Rereading oneself

Spinning My Wheels

Procrastination: Take Three.

photo by Gregory Phillips

photo by Gregory Phillips

Failing to progress on my summer projects, I reread the work where I left it last year. Although rereading literature can be an amazing and even exhilarating experience, rereading oneself is, well, not. As I started thinking that rereading one’s own work would be my theme for the week (I’m already behind on my posting schedule) I had a feeling that Roland Barthes had already nailed the experience. Indeed, I find in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (rereading him is always a treat), an entry that captures my sense of activity with no achievement. This entry is called “La Papillonne” (in the English translation), which is to say butterfly―in the feminine. I set aside the fact that Barthes is a man, a gay French man, and a world-famous writer nicely settled in his country house for a summer of leisure outside the city. Oh, and let me set the stage: the previous entry Doxa/Paradoxa ends with a sigh of weariness: “Where to go next? That is where I am now.”

Here’s RB:

Crazy, the power of distraction a man has who is bored, intimidated, or embarrassed by his work (my emphasis): working in the country (at what? at rereading myself, alas! [my emphasis, Barthes’s parenthesis]), here is the list of distractions I incur every five minutes: spray a mosquito, cut my nails, eat a plum, take a piss, check the faucet to see if the water is still muddy (there was a breakdown in the plumbing today), go to the drugstore, walk down to the garden to see how many nectarines have ripened on the tree, look at the radio-program listings, rig up a stand to hold my papers, etc.: I am cruising (emphasis, Roland Barthes).

And all that before email.

What captivates me is less the list of potentially infinite distractions (we all can imagine our own), as much as the notion that rereading one’s work is somehow inherently embarrassing. Why is it embarrassing to reread one’s work? Barthes almost shrugs it off with his “alas,” but that’s just what interests me. And know I’m not alone. Still, it’s not as if one was rereading juvenilia. No, just yesterday’s prose.

I look at what I take to be the last draft of a piece I was working on (of course reading through drafts to figure out which is the latest one is a great distraction in itself) about friendship and loss. I see some nice lines. But I also see paragraphs lacking transitions, sentences bordering on cliché, fudged emotion, and a confused relationship to potential readers. Ew. No wonder I abandoned the essay. Still I saved it for future reworking and I’m not all that different from the author circa 2013.

So, onward into the abyss.

When Work is the Prize

Procrastination, Take Two: Yes, it’s that time of year in academia. The spring semester is almost over, except, of course for the grading. The papers straggle in or languish in incompletion. I always start to complain about grading―how time consuming, how disappointing, and how irritating (the students mostly don’t bother to pick up the papers constellated with our brilliant comments). I start complaining but in fact final papers have an innately positive function for me: they forestall the confrontation of the summer break. What, if anything, will I write? As long as I don’t know, I can enjoy a kind of anxious liminality: I’m between things, on the threshold of something, I just don’t know what. I drag out reading the papers as long as possible in order to prolong that deferral.

But if I were more truthful, I’d have to admit that grading papers has more value than providing a legitimate postponement of embarking on the next project. It proves to me that I have work to do, that quite simply I still work.

The need to work―beyond the need to earn my living, of course―is turning out in late life to be my supreme value. Work is what I most like to do. Without love and friendship I’d be miserable; but without work I’d be lost. Many of my friends have retired, or look forward to retiring soon. I don’t. I more than don’t. I dread the moment that I will have to close my office door, throw away my hundreds of file folders, donate all my books to the library; the moment when because of illness, severe memory loss, or lack of interest on the part of students, I will be forced to acknowledge that I should stop.  And then I won’t linger.

I’m not a workaholic, I’m quite a laggard, a slugabed, in fact. But there’s joy in knowing that I have something to do that other people―in this case, students―also (for now) need me to do. I like the burden.


image from Wikipedia

I was touched by a recent interview with Tyne Daly (I used to love Tyne Daly when she co-starred in Cagney and Lacey―so eighties but so great) in which she discussed the acting business, Oscars, Emmys, nominations, prizes, who gets them, and the usual agenda of show business. At the very end, in response to a question about her place in the galaxy of awards, Daly says, “the real prize is to be working.”

I’ve come to think that now that I’ve stopped talking about my last book, keeping up this blog is at heart a form of labor, and while I have grave doubts about the desirability of all the sharing and oversharing (including my own) in public―or semi-public spaces–it keeps me believing that I’m still hard at work.

Media Manners: Stop Thief: A GPS is tracking you!

Last week I received an email that began: “I am writing to inform you that you are using copyrighted material on your website which appears to be taken directly from the New York Times website.” A shudder went through me. What had I done? I was in the dark about my infringement but my whole body went on fear alert. If the Times was pursuing me, I must have done something truly reprehensible. (The same Times that had had fired Jill Abramson for having asked for pay equal to that of men. She was difficult, it seems, didn’t play well with others.) Suddenly, I was nine years old, or even nineteen, being condemned by my father the lawyer: “Jesus Christ, how stupid could you be?” (You don’t want to know.)

“The New York Times policy,” the sender went on, “as well as the federal copyright laws say you are not allowed to steal intellectual property.” I wracked my brains to figure out what I possibly could have stolen.

It took several emails to determine that the person writing to me was not an “agent” of the Times, but a photographer who free-lanced for the newspaper. He claimed that in a blog post from months ago, I had “stolen” a photograph the paper had published to illustrate an article. Then, having prosecuted me with his evidence (a screen shot), he went on to demand his particular pound of flesh: a dollar amount in exchange for which he would issue a “retro license that would free [me] from legal action.” Legal action!

I said I would remove the offending photograph. But that was not enough. I had to pay.


Reader, what would you have done? My husband and my former publicist both recommended that I apologize and then proceed to ignore him. But I knew from lifelong experience with with male anger that I could not bear to receive more emails threaening future lawsuits. Right or wrong, humiliated and fearful, I caved.

In the end, I sent the man the sum (not inconsiderable) he said he would have charged had I asked permission in the first place. I wrote the check not so much because he had the law on his side, but because I felt threatened to the core and fearful that he would track me relentlessly (thanks to GPS software).

There’s a nice, almost amusing twist, though: after all that, the photographer said that removing the image made the situation even worse! So now that I paid for it, I should put it back up as a credit. As if anyone was paging back through my posts!

Looking back, what continues to bother me is not the issue of image copyright per se. I can imagine defending the principle in other circumstances. What bothers me is that rather than letting me know in a polite manner that I had failed to ask permission to publish his photograph in my diary, and accepting my apology for having done so in error, the photographer felt the right to make me pay for my oversight, not just in money, but in condescending hyperbole.

Above all, what deeply disturbs me now is not so much the money, as the painful knowledge that I accepted my punishment as if I deserved it–and paid for it.

Between Procrastination and Productivity

The semester is almost over. Next week is my last class. Soon, my academic calendar will clear and…And what? Which of the many pieces of unfinished writing will I drag out of my file drawer and set out to finish, finish or, terrible thought, discard as beyond repair. For now I have a delicious feeling of possibility.

One of my side-bar activities for the past couple of years has been graphic cartooning. Or rather, attempts to create graphic representations that others might also enjoy. It’s hard because I have no natural talent. I’m not one of those people who have been drawing since childhood. Because I lack the requisite skills to move past doodling, I’ve worked periodically with a drawing teacher. But this winter, snowed under with work, I stopped lessons and drawing altogether.

To restart my artistic endeavors I went to a show last week with the artist Jen Waters, my most recent teacher, to see the paintings, mainly self-portraits, by the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig, at PS1.

photoI had been stunned by the self-portrait that appeared in the Times, equally by the fact that I had never heard of her, that she was 94 years old, and, as I felt strongly when I saw the scope of the work, feminist.

As I walked through the rooms of paintings with Jen and her adorable infant daughter in a stroller, we talked about my resuming lessons. We talked about this sense of excitement, between, as she said, procrastination and productivity. I’ve been trying to create order in my study, stem the overflow of shmattes in my closets, cull the multiple hair products in my shower, in a word, make room for the new.

Will I? Will I stop shopping at Muji for more and more ingenious Lucite storage boxes?

What if none of the work that in memory seemed so promising pans out? What if, despite more lessons, my artwork still remains hopelessly primitive? It’s the desire to postpone that disappointment that keeps me finding ever more tasks of preparation before settling down to confront the reality of the pages that fill my drawers. Sometimes I want that moment never to come. It’s so much more enjoyable just to contemplate what I might one day do.

P.S. As I was finishing this post I went to check the article that had alerted me to Lassnig,
only to discover in a new article that she had died a few days before we went to the museum.

I am glad I didn’t know this when I looked at the paintings. But at the same time this reminds me that in life, especially for me at my age, what matters most, I should remember, is the work one has left behind. Maybe all work―though I don’t consider my writing art–a footnote if I’m lucky―is no more than an attempt to cheat death.

There’s still time to see the show.

Looking Jewish

I’ve just returned from a lecture trip to South Carolina. Among other things, I gave a talk called “My Memoirs Made Me Jewish,” a paradox I’ve rehearsed here recently. The visit went well, although I was perplexed when during the Q&A a woman in the audience seemed unclear about what exactly I mean by the conceit (note to self: make this crystal clear in the next iteration).

At La Guardia we caught a cab and headed home. I was exhausted from the visit and the early flight so I huddled in the corner, eyes closed, lips sealed, hoping to nod off, while the driver engaged my husband in conversation. In the past twenty years or so, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single Jewish cab driver (as he would prove to be), let alone a driver fluent in English. By this I mean the driver who would immediately start talking the moment you entered the taxi and never stop. He’d be full of opinions and sure he was right on all topics.

But today when the driver, who was from Ukraine, ascertained that my husband had been a professor of literature, and proceeded to engage him on the subject, I knew we had encountered a cultural throwback. The driver held forth on the relative merits of Victor Hugo (whose work he had read at age eleven) and Balzac. And of course War and Peace read in Russian at age twelve. After that our autodidact emigrated to America and reading was replaced by television. Did we remember The Twilight Zone? He was shocked that Sandy (when quizzed) said he had never read Pushkin (though I almost piped up to correct the record: we had seen Eugene Onegin at the opera).

I had also been tempted to ask about Ukraine today, tell him my grandfather had been born there in the nineteenth century, that I had traveled to his country a few years ago on my “roots” journey, but I was afraid to start down that road, even though I had noticed his name on the identification plate, Kirschner, and thought it might be Jewish.

MI0000029004Mercifully, despite the rain and the traffic, the ride finally came to an end in front of our building. As I went to get my bag from the trunk, eager to escape any further attempts at conversation, the driver looked at me and uttered a phrase from Yiddish I hadn’t heard since my father died in 1989: “Zei Gezunt.” I was too stunned to comment.

What had led Mr. Kirschner to bid me stay healthy in Yiddish?

I was forced to conclude that my memoirs had succeeded beyond anything I had dreamt of in “making me” Jewish, as if I didn’t look Jewish already.

Be well!


Regarding Susan Sontag

Saturday night I watched the showing of Nancy Kates’s marvelous documentary about Susan Sontag at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was lucky enough to belong to the board of advisors for the film, and that brought me to a reception before the film. A few of us (including Terry Castle, from her essay on “Notes on Camp,” and Nancy Kates herself, from “The Conscience of Words”) read something from or about Sontag. (Tip: never read after Terry Castle.) I excerpted a piece I published in PMLA in 2005, in a collection of short essays following her death:

Elaine Showalter describes reading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It in graduate school, impressed by his account of the Dark Lady, the “only famous woman of Letters in New York.” Mary McCarthy had “originated the role,” Showalter goes on to explain, quoting Podhoretz, “but by the 1960s no longer occupied it, having recently been promoted to the more dignified status of Grande Dame as a reward for her long years of service.” Showalter confessed that she was fascinated by the information: “How did you get to be a Dark Lady? Where in New York could you go to try out? Most important, how old was Susan Sontag?” And in one of those anecdotes too predictably bitchy to be true, McCarthy went up to Sontag at a party and said dismissively, “You’re the imitation me.”

From many angles, the film ponders the answer to the question: How do you get to be a Dark Lady?
imagessusanSontagOr, how did Susan Rosenblatt become Susan Sontag? How did she go from Sue in her high school yearbook photo to the stunning, much photographed, female figure familiar to readers around the world.

It helps to be brilliant, it helps to be gorgeous, it helps to be photogenic. Yes. But the film wonderfully shows as it illuminates various aspects of Sontag’s biography, intellectual and intimate, literary and sexual, that the mysterious mix creates the icon.

Even so, a darker question than the “how to” lurks in Showalter’s question: why this phenomenon should occur so rarely among the tiny number of women writers and intellectuals. Perhaps we each could propose a favorite candidate, but the economy of scarcity guarantees that consensus is unlikely.

As Carolyn Heilbrun lamented in 1967, after interviewing Sontag, and conjuring up other comparable legendary female figures—Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, the younger Mary McCarthy–“How short the world is of famous, intelligent women: one per country per generation.”

While you are waiting, go see the film!


My Memoirs Made Me Jewish

In the year 2000 I received a phone call from a real estate broker who informed me that I had inherited a small plot of land on the outskirts of Jerusalem from my paternal grandparents. The phone call led to years of research and traveling because it opened the door on a family history I knew nothing about. What I found―and didn’t find–ultimately made me want to write a book.

This is the first paragraph of that book: What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past.

When my father died, I became a middle-aged Jewish orphan. It wasn’t that I wasn’t already Jewish, of course, or that I had set out to say Kaddish for him―I had no idea how to do that, even if it had been a daughter’s place. But now that the last keeper of my Jewish past was dead, I began to worry about the future of my Jewish self.


“Triple Silver Yentl (My Elvis)” copyright  Deborah Kass

It was only when I read this passage aloud while giving my first book talk that I realized I had used the adjective “Jewish” four times in three sentences. I had reread and rewritten the paragraph many, many times in the editorial process, and never noticed. And what could be more important in a book than an opening paragraph? But it was too late. I was Jewish in print. Repeatedly.
Thinking about the paragraph now in retrospect, I would say that my unconscious was telling my writing self that I was anxious about whether I was Jewish ENOUGH to justify the book’s subtitle– “pieces of a Jewish past.” True, I had grown up immersed in Upper West Side New York Jewish bagels and lox culture, and I had archival proof of my origins, but my Jewish self and my writing self belonged, I had always thought, to separate domains. What They Saved made me understand how they were joined.

I composed Breathless: An American Girl in Paris a decade before publishing What They Saved, and when I returned to that story almost immediately after the “Jewish” book I saw for the first time that the “American Girl” who went to Paris, was not simply an American girl, à la Jean Seberg. The girl whose adventures I had narrated was, as we used to say, “a nice Jewish girl,” and what she wanted to leave behind in New York was the Marjorie Morningstar fate that had become shorthand for an entire generation of girls. The memoir could well have been called: A Nice Jewish Girl in Paris, but the publishers thought that was, well, “too Jewish,” too niche.


Birthday card from Lorie Novak, with self-portrait by author.

What’s not Jewish enough and what’s too Jewish? I learned from What They Saved and then Breathless that I could only solve the Goldilocks problem–the “just right” of Jewishness–through writing itself, in other words by not solving it at all.



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.