A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.
I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed. So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.
This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.
And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.
And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.
Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded. Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.
At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.
There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.
There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.
At one point, Olga says, “In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.”
And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.
One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story. I don’t know if that is true or not.
I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.
Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with. And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.
It is like having a good friend tell you her story.
The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
A good while back, I saw the film A Dangerous Method. I was enthralled. Depicting the budding relationship and subsequent falling out between Freud and Jung, and hanging it on the larger story of Sabina Spielrein, it introduced me to a history that I did not know.
Like most people, I knew about Freud and Jung to varying degrees, and probably a little more than the average reader. An avocation of sorts, I had read much more of Freud than of Jung: I had read several volumes of his works, different collections of his letters and several biographies and was more conversant with Freud’s vocabulary than with Jung’s. (Though I once had read a fascinating collection of letters between Jung and Herman Hesse that I remember mostly because upon finishing it, I had a startling–and still remembered–dream featuring the floating head of an exotic woman repeating the Sanskrit term, kamakeli. I would love to find those letters now–or a psychoanalyst to help me through the dream.)
But what I hadn’t known about until the film A Dangerous Method (based on the book of the same name by John Kerr) was the existence–or the importance–of Sabina Spielrein. And so I began reading. First, I read the Kerr book on which the film was based. Then I read Jung–a relative hole in my reading. And this week I read a small book entitled Sex versus Survival: The Story of Sabina Spielrein–Her life, her ideas, her genius by John Launer. Launer is a senior staff member at the Tavistock Clinic–the preeminent institute in the U.K. for psychological training and a senior lecturer at the medical school of the University of London.
The stated purpose of his book is to give due to Spielrein, whom he believes should be ranked among the major figures in the history of psychoanalysis–and who is not because of injustice, malfeasance, and patriarchal insecurities, particularly at the hands of Freud and Jung. He divides his book into three sections: Spielrein’s biography, Spielrein’s work, and Spielrein’s influence on 21st-century evolutionary psychoanalysis.
In 1904, Spielrein was brought to Switzerland–having been turned away from various clinics–to be treated for severe psychic disorders. There she was first treated by Eugen Bleuler, head of the clinic, and later by his protege, Carl Jung. In fact, Spielrein would be the first patient to be psychoanalyzed by Jung. She would also soon become his lover.
Within a year, Spielrein’s symptoms had abated so that she had entered medical school in Zurich–while still being treated by Jung and entagled romantically with him. Together, the two debated and discussed the psychoanalytic topics of the day–with Spielrein progressively formulating and stating her own views.
However, before long, Jung saw her as a liability. (He was married and a respected figure in the early days of psychoanalysis. And he had certainly crossed a line with a damaged patient’s understandable “transference.”) He wrote to his mentor–and idol–Freud about the situation, though not naming names. She at the same time wrote to Freud. Freud wrote to Jung and the two discussed her as if she were nothing more than a case study. And so we have the two giants of psychoanalysis trying to quell a female colleague (and former patient and former lover) and cover up what would have certainly have been a professional and personal scandal. This would go on for a long time–a power play mixed with antisemitism (was the Christian Jung attracted to her “otherness”?), patriarchy, chauvinism, and professional insecurity.
When Spielrein read her paper–“Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being”– to the bearded Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, (she was only the second woman to belong to the Society and a mere 26 years old), she focused on the biological factors at play in the sexual life of humans. Freud adamantly wanted psychoanalysis to have no connection whatsoever with biology (although he started out as a talented neurologist) and dismissed this major–and prescient–part of her paper. And when she brought mythology in to support her argument, Freud saw traces of Jung, with whom by now he was becoming completely disenchanted.
The two wrote about her–crudely at times–and patronizingly discussed her views. And then they buried her: Jung–the editor of the Society’s journal–held her paper for a year before publishing it. Freud, in a snit about Jung, associated her too closely with him and gave her views barely a glance. When he did correspond with her, it was to analyze why she fell for Jung in the first place. As Launer writes, the two dealt with Spielrein by “pathologising the victim, and ignoring her ground-breaking ideas.” (p. 99)
And yet, her views influenced both men significantly. For Jung, she was instrumental in developing his theory of the anima and animus; for Freud, she brought the thanatos to his eros, the “death wish” to his “pleasure principle.”
Spielrein moved on, becoming a leading figure in child psychology. (She was Jean Piaget’s psychoanalysist.) When she returned to her native Russia, she introduced psychology and psychoanalysis to the Russian medical system. But history was moving too fast. First the communists closed down the psychology departments, then forbade psychoanalysis, then came down heavy on all the sciences. Her brothers– a physicist and a biologist– were sent to labor camps and never heard from again.
And then came the Nazis. In the summer of 1942, Nazi soldiers marched into the town of Rostov. They gathered the people and marched them to the Zmeyevsky gully–a mass grave at the edge of town where mass executions took place. Sabina Spielrein was among those killed.
Her Work and Influence
Launer spends the second half of the book describing the text of her initial paper to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. She began by equating the “invasion” of a sperm fertilizing an egg with the sex act itself and stated that in sex–both personal and genetic–something is loss (or killed) in the evolutionary drive to replicate itself. Launer then goes on to say, that despite her mistakes and misdirections, that she was greatly prescient and anticipated some of the major theories of 21st century biology and evolutionary psychology. Three of his final chapters take her three main positions and reword them as a modern evolutionary biologist would put them. Here is how he pairs them:
According to Speilrein’s first principle, ˆReproduction predominates over survival”
Speilrein wrote: “The individual must strongly hunger for this new creation in order to place its own destruction in its service.”
Modern Evolutionary Theory says: “The imperative of all living organisms is the replication of their genes by direct or indirect means in the face of individual extinction.”
According to Speilrein’s second principle, ˆSex is a form of invasion, leading to the destruction of genes from both partners to the reconstitution of new life.”
Speilrein described sex as a process of destruction and reconstruction at every level : “a union in which one forces its way into another.”
Modern Evolutionary Theory says: “As well as co-operation, sexual reproduction involves inherent conflict at every level between male and female genetic interests.“
According to Speilrein’s third principle, “Human feelings correspond with the biological facts of reproduction.”
Speilrein wrote: “It would be highly unlikely if the individual did not at least surmise, through corresponding feelings, these internal deconstructive-reconstructive events.”
Modern Evolutionary Theory says: “Our feelings correspond to the way we balance opportunities for genetic continuation against the risks of extinction.“
In her writings, Spielrein anticipated the “selfish gene” of Richard Dawkins; she anticipated a needed convergence of Darwin and Freud; and she brought biology onto the psychoanalyst’s couch. Perhaps, she was so far ahead of her time that her theories could not be proven, tested, or validated, but she was also stymied by forces more powerful than she.
The story of Sabina Spielrein is fascinating, a story of love and passion, of intelligence and perseverance, of betrayal and destruction. It is Launer’s contention that Spielrein’s name should be as familiar to us as the name of her two more famous male colleagues. The depth of her influence is still be discovered–her papers were not found until the 1970s–and it is certain that her contributions to psychology and evolutionary biology is still yet to be fully appreciated.
Last week a friend and colleague of mine e-mailed me with an odd request. He was making a film on an Institute he had attended this summer and wanted me to do the voice-over. I was honored and a little nervous. After I agreed, he sent over the script–a mere twenty lines–and I began practicing.
We wrapped it up the next day.
I’m not sure I want to see/hear the finished project.
Anyway, in this world of coincidences I went to the movies and saw In a World…, Lake Bell’s delightful film about a young woman in the voice-over business.
Lake Bell–who also wrote and directed the film–plays Carol Solomon, the thirty-something daughter of the “King of Voice-Overs,” Sam Sota, played by Fred Melamed, Sam is a bit full of himself; He has published his own kiss-and-tell autobiography and quickly in the movie kicks Carol out of their apartment because his 30-year old girlfriend is moving in. (That the 30-year old girlfriend ultimately acts as his moral conscience shows the shallowness of the man.)
Carol is trying to crack into the male-dominated world of voice-overs. (Easily a microcosm for the difficulty of women finding jobs in the entire film business). And rather than help his daughter in the business, Sam places every roadblock in her way. He truly believes that women have no place in the voice-over business–even if it is his daughter–and so he mentors the rising new “voice-over” superstar, a man perhaps sleazier than Sota himself.
Suddenly without a home, Carol crashes at her sister and brother-in-laws’s house where there is an undercurrent of marital tension and ekes out a living as a voice coach. That is until a few breaks come her way and she makes the most of them.
The arc of the plot is familiar, but the film is no less enjoyable because of that. Bell is a delight to watch. She is quirky without being annoying, serious without being sober, and she is intelligent–in front of and behind the camera. Her relationship with her sister is satisfying, and the romance she has with the sound man, Louis–played by the always enjoyable Demitri Martin–is one that you find yourself rooting for.
I came out of the film smiling. Not because of any silliness or humor, but because In a World… is a small film that gives off a good feeling. In a quiet way, good appears to win in a pretty cutt-hroat town, and that is always an unexpected pleasure.
yes I said yes I will Yes.
Last Sunday was Bloomsday, the international celebration of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.
Dublin had its usual extravaganza with crowds retracing Leopold Bloom’s wanderings and with women’s hats that rivaled those worn at major horse races (remember to bet it all on “throwaway.”) In New York, the complete novel was read outside writer Colum McCann’s tavern, aptly named Ulysses. And at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, (where Joyce’s manuscript is housed) there was, beside the usual full reading, an unusual installation.
The artist, Jessica Deane Rosner, wrote out the entire text of the novel on 310 yellow, rubber, dish gloves and suspended them from the gallery ceiling in a very Joycean spiral. Rosner stated that it was Joyce who showed us that the things of everyday life–including the muck and the un-pretty–are the very essence of and inspiration for Art.
And so she used the mundane kitchen gloves to carry Joyce’s text–a text replete with the beauty of life’s mundane grime and natural effluences.
But that’s not what I want to talk about today. …
I want to talk about the last seven words of the novel, the strong affirmation that ended Molly Bloom’s long nighttime reverie in the early hours of June 17, 1904.
It is this affirmation, the “yes I said yes I will Yes” that makes Ulysses so important. For, if ever there was a modern Everyman, it is her husband, Leopold Bloom. Leopold the ridiculous, the schlump, the man she has cuckolded just hours before. Leopold the grieving, the masturbatory, the lecherous, the neighborly, the isolated, the humane, the persecuted. And to him–and he is each of us– Molly proclaims a resounding Yes!
And we all need to do more of the same. To say “Yes.”
I have a good friend, Ken Campbell, who served thirteen long months in Vietnam before becoming one of the leading figures in the Vietnam Vets Against the War movement. This fall the two of us went together to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I wallowed in the existential bleakness; he did not. He enjoyed the company. He had spent too long in Vietnam, wondering every night if he was going to live another day, and today he has no time for Beckett’s desperate vision.
He sides much more with Molly Bloom’s “Yes”!
So here’s to saying “yes.” Saying “yes” to all the myriad things and people that life places in front of us: like the noodle shop at 56th and 6th in NYC… the children’s fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway…the surprise of 310 yellow rubber gloves hanging from an elegant ceiling.