Sunday, August 12, 2018

Art and Eros as adversaries whose demanded sacrifices are the topic of women who wrote and write about novels

I saw a review of a book in The New Republic, and while I don't tend to read novels I sometimes read reviews of novels.  I realize that reading reviews of books is hardly the same thing as reading the book itself but since I think that reading a review can tell you a lot about the critic who wrote the review (sometimes over against anything in the book in question) I find reading criticism useful.  

There are times when what a person has to say about a book reveals they were reading a book for their emotional response to what they felt the book said and I'll get to that in some other post.  At the moment I'm looking to quote a part of a review for the ways in which it presents a conflict between the domesticity of any kind of family life and the life of the artist.  The shadow of the Romantic era, perhaps, is very, very long indeed.
Levy’s project can be read as a kind of foil to Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which also takes the woman writer as its subject. Whereas Cusk subtracts her narrator, Levy adds more and more of hers, but both are concerned with devising new ways for women to work around the structures imposed on them, as narrators, writers, and people in the world. For female writers, the first person can be difficult—if you don’t wield it like a weapon it could hurt you. Speaking to a woman named Gupta about her malfunctioning Microsoft Word program, Levy notices the I in a chat box “blinking and jumping and trembling.” She feels like that, too. Later she describes a young woman on a train as having “very expressed hair,” blue braids secured with rosebud bands. This statement seems to act as a sort of compensation for the girl’s inability to use her voice: On the train, an older man takes up all the space on the group’s shared table and blathers on about his concerns about refugees, preventing the young woman from studying French on her laptop.
Levy keeps meeting stereotypical sexists like this, men who ignore or talk over young women, and who won’t refer to their wives by their names. As retribution, the only men she names in the book are dead writers—like James Baldwin, Proust, and Nelson Algren, who wanted his lover Simone de Beauvoir to leave Paris and move to Chicago to be with him, in a house, perhaps with a child. De Beauvoir, who like Levy in her French slip and postman’s jacket wanted “everything from life…to be a woman and to be a man,” refused. She doubted she could write at the same time as settling into domesticity. Levy adds: “I had found it quite tricky myself.”  
Doesn't everyone live within strictures and structures, though? It's not that women don't face strictures and structures. Far from it.  The question that seems to have an implicit answer is that women have to work around constraints society presents in a way that is unique and that is what I sometimes wonder about.  I'm not a vocational writer or a professional writer.  I write because it's fun and because I love writing.  Just yesterday I took up notes from earlier reading and put together 13,000 some words worth of blog posts.  It was fun, it was still work. 

But nobody can have "everything from life". That's not how life is.  I suspect the reason women can't have it all is the same basic reason men can't have it all, because nobody can "have it all", whatever that is supposed to mean, and as Qoholet put it in Ecclesiastes whoever gains everything loses everything at death and with no assurance that whomever may inherit everything amassed will be competent enough to keep hold of it.
Life without love is a “risk-free life,” and a “waste of time,” but within our societal system, to be a woman who cares about her work in a relationship with a man is difficult, if not impossible: “Women are not supposed to eclipse men in a world in which success and power are marked out for them.” Assuming the role of wife, or even girlfriend, means accepting the stability of the existing structure and sacrificing one’s essentially “chaotic” desires. That’s an especially big risk for a writer—you could lose yourself, and your voice.
Why? How and why could you lose yourself and your voice?  Was it worth keeping if having an erotic attachment could destroy it?  If a life without love is a "risk-free life" tell that to any sailor who goes out to see knowing that any given trip might be his or her last.  What kind of love?  The implication seems to be erotic attachment rather than attachment to family and friends.  Now I suppose it's easy to observe how if you get a boyfriend or a girlfriend or land a spouse you have to think about what pleases them.  Didn't the Apostle Paul urge virgins not to marry because without a spouse they could devote themselves entirely to things that pleased the Lord?  There may be an artist's version of this religion that is a religion of art, only to go by the last two centuries of fulminations about societal constraint artists and writers and poets have constituted a kind of priesthood that vows anything but celibacy.

It’s taken Levy much longer than de Beauvoir to realize that under patriarchy, as the refrain goes, women can’t have it all. (To be fair to Levy, de Beauvoir also had the advantage of falling in love with one of the few men in the world who would go for the radical non-monogamous intellectual commitment she wanted, especially in the 1950s.) She starts to conceive of herself as a kind of mentor for the younger generation. “The right reader” for her story, she discloses at the beginning of the book, is a young woman she overhears having a frustrating conversation with a dismissive older man. She also brings a writing student to tears by telling her she is talented; the student has made edits that allow her to “own up to” the “force” of her voice. “It is so hard to claim our desires,” Levy reflects, “and so much more relaxing to mock them.”
This wisdom, however, could cut two ways. Levy, with her critique of domestic femininity “as written by men and performed by women,” has one set of desires. But what about the many women who desire to be beautiful, so much that they spend thousands of dollars on clothes and skincare products they cannot really afford? What about those who want nothing more than to get married and have children and cook dinner in a nice big house they’ve decorated? Sometimes our desires are absurd, the most intense ones inspired by the systems we actively try to resist and overthrow. The script is repetitive and tired, circling back on itself. What can we do but laugh about that?

Was it Soren Kierkegaard who quipped that when a young man is single he bewails his singleness and then when he has a wife he bewails the loss of his freedom and time?  

On the whole it seems as though large swaths of writers view eros and art has sworn enemies, as competing gods who require all-consuming fealty for mutually exclusive rewards.  You can be the art monster or the parent well but you can't be both well even if you can be both terribly.  But sexuality has so often been presented as liberating and as a mode of identity that it seems unjust for people to simmer or burn with desires that have no outlet granted by society.

But ... this kind of moral concern and indignation seems selective.  I mean, let's put it this way, what kinds of incels are the subject of pity and lament and what kinds of incels are regarded as the Alberichs whose curses upon the Rhinegold damn the whole world to simmer with resentment, envy and power-mongering that bursts the bonds of rule of law and society?  I'm not seeing a whole lot of sympathy or pity for the Alberichs on the internet who are flocking to Jordan Peterson, the men who can't get sex or who couldn't keep the relationships with the people they were having sex with functional enough to stay in those relationships. 

We live in an era in which we seem unable to laugh about the things that we want but we sure as hell can laugh about the things other people want.   That's all too often what seems the be the point of late night television and punditry. 

The possibility that there is genuine artistry in the domesticity that authors male and female alike love to belittle is not in consideration for the authors who are set on berating domesticity.  The possibility that pursuing some kind of artistic activity might in some crucial way preclude the sexual life that, if pursued steadily enough, will more often than not lead to some kind of "domesticity" also seems to be off the table. 

It can seem to me, over the last twenty years, that Americans are religiously (whether religious or not) set against the idea that you just can't "have it all".  SOMEBODY has to have it all and whoever that somebody is should share the everything. 

I'd write more about the Alberich idea but for now I'll just settle for having mentioned it.  It is strange to consider that it's progressive men and women remarking on the incel dudes who can't get any and are angry and frustrated as the alt right incels who are going to ultimately ruin and ridicule and attack the foundations for social order and rule of law because ...

right ... Roger Scruton said that's what Alberich did in Wagner's Ring Cycle in The Ring of Truth.  Now I'm remembering it.  

But as these things go artists like Wagner imagine that the incels that ruin the cosmos are dude incels.  They foreswear love and a woman's worth. 

But lately I wonder if women who would seek to cast aspersions on "domesticity" may do the same thing but in a different way. 

The things that define us confine us and not everyone is at peace with that or can be reconciled to that.  The things we love constrain and contain us.  Americans, I often think, feel at a loss for how to live with the reality that there are trade-offs to pursuing and embracing the things we pursue and embrace. 

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