David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: gender

Sarah Gellner on Ernest Gellner

In response to Stefan Collini’s article on Ernest Gellner in the London Review of Books, Sarah Gellner wrote a letter detailing personal memories of her father and his opinions. I don’t think this needs any commentary other than to say that her account coheres with my general picture of Gellner Sr., and that it perhaps holds some clues to understanding better the intellectual milieus he both inhabited and fought against, particularly their limitations.

Vol. 33 No. 16 · 25 August 2011

From Sarah Gellner

It was good to read Stefan Collini’s attempt to get a grip on the difficult and contradictory person that was my father, Ernest Gellner; an attempt I’ve been making and failing at all my life (LRB, 2 June). Funny, Dad’s professional reluctance to occupy a ‘field’, the point that everyone makes about him. Actually, ‘field’ in the academic sense was one of his favourite terms. ‘That’s not your field’; ‘What’s his field?’ As a pony-mad girl, I, like Weber apparently, found this mildly amusing, but my father wasn’t being funny.

I never got on with him. I believed he never liked me, never admired anything I did, made me feel constantly inadequate and disappointing, if not downright embarrassing. Perhaps the problem was due simply to my being a certain type of woman. Whatever else he was, Ernest Gellner was not a feminist. Anyone familiar with his work would agree that the absence of interest in gender in his anthropological and sociological output is striking given that, as Collini says, he wasn’t a man to let his own ignorance on any subject hold him back. I think that, sensing his own instincts here were out of place, he never found anything acceptable to say on the subject. Many of his favourite jokes were frankly unacceptable. ‘Rape, rape, rape, all summer long’ was one. But that didn’t hold him back in private.

So although most of what Collini writes is spot on, as far as I can judge, I think he is wrong to call him a sexual liberal. If there was one thing Dad disliked more than feminists, it was homosexual men. He was not happy to receive a request in the 1980s, asking for him to support the lowering of the gay age of consent to 16. I remember being baffled by his appeal to me on quasi-feminist grounds: that this would make young men vulnerable in just the same way I claimed young women already were. ‘So you think the age of consent for girls should be raised to 21?’ I asked. He just walked away. Perhaps this is all part of the elusive unlikeability Collini is looking for. I think so. My father was frank and honest to a fault about many things, but not about everything, and not always about himself.

Politically, he and I were on opposite sides in the 1980s. He was enamoured of Margaret Thatcher, just when my left-wing fervour was at its peak. He also hated the Guardian. His closest friends then, and later, were conservatives; Ken Minogue, Oliver Letwin’s mother, Shirley. He had long since fallen out with Ralph Miliband, I believe on political grounds. In earlier decades he might have voted Liberal, but never Labour, in the deep Tory countryside where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Labour was nowhere there; all the daring bohemian types voted Liberal. My father loved it there, in the English Tory heartland; they were the happiest days of his life.

Sarah Gellner
London SE11

In general I enjoy Ernest Gellner’s writing even when I find him to be too dismissive of speculative theorizing, but I do think that details like the ones Sarah Gellner provides are integral to his intellectual stance, and not irrelevant personal peccadilloes.

(See also Cosma Shalizi’s overview of Gellner.)

Elaine Showalter and Erika Schickel on James Ellroy

I thought that Elaine Showalter had a reasonably ironic point when she talked about Ellroy’s latest plunge into narcissistic self-examination in James Ellroy, the Ancient Mariner of LA Noir.

From the earliest days of his literary career, Ellroy was working out how to create a memorable persona, costume it, style it, rehearse it, polish it and sell it. The Hilliker Curse offers a fascinating account of his understanding of the role of performance in the contemporary publishing scene, and the skills he developed for it. As early as 1979, he writes, “I was certifiably hot shit. I rocked with a sense of destiny and exuded a raucous panache”. Once his books started selling, “I told my life story to a captive audience. I became a dazzling public speaker at the get-go”. For his first big book tour, “I spent hours perfecting my reading gigs and podium patter. I bought some snazzy new threads to enhance my You de Man status”. On the road, he did “bookstore events every night. I performed introductory shtick, read from my novel, and took questions. I was electrifyingly good in the middle of a meltdown. I always played to one woman in the audience”. Ellroy realized fast that reading was a form of seduction, and he “sensed . . . what career womanizers know cold: female discontent is opportunity”. Before long, a third of the bookstore audience was female, and some women left him their phone numbers.

Given his critical and commercial achievements, and the happy resolution of his quest for the Other, I wonder whether James Ellroy will now stop telling his life story. Will safety and serenity work for him, or will he be driven again to find his inspiration and motivation in danger? I also wondered, while I was reading the book, who might buy it, besides the hardcore Ellroy completist. But apart from Ellroy cultists, I would recommend it highly as a marketing guidebook for aspiring women writers who struggle with diffidence, modesty and self-deprecation. Ellroy’s Curse could be a self-effacing woman writer’s bible.

Yet in the comments is a reply from Erika Schickel himself, Ellroy’s current partner, who energetically follows Showalter’s lead:

While your review focuses on Ellroy’s gift for self-promotion, you have touched on one of the merits that has brought me to love this complex man so dearly – his feminism. Before THC published, we hoped that it would be read more widely by women, and reviewed by more women than men. Not only because it is a work of deep romantic and emotional honesty, but because he so nakedly grants women power.

I received a progressive, liberal arts education, came of age in a post-feminist era, and have enjoyed the advantages of having been born into a culturally privileged family — yet it was scrappy, self-made James Ellroy, with his single-minded belief in manifest destiny, women in general and me specifically, who has helped me loosen my grip on self-deprecation. My modesty and diffidence had become metastatic for reasons you could probably explain better than I. Ellroy has been the antidote for that specific, crippling condition.

While much of his public persona is indeed a “confident and aggressive” act, the act protects the truest thing about him: his vulnerable, sweet and brave heart. I am not in love with “The Demon Dog,” but I endure his public persona in order to be with this dear, private man.

James Ellroy will always be, at bottom, a boy whose mother was raped and murdered — a boy who received no subsequent counseling, little education indifferent parenting, and a boy who turned to a dead German composer (Beethoven) as a role model when others failed to emerge. That this boy is even alive today, writing, loving, and searching for his own artistic and emotional truth, is a testament to his bravery and strength of spirit. Ellroy’s strident persona, obsessive nature and compulsive heterosexuality make him seem predatory, but in fact, he is a true and tender champion of women.

If I have any quibble with your otherwise completely laudable review, it is with your assertion that Mr. Ellroy “persuaded” me to leave my marriage and bring my daughters to live with him. As anyone who has been in a “tanker” marriage (Ellroyism), the true story is much longer and more heartbreaking than it appears (and is a subject I am trying to plumb in my own forthcoming memoir).

The figure of the sensitive, vulnerable womanizer, more honest in his dysfunctional misogyny than would-be enlightened men, is not new. The deflation of this figure is not new. (Rodolphe staining tears on his letter to Emma in Madame Bovary is just about its quintessence.) Showalter seems to be quoting from Ellroy with a fair bit of contempt. Schickel ignores (or just doesn’t notice) Showalter’s implied disapproval and goes on to say that yes, Ellroy is indeed a female liberator, an antidote. Her experience is her experience, but I admit to being a bit nonplussed. Still, Showalter and Schickel’s two voices both ring as archetypal to me. I’ve sometimes heard them in a single person.

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