Katha Pollitt is known as a good old-fashioned feminist and leftist columnist for The Nation, as well as a prize-winning poet. Her most recent collection of essays, Learning to Drive, establishes her as an affecting memoirist as well. A collection of witty reportage on the vicissitudes of a post–World War II child of left-wing parents, the book is also a reminder of a lost New York, a vanished generation, and the gentle persuasive power of memory itself. The essays, which start with Pollitt’s difficulty in learning to drive and end with a meditation on plastic surgery, describe the challenges that are the lot of an intelligent, fair-minded, politically alert woman with an inconvenient sense of the absurd. They are full of insight and charm. But more than that—and that is quite a bit; as much as readers have any right to expect from a collection of journalistic pieces—Learning to Drive is a deeply personal collection. Not because the essays deal with marriage and divorce and breast-feeding and betrayal and death, which they do, but because, in her exploration of these routine dilemmas, Pollitt’s reflections disclose an even more personal subject, the most intimate subject of all—an imagination.
Pollitt begins with a story about her driving lessons, at the age of fifty-two, after a painful breakup—a lightly brooding parable about observation. “Observation, Kahta, observation! This is your weakness,” according to Ben, her driving instructor. “That, and lining up too far away when you go to park.”
Observation is my weakness. I did not realize that my mother was a secret drinker. I did not realize that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer….
On the contrary, of course, Katha Pollitt is an exquisite observer. But to the frustration of her driving teacher, of her ghastly Marxist boyfriend, of her parents, and in the face of every expectation, from political to maternal, her observations are inspired not by the rules of the road or the rules of the Party, but by curiosity, sensibility, and whimsy. “For example,” Pollitt writes of her problems learning to drive,
I’ll be staring at the red light, determined not to let my mind wander, and then I start wondering why red means “stop” and green means “go.” Is there some optic science behind this color scheme? Is it arbitrary? Perhaps it derives from an ancient custom, the way the distance between railroad tracks is derived from the distance between the wheels on Roman carts. I think how sad and romantic streetlights look when blurred in the rain, and how before electricity no one could experience that exact romantic sadness, because nothing could have looked like that.
It is no surprise that Pollitt doesn’t see such a visible and suggestive red light turn green. When unfamiliar underpants turn up in her clean laundry basket, her thought is not that the boyfriend is a philanderer. What she notices is that they are pink and black and striped. When her therapist says the boyfriend “‘sounds like a charming bounder,’…all I took away from that remarkably astute observation was the delicious Victorian turn of phrase.” Pollitt is constantly distracted by extraneous yet somehow essential details. But it is exactly this peculiar vision, so rich and so irrelevant, that drives the book and, one begins to see, drives the writer as well. Describing her Riverside Drive apartment at one point in a later essay, she notes that it was “high enough up so that the bottles my neighbors liked to toss out the window into the courtyard sounded like coins hitting bottom in a deep, deep well.” Far from being a fault in her perception, this is her way of seeing the world. In constant pursuit of an ideology, a soul mate, the answer, Pollitt keeps finding poetry instead.
Pollitt recognizes the comic nature of her recurring disappointment. She is a very funny writer at any time, but in these essays, she has achieved more than clever lines, though there are plenty of those. She has revealed a quixotic, sympathetic, frustrated, yet ever hopeful comic character, a sort of M. Hulot of the feminist left.
One of the best essays in the collection, and certainly one of the funniest, is “In the Study Group”:
Toward the end of the 1990s, long after most people I knew had put their German Ideology and their Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon on the top shelf of the bookcase with the Norton Anthology and Six Greek Plays, I joined a Marxist study group.
Even while dutifully padding after the Marxist boyfriend, she cannot help but notice that Marx, like Freud, has been appropriated by the world of academic and artistic criticism, long ago exiled from his proper home in economics as Freud has been from his in psychology:
The two of them were like heads of bankrupt corporations who had donned blue jeans with elasticized waists and were enjoying a leisurely retirement as film buffs and book clubbers….
Marxism, now that it is over, holds a “thrift-store charm” for her, she says—like an old tweed jacket at the Salvation Army that still has its Scottish label. Even the apartment in Greenwich Village where the study group meets, with its “burnt-sienna accent pillows,” is a loyal relic of 1950s bohemia. Pollitt is benignly dismissive, her distaste tempered by nostalgia and a longing and respect for serious political commitment. But finally she cannot help herself. “Surely voting couldn’t be a more ineffectual way to shape the future than talking to each other in Ruth’s living room?” What they’re discussing, she explains, is “council communism,” in which decentralized groups of workers would run things—no Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, or even Trotskyites are acceptable, but only obscure intellectuals like Anton Pannekoek, celebrated briefly by the New Left, now relegated to Web sites with names like “Break Their Haughty Power.”
The council communists were all men. The study group is mostly men, too. “This was, as Marxists used to say, no accident,” Pollitt writes, and she and the boyfriend, whom she refers to as “G.,” wonder why Marxism does not appeal to women. A female unwillingness “to engage in abstract speculation, as he [the boyfriend] thought?” That Marxism is incompatible with feminism, as she suspects? Or—and here Pollitt throws all the theory, like bottles, gaily out the window and listens to them land like coins in that deep, deep well—
perhaps the problem was not Marxism, but Marxists: in its heyday men had kept a lock on it as they did on everything they considered important; now, in its decline, Marxism has become one of those obsessive lonely-guy hobbies, like collecting stamps or 78s.
The piece is a devastating, occasionally wistful, sometimes generous elegy for utter irrelevance.
In reviews of Learning to Drive, Pollitt has been accused, by younger feminists and postfeminists, of a kind of irrelevance herself. As a political columnist and as a feminist, Pollitt has been embraced or excoriated. But among some of her fans and detractors, this memoir has inspired a different, curious reaction: embarrassment. Feminists who revere her are embarrassed by her inclusions of her own traditional femininity (read weakness) in this “confessional” material. Post-feminists are embarrassed by the continuation of her lively, insistent feminism, even in the face of her self-confessed traditional femininity (read weakness).
Fortunately, Pollitt herself is too good a writer and too engaged in the simple, sensual “observation” of all those red traffic lights to limit her work and her concerns the way her boosters and critics demand. In this collection, she offers not answers but more questions. She is too inquisitive, too enchanted by the unexpected, by the beauty of the world, and, perhaps most important and striking, by the delight of language, to be a really proper ideologue.
That having been said, Pollitt is drawn, again and again, to the utopian. This occurs with regard to men (“my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven”!); motherhood (“Instead of making you less powerful, less central, motherhood should make you more so…. Hadn’t there been some Indian tribe where the mothers made the big decisions?”); and, of course, politics:
Perhaps it was not very likely that current trends in occupational health and mortality had been completely explained in 1975 by a graduate student [whom] G. had known in Cambridge, who, after producing his one article, published in a tiny left-wing journal, had faded from view. But it was possible—if you squinted at reality at just the right angle you could see it.
A complete and systematic answer to the vagaries of the world tantalizes her. Even when disabused, when the angle changes and her eyes are wide open, she searches for an answer, as if the inverse of a perfect soul mate is a soul mate’s betrayal perfectly understood. In a piece called “Webstalker,” Pollitt describes a period after her breakup with the odious G. in which she investigates every entry on the World Wide Web that so much as mentions his name. Eventually, she befriends some of the other women he was cheating on while he was cheating on her. Regarding one of them, she says, “Information was what I wanted from her: the underside of the carpet I thought I had been standing on.”
Inevitably, Pollitt cannot help but undermine her own quest for an essential truth with her sense of humor, her observation of those bits that don’t add up. She is seduced by utopian illusions, yes, but she is finally in love with the minuscule pointillist bits that create those illusions, the colorful, uneven daubs and the empty space that surrounds them. She is like someone who, in her hopes to enjoy a sunny day, denies it is raining while trying to catch the raindrops on the tip of her tongue.
Pollitt uses the tension between these two impulses, the somber yearning for solidarity and the almost giddy subversion of it, to great comic effect. This collection is full of self-deprecating humor, angry humor, grumpy humor, tender humor, pointed humor—all delivered with a superb syntactical timing. In one essay, “Beautiful Screamer,” Pollitt responds to a fashionable child-rearing notion of some years ago, introduced in a book by Dr. Richard Ferber, that suggested a baby be left to cry for longer and longer periods of time each night without comfort in order to teach the child to fall asleep:
This was called “Ferberizing,” which sounded like some new way of waxing your car…. I wasn’t up to the rigors of Ferberization. It seemed so cold and mean. Sophie could learn to cry herself to sleep when she grew up, like everybody else.
It is in “Beautiful Screamer” that Pollitt gives one of the best descriptions of a failed poem—and so implicitly of what good writing is—that I have ever read. Reading the hopeless, abandoned poem years after she had struggled with it, she sees
its leadenness, its fragmented attention, its sadness that seemed to come from outside the careful, elevated language of the poem, like darkness seeping in through the window behind the lamp and the bowl of flowers.
The poem, she writes, “had been dragged up with so much difficulty from some murky but insufficiently deep part of my imagination.”
“Beautiful Screamer” is about motherhood, and it is, I think, a brave piece. Pollitt questions every cliché about motherhood—the feminist along with the cookie-baking conventional. She aptly and amusingly describes the struggle of a new mother to become, in the eyes of the world, a New Mother. It is an honest, inconclusive reflection, full of happiness and resentment, an astonished, joyful lament that any mother of a certain time and place will recognize. But there is one sentence that particularly struck me. Baby care, says Pollitt, talking about the strain on her marriage and on herself, not only took up the time previously filled with intimacy and fun and work. Even more important for her, it “obliterated inbetween time too—the moments you spend wondering what Rock Cornish game hens actually were and whether socialism just expected too much of human beings….” It is exactly Pollitt’s creation and celebration of that cherished “inbetween time” that makes Learning to Drive such a rich little book.
“Beautiful Screamer,” “In the Study Group,” and almost all the pieces in the collection are infused with quietly assured nostalgia, as if Pollitt were looking back at a childhood feeding the chickens and rescuing stray fawns, rather than remembering growing up in the politically, ideologically fraught Brooklyn world of communism during the McCarthy era. This peaceful nostalgia, along with the personal nature of the subjects and the prose itself, gives the book the texture of a memoir.
The pieces about her parents are almost noble in their combination of uncompromising reexamination and intense generosity. “Mrs. Razzmatazz,” an essay about her mother, Leonora, begins: “My mother died in 1979, but I didn’t see her FBI file until four years later.” Pollitt was raised with a partisan consciousness, knowing who was a “radical” and who was not, knowing why her father could not work for the government the way her uncle did. During the McCarthy period, her parents’ friends had been fired, blacklisted, arrested, disbarred:
Naturally as a child I agreed with my parents. I knew Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon was reactionary because it was drawn by an émigré from Castro’s Cuba—a gusano—and portrayed the Cold War as an amoral battle of wits. I knew Animal Farm was Trotskyite propaganda, although I didn’t know what a Trotskyite was or why we didn’t call them Trotskyists.
Her father, a lawyer who sounds like a courtly, gallant soul,
presented the difficulties of the McCarthy era as the latest chapter in the exciting story of workers versus the ruling class, good versus evil, right versus wrong—the great trajectory of history.
No wonder Pollitt is still searching for a movement that will sweep her up. What child could resist this epic moral drama? She looks back now on the illogic and dogma of her parents’ positions with tender forbearance:
Like a lot of lawyers in the party, my father combined uncritical devotion to the imaginary Soviet Union in his head with a passion for rights and the Constitution straight out of the ACLU charter. If you wanted to be cynical about it, you could say their commitment to civil liberties was just a self-serving tactic, but I think it was more that their minds ran on parallel tracks and they believed what they believed while they were believing it. They were like Christians who put their faith in both miracles and surgery.
Cynical is what Pollitt never is, an astonishing feat for a political animal. When she reads her father’s FBI files, she sees the blind, indifferent incompetence of the FBI, but she is mostly struck by one incident. During an interview with two agents, her father first refuses to answer questions, then proceeds to lecture them, beginning with “You fellows, no doubt, have a file on me.” Pollitt notes happily that “this incident reverberates through his files for decades—the Bureau just couldn’t get over it. You fellows! The Scarlet Pimpernel couldn’t have put it with more flair.”
Just as Pollitt’s vision of her pompous, philandering boyfriend was clouded by her idealism, that cloud of idealism is constantly being challenged by her instinctive understanding and appreciation of idiosyncrasy and imperfection. This is especially true in “Mrs. Razzmatazz.” This piece about her mother, who attended law school, wanted to be a writer, and died of alcoholism when she was fifty-four, is a resigned indictment of the failure of doctors, her father, and herself to recognize her mother’s addiction:
And yet she was drunk a great deal of the time for years—a condition my father called “being irrational,” [or] “being hostile.”…It was only after she died that the little pint bottles became visible to us, as if a spell had been broken.
But at the same time, “Mrs. Razzmatazz” is a tribute to fallibility and to a mother’s love:
Sometimes in those years when my mother was being “irrational,” when I was sitting reading or doing my homework, she would touch my hair as she passed by…. It wasn’t till years after her death that I saw that touching me like that was her way of reassuring herself: I was there, I was all right, I was her precious growing daughter, safe and happy with my book. It was a protective gesture, and what she was protecting me from was herself.
Throughout this collection, there is a tension between the Katha Pollitt who searches hopefully for the just cause and the Katha Pollitt who cannot help but see through her own ideological and emotional excesses, as well as those of everyone around her. Pollitt, the poet and practiced journalist, uses this conscious ambivalence to expose absurdity and so to meander closer to some kind of humane and sensible truth. That tension is also what creates such a powerful, personal narrative in Learning to Drive—a kind of comic internal cosmic struggle. Pollitt is her own Jane Austen character—or characters, I should say, all wrapped up into one—haughty and modest, moral and irresponsible, sensible and, happily for us, lost in sensibility.