Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Things Have Come To A Pretty Pass When Feminism Is Allowed To Invade The Sphere Of Private Life

I haven’t been able to get validated to post comments at TPM Cafe, where there was a discussion going on about Learning to Drive, Katha Pollitt’s new book of autobiographical essays. But that’s okay -- I have my own little soapbox here.

I’ve been reading Pollitt’s essays in The Nation for decades now, and I own all three collections, plus a copy of her book of poems, Antarctic Traveller, that had previously belonged to poet Timothy Liu. Her take on complex issues has always been useful to me, particularly women’s concerns, literature and the arts, and American electoral politics – it was her arguments that persuaded me to vote for Nader in 1996. (I’m sure she’d be relieved to know that she is not responsible for my Nader vote in 2000.) I’m grateful to her for making me aware of Pierre Bourdieu’s work. For a long time she and film critic Stuart Klawans were the main reasons I kept renewing my subscription to The Nation. She tends to fall down when she addresses the sciences (Ruth Hubbard, whom she dismisses here as merely a feminist, happens to be a scientist as well, as Pollitt must know), and she shares with many people on the left whom I otherwise respect a weird kneejerk hostility to “postmodernism” and "multiculturalism." Those aren't cusswords, but you wouldn't know that from the way Pollitt uses them.

But for some reason I wasn’t eager to read Learning to Drive. I’m not sure why. Not because I don’t want to read personal essays; I’ve read personal feminist (and non-feminist) writing for decades too, with great pleasure and benefit. I want to hear other people’s stories to get perspective on my own. Kate Millett, Dorothy Allison, and Nancy Mairs are among my heroes for their courageous examination of their lives.

It’s Millett’s precedent that makes me wonder, both about some of the attacks on Pollitt and about some of her responses to them. In Flying and Sita especially, Millett broke with the academic manner of her classic Sexual Politics and wrote with bruising personal honesty about her life. And she was attacked for it, especially for her willingness to write about abjection, misery in love gone wrong.

I finally found a copy of Learning to Drive at the library, so I read it, and found it very much in the tradition of Flying, if somewhat less daring. But that’s okay too, because each person must decide for herself (or himself, even) how much to reveal.

So I’m a bit surprised that no one in this discussion (or elsewhere, that I’ve seen) mentioned Millett. Pollitt writes:

Has feminism really become such a brittle, defensive, live-for-your-resume, never-let-them-see-you-cry kind of thing? If that's true, and I hope it isn't, the backlashers have truly won. They’ve gotten women to censor themselves to save society the trouble. Feminism, after all, was supposed to enlarge our sense of women's humanity, in all its messiness and contradiction and individual truth; it was supposed to connect women to each other, and to men, in more honest ways. It wasn't supposed to be yet another standard of perfection, a mask. Because look where that leads: In one way or another, every woman will inevitably fall short of the feminist-stalwart ideal, as every man falls short of the winner-take-all competitive capitalist ideal that is masculinity. If a writer censors herself to keep up the good name of womanhood, it is most unlikely people with a low opinion of women will be impressed. All that will happen is that other women think that they are alone in what are, in fact, common experiences. This is the roundabout the women's movement was supposed to help us get out of!

Well, yeah. But Millett was also attacked for showing her weakness back in the 1970s, and by other feminists, not just by Boy Culture media hacks. So it’s not like the battle was ever really won, as far as I can tell. In Pollitt’s case, though, as in Millett’s, I suspect more is going on than the writing itself. Millett had become a star for Sexual Politics and her involvement in the then-nascent women’s movement. When she publicly acknowledged her bisexuality, the straight media disingenuously doubted her qualification to speak for other women, or to participate in the movement at all. Erotic love between women was an embattled issue then, as it remains – I get the impression that heterosexual feminists still aren’t really comfortable with lesbianism as a women’s issue. Going after Millett’s books was part of an ongoing campaign by male supremacists to discredit feminism, and dwelling on her love for women was a useful way to divide the movement.

Pollitt isn’t as famous as Millett was in 1970. But her column has made her fairly visible, especially since her brave essay criticizing the jingoistic flag-waving that followed 9/11. She’s been attacked by Camille Paglia, but that time she simply borrowed a note from fellow Nation writer Alexander Cockburn and quoted Paglia’s rant under the “Frother Seal of Approval” header. So now she got a pan in The New York Times Book Review? That’s practically a recommendation, as she knows full well. Instead she returned fire by attacking the reviewer:

Still, it is a strange experience to be accused of telling too much by the author of an 'erotic memoir' about sadomasochistic anal sex, in which she describes, among many other graphic details, saving her used condoms in a box. I'm no Freudian, but the concept of projection does come to mind….

This, as I see it, is the pass to which we have come. Women can write about shooting heroin and being sex workers and spending years zoned out on prozac and having nervous breakdowns and hating other women and lord knows what else and that's okay by feminism, as indeed it should be.

Is it just me, or is there a ghostly “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” hovering behind those words? Granted, the Times reviewer was in no position to cast the first stone at Pollitt, but there’s sadomasochism and sadomasochism, and gosh, I’m no Freudian, but I thought Pollitt’s essays on her relationship with the Last Marxist were pretty masochistic. You don’t need whips and chains for s/m, you just need two (or more) people working through certain scenarios of abjection and control with each other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’ve been, and known other people, in relationships enough like the one Pollitt describes that I’m certainly not casting the first stone either. But Learning To Drive, like so many accounts of real-life adventures in romance, mainly confirmed my relief that I've been single for the past two decades.

Reading the TPM Cafe discussion also made me glad that I live in the hinterlands, not the Big City. I've realized lately that the writers who go at each other in print often know each other in person, and their spats and squabbles underlie their writings for publication in ways I can't always detect. I know these people only by their words, and by and large I'm content to keep it that way, but as the Times review and Pollitt's response to it show, not knowing your opponent is not always enough to maintain a critical distance.