Wednesday, May 17, 2017

When the only cure for narrative is more narrative

"I read Claire Dederer’s latest memoir, Love and Trouble"
The expression "latest memoir" ought to evoke the same feelings as "my most recent divorce" or "not last since my last criminal conviction".  These are movements from unfortunate to carelessness.

That said, such memoirs at least gave a reviewer an excuse to talk about herself.
To hedge the accolade slightly, I suspect some portion of the pleasure was narcissistic on my part: I kept recognizing myself in these pages, especially in their evocations of middle-aged befuddlements, and of the surprisingly long half-life of adolescent inchoateness.
Notice, first, the tactic: by announcing she is being narcissistic, Laura Kipnis plans on having her cake and eating it too. That's a clever trick and it's one we all fall victim to so let's not beat her up for what is a near-universal human trait. At the same time, let's take her at face value and ignore the half-meant self-deprecation. Read literally, Kipnis tells us that she's not handling middle age well and that something she here calls "adolescent inchoateness" contributing to this failure. What does that mean?

I'd suggest that the answer is that Kipnis is being intentionally vague. When she says she "recognizes myself" she uses muddy expressions such as "middle-aged befuddlement" and "adolescent inchoateness". When, in the very next paragraph, she is speaking of another woman, the woman who wrote the memoir she is reviewing, Kipnis manages to be admirably concise and clear: "Dederer is, by her account, a perpetual hot mess." Yes, that does seem to be the problem. Kipnis helpfully adds, "But so are a lot of the middle-aged women she knows. "

I don't doubt that. Kipnis has an admirable intellectual integrity. She's one of those increasingly rare liberals who'll stand up for what she believes in the face of crybully terror. And what she says matches my experience: a lot of women I know are perpetual hot messes. It's neither surprising nor deplorable that they are. The perpetual hot mess is the female equivalent of the nice guy. (And they go together so well too, ba ha ha .... .)

So what does she tell us about Claire Dederer and, more importantly, herself? Most importantly, she tells us that she isn't particularly happy about being a woman.
For Dederer, even when it’s sunny, things are filthy, swinish, thrillingly violent; sedate middle-class lives are a little sickening. Femininity, too, conceals a wealth of dirtiness beneath the pretty frills. Dederer is suitably ambivalent about being slotted into what she regards as the obviously lesser gender, but instead of trafficking in uplifting slogans, she savors the secret squalor. She finds creative work-arounds.
There is a nice rhetorical trick here on Kipnis's part in the reference to "creative work arounds". You want to know what those are don't you? The only one we learn about is that Dederer became "a world-class slut". That sorta makes you want to move right along looking for juicy details. Don't!

Linger a bit instead on the ambivalence about being a woman. That's not surprising. I'm sure most woman feel ambivalent about being a woman and most men feel similarly about being a man. What's surprising is the open admission Kipnis makes about this. Not since Joan Didion have we seen a feminist admit that the struggle is not really against the patriarchy but is rather the challenge of being a woman. Granted, the courage here is a bit mitigated because Kipnis is hiding behind Dededer but let's cut her some slack for she'd be declared a non-person by the left if she said this openly.

Okay, now we can move on to the titillating stuff. Why is being a "world-class slut" a "creative work-around"? Sorry, I lied we need to consider one more linguistic detail before we get the sordid thrills. We need to remind ourselves that being a slut is a "work-around", that it is a way to avoid solving a problem. Okay, now you get your sordid fun.
One such work-around was to become a world-class slut—I use the word with utter respect—as an adolescent and into her 20s. She’s often quite funny and pretty unrepentant about fucking her way through much of the Western world. Sometimes the sex was “accidental”—that is, she was passed out. 
This is the Amy Schumer shtick. It isn't funny at all except that it's unthreateningly shocking to laugh at/with an adult woman acting out like this. It's a cheap and easy transgression for people who don't really mean it. But that shouldn't blind us to the utter sordidness of it all for that sex wasn't "accidental", it was rape.

Even when she wasn't being raped, Dederer seems to have had a lot of sex without getting much good sex. That should not be surprising as good sex wasn't her goal.
Not all of this activity was particularly pleasurable or happy-making, but for Dederer the allure of sex lay in its mystical power to transport her out of herself while simultaneously grounding her. And she valued the sense of power it gave her over men. That adolescent “clueless bitch” is still breathing hard down her neck, well into middle age.
A woman I used to be in a relationship once described exactly this sort of life, complete with large amounts of bad sex, to me. Role-playing, which is what being a world-class slut is, pulls you out of yourself. At the same time, it does ground you because it seems to reduce life's complexities to the base-but-basic simplicity of, as my ex-girlfriend put, "really getting it". And it gave her power over men. But it was, remember, just a work around, that is to say, Dederer knew she was lying to herself. Which leads us to the problem: she's grow up to be an "adolescent 'clueless bitch'."

That's not surprising. Being a hot mess will get a woman a lot of attention. And, at first, there won't be any negative consequences. A lot of men will pursue her and a lot of women will envy her for being pursued. Yes, some others will hate her but remember she's playing a role; this hot mess isn't really her, it's a "creative work around". The negative part of the experience is sort of like a white person having racist insults hurled at them while performing in blackface.

You night think that the problem with this is that Dederer can't just wash off the make up. But that's not it. The actual problem is that, somewhere, along the line, she became what she thought she was only playing at. She could just as easily adopt the role of mature grownup now and most people would cheerfully go along with her. Privilege is a much-abused concept but it's a real enough phenomenon and Claire Dederer has privilege in abundance. Getting other people to go along with whatever image she wishes to project would be no problem. Getting rid of her own character—that adolescent “clueless bitch” (these words are Dederer's own description of herself) still breathing hard down her neck—is a lot tougher.

Dederer doesn't have a solution and neither does Kipnis. All either can do is tell another story. It's a funny sort of story in that what makes it "honest" is its contradictions (ah, postmodernism you haven't left us yet). Kipnis admires Dederer for not dodging the issue and that issue is that finding your identity in your sexuality is a dead end. It's a dead end because it runs you into, as Kipnis admirably puts it, "the power of sex to unravel everything you thought you knew about yourself."

How does it do that? Look, I know this is going to be difficult, but turn off the thrill-seeking part of your brain and read what Kipnis goes on to say:
Dederer is startlingly frank here, and women aren’t always the greatest fans of frankness on these matters. She’s equally candid about masochistic yearnings to be passive, dominated, victimized, fantasy-raped—and also sexually adored in a way that will (hopefully) solve everything.
Don't just pass lightly on. Be frank with yourself! Does that sound like the internal contradictions that many, many women, probably most women, struggle with? We already know the answer. The real question is whether we're willing to face it honestly.

Okay, have I got anything to say by way of conclusion? It seems to me that we are in a situation not unlike Book 24 of the Iliad. The middle-aged Dederer (and Kipnis) is like Priam and Achilles is the adolescent "clueless bitch"still breathing hard down her neck*. And the only positive takeaway is that life is indeed hard for women and while women can't do anything to change that they could at least stop making it worse.

* Classics scholars may not like this but, adolescent, clueless bitch is a pretty good summation of the character of Achilles.

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