Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Slesinger and other artists of the left

This is going to be an imbalanced post, but I don't really have the energy to smooth it out (or to do all the necessary research).

Last Thurs. I heard about a party at the Chester subway station, and I managed to leave a little bit early.  However, my impression was that the party was going to be 6-7, and I turned up at the tail end of that time.  Unfortunately, the organizers ended up starting much earlier at 3, and it was definitely over by the time I showed up.  There were a couple of pieces of cake hidden in the storefront for people connected to the event.  Maybe if I had shown up 15 minutes earlier there would have been a bit more activity.  Anyway, the party was not an official TTC celebration but more of an informal thing that these artists renting out the kiosk at Chester dreamed up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Bloor-Danforth line.

You can see the way they had decorated the kiosk below.  It was supposed to be a kind of pinata.

I poked around at what was actually on sale, and it was mostly 'zines and a mix tape (about reproductive rights) and a number of other artistic products with a definite leftist slant.  I decided upon reflection that I really ought to buy something, as they are not renewing their lease come April, and I picked up this postcard celebrating Eugene Debs.  (I could have used it to get feedback from the Star short story contest, but I decided to not enter at the last minute, though the deadline itself was still helpful.)

I am no longer that tied into artistic circles, even to the point to evaluate whether it is surprising that there is still a relatively large collective of leftist artists in Toronto (to the point they can rent a storefront from the TTC for a year).  It may be that the safety net, while somewhat frayed in Canada, is still sufficiently strong that political and politicized artists can still survive, whereas leftists artists seem to be really marginalized in the States, though I am sure part of this is not being around and active on the scene, as well as complete lack of access to the mainstream media.  My impression is that leftist artists have a slightly easier time of it in Canada than the U.S., but I am open to being proved wrong.

Most of the theatre that I go to is not overtly politicized, though there are some exceptions, like the Svitch piece I saw at the Theatre Centre last year.  I could go to quite a bit of that if I so chose, but I suppose I am not that convinced that having a specific political agenda makes for very good theatre.  Usually it descends into celebrating a hero or heroine and then castigating everyone else.  Where things get tricky is dealing with the audience -- either the playwright allows them a bit of smugness since they are aligned with the forces of good, while the most challenging work makes the audience think about its privilege (not least of which involves the money they spent on entertainment rather than giving directly to the needy -- this is a bit of a rabbit hole when you push things too far).  I used to go to that kind of theatre, but I don't get much of a charge out of it anymore.  It all comes across as the same to me now.

Leaving those kinds of plays aside, there are some plays that can be interesting when they feature a number of leftists characters all sitting around and trying to be the most virtuous but secretly conniving and being not that different from everyone else, despite their politics.  Probably the more interesting (but rarer) plays would combine characters of different political backgrounds and have them duke it out.  I would say that Kushner's Angels in America does this reasonably well.  I am sure there are other plays along these lines, but I am not going to investigate right now.

Kushner's latest opus is much more like the first approach.  I mentioned already that I went down and saw The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide To Capitalism And Socialism ... at Shaw this past summer.  It was a challenging piece, but it was at heart about a family who were (with a few exceptions) always trying to prove that they had the best socialist or even communist credentials.  I would have had no interest in sticking around and being part of this discussion, and yet the play still worked for me.  In contrast, I just am not willing to give any slack to Amy Herzog, who is writing almost the exact same plot in After the Revolution.  I particularly disliked the grandmother figure who seemed to take advantage of her age as a wise yente to say some really terrible things about others.  I read 4000 Miles and it is all about her and her grandson, and I am so glad I didn't see that in Chicago when I had the chance.

Clearly at this point in my life, I am not that interested in hearing directly from the true believers but I don't mind plays or other literature that pokes at least a little fun at leftist intellectuals.  This finally brings me around to Tess Slesinger, who is a fairly marginal literary figure due to her dying quite young.  Her novel, The Unpossessed, was reissued a while back by NYRB, and I read it and enjoyed it quite a bit.  I am actually reasonably sure this is the second go-around but it has made a much bigger impression this time around for a few reasons, which I will get to in a minute.

I would warn anyone reading the NYRB edition of the book that you really should hold off on reading Hardwick's introduction until the end.  She simply gives away too many important plot points.  Interestingly, many people considered this a bit of a roman a clef, with Lionel and Diana Trilling being prominently featured (or at least somewhere in the composite mix of characters).  Later on, Lionel Trilling wrote an Afterward to the book, which is quite perceptive and appropriately placed at the end of the book.  I think NYRB should have fought harder to get the rights to put this in their edition, but it actually isn't that hard to turn up Trilling's piece.  It is titled "A Novel of the 30s" and is reprinted a few places, including in The Last Decade.

In case you haven't read the book, I would recommend turning away, as I will probably SPOIL it to some degree in the last part of this post.

SPOILERS on the left, but no SPOILERS on the right.

I probably should have picked up the influence sooner, but I am reasonably proud that a scene (Part 2, Chapter 2) with Prof. Bruno Leonard talking to and mixing it up with the Black Sheep (his undergraduate students competing to be the most righteous) made me think back to a similar scene with the same kind of manic comic energy found in Dostoevsky's Demons (Part 2, Chapter 7) when a number of plotters are all in the same room and two of the women in the room keep insisting on bringing up female liberation no matter the topic being discussed.

Some time after this, I decided to flip through Hardwick's introduction and she said that in many ways Slesinger was riffing off of Dostoevsky's book (perhaps not quite to the same extent of Joyce transforming Homer in Ulysses but not completely dissimilar either).  Hardwick made it clear that Leonard's failed speech at the tail end of the party is drawn directly from a similar fete in Demons that becomes a complete shambles.  (The Unpossessed is certainly worth reading for Part 3, which ends up just about as madcap as a Marx Brothers film or prefiguring the nightclub scene in Tati's Playtime.)  At any rate, Hardwick reassures us that it would have been much easier in Slesinger's day to make the connection, since Demons was typically translated as The Possessed back then (whereas the title morphed to The Devils at some point, but probably Demons will stick).

What Hardwick doesn't capture is that Slesinger was mixing up the party politics issues with modern literature.  She name drops Ulysses, and I am reasonably confident that when we are introduced to Elizabeth (Bruno's cousin) she is drawing on Eliot's The Waste Land.  Generally, the artistic level is amped up the most when Elizabeth is center stage, and there will be long sections on what she might have or ought to have said with then a short passage indicating what she actually said.

There really is a lot going on in this book, but what is quite apparent is that most of the main actors are working out their issues, either sexual hang-ups or childhood traumas, and it is almost accidental that they are trying to start a socialist revolution.  (I think Slesinger was also picking up all the Freud in the air in the 1930s.)  Most of the people she describes are complete headcases, though the most annoying to me is Miles Flinders who decides that it is simple weakness to love his wife and that there is no justification for bringing another baby into the world (before the revolution), so he convinces her somehow to have an abortion, mostly out of fear masquerading as political principles.  I was so disgusted with this that it was just as well that this happens at the end of the book.  Not that you don't find some people claiming the same sort of thing nowadays (that due to climate change it is irresponsible to have more children), but that is a whole different thing from forcing an illegal abortion on a woman who clearly wanted the child (and apparently Slesinger's first husband put her in exactly this same position in real life, but she had the sense to leave him eventually).  So that was a pretty big downer to me, and it was probably intended to make that impression -- that these leftist intellectuals could talk the big talk all they wanted, but fundamentally they were anti-life.  No wonder the New Masses crowd hated this book so much.  What is quite baffling to me is that apparently she stayed in touch with people on the left and after she moved to Hollywood, Slesinger joined the Communist Party (maybe because it was an effective anti-Nazi moment in the early 1940s).  However, she did have two children, though she died tragically young at 39.

In short, The Unpossessed is an idiosyncratic novel about leftist intellectuals of the 1930s and their struggles and their hang-ups.  There is quite a bit of humor (black and otherwise) throughout the novel (and I think I mentioned enjoying the delivery of the file cabinet which indirectly sets off the party which proves so disastrous for Prof. Leonard), though I do think the last section casts a bit of a pall over the book as a whole, and certainly I lost pretty much any sympathy I had for Miles Flinders.  However, I would not recommend it if you consider yourself a leftist with unimpeachable credentials, since you will certainly not enjoy seeing yourself reflected back in this book.

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