelly–Debbie Reynolds movies of the ’40s and ’50s a source of breathlessly amusing entertainment. It is the texture, the atmosphere, the ideals, the notions of “camp” (a term, from its beginnings, the private property of American and English homosexuals) which currently determines middle-class taste, directs its signs, and seems to nourish its simple-minded eagerness to grind the idea of “alienation” into yet another hopelessly ironic cliche.

Aesthetic Mood

It has been claimed (most notably by the critic Susan Sontag in a brilliant and now famous essay “Notes on Camp”) that camp is a sensibility, an aesthetic method of apprehending experience, and above all, a tender way of viewing the naive and the inconsequential. Nonsense. While it is true that camp does finally collect itself into a “way of looking at things,” there is nothing tender about it — at least there is nothing tender about the camp we in the mid-’60s are acquainted with; and I think it safe to say there never was; for camp was used originally by homosexuals as a private identification for a form of self-satire not especially notable for its gentle indulgence. No, camp is not tender. What it is is arch, sly, hysterical, schizophrenic. And what it most profoundly is, now, in its present role as arbiter of popular taste, is a malicious fairy’s joke whose point is its raging put-on of the middle classes; those very classes which have always denied the homosexual his existence.

The homosexual in modern Western society has, like the Jew and the Negro, always lived as an outsider, a spectator at the great heterosexual WASP banquet: you can look but you can’t touch. He walks in the shadow of Western privilege, unable to grasp its substance. He is denied his civil rights, driven from small towns, disowned by horrified families, fired from valuable jobs, forced by emotional need to live in ghettoes. He is a victim of blackmail, an object of ridicule, a man whose fundamental desires are contemptuously dismissed as constituting “an unnatural act”; and for him to attempt fulfillment is to risk arrest and imprisonment. In short, if one is a homosexual that characteristic is likely by far to be the most powerful and most influential factor in one’s life; more than the condition of wealth or poverty, strength or weakness, stupidity or intelligence, more than the sharp influences of region, religion, or personality, does it determine the shape and color and essential direction of experience. It is a fact of existence, in essence, capable of producing a culture. Which it has. A culture most curious in its general characteristics, its aims, its accomplishments.

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Victims in a society are drawn in masochistic fascination to their oppressors, seeking often to emulate and/or to appease them. This very often requires shameful disavowal of the self. His natural emotional integrity, however, makes very clear to the victim what he is doing, thus inflaming him with self-disgust and an appetite for dignity. Upon this unhappy polarization is strung the tension of a victims’ culture. Thus, the Jews on the one hand changed their names and (in affluent America) their noses; on the other hand they steeped themselves in an ethnic intellectuality and mysticism, concentrated on morality, guarded the secrets of the ghetto, and created an intensely Jewish idiom. Similarly, the Negroes on the one hand became Uncle Toms and then (in Adam Powell’s phrase) “Uncle Toms with a Harvard accent,” and on the other hand developed the richness of their religion, the depth of their music, the privateness of their humor, the agony of their lawlessness. And both Jews and Negroes have, through this body of literature, music, thought, and behavior, amounting to a “life style,” added immeasurably to the sum of humanity’s knowledge of the pain and deformity of castigation.

Brutal Caricature

Homosexuals, however, in a bizarre psychological turnabout, seem to have avoided the desperate conflict previously described, and achieved a pivotal psychology and a “life style” that one can almost describe as weirdly “integrated”; or at any rate a demonstrable proof of the dictum: you become what you are. For the homosexual’s culture seems to be based on nothing more than a brutal caricature of the femaleness he so violently rejects; and the absolute craziness of it all is that — whatever the tangled psychic roots — he has become the women he despises, in a form grotesquely frivolous and vicious. Thus he has won by losing. In weird imitation his hair is dyed, his face is made up, his walk is mincing; he is neurotically lonely, weepy sentimental, sexually promiscuous. His mannerisms are painfully girlish: he sulks, he pouts, he flounces; he wrings his wrists and files down his spiteful humor. His interests are more often than not womanish: he becomes a hairdresser, an antique dealer, a haberdasher, a creator of “atmosphere” — in theatres, restaurants, boutiques, and, of course, the salon of the interior decorator. (All of which is not to say that there are not homosexuals among teachers, writers, soldiers, philosophers, and architects. It is to say that those men who are teachers, writers, soldiers, philosophers, and architects and who also happen to be homosexual are not men who are the makers of or the participants in the homosexual culture as such — and the men of whom I am speaking. The distinction is crucial and must be made at once.)

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Last summer on the sands of one of the Fire Island beaches frequented by homosexuals I sat watching the incredible parade. Beside me sat a beautiful 25-year-old boy (offering friendship to the tune of “Do you prefer Helena Rubinstein to Elizabeth Arden?”) who the night before had frugged wildly, flirted madly, and subsequently nearly been raped in his bed by a muscular bartender he had drunkenly led on, and whose near-attack was made memorable by the fact that at precisely the “terrifying” instant the bartender had entered the bedroom, somewhere across the dunes someone was shrieking: “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it you can just take your sneakers and go!” Now, eight or ten frantic hours later, the sun blazed in the sky and my friend was feeling morose and decadent. He watched a powerful looking blonde on the next blanket plucking his eyebrows and, in a passion of unconscious double meanings, burst out: “You know, this is ridiculous. After all, you can’t be gay all your life! I mean this (pointing to the blonde’s makeup job) is all so adolescent.” (I was struck absolutely dumb.) But that is precisely the point. And that is precisely what homosexual culture is aiming at: the gruesome attempt to be gay all your life, to be professionally gay all your life. Which is, of course, what the preoccupation with trivia always amounts to. And again, of course, the parodic echo of the woman: the frantic female in a sweat over the loss of her youth.

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Giver of the Word

It is the willful confusion between this “gay” homosexual ambience, this mindless grotesquerie of trivia and the aesthetic value of style, that accounts for the strange popularization of camp, the absolute distortion of its meaning, and the irony of its position as giver of the word to the educated middle classes.

For, after all, what has camp ever been? In Where’s Annie?, Eileen Bassing’s novel about Am­erican expatriates in Mexico, is a scene in which a party in the villa of an aging American homosexual writer turns into a kind of orgiastic revel (as Terry Southern would say if this was “Candy Goes to College”). The number­less boys kept by the writer begin to dress themselves in women’s clothes and then proceed to impersonate female impersonators. It begins in an attitude of high laughter and gradually gathers momentum; the original intent of burlesque slowly loses its sharp defining edge as the boys forget themselves in a blur of genuine growing heat. Ned, a homosexual painter — himself a complexity of integrity and evil — flies into a fury at this disgusting “camping.” Together, Ned and the writer (for whom the boys are a surrogate) are camp: the self-conscious mockery etched in self-conscious contempt. For camp is, pure and simple, self-hatred. And, in all its ramifications, it represents the homosexual’s contribution to the stock of known psychology on the subject, confirming the fact that included in self-hatred in almost equal parts are revulsion and attraction, compassion and disgust, defiant guile and naked vulnerability, and that its neces­sary components — i.e., the recognition and practice of that which leads to bitter conscience-stricken remorse — exist in loving symbiosis and wouldn’t for all the world have it any other way.

What marks camp more pre­cisely than anything else is the mockery which surrounds it; a mockery which may seem deceptively gentle but which invariably turns savage; a mockery which may be trained by its practitioners on themselves but in curious psychological integrity absolutely lashes the squares who — either way — resent or identify themselves with camp, reminding one always of the way in which Negroes re­gard those whites who insist they understand the Negro. It is this mockery Susan Sontag has erroneously labeled camp’s tenderness (meaning a gentle appreciation which endows the naive, the simple, the meaningless with style), thereby helping to skyrocket into a position of current celebrity and influence this fantastically arch “sensibility” and its creepy creators, exploiters and sycophants.

100 Year Set Back

The most directly stunning result of camp’s influence is, of course, the raucous Pop Art vogue… which has probably set the course of American art back some hundred years or so. One has the feeling that it all started one day when a bunch of the sweet young things got together after a mad, mad day at the decorator’s; in sarcastic imitation of the Mrs. Babbitts they serve the boys began to whoop it up, painting the objects best fitted to describe Mrs. B’s crass taste. One painted a huge lettuce and tomato sandwich sitting, appropriately, on the table of a haute-cuisine restaurant — everyone was highly amused: “The old cow!” Suddenly in popped a slightly retarded P.R. man who had lost his way while trying desperately to focus across the insurmountable distance of four straight martinis. He took one look at the lettuce and tomato sandwich. “Wow!” he breathed in reverent tones. “Man, that’s great. Its a whole new vision. Creative as hell!” “Whey you foolish boy,” tittered one of our own, but his eyes widened in incredulous cunning as he caught the malicious glee in the glance of his own dear boy on the other side of the room. Then they both nodded, steered the P.R. man to his fifth martini — and the panic was on. Soon the boys were reinventing photography, turning out pretty good super­market ads, and slapping a lot of papier-mâché around: all to the tune of thousands of dollars, international fame, and impeccable interpretation: “A profound statement… babble, babble, babble… the meaninglessness of affluence… babble, babble, babble… seriousness is dead… babble, babble, babble.” And one sees Andy Warhol staring serenely across private, peroxided spaces, smiling Sphinx-like as the critics describe the meaning of his Brillo boxes. Or one gazes in disbelief at one of Tom Wessleman’s nudes. What is it? What’s wrong here? Is sex only being gently twitted? Are these pictures merely humorous? Humorous, hell! They’re down­right ludicrous. And that’s the point: women are ludicrous and most insultingly ludicrous are the middle-class women in the middle-class bathroom and the middle-class kitchens of middle-class America. But — and this is the crowning touch — she, the idiotic real-live model — stands before this classically spiteful joke, smiling benevolently as though she were in the know, because she’s heard somewhere that all the intellectuals love this stuff. She pokes her dour-faced husband in the ribs: “Joe, buy it. C’mon, Joe. For me.” And Joe chomps down on his cigar, counts out a few thousand dollars, and takes it — or a giant hamburger or a soup can or a really groovy papier-mâché busdriver — back to the steel and glass Long Island palace he calls home, thereby further contributing to a curious sociological phenomenon: today the nouveau riche culture-vulture­ lives in a strikingly designed home, buys antique furniture, Spanish rugs, glass lamps — and hangs Pop Art on his walls; 40 years ago he bought white wall­-to-wall carpeting, cream-colored furniture, and hung Picasso and Braque on his walls… and another notch is carved in the camper’s belt.

Of course, one could go on and on. From Pop Art to Rudi Gernreich’s topless bathing suit (an especially delicious example of a camper’s delight; one can see Gernreich outfitting some mindless blonde in his topless wonder. “Oh, Rudi, should I?” she breathes anxiously. “Oh honey,” deadpans Rudi. “It’s so you.”) to Tiffany lamps to comic strip characters to flapper clothes to silent movies to Victorian furniture and threadbare Oriental rugs; to “atmosphere” and the dreadful insistent preoccupation with it; to the creation of a mystique and a genuine value surrounding it; to the fraudulent notion which claims that the trivial has the right to more than five minutes of our attention and proceeds to make a cult, a life-style out of it; to the claim that emptiness is substance; to a literature which has grown out of the homosexual temperament and which is frightening in its steely-eyed slickness, its language of surfaces, its heartlessness, its unbearable loathing of humanity and all its activities (I speak here of books like Last Exit to Brooklyn and most certainly not of books merely dealing with homosexual love, such as Giovanni’s Room or Another Country, in which the protagonists are men in passionate pursuit of their manhood; quite another matter altogether).

Why? Why camp? And why now? Why the eager bobbing plunge of yes by middle-class intellectuals — that plunge which is alone responsible for the phenomenal rise of camp in the world?

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The answer lies in the fact that it is a time in which the spirit of self-belief is profoundly on the decline. For most men the gods are all dead: ideology, tradition, Christian morality — all gone, neatly knocked off by imperfectly understood and thoroughly indigestible doses of Einstein, Fermi, and Freud. We find very little beyond ourselves to believe in and thus we cannot take ourselves seriously. We have become disheartened, demoralized, and, finally, hysterical — so intolerable is our circumstance. The world thus must be declared a topsy-turvy place, the banners of renunciation must wave, and black must be declared white. And so, everywhere in the Western world men are involved in what the British novelist, John Fowles, speaking in his new novel, The Magus, refers to as “…this characteristically 20th century retreat from content into form, from meaning into appearance, from ethics into aesthetics.…” Thus, an intellectual like Susan Sontag cultivates aesthetics and seeks to prove that an insignificant and rather nasty sensibility really has something legitimate to say; and round the world cowardly intellectuals everywhere become ardent camp-followers concentrating with myopic imbecility on “style”: “The envelope is the message, baby.” Meanwhile the swishes of America lean back, smile soothingly, croon, “Oh sweetie, you are so-o-o right,” and spoon the cream right off the top.

It will no doubt all pass: it is too flimsy, too fraudulent, too distasteful not to. And the course of human life has a way of taking care of its cyclical demoralizations, anyway. The cynical ennui of the 1920s was soon replaced by the urgent events of the ’30s and ’40s. Who knows but that Vietnam may yet turn the trick for us. In the meantime wounds will be inflicted and scars left. One very real scar may be the result of the disservice being performed on the concept of style and the meaning of aesthetics in human life. For the discrepancy between the meaning of style as an enriching cloak of expression for vital content and the shallow, mean-spirited, empty-vesseled “style” of camp is so large that if it weren’t painful it would be absurd: Susan Sontag has dedicated her notes on camp to Oscar Wilde. In actuality they should have gone to Bosie Douglas, for not only is it decidedly more his spirit — spiteful, petulant, vain, trivial, untalented — than Wilde’s which informs camp, but it is the difference between the two that tells the entire story.

The meaning of camp and the “meaning” of camp require a hand as masterly as Nabokov’s to unravel the endless reverberations of self-parody in which this fantastic little con game are rooted. But the irony of the adoration of camp by the middle-class intellectual is obvious and of classic proportions: not only does the victim comply with circumstances oppressive to him but he also diligently searches for a victimizer hateful enough to effect his demise with the proper amount of imagination… and style.

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From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Transit Uncategorized

A Ride on the New York Subway

December 21, 1972The New York subways are, and always have been, a kind of Kafkaesque parallel to the life that is lived above ground on the streets of the most quintessential city in the world. Each working day of their lives, millions of New Yorkers “willingly” descend hundreds of feet, through huge manholes in the street, into a subterranean world of darkness and gloom; there, in the dimness, they crowd mechanically together in astonishing numbers at the edge of a deep pit riven with tracks of steel fatal to the human touch, along which will hurtle with exhausting irregularity an iron monster spitting flame and noise like some pagan construction designed for the express purpose of intimidating the cowering human; when the monster comes to a temporary halt, doors slide open in its sides, and the men and women at the edge of the pit tumble inside, very much like Jonah tumbling into the whale; the doors then lock shut, and the iron creature goes roaring off down the pitch-black tunnel with its cargo of human prisoners — sullen penitents all: confused, silent, passive-aggressives doomed to an hour or more of suffocating companionship; during which time it becomes extremely difficult for anyone aboard the monster to see his own reflection in the closed faces that are relentlessly jammed, eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath, blackhead to blackhead, up against one another…

But there are times when the subway, like the city itself, seems so grotesque that, indeed, one wonders how this entire enterprise can continue to call itself human. Much less continue.

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***

Not too long ago, at 5:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, I found myself for the first time in more than ten years on the Times Square station of the IRT subway, in the midst of the grueling workday rush hour. Although I grew up in the Bronx, working and attending school in Manhattan throughout my adolescent years, trudging on and off the subways twice a day during all that time, it had been a veritable lifetime since I had had to use the subway at this unholy hour. Now, having an odd chance to visit a relative still living in the Bronx of my childhood, I stood here, surveying the scene which, during a decade of absence, had become entirely foreign to me.

I was the only white person on the platform. All around me were New York’s working-class blacks and Puerto Ricans, pouring down onto the wide, gloomy subway platform from the offices and factories that filled the streets above our heads, jamming the uptown trains that, at the end of a weary working day, would release them some sixty or seventy minutes later into the streets of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Their numbers seemed extraordinary to me; I seemed to have no recollection of this many people on the trains, even at this hour. The platform was filled to capacity, and still they kept coming: the strongly muscled young black men who push the heavily loaded dress racks through the streets of the garment district; the fat Puerto Rican women who sit at the machines in the dress factories; the Puerto Rican men, thin and wan, who spend forty hours a week tying packages or keeping track of shipping orders; the black and brown girls who bring home fifty-five dollars on Friday after a mindless day of clerk-typing; the gray-haired messenger boys, the round-shouldered bookkeepers, the lunch-counter waitresses; that whole tight, closed, no-way-out world up there seemed bent on pushing its way down here, onto this grimy black metal construction, and now threatened, nearly, to spill over onto the tracks… I looked around in alarm.

The platform was indescribably filthy; the tile walls surrounding the staircases were streaked with years-old dirt and the graffiti of a thousand greasy marker pens: Johnny and Velda, ’69; The Jets Was Here; Lindsay Sucks; Tony and Maureen, ’71; Benny and Concita Forever; Loreen Is A Cunt; The Black Hawks Can Beat The Shit Outta The Silver Eagles Anytime. On and on it went, in an endless abstraction of red, blue, and black that covered the walls, the staircases, parts of the platform itself. The floor was littered with the overflow of the few trash cans that stood vaguely about: candy wrappers, orange peels, leaky milk cartons, prophylactic wrappers, torn nylon stockings, pellets of chewed gum, discarded junk mail, globbets of spit. The lights in the ceiling were crusted over with webs of dirt that threatened, momentarily, to fall onto the heads of the passengers. The ceiling of the tunnel seemed lower, the walls more porous, the floor harder than ever I remembered; the black metal pillar supports were caked with rust; tiles in the walls on the far side of the tracks had been ripped out, and the plaster within hung loose like a set of nerves that have been severed. All in all an atmosphere of total, unutterable abandonment; one in which the people have vanished and the rats have taken over. “Dear God,” I thought in a silent panic, “how can they live this way? How can they live this way?”

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In this insufferable gloom, the men and women all about me seemed to take on some of the darkness emanating from the walls, the ceiling, the floor of the tunnel in which we all stood, causing their own natural darkness to appear almost menacing. Faces were closed, sullen, expressionless; eyes were dead, vacant, staring; limbs folded and inert. A black man in a red shirt and a porkpie hat pushed up onto the back of his head stood beside me, a dead cigar stuck in his mouth, his unregistering eyes fixed on some distant point down in the track pit; a rush of people spilling down from behind made me lurch into the man in the red shirt; he continued to stare, unblinking, out at the tracks. A few feet away, a young Puerto Rican woman, wearing a pink plastic rain slicker and carrying a large black leather handbag, leaned against a black metal pillar; she, too, stared sightlessly as she was flung about by people pushing past her in both directions at once. A heavy-set black woman holding two little children tightly by the hand glared momen­tarily at a man whose elbow had jabbed her; but then she quickly subsided into the somnolence that had previously enveloped her. A brown-skinned couple, incredibly small and thin, she in scuffed plastic wedgies, he in a black imitation-leather jacket, stood with their arms entwined about each other’s matchstick-narrow waists; on their faces, also, a fearful vacancy, an extraordinary submission. People looked as though they dared not see, hear, or respond. A sense of dread began to leak through me: It was as though I found myself in a universe of abdicating intelligence, some hellish vacuum of human refusal… alone, entirely alone; should anything happen, I knew, there would be no help coming. No help at all.

A young black man appeared in the crowd not five feet from where I stood. He was surely no more than eighteen or nineteen, and was dressed in a spotted blue nylon shirt and a pair of shiny black cotton pants. The smile on his face took me by surprise: so unexpected! so reviving! I had not realized the level of tension building in me until I felt welling up in me the relief caused by this single evidence of human friendliness. But then I saw that the smile on the young man’s face was blind, unfocused, turned inward; and that his eyeballs were rolling gently about in his face, his legs were turning to rubber beneath him, his arms were flailing the air in some imaginary prizefighter’s motion. What I had taken for cheerful connectiveness was in fact the solitary and antisocial vision of the drugged; and as the young man’s loosely clenched fists thrust closer and closer toward me, and his blind smile widened, and his legs twisted fearfully about, he became an eerie creature, sinister and unrecognizable to me. I flinched, and moved backward in a panicky effort to protect myself.

A train pulled into the express side of the station. I strained toward it. No hope of boarding it. Fifty people jammed the space between myself and the tracks, forming a single pushing wall I was no longer expert at inserting myself into. As I stood there in confusion, one eye on the addict at my side, the other wildly seeking some way out, three black boys rammed me and everyone around me, and went charging toward the train. They headed not for the doors but for the small open ends of the cars protected by linked chains, bulling their way through the crowd. Despite the presence of a conductor whose head was protruding from the small window at the end of the car nearest them, the three boys wrenched the chains apart, and with a wild war whoop leaped onto the open platform of the linked train cars, nearly knocking two women to the ground as they went. I looked into the faces of those boys, and I grew frightened. Their eyes seemed to glint with a kind of ferocious triumph, their mouths twisted into laughter that was a grimace, fury burned in their flared nostrils, their tensed arms looked, almost, as if they held weapons; for one hallucinating moment I imagined I saw flames licking at their feet. “Dear God,” I thought. “Who are these people? Who are they?” The train jerked itself together, roaring out of the station, and I remained where I stood, my head reeling.

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Abruptly, I looked up and out into the platform crowd, and there, still leaning against the metal pillar, was the young Puerto Rican woman in the pink plastic slicker — staring at me. What’s this? I thought, and looked back at her. Our eyes locked. For a length of time which felt eerily like a slow-motion sequence, that strange mutual stare endured, creating a sudden, curious silence in the midst of all this turmoil. And then — as in a dream that may take only eleven seconds to unfold but gives the illusion of hours passing — I felt the entirety of my immediate experience here on this subway platform tumbling, quickly slowly, through a kaleidoscope of altered meaning, spinning and jerking inside my head, buzzing through the unnatural silence that now surrounded and penetrated me.

For, there in the eyes of the young Puerto Rican woman staring at me, I could see my own face reflected. I could see all of my thoughts and feelings of the last twenty minutes being summed up and appraised. I could see the mixture of mockery and sympathy in her eyes that said so clearly and so honestly what I had not quite been able to say to myself. “We are ‘those people’ to you, aren’t we?” her eyes said, “and all this is happening in another country, isn’t it?” I could see the weary, working-class sophistication with which she “recognized” the entire human scene around her, and the amusement with which she observed middle-class panic. I could see the bitter intelligence that indicated she knew I’d been looking at the people around me as though they were animals in a zoo. But, more than any of these things I could see in her face, I could see me in her face. I could see me at 17 (she was no more than 18 or 19), standing exactly where she now stood, thinking exactly what she was now thinking, drawing the same ironic conclusions she was now drawing… The kaleido­scope stopped spinning and transformed itself into a tunnel of time down which I was quickly transported.

Twenty-five years ago these subways were filled with working-class Jews, and my father was one of them. Twice a day, for a quarter of a century, my father endured this subhuman exhaustion in order to stand eight hours a day at a steam iron in a dress factory on West 38th Street. Twice a day he gathered together with thousands of other Jewish immigrants here in this black gloom to hang from a strap in the final galling hour of a sweat-filled workday, drained of all thought and energy, his glazed mind able to concentrate only on a single fixed point: the moment when he would walk through the door of that railroad flat in the Bronx he called home. At 17, I took my place beside him on the subway (although he was already gone: dead at 51 of a heart attack), entering the ranks of working-class straphangers. But with a single vital difference: I was now a college student, already in that process of cultural absorption that would leave me with a kind of double-vision for the rest of my life. At 17, I knew well enough the difference between “us” and “them”; what’s more, I also knew how “they” saw “us”; I had read Hutchins Hapsgood’s turn-of-the-­century study of Jews in the “ghet-to,” and had thought, as I read his descriptions of small, squat Semites on the Lower East Side jabbering  Yiddish at the tops of their lungs, eating odd-smelling foods like gefilte fish, and wearing the skull caps, beards, and black clothes of the Middle Ages, “My God, that’s us he’s talking about!” And I remembered, now, as though it were yesterday, a day on the subway when I hung from a strap, my City College books under my free arm, surrounded by Jews of all sizes and shapes (mostly short and fat), speaking uneducated Yiddish to one another at the tops of their voices, and a tall slim man with blue eyes and straight blond hair stood at the far end of the car, staring unashamedly at us  — exactly as though we were animals in a zoo.

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The young Puerto Rican woman and I were still staring at each other; I shook my head slightly, and smiled into her face. I wanted to laugh and hug her. I felt free, as though a weight had been lifted from my chest. It wasn’t racism, after all, that I had been experiencing, only a classic instance of “class alienation.” Which, of course, is what New York is all about… How was it possible that in only one short generation I had forgotten who I was, and where I came from? And what I knew of the varieties of human pain experienced behind that annihilating phrase “those people”?

The young black addict at my side began to grow uncontrollable. He staggered around in wheeling circles, his legs buckling dangerously beneath him, a thin trickle of spittle drooling down the side of his mouth, his head down and coming straight at me. Then — and I will always wonder: Could it have happened before I had thought all this? — the black man in the red shirt and the porkpie hat sprang into action. He grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the path of the addict, half ­pushing me behind his own body. Our eyes met for a moment: In his was the same mixture of fear and disgust that undoubtedly flickered in my own. His lips tightened and he shook his head slowly from side to side in agreement, we are on the same side. I nodded at him, and for first time since I had descended into the subway I felt safe, back among my own people, back among people who saw danger where I saw it, and implicit in that single sight were shared assumptions about the value of certain kinds of human behavior. More I could not ask from the strangers all about me.

Another train pulled into the station. The man in the red shirt took firm hold of my upper arm and propelled me through the crowd, into the jaws of the iron monster. After that I was back on my own. Pushed, shoved, jammed, rammed, poked, pulled: That was the ride uptown. Fifty people packed into a space properly occupied by 25; everyone remained silent, and protected the last memory of separate humanness by meeting no one’s eyes. Hot breath poured down our necks and sweat rolled down the sides of our faces. Arms atrophied and legs grew numb. Elbows tried desperately to extricate themselves from ribs. Everywhere a frantic lookout for pickpockets.

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An enormous black woman broke the sucked-in silence. Her huge bosom almost at the level of my eyes, she looked down into my face as the train swayed and jerked along the tracks, shook her head solemnly from side to side, wiped her hand across her sweating eyes, and said, “Oh, honey! Ain’t this somethin’. Some dessert after a day’s work!” She sounded exactly like my mother, who spent years of her life railing against the subway. Only my mother, inevitably, would have ended with “A black year on all politicians! The mayor should be forced to ride the IRT every day for a month.”

At 149th Street and Third Avenue, in the Bronx, the train left the tunnel and emerged into the early evening twilight. Half the people in the car in which I was riding went spilling off onto the first elevated station, which is situated in one of the worst black and Puerto Rican slums in the city. The man in the red shirt was one of the last to leave the train. As he reached the door, he suddenly turned and looked at me. The dead cigar was still stuck in his mouth and his eyes were once more expressionless; but he lifted his porkpie hat to me, and lowered his head slightly in my direction. I nodded back. He disappeared through the door. We had spoken not a single word to each other.

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Equality From The Archives show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Women’s Liberation: The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs

One evening not too long ago, at the home of a well-educated and extremely intelligent couple I know, I mentioned the women’s liberation movement and was mildly astonished by the response the subject received. The man said: “Jesus, what is all that crap about?” The woman, a scientist who had given up 10 working years to raise her children, said: “I can understand if these women want to work and are demanding equal pay. But why on earth do they want to have children, too?” To which the man rejoined: “Ah, they don’t want kids. They’re mostly a bunch of dykes, anyway.”

Again: Having lunch with an erudite, liberal editor, trained in the humanist tradition, I was struck dumb by his reply to my mention of the women’s liberation movement: “Ah shit, who the hell is oppressing them?”

And yet again: A college-educated housewife, fat and neurotic, announced with arch sweetness, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel oppressed.”

Over and over again, in educated thinking circles, one meets with a bizarre, almost determined ignorance of a fact of unrest that is growing daily, and that exists in formally organized bodies in nearly every major city and on dozens of campuses across America. The women of this country are gathering themselves into a sweat of civil revolt, and the general population seems totally unaware of what is happening; or, indeed, that anything is happening; or that there is a legitimate need behind what is happening. How is this possible? Why is it true? What relation is there between the peculiarly unalarmed, amused dismissal of the women’s rights movement and the movement itself? Is this relation only coincidental, only the generally apathetic response of a society already benumbed by civil rights and student anarchy and unable to rise to yet one more protest movement, or is it more to the point in the case of women’s rights, is it not, in fact, precisely the key to the entire issue?

Almost invariably, when people set out to tell you there is no such thing as discrimination against women in this country, the first thing they hastily admit to is a minor degree of economic favoritism shown toward men. In fact, they will eagerly, almost gratefully, support the claim of economic inequity, as though that will keep the discussion within manageable bounds. Curious. But even on economic grounds or grounds of legal discrimination most people are dismally ignorant of the true proportions of the issue. They will grant that often a man will make as much as $100 more than a woman at the same job, and yes, it is often difficult for a woman to be hired when a man can be hired instead, but after all, that’s really not so terrible.

This is closer to the facts:

Women in this country make 60 cents for every $1 a man makes.

Women do not share in the benefits of the fair employment practices laws because those laws do not specify “no discrimination on the basis of sex.”

Women often rise in salary only to the point at which a man starts.

Women occupy, in great masses, the “household tasks” of industry. They are nurses but not doctors, secretaries but not executives, researchers but not writers, workers but not managers, bookkeepers but not promoters.

Women almost never occupy decision — or policy-making positions.

Women are almost non-existent in government.

Women are subject to a set of “protective” laws that restrict their working hours, do not allow them to occupy many jobs in which the carrying of weights is involved, do not allow them to enter innumerable bars, restaurants, hotels, and other public places unescorted.

Women, despite 100 years of reform, exist in the domestic and marriage laws of our country almost literally as appendages of their husbands. Did you know that rape by a husband is legal but that if a woman refuses to sleep with her husband she is subject to legal suit? Did you know that the word domicile in the law refers to the husband’s domicile and that if a woman refuses to follow her husband to wherever he makes his home, legal suit can be brought against her to force her to do so? Did you know that in most states the law imposes severe legal disabilities on married women with regard to their personal and property rights? (As a feminist said to me: “The United Nations has defined servitude as necessarily involuntary, but women, ignorant of the law, put themselves into voluntary servitude.”)

Perhaps, you will say, these observations are not so shocking. After all, women are weaker than men, they do need protection, what on earth is so terrible about being protected, for God’s sake! And as for those laws, they’re never invoked, no woman is dragged anywhere against her will, on the contrary, women’s desires rule the middle-class household, and women can work at hundreds of jobs. In fact, a great deal of the wealth of the country is in their hands, and no woman ever goes hungry.

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I agree. These observed facts of our national life are not so shocking. The laws and what accrues from them are not so terrible. It is what’s behind the laws that is so terrible. It is not the letter of the law but the spirit determining the law that is terrible. It is not what is explicit but what is implicit in the law that is terrible. It is not the apparent condition but the actual condition of woman that is terrible.

“The woman’s issue is the true barometer of social change,” said a famous political theoretician. This was true 100 years ago; it is no less true today. Women and blacks were and are, traditionally and perpetually, the great “outsiders” in Western culture, and their erratic swellings of outrage parallel each other in a number of ways that are both understandable and also extraordinary. A hundred years ago a great abolitionist force wrenched this country apart and changed its history forever; many, many radical men devoted a fever of life to wrecking a system in which men were bought and sold; many radical women worked toward the same end; the abolitionist movement contained women who came out of educated and liberal 19th century families, women who considered themselves independent thinking beings. It was only when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were not allowed to be seated at a World Anti-Slavery Conference held in the 1840s that the intellectual abolitionist women suddenly perceived that their own political existence resembled that of the blacks. They raised the issue with their radical men and were denounced furiously for introducing an insignificant and divisive issue, one which was sure to weaken the movement. Let’s win this war first, they said, and then we’ll see about women’s rights. But the women had seen; in one swift visionary moment, to the very center of the truth about their own lives, and they knew that first was now, that there would never be a time when men would willingly address themselves to the question of female rights, that to strike out now for women’s rights could do nothing but strengthen the issue of black civil rights because it called attention to all instances or rights denied in a nation that prided itself on rights for all.

Thus was born the original Women’s Rights Movement, which became known as the Women’s Suffrage Movement because the single great issue, of course, was legal political recognition. But it was never meant to begin and end with the vote, just as the abolitionist movement was never meant to begin and end with the vote. Somehow, though, that awful and passionate struggle for suffrage seemed to exhaust both the blacks and the women, especially the women, for when the vote finally came at the end of the Civil War, it was handed to black males — but not to women; the women had to go on fighting for 60 bitterly long years for suffrage. And then both blacks and women lay back panting, unable to catch their breath for generation upon generation.

The great civil rights movement for blacks in the 1950s and ’60s is the second wind of that monumental first effort, necessary because the legislated political equality of the 1860s was never translated into actual equality. The reforms promised by law had never happened. The piece of paper meant nothing. Racism had never been legislated out of existence; in fact, its original virulence had remained virtually untouched, and, more important, the black in this country had never been able to shake off the slave mentality. He was born scared, he ran scared, he died scared; for 100 years after legal emancipation, he lived as though it had never happened. Blacks and whites did not regard either themselves or each other differently, and so they in no way lived differently. In the 1950s and ’60s the surging force behind the renewed civil rights effort has been the desire to eradicate this condition more than any other, to enable the American black to believe in himself as a whole, independent, expressive human being capable of fulfilling and protecting himself in the very best way he knows how. Today, after more than 15 years of unremitting struggle, after a formidable array of reform laws legislated at the federal, state, and local level, after a concentration on black rights and black existence that has traumatized the nation, it is still not unfair to say that the psychology of defeat has not been lifted from black life. Still (aside from the continuance of crime, drugs, broken homes, and all the wretched rest of it), employers are able to say: “Sure, I’d love to hire one if I could find one who qualified,” and while half the time this is simply not true, half the time it is, because black life is still marked by the “nigger mentality,” the terrible inertia of spirit that accompanies the perhaps irrational but deeply felt conviction that no matter what one does, one is going to wind up a 35-year-old busboy. This “nigger mentality” characterizes black lives. It also characterizes women’s lives. And it is this, and this alone, that is behind the second wave of feminism now sweeping the country and paralleling precisely, exactly as it does 100 years ago, the black rights movement. The fight for reform laws is just the beginning. What women are really after this time around is the utter eradication of the “nigger” in themselves.

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Most women who feel ‘”niggerized” have tales of overt oppression to tell. They feel they’ve been put down by their fathers, their brothers, their lovers, their bosses. They feel that in their families, in their sex lives, and in their jobs they have counted as nothing, they have been treated as second-class citizens, their minds have been deliberately stunted and their emotions warped. My own experience with the condition is a bit more subtle, and, without bragging, I do believe a bit closer to the true feminist point.

To begin with, let me tell a little story. Recently, I had lunch with a man I had known at school. He and his wife and I had all been friends at college; they had courted while we were in school and immediately upon graduation they got married. They were both talented art students, and it was assumed both would work in commercial art. But shortly after their marriage she became pregnant, and never did go to work. Within five years they had two children. At first I visited them often; their home was lovely, full of their mutual talent for atmosphere; the wife sparkled, the children flourished; [the husband] rose in the field of commercial art; I envied them both their self-containment, and she especially her apparently contented, settled state. But as I had remained single and life took me off in various other directions, we soon began to drift apart, and when I again met the husband we had not seen each other in many years. We spoke animatedly of­ what we had both been doing for quite a while. Then I asked about his wife. His face rearranged itself suddenly, but I couldn’t quite tell how at first. He said she was fine, but didn’t sound right.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is she doing something you don’t want her to do? Or the other way around?”

“No, no,” he said hastily. “I want her to do whatever she wants to do. Anything. Anything that will make her happy. And get her off my back,” he ended bluntly. I asked what he meant and he told me of his wife’s restlessness of the last few years; of how sick she was of being a housewife, how useless she felt, and how she longed to go back to work.

“Well?” I asked, “did you object?”

“Of course not!” he replied vigorously. “Why the hell would I do that? She’s a very talented woman, her children are half grown, she’s got every right in the world to go to work.”

“So?” I said.

“It’s her,” he said bewilderedly. “She doesn’t seem able to just go out and get a job.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. But beneath the surface of my own puzzled response I more than half knew what was coming.

“Well, she’s scared, I think. She’s more talented than half the people who walk into my office asking for work, but do what I will she won’t get a portfolio together and make the rounds. Also, she cries a lot lately. For no reason, if you know what I mean. And then, she can’t seem to get up in the morning in time to get a babysitter and get out of the house. This is a woman who was always up at 7 a.m. to feed everybody, get things going; busy, capable, doing 10 things at once.” He shook his head as though in a true quandary. “Oh well,” he ended up, “I guess it doesn’t really matter any more.”

“Why not?” I asked.

His eyes came up and he looked levelly at me. “She’s just become pregnant again.”

I listened silently, but with what internal churning! Even though the external events of our lives were quite different, I felt as though this woman had been living inside my skin all these years, so close was I to the essential nature of her experience as I perceived it listening to her husband’s woebegone tale. I had wandered about the world, I had gained another degree, I had married twice, I had written, taught, edited, I had no children. And yet I knew that in some fundamental sense we were the same woman. I understood exactly — but exactly — the kind of neurotic anxiety that just beset her, and that had ultimately defeated her; it was a neurosis I shared and had recognized in almost every woman I had ever known — including Monica Vitti, having her Chiaparellied nervous breakdown, stuffing her hand into her mouth, rolling her eyes wildly, surrounded by helplessly sympathetic men who kept saying: “Just tell me what’s wrong.”

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I was raised in an immigrant home where education was worshiped. As the entire American culture was somewhat mysterious to my parents, the educational possibilities of that world were equally unknown for both the boy and the girl in our family. Therefore, I grew up in the certainty that if my brother went to college, I too could go to college; and, indeed, he did, and I in my turn did too. We both read voraciously from early childhood on, and we were both encouraged to do so. We both had precocious and outspoken opinions and neither of us was ever discouraged from uttering them. We both were exposed early to unionist radicalism and neither of us met with opposition when, separately, we experimented with youthful political organizations. And yet somewhere along the line my brother and I managed to receive an utterly different education regarding ourselves and our own expectations from life. He was taught many things but what he learned was the need to develop a kind of inner necessity. I was taught many things but what I learned, ultimately, was that it was the prime vocation of my life to prepare myself for the love of a good man and the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. All the rest, the education, the books, the jobs, that was all very nice and of course, why not? I was an intelligent girl, shouldn’t I learn? make something of myself! but oh dolly, you’ll see, in the end no woman could possibly be happy without a man to love and children to raise. What’s more, came the heavy implication, if I didn’t marry I would be considered an irredeemable failure.

How did I learn this? How? I have pondered this question 1000 times. Was it really that explicit? Was it laid out in lessons strategically planned and carefully executed? Was it spooned down my throat at regular intervals? No. It wasn’t. I have come finally to understand that the lessons were implicit and they took place in 100 different ways, in a continuous day-to-day exposure to an attitude, shared by all, about women, about what kind of creatures they were and what kind of lives they were meant to live; the lessons were administered not only by my parents but by the men and women, the boys and girls, all around me who, of course, had been made in the image of this attitude.

My mother would say to me when I was very young, as I studied at the kitchen table and she cooked: “How lucky you are to go to school! I wasn’t so lucky. I had to go to work in the factory. I wanted so to be a nurse! But to be a nurse in Williamsburg in 1920! Maybe you’ll be a nurse…” I listened, I nodded, but somehow the message I got was that I was like her and I would one day be doing what she was now doing.

My brother was the “serious and steady” student, I the “erratic and undisciplined” one. When he studied the house was silenced; when I studied, business as usual.

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When I was 14 and I came in flushed and disarrayed my mother knew I’d been with a boy. Her fingers gripped my upper arm; her face, white and intent, bent over me: What did he do to you? Where did he do it? I was frightened to death. What was she so upset about? What could he do to me? I learned that I was the keeper of an incomparable treasure and it had to be guarded: it was meant to be a gift for my husband. (Later that year when I read A Rage to Live I knew without any instruction exactly what all those elliptical sentences were about.)

When I threw some hideous temper tantrum my mother would say: “What a little female you are!” (I have since seen many little boys throw the same tantrums and have noted with interest that they are not told they are little females.)

The girls on the street would talk forever about boys, clothes, movies, fights with their mothers. The 1000 thoughts racing around in my head from the books I was reading remained secret, no one to share them with.

The boys would be gentler with the girls than with each other when we all played roughly; and our opinions were never considered seriously.

I grew up, I went to school, I came out, wandered around, went to Europe, went back to school, wandered again, taught in a desultory fashion, and at last! got married!

It was during my first marriage that I began to realize something was terribly wrong inside me, but it took me 10 years to understand that I was suffering the classic female pathology. My husband, like all the men I have known, was a good man, a man who wanted my independence for me more than I wanted it for myself. He urged me to work, to do something, anything, that would make me happy; he knew that our pleasure in each other could be heightened only if I was a functioning human being too. Yes, yes! I said, and leaned back in the rocking chair with yet another novel. Somehow, I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t really know where to start, what I wanted to do. Oh, I had always had a number of interests but they, through an inability on my part to stick with anything, had always been superficial; when I arrived at a difficult point in a subject, a job, an interest, I would simply drop it. Of course, what I really wanted to do was write; but that was an altogether ghastly agony and one I could never come to grips with. There seemed to be some terrible aimlessness at the very center of me, some paralyzing lack of will. My energy, which was abundant, was held in a trap of some sort; occasionally that useless energy would wake up roaring, demanding to be let out of its cage, and then I became “emotional”; I would have hysterical depressions, rage on and on about the meaninglessness of my life, force my husband into long psychoanalytic discussions about the source of my (our) trouble, end in a purging storm of tears, a determination to do “something,” and six months later I was right back where I started. If my marriage had not dissolved, I am sure that I would still be in exactly that same peculiarly nightmarish position. But as it happened, the events of life forced me out into the world, and repeatedly I had to come up against myself. I found this pattern of behavior manifesting itself in 100 different circumstances; regardless of how things began, they always seemed to end in the same place. Oh, I worked, I advanced, in a sense, but only erratically and with superhuman effort. Always the battle was internal, and it was with a kind of paralyzing anxiety at the center of me that drained off my energy and retarded my capacity for intellectual concentration. It took me a long time to perceive that nearly every woman I knew exhibited the same symptoms, and when I did perceive it became frightened. I thought, at first, that perhaps, indeed, we were all victims of some biological deficiency, that some vital ingredient had been deleted in the female of the species, that we were a physiological metaphor for human neurosis. It took me a long time to understand, with an understanding that is irrevocable, that we are the victims of culture, not biology.

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Recently, I read a marvelous biography of Beatrice Webb, the English socialist. The book is full of vivid portraits, but the one that is fixed forever in my mind is that of Mrs. Webb’s mother, Laurencina Potter. Laurencina Potter was a beautiful, intelligent, intellectually energetic woman of the middle 19th century. She knew 12 languages, spoke Latin and Greek better than half the classics-trained men who came to her home, and was interested in everything. Her marriage to wealthy and powerful Richard Potter was a love match, and she looked forward to a life of intellectual companionship, stimulating activity, lively participation. No sooner were they married than Richard installed her in a Victorian fortress in the country, surrounded her with servants and physical comfort, and started her off with the first of the 11 children she eventually bore. He went out into the world, bought and sold railroads, made important political connections, mingled in London society, increased his powers, and relished his life. She, meanwhile, languished. She sat in the country, staring at the four brocaded walls; her energy remained bottled up, her mind became useless, her will evaporated. The children became symbols of her enslavement and, in consequence, she was a lousy mother: neurotic, self-absorbed, increasingly colder and more withdrawn, increasingly more involved in taking her emotional temperature. She became, in short, the Victorian lady afflicted with indefinable maladies.

When I read of Laurencina’s life I felt as though I was reading about the lives of most of the women I know, and it struck me that 100 years ago sexual submission was all for a woman, and today sexual fulfillment is all for a woman, and the two are one and the same.

Most of the women I know are people of superior intelligence, developed emotions, and higher education. And yet our friendships, our conversations, our lives, are not marked by intellectual substance or emotional distance or objective concern. It is only briefly and insubstantially that I ever discuss books or politics or philosophical issues or abstractions of any kind with the women I know. Mainly, we discuss and are intimate about our Emotional Lives. Endlessly, endlessly, we go on and on about our emotional “problems” and “needs” and “relationships.” And, of course, because we are all bright and well-educated, we bring to bear on these sessions a formidable amount of sociology and psychology, literature and history, all hoked out so that it sounds as though these are serious conversations on serious subjects, when in fact they are caricatures of seriousness right out of Jonathan Swift. Caricatures, because they have no beginning, middle, end, or point. They go nowhere, they conclude nothing, they change nothing. They are elaborate descriptions in the ongoing soap opera that is our lives. It took me a long time to understand that we were talking about nothing, and it took me an even longer and harder time, traveling down that dark, narrow road in the mind, back back to the time when I was a little girl sitting in the kitchen with my mother, to understand, at last, that the affliction was cultural not biological, that it was because we had never been taught to take ourselves seriously that I and all the woman I knew had become parodies of “taking ourselves seriously.”

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The rallying cry of the black civil rights movement has always been: “Give us back our manhood!” What exactly does that mean? Where is black manhood? How has it been taken from blacks? And how can it be retrieved? The answer lies in one word: responsibility; therefore, they have been deprived of serious work; therefore they have been deprived of self-respect; therefore, they have been deprived of manhood. Women have been deprived of exactly the same thing and in every real sense have thus been deprived of womanhood. We have never been prepared to assume responsibility; we have never been prepared to make demands upon ourselves; we have never been taught to expect the development of what is best in ourselves because no one have ever expected anything of us — or for us. Because no one has ever had any intention of turning over any serious work to us. Both we and the blacks lost the ballgame before we ever got up to play. In order to live you’ve got to have nerve; and we were stripped of our nerve before we began. Black is ugly and female is inferior. These are the primary lessons of our experience, and in these ways both blacks and women have been kept, not as functioning nationals, but rather as operating objects, but a human being who remains as a child throughout his adult life is an object, not a mature specimen, and the definition of a child is: one without responsibility.

At the very center of all human life is energy, psychic energy. It is the force of that energy that drives us, that surges continually up in us, that must repeatedly spend and renew itself in us, that must perpetually be reaching for something beyond itself in order to satisfy its own insatiable appetite. It is the imperative of that energy that has determined man’s characteristic interest, problem-solving. The modern ecologist attests to that driving need by demonstrating that in a time when all the real problems are solved, man makes up new ones in order to go on solving. He must have work, work that he considers real and serious, or he will die he will simply shrivel up and die. That is the one certain characteristic of human beings. And it is the one characteristic, above all others, that the accidentally dominant white male asserts is not necessary to more than half the members of the race, i.e., the female of the species. This assertion is, quite simply, a lie. Nothing more, nothing less. A lie. That energy is alive in every woman in the world. It lies trapped and dormant like a growing tumor, and at its center there is despair, hot, deep, wordless.

It is amazing to me that I have just written these words. To think that 100 years after Nora slammed the door, and in a civilization and a century utterly converted to the fundamental insights of that exasperating genius, Sigmund Freud, women could still be raised to believe that their basic makeup is determined not by the needs of their egos but by their peculiar child-bearing properties and their so-called unique capacity for loving. No man worth his salt does not wish to be a husband and father; yet no man is raised to be a husband and father and no man would ever conceive of those relationships as instruments of his prime function in life. Yet every woman is raised, still, to believe that the fulfillment of these relationships is her prime function in life and, what’s more, her instinctive choice.

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The fact is that women have no special capacities for love, and when a culture reaches a level where its women have nothing to do but “love” (as occurred in the Victorian upper classes and as is occurring now in the American middle classes), they prove to be very bad at it. The modern American wife is not noted for her love of her husband or of her children; she is noted for her driving (or should I say driven?) domination of them. She displays an aberrated, aggressive ambition for her mate and for her offspring which can be explained only by the most vicious feelings toward the self. The reasons are obvious. The woman who must love for a living, the woman who has no self, no objective external reality to take her own measure by, no work to discipline her, no goal to provide the illusion of progress, no internal resources, no separate mental existence, is constitutionally incapable of the emotional distance that is one of the real requirements of love. She cannot separate herself from her husband and children because all the passionate and multiple needs of her being are centered on them. That’s why women “Take everything personally.” It’s all they’ve got to take. “Loving” is just a substitute for an entire [illegible] being and interest. The man, who is not raised to be a husband and father specifically, and who simply loves as a single function of his existence, cannot understand her abnormal “emotionality” and concludes that this is the female nature. (Why shouldn’t he? She does too.) But this is not so. It is a result of a psychology achieved by cultural attitudes that run so deep and have gone on for so long that they are mistaken for “nature” or “instinct.”

A good example of what I mean are the multiple legends of our culture regarding motherhood. Let’s use our heads for a moment. What on earth is holy about motherhood? I mean, why motherhood rather than fatherhood? If anything is holy, it is the consecration of sexual union. A man plants a seed in a woman; the seed matures and eventually is expelled by the women; a child is born to both of them; each contributed the necessary parts to bring about procreation; each is responsible to and necessary to the child; to claim that the woman is more so than the man is simply not true; certainly it cannot be proven biologically or psychologically (please, no comparisons with baboons and penguins just now — I am sure I can supply 50 examples from nature to counter any assertion made on the subject); all that can be proven is that some one is necessary to the newborn baby; to have instilled in women the belief that their child-bearing and housewifely obligations supersedes all other needs, that indeed what they fundamentally want and need is to be wives and mothers as distinguished from being anything else, is to have accomplished an act of trickery, an act which has deprived women of the proper forms of expression necessary to that force of energy alive in every talking creature, an act which has indeed mutilated their natural selves and deprived them of their womanhood, whatever that may be, deprived them of the right to say “I” and have it mean something. This understanding, grasped whole, is what underlies the current wave of feminism. It is felt by thousands of women today, it will be felt by millions tomorrow. You have only to examine briefly a fraction of the women’s rights organizations already in existence to realize instantly that they form the nucleus of a genuine movement, complete with theoreticians, tacticians, agitators, manifestos, journals, and thesis papers, running the entire political spectrum from conservative reform to visionary radicalism, and powered by an emotional conviction rooted in undeniable experience, and fed by a determination that is irreversible.

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One of the oldest and stablest of the feminist organizations is NOW, the National Organization for Women. It was started in 1966 by a group of professional women headed by Mrs. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, the book that was the bringer of the word in 1963 to the new feminists. NOW has more than 3000 members, chapters in major cities and on many campuses all over the country, and was read, at its inception, into the Congressional Record. It has many men in its ranks and it works, avowedly within the system, to bring about the kind of reforms that will result in what it calls a “truly equal partnership between men and women” in this country. It is a true reform organization filled with intelligent, liberal, hard-working women devoted to ­the idea that America is a reformist democracy and ultimately will respond to the justice of their cause. They are currently hard at work on two major issues: repeal of the abortion laws and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (for which feminists have been fighting since 1923) which would amend the constitution to provide that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” When this amendment is passed, the employment and marriage laws of more than 40 states will be affected. Also, in direct conjunction with the fight to have this amendment passed, NOW demands increased child-care facilities to be established by law on the same basis as parks, libraries, and public schools.

NOW’s influence is growing by leaps and bounds. It is responsible for the passage of many pieces of legislation meant to wipe out discrimination against women, and certainly the size and number of Women’s Bureaus, Women’s units, Women’s Commissions springing up in government agencies and legislative bodies all over the country reflects its presence. Suddenly, there are Presidential reports and gubernatorial conferences and congressional meetings — all leaping all over each other to discuss the status of women. NOW, without a doubt, is the best established feminist group.

From NOW we move, at a shocking rate of speed, to the left. In fact, it would appear that NOW is one of the few reformist groups, that mainly the feminist groups are radical, both in structure and in aim. Some, truth to tell, strike a bizarre and puzzling note. For instance, there is WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell), an offshoot of SDS, where members burned their bras and organized against the Miss America Pageant in a stirring demand that the commercially useful image of female beauty be wiped out. There is Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto, which Solanas’s penetrating observation on our national life was: “If the atom bomb isn’t dropped, this society will hump itself to death.” There is Cell 55. God knows what they do.

There are the Redstockings, an interesting group that seems to have evolved from direct action into what they call “consciousness-raising.” That means, essentially, that they get together in a kind of group therapy session and the women reveal their experiences and feelings to each other in an attempt to analyze the femaleness of their psychology and their circumstances, thereby increasing the invaluable weapon of self-understanding.

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And finally, there are the Feminists, without a doubt the most fiercely radical and intellectually impressive of all the groups. This organization was begun a year ago by a group of defectors from NOW and various their feminist groups, in rebellion against the repetition of the hierarchical structure of power in these other groups. Their contention was: women have always been “led”; if they join the rank and file of a feminist organization they are simply being led again. It will still be someone else, even if only the officers of their own interesting group, making the decisions, doing the planning, the executing, and so on. They determined to develop a leaderless society whose guiding principle was participation by lot. And that is precisely what they have done. The organization has no officers, every woman sooner or later performs every single task necessary to the life and aims of the organization, and the organization is willing to temporarily sacrifice efficiency in order that each woman may fully develop all the skills necessary to autonomous functioning. This working individualism is guarded fiercely by a set of rigid rules regarding attendance, behavior, duties, and loyalties.

The Feminists encourage extensive theorizing on the nature and function of a leaderless society, and this has led the organization to a bold and radical view of the future they wish to work for. The group never loses sight of the fact that its primary enemy is the male-female role system which has ended in women being the oppressed and men being the oppressors. It looks forward to a time when this system will be completely eradicated: To prepare for this coming, it now denounces all the institutions which encourage the system, i.e., love, sex, and marriage. It has a quota on married women (only one-third of their number are permitted to be either married or living in a marriage-like situation). It flatly names all men as the enemy. It looks forward to a future in which the family as we know it will disappear, all births will be extra-uterine, children will be raised by communal efforts, and women once and for all will cease to be the persecuted members of the race.

Although a lot of this is hard to take in raw doses, you realize that many of these ideas represent interesting and important turns of thought. First of all, these experiments with a leaderless society are being echoed everywhere: in student radicalism, in black civil rights, in hippie communes. They are part of a great radical lusting after self-determination that is beginning to overtake this country. This is true social revolution, and I believe that feminism, in order to accomplish its aims now, does need revolution, does need a complete overthrow of an old kind of thought and the introduction of a new kind of thought. Secondly, the Feminists are right: most of what men and women now are is determined by the “roles” they play, and love is an institution, full of ritualized gestures and positions, and often void of any recognizable naturalness. How, under the present iron-bound social laws, can one know what is female nature and what is female role? (And that question speaks to the source of the whole female pain and confusion.) It is thrilling to contemplate a new world, brave or otherwise, in which men and women may free themselves of some of the crippling sexual poses that now circumscribe their lives, thus allowing them some open and equitable exchange of emotion, some release of the natural self which will be greeted with resentment from no one.

But the Feminists strike a wrong and rather hysterical note when they indicate that they don’t believe there is a male or female nature, that all is role. I believe that is an utterly wrong headed notion. Not only do I believe there is a genuine male or female nature in each of us, but I believe that what is most exciting about the new world that may be coming is the promise of stripping down to that nature, of the complementary elements in those natures meeting without anxiety, of our different biological tasks being performed without profit for one at the expense of the other.

The Feminists’ position is extreme and many of these pronouncements are chilling at first touch. But you quickly realize that this is the harsh, stripped-down language of revolution, that is, the language of icy “honesty,” of narrow but penetrating vision. (As one Feminist said sweetly, quoting her favorite author: “In order to have a revolution you must have a revolutionary theory).” And besides, you sue for thousands and hope to collect hundreds.

Many Feminists, though, are appalled by the Feminists (the in-fighting in the movement is fierce); feel they are fascists, “superweak,” annihilatingly single-minded, and involved in a power play no matter what they say; but then again you can find feminists who will carefully and at great length put down every single feminist group going. But there’s one great thing about these chicks: if five feminists fall out with six groups, within half an hour they’ll all find each other (probably somewhere on Bleecker Street), within 48 hours a new splinter faction will have announced its existence, and within two weeks the manifesto is being mailed out. It’s the mark of a true movement.

Two extremely intelligent and winning feminists who are about to “emerge” as part of a new group are Shulamith Firestone, an ex-Redstocking, and Anne Koedt, an ex-Feminist, and both members of the original radical group, New York Radical Women. They feel that none of the groups now going has the capacity to build a broad mass movement among the women of this country and they intend to start one that will. Both are dedicated to social revolution and agree with many of the ideas of many of the other radical groups. Each one, in her own words, comes equipped with “impeccable revolutionary credentials.” They come out of the Chicago SDS and the New York civil rights movement. Interestingly enough, like many of the radical women in this movement, they were converted to feminism because in their participation in the New Left they met with intolerable female discrimination. (“Yeah, baby, comes the revolution.… Meanwhile, you make the coffee and later I’ll tell you where to hand out the leaflets.” And when they raised the issue of women’s rights with their radical young men, they were greeted with furious denunciations of introducing divisive issues! (Excuse me, but haven’t we been here before?)

The intention of Miss Firestone and Miss Koedt is to start a group that will be radical in aim but much looser in structure than anything they’ve been involved with; it will be an action group, but everyone will also be encouraged to theorize, analyze, create; it will appeal to the broad base of educated women; on the other hand, it will not sound ferocious to the timid non-militant woman. In other words…

I mention these two in particular, but at this moment in New York, in Cambridge, in Chicago, in New Haven, in Washington, in San Francisco, in East Podunk — yes! believe it! — there are dozens like them preparing to do the same thing. They are gathering fire and I do believe the next great moment in history is theirs. God knows, for my unborn daughter’s sake, I hope so.