I met Katha Pollitt a long time ago at a party and it wasn’t five minutes before we found ourselves in a heated argument over Dickens (me) versus Trollope (she). I know: why do you have to choose?
Well you don’t, but I think it was a way of identifying who we were. Both novelists offered conflicting ways of looking at the vast fabric of Victorian society, no, of the whole human condition, in their 900 page novels. My Dickens was more weird haunted, hallucinatory, heartbreakingly sentimental, visionary and spiritual. Her Trollope was more sophisticated, analytical, realistic, humane, precise.
What was great about the argument was that even though she didn’t convince me Trollope was better, she persuaded me that I should read more Trollope than I had and I went on a multiple 900 pager Trollope jag for a couple of years, that was immensely pleasurable, although ultimately of the Three Great Victorians Wilkie Collins probably has my heart now.
Anyway although I don’t know her well, this is a way of saying I know her through a series of thought provoking arguments, that I’ve admired her engaging form of argumentation which have distinguished her polemics inThe Nation. I admired for rising above the plodding polemical ruck.
But I felt she’s reached a whole new level, a real breakthrough in her work in her recent personal history stories collected now in %%AMAZON=9781400063321 Learning to Drive%%
Maybe you saw the title story and it’s semi sequel, sort of, “Webstalking” when they appeared in The New Yorker.
They deal with the aftermath of a disastrous affair she had with a philandering Marxist intellectual and the rethinking of so many things she goes through afterward. They were both brave, observed with Trollopian precision and yet open to ambiguity.
Recently she sent me a copy of the new book calling my attention to the story that followed those two, one called “In the Study Group” which, she said, in an accompanying note “made me think of some our long ago conversations in apartments that probably no longer exist.”
The apartments probably don’t, but the conversations do, and the thrill of being in New York where, after fleeing Yale Graduate school, I found I could have exciting intellectual conversations with people who were smart enough not to be straitjacketed by the narrowness of academic sensibility.
It brought back a world that doesn’t exist, a world unique to New York where you’d meet people who spent all day sessions “In the Study Group” discussing arcane and obscure Marxist spllnter group philosophies.
I had no idea Katha Pollitt had immersed herself in what she now realizes was a virtual cult, but I loved the story because only in New York could a cult/”study group” this incredibly obscure, with such twisted mixed motives, exist. It was about the life of the mind of life of a sort that doesn’t exist but one that still asks tough questions about life today.
The Marxist splinter group just happened to be led by her philandering soon-to-be ex-boyfriend and to be populated in large measure, it seemed by his ex girlfriends some aware some unaware of each other’s status Very Trollopian minus the obscurity of the marxist splinter.
Although I have to admit I could see the splinter’s appeal, precisely in its obscure, rarefied super intellectual, totally impractical quality that rejected all real-world forms of communism. It believed in a kind of pre-Leninist, sort of anarchist-syndicalist utopian cooperative society. It was something called “anti-Bolshevik council communism”. I’d never heard of it, never heard of its savants, and I thought I was familiar, if not on a first name basis, with even the most obscure deviationist splinters.
In fact it actually sounded like the only appealing form of Marxism I could entertain these days, in part because there was absolutely zero chance it would ever win any more adherents than the members of that study group. In the real world it died with Spanish anarchists in Catalonia.
Anyway what’s great about this story is the conflictedness of the narrator who doesn’t moralize so much as meditate on her own conduct and on the impossiblity of expecting from life the gentle perfection of the one true communist utopia, just as expecting truth or fidelity in human romantic relationships is nigh unto a utopian impossibility. Was she, she wonders at some point, part of a cult or was the utopian earnestness of these obscure hopeless idealists something to be admired however hopeless?
The emblematic image in the story, the beautiful, tragic final image is that of council communism’s leading thinker, a Dutch astronomer named Anton Pannekoek.
She imagines him writing his single book,a work unknown to almost everyone everywhere now except the study group, a book called Worker’s Councils that he worked on during the German occupation.
She imagines him “living alone and writing his steadfast and hopeful book day by day…while the Nazis occupied Holland , and Anne Frank and her family were
rounded up….and people starved in the streets in the terrible winter of 1944. It would have been easy the to believe that civilization was finished, that human beings were wolves–no, worse than wolves. Perhpas even though he was a scientist, Pannekoek looked up at the stars and wondered if they sparkled with malice. But he kept writing…and then one day the war was over, and he put down his pen and looked around him and thought., And so we begin. Again.”
Whether “the stars sparkled with malice”. It’s the question the astronomer in Primo Levi’s “Tranquil Star” story, indeed Primo Levi himself, would appreciate.
I commend both books to you.