In These Times has just published a rave review of Katha Pollitt's latest book that makes me want to run out and buy it right away. In "Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories," Pollitt applies her sharply-honed feminist eye to the complexities of her personal life. It includes an essay that ran in The New Yorker a few years ago, in which Pollitt juxtaposed the infidelity of her long-time boyfriend with finally learning to drive a car. The boyfriend was a fellow devoted Marxist, but that did not preclude his being a weasel; Pollitt was left coping with the end of their relationship not only in the context of their supposed shared devotion to a philosophy of political revolution (which would presumably include honest human relationships), but also as a newly single middle-ager in a culture that still pretty much excoriates both conditions if they happen to fall upon a woman.
Pollitt writes about taking driving lessons in New York City after her boyfriend has left her. “I did not realize,” she writes wryly, “that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer.” The lessons become a means of exploring the tangle of the politics she has worn on her sleeve and the helplessness she feels. “I’m not the only older woman who can’t legally drive … but perhaps I am the only 52-year-old feminist writer in this position.”
She comes to realize that the Marxist study group her boyfriend formed was as much a study in his sexual proclivities as it was politics. With a bemusement that few people bring to the heavy-handed subject of political theory, she writes, “That was the dark side—the rivalries and sexual undercurrents, the fetish of the arcane, the political passivity that coexisted strangely with a belief that something terribly important and real, something we called ‘politics,’ was taking place right there.”
The review reminded me of how moved I was by that essay, and impressed by Pollitt's ability to apply the rubric of her beliefs to her personal troubles without taking the clichéd course of putting the politics on trial instead of the guy who cheated on her. I was amazed by some of the responses to that essay; some condemned it as anti-feminist (good God -- she was a ditz who didn't know how to drive a car!!), while others said it proved feminism's ultimate failure to improve women's lives. But of course, being a feminist includes being a complex person, with the usual compliment of personal successes and failures, as well as brushes with weasels disguised as human beings (no insult to true weasels implied).
One can indeed be amused or angry, wry, confused, helpless or accomplished, and mystified or hurt by the behavior of others, and still evaluate one's life through the feminist lens -- and emerge the wiser for it.
(Six Degrees of Separation Dept: Basil Pollitt, Katha's father, was my father's friend and business associate. I met him once; he mentioned that his daughter was a writer and the hammer hit my head and it all fell into place...aaahhh, that Pollitt.)