An Essay Disguised as a Reading Roundup*

The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier / Vanity Fair / Lloyd Grove

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Wayward Intellectual Finds God / New York Times / Sam Tenenhaus

Growing up, I wanted nothing more than the sort of literary success a man like Leon Wieseltier enjoyed. If there’s anything redeeming about this, it’s that my sought-after fantasy was less elitist than Wieseltier’s reality — as a teenager in western Pennsylvania, I assumed success lay somewhere between Henry Miller’s Parisian destitution, Ernest Hemingway’s Parisian destitution, and…James Baldwin’s Parisian destitution. A limited vision, admittedly, but what I got right, as did Wieseltier, was grasping a central element defining American literary success of the type my idols had achieved: that one is a man.

Which created complications for me, a woman. I imbibed story after story about heroic men and their romantic exploits — when not reading the novels of Baldwin, Camus, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Miller, or Steinbeck, I was reading their memoirs, their letters, their notes. And with each new influence came further confirmation of my quandary: masculinity seemed to be key to their ingenuous lives and work; while women entered into their stories, in some cases as mythical sources of desire, in others as desultory bodies to fuck, and very occasionally as admirably full characters (rarely, but it happened), women did not write the stories.

What was a teenage girl to do? I’m sure every young woman resolved this differently — or ideally, never had this trouble thanks to reading more women writers than I was exposed to — but for me, I internalized the values of my idols. Women were frail, distractions, hangers-on; I’d become masculine, independent. And I did. I grew to resent other women and resent myself whenever I had a thought or desire that didn’t fit with my vision of how these men lived. I couldn’t be a woman. After all, if I were, I’d never produce anything worthwhile.

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I’d never heard the name Leon Wieseltier before this month. While I’ve always had a literary bent, some combination of my feeling that it’s unbecoming for a left-winger to dally too deeply in the elitist universe of high literature and my inescapable lack of a social pedigree that could familiarize me with that world, kept me from knowing many of the most recognizable names in the American literary pedigree, of which Wieseltier, apparently, was one.

So after reading his name, first, on a list of men who sexually harassed women, and next, in articles about how he was the latest victim of the ongoing societal “moment” of outing serial sexual harassers, I went looking for information about who Wieseltier was to those who had known his name in connection to a pursuit other than sexual harassment.

I found two profiles of Wieseltier (there are surely many more, but I wasn’t willing to give infinite time to a now-disgraced man; after all, hadn’t he taken too much time from too many young women already?). One is from Vanity Fair in 1995, the other from the New York Times, 1999.

Both profiles are laudatory, even when criticizing Wieseltier, in the way that writing a profile of anyone is an act that offers its subject the benefits of national attention.

I’m not interested in retrospectively reading into twenty-year-old profiles a “gotcha” of the future Wieseltier (although sentences like “For Wieseltier, the tension between the scholarly and the sensual is not easily resolved” from the Times profile certainly lend themselves to such a reading). Rather, it’s the “type” of which Wieseltier is exemplar that I want to consider.

The Vanity Fair profile is skeptical of its subject from the start: its headline reads “The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier,” and indeed, it’s hard to finish the profile without questioning whether Wieseltier is a fraud. The story quotes celebrity after celebrity praising Wieseltier’s genius — Ruth Bader Ginsburg tells us “I like his mind,” Wyton Maralis insists upon our subject’s soulfulness — and yet, no quote as to Wieseltier’s character sticks out so much as that from his only celebrity detractor in the piece.

On the phone from Ravello, Italy, Gore Vidal makes alarming retching noises.

“YEEECCCCCH!” he exclaims the moment Wieseltier is mentioned. “I’ve not got a strong stomach! This name is literally nauseous, as in ‘creating nausea.’”

Won’t Vidal at least give Wieseltier his due for likability?

“He’s a social climber!” Vidal proclaims. “You’ve got to learn some skills!”

Vidal, in many ways a model for the man Wieseltier aspires to be — infamous, beloved, controversial, a loud-mouthed asshole, but a genius nonetheless — suggests an alternative reading of the source of Wieseltier’s renown: his elevation is a matter of fashion and trend, rather than of substance.

Similarly, in the New York Times profile, we read of Wieseltier’s position at the center of “Washington’s glitterati.” Mentions are made of how interesting Wieseltier is, even as note is also made that he continues to struggle to produce what sounds like a painfully boring book on “sighing,” a subject that’s mentioned in the four-years-earlier Vanity Fair profile, too.

Read back-to-back, these profiles suggest a fake, a man who only standout qualities seem to be that he saw how thin the basis for insider status in America’s elite cultural and literary circle is, and ensured he aped the norms and tastes of this circle convincingly enough to become one of its darlings.

Which calls into question the judgement of this circle itself. It’s hard to believe so many smart people were simply repeating a fashionable opinion in praising the man.

While I have since grown up and lost my desire to enter the high-literary world (as well as learned of the many women writers — and organizers — after whom I much prefer to model myself), reading about Wieseltier reminded me of the kernel of truth in what I knew as a teenager: the intellectual world is made for men. Reading of how Wieseltier considered women “second tier to male intellectuals,” of his sequence of “extremely beautiful, alluring girlfriends,” and elsewhere, of how he was “linked to an astonishing array of prominent women,” I can’t help wondering if the bullshit rubrics used by the elites who anointed him “brilliant” are hard-wired to reward men who treat women as disposable, to see in such behavior a reflection of brilliance, or at least, to view a “brilliant” man as enhanced by his ability to behave as Wieseltier did toward women. The remarkably similar allegations against Knight Landesman, Artforum‘s publisher, and Loren Stein, the Paris Review‘s editor in chief, suggest as much.

Ours is a supposed era of sexual freedom. We’re supposed to encourage women to pursue whatever sexual behavior suits them. And while I do, reality is not nearly so straightforward. Women who sleep around like Wieseltier risk having whatever success they achieve attributed to their willingness to “fuck their way to the top” (a charge that, unsurprisingly, comes up precisely zero times in the profiles of Wieseltier; indeed, it’s laughable to imagine such an accusation against a heterosexual man). Moreover, perhaps we should question a culture that so glories in a type of man who, by all looks of it, wielded his reputation as a means to ensure women accepted his abuse. Perhaps we, women, are now under pressure to accept our role as the arm candy of “brilliant” men if we want to get ahead, and perhaps, from the outside, that looks identical to a new sexual freedom for women even as it operates almost identically to the sexism in which our intellectual lineages are steeped.

Anyway, I don’t mean to dismiss women’s agency, or cast aspersions upon anyone in particular — aside from Wieseltier, at whom everyone should feel free to lob as many insults as they want — but the ongoing revelations (or confirmations, depending on how prevalent you thought sexual harassment was prior to last month) of sexual misconduct in elite circles suggest it’s past time to consider the possibility that we aren’t all making choices in a friction-less vacuum. Women, even prestigious women, may be choosing to live as best they can from a constricting set of options, options that tell them — okay, that tell us — to accept terms and standards built for men, even if some women can meet them now too.

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Julien Baker Believes in God / New Yorker / Rachel Syme

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Somethin’ Slick Goin’ On: The Proletarian Funk of Johnny “Guitar” Watson / Viewpoint / Dominick Knowles

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The Inescapable Fats Domino / New Yorker / Amanda Petrusich

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Letter of Recommendation: Detroit Techno / New York Times / Shuja Haider

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Everything is Embarrassing: On Loving The National / NYLON / Helena Fitzgerald

Having morosely dwelt upon an unpleasant topic above — and, for those who follow my work, here and here and here and here and here — I leave you with five essays about five very different types of music. Happy Halloween, happy fall, don’t get too depressed about everything, it’s just the weather and the news and the poverty making you feel that way, etc.

*I originally wrote this is on November 1, 2017, on my other site, a Patreon, but having shut that site down, I’m re-posting it here for the sake of keeping things all in the same place.

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