“In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct of morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathetic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the ‘other’ as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing. When someone writes a Mommy Dearest memoir – where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster – the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.”
Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story
When I read something and am trying to figure out why and how it works, or does not work, Gornick is the writer I go back to more than anyone else, and to this passage above all. Gornick talks about this need for imaginative sympathy when discussing a passage from D.H. Lawrence that troubles her – it is not that his view of women is “incorrect” but that there is no attempt to imagine a woman as she might imagine herself – no exploration, only reaction. In a sense I go this passage when I am looking for “permission” to be troubled by an author, especially a renowned one, especially a man when it comes to women.
The passage came to mind for a different reason while reading Hilton Als’ The Women. I’ve loved Als’ writing for the New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for a long time, and I’ve always been struck at what I can only inadequately term empathy – his deep love for artists and their work, for the imaginative intricacies of the craft and those attempt it, even when they fall short.
The Women is a beautiful example of one of my favorite genres – a collection of biographical essays, reflections on the meanings of lives, extensively knowledgable but unabashedly subjective in its interest and these lives and their meanings. The subjects of the essays are first, Als’ own mother, second, Dorothy Dean, the third Owen Dodson. Because Dean and Dodson are not household names, the convention would be to briefly attach a label to each by means of introduction. The difficulty of accurately doing so is, in some sense, the subject of these essays. Dean’s wikipedia entry leads with “an African American socialite connected to Andy Warhol’s the factory . . . and Max’s Kansas City, where she worked as a door person.” The back of Als’ book describes her as “brilliant, Harvard-educated Dorothy Dean, who rarely identified with other blacks or women, but deeply empathized with white gay men.” And so Als’ empathy and identification with her reflects and refracts her own. Dodson can perhaps be more easily classified as a poet, novelist, and playwright. Yet Als’ focus is more on the disappointments of his later years, when Als knew him as a mentor and lover, and on his identification with women, as suggested in his inclusion in a book by this name.
What unites these figures is the ways they responded to and crafted themselves out of their disappointments. We tend to think of those who don’t find suitable outlets for their talents burning out in a blaze, as Virginia Woolf imagined the fate of Shakespeare’s sister, or retreating into silence. But we all know from our experience what is more often the case: frustrated talents (frustrated by a tangle of external and internal circumstances which, Als demonstrates, are impossible to pull apart) drink too much, pester their more successful friends, host parties, read and edit manuscripts, take refuge in snobbism, sleep with people whose work they admire, and so forth. In the case of his mother, who lacked Dean and Dodson’s the artistic and social outlets, love and disease become the vehicles. When tragedy comes, it comes slowly and excruciatingly: “In the end I think my mother’s long and public illness was the only thing she ever felt experienced as an accomplishment separate from other people.” And a doctor who examined Dean after she had lost her home declared that she “must be delusional: ‘She keeps saying she went to Radcliffe.'” Which, of course, she had.
And yet very often, Als suggests, they are more effective mentors than those with smoother paths could ever be – and richer subjects.
The feminist complaint against stereotypical female characters is by now well known. But less recognized, as Als’ own criticism has shown, is how male writers, especially queer ones, have been actively attacked for imagining women more fully. In this fascinating piece about A Streetcar Named Desire, Als recalls Mary McCarthy’s attack on the play: noticing Williams’ identification with Blanche DuBois, she accuses him of deceit, just as Blanche is accused of in the play. Seeing only the grating aspects of Blanche’s femininity, she misses Blanche’s discomfort with convention, her inability to play the role:
Perhaps McCarthy, like Stanley and Mitch, was ultimately too uncomfortable with Blanche’s queerness. She is unmarried, but she has loved. She has no money, no property, and no social equity, and yet her memories of the boys she took to her breast are a kind of sustenance, too. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” Blanche to the Young Man she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….”
The other other artist I immediately associate with these two traits – empathy for, and identification with, the feminine and female characters, Pedro Almodovar, famously dedicated my favorite of his films, All About My Mother, “To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. . . To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.” Gender and its associated identities are here both performative and not: a woman or a mother is something a man might become, but it is not an empty category.
Another wonderful Almodovar film, Talk to Her, tells the story of a male nurse who talks to a woman in a coma, a dancer who has been struck by a car. He says he has learned his care taking skills from caring for his mother. In one sequence, we are presented an invented old surrealist film the nurse remembers: a man drinks a potion that renders him tiny. In his new state, he crawls across his lover’s body and blissfully disappears into her vagina. In his New Yorker review, David Denby says that one way of looking at the film, “I suppose, is as a story shaped by a homosexual’s longing for women, a longing that can only be expressed as irony or as a nightmare.” I suppose. But only if one supposes that longing for women is the only stance a male director can take towards women – as opposed to curiosity, empathy or identification. (The extent to which heterosexual longing for women is so often expressed as irony or nightmare comes through in Denby’s swift takedown of Brian DePalma’s Femme Fatale, with which his review of Talk to Her is paired.)
Back when New York magazine asked a number of writers about Philip Roth’s legacy, Keith Gessen took a lot of flack for saying “Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?” As I wrote then, critics were right to note that taking male heterosexual desire as a central theme doesn’t mean one isn’t a misogynist – but it doesn’t mean one is, either. Or, to reframe the question aesthetically, away from the moralism that gets people so upset, it doesn’t mean one can credibly create real female characters – and it doesn’t mean one can’t. It is of course too simple to say that Als, or Almodovar, or Williams, or Allen Ginsberg, who beautifully gave his mother the last lines of his elegy to her – are successful in imagining women characters with empathy and nuance because they don’t, by and large, want to fuck women. It is probably far too simple as well to say that their experience of sexual other-ness or outsider-ness, allows them this success. All I can say for sure is that their work confirms for me how essential and undervalued these qualities are in writers and artists and how much our categories of gender, sexuality and desire – completely real and completely imagined at the same time – can both get in our way and get us there.