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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Seduction and betrayal

Elizabeth Hardwick, who died on Sunday at the age of 91, always struck me as a great comma-user. Here’s a good indicator of her comma prowess from her novel-memoir, Sleepless Nights (1979):
“Beginnings are always delightful; the threshold is the place to pause,” Goethe said. New York once more, to remain forever, resting on its generous accommodation of women. Long dresses arrogance, more chances to deceive the deceitful, confidants, conspirators, charge cards.

The commas and the nouns together, that deft play with parallel structure and the list format, interest in Hardwick's work. That passage reminds me, both in its commas and in its content, of my favorite pre-1983 short story, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Theft” (1929). Here’s the end of Porter’s story (so many of her short stories in this collection are good; she’s fascinating to read next Hardwick):
In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed form her and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with; bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inexplicable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love—-all that she had had, and all that she had missed were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.
She laid the purse on the table and sat down with the cup of chilled coffee, and thought: I was right not be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.

If the threshold is the place to pause, Hardwick pauses at the end of the book to consider how those commas and nouns both do and do not sound right after she’s written them. I came to Hardwick after reading her introductions to the Modern Library edition of Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Didion wrote the introduction to Hardwick's Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature. The "do and do not" of the first sentence of the paragraph is totally Didion's influence on me (maybe Porter's, also?); she's another great compiler of counter-intuitive but elegant lists. Here's Hardwick's closing paragraphs:
Yet why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the jangle of carelessness at a distance? Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone—many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.
The torment of personal relations. Nothing new there except in the disguise, and in the escape on the wings of adjectives. Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs.

Sometimes I resent the glossary, the concordance of truth, many have about my real life, have like an extra pair of spectacles. I mean that such fact is to me a hindrance to memory.

These paragraphs of Sleepless Nights give me a chance to reconsider the ways in which Katha Pollitt has both framed and destabilized her own "escape on the wings of adjectives" in her new essay collection, Learning to Drive. It's a connection I hadn’t thought about until I re-read Hardwick last night: both of them are unsure about the possibility of description as a way to record "the torment of personal relations." I’ve been struggling with Pollitt’s new book for a few months—-really-—because my first reaction to it was so ambivalent. Yet I keep returning to it. The book is a collection of essays, two of which were originally published in the New Yorker to some infamy. “Learning to Drive,” about her picking up the pieces after her former partner’s betrayals, and “Webstalker,” about her discovery of more of his betrayals through the use of Google, were both deeply personal confessions. Honestly, part of me didn’t want to read such personal work from her; I had really thought of her as my infallible hero from reading her columns in the Nation. Or no, not infallible, but something else: vulnerable.

Pollitt spoke to Anna Quindlen at a public reading at CUNY back in October; Pollitt expressed some reasonable indignation at the critical piling-on she’s taken for the book. She and Quindlen asked each other, and the audience, about the nature of the response: Why do we want women to be infallible? Why can’t feminists admit to moments of personal ambivalence or vulnerability? The connection between Quindlen and Pollitt seemed a bit strained to me; Quindlen made a career writing about her personal life as a working journalist mother for the New York Times, but her essays are much breezier than Pollitt’s. Maybe one of the reasons Pollitt’s writing provokes such strong emotions is that she isn’t trying to make the reader identify with her or even like her all the time—-and that’s not a comfortable position for the reader who’s eager to see her as the source of all practical wisdom and no-nonsense political analysis.

Reading Pollitt with Hardwick puts a lot of those concerns in perspective. Here's Pollitt in the title essay of the book, where the list functions not just as a set of observations but also turns into a litany of self-recriminations:
Observation is my weakness. I did not realize that my mother was a secret drinker. I did not realize that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer, that the drab colleague he insinuated into our social life was his longstanding secret lover, or that the young art critic he mocked as silly and second-rate was being groomed as my replacement. I noticed that our apartment was becoming a grunge palace, with papers collecting dust on every surface and kitty litter crunching underfoot. I observed--very good, Kahta!--that I was spending many hours in my study, engaged in arcane e-mail debates with strangers, that I had gained twenty-five pounds in our seven years together and could not fit into many of my clothes. I realized it was not likely that the unfamiliar pink-and-black striped bikini panties in the clean-clothes basket were the result, as he claimed, of a simple laundry-room mixup. But all this awareness was like the impending danger in one of those slow-motion dreams of paralysis, information that could not be processed. It was like seeing the man with the suitcase step off the curb and driving forward anyway.

I hope that that's a fitting tribute to Hardwick: she made me reconsider other writers' work in a new way. There are echoes between the two writers in the content as well, as the narrator in Hardwick's novel looks back at a diffident relationship:
I was honored when he allowed me to go to bed with him and dishonored when I felt my imaginative, anxious, exhausting efforts were not what he wanted. His handsomeness created anxiety in me; his snobbery was detailed and full of quirks, like that of people living in provincial capitals, or foreigners living in Florence or Cairo. Worst of all was my ambivalence over what I took to to be the inauthenticity of his Marxism. In my heart I was weasel-like, hungry, hunting with blazing eyes for innocent contradictions, given to predatory chewings on the difference between theory and practice. That is what I had brought from home in Kentucky to New York, this large bounty of polemicism, stored away behind light, limp Southern hair and not-quite-blue eyes.

Pollitt and Hardwick share an attention to detail in describing the edges of seduction and betrayal. In the New York Review of Books, which Hardwick founded with Jacob and Barbara Epstein in 1963, Cathleen Schine reviewed Pollitt's essay collection positively and drew attention to her "poet's eye for detail." Here's Schine's rave about Pollitt's style:
Pollitt is constantly distracted by extraneous yet somehow essential details. But it is exactly this peculiar vision, so rich and so irrelevant, that drives the book and, one begins to see, drives the writer as well. ... Far from being a fault in her perception, this is her way of seeing the world. In constant pursuit of an ideology, a soul mate, the answer, Pollitt keeps finding poetry instead.

Schine's review seems more like an appreciation to me: I see that Pollitt has an eye for detail, but I think there's a built-in critique of that descriptive power in the "Learning to Drive," where the telling details don't provide all the comfort they're supposed to, hence "observation is my weakness." That talent for picking nouns and arranging them gets worn out in the lists of anxieties and disappointments (Hardwick), catalogs of things lost (Porter), and personal recriminations (all three authors). The procedure turns back on itself at the same time that it enumerates the details so fastidiously. Here’s Hardwick realizing how people use description of particular details in a transparent, self-serving way as her sometime-attachment, the vaguely inauthentic Marxist, complains to her about being left by his longtime girlfriend:
Old English wallpaper, carpets, Venetian mirrors, decorated vases, marble mantelpieces, buzzers under the rug around the dining-room table, needlepoint seats: Alex was making an inventory of Sarah’s Philadelphia house before her mother died. Complaining that there wasn’t an Eakins ... Naturally not ... .They weren’t smart enough for that.

On he went. I cannot tell you how badly Sarah and her man have behaved ... The smugness, the cheapness ... Terrible, terrible clichés. Everything supposed to be of value turned overnight into an item of indictment ... My writing, my politics, my life, my friends ... Now listen, listen carefully. She had the nerve to say that it was not him... him... not at all. Merely the occasion ... yes, she’s capable of that phrase ... No, the thing with us had been for a long time, she said. Dead ... What a lie.

Everyone says that. I wouldn’t take it seriously.

He was getting drunk. Don’t tell me what to take seriously. I will take what I please.
He is leaving. Suddenly, at the door, a smile drifted through the darkness of his face. All the bones lit up and the melancholy eyes glittered.

It is pleasant to lay out the evidence.

Pollitt makes that evidence-collection into something manic in "Webstalker" when she tries to guess the philandering Marxist's password--a move that's thoroughly alienating and off-putting to read--but maybe that's the exhausted endpoint of seeing one's talent for generating nouns go to seed. Pollitt writes,
had his password--"marxist"--or did I? When I asked him what his password was, a few months before he left, he had cleared his throat and paused. I attributed this hesitation to modesty--he was embarrassed to claim such a heroic identity, or to use such a large, noble, world-historical word for such a trivial purpose. But perhaps he hesitated because he was afraid I would use it and find out his secrets--or was thinking up a fake password so that I couldn't. In any case, "marxist" didn't work when I tried to access his mail through did any of the other words I tried: "marxism," "marx," "karlmarx," "engels," "communist," "communism," "pannekoek," "korsch," "luxemburg," "luxembourg," "belgium," "chocolate," "godiva," "naked," "breast," "cunnilingus," "fellatio," or the names of our cats, his new girlfriend, his mother's dead golden retriever. My password is "secret," which is so obvious that e-mail programs cite it as the exact word not to choose, but which I liked because it was a pun--"secret" as a secret password, the word that is also the thing itself. I noticed he didn't ask for my password, but I told him anyway.

That turn to the word "secret" that contradicts the thing its supposed to refer to, the password, is almost a comment in and of itself on the key feature of the confessonal essay. The New Yorker labeled these pieces "personal history," but they read more like confessions--and that's what troubled many readers about them. Writing about Pollitt's book for the New York Times Book Review in an extraordinarily unpleasant review, Toni Bentley insisted that she didn't want to read these confessions: "It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely." On Salon, Rebecca Traister wrote a column about Bentley's review and other responses to Pollitt's work that takes up the question about why readers don't want to see this vulnerability.

I admit, I read the first paragraphs of "Webstalker" out loud to my mom when it was published in the New Yorker, and she shouted over the phone, "Stop it Alice, stop it! It's my birthday!" Neither of us are big fans of the confessional. I was especially interested in this Slate conversation between Laura Kipnis and Daphne Merkin about The Female Thing. The discussion is prickly, and each writer appears to be intentionally misunderstand her pen pal in every entry, as though they want to push the boundaries of what interpreting each other's confessions might mean into a stalemate. Here's Kipnis objecting to Merkin's question about why she doesn't insert more of herself into her analysis:
I feel on slightly thin ice here, as I'm corresponding with someone known for confessional writing. My own reaction to this genre is, I confess, a little mixed. Well, to be honest, I often find myself appalled—while also completely fascinated, of course. Not only by the magnitude of the narcissism, but by the losing battle between the requirement to display self-knowledge, and the vastness of what you simply can't know about yourself—most of which is usually all too apparent to your reading public. In today's literary confessionals there's generally a predictable structure: the passage from problem to insight; meaning that some variety of curative self-knowledge must be produced before a denouement can be achieved. One thing this means is that even self-styled bad girls—your essay on spanking, for instance, or Toni Bentley's The Surrender—end up renouncing some illicit sexual pleasure for the higher rewards of self-realization. (How depressing if it turns out that inside every bad girl, there's a reformed bad girl screaming to get out!) What's framed as daring truth-telling actually follows strict genre conventions, covertly appeals to the reader (or some higher authority) for approval, and the clichés structuring the self-realizations frequently seem to mirror the conventions of 12-step culture: the addiction-recovery-testimonial model.

(In her review of Pollitt, Bentley mentions both Kipnis and Merkin and ties them together; their conversation on Slate would seem to indicate that neither one of them wants to be compared to her mode of confessionalism.) I'm very much on board with Kipnis here, but reading her with Hardwick, Porter, and, yes, Didion, illuminates her play with the conventions of descriptive writing and with confession in a way I hadn't seen before. My mom is no big supporter of my Didion obsession; she frequently cites Barbara Grizutti Harrison's famous indictment of her writing as style masquerading as substance in those elegant lists. My defense of Didion, Hardwick, and now Pollitt is that all of those authors manipulate the style and show it not to work in some important parts of their writing. Pollitt, in that admission of bad observation and in the story about the secret, provides a hint of a critique of the confession at the same time that she's doing it, precisely by using those problematic lists to register what Porter called "bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inexplicable."

With Merkin and Quindlen, there's a lot of Barnard here, no (Hardwick taught creative writing at Barnard in the '80s)? I'll just throw in for closing that Margot, from Noah Baumbauch's new film Margot at the Wedding confesses to being an alumna. The movie is too painful to watch at times, but that connection to the writer who confesses and withholds at the same time seemed irresistable.


Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Dec 06, 11:29:00 AM:
Awesome, Alice!

I especially love when Barbara Grizutti Harrison refers to Joan Didion as being lost in some "Ayn Rand wasteland." I can't totally disagree, but then, it makes me feel dirty to read Didion, so I'm happy to live by my feminist contradictions.
Anonymous qotu on Mon Aug 10, 04:46:00 PM:
Bentley seems to hate, hate women - all the more so if they aren't beautiful in her eyes. Oddly enough, she goes after Pollitt for referring to the ex as "G" when the best she herself could come up with (punctiliously noting the Marquis de Sade's given name, Donatien, notwithstanding for chrissakes!) for the man who changed her life - or at least upon whom she projected all that - via all that anal sex, was "A-Man" - evoking ether some B-list superhero or Seinfeld's Kramer's Assman ,depending on one's cultural frame of reference.

Bentley's "The Surrender" withholds a lot. Interestingly the missing puzzle pieces are found in Bentley's critiques of others. It's pathetic and transparent.