“A masterpiece… may be unwelcome but it is never dull”

February 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Written with consummate grace and wit…” begins the gushing first sentence of the back-jacket copy of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and I steeled myself for a potentially boring and vapid book. Usually, ‘consummate grace’ tends to be synonymous with ‘boring’ where jacket copy is concerned. But I stand corrected. After finishing the book, I will concur; yes, Pierpont writes with consummate grace and wit.

Passionate Minds is a collection of 11 essays, all of which were previously published in ‘The New Yorker,’ and all of which focus on literary women of influence, as opposed to women of literary influence, as Pierpont herself distinguishes in her introduction. “The resulting group is emphatically diverse,” she concludes, which is sort of true, but not really. They are all white (all except one, Zora Neale Hurston), and lest you take the ‘world’ bit in the ‘Women Rewriting the World’ subtitle seriously, let me assure you that the world in this case means the United States, Europe, and chunks of South Africa. I suppose for some people, that constitutes the world. (“What, you mean there’s more to it?”)

Pierpont takes a razor-sharp view of all the women – Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy – and their resulting influence, never once wavering in her steely-eyed stare. That means she makes the reader privy to their immense talent, intelligence, and ambition, as well as their cringing weaknesses and narcissistic fixations. And she doesn’t gloss over the unpleasant facts of their characters that naturally cast a shadow over their reputations. In the case of Olive Schreiner, Pierpont acknowledges that while The Story of an African Farm “was the first to place the landscape of the vast and barren South African karroo – like Emily Bronte’s moors or Willa Cather’s Southwestern mesas – on the map of literature,” Schreiner was also the product of her times. Denounced by some as a ‘racist feminist’, Schreiner wrote in 1899 in a pamphlet promoting democratic, integrated national union that “the dark man is the child the gods have given us in South Africa for our curse or our blessing.” This is a factor that Pierpont could have chosen to gloss over, to make her own job easier, but she didn’t – and the Schreiner chapter is all the richer because of it.

Indeed, what was interesting to me about Pierpont’s book is not the catalogue of each woman’s achievements laid bare, but their horrible, human, often frail and contradictory beliefs and principles. It’s astounding how all of them were, to greater or lesser degrees, as steadfastly racist as most men of their times were steadfastly sexist. One often thinks that intelligence and talent can count for something in the personality stakes, polishing a duller, conforming character into one that sooner or later miraculously gleams with self-awareness and compassion. Sadly, that is rarely the case.

Reading about these women, one can’t help but believe the Foucauldian theory of there being no exterior subjectivity outside of ideology, that one gets happily sucked in to the prevailing status quo all the same, whether gifted, intelligent, or obscenely talented, with no point of external reference from which to examine one’s own skewed prejudices. This seems to have been the case with Hurston, tragically, and Welty, and Lessing, and Arendt. Pierpont is often subtly sarcastic, or mildly scathing, all the while being extremely respectful, but in the piece on Hurston she is warm, almost tender. It’s certainly disconcerting to read about Hurston’s ambivalence to her own race, and the place of race in the grander contexts of literary success and physical beauty. The protagonist of her best-loved and most influential novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie, is a mulatto who is revealed to possess fair skin and lustrous, non-kinky hair – her physical attributes thereby elevating her to a position of greater significance than if she were simply black. While acknowledging Hurston’s own internalised racism, Pierpont is nevertheless gentle and respectful with how she treats her subject. She writes that Hurston “created a myth… in which she herself plays a mythic role – a myth about a time and place fair enough, funny enough, unbitter enough, glad enough to have produced a woman black and truly free.”

Zora Neale Hurston

Other points of honesty in the book caused me to wince – Pierpont’s entire piece on Anais Nin was an exercise on restraint on her part, one feels, because the glass is about to drop any second, and one senses that Pierpont just wants to come right out and say, “She was a manipulative bitch who had not one jot of true talent,” but she doesn’t, and this is where the consummate grace and wit comes in, I suppose. I’ve only read one volume of Nin’s journals, which is not enough to give a sustained, overarching view of her personality, but I was always rather amazed at her ability to detail her own life in exquisite detail. Conversations, looks, touches, glances – EVERYTHING is noted down and brought to life again in her journal, and I was inclined to believe that most of it was true. But as any writer would know, it’s impossible to have a memory that remembers much beyond the last 3 minutes of your life, especially when you’re trying to mine the fertile plains of memory for some fodder for your work. Also, it would be impossible to devote that much energy to yourself, and the process of journal writing, and still have some creative energy left over for other forms of writing.

According to Pierpont, Nin devoted her life to her journal because that’s the only form of writing she was capable of doing. She notes how some writers and critics, all male, fawned over Nin’s other writing – stories and essays – even though they had no clue what was going on. They did this by claiming that Nin was doing truly ‘feminine writing.’ Nin’s lover, Henry Miller, was most guilty of this, because, as Pierpont writes, “All that he (Miller) had objected to before, all that he tried to save her from – the secondhand surrealisms and the self-conscious ‘femininities’ – are no longer presented as destructive intellectual flaws but as a biological absolute. […] Nin wasn’t a failed writer, or a lazy writer: she was a woman writer.” In another page, Pierpont writes that Nin’s reverence for  “the ‘modern spirit’ became an excuse for unintelligible writing, as her father’s desertion was the excuse for her games of betrayal.” Or, another stinger: “The real and bottomless subject of Nin’s diary is not sex, or the flowering of womanhood, but deceit.”

When Pierpont sharpens that consummate wit, things really get cracking.

Doris Lessing

Other moments, at once painful and sympathy-inducing, are Lessing’s inability to love her first two children, after having sleepwalked into marriage and motherhood, while later showering her third son Peter with unlimited founts of maternal love. Or there’s Eudora Welty, hanging on to racial prejudice even while being privy to the extreme poverty of both blacks and whites in the depths of Mississippi, while battling virginity, an all-pervasive and dominant mother, and love for a homosexual man. Then there is Marina Tsvetaeva, who lost her youngest daughter to starvation when she, destitute, temporarily gave up her children to an orphanage while living alone with them in war-torn Moscow. The child died, but 2 months later Tsvetaeva was back in another love affair, producing poetry as a result, and it’s hard NOT to wince while reading about these facts, just as it’s hard NOT to feel anguished when we find out that she later killed herself after possibly finding out about her husband’s and eldest daughter’s traitorous activities with the Soviet secret police.

Hannah Arendt

All of these women left a lasting legacy, certainly, beyond the borders of the literary landscape, but I failed to see Mary McCarthy’s lasting contribution. Possibly, she paled in comparison to Hannah Arendt, both of whom Pierpont wrote about in one essay, contrasting the differences of their beliefs and upbringing against their sturdy, enduring later friendship. Arendt, despite holding on to some very unfortunate beliefs about Africans, and the causes and effects of colonisation and empire – produced a body of work with lasting philosophical implications, but as far as I see, McCarthy merely slept around a lot and wrote some dark and wildly funny stories.

It’s clear that Pierpont wrote about female figures within a certain milieu, within a specific historical time period, and it would be unfair to have expected her to produce an encyclopaedia that covered all literary women of influence throughout all time. But the inclusion of Mae West – Pierpont considers her a writer for having written roles for women in film that defied all the sexual straitjackets women were made to be in, up until that point – suggests her ability to look far and wide for inspiration. However, as a woman rewriting the world, I doubt that Mae West had much lasting influence on how female sexuality was perceived in, say, Asia. She’s clearly an American icon. But even within the realm of America, Pierpont neglects key figures – writers of the ‘Native American Renaissance’ for example, such as Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko – writers whose lives and influence we hear so little about already. What about Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Julia Alvarez, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Amy Tan? What Margaret Mitchell did for popular literature is akin to Amy Tan’s influence, I believe, within the same demographic, as well – women readers, but maybe largely of Asian descent (although I’m sure that’s not quite true anymore).

For anyone interested in literature, and fascinating literary figures, this book is a given. For others among us who believe that the written word can move mountains (or at the very least, move a molehill or two) this book can provide hours of insight; chewy nuggets that you can contemplate while firing up your browser to Google more information.

But some of us might also expect just a tiny bit more from a book that tantalises us with the premise of ‘women rewriting the world.’

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