Resentful, moi?

Is it just me? Why do certain epithets remain attached to the term feminist, no matter how erroneous or out of date? Bra-burning, man-hating, angry, strident, and thanks to the twentieth anniversary of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, resentful is back.


In the Bookends section of the NYTBR this week (I confess that the Times supplies great material for resentments), two male authors revisit Bloom’s manifesto. Both find Bloom’s complaints about literary studies and the responses to them “very quaint in 2014,” and “dated.”

Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn lumps “feminists, deconstructionist and Marxist critics” under the overarching Bloomian “school of resentment” as participants in a debate that is (his word) passé (a pox on both their houses, let’s hear it for Aristophanes). Pankaj Mishra, for his part, makes a critique of Bloom’s grievance on its own terms, but his final point, sympathetic to the feminist project though it is, oddly recycles the characterization: “Aesthetic connoisseurship in the gardens of the West is menaced not so much by resentful feminists as by the hard-nosed accountants of an insecure commercial society―the same one that in its moment of supreme power had allowed a few men to revive and deepen a fantasy of Western Civilization” (emphasis added).

Yes, all true, but it’s discouraging, when your intellectual comrades let clichés slip by.

On the other hand, the Times outdid itself in the Sunday Review

Gail Collins’s celebration of another commemoration–Gloria Steinem’s 80th birthday–is so positive that it’s hard to know what quotes to pull. But here’s one that seems a good counter to the cliché-ridden media discourse on feminism: “There are two reasons that Steinem turned out to be the image of the women’s liberation movement. One did indeed have to do with her spectacular physical appearance. For young women who were hoping to stand up for their rights without being called man-haters, she was evidence that it was possible to be true to your sisters while also being really, really attractive to the opposite sex” (emphasis added).

For this and Steinem’s unfailing wit, we are all grateful―or should be! We don’t even resent her for being beautiful.


Promoting Someone Else’s Self

Ann Beattie, a well-known writer and a vice president for literature of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has a problem: she’s tired of writing letters of recommendation for former students. Students applying for jobs and fellowships, Beattie acknowledges, have no choice but to ask for letters of recommendation. It’s not that they want to. It’s that reference letters are an integral part of the application process. If you want time to write, a job, an internship, any activity that will help you get your writing done, you need a letter, preferably from someone with name recognition. Like Ann Beattie. The system does not allow for exemptions. Even “much older retired professors” keep getting requests. Presumably you’d have to die if you wanted to escape the chore.

Now it’s true that writing letters of recommendation for students, colleagues, young hopefuls, is not how anyone wishes to spend her own writing time. Still, the fact is that we all―writers, teachers, artists―exist in a great chain of indebtedness. My own students have to write letters for their students, and only last year I had to ask for blurbs, and letters of recommendation for a residency at a foundation. I did not enjoy being in the supplicant position. Who does? It’s even more humbling (not to say humiliating) to have to ask when you yourself are old (one of those old professors who keep getting tracked down in order to write a letter of recommendation). There is no exit from the system―and it was always thus, only sub rosa. A professor asked a colleague at another university to hire his student. His word was enough. This kind of deal-making was the norm (that’s how my husband got his first job) until affirmative action threw a monkey wrench into the old-boy network machinery. Not that it has been dismantled. It has only gone underground.

Why do we bother? This week two of my students received prestigious fellowships. Is it because of my compelling letter of recommendation, or because some committee found their project exciting or interesting? Or both. There’s no way to know. Did I love writing the letters? Not really. I’m just happy with the outcome.

JoeMcDonaldCat4LeopardLyingDownBeattie wonders whether there isn’t a better way to judge a candidate’s worth, and ends her essay by describing her husband’s heroic achievement of rescuing a flying squirrel caught inside their screened porch. It was in unrehearsed moments like this, Beattie suggests, that we can “see a person’s true character.”

Exemplary as the husband’s squirrel rescue may have been, a flying squirrel isn’t always available.

There’s really no good solution to the “incessant selling of the self” that Beattie laments. Let the work speak for itself. Hmm. Besides Ann Beattie, who seems not to remember whether she ever had to ask, there’s Fifty Shades of Grey that became an instant sensation because its fan fiction readers did not require a famous writer’s blurb to guarantee their pleasure.

If only we could find a way to combine a squirrel and a hot sex manual, we’d happily bypass the rigors of self-promotion. Until then, I will keep writing letters for my students.

Lemurs and Leaders: The Cooperation Thing…

I recently came across the obituary of Alison Jollylemur, a primatologist who studied lemurs and wrote definitive studies of this species.

I might not have stopped over the obituary if it hadn’t been for the provocative headline “Alison Jolly, Who Found Female Dominance in Lemurs, Dies at 76.” I also happen to know Alison Jolly’s daughter, the feminist scholar Margaretta Jolly. I almost met Alison Jolly at Margaretta’s home last summer after a conference in Brighton, and I regret now more than ever our missed encounter.

I confess that I know―knew―nothing about lemurs; nor did I know that my friend’s mother was a world-renowned expert in her field. From studying the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar, Jolly concluded that all females of this species, “whether dominant or subordinate in the female hierarchy, are dominant over males.”  For details on what Jolly discovered and loved about lemurs, including their “ringtails in a question mark,” hear her interview.

Although according to the obituary in The Economist (March 1, 2014), Jolly did not label herself feminist, she admitted that “her interest in cooperation was probably a female thing.”

Her findings, she argued boldly, showed that “pace Darwin, evolution was not all about competition, tools and weapons led by males; but also about integration and cooperation, led by females. Intelligence had evolved from both.”

Because I’m always attracted to weird juxtapositions, I found myself pondering the contrast between the anthropologist’s findings and the piece in the Times about directors of art museums: “Study Finds a Gender Gap at the Top Museums.” I doubt that this disparity came as news to anyone―where isn’t there a gender gap in top whatevers?―but what struck me was the analysis that while “many of the skills that women bring are collaboration, working well with boards,” they “do worse on the visioning factor than men.”

You don’t have to believe that women in the social world are the natural descendants of female lemurs, who spend many hours establishing “social ties and hierarchies,” but it is interesting to contemplate why “vision” should weigh so much more heavily in the balance than cooperation. After all, if there isn’t cooperation and collaboration in a boardroom, chaos will reign. But the visioning factor―or what George H.W. Bush once called “the vision thing”―seems to be code for male dominance: why men “lead with their ideas” and thus get the big bucks.

Ring-Tailed-LemurI’d love to live in a world led by lemurs.

When a Friend You Love is Ill

Right now, I am at my desk preparing my seminar for tomorrow, but my thoughts keep straying from Holocaust testimony―this week’s subject, as it happens―to the fate of a close friend. My friend is in the hospital recovering from surgery, but probably not recovering from the cancer that made the surgery necessary. It is not all that strange for me to be thinking of her as I try to concentrate on work.  I’ve just taught one of her essays, an essay on the use of metaphor  in literary texts representing the Holocaust.  You may know the author, but I don’t want to violate her privacy by going any further. The singular identity of this friend matters to me, of course, but that is not my subject. Nor is the essay she wrote, which I have always loved.

UnknownIn his work on friendship (friendship between men) Derrida writes somewhere: one always leaves before the other. (Every once in a while Derrida says something stunningly simple and true.) When I read his text, thinking about friends I’d lost, I realized that I had never confronted that truth.  I expected my parents to die; one does, even in this era of increasing longevity. And if we are coupled, we worry, when we make our wills, about who, in a spousal dyad, will go first. Typically, neither wants to be the survivor. But in the matter of friendship, even if you are old (and I am), we tend not to foresee the loss of a contemporary―give or take ten years. It does not seem part of the contract. We are unprepared in addition to being bereft.

One of the strange features of friendship, I’ve learned, is that a pair of friends, no matter how intimate, rarely forms a single couple. What I mean is that the friend I lose is not only mine to lose. There are others who mourn the loss of relation to her―intimacy, laughter, solace. At a memorial service, you discover just how many people loved your friend. You are not a solitary mourner, you are part of a community―friends of your friend.

When I first observed this phenomenon, I felt a kind of shock seeing my bond diminish, spread across a room, oceans, geography. But now, as I’m becoming more accustomed to the community of loss, I realize that there is a peculiar comfort in sharing our dread, sadness―it sometimes takes the edge off extreme loneliness.

Still, I don’t want to lose “my” friend; her essay can’t fill the place in my heart.