An Anaheim of the Mind: Dorothy Bryant and the CR Novel, Pussy Riot, Chris Marker & Gore Vidal

Just returned from a weekend reunion of lifelong friends, political comrades and good eggs. We were young together once, and lived in tents on the lawn at UCLA, doing everybody's best to politicize other students and faculty, and talk the UC Regents into divesting from racist, apartheid South Africa, supported by the Reagan Administration. Recent occupations and tent-ins across the country cause me to wince with delight and recognition. An occupation is a good thing indeed or, as the Wobblies say, "Direct action gets the goods." But you have to show up, to march, pitch a tent, occupy a Bank of America (or two or three), plant a stink bomb but pretty much do something. Anything. You can, as Billy Bragg sings, "Act up with the activists or sleep in with the sleepers" while waiting for the Great Leap Forward. Meanwhile, good to sleep in a tent, out in front of corporate headquarters or administration or the police department. To sleep, perchance to dream?

Or, if you are anywhere near

Anaheim, California

, you could show up for the nearly nightly protests of police brutality. But, of course, in order to protest anything, whether

US war policy

or Anaheim cops or even the right-wing religious homophobes and bigots who own and eat lousy fast food at a really dumb chicken restaurant as a tool for expressing their

Not a cartoon.
Not a cartoon.

politics, you'd have to actually take the risk of meaning something, of being a person and not a cartoon, of imagining that your political power was actually worth using, losing, winning, sharing.


In the Spectacular Culture constructed for us by the poultry people and others, the society of watching TV or playing video games or signing useless email or online petitions, marching with other human beings is dismissed as embarrassingly genuine or dangerous or vulnerable or foolish and, confusingly, too difficult and pointless and meaningless.  Which is it? 

Art for a Chang
Art for a Chang
Artists know that creating something to challenge the construction of corporate reality is powerful.  Thus, Mark Vallen, the LA artist whose work often captured the mid-1980s struggle to match social conscience with the political choices of the academy, all too often the tool of the corporate class.  Check this one out, with "Hollywatts," the great political rapper who later became an actor, Roger Guenveur Smith, most famously portraying "Smiley" in Spike Lee's classic Do the Right Thing.

Or how about Chris Marker, the French filmmaker who passed away last week, a radical who fought with the French Resistance to fascism, principled provocateur, documentarian, visionary?  Start with his Sans Soleil and then watch A Grin Without a Cat, both remarkable "documents" combining personal narrative, collective POV and images, and tell me what you think, and I do mean think


And, sad to say, Gore Vidal. Saw him most recently at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, where he introduced Senator George McGovern while Tricky Dick turned over in his grave out back in the rose garden. I'll share more about Vidal next week, who I met as a student activist at CSULB when he ran for U.S. Senate and whose writing and activism I followed and, of course, admired.

And, still alive and kickin', Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk band who dared to make smart and radical art against the dictator-thug Putin in the House of God? For their crime of acting out and up against patriarchal gangsters they got many months in jail. "You've got to mess with people," said folk singer Utah Phillips. 'Nuff said, but go here to see Pussy Riot doing its thing  against the odious patriarchal slave-masters who give people religion instead of freedom. For some reason they don't allow democracy in churches. Go figure. Play loud!

All of this to say that this week's celebration of one of those novels that a lot of "serious" literary readers might have ignored, dismissed or underestimated (at their peril) is a classic of so-called feminist fiction, but which endures and, as Vidal, Marker, the Pussies and Vallen, dared to portray what's real and urgent, "universal" themes and high-art aesthetics be damned. Ella Price's Journal is the "best pioneering novel of women's consciousness" since Virginia Woolf and Kate Chopin you never heard of, written as a series of entries in the personal journal (suggesting, sure, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook - why not?) of a fictional suburban Northern California "housewife" who decides to attend college in middle age. Her story touches the zeitgeist of 1972 but, for those willing to see Anaheim and go there and engage in the dangerous work of drawing parallels from other historical epochs, it's still all about today, now, and how we live lives that confront power and resist it, and try to make poetry and sense of our struggle.

 
 
Bryant was herself born in 1930, wrote twelve novels, two nonfiction books and four plays. She received the American Book Award in 1987 for the novel Confessions of Madame Psyche

Ella Price discovers that her life with a husband and family, accommodating of prejudice, her curiosity unprovoked, cannot stand in the face of education, consciousness, radicalization, not to mention the Women's Movement and the people's movement to stop the US war against the people of Southeast Asia. This novel, recommended to Mr. Bib by my smart union pal Howard Ryan, is layered, experiential, honest, brave. It challenges everything, and I mean everything: conventional marriage, pedagogy, democracy, family, fiction-writing. All in a voice and narrative of openness, vulnerability. The journal allows Ella to ask questions, about her sexuality and even about how to spell, as in a real journal about a woman, by a woman, who has never kept a journal. Yet she is not a puppet of Bryant the polemicist, but a character whose perspectives organize themselves even as she is being organized, developed, to respond to them. It's experiential and emotional sometimes hard to read, so raw and immediate are its scenes and her accounting of them.

Finally, the reason I thought about this book after the trip down memory lane by way of civil disobedience and occupation and that afternoon many years ago which I count as one of the lasting and enduring and most powerful moments I have had (made) with others, when perhaps 75 activists marched around UCLA, then into Westwood and, as if in a Chris Marker film or a Situationist essay or an avant garde music performance, walked into the Bank of America and experienced the most visceral, liberating, topsy-turvy making escape from the construct of reality you could ever wish to have. The place went dead (or live!) silent. The security guards did not know what to do in response to the voices singing, chanting, roaring for divestment and freedom, a sound and its echo at the same time.

The patrons stared at us, their children, as if we

were gods or ghosts or, better, wild alter egos of themselves. Their best selves. I guess it was a kind of "flash mob," low tech, sure, and the only thing I wish is that it had never ended! For what seemed like hours, but was perhaps all of ten minutes, all the easy rules of power and wealth and coercion and hierarchy evaporated and nobody knew what to do. Except enjoy! The event was "peaceful" and yet so violent, so destructive of all that organizes expectation and obedience. 

And, yes, in the novel, Ella Price attends her first-ever anti-war demonstration, in Berkeley, late 60s, near the university. It's described on pages 126-35, and should be read by reporters and TV viewers and students and made, perhaps, into a movie -except who would now that Chris Marker is gone? Step by literal step, Bryant brings Ella along physically, intellectually, emotionally. All that is denied by the police, politicians, phony patriotic commercial world, is here, for her: liberating anonymity, closeness, belonging, "free air," the "absence of fear." How, I wonder, can Americans know the possibilities of participation if they don't join the march? 

"I'd thought I might feel uncomfortable, but I didn't. I was completely anonymous - there was no chance of being seen by my family or neighbors; they wouldn't have been caught dead there. And there was the feeling of closeness. Everyone who was there belonged - the act of coming there made a person unquestionably a part of it all. 

Inwardly I didn't quite feel a part of it. I didn't see how I could go through with it, especially alone- how I could actually get out into the street and march along with people looking at me, let alone heckling me. I couldn't do it, that was all, but maybe I could watch - and breathe in some of this unexpectedly good air, this free air. Was it the absence of fear that made the air so good?"

And later...

"I began to envy them. I leaned over the curb, longing to step off and join them, but I could not quite do it. I began walking along the sidewalk, moving with the march but not in it, afraid to join it but wanting to be part of it. There were others doing the same thing, the ambivalent, drawn along the edges as if by a magnet."

There is no happy ending. No ending, really. Ella rejects the infantilism and coercion she once might have tried to believe protected her. She is too smart, too aware. There is no going back. There are complications with freedom and with real love, and mistakes, and extremely difficult decisions. The novel ends with what should be considered among the great concluding sentences of any era, of any art, of anybody's diary, of self-revelation and autonomy.  "I feel..."

Anaheim is a place. It is also a potential flash point of imagination and opportunity. There are so many. Why do so few visit them? 


Ella Price's Journal, Dorothy Bryant, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 256 pps., $14.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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