When I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative. In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect. Read an excerpt from Austerlitz. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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The NYC Walking Tour is this Saturday, May 2nd, and we've got an update to the itinerary and a couple of other notes. First, the itinerary - we have swapped McNally Jackson and Housing Works because Housing Works opens at noon that day. The times listed here are our best guesses, so if you are hoping to meet up with us partway through, keep that in mind. Here is the updated itinerary:11:00 - 11:30: Three Lives (154 West 10th Street at Waverly Place) - we'll meet at Three Lives at 11am.25 minutes walking11:55 - 12:25: McNally Jackson (52 Prince St. between Mulberry and Lafayette)12:30 - 1:00: Around the corner to Housing Works Used Book Cafe (126 Crosby St. between Prince and Houston) Housing Works is generously offering a free cup of coffee from their cafe with the purchase of any book.10 minutes walking1:10 - 1:25: Bluestockings (172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington)1:25 - 2:35: Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (about 3 miles - folks who are daunted by the distance can take the F train from Bluestockings to BookCourt)2:35 - 3:05: BookCourt (163 Court St. between Pacific and Dean)3:15 - whenever: And we'll wrap things up at Freebird Books & Goods (123 Columbia St. between Kane & Degraw), which will host a little backyard party with refreshments.A note on the weather: Right now, the forecast is for "showers." Unless the outlook worsens considerably, we will most likely go ahead with the tour as scheduled on Saturday and brave a few raindrops (if it's bad enough, we can take the F train from Bluestockings to BookCourt instead of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.) I'll post a last update late Friday or early Saturday, and if you want to be sure to get the info, RSVP to [email protected], or join our Facebook group.
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. — Janet Malcolm Writers are always selling someone out. — Joan Didion Don’t ever make a friend in this business, you’re only going to have to fuck somebody in the end. — Jim Murray 1. The open secret about Grantland Rice, America’s ur-sportswriter and the namesake of Bill Simmons’s omnibus sports/pop culture website, is this: he wasn’t a very good writer. He wrote a lot, and so was ubiquitous. His personal record, as recorded in Frank Deford’s Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, amounted to 50,000 words over the nine days of the 1912 World Series. Rice labored, Deford tells us, under a 3,500-word daily quota over his 53-year career. With some 17 million words to choose from, it’s not really possible to say whether the lead to his story on the 1924 Army-Notre Dame football game is the “best” thing Rice ever wrote, only that it’s the most quoted: Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden. As a young sportswriter aiming at literature, I was under the impression that Rice had a bead on the target. He was the first capital-S Sportswriter, the first commentator-as-personality. He was popular, but not because he was a good writer. As Deford puts it in his memoir: Perhaps the idea was to make mere games seem more important or artistic, but for whatever reason the writing grew more florid and rococo... Jonathan Yardley... wrote that old-time sportswriting was "like a bad dream by Sir Walter Scott." In Rice’s defense, it’s probably not possible to publish 17 million words and not engage in a certain amount of linguistic inflation. But that inflation has plagued the profession ever since, and it’s evident in each of the books considered here. In fact, I will now posit a corollary to Godwin’s Law, which holds that: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Stockman’s Corollary: as a sportswriter’s career progresses, the probability that he will needlessly invoke Nazis also approaches one. The “needlessly” goes without saying, or should. But each of the three writers here — Jim Murray, the daily journalist; Frank Deford, the magazine feature writer; and John Feinstein, the bestelling author — eventually invokes some aspect of the Hitler war machine. Jim Murray was 4F in World War II and so spent the war scrambling up the ladder in his early newspaper gigs. As Ted Geltner assures us in Last King of the Sports Page: The Life and Career of Jim Murray — his biography of the Los Angeles Times columnist who, at the peak of his popularity, was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers — Murray tried more than once to sign up, but Uncle Sam wouldn’t let him. In 1963, in advance of the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight, Murray predicted that the bout would “be the most popular fight since Hitler and Stalin — 180 million Americans rooting for a double knockout.” OK, pretty mild and pretty funny. And, Geltner argues, a representation of the two fighters’ general unpopularity with the establishment. But, after Clay’s conversion to Islam — and name-change to Muhammad Ali, which Murray waited more than a decade to honor in print — Murray compared Ali’s Fruit of Islam bodyguards to “the Gestapo in blackface.” Which is pretty gratuitous, and not a little racist. But let’s give Murray the old “man-of-his-time” pass — his was a jauntily jingoistic generation, one that for all its faults produced the indisputably good outcome of stopping Hitler — and move on to Frank Deford. You may best recognize the genteel Deford as the honeyed voice behind more than 1,500 sports commentaries on NPR’s Morning Edition. Throughout Over Time, his memoir of working for Sports Illustrated and other national outlets, he manages to keep a healthy perspective. “I can’t for the life of me, for example, imagine that any run-of-the-mill young person will want to read the old stuff I’m writing about now.” This he tells us once we’re more than a third of the way through a bunch of the old stuff. Deford, too, falls victim to Stockman’s Corollary, with a throwaway line in a paragraph about how he works best by himself: “I just can’t grasp how two people could write something well together — collaboration, they call it, which always makes me think of weasels collaborating with the Nazis. I guess you have to have the right personality to be collaborative.” That’s right, you have to be Lieber/Stoller or Marshal Petain. But among the writers under review, John Feinstein — avatar of conventional wisdom, perpetrator of sub-competent prose — takes the cake (as he might say) for not only fulfilling the corollary, but being the biggest hypocrite. Early in One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game, the author’s bloated account of his various publishing successes, Feinstein shows himself standing up to Bobby Knight. This was during Feinstein’s reporting of his book A Season on the Brink, for which he spent the 1985-1986 season as an embedded reporter with Knight’s Indiana University men’s basketball team. That book was a wild success — and Feinstein dedicates a full 150 pages or more to its development and publication. Feinstein was about three weeks into his “Bloomington sojourn” when Knight fired off a quintessentially crass crack at the reporter in front of his team: “‘You know, John,’ Knight said. ‘There are times when I’m not sure that Hitler wasn’t right about you people.’” Not funny at all, but then Knight is a dirtbag who choked his players, so this sort of crack seems entirely in character. Feinstein explains that he didn’t confront Knight in front of his team, because the coach would only have escalated things and refused to back down. So Feinstein waited until later than night: ...Knight and I were again in the car en route to a speech, and it was just the two of us. “I gotta say something to you,” I finally said. “Because if I don’t I won’t be able to sleep tonight.” “What is it?” he asked. “I think you know I have no problem with you making jokes about me being Jewish or liberal or whatever,” I said. “In fact, you’re really good about it,” Knight said. “I think so,” I went on. “But I gotta tell you, Bob. Hitler wasn’t funny. Not on any level.” Fair enough, and true enough, and Knight backs down and comes as close as a solipsistic asshole can come to apologizing. But the reason I quote that scene at length is not to show that Feinstein was a man of principle — possibly endangering his unprecedented access to this hothead basketball coach to rebuke him for a crass remark — but to show instead that he can be breathtakingly un-self-aware, not to mention a hypocrite. In this case, 350 pages after he’s admonished Knight, he tells us about an incident at the Los Angeles Open golf tournament in which “the people in charge of security had tried to tell Larry Dorman of the New York Times and I that we couldn’t walk inside the ropes without a camera, even though we were wearing armbands that said, ‘media—inside the ropes access.’” This was eventually sorted out, but Feinstein “ended up telling the guy in charge that he and his men were a bunch of ‘brown-shirted Gestapo stormtroopers.” You know, to smooth things over. In light of this newly-discovered corollary, every sportswriter would do well to read the letter Jackie Robinson sent Jim Murray. They were friends, and, despite his early animosity toward Ali, Murray had lobbied to get Satchel Paige (who spent most of his career in the Negro Leagues) into baseball’s Hall of Fame and the PGA player Charlie Sifford into the Masters golf tournament. But, when Murray invoked Robinson’s name in a column that derided the efforts of some civil rights activists to get African American Olympians to boycott the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City — and compared the boycott, in passing, to Hitler’s insults of black athletes in 1936 — Robinson wrote an eloquent rebuke, the final clause of which should be stamped on every sportswriter’s laptop: “Olympics occur periodically. Justice must be practiced every day, and none of this has the faintest relationship to Hitler.” 2. The most infuriating thing about Feinstein’s book, aside from its reading like a first draft (he tells us of someone’s disease that was “degenerative and kept getting worse,” or of the 1986 World Series: “People forget that the score was tied at that moment. ...Buckner did not lose the World Series for the Red Sox, a fact many, many people forget.”), is his utter lack of perspective. This is a sportswriter’s problem generally — great ones like Deford and Murray often transcend it. Feinstein almost never does. It’s not coincidental that Feinstein dropped the “brown-shirted Gestapo” line on a security guard (which is not even accurate: the Brown Shirts and the Gestapo were two different groups), he loathes security guards. There are no fewer than six instances in this book of Feinstein’s confrontation with gatekeepers at various venues. An example, taken almost at random, emphasis mine: I’ve had bad experiences with security guards around the world, but never more so than in Chapel Hill. Once, when I walked over before a game to say hello to Dean Smith, one of them started pushing me away until Dean saw what was going on and waved the guard off. Rather than just let me go as he had been instructed to do, the guard — who had to be a hundred — said, “You’re lucky Coach Smith was here.” To which I replied — always calm when confronted — “You’re lucky I didn’t knock you into the fifth row.” It’s a stunning failure of empathy. It doesn’t occur to Feinstein that this low-paid senior citizen was just doing his job — keeping people off the court. Furthermore, there’s a tincture of “don’t you know who I am?” in this reaction, and that’s what really grates. Because, consider: what if Tiger Woods had done that? Or Kobe Bryant? Feinstein would be one of the first baying hounds on Charlie Rose to tell us that these athletes don’t know how good they’ve got it and they don’t care how many little people they step on, and that if it weren’t for the fans they’d be nobodies. Someone might remind Feinstein that if it weren’t for the security guards keeping everyone else out while he gets unrestricted access to players and coaches, he might not have a career. In his way, Feinstein is a sort of modern Grantland Rice. He’s prolific (Deford calls him “‘the Woody Allen of sportswriting,’ because, just as Allen annually produces a new movie, so too does John somehow manage to write a major book almost every year,” which is a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever seen one). He’s also a hypocrite. Rice admitted that he wanted to build his subjects into heroes (see, for instance, the aforementioned “four horsemen” of Notre Dame’s backfield). And yet Rice also decried the perverting influence of money on athletics — money which had entered the game thanks in no small part to his mythmaking. Late in this book — perhaps he figures no one will read this far; I didn’t want to — Feinstein admits to outright hypocrisy: “Since eleven years have passed, I can now reveal that for all the complaining I’ve done... about game times being changed for TV, I was responsible for a game time being changed...” Feinstein was researching his book The Last Amateurs, on The Patriot League, a scholarship-free, NCAA Division I athletic conference. Basically, he wanted to attend two games on a certain Saturday, one was at noon, one was at two p.m., and the venues were two-and-a-half hours apart. So, he asked the Holy Cross athletic director to change the time of its game with Lehigh. And, because Feinstein was by this time a perennial bestselling author whose book was sure to give the Patriot League and its schools unpurchasable publicity, the two teams acquiesced, and Feinstein — the reporter who was observing a typical season in the Patriot League — got his way. “You should be ashamed of what you did,” an assistant women’s basketball coach tells him. “I wasn’t ashamed and it was well worth the effort.” Worth it for whom? I wonder. This is the heart of Feinstein’s hypocrisy. On one hand, he tells us that a young Andre Agassi reminded him of a “young Tiger Woods... everything he did was with one thing in mind: how will this affect my ability to make money.” On the other hand, the use of his heavyweight reputation to push around a couple of small-conference athletics programs leaves his conscience undisturbed. I wonder if that schedule change affected his ability to make money? Deford, who left Sports Illustrated in the early ‘90s to head up the all-sports newspaper The National (an oral history of which can be found at Grantland), made Feinstein his first hire in that ill-fated endeavor. And yet, he has a refreshing candor about certain aspects of his profession: “Besides, everybody genially accepts that a considerable portion of popular American sports — college football and men’s basketball — is an outright fraud...” It’s unfortunate that this passes for a bracing assertion in sportswriting, but it does. Deford qualifies this by referring to himself in another context as “the piano player in the whorehouse.” In this he’s more in line with Jim Murray — who, Geltner claims, was Deford’s first target hire for The National; Murray turned him down. Murray admitted near the end of his career: “I covered the circus. I felt privileged to have done so. ...Sure, I helped keep the hype going, the calliope playing. I can live with that. It’s what I am.” Both Deford and Geltner tell of that calliope player at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when Magic Johnson interrupted a brusque official to say “The great Jim Murray is here, and he didn’t get to ask a question.” John Feinstein would kill for that kind of recognition. Literally, I mean. He would kill seven security guards. But no, Murray and Deford possess a self-awareness about their professions that Feinstein does not. That is, that the most interesting stuff in the sports world has to do with its stories, not its scores. I would like to say that all sports fans know that, but we do not. For evidence, I turn to the letters page of the July 30 Sports Illustrated. One C. Fred Bergsten from Annandale, Va. has written in to respond to a book excerpt the magazine ran on that 1992 Dream Team. Here’s the letter: With all the hype of the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team... most fans are forgetting that there were two squads, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, that could have given the Dream Team a run for its money had their countries not dissolved just before the Barcelona Games. The Soviets were the defending gold medalist from the 1988 Games, and Yugoslavia was the ’90 FIBA world champion. It is a tragedy that colossal matchups among the three basketball superpowers never occurred in ’92. Yes, the tragedy of the Yugoslavian civil war was not Srebrenica, it was that the reigning FIBA champs didn’t get a shot at the Dream Team. Let’s close with a proper world-historical perspective. As Danny Boyle’s History of Britain tableau unfolded at the Opening Ceremonies of our present Olympics, as the workers of the Industrial Revolution literally rolled up the sod of pastoral England, I was put in mind of lines the truly great columnist Red Smith wrote the last time London hosted the games, in 1948 — and in the aftermath of, y’know, actual Nazis. But, writing of those Opening Ceremonies 64 years ago, Red Smith both described them and put them in perspective: The torchbearer dashed up into the stands, brandished his torch on high and dropped it into a tall concrete bird bath... The crowd made with the tonsils. It was hokum. It was pure Hollywood. But it was good. You had to like it. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Bonus Link: The Best Sports Journalism Ever (According to Bill Simmons)
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Last year, we took a look at the affinity for Twitter in certain quarters of the literary world. A handful of well-known authors have acquired big followings on the platform, a result not just of their name recognition but of their mastery of the tweet, as well. Readers now also turn to twitter for book news and comment from a number of sources who are active on Twitter. Our previous piece looked at the very first tweets of these now-popular practitioners. Nearly all were halting "Hello World" efforts, and none seemed likely to win over those unconverted to the various (and admittedly sometimes maddening) wonders of Twitter. So, to present literary Twitter in its best possible light, we are returning again to those most widely followed on literary Twitter, but this time, looking at which Tweets got the most favorites, we are highlighting each literary Twitterer's best tweet. Here you'll find much wry humor, gossip, lots of politics, Margaret Atwood flirting with a Twitter-famous comedian, and even a surprising amount of insight crammed into 140 characters. They may be enough to win over some fresh converts. (For the Twitter regulars out there, we found that tweets with more RTs tended to be more about disseminating news to fans, while tweets with more favs captured some essence of the Twitterer, so we went with the latter when compiling this list. Also, if you find tweets by these folks with more favorites than the ones we've listed, let us know and we'll swap them in.) Why do people keep telling us to "get a room," @robdelaney? What's wrong with our usual dumpster out back of the #etobicoke MacDs? Cheaper!— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) November 13, 2013 Every 60 seconds in Africa, a minute passes. We can put a stop to this. Please retweet.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) May 9, 2012 Fox is now like, "What if we took states that Obama has already won and gave them to Romney - how would that change the map?"— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) November 7, 2012 As #AWP13 starts today, it's a fine time for @VQR to post my massive treatise on the biz of lit http://t.co/CpDNN96iOp Thx 2 @JaneFriedman— Richard Nash (@R_Nash) March 7, 2013 Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 14, 2013 For those curious about the mystery event that happened in my parlor last night, here's a clue. http://yfrog.com/gy3ugpj— Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) January 3, 2011 On a positive note, both can pronounce the word "nuclear".— Dani Shapiro (@danijshapiro) October 23, 2012 Kid at our door in a suit and tie. "What are you?" we asked. Him: "The 1 percent."— Dwight Garner (@DwightGarner) November 1, 2011 Next Schoolhouse Rock song is called "How a Bill Becomes a Law and Then Gets Held Hostage by Sore Losers Willing to Destroy Our Economy."— Ron Charles (@RonCharles) October 1, 2013 Thomas Pynchon's new novel BLEEDING EDGE will be published on September 17, deals with Silicon Alley between dotcom boom collapse and 9/11.— Sarah Weinman (@sarahw) February 25, 2013 Wouldn't it be fun to just totally ignore Ann Coulter? It would drive her crazy.— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) October 23, 2012 A hard essay for me to write, and to publish. On being heartbroken and putting on a good show, on @the_millions. http://t.co/suPkVkkx65— Emma Straub (@emmastraub) July 11, 2013 Because I can lie beautiful true things into existence, & let people escape from inside their own heads & see through other eyes. #whyIwrite— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) October 20, 2011 Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011.— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) December 16, 2011 Sad day, man. I never really understood how sad the book is until now. Why did I make it so sad? Why have so many people read it?— John Green (@realjohngreen) September 25, 2013 Found this genius quote on Reddit today: Getting offended is a great way to avoid answering questions that make you sound dumb.— Doug Coupland (@DougCoupland) September 2, 2012 Affordable Care Act means health care for artists, writers, poets, dancers, filmmakers, and others in the arts without insurance now.— Amy Tan (@AmyTan) October 1, 2013 The gorgeous and talented Charlie Hunnam will be Christian Grey in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.— E L James (@E_L_James) September 2, 2013 This Twitter post, from @JohnDonoghue64 last week, still makes me laugh. Sometimes Twitter really does amuse. pic.twitter.com/yQ5yXrtp3W— Erik Larson (@exlarson) January 4, 2014 Whitney Houston: Yes, somewhere tonight Patrick Bateman is weeping, shocked but not surprised, and ordering three hookers instead of two...— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) February 12, 2012 People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don't yet have a fully adult concept of scary.— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) October 2, 2013 Not doing #twittersilence b/c I don't think the response to those who want feminists to shut up and go away is to shut up and go away.— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) August 4, 2013 Want to become a better writer? Then read this free essay: 'Developing a Theme' by Chuck Palahniuk - http://bit.ly/aNRUqk— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) October 12, 2010 Via @SciencePorn This is what a child's skull looks like before losing baby teeth. pic.twitter.com/pr7nF7w82G: [Happy Holidays, Love, Joe]— Joe Hill (@joe_hill) November 27, 2013 I'm going to wash Joe Biden's car tomorrow. With my tears of gratitude.— Gary Shteyngart (@Shteyngart) October 12, 2012 o no i mistook mascara for concealer again! My eye sockets are black and greasy also idk what's going on in Eritrea. Can a website help plz— Emily Gould (@EmilyGould) August 14, 2013 100 Notable Books of 2011 http://t.co/1UtIx68O— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) November 22, 2011 How to write fiction: Andrew Miller on creating characters http://t.co/JpcwgIoO— Guardian Books (@GuardianBooks) October 16, 2011 Sun Ra used to perform for catatonic schizophrenics. One broke a years-long silence to ask, “Do you call that music?” http://t.co/YZuaLW29kZ— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) October 11, 2013 Little, Brown to publish JK Rowling adult novel— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) February 23, 2012 The New Yorker brings back Haruki Murakami story for Japan issue http://lat.ms/h0rix6— L.A. Times Books (@latimesbooks) March 21, 2011 Library acquires ENTIRE Twitter archive. ALL tweets. More info here http://go.usa.gov/ik4— Library of Congress (@librarycongress) April 14, 2010 Print free 'Go Away, I'm Reading!' book covers for Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games & more: http://t.co/dQjrR0Iz— GalleyCat (@GalleyCat) March 17, 2012 SO FUN: A First Read of @bjnovak's new story collection w/readings by Novak, Emma Thompson, and Mindy Kaling! http://t.co/cP0ggj9mFp— NPR Books (@nprbooks) January 21, 2014 Our average member has read 7 of the #ALLTIME100 Best Non-Fiction Books. How about you? http://t.co/WrdBSlI http://t.co/4OMY4CY #BestBooks— goodreads (@goodreads) August 31, 2011 “Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person."-Nora Ephron #RIP— The Paris Review (@parisreview) June 27, 2012 Incredible landscapes carved into books: http://t.co/jJcvdAAe // @twistedsifter— Electric Literature (@ElectricLit) January 2, 2012 An unpublished shorty story by David Foster Wallace has been posted on tumblr: http://bit.ly/aa7B38— The Rumpus (@The_Rumpus) October 29, 2010 (•_•) <) )╯I've actually / \ \(•_•) ( (> Read / \ (•_•) <) )> Infinite Jest / \— The Millions (@The_Millions) January 9, 2014 This picture is so important. pic.twitter.com/aQmlq9XE— Nick Moran (@nemoran3) October 17, 2012
The Syrian publishing industry is but one of the casualties in the nation’s ongoing civil war. “The whole of publishing is not more than 10 percent of what it was in the past,” says Samer al-Kadri who runs Bright Fingers Publishing House in Damascus.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. Lusty adj: Fired/Inspired by Pure Lust: Wanton, Gynergetic, Biophilic, joyous, merry, robust, flourishing, strong, powerful, vigorous, having an unrestrained inclination for enjoyment -- Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language “What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?” I still remember the day Mary Daly stood in front of our class and asked that question. It caused a distant rumble in my head, like a deep tremor portending an earthquake. I spent the rest of the class, the rest of the semester, the rest of my life, trying to answer it. And with every attempt at an answer the fault line slid a little, the supposedly solid ground of my assumptions cracked and broke and fell away. “What does any of this really have to say to women?” It’s a question I have been asking and trying to answer ever since. That I was in Daly’s class at all was something of an accident. That semester I had kissed my first girl. We had been wandering around a local golf course one fall night, talking about anything and everything, when she finally reached across that indefinable space between us and pulled me to her. I was utterly smitten. I would have followed her anywhere. If she had been into race cars I’d have become a NASCAR fan. But she was a feminist -- a radical feminist -- and had been reading Mary Daly. So instead I went with her to womyn-only music festivals, hung out at lesbian bars, and since I was a student at Boston College, where Mary Daly taught, enrolled in her class. It took a little convincing, since I was in the Russian and Middle Eastern Studies department and Feminist Ethics wasn’t on my course list. I remember planting myself in Daly’s office to persuade her to let me in the course -- the one she only allowed women to take -- with all the clueless confidence of a good student who assumes that if it is written in a book, it can be learned. I had this idea that my new romance would be over before it got off the ground if I didn’t get into that class, so I wasn’t taking no for an answer. That was my introduction to feminism. Not the slow or even sudden epiphany of the inherent misogyny of patriarchal culture, but a simple case of horniness and an overwhelming desire to impress a girl. I’m amazed that Daly took me on. But she was always a generous woman under the formidable rigor of her intellect. 2. Elemental adj: [“characterized by stark simplicity, naturalness, or unrestrained or undisciplined vigor or force . . . CRUDE, PRIMITIVE, FUNDAMENTAL, BASIC, EARTHY” -- Webster’s Third International Dictionary of the English Language]: This definition has been awarded Websters' Intergalactic Seal of Approval Daly was born in 1928 in what she called “the Catholic ghetto” of Schenectady, N.Y. She was possessed of a voracious intellect, something her parents and teachers recognized and, to their credit, encouraged, until she declared that she wanted to be a philosopher -- not an acceptable profession for a young Catholic woman. Daly insists she didn’t know where this sudden determination for a life of the mind came from -- “the school library had no books on the subject,” she wrote. Daly was accepted into a small Catholic college, The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. Since they didn’t offer a major in philosophy, she studied English, presumably the next best option. She earned her masters at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., also in English, since her scholarship required she continue her course of study. But she approached her classes as a philosopher. Hers seems to have always been a study of the elemental nature of existence, of what later she would come to call “Be-ing.” 3. Earthquake Phenomenon 1: the experience of cosmic shakiness, trembling, and dislocation, during which time Gyn/Ecologists share with our sister the Earth the agony of phallocratic attacks 2: Ordeal experienced by Crones engaged in the Otherworld Journey beyond patriarchy, which involved confronting one’s Aloneness as the ground splits open, and Spanning the chasm by Acts of Surviving, Spinning, and weaving Cosmic Connections -- ibid. Her determination to pursue studies in philosophy and Catholic theology eventually landed Daly at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. In the 1950s, Catholic universities in the United States did not allow women to study for the highest degree in the field -- a Doctorate of Sacred Theology -- and Daly would settle for nothing less. In Switzerland the faculty was state-controlled, and therefore it was illegal to exclude women. “None of the male students would sit next to me,” she would later recall. “They feared the temptations that might arise from sitting next to a female.” She found the lectures stifling, but the intellectual demands bracing, and the connections she made with students exhilarating. She called it “seven years’ ecstatic experience interspersed with brief periods of gloom...a sort of lengthy spiritual-intellectual chess game.” Yet even in that rarefied ivory tower, the winds of change were stirring. Daly felt the breeze in 1965, when she visited Rome at the closing of the Second Vatican Council. It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Vatican II had on people of the Catholic faith. The Council was convened with the specific intention to understand the role of the Church and what it meant to be Catholic in a modern era. Daly remembers it this way: The Rome of Vatican II was a sea of international communication -- the place/time where the Catholic church came bursting into open confrontation with the 20th century. It seemed to everyone...that the greatest breakthrough of nearly two thousand years was happening. We met -- theologians, students, journalists, lobbyists for every imaginable cause -- and found our most secret thoughts about “the church” were not solitary aberrations. They were shared, spoken out loud, allowed credibility. There was an ebullient sense of hope. That “ebullient sense of hope” came with a concurrent feeling of outrage when Daly attended a session at St. Peter’s: I saw in the distance a multitude of cardinals and bishops -- old men in crimson dresses. In another section of the basilica were the “auditors:” a group which included a few Catholic women, mostly nuns in long black dresses with heads veiled. The contrast between the arrogant bearing and colorful attire of the “princes of the church” and the humble, self-deprecating manner and somber clothing of the very few women was appalling. Watching the veiled nuns shuffle to the altar rail to receive Holy Communion from the hands of a priest was like observing a string of lowly ants at some bizarre picnic. Daly returned to Fribourg inflamed with reformatory zeal, and wrote her dissertation on the role and place of women in the church and in Catholic doctrine. A few years later, having accepted a teaching position at Jesuit-run Boston College, she turned the dissertation into her first major book, The Church and the Second Sex. It was published in 1968 to wide acclaim. In 1969, Boston College fired her. 4. Courage to Sin [sin derived fr. Indo-European root es- to be—American Heritage Dictionary]: the Courage to commit Original Acts of participation in Be-ing; the Courage to be Elemental through and beyond the horrors of the Obscene Society; the Courage to be intellectual in the most direct and daring way, claiming and trusting the deep correspondence between the structures/processes of one’s own mind and the structures/processes of reality; the Courage to trust and Act on one’s own deepest intuitions -- ibid. The Mary Daly I knew came into existence here, on the cusp of the second wave of the feminist movement. The Church and the Second Sex was a call to reinterpret Catholic doctrine from a feminist perspective -- to see the equality of women as central to the message of love that the Church claims to preach. It was in many ways a response to that vivid scene in St. Peter’s. Her termination caused a series of protests among the then all-male student body. It was, after all, the late ’60s, even on a Jesuit campus. The college administration bowed to the pressure and not only rehired Daly, but gave her tenure. She would spend the next 30 years there, fighting different versions of that same battle for the right of women to speak freely. But by the time her tenure was granted she was no longer interested in trying to reconcile her feminist perspective with Catholic doctrine. Her next book, Beyond God the Father, rejects all organized religion. “A woman’s asking for equality in the church,” she once wrote, “would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in the Klu Klux Klan.” The Mary Daly I knew was no longer interested in giving those women in St. Peter’s a chance to speak alongside their be-robed and be-ribboned male colleagues. She told us that story when we were discussing Virginia Woolf: Let us never cease from thinking -- what is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men? I still have my copy of Three Guineas from that class, and it still falls open to that passage, underlined heavily in black ink. In fact, I have all my books from Daly’s classes. Some of the margin notes are embarrassingly naïve, but years later I still find truth in the passages I so earnestly marked, underlined, starred, and (as in the case of the above quote) copied out and taped to my dorm room mirror. 5. Be-ing (verb): 1. Ultimate/Intimate Reality, the constantly Unfolding Verb of Verbs which is intransitive, having no object that limits its dynamism. 2. The Final Cause, the Good who is Self-communicating, who is the Verb from whom, in whom and with whom all true movements move --ibid. From the early ’70s on, Daly’s theory of feminist ethics transformed into something more like a feminist cosmology. Finding no words in the English language to properly convey the free female existence as she conceived it, she created her own. Not as a secret society only available to the initiate (think of J.R.R. Tolkien with his interminable Elvish, or any Trekkie who claims to speak Klingon), but as a conquering of language, patriarchal overtones sloughed off, so that women could speak without constraint. Daly’s lexicon is a joyfully eccentric combination of puns, etymological emphases, and quixotic capitalizations: boredom: a feeling of ennui Boredom: the official/officious state produced by bores (that is, a synonym for patriarchy). Her invented words with their reclaimed meanings first appear in Pure Lust. Eventually she had to write her own dictionary, which she called a wickedary. For a young woman coming to terms with her attraction to other women, that first class gave me a way to talk about women, and about what it was to be a woman, that felt true. That I didn’t know how to do this was not something I realized until Daly flat-out asked me: “What does Shakespeare really have to say to women?” I hadn’t realized that was a question I could ask. Or needed to be asked. Mary Daly was by far one of the smartest and most intellectually brave people I’ve ever met. In all time I knew her, I never once heard her dismiss a student’s challenge, or reward someone for parroting back what she might want to hear. She liked a good argument, Mary Daly did. More than anything else she showed me how a person could be true to herself, a true radical, and still remain alive and awake to the world. Taking Daly’s classes did not, by the way, keep my first female romance alive. Alas, the girl eventually left me for an ex-nun-turned-baker at a vegetarian restaurant. Who can compete with fresh baked bread? But I did eventually answer the Shakespeare question to my own satisfaction. I was far too fond of the plays to reject them in a fit of politically correct pique, and decided he did have something to say to women -- to me, at least. Women speak in Shakespeare not on the grand stage of historic events that determine the fates of kings and countries, but in intimate exchanges; parrying words with the men who would be their lovers, husbands, conquerors, and companions. And here they often eclipse the men at their sides. Shakespeare may not have written “feminist” women, but not one of them was a doormat. “Thou and I,” says Benedict to Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, “are too wise to woo peaceably.” Women in the Elizabethan era were supposed to be docile and obedient. Shakespeare, I think, appreciated a woman with witty tongue and steadfast heart. Daly’s exuberant feminist ethics have remained a steady guide in my life -- a way to navigate, and interrogate, a culture that is often rancorous and toxic to its members. What does any of this have to say to women? As a lifelong student of Daly’s, I keep asking. Homepage image by Mary Werner via The Feminist Art Project, Kansas Chapter
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