Pockets of air

I believe this is what the kids on the internet call a Whole Mood.

Dear friends, I write to you from deep inside late quarantine, the confusing place below decks where I hurry around looking for ways to rescue myself. Everything’s felt a bit bleak lately. But, ya know—books! Maybe books can be my little dinghy, my life preserver. My desperation fridge, even. I’ll take what I can get.

To this, and other much more cheerful ends, I am enrolled in a wonderful, challenging history class. It is asking me to try to understand what a history is and what it can be. So far we’ve looked at histories of nations and of the more liminal spaces where cultures meet. We’re also talking about social histories, which aim to show how groups like workers or women or racial minorities, who previously were depicted as spectators to history—the acted upon—were in reality doing some of the acting themselves.

I’ve been reading and reading and reading. I need new glasses, I’m reading so much. A reference to Shulamith Firestone and her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution jumped out at me during a day of reading last week, and I made a note to find out more. I’ve come across the name Shulamith Firestone many times in my years of feminist reading, and it’s such a pleasing name to say, plus there’s the way Firestone conjures the image of something hot and glowing, a beautiful weapon.

I haven’t read The Dialectic of Sex. I did read the piece Susan Faludi wrote about Firestone for the New Yorker, published several months after Firestone’s 2012 death. In her essay Faludi traces the arc of Firestone’s life, beginning as an outcast from an observant Orthodox Jewish family—the daughter of a woman who had fled the Holocaust in Germany—to her time as a radical organizer in the early days of feminism’s “second wave” to her lonely death in a NYC apartment, the end of years of suffering with schizophrenia. Faludi writes that by the time Firestone’s outlandishly smart and fearless book was published, infighting in the women’s movement caused her band of fellow organizers to fracture; they took to throwing each other out of the political groups they had organized together and eventually drifted apart. She shows us how this left Firestone stranded, unable to step into the world she had envisioned in her book, which failed to materialize, and bereft of the world she’d lived in with her friends and compatriots, which no longer existed. She situates Firestone’s predicament inside a larger idea about how, as Meredith Tax argued in her 1970 essay “Woman and Her Mind,” “the condition of women constituted a state of ‘female schizophrenia'” in which a woman either belonged to a man or she had nothing, was nothing, even though she was still alive. In essence she asks us to ponder, at least a little, what schizophrenia is. Like, how much of a mental illness is “organic” when we know that social factors like isolation and displacement (as with immigration) play a role in the likelihood that someone will develop it? It’s a question worth asking.

Faludi’s essay also describes a reading that was organized on the occasion of the publication of Firestone’s only other book, Airless Spaces, which came out in 1998, almost 30 years after the first one. Firestone’s old cronies Kate Millett and Phyllis Chesler read from the book for her because she was too afraid to do it herself. At this point she had already been sick for many years. Airless Spaces, Faludi writes, was comprised of “autobiographical vignettes” depicting “a population of what [Firestone] calls, with her usual directness, ‘losers,’ solitary exemplars of the state of ‘social defeat.'”

My kinda book! I ordered a copy. It’s a small Semiotext(e) volume, and the worlds described within it are small too, and bleak. They’re organized by section (“Hospital,” “Post-Hospital,” “Obits,” “Losers”); the final section is called “Suicides I Have Known,” and the last piece is a loving portrait called “Danny,” who we know was Firestone’s beloved but estranged brother who—though he didn’t leave a note—is thought to have shot himself to death. (“Did I say that my brother’s favorite colors were bright blue and orange? Or that he had a concentration of planets in the ninth house of higher education? … He swore he would never marry (so did I).”)

Firestone tells story after story about the odd, dislocated characters one meets in a mental hospital or afterward, maybe at the Y, where they’re killing time while they wait to get into some halfway house or vocational program. But I find that though many of the people she depicts are defeated, the stories aren’t. Some of them, while highly personal, frame an implied critique, and I can see that the scholar Firestone once was, the radical, is still in there somewhere. Others have a detached irony that makes them almost funny. (About a visit with Valerie Solanas, whose book The SCUM Manifesto Firestone found dangerous and unserious, after Solanas was released from the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, she writes: “I did not see this as a meeting with a fellow theorist.” I can’t quite tell if this was meant to make me smile, but it did.) And even though Firestone’s characters are loners they do, collected this way, show themselves to be a “population,” as Faludi called them, a group of people who have been cast out but haven’t quite disappeared.

Some of the vignettes are about Firestone herself, presumably, though they’re told in the third person. “She” is forcibly and roughly showered by orderlies in the mental hospital; “she” buys a pair of old Levis and patches them with the help of a friend; “she” tries to write, but “the old excitement of creation did not return.” She is too exhausted to make small decisions and moves in slow motion. She’s sick, but she writes lucidly about her condition, about the people she meets—about everything in her life. What are the people who run the hospital to make of that?

For an answer you could look to Firestone’s old friend Kate Millett, who famously critiqued psychiatry and believed that mental illness was often a label given to people who don’t comply with the dominant narrative and a convenient way to shut them up. Like Firestone, Millett, also a second wave feminist, was committed involuntarily more than once.

Or you could just ask Eileen Myles, who is always right about everything. In a blurb on Airless Spaces‘ back cover, Myles writes that in “the 20th [century] the explosion was never-ending, the pieces tinier and tinier…all of us …vanishing in a century of institutions that take and take until everyone has gone away and there’s no one left to shut the door.” 

Little Boy turns 100

Today the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 years old, and he’s just put out a new book. Pretty incredible, right? Even more impressive is how intense the book is, and the power and vitality of his intellect even now. Little Boy is a novel—the author has been very clear about that—but it’s also in no small way about the life, or the kind of life, that Ferlinghetti has lived. ferlingI reviewed the book for the Utne Reader‘s spring issue. Here’s what  I had to say about it:

Ladies and gentlemen: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The co-founder of City Lights, the bookstore and small press that opened shop in the 50s in order to publish the only poets that mattered—or the ones who mattered most in their corner of the world, anyway—Ferlinghetti, who has published some 40 books of his own work, will be best remembered for A Coney Island of the Mind, a collection of vivid and lyrical poems that remains popular 60 years after its first publication.

If it makes you feel blue to anticipate the way someone will be remembered while he’s still living, apologies. It’s just that Ferlinghetti turns 100 in March, and he has just put out a new book. He’s calling it a novel but it is clearly also a sort of memoir—a praise-song, a thrashing-about, a recounting of his colorful life—and at his age, it’s hard not to read it as a kind of elegy for someone who is decidedly not! Dead! Yet!

The book begins like a third-person biography of “Little Boy,” whose early life was characterized by instability and displacement. With the detachment of a biographer, Ferlinghetti describes a childhood spent bouncing around—from the mother who couldn’t afford to care for him after his father died, to his beloved aunt who brought him to France for a few years and then back to New York City, and eventually to the home of a rich couple in Bronxville—the Bislands, whose family founded Sarah Lawrence College. In the middle of this factual accounting, Ferlinghetti shocks the heart back to life with the phrase, “lonely was the word.” 

From here the narrative goes swooping into one long sentence that accounts for his college years, his service in the navy, and the time he spent faffing around Paris in a cold-water flat after the war. By this point the language has broken loose from its moorings, and for the rest of the novel it rushes forth, much more like poetry than prose. The reader has the sense that Ferlinghetti had to make an effort to contain it. 

At first glance the text on the page looks more unruly than it is: Ferlinghetti uses virtually no punctuation, no chapters, hardly even a paragraph break. But the start of each new thought is usually capitalized, and the rhythm of the language creates a cadence in the mind that serves as a kind of guide. 

Still, it’s intense. The language has a way of sucking you into its whirl and then popping you back up to the surface, over and over again, whether you meant to or not. This isn’t a novel you’re likely to read straight through. Memories, lines from novels, internal rhymes, love and sex and anti-establishment rants, marvelous little throwaways (“Mao say tongue-in-cheek”), caustic observations from the coffee shop—it’s all one steady-churning white water rush. 

Run your eyes down any page to hear a bling-blinging Pinball machine of references: Twin Towers, South of the Border, Onward Christian Soldiers, Mister Proust. Ginzy and Jack are in here too (you’ll permit Ferlinghetti a few trips down memory lane) but this is bigger than Beat Generation windbaggery—and actually, maybe it’s not really a memoir, either. The narrator’s voice is alive with humor and anger and a sense of the eternal now, not the what-happened-then. And each time he starts ranting about the people in the cafe where he’s sitting, all entranced by their “portable universes and handheld computers,” you will absolutely marvel: He’s still pissed! 

In a sense, Little Boy reads like a continuation of the last poem in Coney Island. The whole novel, like that poem, has the word yes threaded throughout it“the small boy knows nothing, he is just a part of it, unconscious in his little existence on the turning earth in some town or city or yes…”—and the earthy positivity is strongly reminiscent of the Molly Bloom soliloquy that ends Ulysses (“And yes I said yes I will yes”), which Ferlinghetti actually referenced by name in his 1955 masterpiece. 

And it must be said: This yes is the voice of the 20th century, a century Mr. Ferlinghetti saw much of, with its exuberance and nihilism, its god-is-a-shout-in-the-street realist grit. Whether the poet ends this particular book on a hopeful note or one of despair, that’s for you to judge. Either way, Ferlinghetti’s old age is a rollicking one, and it burns and raves at close of day.