Can we please put to rest the phrase “identity politics”? What is at issue and has been at issue in regard to gender, race, and sexuality is the perception of identity by those who control the cultural conversation. We who are female, of color, and who express liquid sexualities during our lifetimes have created consciousness about social inequality and abuse based on our perceived identities. We who challenge the essential nature of everything are describing the trauma of being othered by the normative majority. The reality of identity is up for grabs. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a man, a women, a gay person, or a straight person. People have different skin colors, but race as a biological category does not exist. What we need to study is not identity, which is in flux all the time, but phobias against perceived identities. We need phobia studies, since sexism, racism, and homophobia are certainly real and alive. Sexism–and the same old dirty form of sexism that has existed for centuries–drives the recent use of the phrase “identity politics” by dems and male “leftists” to trivialize and fracture the global shift in consciousness these reform movements have accomplished. Yeah, racism and homophobia, too. But man do these asshats hate female humans.
Today is the 201st birthday of brilliant original Charlotte Bronte. In 1847, as her first novel was bounced back yet again to Haworth parsonage, her sisters Emily and Anne made a deal with a London publisher to bring out their novels, “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey.” Charlotte read her sisters’ books and took what she needed. Enough with restraint and the unspoken. She would give readers what they want — what she wanted: sex, ambition and Gothic shenanigans. The heroines of her sisters’ books were beautiful, and Charlotte bristled. They said they did not think the public would embrace a plain woman. In the spirit of a dare, Charlotte wrote “Jane Eyre,” in which a plain, orphaned governess wins the heart of a rogue addicted to beautiful women.
When “Jane Eyre” was published later in 1847, it was an immediate rage. The intimate voice of the storyteller made people feel she was speaking to them. Charlotte, not Dickens, invented the child narrator who acutely registers pain. Before publication, Charlotte’s editors urged her to tone down the harshness of the opening chapters set at Lowood School and the agonizing death of Helen Burns (based on Charlotte’s older sister Elizabeth), but she refused.
In 1837, she had sought encouragement from Poet Laureate Robert Southey, who told her women should not write. After the publication of “Jane Eyre,” she mentioned to her father that she had written a novel, that it had earned praising reviews, and that she was making money. Wearily, he said he might consider reading it.
After her marriage to a minister at 38, Charlotte did not write much and died nine months later from a complicated pregnancy, but until that time and except for harrowing periods working as a teacher or a governness, she lived at home with her siblings, and they wrote all the time. No boyfriends, no husbands, no children. Their escape from traditional roles is at the core of their radicalism. It made them scary and thrilling in their time and continues to in ours.
A few thoughts about unloved and unloveable white supremacist males. The movements that were once derisively called “identity politics”—the civil rights movement extended to include female humans and queer humans—have changed the global conversation about social justice, economic equality, and inclusion in civil rights. The French Revolution produced a global paradigm shift with regard to the middle class. The civil rights movement produced a paradigm shift with regard to people of color. This shift is still contested. The women’s movement and the gay rights movement produced a paradigm shift in rethinking what a human being is. This shift is so far-reaching in its implications about social justice and self-governance, it destabilizes all economic, social, religious, and cultural systems that are now termed “patriarchal,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” and “misogynist.” The majority of Americans voted for a black male president and for a white female candidate for president. They were voting for the paradigm shift. The majority of Americans are being held hostage in an illegal election. No matter how violently white, male, self-defined heterosexual humans fight back to regain supremacy in the cultural and moral conversation, they will fail to change minds. We believe in these values in our bodies and through our experience, and this knowledge can’t be bombed out of us. We can be frightened, jailed, and killed, but none of this will alter the paradigm shift. Female humans are not more peace-loving kinds of humans, but all our lives we have felt and studied how unfair power works. One thing feminists added to the cultural conversation is thinking about the psychodynamics of global politics: that there are unconscious drives as well as economic strategies in policy decisions. The push back of white supremacy and masculinist (militarist) values underlies everything that is happening on the cultural landscape now. The supremacy of capitalism as well, of course, but I think the venom and crazy we are witnessing, the frenzied enjoyment of 45 and his policy makers, the pure enraged tantrum of it all to destroy regulatory programs and abortion rights, attack the arts, education, and everything we think makes life worth living, is driven by a poisonous rage that whiteness and maleness are not safe, not ordained by nature and god, not respected, and not loved.
Why isn’t Celeste’s erotic response to her husband’s rapes and beatings investigated in “Big Little Lies”? The show is exploring the husband’s tyranny and insecurity. It is showing the multiple times violence moves them to sex, and we see Celeste (Nicole Kidman) seemingly into the sex. We are meant to believe she gets off on it even though she hates what fuels it. She laughs in one scene and gets on top of him. We are not meant to think she is faking it to get it over with. I think her terror and sense of blank bewilderment about the shape of her life is also stunningly written on her face at other times. The shrink (Robin Weigert) boldly advises Celeste to leave her husband and prepare for a new life, but she does not question her patient about the sex itself. The complexity of eros amid violence for females as well as males often remains in the shadows and is shaved or muted in profiling abuse and victimization. It is not wrong to be aroused by any sort of sex. The nature of sex is arousal. There is the category of abuse and coercive control. (bad things.) There is the category of arousal. (not a bad thing.) And there is the category of arousal within abuse. (pleasure mixed in with an otherwise wretched circumstance). It’s a real category and probably a powerful one that needs exploring free of shock, shaming, and veiling.
I posted the above on Facebook, and one person questioned accepting various forms of arousal. I wrote in response: Arousal is internal and involuntary. We don’t decide to be aroused. We either are or are not aroused in the same way we laugh or sneeze or come. These are eruptive and unmediated responses. Deciding to perform a sexual act or deciding not to perform a sexual act is a different matter. The pathology model of healthy and unhealthy erotic response is another form of the morality model of bad and good sexual feelings and practices. We know these models shift all the time depending on the culture and social mores of a period and place. Most interventions in controlling sexual response devolve to: What turns me on is the good kind of sex and what turns you on is the kind you will burn in hell for.
I climbed stone stairs to a grand hotel that was at once majestic and dowdy, and I sat on a small upholstered sofa in a breezeway overlooking Lake Windermere. The view resembled one Ruskin had extolled in Fors Clavigera, his monthly open letters “To the workmen and labourers of Great Britain.” In this book, written while he was in and out of dementia or possibly suffering from severe migranes, Ruskin developed the free-wheeling, non-linear style that influenced Derrida—fors meaning the choices and plays of chance that determine our lives. According to Ruskin, the rolling hills, cloud dappled sky, and tree-dotted land amounted to a perfect vista. That morning I had visited Dove Cottage and was reading “The Prelude,” Wordsworth’s journey through memories whose meanings change with each revisit to them. Some are triggered by an activity in the natural world, such as hiking, others by sharp feelings, such as a memory of stealing a boat or of the death of Wordsworth’s father when the poet was thirteen:
And afterwards, the wind and sleety rain,
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music of that old stone wall
All these were spectacles and sounds to which
I would often repair and thence would drink . . .
I was struck by the modern, heartfelt sound of the verse, not straining for affect. Suddenly I realized I was sitting on a mound of coins that had slid silently from the pocket of the previous sitter. There were one-pound pieces and and two-pound pieces, twenty in all I scooped up quickly and left. I was not staying at the hotel.
A male human who has been loved in his body, in his juice and flesh, does not force that body onto unwilling others. He knows that sex is in the waiting. The waiting for air to ignite when eyes meet and a hand is extended. This thing I will not call a government is an expression in every sense of rape culture and the lonely unhappiness inside it. A shit-storm tantrum. How dare you not love me. How dare you prefer not male and not white to me! I was promised I was the thing to be loved, and you, world, have lied.
I am 19 and we are already married. We are already something with two heads. I am at Barnard, and Bruce is in Law School at NYU. It is late and snowing hard, and we go out. We have to walk in the snow. We live on 7th Avenue and 14th Street in a bourgeois building called The Vermeer, one of a series of high rises named after painters—an homage to the area’s artistic heritage, perhaps. We are on the edge of the Village, not exactly at the party, so when we walk we head south and east, toward the Lower East Side, the bosom of Bohemia.
It’s coming down hard, and it’s very cold, and we have walked for miles, but we can’t go home. The streets are beautiful and quiet. The cars are polar bears with golden eyes, gliding along uncertainly. Bruce’s mustache is frosted over as well as his eyebrows and curls peeking out of his hood. We can see our breath. We can see the future, and it looks like a blizzard in a glass globe. I am born, and in a jump cut I am 16 and watching Breathless in the Bleecker Street Cinema, and I like this thing I don’t understand. I will want to wear a striped shirt and sell the Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris and have sex with a thug with a beautiful mouth, but I will marry Bruce. Years later, when I am 62 and he is 64 and we have not seen each other in 33 years, he will say on the phone, “We were runaways, flying toward each other to be somewhere.”He will say, “I see it.”
It is 2:30 in the morning, and the only place to duck into is Ratner’s on 2nd Avenue, open all the time. No matter when you sit down, an old waiter lumbers over with a basket of warm onion rolls and holds a green pad in readiness for your order. The menu is as long as the Guttenberg Bible and you have just arrived, but he is waiting. I can smell the rolls. They are made of challah dough and packed densely with sautéed onions, like a pocket, and some onions on top are blackened. Inside the rolls are soft and creamy. You don’t need butter, although you slather it on, and the rolls are so good you don’t want anything else, but they are free and you have to order something. The waiter is wearing a white shirt and a tired black vest, and his face is creased with an ironic smile because he knows he is wittier than you and he has been practicing his lines. I don’t imagine I will ever wear a vest like that, but I will be wrong, and in my 50s I will don an outfit exactly like his, including a little black bow tie, and I will pass around hors d’oeuvres at the kinds of parties I attended as a writer. I will be a waiter, not knowing what comes next.
There are others at Ratner’s. A couple like us but older and sexier. The woman wears bright crimson lipstick, and when she smiles her gums emerge like actors behind a curtain. It’s a goofy grin and winning. Her red hair is long and straight, not the rust of some redheads, there is a little purple in the mix, and it is swept this way and that, and I can see why men want her, why anyone would. At another table is a man who is talking. He is spouting off on philosophy or politics. It’s 1966, and Bruce and I have marched against the war in Viet Nam. Kate Millett is my teacher at Barnard, and we are reading Beckett and Genet, and she is calling me Mrs. Zimmer, which makes me turn to see if Bruce’s tiny mother has slipped into the room. But Kate means me, and the name makes me feel unreal to myself, even though I am Bruce the way Cathy is Heathcliff.
I don’t remember everyone at Ratner’s. It was 43 years ago. But I see the man who is talking and who lives nearby, who knows things or sounds like he does, who draws people to him, or maybe Bruce and I do that with our happiness to be there. Everyone in the restaurant moves toward each other, and we make a party. We shove tables together, and the waiter doesn’t mind. We order mushroom and barley soup because that’s what you order at Ratner’s. Also bagels and lox we share. The snow is getting heavier, and we are giddy with the prospect of trudging home, miles away.
No one wants to leave. We tell each other stories about who we are or we don’t have to. The man who talks has a thin build and short-cropped hair brushed forward. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and keeps his scarf draped loosely around his neck. There is a small hole at the elbow of his brown sweater. He is a book editor, or a school teacher, or a graduate student stuck on his dissertation. At four or so there is stirring. I don’t know how it happens, but we leave together, all these strangers, and we go to the apartment of the talking man—the smart man or the lonely man. He has a narrow, East Village flat, crammed with books, a mattress on the floor covered with an Indian throw, dusty plants. He empties his cupboards and places food and drink on a table by a window that looks out on 3rd Street, where cars are buried.
This is how I want life to be: sudden and generous. In Europe a year later, Bruce and I will buy train tickets from Geneva to Paris, and in the station a handsome man named René Boquet will approach us. This is really his name. He looks like Belmondo in Breathless with a brush of dark hair and a pouty lower lip, and he will say to us in softly accented English that if we cash in our tickets he will drive us to Paris in his van for half the price. On the way, he will guide us through the gardens of Fontainebleau and deliver us to the city of light at dawn. We say, “Okay,” exchanging are-we-crazy looks followed by what-the-hell shrugs. During a thunderstorm in Monaco, René deposits us in a bar while he gambles at a casino, and Bruce and I attempt to describe our situation to men on stools—there are only men—who shoot rapid-fire French at us and chuckle into cigarette-stained palms. Eventually René returns and is good to his word, and by the time we stumble groggily through the rose gardens of the fabulous palace of French kings, we have fallen in love with each other, and René will find us a hotel in the Arab quarter that costs one dollar a night, and he will present us with our first Paris, including a dinner prepared by his girlfriend, Marianne, of roasted pintade, a bird I have never heard of, served with its forlorn head tucked against its shoulder and stuffed with boursin cheese, which I will taste for the first time.
In the apartment of the talking man, we drink wine and smoke pot. Maybe my first joint. The talking man says, “If you can love an ant, you can love a human being,” and I think, I should remember this, even though I don’t love ants and it’s harder to love people, no? I sit beside the red-haired woman, trying to absorb her experience. She has a space between her front teeth and wears gloves with fur cuffs. With her slim good looks, she looks like an actress Gene Kelly might cast in one of his movies, Leslie Caron, let’s say, in An American in Paris, who portrays a lovely, obliging slip with the gift of appearing a blur so that Kelly can know where he begins and ends. But it’s 1966 and the next year Bruce and I will ride a bus to Washington and hear Norman Mailer deliver the speech at the Pentagon he will chronicle in Armies of the Night. Kate will invite me to join NOW, the National Organization for Women, and I will hear Ti-Grace Atkinson, NOW’s president, defend her visit to Valerie Solanis, who is in jail awaiting trial for shooting Andy Warhol. Ti-Grace will justify the visit as an act of solidarity with a feminist, for Valerie is the author of SCUM Manifesto, SCUM standing for Society for Cutting Up Men.
The red-haired woman is not what she might have appeared even a year or two earlier. She works for a photographer near Herald Square and goes out on shoots and is assembling a portfolio of her own. Her boyfriend is a drummer, and they have slid into Ratner’s after one of his gigs. She is 25, the same age as my sister, but Ellen is in New Jersey with no job and two kids. Ellen says she is happy, and I don’t know what she means.
In 1983, I will write a piece for the Village Voice about Minor Characters, a memoir by Joyce Johnson, recalling an affair she had with Jack Kerouac when she was an eager young woman looking for a way to get to the party. I will evoke a memory of myself at 11 or 12, trying to imagine the future: “There would be a house with grass around it. There would be a white picket fence around the house. There would be a married woman standing in the backyard, staring over the fence. I knew I would be unhappy. I knew I would not want to be there, but this is the future I imagined.” In this piece, I compare my experience at Barnard with Johnson’s, ten years earlier. Johnson wants to be a writer, but her professors are men who feel wounded to be teaching girls. One man casts an icy, sardonic gaze at the eager faces before him and declares they will never be writers. He says, “If you were going to be, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You wouldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight trains, riding through America.”
Instead of this man, I find Kate at Barnard, Kate who lectures to us passionately in her industrial strength gray skirts and inevitable bun, speaking with a fake British accent from a couple of years at Oxford. She calls herself a sculptor and lives with her Japanese husband Fumio, also an artist, in a house on Bowery and 1st Street that totters this way and that and doesn’t have a single level plane. It doesn’t matter if I understand Kate’s references. “What?” she says, “you don’t know who Ugolino is from Canto 33 of Inferno? You poor benighted child!” She looks heavenward and laughs with tenderness and scorn. One night the class is invited to an exhibit she has mounted in the basement of her house. Everything is painted gray as if buried in fallout ash. It is so serious it’s funny—exactly like Kate. Her weekly conferences last an hour. She blackens our papers with arguments and teasing. On one essay I have saved—about Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian and the Dionysian as applied to Othello—ah, English assignments!—I write: “Death is the discovery of the great wound and the horrible discovery of the opposite sex: the female feels as if she has lost something, the male as if he is going to lose something.” Kate, on the hunt for the source of this borrowed thunder, engraves in the margin, “Your Greek professor’s Freudian theories?” Even so, she likes my mind. Her beautiful mind likes my mind, and through the vapor on the bathroom mirror I see the possibility of Kate.
It’s maybe six by the time Bruce and I set off for our apartment. A few months earlier, my father stood on the bare parquet floor and said he would co-sign the lease if we got married. I thought I was too young. I was sure I was too young, but I was not going to leave Bruce any time soon, maybe never if we could keep moving. Sex will divide us—sex, or the desire to be in two places at the same time. But now I am with Bruce—a great tall thing with Beatles hair, adopted and an only-child. The sight of Bruce looming over his pint-sized parents is something out of a Diane Arbus freaks exhibit. Next door to us lives Adele Mailer, the wife of Norman who some years earlier he stabbed with a penknife, nearly piercing her heart and later declaring that if he had not he would have developed cancer from repressed rage. Adele has creamy skin the color of a clay pot and she performs in plays at LaMama and Theater for the New City. We listen to each other’s lives through our thin, common wall, and we throw parties together. Kate and Fumio eat Swedish meatballs and crudités at our table from Macy’s, a gift from Bruce’s parents. I wear frameless, lilac glasses cut in octagonal shapes. I want to be one of the slouchy, prickly girls Kate favors who jump on motorcycles and write poetry, but I’m too studious, too married, too Mrs. Zimmer at the end of the day.
As the sky turns rosy and the last giant flakes flutter down, Bruce and I walk home from the East Village and never see our friends of the night again.