Arielle Isack (JC fellow): It feels trite to recommend feminist reading (as opposed to feminist raging) this week, but Shulamith Firestone’s iconic 1970 text The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution provides a compelling case for burning shit down and glimpsing a better future through the smoke. This is not to say that it isn’t a rigorous text. Firestone essentially tries to redefine historical materialism away from class conflict toward what she theorizes as an even more fundamental schism: the conflict between the sexes. From this idea, which is only superficially based in Marx, springs forth Firestone’s fascinating and terrifying concept of a true utopia: one of mechanized uteruses and socially sanctioned incest, as all divisions of labor and gender and family unit have been necessarily destroyed in the pyre of patriarchies past.
There are some glaring deficiencies in Firestone’s utopia, the most pressing of which are its disregard for non-white women’s liberation and its elision of gay or trans possibilities. However, reading the then-25-year-old author’s brilliant and batshit manifesto is valuable and inspiring if only for the sheer brazen disregard it shows for every single building block that led us from prehistory to our current capitalist patriarchy. Many of its sincerely felt yet ultimately insufficient recommendations hinge on a very real and legible program of seizing reproductive technologies away from patriarchal oppressors; it is only because Firestone has such little regard for preexisting thought and social structures (including feminist ones) that this crucial point is articulated in full.
I feel fortunate to live in New York, a city where access to abortion will almost certainly remain guaranteed by law. But I have this lingering feeling that the reason the feminist response to Justice Alito’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has felt so tepid here is a desire to accommodate and protect the liberal legislations and sensibilities that have thus far made it so. The response has been sheepish, because acknowledging the objectively worse realities for women in other states amounts to protecting and being grateful for our local status quo. To read The Dialectic is to immerse oneself in what can sometimes read like an otherworldly fantasy laden with the prejudices of Firestone’s generation, but the book is singular in its commitment to the unavoidable truth that “feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, will crack through the basic structures of society.”
Isaac Scher (contributing writer): I recently finished White Noise, Don DeLillo’s most well-known novel of post-industrial Americana. In it, the nuclear family is no longer an organizing principle of social life, and neither is much else. The primary sites of meaning are the grocery store and mass media, industrial-ecological crisis and preoccupation with death. The story’s middle-aged protagonist and narrator, Jack Gladney, is an ambitious professor heralded for his creation of “Hitler Studies,” DeLillo’s darkly satirical jab at the scholarly impulse to create new concepts for purposes of self-aggrandizement. (Jack’s precocious children often seem more intelligent than he is.) His hilarious colleague Murray, who hopes to establish the field of “Elvis Studies,” has submerged himself in American arcana to grasp deeper cultural meanings. He tells Jack: “I read the TV listings, I read the ads in Ufologist Today. I want to immerse myself in American magic and dread.” In this America, there is the magic of the marketplace, and the dread of death. Inside the home, there is a sad distance between Jack, his fourth wife Babette, and their children, each of them uniquely paranoid and obsessive. Their spoken exchanges tend to break down. (“All plots tend to move deathward,” Jack occasionally intones.) Literal scripts of TV advertisements mark the last anticlimactic words of their dialogues. “MasterCard, Visa, American Express.” The reader’s sensation is that a moment has been sullied by an ad blurted from a device. But lines of marketing copy could just as well come from the characters themselves.
Mari Cohen (assistant editor): I’ll admit, my exact memory of Elif Batuman’s celebrated novel The Idiot, which I tore through too quickly some years ago after receiving it as a 23rd birthday present, is a bit hazy. But I recall feeling a bit perturbed by the story of precocious-but-naive Harvard freshman Selin: I was troubled by some beside-the-point (and, I now realize, paradoxically Selin-esque) questions: How did Selin have time to read so many extra books in college, and had I failed by not doing the same? Had she considered just talking to her confusing romantic interest Ivan? Why couldn’t the Harvard students just live in normal dorms?
Still, despite my ambivalence about the novel, Batuman has become one of my favorite essayists on the relationship between life and literature; her collection The Possessed is excellent, and her 2020 New Yorker article on Zoom performances of Greek tragedy during the pandemic is one of the finest essays the magazine has published in recent years (it’s impossible to succinctly describe, but it combines discussions of Sophocles, Freud, childhood, climate change, war, and pandemic into a coherent and affecting whole). So after enjoying an excerpt of Either/Or, the sequel to The Idiot, I got hold of a galley, and I’m thrilled to announce that I get it now. Armed with a useful five years’ distance from the campus and a little less insecurity about my own reading resume, I can fully appreciate the hilarity and tragedy of Selin’s incredible naivete and enduring perceptiveness. In this installment, sophomore Selin navigates parties and her first sexual relationships and reflects on family relationships in childhood and the thorny moral quandaries of the tourism industry. She uses Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and a series of other texts, from Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, to contemplate the central question that animates her coming-of-age: should one aim to live an aesthetic life or an ethical one? And just how ethical is it to reproduce the aesthetics of life on the page?
Few writers are as funny as Batuman, but the novel isn’t perfect. The Selin voice can have diminishing returns over time: one starts to wish for a bit less incessant questioning and a bit more of an attempt at an answer, even a fumbling attempt. Batuman typically excels at making meaning of the daily incidents of college life, but sometimes aims too high and falls flat, as with a cringey passage comparing the struggle to find space for a mat in Pilates class to Israel/Palestine. But on the whole—especially as Selin gains a bit more confidence and a bit more impulse for action rather than just contemplation—Either/Or is a pleasurable read about what literature offers and asks of us as we try to make sense of the world.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): What if what defines us is not what we say, think, and do, but what other people think we think, say, and do? This is the premise of David Shields’s latest book, The Very Last Interview. Shields went through every interview he has ever given over 40 years, removed his responses from the conversations—seeking the common issues and concerns of the interviewers—and assembled them into this slim volume. The result is a portrait with its subject omnipresent yet totally absent.
Even without Shields saying a word, we learn that he’s a Jewish writer in late middle age who attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His parents were writers, and his father suffered from depression and was subjected to electroshock treatment. Shields loves sports, is divorced, has one child, and questions the novel as a form. He teaches, and some of his students don’t think highly of him. There’s a dark side to him, attested to by the titles he gives some of the chapters: “Brokenness,” “Failure,” “Suicide,” “Envy.” He’s also well-regarded enough to be considered a writer with answers to questions about Knowledge and Truth.
The spirit of David Markson and the great French writer Edouard Levé hover over The Very Last Interview, as do the person, writing, and fate of David Foster Wallace. As a portrait of the artist from without, The Very Last Interview is a fascinating piece of work. But it’s also a portrait—a largely ugly one—of the world of the critic.
The critics Shields interviews come across as needy and shamelessly opportunistic, requesting letters of recommendation from the author for admission to the Iowa program. Their questions reek of self-congratulation (“So you can’t read a book that isn’t shattered into caesurae of shattered space – Why should that matter to me?”), pretentiousness (“I would argue that all scopophilia is by definition meaningless. Watching other people play a game, though, strikes me as being at the extreme far end of meaninglessness. How do you justify it?”), and just plain meanness (“For instance, has any book of yours sold even fifty thousand copies in hardcover? That would be every person in Pascagoula, Mississippi and absolutely no one else”.) And of course, Shields as a professor and everyone on the teaching end of the workshop world “benefits from a model that is not only deeply authoritarian and patriarchal but also inherently racist, misogynistic and anti-democratic.”
The question of “why write?” comes up repeatedly. Seeing it over and over again, it becomes abundantly clear that these critics are so enamored of their own voices that they can’t even imagine that the question is meaningless. Writers write because they must and can. Shields is a saint for not having punched any of them in the snout.
Before you go: On Thursday, May 19th, Alice Radosh, co-chair of the Jewish Currents Council, will give a talk at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum on the hidden history of slavery in her hometown of Pelham, New York. Research has revealed the names and descriptions of enslaved people who were essential to the town’s economy but who were never acknowledged or honored. Tickets and directions can be found here.