On Thursday J. brought me Vivian Gornick’s biography of Emma Goldman because he is a little bit the Sasha to my Emma (in a good way, I promise) and I spent the weekend reading it on subways and protecting it from rain and hail while running around the city working. Which is an appropriate way to read about Emma Goldman, all breathless and busy in a whirl of activity, finishing the last pages in a park on Sunday before going to look in on Melissa’s cat.
I am writing this to the tune of the Sisters of Mercy’s “Under the Gun,” with the fabulous Terri Nunn (of Berlin fame) belting “Are you living for love?” over and over, and while in one way that’s utterly appropriate for writing about Emma in another way, well, no.
Because Gornick is mostly interested in psychoanalyzing Goldman’s love life, and while I’m as salaciously inclined as any girl and I love my gossip and I’d be an utter liar if I didn’t say that I enjoyed the tidbits from Goldman and Ben Reitman’s love letters as much as anything in this book, I’m also sick and bloody tired of reading people reading radical women’s love lives as indicators of their politics.
Bhaskar Sunkara’s review of the book for The New Inquiry sums up this problem pretty clearly:
Gornick’s underlying narrative is clear: Goldman’s anarchism was utopian, but in the pursuit of this lofty ideal our protagonist defended free speech, an all-American brand of individualism. Instead of examining a political life, we get a trite celebration of the “good fight” and some parlor gossip. It is, in a sense, the perfect biography for a neoliberal age that can’t help but smirk at genuine commitment.
Goldman’s contribution to the Left might have been a willingness to talk about sex and sexuality as seriously as she talked about class, poverty, and war, but she was pushed into the same trap that women who discuss sex still get caught in — the one where people assume that talking about sex is sexual, and that it then colors everything you do. While Goldman’s belief in free love was part of her anarchism (and at various times it was used against her by selfish lovers who pushed her to be a proper free-lover and let them fuck whomever they wanted, giving her guilt for being jealous that echoes the double bind we feel now, we feminist women who happen to wind up sad sometimes about men), it was not in fact the sum total of her politics nor in many cases the driving force behind it that Gornick wants to claim it as.
But should we be surprised? We live in a world these days where mainstream feminism has split off from any sort of class politics and then makes angry demands for solidarity without offering any of its own. We expect women to embody their politics, while men create and define theirs. If Emma Goldman cared about sex, freedom in the bedroom as well as out of it, that must be where her class analysis sprang from, right? But even if it was, that doesn’t mean we can understand class politics from analyzing her sex life.
We tend to read women radicals’ love lives as indicators of their politics or as contradictions thereof — as Cristina Nehring so eloquently pointed out in A Vindication of Love. Frida Kahlo’s relationship with Diego Rivera is a “flaw” that we have to get past in order to appreciate her as the defanged feminist icon she’s become. But we would not have Kahlo’s art without her anguish, and while this makes us feel intimate with her, as we look at paintings where she quite literally pulled her insidesout for us to see, we don’t actually know her. We don’t actually care that she was hurting, in fact we’re complicit in her hurting because we enjoy her art. Yet we criticize her for staying with or forgiving Rivera, because women after all don’t know their own minds or hearts, right?
As I wrote about A Vindication of Love: “Ladies, if the failures in my love life mean that I’ve failed feminism, well, feminism is screwed.”
More to the point, if we are talking about Goldman’s sexual politics, let’s think about something that should be basic to any doctrine of free love: the end of a relationship doesn’t mean failure. In Goldman’s own words, which Gornick quotes but doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to:
Anguish over the loss of love or a non-reciprocated love among people who are capable of high and fine thoughts will never make a person coarse. Those who are sensitive and fine have only to ask themselves whether they can tolerate any obligatory relation, and an emphatic no would be the reply.
In other words: hurting over a lost love happens, it’s natural, it doesn’t make you a worse person. The end of an affair hurts. But true failure would be trying to compel a relationship that is past its time to stay through some idea of obligation.
And so through this lens, Goldman’s relationships, that Gornick either pities or mocks her for, and always chides her for not having learned from as if she was the only one in them, are not failures, but experiences. Lovers who fade out of one’s life or flame out, who shift to being friends, who sleep with others, who make you scream with jealousy and shake with fear and tremble with anticipation, all of those are people worth having.
It strikes me as particularly strange that Gornick, who in other places mounts a passionate defense of love — in “The End of the Novel of Love” she argues “Put romantic love at the center of a novel today, and who could be persuaded that in its pursuit the characters are going to get to something large? That love is going to throw them up against themselves in such a way that we will all learn something important about how we got to be as we are, or how the time in which we live got to be as it is. No one, it seems to me. Today, I think, love as a metaphor is an act of nostalgia, not of discovery.”
Even in this book she argues that we used to value love culturally more than we do now. Yet her at times snide comments about Goldman’s life — she literally writes “Wha-a-at?” like a high schooler writing an email about a friend in response to Goldman’s affair at age sixty-five with a younger (blind) man — feel less like a deep reading of Goldman’s attempts to live out her free-love ideal and more like catty pleasure in being better at something than the revolutionary icon.
I should be grateful for this book, though, as it made me feel deeply for Goldman and brought me a bit of clarity about my own life as well. The failures that Gornick holds Goldman responsible for — never finding her perfect lover, the person who could both respect and support her work, agree with her ideal of freedom, challenge her, and give her spectacular orgasms — are failures that many feminist radical women, myself included, still feel deeply today, a hundred years after Goldman first took to a stage to call for free love. It’s hard enough in 2012 to find a partner who doesn’t want to tame the mouthy political woman, shut her up, shove her back in a box. Am I, too, a failure because I don’t have a long-term partner? I don’t feel like one.
Patriarchy didn’t disappear because Goldman called for its destruction — and people remain flawed, fucked up, sometimes beautifully so and sometimes damaged beyond repair. The revolution didn’t not happen because Goldman didn’t find a life partner; the revolution didn’t happen because most people weren’t radical anarchists.
I don’t think Goldman herself would have minded the discussion of her love life — after all, it’s not twenty pages into her autobiography before she’s writing of discovering masturbation — but let’s do ourselves a favor and stop reducing women to their bodies, their sexuality, their love lives. There’s something deeply misogynist about that kind of thinking. Taken to extremes, it’s what Rush Limbaugh did when he declared open season on Sandra Fluke’s personal sex life because she dared speak about birth control in public. It’s presuming that because someone speaks politically about personal topics, we should get access to their personal lives.
And let’s for a moment remember that it almost never happens to men, even when they literally get caught with their pants down. Eliot Spitzer may have lost his job over his sex life, but no one assumes that his sexuality colors his analysis of Wall Street.
Yet Gornick feels perfectly comfortable reducing a woman’s lifelong political career to something where “Felt is the operative word.” The same way women musicians are confessional songwriters rather than crafters of narrative, the way it’s called LITERATURE when male writers write of their sexual exploits.
I want to argue instead that there is nothing wrong with feeling, feeling passionately, intensely, the highs and the lows, and also that the mysterious and beautiful thing about feelings is that no one else knows exactly what they are to us. That feelings and thoughts are different, and a woman who spent her life on the public stage and left a long record of what she did think deserves some engagement with those thoughts as well as those feelings.