The way in which Christina Stead reveals us to ourselves has often been described in visual terms. One reviewer of I’m Dying Laughing thought: “The prose itself is a black glowering eyeball pressed against its subject; a scientist at the microscope, obsessive and intent.” Because of her childhood training in botany and ichthyology Stead often thought of her job as a writer as stemming from the act of observation. But Stead’s ear is just as important as her eye: friends who read the manuscript of her last novel were amazed at how accurately she had captured Ruth McKenney’s voice, as were critics who knew the milieu of the Party in New York and Hollywood out of which the language arose. Reviewing the novel in the Village Voice Victoria Gornick wrote: “I have never seen a more accurate rendering of the sound and feel – and length! – of that kind of talk.”
Emily’s voice, though, does not speak only for that relatively small band of American radicals: as Stead suggests, her character identifies with the Statue of Liberty because she is the incarnation of America itself. Stead’s drawing of Emily, her appetite, her acuity and wit, as well as her treachery and selfishness is also meant as a representation of that divided nation. Emily’s particular genius – her irrepressible, self-absorbed speech – reflects and articulates not just her own dilemmas, but those of the country (she begins the novel thinking about the nature of “the American dilemma”).
The talk, therefore, is of politics, but Emily’s delivery is not couched in staid Marxist theory. Rather it abounds with what Emily calls “Honest contempt, bad temper… hometalk!” and is, as Gornick noted, sprung with “electrifying syntax”, reproducing the rhythms of American speech (in this, the novel has an almost Whitmanesque force and flow). Her idiom is perfectly of the time; as Adrian Mitchell observes: “She speaks of hooch and high-balls, touts and bums, oakies and goons, hoofing and spooning, wise guys and greenhorns. It’s all the real McCoy.” Pushing the limits of language still further, she reproduces jargon and sounds that come from popular culture, from comic books of the period in which vocabulary strained to break free of the page: “Gee whittaker”, “jimminy”, “Jee-hosaphat!”, “pfooey”, “Oh, poohpooh!”, “Pish! Pshaw!”, “Phtish!”, “Pouah!”, “Faugh!”, Brr”, “ugh!” and “oof!” Emily exclaims on page after page. There are jokes as well, terrible puns that leave Emily rolling on her belly in helpless fits of laughter: ““There was a girl called Ida Nass…W-w-would you b-believe th-that? A g-girl c-c-c-oh, he-he-he, c-ca-he-he-he, c-ca-ho-ho-ho. Ida I-oph-oh-oh, I ha-ca-caN…Ida Nass and another girl called – oh-he-he-he C-cCar-Carlotta Katz…oh dear, oh dear, I’m dying. Help me, Ste-ph-phen. I can’t he-elp it. Oh, dear, I’m dying. I’ll die.””
Ratifying both the context of Stead’s story in I’m Dying Laughing and the accuracy of her ear, there is at least one book which might be thought of as a companion piece to this singular novel which critics have found so difficult to place: Djuna Barnes’s I Could Never Be Lonely Without a Husband (1987). Barnes is best-known for Nightwood, her gothic novel of bohemian Paris in the Twenties, which was introduced by T.S. Eliot (rather as Randall Jarrell lent his patronage to The Man Who Loved Children). But this book is more buoyant than Nightwood: a collection of interviews, it amounts to one of the most dazzling portraits of America in the first half of the century, capturing the country’s energy, restlessness, appetite, intelligence and comedy, its swiftly-amassed fortunes and sudden falls from grace. The voices that Barnes parades are those of Hollywood writers and theatre impresarios, vaudeville and film stars, matinee idols, dancers, actresses and boxers, raconteurs and quipsters, union battlers and crafty entrepreneurs.
Barnes’s oral history of America parallels Stead’s voluble novel: like Emily and Stephen, her interviewees’ talk is all of power, money and the nature of success. They share also some of the vividness of Emily’s language. Like hers, much of their speech is impregnated with country lilts and rhythms (Emily often reminds us she is “a farmer’s daughter”) and coloured in its use of imagery: it has not been homogenized by the corporate world, nor yet flattened, made anaemic or polite, but is still laden with the associations of life and death that comprise country life. As a consequence Barnes’s people are as vibrant and pithy as Stead’s and in conversation they possess the same fluency and informality, their easy banter carries the same underlying democratic assumption.
Irving J. Cobb typifies the itinerant background and independent attitudes of many of the Barnes’s subjects: a journalist, he wrote for papers across the country (including Paducah Daily News, Cincinnati Post, Louisville Evening Post and New York World) becoming known for his column, ‘Kentucky Sour Mash’. A war reporter for the Herald Tribune, he was proclaimed a great writer of humour and tales of horror, but the Wall Street Crash lost him much of his readership and he turned to Hollywood to make his living, adapting Judge Priest for John Ford – the same director Stead had worked for – before dying of dropsy in 1944. Cobb’s cool, anti-elitist view of writing was not dissimilar to Stead’s: he told Barnes that whatever success he’d had, was born out of temerity: ““Cheek got me there, but cheek doesn’t always pay. Perhaps you can back it up, and perhaps you can’t. I don’t think anyone is born a genius. Some are born susceptible, that’s all. Writing is a thing you can learn; some slowly, some quickly, some not at all.””
From lowly beginnings, and like many of the people in Barnes’s book who experienced it first-hand, Cobb understands the dilemma of success in America, a problem which taxes Emily throughout I’m Dying Laughing. Like her, he sees that prosperity came so fast for many people it was hard to hide the aggrandizement. And this provoked a particular brand of mocking comedy, a school of American humourists (of whom McKenney was a part) dedicated to bringing down to earth the puffed-up recipients of money and fame who were only one or two generations out of the country and up from the sod, whose mentality, for all the trappings of wealth, was still that of the fighting pioneer. In I’m Dying Laughing, when Emily (who remembers the “sod-digging level of my grandfather”) comes to Europe, she declares “I am like a pioneer.” Walking around Versailles, her companions find her imaginative engagement with its history “bloodthirsty,” and suppose the reason for this is that, as an American, her psyche is still enmeshed in “Memories of the Indian frontier.”
The brilliance and bite of much of the comedy wielded by writers like Cobb and other muckrakers and humourists who worked in journalism and radio and film, was often attributed to a sophisticated metropolitan sensibility, but this was not the case, Cobb thought: ““What made O’Henry and Bret Harte? Not their city eyes turned toward the country, but their country eyes turned toward the city; it pays, as the saying goes, it pays. Writing is the power to contrast – there’s nothing like the eyes of a ‘rube’ to see the soul of a city; if you are a country boy, you can’t afford to forget it.”
Another of Barnes’s characters who has not forgotten her country origins is Mother Jones, a rudimentary rebel who boasts “I’m Plain Mary Jones of the USA”. She is what Emily calls a “primitive socialist” representing the roots of radicalism in America, those rugged individuals of whom Emily is the descendant and whose defiant, instinctual culture perpetually sets her at odds with the Party’s need for discipline and Stephen’s desire for orthodoxy. Mother Jones’s blood runs in Emily’s veins: both natural rebels, their feeling for revolution comes from the gut. Stephen’s belief, as Emily often reminds him, is more academic, something he acquired a taste for only when he “converted to socialism.”
In I’m Dying Laughing the battle that rages between husband and wife is represented as the battle between city and country, between mind and body, between reason and emotion: as Judith Kegan Gardener points out in a review of the novel, “Stephen looks for ‘theoretical errors’ to explain what’s gone wrong, Emily blames ‘essential weaknesses’ and ‘ignorance and self indulgence.’” He is concerned with “facts”, while she “doesn’t need facts to work on, only enthusiasm.” When he speaks of the necessity of sticking to the Party line, she counters with an interpretation that is more visceral: they are a “lousy lot of opportunists that [she] know[s] the inner smell of.” Like Emily (who thinks that nothing in life compares to her physical feelings), Barnes also sees Mother Jones as formidably corporeal, picturing her, almost literally, as the backbone of the nation: “Mother knows profoundly the shape of creation. It is ragged and vastly irregular – it is a furrow of fear, a pasture of pain, a field of fists….Mother’s back tells more than a gossip. It gives her away. It is a flat, straight back, and broad.”
Cobb, Barnes thinks, comes from the same stock, possesses the same kind of powerful musculature, so that when he leaves the room after their interview, she can still feel his heavy presence lingering in the air. She pauses to “make [an] outline of him”: “…tall, energetic human, homely. Some people to be patriotic have to sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’; and like wise [sic], some people to be simple have to get down to one shirt, but all Irwin has to do is to leave the room – he’s there when he isn’t as much as when he is…”.
The people Barnes interviews all leave strong impressions: Emily, larger than life, would not seem out of place among them. When their unadulterated “homespun” truth – what Emily calls the “wisdom of the lumber jacks” – is brought to bear upon the individualism and vanity of the city, much is revealed about America. But what Barnes and Stead also show in their different ways, is that these people of pioneering stock, who worked hard and got rich much too quick (in the process forging America into the most powerful empire in the world) were ill-equipped to deal with catastrophe when it hit. As Emily observes, failure was not in their make-up, it was something outside the American experience: “Other countries have history; we have nothing but contradictions. We haven’t even got a system; or if we have, no one knows what it is. American get-ahead, that’s the only system we know: and now no one’s getting ahead, not even the magnates, we’re like a lost dog, howling and looking for a hole.”
The problem, Stead thought, was that the talent Americans had, the passion and drive which had brought them so far, was of little use in the face of the Crash, the Depression and the Cold War – the kind of failures and difficulties which a mature nation must learn to face with a viable stoicism, rather than the hysteria and paranoia which marked the McCarthy era: in Europe, Emily observes, “they calmly survey their own downgoing, the advent of the Red terror with reasonable fortitude, resignation or reasonable fight. Whereas God knows we come from a country of writhing, groaning torment.”
Stead also saw the same pattern in the formation of America’s “primitive socialism”: an abundance of energy and idealism but with a fatal lack of any long-term programme. This was the root of what she calls in I’m Dying Laughing the “American dilemma”, something she described to one interviewer in 1974:
The middle classes are stultified by comfort, the business world is exhilarated by war, but I don’t think that the USA knows where it is going. There was a big anxiety in the 1930s and people pounced on the idea of European socialism. They, the Americans, had their own pioneering socialism, but it faded by the ‘30s; the pioneering spirit had no valid message. There were romantic hopes and social schemes, and government schemes which disappeared in the war era; and many fighters of that time were left high and dry. The USA doesn’t have a formula. It’s young country compared with, say, Italy: the Italians have seen all the ups and downs and are used to defeat: they know it is part of life. Americans do not…The USA is different from Europe. It’s because of the natural wealth, and the energy of the American. It’s a Mississippi of energy here. Take the power expressed in the Negro movement: the Black people here have all the energy of the country itself: they are in every way American…Even the problems here have great energy in them.
In another interview Stead talked about the political origins of her writing which derived, she felt, not only from the influence of her husband’s communism, but from the fact that she, too, came from a pioneering nation. As part of her schooling in Australia, at a time of great debate about the country’s origins, she was taught Marx, and the nation’s history as a penal colony, something that was “bred in the marrow of every Australian child.” As in America, the story of the pioneers was difficult and bloody, survival was everything (she notes that this, after all, is a country which named one of its major cities after Charles Darwin).
I’d like to point out that the Australian legend is very radical. For example, my early years were in the period to nineteen-ten, just before the first World War, which is what Manning Clark, the Australian historian, calls ‘the period of the optimist’; it was also the period of the Labour Government, it was a period of optimism and considerable criticism…Then naturally, Australia is a Labour commonwealth…we know how it was formed and this very gloomy background… [forms] an Australian’s thoughts…Then all the ballads of droving of Lawson and Paterson and so forth mention the frightful outback, they admire it, they like it but they also see it was frightful. And we were bought up in school on the legends of the explorers, Bass and Flinders, Cook, Sturt, Sturat, all those people, Burke and Wills, a lot of them died in the outback. So there was this spectre, a kind of spectre-ridden waste; at the same time we accepted it, you know as people accept the desert who are born into the desert…thousands of them died out there in the drought areas and the terrible sun…I think this formed our childhood…
In her essay on Stead, Angela Carter remarked that the placement of Stead as an Australian writer (following her return in 1974) was not only “right and proper and geographically correct” but “contains within it the enticing notion of a specific kind of post-colonial sensibility which might serve as a context for her illusionless power.” There is much in I’m Dying Laughing that might usefully be considered in this relation. Stead’s analysis of the American dilemma is predicated upon the history of the country as a colony in which much of the national identity still rests upon the characteristics of its pioneers. From this story of origins – the colonial struggle to survive in hostile conditions – Stead finds an “illusionless” sensibility that can be counterposed against modernity’s mystifications, the “selling stories” of capitalism of which she is so scornful.
On the back of the pioneer’s struggle and the lives lost forging the nation there is a truth known to Americans and Australians, the truth of the colonies, founded not upon the liberal idealism of “equality [and] fraternity” (which Emily is uncertain Americans really believe in), but upon the search for wealth. Without any other governing philosophy or system America has come to dominate the world. Without a plan, and with only the cut-throat instincts of animal self-preservation, the only system they have, as Emily diagnoses it, is one of “Die and let die”: “We’ve got so far ahead of the rest of the world that one-third of us are dropping in our tracks from hunger. Now we suddenly for the first time think about ourselves. We didn’t have a system like other people, we were a covered wagon hiking towards Golconda. Now we’re suddenly looking at people who have systems – the laughable British, the licentious French, the ragged Russians. What can they do for us? We wish we had a system. It’s side-splitting.”
The all too visible splits in the nation (“Isn’t our history all struggle, all terror, all bloodshed; and at the same time, all hooraying, all success?” Emily asks) produced a corresponding division in the psyche of Americans which, I have argued, lead to a rich and idiosyncratic seam of humour. But for some of its more thoughtful – and radical – practitioners this form of comedy did not act simply as a catharsis. Emily’s feeling that “humourists are…reactionary” was shared by another of Barnes’s interviewees, the scriptwriter, novelist, Party member, Donald Ogden Stewart, friend of the Fitzgeralds, and Parker and Benchley, himself one of the cleverest American humourists. Best known for the light comedy The Philadelphia Story, he wrote, while exiled by McCarthy in England, a play called The Kidders (1957), in which he attempted to analyse the peculiar nature of American humour: “…I developed the idea of showing that underlying the psychology of the people of the United States, the Greatest, Most Powerful Country in the World, were certain neurotic fears which led to the development of ‘kidding’ as a protection against facing the truth of these fears…as it might react to a series of disasters, such as bank failure and unemployment, originating in causes…of which they have no knoweldge and over which they have no control. As the fears increase the American ‘kidding’ becomes more and more bitter as a defence mechanism to protect them from gazing into the fearful chasm over which they have lived their lives.”
The Kidders had little success. Finding that his serious books about the bad faith of comedy did not play well in America, Ogden Stewart, fully aware of the irony, spent most of his career writing the kind of comedy that would. Like McKenney he desisted from work that contained serious political analysis and switched to comic writing with the aim of making money. His books, Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad and Mr and Mrs Haddock in Paris, France, were in the same vein as her books about disoriented Americans in Europe (perhaps Stead had these in mind when she transformed McKenney’s Far, Far From Home into ‘The Howards Abroad’ in I’m Dying Laughing). And he felt, as McKenney had, that these represented a compromise, using comedy to reassure Americans rather than to disturb or challenge them: ““In The Haddocks I had abandoned any pretence of despair, of anger, of political criticism…The Haddocks was a gentle frolic aimed at promoting laughter, and the friendly satire as directed only at certain lovable American traits and laughable customs.””
Ogden Stewart’s account of kidding Americans serves as a good description of the passage in I’m Dying Laughing where Emily and Stephen and other friends, on the verge of apostasy, sit around and joke about the terrible crimes of the Soviet Union in order to reaffirm their faith in communism. Like Stewart’s kidders, they, too, use humour “as a defence mechanism to protect them from gazing into the fearful chasm over which they had lived their lives” – in their case the yawning gap between their beliefs and the way in which they are being played out in the real world.
The reason why those on the left were suspicious of this kind of “side-splitting” American humour, however, was not only that it performed a kind of thwarted dialectic which first acknowledged divisions between ideals and praxis (whether those in the United States or the Soviet Union) only to laugh at the rupture and so to surrender to it, without proposing any course of remedial action – or worse (like Emily who declares that “every golden cloud has a black lining; so why get a stomach ulcer?”) actively encouraging resignation in the face of division. This American diagnosis – that man was inherently split – was untenable to beleaguered communists who required of themselves an absolute faith, that precluded scepticism, doubt, or the possibility of other realities (the dilemma upon which this “kidding” humour was predicated).
For the communists there could be only one way, one correct path, hence the importance of following the Party line. Only through this kind of discipline could the revolution be achieved and anarchy overcome. Jessica Mitford describes “the sort of alchemy at work” in meetings that enabled the Party in America to control the rabble of turbulent, oppositional, brilliant, angry and dispossessed people who came into its ranks, persuading them to toe the line, even over stances as despised as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. She says that it was a particular combination of circumstances that induced them to submit: the hostile climate in America which made discipline imperative; an awareness of the Party’s “illustrious history” in the fight against fascism; the “magnetic influence” of older Party activists and their great powers of argument and oratory; the practice of ‘democratic centralism’ which required all members to read, discuss, vote on and then adhere to Party policy; the passion and seriousness with which people joined the Party; and “above all” a belief in the rationality and justness of their cause, “the conviction that the Communist Party, equipped with Marxist-Leninist theory, was historically destined to lead the working-class to socialism”.
The importance of a rational approach, of structure and planning, and of the discipline required to carry these through, was, as Mitford and Jarrico affirmed, paramount for communists, and it is for this reason that in I’m Dying Laughing Emily continually bemoans their lack in American politics (“We didn’t have a system like other people… We wish we had a system”). But despite her awareness of the importance of political unity and single-mindedness, Emily herself proves rebellious, a dissenter in the American grain: she is too essentially divided to be capable of accepting the Party line (the one designated version of paradise of which Milan Kundera spoke, from which doubters must be banished).
Supremely American, and caught in the nation’s dilemmas, unable to choose and so to act, Emily produces writing that thrives on duality, irony, cynicism, and hypocrisy: a “side-splitting” comedy of difference, a comedy she was born to write: “She began to laugh rolling about on the bed and looking at him with her red and yellow face, surrounded by loose fair hair. Her face was made for laughter – a pudgy comic mask with deep lines only when she laughed, the deep lines of the comic mask. Oh, Stephen! And you so beautiful! Why on earth you picked a puttynose, a pieface like me…I look as if some slapstick artist just threw a custard pie in my puss.”
But the serious communist in her judges her comic cuts ephemeral and reactionary and longs for the certainty of tragedy’s final, irreversible endings. “Don’t call it corn,” Stephen reproaches her when she lambasts her work. “It’s your way of seeing things. Some comedians spend their lives yearning to play Hamlet. They’d make him funny too. They couldn’t help it. You’re a funny Hamlet. Be satisfied. It’s you.” Tragedy, as Stephen understands, is not an American form. When Emily, aspiring to something more profound than the comedies she regards as lightweight and insignificant, asks “How is it that the masterpieces of the world are all gloomy – tragedies, no less?” he replies that tragedy “belong[s] to the bad old world which was black. You’re a real American, the new world.”
Typical of this new world humour which refused the black was that of another of Djuna Barnes’s subjects, Wilson Mizner, a friend of Cobb, Mencken and Anita Loos, who lived out the American dream of a free, unrooted existence – hawking medicine shows, jumping claims in the Yukon, managing a flophouse, working on transatlantic liners as a cardsharp, organizing prize fighters, and writing plays and Hollywood scripts. Wired that his brother was dying, Mizner cabled back: “Stop dying. Am trying to write comedy.” He died within 3 months himself, but his words encapsulate the American determination not to play in tragedy, the refusal of limits, even of death itself, the ultimate material reality.
In 1975 Stead wrote to her friend Stanley Burnshaw with two explanations she’d found for the meaning of ‘dying laughing’, one representing the American, the other the communist point of view. The first is Mizner’s spirited laughter in the face of death; and the second is the covering, comic mask, laughter as deceit, “reverberating with a yell” as it flies in the face of reality:
I just discovered, totally incidentally, some words in E.A. Poe, one of my first guardian angels: ‘To die laughing must be the most glorious of all deaths! Sir Thomas More – a very fine man was Sir Thomas More – Sir T.M. died laughing, you remember.” (Do I remember? It’s possible.) And E.A. Poe to go on (The Assignation) about a ruined socle of stone in Sparta, with the letters (Greek) LAXIM ‘undoubtedly part of GELAKSMA’. Modern Grk, Gelasma deceit; laughing stock, gelastos – smiling, gelos – laughter (Hence a ‘yell of laughter’ reverberates the ‘yell’)!
This second interpretation of laughter as bad faith might be applied to an acquaintance of Emily from the Mid-West, a slum landlord who, she recalls, rented out condemned properties to “whores and bums” while reciting the words of John Donne to justify his actions: “But since that I, must dye at last,/ ‘tis best to use myself in jest”. Or to the funny stories that Stephen and Emily tell, attending their first party shortly after their arrival in Paris, all about ironic death: one concerns drunken firemen in flames at a firemen’s convention; another, pilgrims to Rome, crashing into Mont Blanc (“bones and charred flesh and holy images were strewn for miles”); and an impecunious Viennese playwright trying to make it on Broadway, dying, in the “land of opportunity,” of poisoned food foraged from trash cans, just three days before his vast inheritance came through: “You’d die laughing at the poor shnook,” Emily assures her husband. But recounted out of their American context, these comic cuts produce only a mood of “gloom,” unsettling the guests, who begin to leave the party.
The American in Emily thrives on this kind of death-defying humour, but the communist is troubled by it: as she observes, “you have to have a really hard heart, you have to be a cynic” to write the kind of “unfeeling, heartless pieces,” that epitomise Mark Twain’s American comedy, unlike “a natural tragic dramatist” who cares for the people’s plight, and “is always weeping for humanity.” Her yearning for tragedy leads Emily to identify with Hamlet, but it is the Dane’s divisions and prevarications that she recognizes in herself: she is, as Stephen sees, a comic Hamlet, incapable of choice, not able to act: like him she feels herself poised on the edge of competing versions of reality. And twinned with Hamlet is Yorick, whose rictus grin mocks Hamlet’s indecision, revealing him for the Fool he is: “…alas, poor Yorick. Ugh, I hate and fear the name. I always felt I was poor Yorick. I am always concealing to myself that I am poor Yorick. Besides, Hamlet was poor Yorick. Clown at Court; what future but a naked skull?”
Whether or not Stead knew it consciously (or whether this is a case of the tale knowing more than the teller), I’m Dying Laughing is a parable about the impossibility of “side-splitting”, heterodox Americans being able to conform to the orthodoxies of communism (as it was then practiced). For this reason Stead’s analysis of American humour in I’m Dying Laughing, while drawing its life from the dilemmas it describes, ends finally in disaster for Emily, who renounces her faith (which as a quintessentially divided American she must), even as the novel sings the praises of that comedy whose divisions and contradictions she represents.
One of the novel’s finest passages is Emily’s (and Stead’s) encomium to American humour. Taking as her example Twain’s exposure of greedy Americans proselytizing the Christian tenets of brotherly love, she relays “that sour, ferocious, bloodcurdling little gem about the Boxer Rebellion”, To the Person Sitting in Darkness. In this, Twain describes how American missionaries funded “the propagation of the gospel” out of blood money the Chinese paid after murdering some of their number, only for the missionaries to go on and exact revenge by “collect[ing]…a Chinese head for every American head.” Emily argues that it is hypocrisy of this kind that forms the crucible of American humour: its source is the “chasm” Ogden Stewart identified between how things are supposed to be and the way they are, and its sting is the revelation of epic deceit and self-delusion which sustains the lie:
…that’s the bitter truth, the savagery of life which staggers you, keeps you rooted to the spot and your outcries stop your breath; and yet it is wildly out of line with all our ideals, humanity, peace, brotherly love, do unto others, until you laugh, shout, you understand your own simplicity and wickedness and denseness and greed – that’s American humour. It’s better than Daumier with lumpen-proletariat gargoyles gaping. You listen to any Hollywood dialogue in a modern film and you’ll hear such a mash of good sense, brashness, earthy wit, impudence – that’s American wisdom, that’s our humour. It’s not les bon mots and le raffiné,” she said (with a strong home accent), “it’s not hissing the double entendre through thin lips, it’s not like Punch, hitting with a flour-filled sock, no hit, no mark, it bites to the bone; it’s not like satire which is just needling someone you’re afraid to touch; American humour is another way of seeing the truth; and what a vision! It isn’t giggles or smut, it isn’t anecdotes about baby-sitters and chars and Uncle Brown’s habits; it is homespun, godlike truth stalking in from the plains and the tall timber, coonskin and deerhide, with a gun to disturb our little home comforts.
Applauding the illusionless sensibility that declares American life is not all white picket fences and synthetic smiles, but often violent and selfish (“Die and let die”), Stead shows American humour holding a mirror up to the nation, paying back the “savagery” in kind and shooting down its illusions. (Her imagery is prophetic. The survivalist or corrupted pioneering spirit has become an increasingly familiar element of American life, with the appearance of every successive maniac “with a gun to disturb our little home comforts.”)
Laughter is Emily’s response to a world of moral relativity: without illusion about power, perceiving it at work in the world and in herself, she feels helpless to act against it. She sees that “Everyone’s honest; but about what?” and that she should “believe in everything. Everything’s true.” In the same way the lapsing communists in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook come to believe “anything might be true, there’s never any way of really knowing the truth about anything…everything’s so crazy, anything’s possible at all.” But the humour that derives from this pluralist world is cynical and double-edged: in laughing at others, Emily laughs at herself, knowing that her reliance upon humour (“Oh, Stephen”, she begs, “let’s get malicious: I need to laugh”) is a form of bad faith, a replacement for action, a way of momentarily releasing her from her dilemma.
The problem, however, is not just that such laughter is cynical and pessimistic, a product of the feared bohemia (“all humourists are gloomy and cruel”, Stephen says) it also represents the abandonment of that reason communists prized so highly, an embrace of madness. Believing in the Party and the importance of theorising (to which Mitford attested), Emily understands (as Stead learned from her father) that rational argument can be deployed for specious reasons. After the dinner party when she and Stephen are put on trial by their Hollywood comrades, whose accusations are brandished in a quasi-legal form, Emily observes that certain kinds of men, though not good at it, are “fatally attracted by reason.” Pompous, “sententious,” they are incapable of laughing at themselves (unlike Emily who muses, “I’d laugh, even if I were dying!”), failing to see that their line of argument is just that: one among many: ““…what reason? There are all kinds. I don’t believe in reason. It can lead you anywhere. The same man can argue on both sides convincingly; each side has its reasons. Listen to them and you’re the ass with no hay. Only madness can get you out of some situations someone said.””
Emily’s disavowal of reason has many roots. It is in part a critique of theorising as a patriarchal activity which seeks to cover up its true purpose – the attainment of power – and a bold embrace of the non-rational (“all that [patriarchal rationalism] refuses to deal with,” as Adrienne Rich puts it in Of Woman Born). It is also a display of Emily’s American scepticism about European rationalism; an acknowledgment of the limits of language (“only madness can get you out of some situations”); and an expression of her carnival disorder which aims to turn the world upside down and inside out.
But Emily’s many purposive assaults on rationality, and her paralysing, heretical laughter, also undermine her communist belief in the ability of man to understand his world and act to change it. The divide between an apprehension of a multifarious and unpredictable world, driven by materialism and competitiveness, and the desire to govern the forces of history, to create a society based upon equality and mutual respect, lead Emily inevitably to the acute crisis of the novel’s end. It is a crisis very much of its moment (but in whose wake we are still living): when Beckett wondered how human beings could move forward: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”; “Well? Shall we go?/Yes, let’s go. [They do not move.]” Lukács addresses the same question in ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ (1957) naming Beckett (together with Joyce, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Doblin, Gide, Musil and others) as purveyors of modernist art reflecting the prevailing mentality in the West, which depicted man retreating from material reality into madness, morbidity and eccentricity (“the escape into psychopathology”). This, Lukács argued, was the result of a view of man as ontologically solitary, divorced from his social and historical environment, in a state akin to Heidegger’s conception of human beings as “‘thrown-into-the-world’: meaninglessly, unfathomably,” incapable of acting decisively in a random, various and thus “unalterable” universe.
Emily’s descent into madness is not so much an example of this phenomenon that saw man divorced from history (enacting a version of the Cartesian split between mind and body, this time between man and society – a division Lukács and other communists believed just as specious) but, like ‘The Ideology of Modernism’, a commentary upon it: the Howard’s withdrawal from the world into the anarchy of their private lives demonstrating Lukács’s belief that “Attentuation of reality and dissolution of the personality are…interdependent: the stronger the one, the stronger the other.” But Stead’s appraisal of the pluralism which assailed the Marxist idea of ‘historical reality’ is a much more imaginatively engaged one than Lukács’s or that of other communist writers. At the same time – and paradoxically for the same reasons – Stead’s response to the new world that Stephen identifies Emily (and her splitting comedy) with, is also less horrified than many of the portraits that came out of the West which feared, as the communists did, that its cacophony signalled a retreat from civility, a degeneration.
Stead’s heralding of what Martin Amis once called the “American beserk” cannot, for instance, be placed in the camp of modernist writers who feared the “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem” nor even their postmodern descendants who continue in the same European tradition to see in pluralism something inherently strange and savage, writers like Saul Bellow or Bret Easton Ellis who fear atrophy in modern America (or Don DeLillo who describes an affectless man, estranged amid the white noise of technology). These representations are still in the paradigm of European essentialism – reverse images of enlightenment rationalism in which the new American is depicted as beastly or alien rather than fully human. (It’s a tradition best exposed in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ as the horror of something other.)
Stead, an Australian writer – whose national identity rested upon ideas of man in nature – rather than entering into this dualist paradigm, seems more at ease with eclecticism, recognising that man lives at once in the stone age and the technological age, and that this is not only a description of the growing proximity of North and South, but of the inside of every human being. For Stead, the daughter of a Darwinist, who made her “bed on the packing case containing the spiders, birds, crabs”, the beast inside is not simply to be feared, as it is for the communists, or for those who fear for civilization like Conrad and Bellow, but admired and treasured for its irreducable spark, its animal magnetism. In I’m Dying Laughing there is an abiding image of the human-as-animal that springs directly from Stead’s Australian roots: “His marvellous lively eyes, man and animal in one, were looking at her through the eyebrows, as through underbrush.”
As Kundera observed, communists are still living in the tradition of heaven and hell – communist heaven and bohemian hell – a repository for all that is sexual, emotional, nihilistic, violent, deathly, uncontrollable and irrational. For the communist, the battle is to permanently overcome the destructive, selfish instinctual side, to be ruled by intellect not emotions. In this, Stead’s last novel is a reproach to the often naive and dogmatic critique made by those on the Left, who, in their constant recourse to logic and rationalism, deny the power of emotions. In an article about the mass outpouring of emotion following Diana’s death, Linda Grant makes just this point: “The difficulty that the Left has in confronting the truth about the emotions…is that it has always been terrified of feelings, apart, of course, from anger…To the Left, the people are in the grip of what Marxists call false consciousness, from which only correct ideas can free them…”
And yet, as Stead demonstrates in I’m Dying Laughing this is no simple matter. We read the liberating ideas of Donne, Blake and Marx (wonderful teachers, explicators of human behaviour) and yet still cannot overcome our baser instincts. Knowing the poets’ words does not mitigate the shoddy exploitation of slum landlords, nor does it prevent the Howards’ slide into corruption. In Stead’s world the harsh truth is that people can know of the dreams of brotherhood in poetry and politics and yet still not act accordingly, still not change the world, or themselves, for the better. She shows us the gap between ideals, and the often tenuous way they are acquired (Stephen’s faint-hearted radicalism taken on, he says, because communists get girls easily), and everything in the individual that prevents the translation from conviction to action, that stops people from living according to their beliefs: how appetite, ego, fears and foibles, all keep us from being what we want to be, what we hope to be, what we dream of and argue for.
We are animal, “human-animal” as Sam Pollit insists, (a sentiment Emily agrees with boasting “I’m all animal”) and our animal selves are violent and predatory: hunters and cutters down (the lumberjacks). The law of this half of our nature is the survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle: this is “our density, greed and simplicity.” Stead’s danse macabre, her cruel, cynical, American humour, touches the funny bone and reveals us for the side-splitting, fallible people we are: poets and dreamers with hunting in the blood. And these parts of the self battle it out: the instinct for power and the measure of justice:
We’ve been struck by the godamnedest thing in history. Just when we’re getting our pinfeathers and beginning to fly around and dominate the world and becoming a democratic monopolistic empire with every death-dealing weapon in the world, the world is sick of empires and monopolies and says, Down with empires and all that crap. And there we are, the young giant whose lightnings are burning a hole in his hand. Oh, I’m dying laughing at us: but it makes me sick, too. I feel faint-hearted when I think of it all, all that power and gone wrong. It can’t be? Rome didn’t have a hundredth part of what we have. Surely not? Why don’t we win? Why don’t we burn up everyone else with the atom bomb? No one is able to understand. But something stands in our way! What is it? Destiny? A thousand years to the Mayas is an instant in our sight; the decline of the Roman Empire took so long, four or five hundred years and so many people were happy about it and money and reputations were made and no one knew anything about the decline – we can only see it now. I suppose some saw it and some of us see it. I can’t bear it, to tell the truth. Why is it we have the historical eye on our own country? It’s wrong. I want to love my country and believe in it and sleep happy and never think of ruin. We’re the destroying force. Oh, why I am I an intellectual where I must see what is wrong and be on the wrong side, for to see your country is to be on the wrong side. In other days in America there was only one side. But now there are two. In history there are two sides and you see it, you are obliged to be on the wrong side, unless you’re a cur. History is so long. Oh, God.
At the end of I’m Dying Laughing Stead returns Stephen and Emily to Versailles, to history and to the inescapable fact of its divisions, in order to reinforce the point that in history we must choose. The present may seem full of compelling and various truths (and as Stead sees, prophetically, the dilemma of choice in a complex and diverse nation like America is increasingly the dilemma faced by us all). But even in the forceful and competing exigencies of the moment – and as fully and consequently as Stead exposes the powerful emotions that grip us all in the eye of the storm (as Pasternak observed even “martyrs to Dogma…are also victims of the Century”) – ultimately, there is still a choice to be made between right and wrong. What Stead argues in I’m Dying Laughing, with great energy, insight and intelligence, is that there is no refuge from this choice, nor from the judgment of history.
Before Emily loses her bearings, when she feels herself trembling on the brink of history, she addresses a meeting of workers in downtown Los Angeles, imparting her vision of the future. Once again, she vacillates between the idea that we are responsible for ourselves and must choose, and the sense that we are the victims of history, caught in its wake. Her peroration, nevertheless, comes down on the side of history. Her text is taken from William Blake, not, this time, one of the poet’s apprehensions of the variousness of things – the “contraries” Carter thought fitted Stead so well – but a vision of final, inescapable, reckoning:
I see you there and I am here and I see something ahead. The choice will come, the choice has come. Perhaps you don’t see it clearly yet; but one day it will be as obvious as the cop’s club and you will weep by tear gas, because then it is too late to choose. Some of you will be in jail, some silent with the silence that grows over a man like fungus; and some will be successes and able to appear anywhere in broad daylight. The choice is already taken out of our hands. Well, anyhow, this is the way William Blake puts it in one of his cloudy epics and I’m dammed if I can remember anything else but this; and I’m damned remembering this, anyway, maybe. It goes: “But Palambrom called down a Great Solemn Assembly…That he who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to Defend a Lie, that he may be snared and caught and taken.”
In January 1950, settled temporarily in London, Stead wrote to Edith Anderson about Ruth McKenney, a popular comic novelist and one of Stead’s closest friends since the late Thirties, now the subject of the novel she had recently begun to sketch out about renegade American communists. Four years before, McKenney and her husband Richard Bransten had been expelled from the American Communist Party for “propagation of views hostile to the party”, yet despite the importance to Stead of loyalty to the Party, for a couple of years she had continued to regard McKenney as her “dearest American friend, female”.
By 1950, however, her affection was cooling. Cast out by their comrades, and having, like Stead and Blake, moved to Europe, McKenney and Bransten found themselves in a political, social and moral limbo: unable to practice their beliefs, incapable of entirely abandoning them. Regardless of this, Stead prolonged the relationship, in part because she felt it wrong to desert someone in trouble (as it became increasingly evident McKenney was), but also because she still enjoyed the show that her friend unfailingly provided. In her letter to Anderson she told her breezily she was going “to see Mme. Gargantua perform”: “…she longs to be anti-Soviet and to decry the Cominform – it makes her sheer raving mad to think of the money you make by being anti-Soviet and she is prevented by shame…I laugh at her – I like her, Edith. She is big, noisy, ravenous and alive…I have a lot of fun when I visit Ruth.” But fun was not enough to secure the friendship. Increasingly Stead felt that the vitality she relished in McKenney – behaviour she had once regarded as rudely ‘alive’ – was shifting, becoming more alarming. Now McKenney’s large appetites and constant state of riot seemed symptomatic not of élan, but of desperation: her life was rudderless and out of control.
The Branstens presided over a perpetual banquet. Like their counterparts in I’m Dying Laughing, Emily Wilkes and Stephen Howard, they were living “high, wide and handsome and to hell with the consequences”. But next to Stead’s and Blake’s meagre life, as they struggled in the post-war years to eke out an existence from their writing (“We’re not doing too well and expect to do worse,” Stead wrote despondently to a friend in the early Fifties), or when compared with the fate of their jailed and blacklisted comrades who had stayed in America to face the wrath of the HUAC, she felt the couple’s conspicuous feasting was vulgar and callous. And still her attitude towards her ebullient friend, and her assessment of the degree of McKenney’s political apostasy, continued to waver. Over a decade later in 1966, revising the first version of I’m Dying Laughing, Stead went through “material from the past” (probably letters McKenney had written to her over the years) and told her friends the Burnshaws that this had “…borne in on me how much more brilliant Emily was than I make her – but poor woman! She has me only. (She was very incisive, hardminded, and with – until the end – a high sense of integrity and what people should be doing as opposed to what they do do. Part of her decline came from that terrific struggle…)“
The friendship extended to their partners, Blake and Bransten, and throughout their acquaintance the two couples spent time together: as late as 1954, less than a year before Bransten killed himself (in a car, just as Stephen Howard does, in I’m Dying Laughing), the four celebrated Christmas with one another. Blake felt, as Stead had about McKenney’s decline, that Bransten was defeated not simply because he had renounced his communist beliefs, but because he, too, retained a degree of integrity which made it impossible for him to leave the past behind. Notifying another friend of Bransten’s suicide, Blake wrote “he never abjured his faith and yet did not maintain it: this twilight caused him intense pain and wrecked his life…”.
But these tempered views of the couple’s political bad faith were in marked contrast to Stead’s condemnation of McKenney’s hypocrisy as a writer. Far from the youthful idealism expressed by Emily in I’m Dying Laughing, her desire to write novels that “make a window on the world”, Stead felt that for McKenney writing had become a purely mercenary exercise, the shrewd manufacture of the kind of product that would sell best on the literary market in order to support her grand Chelsea household (“central heating, hot and cold, refrigerator, fully furnished with carpets, broadloom style, diamond-cut glass, Belgian wine glasses, pink-bordered and embroidered linen sheets, servants daily…”).
Stead was particularly scathing about the exorbitant advance paid to McKenney and Bransten for a travel book about the South-East, Here’s England (1950), which they had cobbled together for American tourists, without any serious knowledge of the territory. Stead’s irritation was perhaps felt all the more because the perilous state of her and Blake’s finances at this time (representing their failure to make a living from ‘serious’ writing) meant that while she stayed in Newcastle undertaking research for Cotter’s England, Blake was forced to live with McKenney and Bransten, where his evenings were spent correcting proofs for their guide book: “She got $5,000 berries, five thousand, count them, for this bit of embroidery…so this will keep the Branstens going for the next week.“
By 1956, Stead’s sarcasm had turned to outrage. Bransten’s suicide the year before had done nothing to lessen her anger toward her old friend. When McKenney (having returned home to America after Bransten’s death), sent Stead a copy of her latest book, Mirage (1956), about Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, Stead depicted her as a “Greedy pig”, and declared the book a “monstrous prefabricated best-smeller”: “It’s got lush sex scenes and summer tourist French and all kinds of HWd [Hollywood] garbage about the French Revolution and absolutely hackneyed types and comic-strip conversations and it was all done purposely, every word done to make a best seller, done by Richard and Ruth consciously, with the intention of being garbage but just the right sort to appeal – not too low, mind you.“
Why was Stead’s response to McKenney’s squandering of her talents as a writer more vehement than her reaction to the disavowal of her political beliefs? Perhaps because even as she grew to deplore McKenney’s disaffected way of life, Stead continued to be fascinated by her energy, narcissism and wit. But in McKenney’s writing there was now nothing she found to admire: she was simply appalled by the crassness and affectation of the later work, its feigning and calculation. For instance, Far, Far From Home (1954), McKenney’s final work of autobiography, about her family’s stay in Belgium, which she wrote in the years of Stead’s growing disenchantment with her, is an unashamedly ingratiating book, awash in maxims intended somehow to be both profound and cute: “Say what you like, it’s the clichés that make the fabric of a happy family” is a typical example. A debased version of her earlier comic novels, it lacks their slight charm and jettisons altogether the idea of writing that McKenney had aspired to as a young woman: literature as a radical weapon, and a truthteller.
This fall from grace is clearly reflected in I’m Dying Laughing, where Emily describes her own work as “poorly written, vain, cosy, dull, ignorant and pitiably lacking in self-criticism…” Having left America, though, she suggests producing more of her “cheap, easy shit”, this time in the form of a travel book from the family’s experiences in Europe, “The Howards Abroad turn[ing] out a sort of Baedeker for Americans, all they want to know, not the old three-star stuff.” (Emily’s readiness to pander to her readers stands in contrast to Stead’s refusal to spoonfeed her own: we are left to work out the full implications of Emily’s remark about the kind of writing she is proposing: Americans, intent on their creature comforts, want guide books that concentrate less on the history and culture of Europe – “the old three-star stuff” -, more on where to find good steak and hotel plumbing.)
But probably it was not so much McKenney’s abandonment of literature as a political instrument, nor even the sugar-coated commercialism and conformity of her writing that frustrated Stead, as the fact that in all this, (apart from rare flashes of something more disturbing beneath the surface), McKenney contrived so wilfully to misrepresent herself. Even in directly autobiographical work like the hugely successful My Sister Eileen (1938) (about sibling relations) and Love Story (1950) (about marital ones), where the picture is of a woman out of kilter with the trappings of femininity, comically maladroit in the roles of seducer and wife, there is nothing too painful or subversive: the self-portrait is deliberately non-threatening, the tone fatally collusive. McKenney managed to repress in her writing all of those qualities that Stead recognized in her, the complexity and scope (“What dimensions!”) which excited Stead and which, she believed, made McKenney something more remarkable than the bumbling housewife of her own account: a kind of exemplary American: “I regard Ruth as the greatest American of all in many respects (Richard really does not count, he is not in the same scale), outrageously venal, ferociously for her ideas, gangster à outrance [sic] when she must…“.
McKenney having abandoned the task of real self-representation in her writing, of bearing witness to her life in all its tortured extremity, the burden was taken up by Stead: “poor woman! She has me only”, Stead wrote of her subject, sentient of her formidable duty of recovery, adding, “I hope I’m able to do it, that’s all.” (Two further lines from the Whitman poem Stead uses as her epigraph in I’m Dying Laughing, express it well: “None has understood you, but I understand you/None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to yourself”.) So despite all McKenney’s autobiographical novels it was Stead, who faithfully transmuted that “crazy out-of-size” life into fiction, who, in I’m Dying Laughing, converted the tragic and stormy qualities of her existence into literature. Had McKenney been capable of such alchemy she might have been able to find some way out of her morass: might have become the architect, not the victim of her life. But she cracked up, and it was left to Stead to make the restoration, to put her back together in the pages of I’m Dying Laughing.
Such an idea, that literature, in its transfiguring power, can be redemptive, is, of course, a difficult one, especially when seen in relation to a writer of avowedly Nietzschean bent like Stead. In fact I’m Dying Laughing, a novel which pushes relentlessly to its ending in despair, madness and suicide, might seem a good example of destructive art (displaying Sadeian exuberance in its trashing of bourgeois family life). But this is by no means Stead’s blackest work: in her pantheon that honour belongs to A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948) and Cotter’s England (1966).
In the nihilistic worlds of those novels, the sense of hope or possibility has closed down to such a degree that in Cotter’s England, for instance, parts of the novel call to mind the totalitarian gloom of 1984. But I’m Dying Laughing – not only because of the presence of the irrepressible Emily Wilkes, but because of the shame that she and Stephen suffer in the face of their treachery – continually draws the reader back to the idea of the ‘good’ life they have lost. The various hells that Stead consigns her characters to in A Little Tea, A Little Chat and Cotter’s England are no worse than the one in I’m Dying Laughing, except that in those there is no sense of any transcendent space: in I’m Dying Laughing there is the prospect of a life lived in good faith, a communist heaven to match the anomie of the renegade couple’s self-made hell.
Emily’s glimpse of this heaven on earth comes when, before their marriage, she and Stephen attend the anti-fascist writers’ conference in Paris in 1935 (which Stead had also attended). The writers, “on roller skates from all points of the compass”, are fêted and feasted in embassies across the capital where Emily and Stephen come to feel “punchdrunk and ethereal…free” as they take their place in a magical democracy, announced on arrival at each event in the company of the great and the good: “…all the artisans of typewriter and pen, the unknown, the known, all named: ‘Monsieur André Gide, Madam Anna Seghers, Monsieur Thomas Mann, Monsieur Forster, Monsieur Thomas Barrie, Monsieur Kantorowicz…Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Ilya Ehrenburg, Aldous Huxley, Julien Benda – Monsieur Stephen Howard, Mademoiselle Wilkes – Bonjour, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, bonjour Madam, l’Ambassadrice.'”
Stead’s authorial act of resurrection in I’m Dying Laughing, transforming Ruth McKenney into Emily Wilkes, is not exactly Christian. (Indeed, there are those who might regard the novel’s damning report as more akin to a character assassination, an act of literary crucifixion.) But, while there is neither kindness nor charity in Stead’s rendering of her old friend, there is vindication. In I’m Dying Laughing Stead ensures that Emily Wilkes is a character possessed of complexity, selfishness, wit, and acuity about her compromised life – retrieving the great qualities Stead perceived in the ‘original’: qualities which McKenney failed to reproduce in any of her own literary incarnations that so diminish her.
I don’t want to live this way in the bright lights, going to the gilded palaces, unable to tolerate a waiter who’s been eating sour cabbage, or a waitress who hasn’t washed, unable to bear a hotel if the manager doesn’t scrape to me, suffering if my girl doesn’t change her dress twice a day. I don’t want to be like that. I am like that. Why? Because I see the funny side, I’m a wise guy. I’ve got the angles. I know the score. How despicable! Money’s filthy. It is filthy, Stephen. Don’t look down your nose. And when you think that my humour, which is me, I admit, is really the way I see things, laugh at everyone, sneer at everyone’s troubles I really am cruel. I often wake up in the night Stephen, to think out what I am. I’m like a doll with two faces glued together. They used to have those. I disliked them. One back, one front. Mark Twain wrote some terribly unfeeling, heartless pieces. After all to write The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg [sic], you have to have a really hard heart, you have to be a cynic. Whereas a natural tragic dramatist is always weeping for humanity. And here I am, supposed to write for the proletariat, or at least be a friend of the people, and I can’t live except this way, moneybags, or what’s just as good, enormous debts.
The Janus-faced doll is a good image not just for the riven character of Emily Wilkes, but for Stead’s attitude to the friend in whose image she was created. Stead’s drawing of McKenney in I’m Dying Laughing is uncircumscribed, revelling in discrepant feelings – in her esteem for this most electric of women, but also in the outrage and fear that her transgressions excited. This is brave writing, inhabiting the mired territory that Edmund White, an admirer of Stead, has described as the most fertile, from which the greatest work is produced: the best writers, he argues, have “tackled subjects they were of two minds about”. The doubleness of good writing is something Salman Rushdie has also written of, associating its wellspring in the imagination with the kind of fervour Stead felt for McKenney: “When the imagination is given sight by passion, it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love.”
ii. The Incontinent Mouth and the Carnival
Stead’s desire, in this final novel, was to produce the kind of fiction that would honour such a degree of complexity, which would take the artifice out of art and deliver to the reader something akin to what her friend Ralph Fox called “the presentation of ‘man alive’”9, or Lawrence’s “bright book of life”, containing life’s conundrums instead of art’s unnatural completions – something she once praised Elizabeth Harrower for, saying that her novel The Long Prospect (1958) conveyed “the fragrance and nuttiness of the kernel, with the nutshell dispensed with.” So in I’m Dying Laughing Stead herself dispensed with the fine encasements, the glowing writing that characterized much of her earlier work, in favour of something more rough-hewn – the “ungainliness” and “ferocity” which Angela Carter admired.
But while the “nuttiness” she praised in Harrower was something she strove for herself, making her wary of writing that was excessively formal or ornate, Stead was still cognizant of the great iconoclasm of modernism, the radical break with the past which it heralded. (In ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1902), Conrad’s storyteller, Marlow, famously announces the principal narrative shift that is to take place between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, instructing his listeners that the meaning of his story lies not in the kernel of the tale, but in the shell, in the package in which it is delivered.) In I’m Dying Laughing, when Emily herself wonders about what kind of art might now be able to convey fully the dimensions of “a human being, intricate, delightful, convoluted” with “all sorts of facets and curves”, she decides that it would require the mould-breaking forms of modernism: only “an impressionist, a futurist could depict him.”
But it is painting not writing that Emily is thinking of and the connection to art is useful because one struggles to find literary comparisons for this brilliant and unique novel. In its depiction of estrangement, however, I’m Dying Laughing does call to mind much twentieth century painting, Bacon and Freud, as I have said, but also Munch’s ‘The Howl’, and the work of caricaturists from Georg Grosz to Ralph Steadman, in which the characteristic pose of twentieth century alienation is struck: head snapped back, jaws agape, the incontinent mouth. A strategy to communicate Emily Wilkes’s huge orality is to relinquish some of the control exerted by a third person narrator: in I’m Dying Laughing Stead pares away the omniscient authorial voice, leaving a novel composed of two-thirds speech – unmediated voices which speak out to the reader directly from the page. Stead’s ventriloqual writing (“I can write Emily-Stephen dialogue till the cats come home”, she said), omits much of the realist furniture of more conventional novels: it mimics (and so enhances) the idea in I’m Dying Laughing that the material goods which Emily and Stephen so desperately crave – to consume, to surround them, to make them safe – is only chimerical, that the rich stuff with which they attempt to shore up their lives (as more conventionally writers ‘upholster’ their characters) amounts to nothing more than fancy dressing.
So Emily and Stephen are doubly set adrift in I’m Dying Laughing: adrift from the Party (which grounded their lives and gave them meaning), and adrift in the text, usually unsurrounded by a contextualizing or explicating authorial voice. The effect of this is to make the characters seem still more existentially alone. Theirs are truly voices in the wilderness: less rooted in a created textual world, without benefit of domesticating mise-en-scène, they are wilder and more violent presences. Thus unrestrained, Emily becomes literally unhinged, “morally ill”, like Bertha Mason, Rochester’s insane first wife in Jane Eyre. By the end of the novel she is as free from any social constraint, her diatribes paranoid and profane: she, too, speaks the unspeakable. As if recognizing her outcast state, Emily consigns herself to the nether regions of the house, becoming its madwoman, not in the attic, but in the bowels of the house, where, Stephen admits: “She is so outrageous…lying there in the basement, drunk and dirty, living on drugs, rushing out shouting, insulting me…“
The comparison with Bronte is important because of the trouble critics have had trying to ‘place’ Stead, not just in the canon at large, but also as a woman writer. Reviewing The Man Who Loved Children on its publication in America, Clifton Fadiman, striving to convey the feel of the work, wrote that the novel seemed to him like “Little Women written by a demon” (unlike the kind of writing Ruth McKenney felt communist critics required, which would have “a sort of left-wing Little Women fireside atmosphere”). Fadiman observed that Stead’s remarkable, sui generis novels tended to unsettle “women reviewers in particular [who] find her hard to take” – a comment borne out by Mary McCarthy whose review of the same novel the following year found the book full of “fearful disordered vindictiveness”, and by Rebecca West, who, although admiring of the The Beauties and Furies, felt that novel’s strange dislocations begged the question, “Is it then something crazy?”
Stead’s own account of the female literary canon was one which highlights the differences in it, dividing the Wild Women from the Lady Authors (and thereby giving women writers a greater degree of agency than many later descriptions which tend to assign to women writers the position of exclusion). And Vivian Gornick’s view that “The writer (a generation ahead) whom she most resembles is Sylvia Plath” fits with this model. Seeing her, like Plath, as one of the Wild Women writers, Gornick says both are “very angry, very involved” writers, in both “rage is the organising principle”, and in both “burns an exploding star of language, dark and violent, beside itself with the need to go all the way.”
If Gornick felt Stead anticipated Plath’s unbounded fury, looking back over the women writers who had preceded her, Stead found few that were like-minded. But she admired the turbulence of the Brontes, berating Virginia Woolf for her version of the tradition in a letter to a friend because “She does not rave about Fanny Burney, or the Brontes…”, preferring instead the more decorous Jane Austen (whom Stead pronounces “unreadable”). And Charlotte and Emily Bronte are the women writers with whom the critics have most often found parallels, Fadiman thought that “Like Emily Bronte, [Stead] has none of the proper bearing, the reassuring domestic countenance of a ‘lady author’.” An example of her indecorousness, one she shares with the Bronte sisters, is an unladylike interest in the body, in particular, the mouth. Stead can be thought of as a member of that assembly, to which the Brontes and Plath and many other women writers belong, of ‘hunger artists’ – writers concerned with hunger and denial, the body, its sexuality and the space it takes up. These preoccupations wind inevitably through much of women’s writing where the mouth is important as a symbol of control (determining the body’s size and reproductive health by the amount of food which enters it, and determining control over the environment by the words which come out).
Stead recognized this when she wrote in an article about women of “the awful power of hunger and suck”, and in I’m Dying Laughing she alludes to the dynamic of appetite and denial enacted by mothers and daughters, when Emily recalls her own mother, a “refined” woman with “a birdlike appetite”, who was ashamed of her “prize pig” of a daughter and refused her food. But as with the bird-like figure of Jane Eyre (light as air), or the martyred figure of Catherine Earnshaw, who refuses food in pregnancy and starves herself to death, other women writers have tended to concentrate not on the incontinent, but on the closed mouth, kept shut either by patriarchal oppression (as Jane is starved and chastised for talking at Lowood School), or voluntarily sealed as a symbol of refusal (Catherine’s self-denial parodies and rebukes the authoritarian Victorian society which refuses her the chance to love freely).
In many of her novels Stead presents similarly negated women (though like the rebellious heroines of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights they struggle against their lack of freedom): among these are Louisa Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children who is humiliated by her father’s interference with her growing, pubescent body (at one moment marshalling her for long walks to trim her down, at another, force-feeding food directly from his mouth into hers), angered by his attempts to control language of hers he considers unfit; while in For Love Alone, Teresa Hawkins enacts her own programme of renunciation, pushing a regime of punishing asceticism to the point of self-starvation.
But in her last novel Stead gives a rare portrait not of deprived or delimited femininity, but of female excess, of the open-mouthed, gargantuan woman (the inscription in Part One is from Rabelais’s Gargantua: “I’m thirsty!”; and at one point Emily remarks “Rabelais was the only man who understood me. He’s dull and reported to be vulgar; but you can’t high-hat the classics. You can just say they’re dull. But they’re real!”) This alone would make I’m Dying Laughing noteworthy, for there are no Gargantuas or Falstaffs or Don Quixotes in the canon of women’s writing, nothing either in contemporary fiction to match, for example, the omnivorous figure of Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, a “swallower of lives” who has “consumed multitudes”. Perhaps this is because, as Jane Miller observes in an essay on women and the carnival tradition, it is not just “the imposition of order” that patriarchy claims for its own, “men seem to have appropriated the management of misrule as well”.
Stead, however, was undeterred by this lack of precedents. She wrote, as Fadiman noticed, without concern for social niceties about the supposed nature of women, creating her novels and short stories from how she found them. And in Ruth McKenney she believed she had discovered “a terrific central character, female”, multitudinous and seditious. (After reading the manuscript for I’m Dying Laughing, her friend Stanley Burnshaw wondered whether Emily’s excesses weren’t too great to accommodate within the bounds of art – particularly the scene where she nearly seduces her step-son. Stead believed,on the contrary, that these trespasses made the need to write about McKenney all the more compelling: “It is because it is all too much that it is worth writing about”, she admonished him.)
In her essay, ‘Feasters and Spoilsports’, Miller points to the way in which women are in an uncertain relationship to traditions of male-dominated knowledge and rationality, but in an even greater state of disenfranchisement in relation to the “traditions of…heresy and subversiveness” like the carnival. This problem, of course, confronts not just women who, like Miller, are critics of culture, but those who are its practitioners, too, and the idea that women might not fit easily into such traditions is something that Stead seems to have understood. She creates in Emily Wilkes a woman who fits Bakhtin’s representation of the carnivalesque, presenting her borderlessness and sense of limitless possibility as the characteristics which make her remarkable.
Emily’s infinite capacity to “see everything as large as life and twice as natural” amazes Stephen and makes him feel the limitations of his pedestrian view of the world, “I’m stunned, abashed, melancholy, every evening to see what you’ve been seeing all day and I’ve been there and haven’t seen one-hundredth”; while his son, Christy, is also bemused by Emily’s ability to perceive myriad gradations in the flat and prosaic, to see eleven, perhaps fifteen colours “in an ordinary blue sky”: “Only an artist can see such things”, she lectures the stubbornly myopic boy, “a whole palette in a plain blue sky, which is only washing blue to the ordinary jerk.”
But Stead shows that the effect of these expanding carnival properties (“you don’t know when to stop” Stephen chastises her), has not only been to disarm the people around Emily, but to unravel her to the point of madness. Stead’s feeling that women might not thrive on, or survive heresy, was not (like Miller’s) the result of a theoretical engagement (Bakhtin had not been translated into English at the time she wrote I’m Dying Laughing), it was derived, once again, from what she perceived in life: the carnivalesque, disordering energy which made Emily Wilkes’s original remarkable, was also the thing which undid her. In July 1972, following McKenney’s death, Stead wrote of her paradoxical friend: “…she could be a torrent, an endless talker – a phenomenon. You couldn’t always endure it – but it was unique – (probably led to her mental disorders [because] there was no limit)…“.
In I’m Dying Laughing, McKenney’s ‘double’ Emily has “fun [with] these glorious spurges, this mad eating” insisting upon the primacy of the body: “heigh-ho, nothing in my life compares with my physical feelings”. She prefers “to know how coal-heavers feel on Saturday night”, rather than share the meagre sensibilities of an “intellectual”. Stead’s suspicion that the carnival’s lack of limits was deadly for McKenney is reified in Emily’s vision of her body grown monstrous, convulsive, at one moment overwhelming her with laughter – “It’s an awful rolling spasm, you’re out of control, but madly happy, inhumanly happy”; and the next tipping her towards death – “And the body gets up like an immense giant and grabs me and balances me over the cliff, threatening to toss me over.”
A critic as well as a novelist, (indeed, a synthesizer of the two: “My characters always have a tendency to be telling you something”), Angela Carter (who read Bakhtin late in her career) also suggests that women are in an equivocal position in relation to the idea of carnival. Her last novel, Wise Children (1991) celebrates the carnivalesque – laughter, art and sex – things which allow us to conceive the world as other than it is, by puncturing its proprieties, disrupting its order. But for all its buoyancy the novel is not utopian, it also proposes the idea that carnival riot can be dangerous, particularly for women. Under patriarchy, war and rape are licensed forms of (male) transgression, Carter argues; we should remember that violence, too, is a part of the carnival (amending the tendency in criticism and fiction to concentrate on its positive and creative elements). Carter, having in her forties just become a mother, departs from her earlier novels, where any idea of essentialism was roundly trounced, and concludes her last by arguing that there is, after all, something in the business of mothering that makes women a bonding agent; and that this prevents them from completely abandoning themselves to the anarchic selfishness of the carnival, or to the violence to which that can lead. (Admittedly hers are strange and ‘unnatural’ mothers: tipsy seventy-five year olds who toddle off at the end of the book, “Drunk in charge of a baby carriage”.)
From the evidence of her writing Stead had no such belief about motherhood: there was nothing in her background that would have led her to view it as a necessarily benign or connecting force. Her own mother died when she was two years old, and her fraught relationship with her stepmother, Ada, (“[she] did not like me…her treatment of me was dubious”) is related in The Man Who Loved Children, where Stead’s fictional counterpart, Louisa, ends by poisoning the usurper. In the novel (as in Stead’s life) the stepmother withdraws into a private world, abdicating her responsibility for her own brood and leaving Louisa to become the household drudge, shouldering the unwanted responsibility of mothering children not much younger than herself. Stead’s third ‘mother’ proved just as problematic. Long after Stead had escaped from Australia, Ada died and Stead’s father remarried. His new wife, Thistle Harris, had been a teenage acquaintance of Stead’s: they were the same age, both sixteen when her father first told Christina he was in love with Thistle. They remained cordial, but Stead was never comfortable with the transformation of their relationship, making her step-daughter to a woman who had once been her coeval.
In her adult life Stead’s attitude to having children of her own was ambivalent, her biographers report that she had several miscarriages and abortions, and her relationship to Blake’s daughter, Ruth, who after their marriage became her stepdaughter, was at times a difficult one (defensively reversing the image of the stepmother as witch, Stead was fond of pointing out that Ruth’s birthday fell on walpurgisnacht- witch’s night). When asked why she hadn’t had her own children Stead replied that she had already done her stint of mothering with her half-brothers and sisters; and like many writers, she often talked of her books as her children, but she found even this form of literary mothering distasteful, boasting to one interviewer in 1972, “I’m a bad mother; once the baby’s born, I don’t even think about it. It must fight for itself”, a belief she restated five years later when she talked to Thomas Keneally: “I do not write for publication. I really do not, and I don’t care what happens to the wretched thing [sic]. I’m a bad mother…”. But in ‘Trains’, a short story Stead wrote in the Fifties about a visit from Ruth McKenney’s son Patrick Bransten, she is excited at the prospect of engaging in childish things, while rueful about the loss of her own childhood, brought about by her early, enforced mothering: “When I see a strange child, I become lavish. I become a heady greedy giddy six-year-old, the sort I never was. I have fantasies about buying ice-cream, orangeade, comics, magic tricks, cake and circuses.“
Perhaps it was this early burden that drew Stead and McKenney to one another. In her autobiographical novels McKenney attests to a similarly benighted youth: recounting in My Sister Eileen that she was responsible for her sister from an early age, and in Love Story, two suicide attempts (however parcelled in retrospective irony) indicate that she, too, was an unhappy teenager. Stead opens I’m Dying Laughing with the young Emily’s get-away from her dependent family – a brother, his wife and their son – all of whom she is committed to supporting financially. As the boat slips its mooring she declares to her surprised neighbour: “Sigh, blissful sigh! Until they hooked that damn rope, I didn’t know if they weren’t going to crawl up the rope, first prize the greasy pig. Me…I’ve got the kind of family with gluey toes like that night-animal with big eyes. I’m Big Sis, who works even at the bottom of the Depression. Why should my loved ones work? Nay, nay. They’re good kids. I’m not mean and sour. I’m just so darn glad to get away.“
So the dominant image of mothering in I’m Dying Laughing turns convention on its head (in today’s parlance it might be called a ‘perverse reading’): it is one of exploitation, not nurture. And in keeping with the carnival’s doubling of meaning the mother in this novel is both exploited and exploiter. Emily is regarded at the beginning of I’m Dying Laughing by her own family, and later by Stephen and his, as a Mother Earth figure, a natural resource to draw upon which, like the land, can endlessly replenish itself. A “golden goose” who will lay golden eggs for the family, she is thought of much as Bakhtin describes women in one of the rare differentiated references to them in his work on the carnival, as “the inexhaustible vessel of conception.” Stephen falls in love with Emily because he believes she can fill up the emptiness and counteract the sterility of his life, that her fullness can compensate for his lack: “And there you are Emily, full of joy and interest and love and humanity and a need to know and you are strong, can’t be crushed. A faithful love, a true, great woman. You have the faith I’m afraid to lack.“
But from the beginning Emily feels trapped by this image of her as provider and comforter: (“‘How do you know that I’m faithful and strong?’ she objected, feeling cornered by this belief in her…”). It is not just her family that regard her primarily as a source of nourishment; her readers, too, have to be fed the junk food to which they are addicted. For Emily, writing becomes so completely a matter of satiating appetite, that her fictional books mutate into cookery books in which she serves up dishes to her hungry readers: “…the mama public, stupid, cruel and food crazy. I find myself putting in recipes – ugh! – because I know they’ll guzzle it.” As the demands of family and work on Emily increase, so her own need to replenish what’s exhausted becomes greater and more urgent. Motherhood becomes a state not just of giving, but of immense need, and she projects this back onto her ravenous readers, calling them the “mama public”. Just as her fiction turns into writing about food, so she consumes vast amounts to fuel her writing in the first place: “I eat like a cormorant, an elephant, a pelican, otherwise I can’t think…”.
But despite the logorrhoea of her diary (the twelve-volume Journal of Days under the Sun, in which Emily “had the irresistible duty imposed by her nature, her verbal excess and her genius, to record all her life”), and long, unguarded letters to family and friends, the plans for books she might write all fail to come to fruition. (Among this potential library of work are The Monster, the autobiographical work she is found clutching at the end of the novel, in a deranged state, strewing its papers across the steps of the Forum in Rome like some demented descendent of a Henry James heroine. But before this much heralded demise there are plans for a travelogue for American tourists, The Howards Abroad; political monographs Inside the New Democracies and No Turning Back; The Personal History of Bill Blank about a good communist [an in-joke reference to Bill Blake, no doubt]; a Journal of Europe 1948, about which she vows “I’m going to make every patch of waste evening fertile”; the Goethe parody, The Sorrows of a Really Fat Person like Me; her “magnum dopus”, and Trial and Execution about the last days of Marie Antoinette: “It is like today…we are all being tried and all go to our execution, by their hand or ours, or by time, killed, exiled, living in terror…frightened of neighbours and old friends; that is the terrible time we live in.”)
By the end of I’m Dying Laughing, however hard Emily stuffs herself with food, or drink or drugs, she is exhausted. In her need to survive at whatever cost she is more akin to Brecht’s grubbing Mother Courage than a fecund Mother Earth. But Emily’s readiness to manipulate and feed off her children, demanding that they pay for her care of them out of their inheritances, exceeds even the “greed, malice and uncharitableness” of Brecht’s symbol of venality. She becomes a truly monstrous mother, not succouring her family, but devouring them, and in turn feels herself eaten away by them, her own mouth shut, prevented from being like Bakhtin’s open-mouthed carnivaler, open to the world: “…having to keep a family going and with the expenses the devil’s long pocket could not meet, I’m doomed, I fear, to assassinating myself, to never doing what I want to do or to putting it off till doomsday…the worst thing about a husband and even kids is they cut you off from humanity. You’re a nun, you’re gagged, your mouth’s full of soap. “
So the terrible accusations levelled by her American comrades, that Emily’s is an unnatural family, put together for the purposes of greed and exploitation, though not true at the moment of charging, become so, by the end of the novel. (Stead makes it clear, however, that the ‘natural’ family to which the Party apparatchiks appeal is a shibboleth: in contemporary California the family has become an elected, made-up one, and the irony is her accusers, too, are adoptive and step-parents.) Nor are the children left untouched by this familial game of exploitation and betrayal. In Paris, Stephen finds his son Christy spying on him and Emily, and reporting back to his American grandmother who operates a blacklist of the friends that they are permitted to associate with, while holding tight the purse strings on the family money: “I’ll thrash the boy. Christ, listening at doors and trying to sink us; selfish little brute. We’re killing ourselves for him. What a thief!…Little savage! He’s a half trained dog. Isn’t he too sweet! And then he bites the hand that honeys him.“
Stead’s Letters contain testimony that her unease about mothering and childhood was reflected not only in I’m Dying Laughing, but in her view of the novel’s impeded development. In 1969 she wrote to Stanley Burnshaw saying that she had intended to concentrate on the marriage between Stephen and Emily: “My original plan is very clear in my mind – the passions-of-love in marriage, money and politics altogether in two persons – and nothing else, the rest just by the way.” But she kept getting diverted from this project by the children. In an uncanny mirroring of Emily’s feeling that the business of being a mother, the obligation of running a family, was preventing her from “doing what I want to do”, Stead also found herself led astray by the introduction of children into her story: “I don’t frankly, this is my real feeling, want IDL published…I want to finish it for myself, to tell the truth, the truth only I know; and most of the circumambulations and substitutions, quite unfortunate for the most part (take that painted little Olivia) have been to avoid the truth, which I know.“
Further evidence that Stead felt encumbered by the children in I’m Dying Laughing can be found in an act of Wildean carelessness, in which she loses one of the Bransten children from the plot altogether, (one of the text’s “anomalies” that her executor and the book’s editor, Ronald Geering, notes in his Introduction). When the family move from America to Europe, Lennie, Emily’s nephew on her brother’s side who becomes a part of Emily’s own family disappears from the novel completely. Stead’s uncertainty about the child is palpable from the outset: at the beginning of the novel he is living ‘offstage’ from the main action, with a nurse in Belfast (though no coherent explanation for this is given). When Emily asks for a photograph of the boy she supports financially, she is told that his nurse is superstitious and will not allow it, nor can she have Lennie’s address because, “It would so frighten Mary-Martha, the old darling. She would not understand a stranger writing.” So Lennie’s appearance in the drama is as a ghostly, tenuous presence, as if mimicking Stead’s uncertainty about the degree to which she was going to allow the children to intrude into the central story of Emily and Stephen. The idea that the child is a disturbing presence in I’m Dying Laughing (one who might disappear from the text, or destroy it altogether) is reinforced, when Emily, exasperated at the insubstantiality of this child (unseen and only vaguely placed) conjures Lindbergh’s nurse and Lizzie Borden’s servant as potential carers for him.
The loss of Lennie from the story in Part Two is something that can’t be accounted for simply by the fact that the novel was incomplete when Stead died, nor even by Carter’s observation that in Stead’s novels “She will allow careless lapses of continuity. People can change names, parentage, age, occupation from page to page, as though she corrected nothing.” Quite so. (Another instance of this in I’m Dying Laughing is Emily’s reference to “my sister Beth” on page 148, who is never heard of again.) But the disappearance of a character from the text signals something more than a slipshod approach to narrative continuity. Stead’s growing sense of dissatisfaction with I’m Dying Laughing had to do with her feeling that the novel’s unwieldiness was caused by entreaties from editors and other readers to concentrate more on the children (whom they felt were more commercially appealing, or perhaps to provide some relief from Emily’s noisy barrage), and the consequent writing had turned her novel into a “papermine”; these diversions were “completely ruining the original plan”: “I recognised that Cyrilly’s [her agent’s] demands…for more family scenes, were only because of TMWLC and I didn’t intend to introduce darling little kiddies – yet I have laboured over pretty Olivia.“
So in these two late novels Stead and Carter take quite different attitudes to motherhood. What is it then, in being a woman, that they both find inimical to the carnival, that means Stead’s protagonist is destroyed by it, that keeps Carter’s heroines from embracing it fully? Neither of Carter’s heroines in Wise Children, Dora and Nora Chance, is incarnated as the principle of the carnival: Dora reports from a sporadically fabulous world but she is a realist narrator, grounded in the material. In this she is most unlike her red and rude Uncle Perry who does embody the carnival, whose ever-expanding body knows no limit, recognizes no difference, and cheerfully assimilates all before it. He is multiple, and therefore elusive: symbolically wreathed in evanescent butterflies, Perry cannot entertain – literally cannot hear – the rational and challenging arguments Dora puts to him about war.
In Wise Children Carter deconstructs English culture, and, for the sake of her argument, the family is divided into two halves: the legitimate Hazards (theatrical royalty) and the illegitimate Chances (music hall performers, film extras and show girls). The women of these two sides embody one half of the carnival each: the Hazard women, circumscribed by patriarchal authority and convention, enact its darker side: negated, unfree, they turn in upon themselves, fighting, cheating and poisoning one another. The bastards Dora and Nora Chance, however, free of convention, get to revel in their left-handedness, in the freedom of living outside of the law, on the “wrong side of the tracks”.
I’m Dying Laughing also deals in questions of legitimacy and outlawry but there are none of the simple divisions that Carter’s polemical fiction offers. Unlike Dora and Nora, Emily partakes in both the light and dark sides of the carnival: she is the feaster and the spoiler, the joker and the killer. But as in Wise Children, where Carter argues that patriarchy permits carnivalesque transgressions of law in war and rape, and where women suffer the consequences of these acts of lawlessness (Granny shouting at the airmen above who drop bombs on women and children, the thirteen year old Dora being seduced/raped by her Uncle Perry), in I’m Dying Laughing, Emily is also unable to survive the carnival’s violent repercussions: she wreaks havoc on the world around her, precipitating Stephen’s death, and this same cataclysmic power leads to her own disintegration and madness.
There have been critics (predominantly the Shakespearean scholars known as the New Historicists) who have argued that the carnival’s rebellions are not subversive but a function of order. Carter makes a similar claim, but in Wise Children the order in question is not Bakhtin’s generic one but specifically patriarchal, sanctioning disorder as a reminder and a symbol of the very force which holds it up. However, Carter’s contention does not lead to a reductionist line of argument – as it can for the New Historicists – denying the carnival any radical or insurrectionary effect, claiming that its upturned world is permitted merely as a ritualized release of hostility which then facilitates the restoration of the ruling power. Rather, she tempers a utopian vision of the carnival with caveats about the effects of its chaos upon women, while still celebrating the fecundity of the carnival and its possibility for change and growth, believing that it cannot be permanently contained, that its radicalism will spread and lead, as Bakhtin says, “toward a shift of authorities and truths, a shift of world orders.”
Stead’s quarrel with the carnival is not as acutely gendered as Carter’s – she does not envisage mothering as a bonding force in the way that Carter does in Wise Children, and this allows Emily to embody both the creative and the destructive sides of carnival. But Emily suffers from her double state and is not able to achieve the triumphant rebirth that Bakhtin allots to similarly double characters in Dostoevsky: “In each of them (that is, in each of the doubles) the hero dies (that is, is negated) in order to be renewed (that is, in order to be purified and rise above himself).” Instead, by the end of I’m Dying Laughing Emily is negated, depleted, annihilated but without the possibility of renewal that Bakhtin argues is “the basic concept of the carnival”. This is not, I think, because Stead is an insufficiently dialogic writer, who fails to deliver “carnivalistic ambivalence” in the manner that Bakhtin describes, by becoming “single-levelled”, but because, like Carter and Miller, she senses that there is some impediment for women, some barrier which prevents them from taking a full part in the carnival.
In her essay, Jane Miller seeks to uncover just what the problem might be. She prefaces her analysis of Bakhtin’s work with a personal recollection of her time as a young student at Cambridge, where she found herself marginalised in that “city of men”, embarrassing them by her assertions of difference. Miller felt she was accepted in the company of male scholars “so long as she laughed and danced for them in the ways literature told them women could and did”, but her questioning of the role of women in male narratives was scarcely tolerated. In Bakhtin, as Miller notes, there is little said specifically about women. They appear briefly in the habit of the uninhibited laughing, dancing creatures that Miller speaks of – in Rabelais and his World Bakhtin writes, “she represents…the undoing of pretentiousness , of all that is finished, completed, exhausted” – or they are present as metaphors: “The female body generally serves as a metaphor for kinds of degradation, but also for an equally death-dealing gentility.”
Perhaps it is in Miller’s questions about the way in which women confront masculine traditions (both orthodox and heretical) – how they locate themselves in relation to them, how they read the meaning of femininity in them – that we can find a reason for Stead’s and Carter’s suspicion of the carnival, even while their novels honour and celebrate it. At the very heart of the carnival, Bakhtin argues, is the idea of death and renewal: “Carnival is the festival of all-annihilating and all-renewing time.” It is only through death that re-birth can occur, and his work is suffused in correlative images of “constructive death” and “pregnant death”.
The language of fertility and reproduction prevails in Bakhtin’s work even as he ignores (as Miller puts it), “all those pains and leakages which are not common to both sexes”: women’s difference is lost in the carnival’s breakdown of barriers (collapsing life into death), and the consequent amassing of experience (collapsing female and male bodies into one undifferentiated mass), creating a world that is “infinitely reversible and remakeable.” However, while Bakhtin presents women’s bodies in an unspecific, metaphorical manner, linking them to the reproductive power of the earth, he also reiterates that the carnival is not made up of “abstract thoughts”, but is to be understood literally: “Carnival is not contemplated and strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it.” This warning not to read the carnival symbolically leaves women in a disturbingly ambivalent position: their role in one half of the carnival, in giving birth, is unacknowledged, and their fate in the other half, in annihilation, is bleak.
Bakhtin’s writing on carnival cheerfully and carelessly appropriates the language of fertility without acknowledging the pains of childbirth, the cost to women of creating and nurturing life. For Stead and Carter, who have written novels in the carnival tradition, the blood, sweat and tears which women expend on creating and sustaining life cannot be so readily turned into fertilizer. In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily knows that for all her creative energy and exuberance she is not Mother Earth – however much her family and public might want her to be – is not that “inexhaustible vessel of conception”. She knows, too, that the reality of her fertility and her femininity means that she cannot partake of the carnival’s freedom and licentiousness without paying a price for it, without, as she protests, finding herself “gagged”. Similarly, Bakhtin speaks of “bloodless carnival wars”, but in Wise Children, Carter’s canny Granny rails at the bombers overhead, knowing that it is men who make war, and that women and children – who have no say in the matter – who are sacrificed in the process.
For male writers the ritual bloodletting of the carnival death continues to present no such problem. An important English language novel of recent times (winner of the ‘Booker of the Bookers’ prize in 1993), Midnight’s Children, ends with a pure image of carnival that suggests carnival’s swoon to the (mother?) earth, its love affair with death, is bound up exclusively with patrilineage. The hero-narrator, Saleem Sinai, a bastard carnivaler himself, is trampled underfoot by the massed population of India, and in perpetuity is followed into “the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes” by generation after generation of similarly bastard sons.
This association of death and renewal was troubling to Stead. In a letter she wrote to her friend Ettore Rella about his play, Smiley the Guru, she struggles with the work’s association of death (a double crucifixion) and creativity, trying to understand the relationship in the idea of tradition: “I was struck…by the deep tradition in your work…much tradition makes for true originality, a paradox – ‘“rank and maddening, a resurrection/smoking up from the immortal genius/of all the dead years…’ a poet of genius said. (Do you know him?) What a phrase! And I have tried to make the leap from there to “O flesh farewell”, your message. But it is not in me, a woman. She goes on to say that the “gloom, despair” of the play makes her anxious, but that she has tried to reconcile these fears by placing the work in the tradition of the Commedia Dell’Arte, finding a remark about the Commedia in which characters are swayed by “a mood of floating melancholy” – a phrase she thinks suits Rella’s piece very well. But this attempt to rationalize her anxiety about its darkness does not quite convince her. She ends by asking Rella “is this the heart of the matter, a tradition? I am afraid it is more than that.”
Stead finds in her friend’s work a connection between the tradition in which he is steeped and the nihilism, the “gloom, despair” of the art he produces out of that tradition. While marvelling at the “paradox” that tradition should produce originality, there is the suggestion of something uncanny about this transaction: a transaction which Stead cannot perform (“it is not in me, a woman”) not simply because the dead souls of tradition are male, but because the exchange seems to require of the artist an idea of surrender to that tradition: as if the poet’s immortality can be gained only through the renunciation of his own mortality (“O flesh, farewell”), the creation of genius and ascension to the canon achieved, not as Eliot – and Bloom – envisaged it in the (Oedipal/Freudian) rebellious act of killing off strong predecessors, but through an act of obedience in answer to the demands of the canonical dead: in an act of self-martyrdom. The idea that death could bestow this kind of significance was something she could not countenance. She told Stanley Burnshaw: “I am strongly opposed to the idea of death, to death, it means nothing to me…”
Like Stead, in I’m Dying Laughing, Emily, the materialist, refuses any mystification of death, seeing surrender to it as weakness (she reminds Stephen that suicide is defeatist: “you know how repugnant and wrong that is to a communist!”) And in the image of the martyr, she finds a corollary for carnival or canonical death which throws an altogether different light on the idea of death in the service of life: of Bakhtin’s “pregnant” or “constructive death”, or of the canon’s “resurrection” of fresh talent from its belly of dead art. Stead, unlike her admired friend Ettore Rella, was a true materialist. For her no possibility of transcendence or metamorphosis could come from death, and this view is reflected by Emily, for whom all death, even in the cause of the carnival’s revolutionary “shift of world orders”, is repulsive and terrifying: ‘“What an extraordinary race to belong to! Ants and bees have organised societies – so they say. It’s all nicely fixed up, mother to son; they don’t turn the anthill upside-down every twenty years. But we say, it’s a tenet, the tree of liberty must be watered every twenty years by the blood of martyrs. Why is it? What is the answer?” “The answer is, revolution is a necessity if we are not to be ants and bees.” “Brr! but it’s murder, it’s terrible.”‘ Emily’s view of death is that of a true materialist (which Bakhtin was not). Her materialist belief is so robust that it tempers her enthusiasm for revolution, cautioning her as to the effects of a world turned upside down, and the likely consequences for her and her family.
iii. The Strong and the Weak
In I’m Dying Laughing Emily complains recurrently about the violence wreaked in moments of anarchy and rebellion (even as she perpetrates her own). As earlier she bemoaned the lack of plan and organisation in American politics (“We haven’t even got a system; or if we have, no one knows what it is”), so in her image of society as a tree watered by the blood of men, she dreads any shift in the rule of society – whether it be by war, the democratic usurping of one administration by the next, or even the kind of popular uprising that, as a communist, she advocates. She feels the danger of all these revolutions and their threat of “bloodletting”. Coming from the underclass, like Carter’s Granny in Wise Children, Emily’s belief is that any blood spilled in these transfers of power will be her own; that the downtrodden will be trodden down once again.
Perceiving herself under attack (“I don’t like to be a martyr, I won’t be a martyr”), Emily builds an armoured personality out of just her will to survive. (She is like Kazan who, after testifying before the Committee and handing over a dozen names, told Miller, that “he came from survivors, and that the job was to survive.”) With only her “smart horse-sense” and stinging wit, her history has been to fight her way up from “the sod-digging level of [her] grandfather”, to join the successful in the American dream. (She contemplates writing “a horror book about that most dreaded figure in American society, a failure.”) Having reached the zenith of the promised land, making it all the way to a star-lit Hollywood, she is determined not to return to that dismal place, not to fall back down to that “dark and bloody ground”.
This understanding of where Emily has come from, and the battle she wages not to return there, is a key to her often paradoxical view of the world: from it flows her lust for life, her communist belief and egalitarian idealism, her desire for order and her fear of chaos; but, conversely, it also feeds her disapproval of the outsider or the bohemian, her identification with strength, and hatred of weakness or nihilism or anything tending toward death – all those insecurities which fuel her Nietzschean selfishness and lack of compassion: “I have no sympathy with suffering and death. If we weren’t cruel,” she tells Stephen, “we’d die.”
Emily knows that she comes from a country where the rule of law is the rule of the jungle, life is a Darwinian battle in which the strong must fight to overcome the weak. In 1935, the year in which I’m Dying Laughing begins, and anticipating what has become doctrinal in American politics today, Emily argues that the Depression is degrading not simply because of the hardships of poverty but because it forces people into dependency upon the state: “It’s sickening for Americans to be living on handouts, when we’re the richest country in the world and believe in the survival of the fittest.” And, American to the core, Emily fights not to be a recipient of handouts, at the mercy of others, but to determine her own place on the food-chain. Living under “American cannibalism-capitalism” she must eat or be eaten, fight or be defeated: “I’m not looking to anyone to save me. Why? Because I’ve got my two fists, just like any Irish worker or bohunk back in the rolling mills.”
Since Emily is used to struggling and taking care of herself, the spoils of her fight – her new money – sit uncomfortably with her. Either she is out of control, like a child set loose in a sweet shop, “too greedy, she wanted to try everything”; or she is over-controlling, suspicious of the people who work for her: at home she obsessively reduplicates the servants’ housework. When she comes into the kitchen one evening to find a stray cat licking one of her baking dishes (left there by Manoel, their Portuguese butler), she erupts in fury. The starving cat has just had kittens but finds in Emily no answering display of maternal feeling. Instead, showing the determination and lack of sentimentality characteristic of the arriviste, she throws the cat out onto the hillside rising behind her Hollywood home: “There were always stray dogs and cats in the hills. People, when they were leaving, took their pets there, hurled them from the cars, and raced back down the glen. At nights, cats howled in the glens and sniffed around the doors.” (There are only a modest number of interpolations Stead allows herself into the dense drama of Emily’s and Stephen’s lives, but when she does pull back from this, to tell us something about the environment these furies inhabit, the images she registers are striking and prescient. She conveys in her Hollywood of the Forties, the first glimpses of a new world, the Californian alien-nation that, in the Sixties, writers like Thomas Pynchon, and later Don DeLillo, would delineate in their map-making novels about the city with its strange inhabitants, and their stranger habits.)
Emily hates the cat, fears its outsider status, its stray, unbelonging, bohemian nature. She seems to sense that this scrapping mongrel hurling itself against her kitchen door, trying to get to the warmth inside, is a cruel parody of herself. When the cat bounds onto the kitchen window-ledge, Emily sits inside, smoking a cigarette, contemplating “its phosphorescent wild eyes through the glass”, as if looking in the mirror. Finally drawn to bed by Stephen’s cajoling, she is unable to sleep (something antithetical to her nature, a waste of life). She bangs on the window to make the feline doppelganger go away, make it leave her in peace, then turns to Stephen and declares she’d like to kill all cats. When he points out that cats kill birds, who in turn kill insects (neither of which she can stand), she responds that they should exterminate all animals by spraying them with DDT (something it becomes apparent she has tried when later we find her walking around her garden, the “grapevines ruined and burned by the DDT spray”): “What use is all this trash in the modern world? Let’s get rid of them and organise the world. They don’t belong to anyone, they don’t like anyone they’re marauders. They eat our food…The world belongs to man or to animals doesn’t it? It’s them or us…We want the world for ourselves. We’re growing at such a rate there won’t be enough for us if we let them maraud and rob and steal…“.
Emily’s desire to destroy those in the animal kingdom she considers undesirable, echoes the social Darwinist enthusiasm of Sam Pollit in Stead’s autobiographical novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Pollit tells his daughter, Louisa: “Why, we might murder thousands – not indiscriminately as in war now – but picking out the unfit and putting them painlessly into the lethal chamber.” He also informs her that she is different from him, not a part of the same golden humanity but of some different order: he tells her she is ugly and ill-bred (rather like the mongrel cat), leaving Louisa to surmise that if she does not try to conform to his desires for a pretty and obedient daughter, then, like the “vaudeville jews” her father so loves to imitate, and the coterie of “old wives”, “female sluts” and “vicious women” he believes himself besieged by, she, too, could become the target of his project for “clearing the way for a eugenic race.” To safeguard herself against this eventuality, Louisa kills the things her father disapproves of – the rebellious, unappealing femininity that does not accord with his vision of a beautiful and pacific world. She kills these attributes not in herself (she remains rebellious), but in a perversion of this (and with her consent to the act) in her depressed step-mother, Henny. At the climax of The Man Who Loved Children, Louisa poisons the unhappy, disappointed woman by putting cyanide in her teacup, then stands by, frozen in mute horror, watching her gulping it down.
In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily is also accused of being a botched woman: she is not, like Louisa, deemed inadequate as a daughter by her father; this time it is Emily’s role as a mother that is impugned, and the patriarchs who indict her belong to the Party. But Emily has a different strategy from Louisa for surviving paternal threats of persecution. The warring scenarios of “cannibalism-capitalism” in I’m Dying Laughing, or of the patriarchal family (the battle-ground upon which Stead was principally intent in The Man Who Loved Children), leave a woman limited choices: she can choose to play the victim and martyr (of the kind Henny enacts through her “weakness, recrimination, convenient ailments, nerves and tears”), or, like Emily, she can perform an act of psychological transvestitism and adopt the role of the patriarch herself: she can try and become the master. Perhaps part of Stead’s complicated relationship with Emily’s original had to do with the fact that Ruth McKenney reminded Stead of her father. In him, a similarly life-affirming exuberance was also translated into something darker and nastier: his belief in eugenics. Like McKenney, David Stead was hugely egotistical and equipped with linguistic powers which allowed him to play the despot in his family. And like McKenney, he could spin out a charm of words which began in life and logic (the brand of scientific rationalism he made recourse to was Darwinist; hers, Marxist) and ended in deathly chop-logic. Stead depicts the fictionalized versions of these people, Sam and Emily, as similarly carried away by language, they are (like Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat and Nellie Cotter in Cotter’s England) dangerous characters who can talk themselves into and out of anything.
However there are important differences between them. The tyrannically cheerful Sam Pollit (the designer of “pollitry” and “Sunday-funday”) rules his family without acknowledging any challenge to his leadership, brooking no dissent from his regime of vigorous optimism and health. Even when Louisa confesses her part in her step-mother’s suicide, and claims that her brother, Ernie, had also intended hanging himself, Pollit refuses to accept this version of events, or the implication for his part in the family’s tragedy. By contrast, Emily (also the family’s breadwinner) attempts the role of master, and appears to dominate her weak husband and confused children, but, as a woman, her rule is not so unassailable. Unlike the strong and handsome Pollit who towers over his family, the very image of masculine power, Emily’s wild appearance – pink-faced, hair “bunched up in spikes and curls”, looking “like a Holbein woman” – makes her seem to her husband more like a figure of fun (albeit a loveable one), than a figure of authority. And when, like Sam Pollit, she is implicated in the death of her spouse, Emily is unable, as Pollit does, to carry on resolutely, refusing to entertain the idea of culpability, and instead is broken by the event.
Evidence of Emily’s fallibility comes on the night of her encounter with the stray, in a dispute with Stephen about what direction their lives should take. This finds her unable to exert her control, even momentarily lost for words, impotent before her husband who collapses her argument by laughing at her crazed demeanour. Their disagreement is precipitated by the dinner party in Hollywood, at which they are assaulted by their communist friends, accused of being renegades. The comrades’ accusations and threats to remove Stephen’s child from their custody, bring to a head Emily’s sense of disgust with their lives. Her battling instincts aroused, she demands of Stephen: “I’m prepared to fight Hollywood, why not you?” Sick of feeling humiliated by the “degrading” scripts she is called upon to churn out for her retainer, Emily wants to “give up everything to write good literature for the working class.”
But Emily is not the only battling outsider in this family, Stephen, too, is an outcast: renounced by his family, disinherited because of his espousal of communism, he is now unprepared to be thrown out into the wilderness once again. Having lost his place in his natural family, he is averse to squandering his place in his elected one, the Party, by falling out over matters of political principle. Nor is he willing to throw away the opportunity for Emily to make money in Hollywood (upon which the support of the Party depends): ““I’m not going to give up the Party or the boys’ favour, because if I didn’t have that, I’d have nothing. I must have their esteem. I gave up my family, its money and esteem. I must have something.”“
Stephen’s petulant argument wins Emily over. But this is not simply because of his intransigence, and his protestations that her belligerence is giving him an ulcer, but because he argues that their bottom line must be the family and the need to support it at all costs, to keep hunger from their door. Such an assertion plays directly into Emily’s vulnerability, her fear of returning to the impoverished place from which she has come. Stephen’s appeal to her to abandon righteousness, not to “argue back” to “the great stone faces of the Party”, but knuckle under, toe the line, and continue to write the empty-headed comic cuts which have reaped great rewards in the past – all this prevails because it exploits Emily’s sense of beleaguerment. Having aroused the spectre of her insecurity, Stephen proceeds to frustrate Emily’s argument for a life based on solidarity, on political and artistic integrity: “Oh, heavens, who can fight with you?” she writhes in frustration, “Oh, you won’t listen to what I mean. There’s no getting round you. Oh you drive me crazy.” Instead, he counters her demand for moral rectitude with something much more seductive: a programme of ‘us against the world’, a shared battle of retribution: ““I want to destroy my enemies in the family and outside with the terrible acid of success and melt them to the bone-dust with your help if I can do it.”
So Emily’s rejection of the cat that night represents something much more substantial than the moment of frisson it affords the reader – it is also a symbolic encounter. In abandoning the stray, Emily deserts her communion with the poor, the downtrodden and the outcast, and opts instead for her own survival and that of her family. The battle over conscience continues to rage throughout the novel but, after this, rather than regarding herself in some fraternal relationship to others, deep-down Emily sees herself only in competition with them. And this keen and fundamental competitiveness rapidly tips over into paranoia: it is not just other human beings she has to fear, but all the creatures of the planet who become a threat. As she falls asleep, Emily continues to think about the real and imaginary animals she would turn out of Eden, the “flying snakes” and all their disturbingly different associates; how she would impose upon her wayward rivals “laws and measures against the free-living part of the world, those who spoke other tongues than ours, who hissed, chirped, rattled, scuttled, flew, slid.”
The pluralist dream of heaven on earth Emily discovered among her anti-fascist comrades in Paris, the vision of writers, great and obscure, banqueting with the gods on “the largest dishes they had ever seen, silver boats and coracles used no doubt by Jupiter guzzling in heaven,” is quashed. From now on feasting will become a function not of inclusiveness but of exclusivity, the symbol of Stephen’s battle-cry for “acid success”, of their vitriolic triumph over others. Having thrown the cat out, the pleasure Emily takes that night is no longer in ideas of fecundity and abundance, of enough for all, as it was in Paris, but in its obverse: what satisfies her now is the sight of a sterile and empty kitchen “smell[ing] of various cleaning agents”, where the dishrags have been soaked in vinegar, boiled and hung out to dry.
iv. Capitalism and the American Family
Stephen’s refusal to fight the Party represents his fear of being ostracised for a second time, and his determination to keep faith with his beliefs. But (like his demands that Emily should continue to write drivel in order that the family might live well) having once before renounced financial security, Stephen’s desire not to take another bite out of the hand that feeds him – they take seriously the Party’s influence over hiring and firing – is, more pointedly, a reversion to the selfishness of his class. He may have been disinherited by his family, but his behaviour can still be understood in the light of his upbringing. Although on the night of their row Emily’s insecurity makes her succumb to his arguments, she knows that at the heart of her husband’s actions lies not stoic acceptance of Party discipline but his ingrained allegiance to his family and all that it symbolizes.
A key to this understanding is Stephen’s relationship with his Uncle Maurice, who lives in France in “his museum of a home”, an accumulator of esoteric objets. “He collects – all sorts of oddities, delicious objects that I like and admire”, Stephen tells Emily, “It took me years to understand him, for it seemed boyish to me – collecting.” His feeling that his uncle is “boyish”, that he is not fully a man, is a covert reference to his homosexuality, though when Emily confronts him with this in a row over Christy’s future, baiting him nastily (“Maybe he’d become a fairy like Uncle Maurice, he’s pretty enough -”), Stephen responds furiously, shouting: “Emily, shut up! You’re drunk; Uncle Maurice is not a fairy. He’s a gentleman bachelor.” Stephen’s refusal to acknowledge that his uncle is homosexual, however, is not simply a matter of good manners or family secrets, it relates to the fact that in Emily’s eyes Maurice represents something about his family and about Stephen himself which he does not wish to confront: that their problems are typical of their class. All their behaviour can be understood in the light of the family’s role as a building block of American capitalism – their pedigree confirmed, Stephen reports, in a register of the most powerful clans in America in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Early in her marriage Emily is enchanted by her husband’s relatives (her vision of them hanging in an art gallery calls to mind Sartre’s description in Nausea of the way in which the powerful inscribe and perpetuate their authority): “It’s such a beautiful way to live…all with different personalities, leaving each other alone and admiring each other. A united family…like a picture gallery somewhere in Italy – all the portraits, elegantly drawn by some master of the day – tray raffinay. A friendly master – a court painter – not a hater of the rich. Till now, I never knew the rich were decent.“
But she is soon disabused of this illusion of freedom, unity and decency. Stephen informs her that his is a family of shrewd, first-rate businessmen and women who, having achieved success, now have no need to make money, (“For us the dollar-fever crisis has passed”) but continue to do so out of “pride and honour; [because] one has a duty towards money.”161 Not decency or freedom as Emily first supposes, but this obligation to money is the family creed, an ideology springing directly from their money-making endeavours in hotel management and property speculation. In I’m Dying Laughing, Stead (showing how, as always with her, the political is personal) argues that theirs is a system rotten with avarice which inevitably infiltrates and infects the mercenary families who are responsible for it. As Stephen acknowledges, ruefully: “You eat the spittle of a class that knows no pity and it will poison you.”
Stead’s portrait of the Howard clan, typical of their class, reveals them at once to be strong and manipulative, but also tired and inept. What she is demonstrating with this peculiar combination of power and weakness – some relatives, like Anna, persist in the ruthless pursuit of money, others, like Maurice the collector, are “all gentle now, or ridiculous cranks” – is the inherent failing of capitalism, the way in which its dynamism, productivity and exploitation lead inexorably to surfeit, and thus to behaviour that is excessive or eccentric, to degeneration and bohemianism.
Through this dialectic, Stead conveys the eery way in which capitalism manifests itself as strength and weakness, substance and insubstantiality, fullness and emptiness. These are qualities which Emily shares, because she, too, is a product of the system. But her relation to it, like her relation to Stephen’s family, is always complex. To them, Emily is someone without the refinements of their class: rough, loud and crude, she is the worker, the “golden goose” whose talents are to be exploited. And as an outsider she is divided in her feeling about them: she is the Nietzschean battling her way to the power of the insiders, to gain the advantages the capitalist enjoys; while at the same time she is the Marxist wanting to see the family and the system which put her on the outside, overwhelmed by revolution. When Stephen first describes his uncle to Emily, he says that he, too, is “really another Uncle Maurice” (meaning that he is like him having studied at the Sorbonne, and in being an aesthete, without occupation), but that his mother is “thankful I am not” (meaning that she is thankful he is not, like Maurice, homosexual). Stephen is not literally homosexual, but the likeness to Maurice is telling, obliquely associating him with received notions of homosexual men as weak and emasculated, traits which Emily later ascribes to his whole family.
During the argument about Christy, Emily calls the Howard family “effete” and “left-sided”, and Stephen’s son “a runt of the pedigree stock”. Her frequent accusations that Stephen is a “vampire”, lazy and living off her, (“Work, goddamn it, work!” he yells, refusing to work himself), all reinforce the sense of Stephen and Christy as “bloodless” scions, the tail-end of a family that is parasitic, unproductive and therefore doomed. When Emily and Stephen meet on their first voyage to Europe, she falls in love with him because his “effete personality and… emaciated comeliness” present a foil to her ruddy good health and strength, his wan beauty reminds her of an El Greco. But after the destruction of their lives in America and the echoing carnage of war in Europe, this image of deathliness and passive acceptance repels her: she “can’t love the humble and desperate”, nor will she join the millions of “crucified ones” who “hunger for anonymity and death.” Right to the end, even in her vagabond disarray on the steps of the Forum in Rome, Emily refuses any semblance of the Christ-like martyr: “The son of man has nowhere to lay his head?” she scoffs, “That is absurd. You can lay it anywhere, I lay my head on the steps and I stay here.”
Stephen’s son’s Christy, has a name that suggests he will be condemned to suffering, to playing the part of victim which Emily so fears and loathes: acted upon rather than acting, he is a slow, indecisive boy, and according to Emily less able even than his impotent father. Stephen’s troubled relationship with Christy is caused not simply by the fact that he is to inherit the riches Stephen has forfeited, but because Christy reminds him of himself, of the useless self that he had tried (in joining the Party, in marrying Emily) to forgo, and of the failure he has made of his rebellion from his family and class.
Riven in their view of the world and how to live in it, Stephen and Emily have a schizophrenic relationship to his wealthy family, regarding them at one moment as the strong and influential clan of Howards and Tanners and Drovers to whom they are in thrall, agreeing cravenly to live their lives as the family demands in return for the promise of cash. But in the next (in those moments when their communist conscience reasserts itself) they are seen as the enemy: a ruthless bunch whose “rough and ready vandal capitalism” is responsible for “one-third of a nation bone-idle and suffering from beriberi and malnutrition”, a family – as the doctrine goes – whose decadence and exploitation can lead only to ruin, to a revolution from those they have oppressed.
Uncle Maurice in part serves to reinforce this latter view – making them a family devoid of any strong masculine presence: comprised only of the weak Stephen, the confused teenage Christy and the homosexual Maurice. It is Stephen’s mother Anna who holds the power in the family (granting her husband an allowance), together with his sister Florence who has a substantial inheritance of her own. That it is women who are powerful is a further sign of the family’s dysfunction: like an East Coast version of one of Faulkner’s tribes petering out at the end of the line, they are capable now of producing only pale imitations of themselves – Christy’s weakness echoing Stephen’s, Olivia’s preening and vanity (“this revolting success in life, the perfect woman”, is Stephen’s description of her) echoing her aunt’s and grandmother’s. And as in Faulkner, ( in The Sound and the Fury, for instance) where new family members are given the same names as those of the previous generation, in I’m Dying Laughing this state of solipsism and exhaustion is suggested by the name of another of Stephen’s uncles – Howard Howard.
Proof of the Howard family’s decline is found also in its inability to consolidate itself in marriage or stable parenting: children get moved around like pawns on a chessboard. When Stephen’s first wife, an heiress, dies, she leaves neither her fortune nor her daughter to his care, believing him too idle to inherit money and of too “indecisive [a] nature” to look after Olivia. The infant is passed on to her sister-in-law. But Florence’s health also proves frail, and her life with a left wing artist is deemed unsuitable for a small child. So Olivia is handed on again, this time into her grandmother’s care. Anna, however, does not want to keep her, but nor does she want her granddaughter to return to “an irregular household” (Florence and the artist are unwed). Reluctantly, she decides that unsuitable a match as she deems Emily to be for her son, she nevertheless “loves her home; she is a homemaker”, and therefore grants Stephen and Emily guardianship of the doll-like Olivia. But Anna has few doubts about her platinum-haired, blue-eyed granddaughter. A predatory and vicarious woman, she “look[s] forward to her adolescence”, never really doubting the child’s fate, believing that despite the subversive influence of Florence and Emily and Stephen the vain girl will not become a traitor: “When the time came,” she was certain, “Olivia would do what all the girls of her class did.”
Testifying to Stead’s irritation with the way in which family matters seemed to frustrate the central story of Emily and Stephen, much of the background information about the complicated marital status of Stephen’s family is handled in a rather peremptory fashion, hurriedly dispatched by Stead, warranting no more than a few pages in this long novel. But the familial delineation is important, nevertheless, serving as it does to show just how the American brand of capitalism seeped into private life setting its culture and tone, instigating marriages, divorces and control of children, and dividing family members against one another. In a potted family background we learn that like Olivia, Christy too is the target of his grandmother’s schemes. He is Stephen’s nephew, the child of his sister Brenda and her alcoholic husband Jake Potter (a harmless man, another collector, but set to work in one of the Howard hotels where he takes to the drink), and like Olivia, the inheritor of his mother’s wealth. As their marriage collapses Brenda returns to the protective bosom of her mother and sister. Despite their financial power, women in the Howard family do not fare well and she also dies, leaving Potter to admit his unsuitability as a parent, adding Christy to Stephen and Emily’s growing brood. (The sturdy Giles is their only ‘natural’ child, and Lennie, Emily’s nephew, is erased from the script in the second half of the book.)
So Emily’s and Stephen’s family relationships are never secure: first when Florence tries to regain custody of Olivia with the aid of the Party in Hollywood, and then, again, in Europe when Anna threatens to take Christy and Olivia back to the States, their parentship is constantly undermined, their family life played out in a state of paranoia and siege that echoes the nervous political climate of McCarthy’s America, and then the disconcerting cynicism and moral ambiguity the Howards encounter in post-war France. Anna, described scathingly by her son as a “nice schoolgirl who knows nothing but triple-entry bookkeeping”, refuses to think about the exploitation upon which her riches are predicated even when Stephen confronts her with the suffering the Howards are responsible for. Her life is spent trying to control the family and, therefore, to control the flow of its money (she plans to buy the buildings around her on East 75th Street to create a “Howard Village”, and bribes her relatives to come and live where she can keep an eye on them – a temptation that Stephen and Emily refuse in the early days after their marriage when they are still full of hope and idealism).
Stead’s portrayal in I’m Dying Laughing of the warring Howard family (split between capitalists and communists or fellow travellers) is not an idiosyncratic one. Inheriting vast fortunes from their robber baron forbears, many second and third generation legatees who had not earned their wealth, and who inherited at the height of a depression for which their predecessors were (as Stephen believes) responsible, found the callousness of their families in the face of the suffering caused by their American brand of “rough and ready vandal capitalism”, difficult to live with. It was their guilt, and the fear of this poison eating them up, that in the Thirties took many children of the privileged and wealthy into social work and political radicalism something which perplexes Emily when she first meets Stephen, finding such apparent altruism almost anti-American: “I don’t understand…why you rich are all such do-gooders. Not one in my bailiwick. Arnold’s [her brother] just a Village Pink. The rest discuss the baseball scores over the dividing fence and a whisky and soda in the evening, and neck over a banana split at the drugstore, Saturday.“
But as in Hollywood where Stead and others felt the pool-side radicalism of the wealthy was often at best faint-hearted, at worst merely opportunistic, the motivation for the activism of the rich is perhaps not so much altruistic as penitential; and as Stephen recalls of his own early political involvement, the resulting efforts of this radical chic and its failure to connect in any meaningful way with the working classes could be laughably naive and ineffective: “We lived in a Californian bohemia, marched for causes with placards, threw parties for Negroes, Mexicans and others who have no reverence for our coronets and kind hearts; they simply drank up the hooch, went away and forgot our names.“
v. Macho Men and Anxious Women
The gap between well-meaning bourgeois radicals and the workers they wanted to appeal to is in sharp contrast with the romantic ideal of the working class activists of an earlier generation, the rough battlers of the IWW and their like. But as Stead shows in I’m Dying Laughing, (unlike Stephen and other Californian bohemians with their “airy almost girlish way[s]”), there were still some men in the Party in the Thirties and Forties who were butch enough to fit the bill, whose manliness was never in doubt – indeed, it formed a large part of their attraction. One such is Jean-Marie McRoy the old friend Emily meets on her first trip to France. McRoy is of immigrant extraction (part French-Canadian, part Scot and Russian), a rabble-rouser and bare-knuckle boxer who, who when Emily knew him as a student, was always in trouble with the authorities for fist-fights defending Sacco and Vanzetti and Karl Marx. Later, he tells her, he became a stevedore and a sailor. His wildness and truculence, his independence, all appeal to Emily – he is, she thinks: “…a magnificent animal; because he roared, went on benders, didn’t shave, didn’t dance and would come towering in, full of drink and smiling strangely, separate, threatening, ready to smash-hit, or shout rough laughter, or topple. Drunk or sober, he argued and fought.“
In the second volume of her autobiography, Doris Lessing, looking back to her days in the Party, is sceptical now about the “romanticism, not to say sentimentality… [that] permeates the left wing”: this was a movement in thrall to its history, “monitored by the ghosts of heroes and heroines.” But at the time she was not immune to the charm of these ‘romantic’ men, falling for one herself (resembling McRoy in many respects, the similarity showing us how exactly Stead had conveyed the type of man): the child of poor Russian immigrants, both labour organisers and trade unionists, he was a nomad who liked to converse with the ghosts, with “Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jefferson, Mother Bloor, John Brown, as well as Rosa Luxembourg, Speransky, Bukharin, Trotsky…” For him the history of the United States was “all heroic battles, and often bloody confrontations with government.” And Lessing was not alone in her attraction: Jessica Mitford also recounts how charged and exciting she found such men:
I was enchanted by the flesh-and-blood Communists we now began meeting [when she joined the Party in 1944], veterans of the 1934 waterfront strike, of the trade union organizing drive of the thirties, of bitter battles between agricultural workers in the San Joaquim valley and hired thugs sent by Associated Farmers. Buddy, still in his twenties…Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, he had escaped from the South at the age of seventeen by jumping freight trains, and had come to Oakland with his teenaged wife Mary shortly before the War. He had worked variously as a middle-weight prize-fighter, long shoreman, ships fitter, merchant seaman.
A few years later, Simone de Beauvoir, visiting America just after the war, met and fell in love with a writer she placed in this rough-living, hard-drinking tradition of manly political radicalism. In a letter to Jean-Paul Sartre, written in January 1946, she describes the attractions of her new lover, the novelist Nelson Algren: “He’s a typical American, poker-faced and physically inexpressive, who started off travelling across America on freight trains and working as a ‘pin-boy’ – the person who picks up the skittles in bowling alleys…He writes books about Chicago – where he has always lived – that remind you both of Saroyan and Damon Runyon. And he’s more or less a communist, of course…I found my guy in his little, indigent intellectual’s room and he took me to the streets and bars of the Polish neighbourhood. The bars were very agreeable: outside the wind was bitter and we’d hurry inside to down a vodka in the warm. He showed me old gangster bars and told lots of stories.”
Perhaps part of the attraction of these strong, independent men lay in the effect their company had upon the women who sought them out: their palpable virility serving to reinforce the sense of a woman’s femininity, allowing her to doubly inhabit what were still thought of, habitually, as male realms (as writers, and as battlers for the cause) without finding such unorthodox behaviour tainting them with the brush of bohemia – making them women who might appear strange; or sexually threatening, unattractive or ambiguous. Mary McCarthy, for instance, was alarmed by what she thought of as the sexually predatory women she met at Party socials (admittedly, her askance look is dressed in the guise of aesthetic and sartorial snobbery – as the Paris Review reported her self-presentation was streamlined and modest by comparison with the colourful Party women, just a “simple beige dress with little jewellery”): “On couches with wrinkled slipcovers, little spiky-haired girls, like spiders, dressed in peasant blouses and carapaced in Marxian jewellery, made voracious passes at babyfaced juveniles; it was said that they ‘did it for the Party’, as a recruiting effort.“
This picture of radical women as sexually voracious fits with an image that was prevalent in America of the castrating women, the “praying mantis” that Simone de Beauvoir refers to in The Prime of Life, and which Lorna Sage has argued was a product of the times: “along with the Cold War, the America of the 1940s and 1950s saw a new phase in the sex war.” Sage points out that it was not just radical women who were labelled in this fashion – female intellectuals were similarly characterised for not coinciding with an idea of the way in which women should behave. That women internalised these images and were collusive in perpetrating them is perhaps inevitable. In a review of a collection of Paris Review interviews with women writers (all from the twentieth century), Brenda Maddox observes that for those authors like Susan Sontag who inhabited the “post-Liberation world”, it was much easier to “rejoice in the achievement of women”, but women writers of the earlier generation (as Toni Morrison observes in her interview) “grew up thinking that men knew better.” Maddox argues that: “In this era, clever women preferred male company and savaged other women. And savaged them well. Mary McCarthy’s opinion of Simone de Beauvoir – ‘I think she’s pathetic that’s all’ – is pure 1961. (Later in the interview, she changed the “pathetic” to “odious”.) Rebecca West, speaking to Marina Warner, said frankly that she saw no advantage in being a woman writer; it all would have been easier as a man.“
McCarthy’s policing of other women’s behaviour (both as writers and political activists) was not untypical. Elizabeth Hardwick was another writer who couched her criticism or appreciation of women authors in terms of their sexual identity: for instance, she wrote admiringly of McCarthy for softening the hardness of the female intellectual (who needed a “great measure of personal attractiveness” to allay the tendency in women intellectuals to “the governessy, the threat of earnestness and dryness”). And in a review of The Man Who Loved Children McCarthy criticised Stead for producing a novel that she perceived as “a hysterical tirade”, “a sort of mechanical monstrosity”.
Such attitudes to uncircumscribed female expression (political or artistic), and the bohemia to which it could consign women, was not the prerogative of the West, however. As Emily had noted earlier, communists were also peddling a view of women which sought to constrict them, one which frowned upon sexual freedom (hence the restriction in abortion laws which worry her and Ruth Oates), and complemented the assault upon deviant masculinity: the effeminate, decadent intellectuals so reviled by Comrade Zhdanov and his acolytes. Stead (anxiously) repudiates the idea that political and artistic dissidence might lead to sexual unorthodoxy in an article for Left Review, in which she describes the participants at the 1935 writers’ anti-fascist conference (which Stephen and Emily also attend). She informs the journal’s readers that “The hall was not full of half-feminine masculine and half-masculine feminine rebels. They were neat, had no postures and poses.”
In I’m Dying Laughing, Uncle Maurice, homosexual and a part of the rich and spoilt Howard family, is perhaps the antithesis of the emphatically strong, heterosexual working class men that communist women like Stead, Lessing, Mitford and De Beauvoir tended to fall for romantically, and politically to romanticize (as Lessing later thought). But Maurice, who is liked by both Emily and Stephen, fares much better than other gay characters in Stead’s novels who, echoing contemporary anxiety about sexuality, are connected, invariably, to negative ideas of bohemia, to its decadence and destructiveness. This association is pressed furthest in Cotter’s England where Nellie Cotter, a lesbian (albeit a married one), talks a lonely young woman into suicide. In interviews Stead spoke freely about her feelings towards lesbianism, “pure freakery” she thought it. The reasons for her hostility can be accounted for simply by the prevailing prejudices of the time, but beyond these, and the Party’s attitude to sexual ambiguity, Stead’s dislike of homosexuality had a more specific foundation: one connected to her beliefs about creativity and love.
In her correspondence, and in interviews, Stead often remarked that she felt the impulse to write and to love both sprang from the same well: the urge to create: “Writing is creative, loving is creative. It’s exactly the same…” she said. In 1967 she wrote to Stanley Burnshaw about her progress on I’m Dying Laughing, saying that after a period away from the novel she could see it now with greater clarity, “as one sees things after a love-affair”. She believed strongly that it was the union between men and women that gave rise to the creative impulse, whether in love or in art, telling her younger brother David that this was borne out by the fact that she had written nothing substantial since Blake’s death: “To think it is two years since Bill died and I have not turned out anything…Well, it is a great tearing-apart and however calm one tries to be the essentials of living have changed.”
Like Emily, who believed it had “been her greatest stroke of luck” to have met Stephen, and that this was something she would “never forget,” Stead also felt that it was luck which had brought her to Blake, “a curious turn of fate” is how she describes their meeting after her first few days in London, and that his love and support had enabled her to live her life as an artist: without him some essential part of her writer’s make-up was missing. Seven years after complaining of her literary inactivity to her brother, she wrote to an old friend, saying that she was still suffering from writer’s block: “What am I doing? Nothing but empty nothing…It looks as if I can’t get on alone; but need a life companion…the only thing for me is love between man and woman and that is the only thing that makes me work.“
Perhaps, too, Stead was influenced in her belief about homosexuality by her naturalist father: like him she thought it important to remember that human beings were a part of the animal world. It was wrong for women to be separated from men, the union of men and women she felt was the ‘natural’ one: homosexuality, by extension, was not. Added to this was the Party line which attacked homosexuality not simply on the grounds that it was immoral, but because its practice appeared avowedly bohemian, affronting ideas of orthodoxy and normality – the centre ground which communists were struggling to achieve. (As Monique Wittig has argued, homosexuality is not only the desire for one’s own sex, “it is also the desire for something else that is not connoted. This desire is resistance to the norm.”)
Whatever feelings of fear or disgust Stead may have already held were added to when, feeling vulnerable and alone, she arrived in London at the age of twenty-six. Discussing the genesis of Cotter’s England in a letter, she recounts to friends an incident from this time (rather confusingly and excitedly written) that made a strong impact upon her: “For you two only and once by accident I walked in on a row of black crows just after the suicide (murder!) – one second I saw them (to get an umbrella left behind), and that second is the basis of the Walpur-gisnacht [sic] – many years ago when I first came to London an Australian, a woman, whom I did not know but heard of, was put to death in some such way by some such women; it stuck with me.“
But if Stead was shocked, even repelled by the displays of homosexuality she witnessed in London, she also revelled in the greater degree of sexual openness she encountered, shortly after, during her early days in Paris. Another letter home recounted her delight in taking a young Australian woman with a rather limited experience of the world, to sample the delights of one of the most famous and, by the standards of the time, sexually overt revues in Paris: “I went Sunday week to the Casino de Paris (which is the same thing as the Folies Bergères) with an Australian girl…She is from Sydney: she is all that there is of Australian, plus a strong accent, simple, colonial, unsophisticated …She has been in Paris three months with some French women, en pension, and has seen absolutely nothing. I took her to the Casino de Paris where we saw perfect revue spectacles, unimaginable dresses, obscene wit (in French, for the safety of simple Austns) and show women with beautiful naked bodies…“.
Perhaps contributing to Stead’s responses to these two events was the fact that the first episode was confusing and covert, and thereby connected in Stead’s mind with something shameful, nihilistic, deathly, while the second was an overt display of sexuality taking place in public beneath the bright lights of the Folies Bergères. These differing atmospheres – the clandestine and the forthright – Stead felt were characteristic, embedded in the fabric of the two cities: “London is crooked, narrow, dirty and ill-conceived,” she wrote to a friend, “Paris is a pearl of delicacy, brilliance and suavity.”
In Stead’s account of her own journey from Australia to Europe, transposed in the autobiographical novel For Love Alone (1945), her heroine, Teresa, longs for a climate of greater openness, one without cultural narrowness or stifling shame about sex, and hopes to find in Europe a place in which she can express her love and creativity freely. In an appreciation of Stead, Rebecca West argues that for many women living in the new world, Europe seemed the only route to a life of fulfilment: “Teresa knows she is intelligent; and though that is not an asset in the groups to which she belongs she has the feeling that somewhere things will be different. Australia had when this books was written, quite a promising culture, but that culture had come from England. And she supposes that if she could get to England she might be respected for her brains, and even, which is of immense importance to her, be loved for it by some cultured man.”
Shari Benstock’s pioneering study, Women of the Left Bank. Paris 1940-1948 (1986), of the neglected contribution of women, and particularly American expatriate women (many of whom were lesbian), to the development of modernism in Paris, makes a similar point about the breath of fresh air that Paris afforded women from another ex-colony: “These women appeared to share a common factor in expatriating: they wanted to escape America and to find in Europe the necessary cultural, sexual and personal freedom to explore their creative intuitions.” (Though Stead, ever on the outskirts, fails to win even a footnote in this work on the marginalising of literary women.) Gertrude Stein, the best-known and perhaps the most influential of the modernist women assessed in Benstock’s work, responded to a questionnaire from transition – a magazine edited by another of Benstock’s subjects, Maria Jolas and her husband – sent out to expatriate writers in Paris, asking them why they chose to live abroad. Stein wrote that she preferred Europe because of the unsophisticated, parochial mentality prevalent in the States, holding the country back where it had once heralded the future: “America is the mother of twentieth century civilization, but she is now early Victorian.”
I’m Dying Laughing is an ambitious novel. In it Stead explores not only cultural and literary ideas – the carnivalesque relationships between feasting and starvation, fecundity and sterility, life and death – but also, in her dissection of the relationship between the family and America’s business class, the social and economic. Equally important is her interest in the geo-political, her pursuit of the dialectic between America and Europe (the physical spheres into which the two halves of the novel divide roughly). Like Stein, who abandoned the staleness and conformity of her young homeland for the more progressive attitudes of Europe’s older culture, Stead, too, found many paradoxes in the relationship.
Initially Emily presents the two continents in opposition: America is young, vigorous, strong and democratic, a nation high on “the easy success of belonging and belonging to heaven and the angels”; Europe is old, weak, decadent and enslaved, “exhausted by wars and landowners spending the bone-dust of serfs at Nice and Monte Carlo” – as Emily puts it in one of her many gothic moments. But (in a manner characteristic of Stead’s insistence on connectedness, her rebuke of purity) the water which divides these two continents quickly muddies. Stead contemplates the ways in which these ostensibly divergent civilizations correlate – how ideas, and patterns of behaviour, and populations flow back and forth between them – finding echoes and correspondences which, despite America’s ascendancy and Europe’s decline, bind them together.
Despite this considerable canvas, for a novelist who is by today’s standards (as Angela Carter points out) so impressively ambitious, so interested in the world and confident of the novel’s capacity to speak saliently about it, Stead is remarkably unprogrammatic. This is not just a negative result of her ‘looseness’ as a writer, nor her buoyant disregard for the more trifling details of character or plot, but pertains to the way in which she engages the reader in what are often quite multiform and intricate concepts – like the association between America and Europe – without recourse to signposting or evident structuring in her narrative. Stead allows ideas to emerge organically from the complexity of her characters (aided by the fact that they are usually curious, speculative and voluble people) and their relationship to the world. In I’m Dying Laughing the most pertinent example of this is Stead’s generation of contrapuntal argument from Emily’s position as both emblem and critic of America.
On her first voyage out leaving the land of the consumer, heading for the land of culture (“They’ve got so much culture over there they throw it away like…we threw away beefsteaks and turkeys in the garbage cans”) – Emily sails from New York’s harbour, past Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty, seeing it for the first time. Her esoteric view of the world means that she regards the statue not as customarily seen – a symbol of the American dream, the land of opportunity – but literally: Emily is impressed by this gargantuan woman rising before her, the vast, irrefutable strength and terrifying gigantism, and in it (signalling the extent of her narcissism and ambition) sees a mirror of herself. Emily’s moment of self-recognition is as shocking as Catherine Earnshaw’s announcement in Wuthering Heights of her profane identification with the masculine and the outlawed (“Nellie, I am Heathcliff!”) so, here, Emily informs us of something similarly taboo, similarly monstrous: that she is powerful, multitudinous and knowing enough to embody her nation: that she is America: ““Ah me! [my emphasis] I know everything there is to know about that dame. She’s French, their idea of the wheatfed goddess. Her nose is Greek, four feet six inches long; but her waist, oh, her waist, is thirty-five feet round. Mrs Midwest America herself; can you see her in a mother hubbard?…You know, there are 200,000 pounds of copper sheeting in her?…And her mouth, like mine, is three feet wide!”“
But emphatic as this monumental image is, Emily tells her shipboard companions that the enervating effects of the Depression have sapped some of America’s stridency, arousing disturbing inklings of the nation’s self-consciousness and fallibility: ““Why does it happen? The USA is a rich country; it’s been plundered only by us. Nobody invades us…We’re worrying about farm surpluses! We’re full of mineral, lumber, rivers – workers, steel mills, cattle, pigs, corn – how can it be worth nothing? How are we poor? How can we be rich, rich, rich – and then suddenly a stock market crash and overnight we’re poor, poor, dying in our tracks…”.
And after Emily has returned from foraging in the cultural trash cans of Europe, and after the War and the onset of McCarthyism, she finds American confidence in its own idealism and self-righteousness further eroded, making it harder to think of as the land of liberty, fraternity, equality. Now, home-grown witch-hunts seem nauseatingly to mimic the dark days of European fascism: American life too has become polluted from the Senate to the kitchen by its own “domestic…denunciation and denouncers”.
It’s a measure of the prescience and power of I’m Dying Laughing that Stead registers so accurately the tone of Cold War America, sounding ever louder and brasher, trumpeting its virility and invincibility, all the while increasing the gap between the nation’s descriptions of itself, and the discontent simmering below (soon to erupt in the subsequent revolutionary decade). Brilliantly capturing this thwartedness, Stead conjures in Emily not only an acute diagnostician of America, but also its warped product: as indomitable as her nation and intent upon overwhelming her own enemies, even the ravages and limits of life itself: ““I never want to be old, withered, hideous. There is no dignity of old age or disease. I hate the stench of death. I hate death. There must come a time when we conquer death. What’s the point of tinkering with salves and bandages? Just to help us be a cadaver in the mortuary. Life is such a wonder! How did it come about? I’m breathless thinking about it.”
Seeking to cheat her fate, Emily finds her way to Park Avenue and the surgery of the eponymous Dr Parks, the dispenser of a serum “said to prolong life,” (it’s a forerunner of the Dylar drug in White Noise, Don DeLillo’s preeminent novel of American paranoia), to create bodies with the same permanence, perhaps, as the Statue of Liberty. However just as Stead reminds us that that beacon light of America, shining out across the Atlantic, is, in fact, “French, their idea” of America, so, it transpires, this quintessentially American notion (“the great American dream of a life without pain and without conclusion” is how one critic puts it) – materialized, here, in the form of the Bogomoletz serum – is Russian.
Just as those emigrés who flocked to Hollywood infused American cinema with Europe’s nightmares and dreams, creating strange dystopias (Lang) and utopias (Lubitsch), finding an audience hungry for new experiences, for visions of other possible lives, so scientific dreamers and quack doctors met equally covetous new populations, also eager to have their wildest dreams realized, to be literally injected with a promise of the future. And when Stead first visited New York in 1935 she felt that the city’s aspiring architecture, “looking at the blue sky”, was also designed to articulate and inculcate these fantasies of longevity and over-coming: “One wishes for eternal youth in this land (Central Park West lined with giant apartment houses) to see what will happen next. It makes one feel that life has only just started and that the normal span should be about 200 years.“
This American preoccupation with the horizon provides a rich seam for Stead in her final novel, because contrarily enough (as she observes) it results in a nation in a state of arrest: perpetually nascent, eternally postponing maturity or conclusion. It’s a phenomenon which has bothered other writers, Arthur Miller, for instance, connected the lack of moral authority in those who wanted to resist McCarthyism but failed to do so, with a kind of chronic national immaturity. He was thinking particularly about the wasting of writers like Odets in Hollywood and the way in which their behaviour kept them unfledged and incapable of speaking with any moral force at times of crisis like the McCarthy trials: “Why were there so few Americans so far beyond corruption that their voices were undeniable by any honest person?…Was it simply that we consumed everything including our truth-tellers at such a rate that none of them ever seemed to mature?“
This debate about the state of American culture has lately become more intense with arguments about growing illiteracy, a climate of ‘dumbing down’ and the ‘closing of the American mind’. In a study of contemporary popular culture Robert Burt talks of American society as “childish, regressive, immature, and infantile” and in “the Nineties [of a] context of diminishing expectations.” In I’m Dying Laughing Stead anticipates this anxiety about (what Burt calls) America’s “kiddie culture”, and Emily, her symbolic American, is constantly referred to by Stephen as someone in just such an arrested state, as someone who has not grown up: she is “a foolish little girl”, “a very sweet, young, innocent fool”. Dr Coriolis – the refugee Emily meets in Parks’s waiting room and becomes childishly besotted with – also thinks of her as “fascinating, American and forever young”, while to a male friend in Europe she is still only a “toddler.” Twice a week Emily goes to Dr Parks to “guzzle at the fountain of youth”, and she finds there a clientele just as avid as herself in their pursuit of prolonged life. True to her thwarted state, her kinship with these emotionally stalled characters never impedes Emily’s ability to caricature them: “Dr Park’s waiting-room was full. There were also people who wanted the treatment for their animals; but the supply of serum was limited. Emily talked with everyone in the waiting-room and came home full of the grotesque vanity of these peculiar people who wanted to live for ever, ‘not to mention their hound-dogs’.“
Stead’s keen cultural antennae (born of years spent observing and adapting to successive new habitats) had earlier picked up the traits of a new culture developing in California. Similarly prescient, her portrayal of Dr Parks and his longevity serum, which identifies the importance of mutability for Americans, is suggestive of an increasingly urgent debate about the character of American culture. Frances Fitzgerald, for instance, in her strongly iconoclastic study of America, Cities on a Hill (1986) argues that the shaping force of America’s identity is not, as is customarily held, the essentialism and stasis of Puritanism, but its antithesis, an evangelical belief in the recreation of society and of the self: “The country…was always in motion with economic change, new immigrant groups, new money and new ideas. The constant was merely this condition of turbulence: nothing much else lasted for very long. Small wonder, then, that the evangelical tradition proved so durable, and so influential beyond its own domain, for with its promise of rebirth – of liberation and transformation – it was anti-traditional and thus acceptable, or even a necessity, to Americans.“
Fitzgerald is sanguine about this, arguing that immigrants found in their reconstruction of themselves in America, an empowering, existential freedom. Others are not so positive. Discussing her 1996 novel, Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx agreed that immigration might be the key to understanding the peculiar creativity of American life: “I was…taking a look at the US character of self-invention, the tendency of Americans to remake themselves constantly and create new personas with plastic surgery, personality training courses, 12-step programmes, new careers…I wondered where this came from, and I thought perhaps the immigrant experience was a causative factor.” But she is less optimistic about the process than Fitzgerald. In Accordion Crimes Proulx focuses her attention on the abandonment of the old self – demanded by America of those immigrants who joined its ranks from all over the world – rather than on their chances to create themselves anew once they arrived in the promised land: “People came to America and were met with an abusive, bullying culture that insisted that everything from the old culture was thrown away. The crimes in [my] book’s title are social crimes…The erasure of someone’s past is not a source of joy.“
Perhaps Elia Kazan’s life demonstrates the way in which the erasure of the past could became habitual in America, its “abusive, bullying culture” fostering further “crimes” – those acts of intimidation and defamation committed in the name of the HUAC. Born in Istanbul to Greek parents, before his ninth birthday Kazan and his family moved first to Berlin, then back to Istanbul and then to New York. As one critic puts it: “His peculiar insecurity derives from his history as an immigrant, the son of an Anatolian rug-trader, desperate to assimilate yet naggingly aware that he was ‘not quite an American’. How better to become one than to denounce those who were, according to the committee’s definition, un-American?”
Whether or not Stead felt America’s resourceful, re-creating culture was liberating or damaging (as Proulx thinks, and as Kazan’s willingness to testify suggests) is hard to determine from I’m Dying Laughing. Emily’s and Stephen’s ‘evangelical’ characteristics – their lack of attachment, their chameleon behaviour – are ruinous: the novel, after all, ends in the “smash-up” Emily has long feared. But equally present in this book is Stead’s delight in America’s revisionary energy, and the accompanying lust for life (exemplified by the visits to Parks) with which Emily is so plentifully endowed. A deracinate figure herself, who had repeatedly taken part in what Salman Rushdie has called “the defining experience of the twentieth century” – the process of leaving home, of migration, and the personal border-crossings that such journeys entail – Stead both enjoyed the freedom to fabricate herself, and felt the loss of friends and family, the insecurity and vulnerability, in her own wandering, made-up life (she called her friends abroad GI’s – geographically inaccessible).
Her refusal of the demarcations that Fitzgerald and Proulx make is born out of the complexities of this peripatetic experience. Her view in I’m Dying Laughing is continually bipolar. Rather than their simple and ultimately moralizing divisions (in which this process of remaking becomes something that is either good or bad), what interests Stead are the effects of perpetual metamorphosis on America: the immaturity of a people constantly starting from the beginning, forever reinventing themselves; the high level of disturbance and disguise that are also the product of such a transient, unrooted culture.
Symptomatic of this is the level of subterfuge that surrounds Dr Parks’s clinic. Parks, of course, is an alias, taken from the fashionable Avenue from which his business operates, he is a “refugee doctor” and his old, foreign identity is now opaquely hidden behind his new pseudonym. This prosaic example of immigrant remaking (finding yourself by taking the name of the place where you now find yourself) is mirrored not only in Parks’s transformative work with drugs, but by counterfeiting of a different kind, one which would seem to reinforce Fitzgerald’s and Proulx’s view that the process of re-creation which begins in migration, goes on to become an habitual way of life in America.
Woven into the narrative of Dr Parks, is the information that Emily attends his clinic with her friend Ruth Oates, who works with her husband, Axel, producing a magazine. The purpose of their “scandal sheet”, Evidence, is to reveal the extent to which American public life is spurious by broadcasting what is hidden, it is “full of rumours, tips, and the secret news…bought by every bright journalist at home and abroad and by a good many left-leaning economists and others.” (The inspiration for Evidence was probably I.F. Stone’s Weekly.) So the enthusiasm of individuals for Parks’s altering serum, reflects in I’m Dying Laughing a more profound alterity at the heart of American society, exposed in the Oateses’ paper and the covert world it seeks to uncover.
More than illuminating the American propensity for wearing masks (either in the individual’s belief in transcendence, or in the darker recesses of public life), the juxtaposition of the similarly double-worlds of Parks and Evidence also introduces a heightened sense of masking in the text. There are two reasons for this. First is that despite her wish to divest her later work of artifice, the veiled biographical/autobiographical mode that Stead employs in I’m Dying Laughing re-enacts the disguises and impersonations that are already the author’s lot, making it difficult to suppress from view her writerly performance. A provocative example of this is that Stead allots the name of Ruth Oates – the name of Emily’s prototype, Ruth McKenney to – a character based on herself, underscoring her position as sole creator of the work (a pre-emptive strike, perhaps, against any counter-claims by her characters’ originals).
Further, in the conjunction of Parks and Evidence, Stead establishes that, although friends of Emily, Ruth and Axel are morally different from her. Evidence is (Stead’s) evidence of their dissimilarity, showing that while the characters based on Stead and Blake also inhabit the same precarious territory of lapsing communists, they possess some form of moral rectitude, and through the magazine are intent on exposing double-dealing, on searching out the truth and bringing it to light. Emily (McKenney), on the other hand, is allowed no such exemption. She is a hypocrite (albeit a fascinating one), who is self-deceiving, and her gullibility in paying for Parks’s quack serum is just one example of the deception in which her life is embroiled.
If at this point Stead’s self-consciousness wraps the novel in a higher level of artifice than hitherto, so, paradoxically, does her pursuit of her earlier goal of delivering ‘real life’. A second reason, then, for an increased air of unreality in I’m Dying Laughing, has to do with the increasing artificiality of ‘real life’ in the post-war period. Stead’s quick reading of this sea-change allows her to convey, as it occurs, the transformation of American sensibility that Norman Mailer and other critics would later describe: the problem with reality is that it isn’t real anymore, but composed of something more ersatz and manufactured. For Stead, early evidence of this was to be found not only in the propaganda and role-playing of McCarthyite politics, but in the broader culture, too, which, at times, appeared little more than propagandist: its habitual mode a kind of capitalist, as opposed to socialist, realism, churning out kitsch images of clean-cut, smiling nuclear families.
Accompanying Emily’s and Stephen’s growing sense of alienation are signs of a culture becoming steadily more synthetic, self-conscious and voyeuristic. For instance, the post-war political climate in which surveillance has become the modus operandi is discussed at a cocktail party Emily holds in Connecticut, (where she and Stephen have decamped from California, before running even further afield to Europe in their bid to escape the double-edged sword of McCarthy and the Party). Some of her guests believe that they are living in a time when “spy fever” has taken grip: the government infiltrating the Party and the Party spying on its members to detect who the infiltrators are, or to keep possible renegades like Emily and Stephen from turning traitor themselves. To Emily’s mind the level of espionage is now such that “we’ll end with every citizen on file, like Tsarist Russia or the Nazis.” And given the nature of the times this was not a melodramatic assessment. As Arthur Miller observed it was the feeling of many on the left that: “One lived in an occupied country where anyone at all might be a spy for the enemy.”
But while Emily’s guests bemoan the perfidy of contemporary politics, they play their own part in creating the climate of suspicion. All are engaged in criticising, sniping at, spreading rumours about the Party, to the point where, “It was quite impossible for a foreigner like Dr Coriolis to tell friend from foe, the loyal from the renegade.” If the guests seem erratic (in the same sentence they are described as both “impudent” and “devoted followers with no minds of their own”), then Emily’s drunken behaviour (aggressive one moment, defeatist the next) serves as a paradigm for the times, swerving wildly from assaults upon the integrity of Party leaders to desolate remarks about how the end is in sight, how she and Stephen will be expelled for their disloyalty, how they have reached a point from which there is “no going back.”
Perhaps most pertinent is Emily’s peroration that night about the great complexity of the era in which they live, attesting to the ways in which the combined pressures of a witch-hunting, anti-communist government, and a dogmatic and out of touch communist Central Committee (Emily traduces them as “the sacred and the famous…the inner heaven of Sick Men who had not shaken hands with a worker for fifteen years”) had between them succeeded in confounding into submission, silence or capitulation that group of radical intellectuals who in the pre-war years had seemed so vital a force: “Oh, who would believe, who reads about the USA and the gilded lives of writers and the middle-class, that it is so intricate and full of fantastic difficulties? It’s unbelievable. And we’re men of good-will and try to understand the world we live in. It’s confusing I guess.“
This new climate – intricate and fantastic – has repercussions for Emily’s writing. Her work is not selling, indeed her homespun tales now look decidedly old-fashioned and eccentric. Desperate to peddle something, she sets to work stripping out references to anything in her manuscripts that might seem too political or untimely. She is aided and abetted in this self-censorship by Stephen who, as ever, takes a keen interest in the marketability of his wife’s work. But aware as she is of the new facts of life (not only long-life serums: Emily notes that – with the same evangelical zeal – Americans have also taken up colonic irrigation and face-lifts), she is unable to translate these into literary currency, and falls back on her habitual, sugary ingredients: “…they fine-tooth-combed every line, every paragraph of the four chapters… When she had finished the fifth chapter.…they had both revised it, to see that all the ingredients were there and nothing to harm, nothing about atheists, Russian science, or anything but “family hokum, a belly-laugh or two and a shovelful of sentiment”, [only then] they sent it to the agent.“
Emily’s eagerness to partake of the serum is an extension of her old instinct for self-preservation (a way of reinforcing herself, making her more unassailable), but she is ill at ease in the protean world of which it is a symbol, made anxious by the growing cultural insistence upon self-improvement. “Oh, I hate the ads,” she complains to Uncle Maurice of this feigning dimension now invading their lives to an unprecedented degree: ““…showing the lady wondering whether her wash is telltale grey, or her toilet paper crude, the man going home to mother because wifey let the sink get stopped up and the young couple who drift apart because he had dandruff or she – excuse me! And then the mother who reunites them by mentioning trade-names and baking an old-fashioned, fluffy, dee-licious bunch of goo with banana whip and ice-cream guzzle.””
Stead had written about artificiality and duplicity in many of her earlier novels, notably in Cotter’s England, but in these she gathered all ideas on the subject into one quarter: bohemia. And in I’m Dying Laughing Emily’s acceptance of her domicile in bohemia marks the extent of her self-delusion and her bad faith: ““It always hurt me bitterly that they called us escapists and Bohemian adventurers. I was discouraged and now I’m in a dream-world of glorious joy. Oh, what a gamble! It seemed like a gamble, worse, a delusion; but even for us it’s worked out perfectly.”“
However, despite scattered references to bohemia as a ghetto of the kind traditionally envisaged by Marxists, in I’m Dying Laughing Stead’s treatment of bohemia’s illusory qualities is different from that in Cotter’s England. In that novel about similarly wayward radicals (its characters working class Geordies, not Hollywood high-livers) inauthenticity is confined to a side-show. There, Stead pictures a congregation of anarchists and nihilists, demagogues and tricksters waylaying the faithful with their strong rhetoric and powers of persuasion. Conjuring chimera, phantoms, false gods, the bohemians beset the vulnerable and insecure, tempting, and ultimately imprisoning them in a quagmire of falsehood. In I’m Dying Laughing, (and perhaps this is unsurprising for a novel concerned with Hollywood adventurers), Stead sees these taunting, mirroring qualities now not just as the property of bohemia, but as breaking out into the mainstream of life, making it harder to determine what is authentic, moral or virtuous – as if all that was solid was melting into air.
The reference to Marx is apt. In many ways – and perhaps unsurprisingly, as I have argued, Stead was a writer greatly influenced by communist ideology – her reading of American capitalism and its descent into bohemia and effeteness anticipates arguments made by later Marxist critics such as Frederic Jameson (in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991). Both emphasise a disconnection from the past (Jameson’s “historical deafness”, Stead’s emphasis upon the future), and the extension of the market, seeing it saturating all areas of life to the point where even realms that were previously held to be autonomous like culture, the subconscious or nature have become commodified.
Attesting to the paradoxes of her communist belief, Stead wrote in 1935 that indigenous artists were wrong to have been put off by the forcefulness of capitalism in America, by the country’s unabashed glorification of the dollar: “here…the love of money is brutally outspoken and crassly advertised”. As someone who a few years later was to write a book about banking and international finance (House of All Nations, 1938) she did not believe art should strive for transcendence, as if afraid to sully its hands in the material world: “There is no excuse for any American artist to seek refuge abroad in any country”, she proclaimed. Indeed comparing America to England and France she applauded the lack of mystification surrounding financial matters. Unlike England where they “teach…that money is the root of all evil…and pretend…to worship the classics, good form, delicacy, retirement, pastoral poetry and gardens”, in America, “no illusions are offered to the workers”. The roughness and brazenness of American capitalism, what Stead calls “the scramble for boodle”, declares itself unashamedly in a way that any Marxist would find fascinating: “This acute worship of Mammon is something marvellous, incredible as the gold halls of Babylon.”
Conversely, but also as a Marxist, Stead deplores the dehumanising effects of the expansion of the market into the private realm:
Everything is expressed in terms of money; [I am] shocked by women’s pages where the value of a suitor, and advice concerning a reluctant alimony-payer are discussed, and where women are told that when they have lost their husbands’ love, they have nothing to rely on but coercion to alimony, where the money-value of children is discussed. This is horrible, revolting. It certainly exists in every country but nowhere else is human love discussed in terms of the stock market.
Demonstrating this state of flux and ambiguity in I’m Dying Laughing, where old conceptions of private and public, artificial and essential begin to disintegrate, collapsing together (categorically) strange bedfellows like money and love, Stead delineates the ways in which the McCarthyites and the Party, steadfast political adversaries, came in these post-war years to assume a disturbing identity in their ways of operating: we see this in the Party’s ‘trial’ of Emily and Stephen, prefiguring discussion of McCarthy’s own trials; in the requirement of both sides for confession or expulsion; and in the rumours of their common use of espionage and counter-espionage.
Stead goes further, extending these representations of similarity and relativity beyond America’s borders to include the relationship between America and Europe. In Emily’s association with Dr Parks and Dr Coriolis she presents a through-the-looking-glass world, in which Americans fleeing the conflicts of McCarthyism and escaping to Europe are confronted with Europeans who have themselves escaped fascism and war, and come to America. (This mirror wave of emigration, Ceplair and Englund argued was “international fascism’s revenge on Hollywood. The immigration of the thirties became the emigration of the fifties, as the great tide of political refugees now moved away from the film capital.”) And just as Stephen’s and Emily’s motivations for leaving their home are far from simple, so Dr Coriolis’s relationship to his home and the people he has left behind is also fraught with “dilemma”. Old friendships become a source of suspicion, as allies are divided by the new boundaries between people that history has erected: “For instance, though he himself had had to run away, if he went back, he would find enemies who would blame him…Some friends had been Nazis, come collaborators, some in the Resistance, some passive and glad to survive…“.
But these copy-cat actions detected in politicians of opposing colours, and in the exoduses of American and European populations, are not the only form of mirroring the reader is invited to contemplate; at this point in I’m Dying Laughing, as if imitative behaviour in the public sphere was having a corrosive effect upon the integrity of the individuals involved, characters also become affected by the climate of repetition. Dr Parks, for instance, already a reformed character (an immigrant who has renamed himself and succeeded on Park Avenue), has sprouted a double who supersedes him in the narrative. His doppleganger Coriolis, also a European refugee doctor, materializes in Parks’ waiting room, where Emily first meets him. When she discovers Parks thinks her a hysteric (snooping in the papers on his desk) she readily transfers her affection from him to Coriolis, as if the two men were indistinguishable from one another.
Emily’s interest in the doctors is bound up in her idealised notions of them as Europeans (and therefore, she imagines, as men of “taste and refinement”), and the romantic possibilities that they might afford because of this. Her feeling is that the superficiality of American culture and its stress on appearance denies women like her the chance for love. “Can’t Americans, too, have passion in middle age and die for love at seventy?” she asks Uncle Maurice, wistfully. She thinks of Europe as a place of greater erudition and cultivation than America; more engaged in history and interested in character, less concerned with facade: “Life is different, it’s much gayer, tougher, stranger, more complex in Europe. Here it’s just dull corruption, drink, drink, fornicate, fornicate, no love, no romance, no adventures, no mascots.” Her desire for Europe to be a place of complexity, able to provide her with mysterious lovers, fits conveniently with her other reason for needing Europe to be a place of sophistication, something that other fallen communists are quick to assure her of: “People in Europe have so much history, no nation has ever been always in the saddle, they understand failure and terror, they aren’t like the Americans, who can only win, and if they don’t, wring their hands in bleak despair. You’ll be alright there. No one will question you or your motives. You can live your life happily and return home when the trouble is past.“
And yet, typical of Emily’s fluctuating allegiances, despite the growing appeal of Europe as a romantic and political haven, she still feels residual affection for her own country, marvels at its brashness and vulgarity:
“Oh my mamma public! That good old respectable pie-eating Middle-Western family with papa and mamma, taking colonic irrigations and the children twice as big as anything in Europe…the dreary, thick-skulled, fat-backed, smug, pig-eyed hog-calling Middle West. I guess I like it too, when I’m not with my family. Oh, to hell with aesthetics. I guess we’re all right, too, with our orange juice and schools and bathrooms and pie contests and baseball, as good as the rest, if not better.”
This aesthetic vacuum, though, points to something deeper and more disturbing in American life, as if there was only a cynical selling-machine suppressing and so destroying any real feeling or passion in the society (“nowhere else is human love discussed in terms of the stock market”). After her speech to Maurice on the speciousness of American advertising, (forever suggesting that love’s problems can be rectified by the right toilet paper, washing powder or shampoo), she despairs of the emptiness she feels, wailing, “Oh, Maurice, Maurice, – the lovelessness of our lives.”
As we have observed before, however, while Emily is a stern judge of this avidly consumerist society, intent on accumulating all the shiny goods and junk food it can, her own covetousness is also its result. Capitalism’s hard-sell to the basest or most childish instinct – what she calls “the LCD” [lowest common denominator] – instead of appeasing desire, arouses it in Emily, making it impossible for her ever to be satisfied or content. Hence the perpetual restlessness and constant appetite (which in Bakhtin’s carnival are symbols of health, representing an attack upon order) are here transmuted under “cannibalism-capitalism”, manifesting themselves in Emily as the means by which order upholds itself: she is created as the consumer who can never get enough, always yearning, always wanting more: “…why am I so dumb? The freckled valedictorian always hungry, for some reason, met her fate, and had the wildest good luck and can’t be satisfied; but now must dream of exotic and mysterious romance, of someone who lives in your heart.”
It is in her desire for the succour she feels will accompany the intimacy and intrigue of such a romance that Emily starts to think of leaving America behind and setting her sights on Europe. But at another party in her Connecticut home – this time a barbecue held in honour of Labor Day – she is reminded that, alienating as the sterility of American culture may be, it is also prophylactic: its cleansing soaps and DDT, all its sanitizing products, are what keep at bay the unpalatable by-products of the passion she now seeks. The sweat-stains, excretions, disease and over-population, all of these are banished from the advertisers’ germ-free New Jerusalem. To the horror of some of her guests, Emily’s promiscuous way of thinking means it is only a small step from this notion of American hygiene and purity, to the idea that perhaps the war in Europe was, after all, benign. In eliminating the sick and unfit it was equally cleansing, equally purifying:
“So what do we care? We will survive and work out our destiny. We don’t want Europe on our back. Let them die and genocide. Russia can take care of herself…..What do these plagues and epidemics and wars mean? It’s nature protecting us. It’s the balance of nature. We breed too fast anyway. There isn’t enough to eat in the world anyway. If anyone gets a disease or a woman can’t have children, it’s because they’re unfit anyway. Let them all stay over there till no one is alive but the fit and the clean!…I don’t see that it’s such a bad lookout for us that Europe has been decimated…There were too many people, hungry, dirty, weak, ignorant anyway. And they’ll spring up again. That’s one of the awful powers of the human race, they’re like birds, or roaches, or weeds. Gee it’s a terrible problem. It frightens you for us. There are too many of us. I don’t see why they don’t permit abortion. Any foetus that aborts is abnormal, weak or something anyway…I care about survival. I can’t weep for victims or abortions; it’s bad for me. It’s not my nature. It weakens me. I don’t like misfits and sick people.”
The Black Death, as Emily points out, decimated Europe but “the ones who survived were our ancestors. The others were born to die; they were weaklings.” Having come through so much, having made it to America and endured whatever changes were demanded of them, now the descendants of these long-suffering immigrants have the right to live free of disease and poverty, to live for ever if they can. But this triumphalist language rapidly descends into the fascist argot of Preordained Destiny and Triumph of the Will, in which nature, contrarily, is both to be defeated, and proof of one’s supremacy (“it’s nature protecting us”).
As earlier she failed in her attempt to take on the language of the patriarch and become the law-maker in her family – causing her husband to collapse in laughter – so, here, Emily’s totalitarian speech-making is undermined, once again, by the fact of her femininity. For we have only recently been reminded by Stead of the vulnerability of her sex: anticipating the announcement of Emily’s pregnancy on the eve of their departure to Europe is a passage recounting her initiation into childbirth. For all America’s brave new world of technology, with all the conquering equipment that their kitchens and gardens can stand, women in pregnancy or childbirth must still come face to face with their own animality, frailty, even their mortality.
Standing in opposition to the cheerful carnival associations of fertility and death, what Stead makes us feel is the uncanniness of pregnancy, of something growing inside. In one startling passage she manages to imbue her descriptions of this with the same sense of horror and monstrosity, out of which, a century and a half before, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein, marking out the Gothic as an allegorical genre about the terrors of procreation and death:
…she had not known the back-kitchen and disease-infatuated world of women who regard their own bodies uneasily and are district nurses for the family. She had heard in hospital, for the first time, woman-talk, dirty talk, superstitions like witchcraft, but perhaps, who knew, partly true …the new woman’s world of aching, haunting fantasy and concern with the loins, the bowels, the digestion. She saw, for the first time, the brain as a wet, slippery, red palpitating animal inside her ‘thick peasant-shaped skull’ and she suddenly appreciated the difficulty of living, breathing, surviving, the infinite possibilities of death.
But Emily’s pregnancy is short-lived. Stephen, although resigned to the fact that they must move to Europe, cannot countenance this affirmation of life in the face of the abandonment he feels they are about to perpetrate: “If we are going”, Stephen tells her, laying down the law, “we simply can’t have the baby.” After the abortion, refusing to have a full hysterectomy (“quite a fashionable operation then”), she is bullied by Stephen and a surgeon who deride her belief that her emotional and intellectual well-being resides in the whole of her body, “my feelings spring not only from the brain,” she insists, “but from everywhere, I am myself everywhere.” Rejecting as “superstition…an old wives’ tale” her contention that “without my sex and womb, I’m not a woman, my character would change,” her view of her body is discounted and she is forced into having her tubes tied, so avoiding what Stephen regards as “the inconveniences and embarrassments of her being a woman.”
This is an oddly written passage. Emily’s operation is described in an awkward, unfamiliar lyric vein as one “in which the fallopian tubes were twisted so no more would ova pass into the womb and she would no more become a mother.” And Stead hurries through her description of the four operations Emily undergoes (an abortion, the tube tying, a further operation resulting from complication, and an appendectomy) taking only a half a page to describe them. In McKenney’s version of these events, recounted in her autobiographical book, Love Story, she nearly dies as a result of abdominal peritonitis (this is loosely tied to something vaguely gynaecological: an operation to put in place “surgical patches”, after “birth had left sags and tears which needed patching”). In her biography on Stead, Rowley reports that in December 1946, after Blake had already left for Europe, Stead was called by Bransten to McKenney’s bedside in a New York hospital, where for a time it looked as though she might not survive the septicaemia that had developed as a result of an abortion. Stead was persuaded to postpone her leaving for Europe until the New Year and spent her last Christmas in the States with the Branstens.
Stead’s refusal to make greater symbolic mileage out of the coincidence of the abortion and her characters’ departure for Europe is revealing, and perhaps its significance is twofold. This ‘real life’ event may have metaphorically encapsulated the meaning Stead wished to ascribe to Emily’s and Stephen’s abandonment of their beliefs, (they were aborting all that they had once believed in) but it probably seemed too convenient and too vulgar for her as a writer to exploit more fully. Perhaps, too, the reticence evident in her terse treatment of the abortion, had something to do with the fact that this time Stead’s insistence on fidelity to the truth of McKenney’s life however painful or messy caused her some kind of embarrassment at the betrayal involved in the recounting. The editing out of the full episode from the text might indicate that Stead’s reasons for the omission were themselves sublimated, edited out. After all, at this point in their relationship, Stead’s friendship with McKenney had been so important that it was she who was summoned as McKenney seemed at death’s door. But even if it were the case that the cursory description of Emily’s time in hospital veiled some awkwardness on Stead’s part, there is no answering candour in her portrayal of her own involvement in McKenney’s life at this moment.
Stead does not place her alter ego Ruth Oates at Emily’s hospital bedside, but has she and Axel heading together for a Europe ravaged and depleted, yet one they have missed and are keen to return to. Their modest, unfussy departure (“The Oateses took with them a few valises and a trunk”) is contrasted with a long memorandum from Emily that Ruth carries with her across the Atlantic, asking exhaustive questions about what provisions the Howards should bring with them into this unknown territory. She enquires about the availability of medicine, food (“Should we bring or have sent regularly, such items as the following: canned milk; canned orange juice; canned fats; sugar; chocolate; powdered eggs; cocoa; jam; canned meats, as ham, hamburgers; ice cream; frankfurters?”), toiletries, furnishings, kitchen equipment and clothes. “We’re ashamed” Emily confesses to “not [being] used to hardships,” but she is intent all the same on taking with her to Europe all the consumer goods that have propped up their affluent lives. True to form, she is more concerned about going without than offending poorer neighbours still trying to recover from the wreckages of war with ostentatious displays of American wealth.
i. The Fall
Christina Stead’s time in Hollywood in the Forties was brief (eight weeks’ employment at MGM; three or four months looking for work) and by the town’s lavish standards, poorly paid – “I was a $175-a-week-woman, and I counted for nothing.” Testimony to her insignificance is the fact that whatever contribution Stead made to the two films she worked on, it went uncredited. She informed one interviewer, “I was paid…to write screenplays which they didn’t want me to write. I never wrote a word.” And another who asked precisely what work she’d done while in Hollywood, was told, impatiently, “I didn’t do any…Look my dear, it was a racket.”
Her role in this “racket” (less eminent than the biographical note in most editions of her novels makes it sound) amounted, then, to a brief period of work at the end of 1943, when she was employed fleetingly, (and rather inaptly) first with a group of writers on a John Ford war film,They Were Expendable (released in 1945, it starred John Wayne); and after this, when she was set to work on more congruous material, again a part of a large team of writers, brainstorming over the script of a Sidney Franklin biographical picture, Madame Curie – “they had an idea I was English and had a scientific background.” The project was five years old when she began, and the rather grand list of those who had already failed at Stead’s task included Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos and the Polish emigré writer and actress, Salka Viertel. Indeed, the town, as Stead was later to recall, was a scrapheap for talent, “full of brilliant, distinguished people, but the film-makers didn’t want them.” What they preferred, Stead thought, was “some kind of cheesecake.” Blake and she felt out of place, they “couldn’t wait to get back to New York.”
Among the “brilliant” and “distinguished” men and women working in the film industry at this time were communists and fellow travellers, many of them exiles, refugees from fascist Europe. Viertel ran a salon in Hollywood attended by Bertholt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, as well as Aldous Huxley, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. And aligned with these in a loose coalition were old New Deal progressives and supporters of the Republican cause in Spain, who found themselves attracted to the lively social life organised by the Party. The writer and director Abraham Polonsky said that at this time, “The Hollywood Communist Party was like Sunset Strip. Thousands of people used to go there, hang around a little while, and then pass on some place else.” So that short as her time in Hollywood was, and dismal as she found scriptwriting on the lot (“a dreary sort of office job”), still Stead found around her in the behaviour of her co-writers, and among actors, agents, producers and directors, that heady mixture of politics and creativity, vanity and passion that had always inspired her best work, and was to once again.
Despite its difficult gestation (written over a quarter of a century and abandoned before her death to “the garbage can or the deep-freeze”), I’m Dying Laughing (1986) is Christina Stead’s most important late work: a brilliant and unflinching portrait of a marriage, from the ardent idealism of youth to personal and political treachery so venal that its consequences for Stead’s couple, Emily Wilkes and Stephen Howard, are suicide and madness. Stead’s two renegades betray what they hold most sacred, those things most fundamental to their mutual identity: their radical politics, and Emily’s mordant talents as a writer which she squanders on feeble Hollywood scripts. But, as Stead shows to devastating effect, the betrayals they face which bring them to this point are considerable. When their communist friends in Hollywood invite them for the evening, the couple find themselves trapped in a modern day witch-hunt. The zealous comrades (having whetted their appetites with a Californian “light dinner” of grapefruit, chicken, ice-cream and popovers), set about traducing Stephen’s and Emily’s political and private lives. After dining, the assembled company adjourn to drinks in the living room, and the avowed purpose of the evening, as the chapter heading announces, ‘The Straightening Out’ of these “destructive, factional” discontents begins in earnest. The crime of which they stand jointly accused is “petty-bourgeois, pseudo-radicalism”, while Emily’s “delirious” and uncensored “verbosity” is said to be “approaching the psychopathic”.
The outcome of this post-prandial trial is that Emily and Stephen are thrown out of the Party for “petty individualism” and unfit parenting. Fearing further calls to testify, this time in the shape of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, they flee the persecution being meted out to them in the United States from friend and foe alike, in the hope of making a new life in post-war Europe. But once in Paris the couple succumb to a life of gargantuan consumption, debauchery and bad faith. Their need to support increasingly frenzied addictions to booze and pills, and their love of “grand, colossal, poetic” blackmarket French food, crushes any possibility of living according to their principles, any hope of writing seriously: to procure enough money to feed their addictions and their frantic materialism, these “damned souls” must prostitute their talent, their beliefs, even their wealthy children (two of whom are to inherit large fortunes). Finally, stripped of their twin faiths (communism and art), Emily and Stephen come slowly to see themselves no longer “on the side of the angels”, but, now, sunk into the company of those that Stead’s co-writer on Madame Curie, Salka Viertel, had vigorously denounced among the California film colony as “the shits” – traitors who named names, offering up themselves and their friends to the HUAC for the sake of something considerably greater than thirty pieces of silver: their Hollywood wages. In 1973 Stead described the story to Joan Lidoff:
It was all about the passion of – I use passion in almost the religious sense – of two people, two Americans, New Yorkers, in the thirties. They are doing well, but they suffered all the troubles of the thirties. They were politically minded. They went to Hollywood. They went to Europe to avoid the McCarthy trouble. Of course they were deeply involved. And then, they lived around Europe, oh, in a wild and exciting extravagant style. But there was nothing to support it. At the same time they wanted to be on the side of the angels, good Communists, good people, and also to be very rich. Well, of course…they came to a bad end.
The bulk of I’m Dying Laughing concerns this protracted degeneration. To the bad and bitter end, however, Emily and Stephen battle over their loathed fate. Incessantly bickering and brawling, Emily, in particular produces great floods of speech avowing her desire to renounce the bohemian wilderness into which their expulsion from the Party has cast them, and hold fast to their old beliefs. Neither is willing to relinquish hard-won communist identities: his gained at the cost of impugning his (upper) class; hers in struggling out of poverty and mediocrity by the canny exploitation of her native wit. But after much dissembling they both make clumsy attempts to recast themselves; in at first only small ways Emily and Stephen begin to betray their old selves, and one another, and in so doing, to slough off their pasts. Their metamorphosis is fraught and guilt-ridden. Living in luxury amid the starvation and ruins of post-war France, Emily imagines herself a latter-day Marie Antoinette and is haunted by the death-rattle of imaginary tumbrils. Trying to make rational sense of her fear, Emily (true Stead progeny in her constant recourse to analogies drawn from the natural world), justifies their American rapacity in evolutionary terms: “You have to have generations of dirt and hunger, to survive here; they’re like the roaches and the rats. And we’re nature’s newcomers, for better or for worse. We’ve got to live near supplies and the American canteens and good restaurants no matter what, even if the sound of the tumbrils rings through the cobbled streets, oftener than the garbage collectors.”
But their transformation ultimately – and inevitably, Stead suggests – is a much darker one. What’s being enacted in I’m Dying Laughing is not so much Emily’s vision of evolutionary progression, as a retreat into barbarity, where Stead’s couple give way to self-abandoned behaviour of Sadeian proportions: from the hedonism of Emily’s revelling in her own cupidity; to Stephen’s feeble criminal fiascoes as a gold smuggler; and, finally, to the wickedness of Emily’s near-seduction of her rich step-son, Christy. This cloistered and erotic scene is scripted with some heat by Stead, in taxonomic prose that counts out the racing heart-beats of her tentative lovers, as if to iterate the decadence of Emily’s sin:
…she lived with and near Christy, in exquisite house-gowns and boudoir wraps, of silk, chiffon and lace, bathed, powdered and perfumed, doing his studies with him, eating with him, sitting by his bed at night, and kissing him, kissing him, till the air of the house was to him the odours of her flesh, cosmetics, delicate underclothes and perfumes; till she would see him almost fainting from the odour, worn, with desire…She pointed to her heart, under her rosy breast. The nipple stood up at him through the thin silky material. She looked at him and smiled at it with capricious coquetry. “I am a woman Christy, my precious, you know; and this is what makes a woman, this heart, this breast, this skin, this mouth, this loving mouth that I am pressing to your dear cheek; to your dear -”.
Their deracination now a matter of more than just geography, the couple descend (like so many Stead characters before them) into a bohemian nightmare where they are unable to abide their self-inflicted alienation. Emily is made insane by gluttony and masochistic bouts of starvation, while Stephen’s treachery annihilates the last vestiges of his idealism, leading him to a suitably infernal end: driving out of Paris, he drenches himself and his car in gasoline and sets himself alight. But I’m Dying Laughing is not simply a version of the Fall for the twentieth century. Central to the novel is the idea that these Americans carry with them the seeds of their own destruction. Long before their final confessions – “I gave them names, all the names I ever heard of”, Stephen declares euphorically after testifying to recover his passport – Stead makes us aware that these heretics have already sold their souls to the devil.
ii. “…Dialectical Materialism by the Pool”
I’m Dying Laughing begins in 1935, at the height of the Depression, when “fleshy, rosy” Emily Wilkes is a smart-alec hack, a sturdy, Arkansan scribbler who supports her family by selling articles to the provincial press. On a boat to Europe she falls for Stephen Howard, a pale, “beautiful…El Greco”, an ex-invalid, (a man who is her opposite in every way), but she charms the Princeton scion with her rowdiness and disarray, her “good sense, outrageous hope and bonhomie”. Proud of her independence and of being the family breadwinner, Emily boasts of her literary promiscuity: “I write anything. I was shocked to find out how easily you can write for and against. It destroys your morals, also your idea of truth and morality.” Her plan is to make money from “Pulping and potboiling”, then get out before the rot sets in and write the Great American Novel: “She had always wanted to write a great thing, truth with a bang, thrust out bricks from the wall and make a window on the world.”
A decade later, though, we find her married to Stephen and freelancing in Hollywood, living among “fashionable leftist society” in Pomegranate Glen (perched high above Beverly Hills, overlooking the budding hopefuls of Guava, Kumquat and Persimmon) and making $35,000 a script. This is the mecca to which other ambitious (often left-wing) writers were drawn: in 1950 – five years after Emily’s residence – Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan drew up there in a black Lincoln on loan from Twentieth Century Fox, carrying a script they hoped would shake up the complacent movie world, but whose fate, rather, was to prove emblematic of the way in which Hollywood turned political and artistic idealism into betrayal and bad faith – the very thing, as Miller observed, which caused the inhabitants of this dreamworld to go “crazy”:
We drove into Beverly Hills, perfection to the right and left, the nests of the famous and the rich impressing my ambitious heart and leaving an uneasiness in the mind. The place was so depressingly completed – maybe that was it, the sheer end-of-the-road materiality. The Tudor castle divided by a driveway from the French provincial. To each his individual dream, connected only by the silent little Japanese gardener and his son padding from lawn to immaculate lawn…while nothing whatsoever moved, stirred, cried out, each house suspended in its spell of total achievement and guaranteed against ever becoming a ruin, all too perfect to die. And here was I carrying into this deep dream of peace a script about an old waterfront where sun shone through dust and the acrid smell of steel, a slum where nothing looked completed or else was broken and falling apart. So young in comparison, Beverly Hills seemed frozen in timeless self-approval. Of course, they were going crazy in the houses, but I knew nothing of that yet.
Having lived on the edges of this world, Christina Stead did know something about it and in I’m Dying Laughing, like Miller, she presents Hollywood as a place of fantastic material wealth inhabited by frustrated and self-loathing people, her protaganists, Emily and Stephen, are also “going crazy” trying “to believe in MGM and [to justify] the mistakes of the left”. Successful as she is, Emily’s abiding feelings are of rage and shame – of having sold herself short. And these emotions she relates, characteristically, to ideas of orality and consumption:
My writing’s crap. ..I don’t want to do it. I’m not proud they pay me gold for crap. That Mr and Mrs stuff is just custard pie I throw in the face of the mamma public, stupid, cruel and food crazy. I find myself putting in recipes – ugh! – because I know they guzzle it. They prefer a deep-freeze to a human being; it’s cold, tailored and shiny. I don’t believe in a word I write. Do you know what that means, Stephen? It’s a terrible thing to say.
So the theme of betrayal in I’m Dying Laughing begins not with the politics of McCarthyism (which Stead characterizes roughly as the struggle between money and ideology), but before that in Emily’s efforts to feed her family and the equally insatiable “mamma public” (the struggle between money and art). In Hollywood – as Stead would have observed even in the brief time she spent there in 1943 – this battle was particularly galling for writers. For instance, when one of her co-writers on Madame Curie, Aldous Huxley, submitted a treatment for a film of Alice in Wonderland and it was turned down by Walt Disney on the grounds that he “could only understand every third word”, Huxley quickly learned that if he wanted the inflated wages that scriptwriting could bring (unlike Stead, he earned $15,000 for his eight weeks of work on Madame Curie), then the cost to his work would be to diminish and censor it.
A couple of years before Stead left the city, failed and disgusted by it, another emigré – perhaps the most brilliant and incongruous talent to wash up on the backlot – Bertolt Brecht, wrote about prostituting himself at the Hollywood bazaar: “Every morning, to earn my bread/I go to the market, where lies are bought./Hopefully/I join the ranks of the sellers.” The alienation of a writer who sells himself for money, reverberates in I’m Dying Laughing in Emily’s more bombastic proclamations of self-loathing for her compromised success (“I’m not proud they pay me gold for crap”). It is typical both of Emily’s acuity and of her narcissism that she sees in her own riven state the root of what she calls the American Dilemma, the split-personality of a nation trying to have its cake and eat it: believing (greedily) both in the social fascism of the survival of the fittest and in fraternity, equality, democracy, and justice for all.
It is this divided self and the self-consciousness it entails that account for the peculiar savagery of American humour to which the title of Stead’s novel alludes – a brilliant comedy of spite and malice most typically practised in the inter-war years by another group of writers reluctantly drawn, from the Algonquin in New York, by Hollywood’s fabulous stipends: Dorothy Parker and her vicious circle of friends. The resulting self-hatred (Stead suggests) is also what puts the edge on Emily’s razor wit, intent upon showing up these contradictions in American life, not resolving the splits nor papering over the cracks.
When Stead first visited the United States in 1935 she described herself as a believer in the “reports that [Americans] send abroad” of themselves: that “Americans are incurably tough…snipers of the gibe that kills, machine-gunners of quickfire backchat, muckrakers of private potholes and broadcasters of human shame…I thought the whole country twanged with impertinence.” But in I’m Dying Laughing, as accurate as these killing jokes are, ultimately the comedy’s subversiveness proves limited, the knife-edge always turned back upon its wielder, for as Emily points out, in its effect, American humour is quietist, fatalistic: “I’m a humourist: humourists are always pessimists. They’re reactionaries: because they see that every golden cloud has a black lining; so why get an ulcer?”
The kind of self-irony and sense of dis-ease that such humour conveys, was nowhere more palpable at the time in America than among those communists and fellow travellers living amid the opulence of Hollywood, where giving away a percentage of one’s salary to the Party or some other worthy cause, was not always enough to ease the contradictions between fantastic personal wealth and communist or egalitarian beliefs. The actor Sterling Hayden (who later was a friendly witness before the HUAC) mocked his bi-partisan activities, saying: “I was the only person [in Hollywood] to buy a yacht and join the Communist Party in the same week”, but he was not alone: for many, guilt about earning vast amounts of money in the middle of a Depression – and as fascism advanced in Europe – was a motivating factor in becoming active in left-wing politics; more corruptly, others joined the Party believing it a wise career move.
In I’m Dying Laughing, Stephen calls these political careerists the “pork-chop opportunists”, and Emily makes uneasy jokes about the way in which even political theory can be turned inside out and used to justify what the Party called ‘renegade’ behaviour: “Jehesus-Jehosaphat! I’m always doing the opposite of what I want. It’s dialectical I guess. The latest word for selling-out. Ha-ha-ha.” The scriptwriter Budd Schulberg (like Hayden, another ex-communist who turned informer) also noticed and was amused by the sui generis nature of the dialectic in Hollywood: “All these people knew that an awful lot was happening in the world and Hitler was growing stronger…And there they were, sort of fiddling while Rome burned, and I think the Communist Party gave them a sense that they were doing something more serious and more socially useful, which would compensate for the waste of so much talent. Dialectical materialism by the pool…some of it was hilarious.”
At a Party social Stephen attends, Axel Oates (a friend from New York with more than a passing resemblance to Bill Blake), slyly addresses the town’s peculiar malady when he claims that “the greatest picture turned out of Hollywood in the silent days” was Erich von Stroheim’s epic portrait of a “glorious swindler” in Greed. While Emily, thinking of the luxury that her communist friends inhabit (with their fat children and swimming pools and Japanese butlers) talks of a novel she’d like to write, about how they are all losing their way, destroying what they believe in by their avarice (“it might be an epitaph of American socialism” Stephen speculates gloomily):
“This would be a cruel book. I wouldn’t spend much time on theoretical errors or an analysis of our peculiar application of theory, but I’d try to put a finger on essential human weaknesses; the ignorance and self-indulgence that has led us to Bohemia. On that score there’s plenty to say. Ought we all to live well, have our children in private schools, training them for the gude braid claith?.… Socialism can’t die! Don’t we believe that? But it can die – suffocated, here! By us! That’s horrible.”
But if Emily’s proposed book about the failures of the American Left (the one which despite its ragged edges Stead achieves triumphantly in I’m Dying Laughing) is “cruel”, then it only mirrors the world it is meant to describe: at this time Hollywood reverberated to the sound of the sharp tongue and the wise-crack, the anxious laughter of wealthy liberals, the more radical of whom often found their loyalties split to breaking point by the heavy strictures of the Party and its insistence upon material reality, and the problems of living up to any kind of reality at all in tinsel town’s phantasmagoria, in the technicoloured City of Dreams. This dizzying concoction of fantasy and realism, greed and idealism is what Stead captures so brilliantly in I’m Dying Laughing, while elsewhere (though the phrase might have dropped from Emily’s lips) these clashes gave rise to Virginia Viertel’s infamous gibe about comic cruelty in Hollywood: “Malice in Wonderland”.
Virginia was Salka’s daughter-in-law, and her decline and fall in many respects parallels the life of Stead’s protagonist. Unlike pudgy Emily, Virginia was a famous beauty, a glamourous woman whom half of the Hollywood Left were in love with: Ring Lardner Junior (who became one of the Hollywood Ten and who, in the mid-Forties, attempted an adaptation of The Man Who Loved Children) was thinking of Virginia, when he jokingly wrote a slogan to attract new members: “The Most Beautiful Girls in Hollywood Belong to the Communist Party.” She had been in the Party with her friends Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jnr, Robert Rossen, Albert Maltz and Dalton Trumbo and her first marriage was to Schulberg, who, with Elia Kazan, went on to make On the Waterfront in 1954. The two men reworked Arthur Miller’s original script (the one he and Kazan had with them when they first arrived in Beverly Hills), refashioning the Marlon Brando Judas figure who snitches on his workmates into a hero who refuses to be intimidated. Miller and Kazan had originally planned a story about the corruption of the waterfront union and the betrayal of the working man, wanting it to be “a truthful film about a dark cellar under the American Dream”, but many felt that what transpired was an essay in self-justification on the part of Schulberg and Kazan, who, on the 10th April 1952, had appeared before the Committee and named eleven people including the radical playwright Clifford Odets – a compliment he duly repaid.
When Virginia’s marriage to Schulberg collapsed, she married Salka’s son Peter, and, fearing the onset of McCarthyism and the rise of xenophobia in America they sailed for Europe after the war, as many other intellectuals were to, reversing the wave of immigration into Hollywood from fascist Europe. From here, Viertel’s life reads like a template for Emily’s in I’m Dying Laughing – the shipboard romance (hers a rather grander affair, with Ernest Hemingway), the messy abortions and disintegrating marriage, the loss of her passport (taken from her because of her Communist past) and decision to testify in order to retrieve it, followed by an intolerable sense of shame giving rise to alcoholism and drug-taking; all leading to the inevitable “bad end” (of the kind Stead insists upon for her own fallen angels in this novel), dying (not laughing) in hospital five weeks after accidentally, probably drunkenly, setting herself on fire.
This is not to try to claim that Stead had Virginia Viertel in mind when she wrote I’m Dying Laughing (the prototype for Emily Wilkes was Stead’s close friend the comic writer, Ruth McKenney), but, rather, to show that hers was just one Hollywood story among many that demonstrate how the tragedy of betrayal, both personal and political, that Stead presents in her final novel should not be read simply as the creative apogée of this writer’s fascination with treachery and monstrosity, but as something which emanates directly from the period. The story is characteristic of the moment, told in Stead’s idiosyncratic brand of realism – a unique take on the idea of realist writing as representative and exemplary: in her world, as one character proclaims, monsters are real, and everyone goes to hell in their own lovely way. But as if anticipating the kind of misreading that would regard her novel as fantastic or overblown, Stead makes the point directly in I’m Dying Laughing when she instructs her reader that the grotesque “trial by jury” which Emily and Stephen undergo at the hands of their friends in the Party, is in no way fanciful but grounded in history and “entirely in the spirit of the mid-century and their society.” Discussing the book with one interviewer Stead reinforced the point that Emily and Stephen were not extraordinary, but typical of their time and country: there were “Many examples, thousands of course, from America – with their great passion for inquisitions.”
The effect of this particular inquisition on many individuals was devastating, even for someone like Kazan who argued for the rest of his life that he had been right to testify, there remained a bitter after-taste, a feeling that whatever the self-justifications, one had, after all, acted (as the Brando character in On the Waterfront says) like a stool-pigeon: “…in the body of my conviction, there appeared the worm of doubt. I still believed what I’d done was correct, but no matter that my reasons had been sincerely founded and carefully thought out, there was something indecent – that’s how I felt it, as shame – in what I’d done and something murky in my motivations.”
If the effect upon the lives of the artists who testified was often devastating, the effect upon their work – and therefore on American culture – was equally immediate and calamitous. In Robert Vaughan’s survey of the repercussions of the HUAC trial on Hollywood (Only Victims, 1972), many of the writers and activists he interviewed from the period claimed that after testifying, the work of those who buckled under the pressure suffered dramatically. One actor (all the interviewees were anonymous) argued that after Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets “capitulated, they made no contribution to the theatre comparable to that which they had made before. Fear is not conducive to a healthy theatre – the Committee spread fear.” Another interviewee claimed it produced: “…a general sense of fear, fear to attack the status quo, fear to assert revolutionary solutions to social ills.” (Or indeed to assert that social ills were a proper subject for dramatic treatment.)
Perhaps because of the great shame still attached to the events, and the failure of the majority of the intellectual and artistic community to stand up to McCarthy’s bullying, there are still surprisingly few fictional representations of this period in American history, or of its fallout, making I’m Dying Laughing, for its testimonial value alone, an important novel: “…there were really no noteworthy plays about such enormous events as the Korean War, the developing nuclear threat, the tragic deterioration of white-black relationships in the decade which followed the Committee.”
In 1950 while doing research for I’m Dying Laughing (at this time the novel was called The Renegade) Stead came across a recently published collection of essays on the failure of communism. The God that Failed had contributions from Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, André Gide and Stephen Spender, and from an American journalist of Russian emigré parents, Louis Fischer, who argued that for everyone who gave up their Party membership and became an ex-communist there was a final straw, an event that persuaded each man or woman they could no longer countenance their faith, and led them first to leave, and then to oppose the Party. Fischer called these moments ‘Kronstadts’ after the Bolshevik suppression of the sailors’ revolt on the island of Kronstadt in 1921 when, under Trotsky’s command, two thousand protesters were mown down by machine-guns. The sailors (whom only four years earlier Trotsky had called the “pride and glory” of Russia for the strategic role they played in the October Revolution), believed that the revolution for which they had fought was now being betrayed. The day after the massacre the sailors published a manifesto to explain to the world ‘What we are fighting for’:
By carrying out the October Revolution the working class had hoped to achieve its emancipation. But the result has been an even greater enslavement of human beings…the worst and most criminal of all is the moral servitude which the communists have also introduced: they have laid their hands on the inner world of the toiling people forcing them to think in the way that they want…To the protests of peasants, expressed in spontaneous uprisings, and those of the workers, whose living conditions have compelled them to strike, they have answered with mass executions and a bloodletting that exceeds even the tsarist generals. The Russia of the toilers, the first to raise the red banner of liberation, is drenched in blood.
The question of betrayal, who has betrayed whom, and the moment that betrayal of the revolution has occurred – the moment of Kronstadt that Stead had read about in The God that Failed – is discussed in I’m Dying Laughing. Shortly before Emily and Stephen decide to abandon America for Europe, they have lunch with old friends: Des Canby, an English aristocratic journalist who has just left the Party and is about to return to London, and the Oateses – the couple based, at least in part, on Stead and Blake – who have also left the Party and are sailing to Antwerp. In Emily’s large, airy living room they sit with long drinks before them and discuss their collective predicament: how to live now that they are, as Emily struggles to describe it, “outside, but inside, inside-outside”. A strange dialectic of the kind Emily joked about earlier is effected where Stephen’s fear of his own desertion (“he might feel like a traitor…it was not right to desert the country, the cause, the friends he had, in trouble”) is transmuted into its antithesis: not Stephen and Emily’s betrayal, but a canticle of betrayals, the purported “crimes of the Soviet Union” against its own revolution.
In an atmosphere of rising hysteria the assembled company heap crime upon crime as if building a bonfire from history that might set fire to the very idea of communism and release them from it, guiltlessly. From Lenin’s ostensible betrayal of the Allies in 1917, to the Party Purge in ‘23 and Stalin’s “murder” of Lenin in 1924. Then to the expulsion of Trotsky in ‘27 and Emma Goldman’s attacks on the party, to the suppression of artists in ‘34, and finally to: “…the twenty-five million to forty million slave labourers – figures varied with passion – exterminated or worked to death in prison camps, the biggest slave system known in human history, not excluding the Romans and the Nazis?” They “shout and crow and…throw dates and events at each other”, chanting the litany of failures, betrayals and crimes: all of them reasons for abandoning their faith, for getting off Lenin’s ideological train to the Finland Station. But this is like a game that children play in the dark, scaring one another with a tale that becomes more hideous with every new twist – played not to frighten one another, but to show how ridiculous fear is, to confront fear and laugh it off. In the same way, Emily and Stephen and Canby and the Oateses face down their own apostasy by listing the increasingly terrible crimes of communism in order to ridicule these spectres and reaffirm their commitment to the cause.
So despite the growing excesses of their list of Kronstadts, the group’s commentary upon them asserts that these are not serious crimes but, rather, are fabricated by the “morning papers”; or are “violent propaganda” from “romantic revolutionists who…didn’t recognize the revolution once it was organized as a state”; or they are “legends” made up by a “leading anarchist” [Goldman] to “sell her books”. They note the hypocrisy when each new decrier of the Soviet system is “suddenly adored by the middle classes”, and artists under attack by the Soviet state become sacred in the West – “as if anyone ever cared for artists…But the crocodile tears!”
There is one event, though, that seriously troubles the women: “it was a shock to me when the Soviets stopped legal abortion. The mother, not the State, should be the one to decide”, Emily protests in an aside to Ruth Oates, seeking female solidarity on the matter. But this bond is undermined by Emily herself who seems to feel that abortion is a woman’s issue and therefore shameful, not fit to be included in discussion with men. Subtly reinforcing the association of womanhood with weakness, Emily (who always seeks to dissociate herself from frailty) tries to push away remaining fears about the Soviet Union by ridiculing the assembled company as effeminate: they are merely feeble “parlour pinks” with “romantic hearts” but no stomach for the fight. Finally Emily closes the book on any remaining doubts by comparing the history of the Soviet Union to the even worse legacies of America and Britain: “heigh-ho!” says Emily, in characteristic mode (as with much that she says, the remark appalls both for its inanity and for its candour), “History doesn’t bear scrutiny!”
Elia Kazan’s Kronstadt – as it was for many others in Hollywood – came not with any of the momentous international events that are noted by the lapsing communists in I’m Dying Laughing, but over a matter much closer to home, when Party doctrine was applied to curtail the freedom of expression of Albert Maltz, one of its members in the film community. This might point to the provincial and selfish nature of these pool-side revolutionaries (something that Stead accomplishes deftly in I’m Dying Laughing by comparing the levels of persecution faced by dissenters before the HUAC in America, and their counterparts who faced the Nazis in Europe), but it is striking that the Kronstadt sailors, too, felt above all else proscription of free opinion represented the ultimate betrayal of the revolution: “the worst and most criminal of all [my emphasis] is the moral servitude which the communist have also introduced: they have laid their hands on the inner world of the toiling people forcing them to think in the way that they want.”
In February 1946, the screenwriter (and later Hollywood Ten member) Maltz was forced by the Party to, as the sailors in Kronstadt put it, “think in the way that they want”, and made to retract an article he had written for its cultural magazine New Masses. ‘What Shall We Ask of Writers?’ was a polemic against the Party line on literature. In it, Maltz questioned their reductionist response to culture – one shouldn’t judge works “primarily by their formal ideology” he argued: “The source of the problem is the vulgarization of the theory of art which lies behind left-wing thinking, namely ‘art is a weapon’.” It was a slavish adherence to a crudely propagandist view of art that led to wild lurches in policy. Such thinking, Maltz pointed out, was responsible for the New Masses attack on Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist play Watch on the Rhine in 1939 – because its politics were anathema during the Nazi-Soviet pact; while only three years later the film version of this play was acclaimed by the same journal, sanctified now because it followed Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Two months after Maltz’s article appeared, New Masses repeated the about-turn Maltz had complained of when it published a subsequent piece by him, ‘Moving Forward’ in which (with resounding irony) he was made to commit the very thing he had complained of: to go back and rescind his first article, and present its opposing argument.
iv. Drama Queens and Essentialists
With hindsight, one can see that this was an event that was to toll the death knell for the Party in Hollywood, leaving scars long after the event. Nearly a decade later (in 1952) it was still being cited as a reason for disunity among the Left. Here I.F. Stone, in a letter to Dashiell Hammett (a writer who went to jail rather than testify before the HUAC), gives it as his reason for refusing to support a rally against the Smith Act, (passed in 1941, it forbade any large assembly of communists): “VJ [V.J. Jerome, the Communist Party Cultural Commissar] is a hell of a nice guy personally but politically he has tried to ride herd on the intellectuals in a way most offensive to anyone who believes in intellectual and cultural freedom, as with New Masses, often in most humiliating ways – as in the belly-crawl forced some years ago on Albert Maltz…[I cannot support] the dogmatic, Talmudic and dictatorial mentality [Jerome] represents.” The belly-crawl proved too much for some and in the way of Emily’s peculiar Hollywood dialectic the Maltz case was claimed by Kazan and many others as the cause of their decision to testify as a friendly witness before the Committee: because the Party had denied Maltz free speech and forced him to recant, they would now testify before a committee whose avowed purpose was to deny freedom of speech by forcing witnesses to repudiate their former beliefs and publicly confess to the error and guilt of having been communists.
Among those who exhibited this kind of chop-logic was the screenwriter Leopold Atlas, who described to the Committee the meeting (attended, among others, by the new Party head William Z. Foster, Alvah Bessie, and Stead’s close friend, Mike Gold – one of eight New Masses editors), that led to Maltz’s retraction. Atlas couched his version of the event in the hyperbolic terms of the B-movies – melodramas and paranoid film noir – that had been his mainstay in Hollywood:
This was truly a ghastly business…Here one saw the wolf pack in full operation, working on one of our long-term members. The mere recalling of the incident is abhorrent to me…I can only give you my impressions of that meeting. It was a nightmarish and shameful experience.
I remember that Albert Maltz tried to explain his thoughts on the article. I remember that almost instantly all sorts of howls went up in protest against it…From one corner Alvah Bessie, with bitter vituperation and venom rose up and denounced Maltz. From another corner Herbert Bilbernon rose and spouted elaborate mouthfuls of nothing, his every accent dripping with hatred. Others from every part of the room jumped in on the kill…They worked over him with every verbal fang and claw at their command; every axe and bludgeon, and they had plenty. They evidently were past masters at this sort of intellectual cannibalism…The hyena attack – that is the only way I can describe them – continued with a rising snarl of triumph, and made him crawl and recant…I remember feeling a deep anguish for him as a human being, that his closest friends for years, or at least associates, would treat him so shamefully, so uncharitably, so wolfishly. Whatever the cause, his friends had no right, in all decency, to humiliate and break him in this fashion.
The melodramatic quality of Atlas’s testimony was not unique, as Mary McCarthy noticed in her 1953 essay ‘My Confession’, many of the witnesses before the HUAC were equally theatrical, acting out self-aggrandizing scenes for the Committee in which they placed themselves squarely centre-stage: “When Whittaker Chambers is mounted on his tractor, or Elizabeth Bentley, alone, is meditating her decisions in a white New England church, I have the sense that they are on location and that, at any moment, the Director will call ‘Cut’. It has never been like that for me; events have never waited, like extras, while I toiled to make up my mind between good and evil.”
McCarthy found something phony and contrived in these romantic epiphanies in which the truth about communist evil is suddenly revealed to the accusers of Alger Hiss and William Remington. Stead, by contrast, while condemning the iniquity of those who built their careers upon the courtroom dramas of the HUAC, also acknowledged the excitement of living in such dramatic times. Looking back to the period of Senator McCarthy, Stead told one interviewer in 1973: “It was very unpleasant. So many people, good worthy people were being attacked, and it was entirely for the worst political motives, they didn’t care about the Reds. They were all making their political ways, as some have done of course. Oh, it was a terrific moment, it was worth living through, it was great.”
This sense of exhilaration is something Stead shares with Emily, who, before she is finally destroyed by it, thrives, perversely, on the political tribulations which beset her. Emily’s talent for self-dramatization, laughably, at times, (like the vulgar displays of the communist repenters) makes her place herself at the centre of history’s vortex. But it is precisely this lack of (false) modesty which also allows her to reveal a deeper truth, one concomitant with her communist faith, about the individual’s ability to effect change, and about our connectedness to the world: “each man is history…we are history, each thudding heart” she declares. In the same way it is Stead’s own capacity as a novelist to transcend propriety – and in so doing risk disturbing the reader’s sense of decorum (evidenced in many reviews that find her writing too wild) – that enables her to deliver her own potent brand of verisimilitude, discovering truth about the human condition in just these discrete and complex ways. Stead was aware that it was the conflicts her subjects endured, and the drama that these created in their lives which made them into the kind of raw material that she, as an artist, was driven by. In a letter to her friend, the poet Ettore Rella, Stead affirmed her excitement at having found such promising material: “The American Renegade…it’s very strong, a great character is The Renegade”, and she told another that Emily was a “terrific central character.”
In the same letter Stead also discusses the Rosenbergs (polar opposites to Emily and Stephen, the couple were executed in 1951 for treason), and the way in which their cause – they were accused of spying for the Soviets – had proved a cohesive force, bringing Americans together: “As for the Rosenbergs, Ettore and Jessie, I can assure you that they united this side of the world if nothing else ever could. No one that I have ever heard of here thinks they should have been executed, not even one conservative sheet of the pottiest, not the most Catholic either. And most people think they were innocent.”
Recently, documents released by the Russians and the Americans have given rise to a new wave of scholarship and research into the McCarthy era. An important – though contested – contribution making use of this new information is Ellen Shrecker’s book, Many are the Crimes, in which she reveals that “there is serious evidence against Julius Rosenberg, (but not against his wife, Ethel)” – something Doris Lessing asserts in a revisionist history of her own involvement in the Party and the campaign to free the Rosenbergs. Despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm of Lessing’s friends for the cause, the case of the Rosenbergs did act to mobilise a broad range of support across the world (as Stead observes) in which writers and intellectuals were particularly vocal, speaking out against what was perceived to be a growing witch-hunt of communists in America. Lessing, however, reports that her involvement was more equivocal:
I organised a petition for the Rosenbergs, condemned to die in the electric chair for spying. As usual I was in a thoroughly false position. Everyone in the Communist Party believed, or said they did, that the Rosenbergs were innocent. I thought they were guilty, though I had no idea they were as important as spies as it turned out…I thought the Rosenbergs had probably said, Oh yes, of course, we’ll tell you [the Soviet Union] if there’s anything interesting going on. Not only did I think they were guilty but that the letters they were writing out of prison were mawkish, and obviously written as propaganda to appear in newspapers. Yet the comrades thought they were deeply moving, and these were the people who, in any other context but a political one, would have had the discrimination to know they were false and hypocritical…The letters I got back from writers and intellectuals mostly said that they did not see why they should sign a petition for the Rosenbergs when the Party refused to criticize the Soviet Union for its crimes.
New information from both sides of the Cold War has unmasked more of the players, and earlier accusations from both sides have been substantiated in the process: Yes, the Soviets did plant spies in the American government, and, yes, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI did infiltrate the American Communist party (roughly “a thousand informers within the CP”, Schrecker tells us), did besmirch liberals, did bug, spy on, harass, and blacklist suspected ‘Reds’. However this verification of old suspicions has not brought about a greater consensus about what propelled these actions in the first place, nor as to their moral weight. In reviews of Schrecker’s book, critics often praise her “solid research and good writing”, but illuminating as these are, this has not led to an agreement upon interpretation of the facts: “Given what we now know about the designs and disasters of Communism,” one critic berates Schrecker, “it is simply unacceptable to continue to cling to the absurd illusion of heroic Reds as the champions of the highest ideals of humanity.”
The problem of what happened and why during this period is not just one for historians. Memoirists like Lessing – she came to repudiate her involvement with the Party – often fail to explain why so many people felt they were forced into doing and “say[ing] things [they] did not really believe”, nor do they now take full responsibility for their actions at the time. (Though one could argue that Lessing is consistent at least insofar as much of her writing complains of the way in which, in the twentieth century, the “small personal voice” of the individual has been overwhelmed or corrupted by the ideological movements which have swept it up in history.) Part of one’s uneasiness in reading Lessing’s rewriting of her past is the company it places her in.
Reviewing a book about the decline of communism (Francois Furet, The Passing of an Illusion,1999) Edward Skidelsky argues that “like all the best works on communism, it carries the authority of a confession.” But to acquire the authority of confession one must first admit to perpetrating a sin. Lessing’s avowal, like that of Chambers, like Kazan’s, and like many other ex-communists’, is, in fact, a disavowal, losing its testimonial authority by attempting to dissociate the confessor from the thing she confesses to: yes, I was a communist, she admits, but, no, I didn’t really mean it. Her confession echoes those recantings of earlier apostates who left the Party, also claiming that they had been swayed against their better judgment, somehow made to act in a way that put them in a “false position”, unlike those guilty comrades who remained in the Party, who really meant it.
The Rosenbergs who were executed, or the Hollywood Ten who went to jail for their beliefs, might have been used by Stead to epitomize the McCarthy period, providing her with drama and heroism for her novel, but in I’m Dying Laughing (as in all of her writing about the left) she rejected the figure of the martyr, standing true to his or her philosophy, whatever the cost, and chose instead to write about more ambiguous characters; people who cannot live up to their conscience, but who pay equally severe penalties for their failure. And with hindsight we can see perhaps why Stead’s dramas of ambiguity come much closer to the truth of the times: neither Julius Rosenberg, nor the Hollywood Ten did admit who they were or what they had done – Rosenberg denied spying for the communists, and the Hollywood Ten refused to answer the infamous question: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America?”, standing instead upon the First and Fifth Amendments – their constitutional rights to free speech, without self-incrimination.
If Stead was uninterested in writing about black and white morality, it was not because she, too, thought it ridiculous to believe in “the absurd illusion of the heroic Reds”. (Like Emily, she had lived through a history of ‘betrayals’, and these new disclosures would not have dented her essential faith, nor her admiration for those men and women who committed their lives to communist ideals.) But the kind of pedagogic drama advocated at the time by cultural commissars in the Party like V.J. Jerome, figuring champions of the Great Cause, was a source of embarrassment to her. She felt that their demands were demeaning to the writer, stemming from a childish insecurity on the part of the Party, a belief shared by Emily who complains that “Like the child who has to hit every railing with a stick” she is being asked “to hit every tenet of my faith with my pen.”
What did attract Stead (though at times the attraction bewildered her), were not the public battles of history, of the kind that the Rosenbergs and the Hollywood Ten exemplify, but the ways in which these conflicts penetrate ordinary life, and the lessons to be learnt from the ensuing personal dramas, the struggles over conscience. However, this presented its own dilemmas for her as a writer: without clear-cut heroes and villains, the technical problems of novel-writing dilate: what is the plot made up of and how is it to be resolved? Stead’s diaries, quoted in Rowley’s biography, reveal her anxiety about how to structure I’m Dying Laughing: “In the night I worry: I have exposition laid out and plan for my book The Renegade but where is the plot? Death of the conscience?”
The question of plot was a troublesome one for Stead. Many readers and critics have argued that her novels, particularly the later ones, lack narrative strategy and coherence. In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily, in part because she is a writer herself, but more importantly because of her flamboyant theatricality, acts as a kind of conduit for – and mirror of – Stead’s attempts to work out story, not through any laboriously plotted mechanisms, but through the enactments, personifications and dramas of her characters. An example of this is the way in which Emily’s sense of the transgressive and the dramatic leads her to her aperçu about the entanglement of individuals in history. Another time it leads to a (transitory) self-revelation: that she is talking “baloney”, creating a smokescreen to obscure her own pain and guilt.
After a “cruel quarrel” about the way they are living in Paris (dining with collaborators, living on handouts from Anna, Stephen’s millionaire mother) Stephen, angry at the hypocrisy of their lives, shouts, “don’t give me that about workers’ salaries. Because we don’t give a damn about them or we wouldn’t be living like this.” And Emily concedes that they are rotten to the core. As if to affirm this, she stuffs herself with “a big platter of food”, “several glasses of beer” and “half a box of the best French chocolates”, and then, in flagrant bad faith, launches into a diatribe about how people who are martyrs to their cause are always neurotic and suicidal to begin with. Talking of a close friend (Rowley suggests Stead was thinking of the communist critic, Ralph Fox, who died in Spain on Christmas Day, 1936) Emily says bitterly: “I know a man went to Spain to fight in the civil war and it was suicide.” And then unnerved by what she has said, bursts into tears. But for all her self-indulgence and failed conscience, the mercurial Emily still retains some of her grounded, mid-Western sense of perspective, and is as quick to recognize disingenuousness in herself as in others: “I’m a bunk artist. Putting on a scene.”
Those with less conscience, however, much as Mary McCarthy suggested, found in the drama of the times only chances for their own glorification: star witnesses creating star roles for themselves. In his confessional memoir, Witness (1952), Whittaker Chambers, (another New Masses editor) who gained the greatest fame of all the ‘friendly witnesses’, describes his life as if it were part of some Warner Brothers B-movie about running from the mob. He tells his approving audience of senators that after leaving the Party, he got a gun to protect himself, and, fearful for the lives of his family, he put them into hiding. While Leopold Atlas displayed an equally paranoid talent before the Committee: “After this [the Maltz incident] I knew positively I had to get out. But how, I frankly didn’t know. I believe I have already mentioned that they [communists] were placed in strategic positions throughout the industry, that withdrawal from them would have meant professional and economic suicide.”
In fact reports on communist influence in Hollywood show that out of 300,000 employed in the film business only 324 were eventually found to have belonged to the Communist Party. But the question of the extent of the Party’s influence in Hollywood is still in dispute. For instance Report on Blacklisting claimed that the communist beliefs of those Party members and supporters in Hollywood had no discernible effect upon the movies they produced while, more recently, Adam Gopnik, in a review in the New Yorker of Joyce Milton’s biography of Charlie Chaplin (not a member, but a supporter) maintains: “He probably recast the end of Modern Times at Party Orders, for instance, and the last incoherent speech in The Great Dictator was at least partly fashioned by a Party sympathiser and mentor, named Rob Wagner.”
Chaplin was summoned to testify in 1947, but the hearing was delayed and then cancelled after he sent a statement saying he had never been a communist. Six years later when he applied to leave the country temporarily the comedian was grilled about his political affiliations but was finally granted an exit permit. A native of South London, Chaplin had always declined the honour of becoming an American citizen and, because of this, once he was on the boat, the authorities were able to rescind the permit. On hearing news of Chaplin’s enforced exile, I.F. Stone exhorted the comic to make a sequel to his satire about Adolf Hitler, The Great Dictator, suggesting a movie about Joseph McCarthy entitled The Great Investigator: “Turn the laugh on them, Charlie, for our country’s sake. This capital needs nothing so badly as one final well-flung custard pie.” But Chaplin’s career was broken by this rejection and having officially left the States illegally, one of the screen’s earliest and brightest stars was honoured for his contribution to the American film industry by being exiled from Hollywood for the rest of his life. His fate demonstrates how the threat to remove one’s passport (as Virginia Viertel found, and as Stead demonstrated in I’m Dying Laughing, making it the Achilles heel for Stephen and Emily) proved the breaking point for so many in the McCarthy era, forcing testimonies out of those who had previously held out.
There were those, however, who did not succumb. Pressure of this kind was applied to Arthur Miller in 1953. He was refused a passport in order to travel to Brussels for the first European production of The Crucible, his counterblast to McCarthyism (one of the still rare literary responses to the HUAC, an analogous play about the Salem witch-hunts of 1692). The decision was made shortly after his much publicised break with Elia Kazan following Kazan’s friendly testimony before the HUAC. Miller was informed by the Passport Office that he was being turned down on the grounds that it was “not in the national interest” to let him travel abroad for such a purpose, but rather than inducing him to testify, these restrictions upon his freedom made him even more adamant. Three years later, he was called before the Committee as an uncooperative witness. In his autobiography, Timebends (1987), Miller remembers how he felt: “It was not yet common for American plays to be published and performed in Europe, as mine had been…Of course I knew that they [the foreign journalists] were thinking that what had almost murdered European culture was sitting in this room under the almost palpable power of the American flag, and I wanted to reassure them that it was not going to happen here, at least not today.”
The problems which confronted political radicals at this time, and which beset Emily and Stephen in I’m Dying Laughing, were those that Stead and Blake faced in their life together, and may account for some of the turbulence and sense of outrage with which Stead invested her final novel. As an Australian citizen, she had no problems with her passport and was free to live the peripatetic life that fed her wonderfully various novels, (though after reading in the New York Times that the eponymous heroine of Letty Fox: Her Luck was a member of the Young Communist League, the FBI did keep a file on her briefly, between 1947 and 1948). But Blake, an American who the authorities knew had been active in radical politics, had to make some accommodation with the State department in order to keep his passport and be able to travel freely.
The FBI tracked Blake’s activities for nearly twenty years (from 1943 to 1962) and he was listed as a “key figure” among communists in New York. After the war, when the couple decided to return to Europe, Blake applied for a travel visa, implying that he wanted it only for a short business trip: he was lucky to receive it. But eight years later in 1954, the FBI decided to investigate before they were willing to renew his passport. In June, October and December of that year Blake submitted sworn affidavits to the American Embassy in London stating that except for a brief period in 1938/9, he was not, and had not been, a member of the Communist Party. He did furnish them with vague information about the New York branch of which he had been a member, but by December he went on the offensive claiming that the constant querying of the truthfulness of his affidavits by embassy officials amounted to a “personal insult”. As Rowley notes, the boldness paid off and Blake was issued with a one-year passport, extended to two, after which investigations of this kind ceased altogether. We can only speculate, however, about what might have happened if Blake had not been so fortunate. I’m Dying Laughing amply demonstrates Stead’s awareness (and no doubt Blake believed this too) of the terrible fate awaiting those like Emily and Stephen who bartered with the McCarthyites and renounced their beliefs. It is part of Stead’s genius that in a novel with such monstrous characters, who commit acts of treachery, we are yet made to feel our affinity. And in this, she forces us to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: faced with their situation, how would we have acted?
v. Personal Politics
We expect that there will be no happy endings for Stead’s protagonists in I’m Dying Laughing: no redemption, no chance of heroism. Nor does Stead allow us the satisfaction of catharsis from Emily and Stephen’s dreadful endings – for the reader, too, there will be no release from the burden of history. When his moment comes, and history finally catches up with him, Stephen fails the test; lacking the courage that E.M. Forster hoped for in these circumstances, he betrays his friends in order to keep faith with his country. But haunted since boyhood by Edward Everett Hale’s novel about exile, The Man Without a Country, Stephen’s act of testifying to regain his passport amounts to something more complex than the stark choices Forster’s dictum allows. It is not that Stead mitigates his treachery, rather that she shows us, painfully, its manifold form: for Stephen (as it was for many who came before the HUAC and its various sister organizations) testifying is both an act of loyalty – an affirmation of his love for his country and a statement that he cannot live in exile from it; and an act of betrayal – a betrayal of the friends (and probably family) that he names and the communist beliefs they all held in common, and in good faith. This faith and sense of belonging was once so strong as to have constituted a kind of love. And, as Stephen confesses to Emily, his love of the Party is inextricably tied to his feeling for her:
I know I am a gnat, a mayfly, I know I haven’t the stamina or coarseness of men who succeed, but I must be a revolutionary, not just a rebel; for me, it’s a kind of love, a better kind. I love you and the children, when the house is quiet and they’ve had their food, I love you most, but there is more; and it isn’t love of mankind, it is just love, but this Party and this movement is the body of that love for me. Not better – it’s not better to love the Party than you – you are two, strongly loved.
One of the principal strengths of I’m Dying Laughing (and a characteristic of Stead’s whole oeuvre) is this refusal of any simple partisanship. In her interview with Joan Lidoff, Stead refused to condemn the real people upon whom the characters of Emily and Stephen were based: “They did break up. She did break down. Though who could stand it? It’s not their fault.” This is not Stead letting anyone off the hook (she has rightly been described as a novelist who is “merciless, cruel and unforgiving”), but rather acknowledgement of the tangle of human motive and behaviour. And it is just such qualities of attention and understanding that make Stead, in I’m Dying Laughing, into the best kind of witness, rather than (as those who dabble in morality often tend to be) the worst kind of judge. Stead is able to convey Emily’s and Stephen’s disintegration in I’m Dying Laughing, while desisting from moralizing about it because she grounds every action firmly in the material world. In this she can be thought of as a Marxist writer. This does not mean that the novel is crudely didactic (Stead thought “if you believe a thing intensely it’s in the book, you don’t have to write slogans”). Nor that there is no psychological dimension to her work (Emily’s is one of the most compelling and explosive portraits of female pathology in twentieth century literature), but Stead’s world, as Engels required, is multi-dimensional, connecting the various parts and showing their interactions.
One of the most interesting, and self-reflexive, ways in which this is demonstrated in Stead’s posthumous novel is through the pursuit of the relationship between Emily’s writing and her family’s need for respectability and money. A constant theme is that Emily is restrained as a writer by financial consideration and the belief that truth-telling will turn her into a pariah (a common experience for writers in this period: as Lillian Hellman put it: “Truth made you a traitor [then] as it often does in the time of scoundrels”): “…upstairs Emily flirted with the idea of writing a great novel. She sketched out one idea after another, and in each of them she wanted to tell some truth that would offend some section of the community. Some of the truths would offend everyone and get them on the black list.” Among the more important lessons here, is Emily’s (and Stead’s) understanding of, and their struggle with, the fact that writing is not a neutral or rarefied act, but something always tending to get you into trouble from one quarter or another. Such an idea might be commonplace in these post-fatwa times, but contemporaries of Stead, even writers who had been communists, were still able to convince themselves that art was a transcendental form, taking you beyond all the difficulty (and messiness) of the political or material world.
Two such were W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. In his recently published Diaries (Volume One: 1939-1960), Isherwood describes the moment when, having sailed for America at the onset of the war in Europe, Auden and he “confess” to one another their desire to abandon the compromises of the political realm which has preoccupied them throughout the Thirties, and return to the safety and sanctity of art:
One morning on deck, it seems to me, I turned to Auden and said: “You know, I just don’t believe in any of it any more – the united front, the party line, the antifascist struggle. I suppose they’re okay, but something’s wrong with me. I simply can’t swallow another mouthful.” And Auden answered: “No, neither can I.”….Now, in a few sentences, with exquisite relief we confessed our mutual disgust at the parts we had been playing and resolved to abandon them, then and there. We had forgotten our real vocation. We would be artists again, with our own values, our own integrity, and not amateur socialist agitators, parlour reds.
The irony, here, is that Isherwood justifies his political apostasy, making arguments that raise art to a pedestal, figuring it a place of “value” and “integrity”, as he heads not for the American wilderness to practice his “real vocation” and be an “artist again”, but to try his luck in Hollywood: a place notorious for its squandering of artists (even of the calibre of Faulkner and Fitzgerald), and whose existence was predicated upon the part-playing he and Auden professed to find so distasteful. On arriving in the city Isherwood quickly moved into a central position among the left-leaning group of writers and artists – the Brechts, the Manns, Huxley, Garbo, and Virginia Viertel – that Stead, less famous, less glamorous, only skirted the very edges of. But like Stead, and like hundreds of other writers who spent time there hoping to make their fortune, he found Hollywood a mirage, and left in the autumn of 1941 to become a volunteer in a Quaker colony for German refugees recently arrived in Pennsylvania.
In I’m Dying Laughing Stephen describes the Communist Party as being “the body” of his love, a “better love”, perhaps even than his more selfish love for his wife and family, because it represents a hope for mankind, and the belief that a brighter future is possible. For Stephen the loss of this optimistic love ends in the nihilism of suicide; for Emily in madness, a different kind of self-abnegation. When Isherwood and Auden turned away from the Party and the “body” of love and hope it represented, they found themselves (as did others who veered from communism at this time) looking for something to replace what had been expunged. For Isherwood the gap left by abandoning his radical politics was not satiated by anything Hollywood had to offer, and still remained with him in Pennsylvania. As Christopher Hitchens noted in his review of Isherwood’s Diaries, he found the Quakers rather puritanical and family-oriented for his tastes. Auden returned to his Anglo-Catholicism, while others looked to a variety of forms of future-gazing, prophecy, religion and mysticism. In his Diaries Isherwood records one hilarious exchange about Aldous Huxley’s new-found beliefs between him, his son Julian, and a flabbergasted Bertrand Russell: ““Did he – I mean – er, that is – do you mean to say he actually, er really – prays?” “And why,” asked Bertrand, “does Aldous talk about Ultimate Reality? Surely one kind of reality isn’t any more or less real than another?””
Still searching to fill the gap, Isherwood finally turned to an Indian mystic, Swami Prabhavananda, joining the commune in New York where he practised meditation and yoga. For a while this seemed to fulfil his needs, causing him to decry earlier emotional entanglements as a sham (just as he and Auden had rejected what they came to believe was the play-acting of their earlier political relationships): “If there’s anything I’m sick of, it’s personal relationships, on which I and the rest of my friends used to expend a positively horticultural energy. Ah! what a coldness there was underneath those ‘darlings,’ those kisses, those hugs, those protestations! Here [with Swami] I’m happy to say, all that seems meaningless.” It’s tempting to see this (as Hitchens tends to) as another charting of the well-travelled path from youthful radicalism to curmudgeonly, misanthropic old age, but we can also see in it a disorientation peculiar to this time of oscillating allegiance: where was the true self to be found, how to know false roles and cast them off? Isherwood’s attempt to remove himself from political and personal relationships, and the realm of compromise and betrayal that these entail, was perhaps an attempt to escape from vulnerability of this kind and to vacate the self – a less drastic form of Stephen’s and Emily’s nihilism – stripping it down, in this case, to Prabhavananda’s cult of asceticism. Huxley’s brand of turning inward and away from the world, began, rather more infamously, one morning in May 1953 when he took four-tenths of a gramme of mescalin.
In Witness, Whittaker Chambers affirmed Isherwood’s fears, highlighting the dangers of personal relationships, particularly for those involved in radical politics, by making it clear that successful testimony before the HUAC was based precisely on the degree to which an informer was willing to exploit intimacy, and betray it: “The informer, particularly the ex-Communist informer…risks little. He sits in security and uses his special knowledge to destroy others. He has that special information because he knows these others’ faces, voices and lives, because he once lived within their confidence, in a shared faith, trusted by them as one of themselves, accepting their friendship, feeling their pleasures and griefs, sitting in their houses, eating at their tables, accepting their kindness, knowing their wives and children.”
Despite this damning self-condemnation, the overall image presented in Witness (what Stead liked to call a “best-smeller” in America), of a man who informs on friends in the name of his country, made men like Chambers not just respectable but heroic, turning around the age-old Christian repugnance at the Judas figure of the traitor. As Victor Navasky argues (in Naming Names, 1982), Witness “helped to bring about the metamorphosis of the informer from rat to lion, from stoolie to patriot.” And in 1954, two years after the publication of Witness, Kazan’s transformation of the Brando character in On the Waterfront had the same effect on the public imagination, turning another traitor into a martyr. In Chambers’s reading of history, Stephen’s and Emily’s downfall would occur, not because they have betrayed everything they believed in, but because they are unable successfully to effect the proper transformation: incapable of seeing themselves as patriotic, to the end they remain rats and stoolies. As the Brando figure in Kazan’s film says, “Conscience. Ah dat stuff can drive you nuts”, but unlike him – and unlike Kazan who claimed in his memoirs to have experienced only “embarrassment” – Emily and Stephen are unable to overcome their qualms about betraying their friends and are destroyed by their treachery.
What was required of a witness, and what the renegades Emily and Stephen despite their perfidy cannot accomplish, was a complete transformation, one which included the extinction of the old self. Only from such a conversion could “the Committee be certain that his break with the past was genuine. The demand for names was not a quest for evidence; it was a test of character.” The result for those who (for whatever reason) decided to testify, was just such a dramatic change of character, often palpable in the art they subsequently produced. After Clifford Odets came before the Committee in 1952, the work of this most truculent and politically subversive writer became more introspective, to the point where in his final play, The Flowering Peach (1954), as one critic put it: “Odets’s primary concern…[is] to establish man’s acceptance of the will of God and the fate of cosmic justice. Thus, the radical Odets comes to accept the futility of the rebellious gesture and shows that redemption is finally born of acceptance, not protest.”
Chambers asserts that the most significant characteristic of a witness is the degree of intimacy he has achieved with his subject – how friendly the friendly witness has become: “If he had not done these things he would be no use as an informer.” It is not surprising, then, that among Robert Vaughan’s list of namers and named from the HUAC trials there appear not only friends indicting friends (like Kazan and Odets) but those who also named former spouses and lovers, brothers and sisters. In this way the HUAC trials turned out to be a family affair, causing rifts that would never mend, inflicting the kind of pain that only family betrayal can: examples of these estranging relatives were Harold J. Ashe who named his former wife Mildred, who in turn named him; Ruth Fischer who named both of her brothers, Gerhart and Hanns Eisler (Gerhart was a Party member, Hanns – one of Brecht’s chief composers – was not); and Anne Frank, the wife of screenwriter Melvin Frank, also testified, naming her sister, Virginia Viertel, who, as I have said, completed the family’s perfidy by naming her ex-husband Peter and her sister, too.
On the day Elia Kazan confessed to Arthur Miller that he, too, had handed over to the Committee the names of former comrades in the Party, Miller drove towards Salem to begin research for The Crucible. Although Kazan was not a relative, he had loved him as a brother, and this wrenching of familial bonds lead him to feel that what was happening in America was beyond the political, “it was really becoming something else, something one could not name.” Ironically, the act of naming names was so personal, Miller implies, as to be in itself nameless, somehow beyond description:
I was carrying several contradictions at the same time, my brother-love [for Kazan] as painfully alive in me as it had ever been, alongside the undeniable fact that Kazan might have sacrificed me had it been necessary. In a sense I went naked to Salem, still unable to accept the most common experience of humanity, the shifts of interests that turned loving husbands and wives into stony enemies, loving parents into indifferent supervisors or even exploiters of their children…
Responding to the intimacy of the betrayal in I’m Dying Laughing, Stead shows how, just as the denunciations of friends and family invested the HUAC trials with passion – making it personal – so petty tyrants within the family might pick up a trick or two from the politicians: Stephen’s mother, Anna, (trying to gain control of her grandchildren’s money) enacts her own McCarthyite vendetta, creating a blacklist of Stephen’s and Emily’s friends, communists and others beyond the pale, whom they have to agree not to see any more if they wish to retain guadianship of their children.
However, the showtrial that exemplifies the times in I’m Dying Laughing is not a HUAC one, but an equally fratricidal inquisition, in which members of the Communist Party anticipate the treachery of these later friendly witnesses, also selling out their friends and comrades for reasons both of submissive orthodoxy (even “rich and influential people, take party criticism like little children” Stead believed), and of financial gain. In I’m Dying Laughing the Party cabal in Hollywood is determined to expropriate the inheritance bequeathed to Stephen’s daughter by his first wife. They hope to influence Stephen’s sister, Florence, into bringing Olivia up as a good communist who will donate her money to the Party. To this end, they try to bully Emily and Stephen into giving up their parentship of the child, accusing Emily of being a mentally unstable, unfit mother. Their assault on the Howards is enacted in the name of party loyalty: the couple’s criticism of Earl Browder and his accommodating line (exemplified by his famous declaration -“Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism”) is deemed “ultra-leftist” and “deviationist”.
Their dinner-trial is hosted in his home in Persimmon Glen by the stylish communist scriptwriter, James Holinshed. During the evening Holinshed’s erstwhile partner, Godfrey Bowles turns to the assembled company and reads out a document, approved by the Party, that he has sent to the court in support of Florence’s custody battle: “It concerns Olivia, the rape of Olivia”, Bowles tells her incredulous parents. “The – WHAT – of Olivia? Oh Jehosophat -” is Emily’s jittery reply. The rape is figurative, of course, but the violation of Emily and Stephen by their friends and comrades is quite tangible. Bowles is more circumspect in the language he uses in his deposition, however, at least at first. Combining pseudo-medical language with disavowals of professional expertise, his testimony begins with an air of objectivity, listing Emily’s putative transgressions: ““…we observed the signs in Emily Howard of a degenerating psychism, of intellectual lesions perhaps even physical, though we are not competent to say. There were verbal incontinence, detailed recital of insignificant events, a general excitement, incoherencies of speech, unsuitable confidences in public-”
But as he continues, and as Emily and Stephen are quick to appreciate, the (vulgar) dramatist takes over – as it was to with the HUAC witnesses – turning Godfrey’s testimony into something more akin to a treatment for a Hollywood melodrama about Little Orphan Annie and her Wicked Step-Parents than a submission in court:
“…we are speaking of a little, sheltered girl. Conflict and economic and psychological tensions, and even suppressed conflict will produce mentally or even physically battered resentful and rebellious children, who will not adjust to any norm. Yet what is more normal than the family relationship? And where it concerns children of a sweeter more pliable nature, as for example Olivia Howard…it may produce either victims, masochists, or natures which become double-dealing, secretive, unstable, furtive; or insinuating and deducing natures, children who are not frank and self-reliant, or too much so who sit in judgment -” “What a cast of characters!” said Stephen. “Won’t sell,” said Emily, “too morbid, not for the suburban mamma.”
Anna, and, ironically, the comrades, are able to make these threats against the beleaguered couple, by playing into their fear of the courts because, as Emily declares, at this time: ““They’re taking children from guilty communist parents, ‘communist’ meaning guilty. The court would be enquiring into our bank accounts and laundry baskets; and Grandma and Florence would be seen white as snow, for guzzling is not considered wrong in this country -“” But the theme of family betrayal, which acts as a mirror in I’m Dying Laughing for the divisions created in the McCarthy period, is not only present in these carnivorous displays, or in Emily’s recollections of her own family as “brutal”, “bestial” and “savage”; destructive family relationships are the epicentre of nearly all of Christina Stead’s novels. “Stead’s loathing of the rank futility of home and hearth is equalled, in literature, only by that expressed by the Marquis de Sade” Angela Carter believed, and in her biography (Christina Stead. A Life of Letters, 1989) Chris Williams observes that family warfare lies at the heart of much of Stead’s writing: “…in the relationship between Michael and Catherine in Seven Poor Men of Sydney, of Nellie and Tom in Cotter’s England, of Sam and Louisa in The Man Who Loved Children, of Teresa and her father in For Love Alone, of Eleanor and her daughter inMiss Herbert (The Suburban Housewife), of the Massines in The People with the Dogs, and between Stephen, his mother and sister in I’m Dying Laughing.”
But while it is true that Stead’s view of family life is frequently a cruel one, her responses to it are never defeatist: she told one interviewer, with resilient perversity, that The Man Who Loved Children was a “celebration of unhappy family life”, and another, that the knocks and bruises, or the coddling, that family life inflicts were not harmful for children, but part of an important learning process from which they should not be shielded: “…certainly family relations have some effect. But there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and that is, children grow up anyway. You see some of them, they’ve been horribly spoiled, but they grow up anyway, and they’re really quite all right. They manage to survive parental care. Supercare.” It’s a view at odds with that expressed in I’m Dying Laughing at the Holinshed dinner by Godfrey Bowles and his wife, Millian, who seem at some pains to protect their children from the facts of life. Millian, rather ridiculously, but with great sanctimoniousness, explains to Emily and Stephen that she does not usually drink alcohol because: “We don’t want our children to feel we have a life they can’t participate in.”
This vein of piety continues throughout the attack upon Emily and Stephen by Holinshed and Bowles – joined now by another scriptwriter, a leading Party apparatchik Jay Moffat Byrd (a character bearing great similarities to the playwright and scriptwriter John Howard Lawson). Holinshed and Bowles have both been in psychoanalysis – Bowles’s “cure is the most celebrated on the West Coast” – and as a result, their belligerence comes cloaked in the language of therapeutic self-righteousness. They act as if their confessions, performed on the analyst’s couch, have purified them, made them wise, even Christ-like. As McCarthy and his fellow senators were to demand of witnesses to the HUAC, what these righteous comrades require from Emily and Stephen is that they confess and atone for their sins, just as in analysis Holinshed and Bowles have: “it would be thought a good thing if this were in the form of a signed document which could be circulated.” Such an act, it is implied, would purge them of their “deviationist” errors and return them to the fold.
Perhaps to encourage the recalcitrant pair Godfrey offers his own confession: he tells them that the only reason he adopted children was to stop him from leaving his wife (a woman he thinks of, revoltingly, as “his ideal”), but after the adoption he still wanted to leave her. The job of his analyst, Dr Stumpf (psychiatrist to “the stars and the directors”) was to sort him out and return him to the nest. This rather stunning admission elicits no reciprocal confidence from Emily, however, merely the uncomprehending question: “Why are you going to this Dr Glumpf-glumpf? I think it’s unhealthy.” And the combative assertion that psychoanalysts are all “psychos”.
Undeterred, Jim Holinshed presses on with his own admission of a near-miss with a “four-alarm bitch”, after whom he tramped round Paris and Berlin, tricked into thinking she was having his baby. Ditching this tigress once she contracted typhoid (and anyway “she was no virgin”), he hooked up with Heidi in Denmark, and Regina in Copenhagen. But wearying of the game, he returned home to his wife, Vera, who now sits silently across the room as he details his conquests to the assembled company. When Emily (as ever, fearlessly speaking her mind – the very thing the comrades have accused her of) says she thinks infidelity is nothing more than rotten betrayal, Millian Bowles, (who like Vera Holinshed, seems to have kept hold of her errant husband only by means of these humiliating public recantations), looks “across at her with a faint superior smile.” But Emily’s “Hix-in-the-Stix” perceptions of life are not to be so easily punctured. What Stead suggests with great subtlety, and to rather creepy effect, is that for all their ostensible sophistication, Vera and Millian have fallen for one of the oldest plots: double-crossed by their roving husbands, these confessions of guilt (scripted by Hollywood professionals) are offered in order to increase their wives’ sense of moral superiority and to allay their anger.
Despite their apparent duping, it is clear that women are the cause of some anxiety among this suave set. When Emily admires a painting by Vera (“but that’s really fine art”), her husband Holinshed roundly dismisses it, and her, claiming art as antithetical to the biological function of womanhood: ““Oh, Vee’s an artist, but it’s the way with women – kids, progressive schools to be paid for, orange juice, all-night baby-sitting – I don’t know what it’s all for, but it’s necessary for women. If women don’t have children, their art’s cramped and if they do, they don’t have art. So men have art. Fair enough.”” Scandalized by this, Emily retaliates with a spirited support of the working woman, and the woman artist; a vindication all the more heartfelt for being a defence of her own life, which, through the course of the evening, comes under mounting attack:
“Damn it, that’s an outright stuffed shirt viewpoint; so you get it straight all the time, eh? I can beat any man alive, I bet, in my writing, and children and house and all. I think it makes a woman an artist, it doesn’t hinder her. If she’s hindered it’s her own fault; she or her husband don’t want her to win…I think it’s possible for a woman to be a wife and mother and woman and artist and success and social worker and anything else you please in 1945.”
What Stead suggests in this ‘trial’ scene – surely one of the most corrosive portraits of political radicals in twentieth century literature – is an answer to Emily’s question about how the American left could destroy itself, and why. The comrades’ vanity, bullying, greed, and misogyny is appalling not just in itself, but for its hypocrisy: these are people whose communist beliefs (in solidarity and community) should preclude their self-regarding behaviour, but who travesty their faith by using it to justify the inquisition they subject Emily and Stephen to. The divorce of ideals and practice, that old political divide between ends and means, Stead implies here, is as a consequence of the theatricality imbuing the time. It’s a drama built upon the idea of manifest destiny, and the sense – as Mary McCarthy perceived – of individuals becoming actors, staging their lives under the spotlight, gaining significance by their role in backing the winning side in history.
In I’m Dying Laughing Stead forgoes the expected McCarthyite trial and instead her communist dramatists star in their own home-made production, but the point she is making by highlighting their amateur performances, rather than those of the HUAC in their more professional show-trial, is that the ritual of disguise, part-playing, testimony and confession was common to both these sets of players. For instance, Whittaker Chambers, like Stephen in I’m Dying Laughing, who adopts a pen name for his insurrectionary pamphleteering – and like his prototype, Ruth McKenney’s husband, Richard Bransten, and like Bill Blake – used pseudonyms; most often Chambers was masked as ‘George Crosley’ (Blake’s nom-de-plume was W. Stephen Marlowe). A recent biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, says that when Chambers was working for Russian military intelligence (between 1931 and 1937), he was “without a fixed identity, lived at a total of 21 different addresses, had signed false names to leases, passports and cheques, had invented aliases for his wife and children, had paid no income tax.”
But Chambers was not alone in leading a double life. Secrecy was important for many members of the Party (who feared losing their jobs) and particularly so in Hollywood. The local branch often did not issue membership cards (for fear of discovery), and some members had secret names, there was “a sense of the forbidden that occasionally had the feeling of a game.” Mary McCarthy admits that she was dazzled by some of the communists she met at this time precisely because of the mystery attached to them: “The idea of a double life was what impressed us…It was hard not to respect somebody who has an alias.” While Stead never makes the criticism explicit, her argument about the theatricality and hypocrisy of some of the comrades, makes a point similar to that of Christopher Hitchens who says, in a review of a biography of Whittaker Chambers, that “the Communist Party, with its [own] evasions and euphemisms” was never going to be an effective opponent of McCarthy’s bad-mouthing and double-dealing.
vi. Foxwarren: Hollywood in England
Fifteen years after their Hollywood sojourn, Stead and Blake were hard-up and living in England. A meeting with Hannah Weinstein (whom Blake had probably first known in Hollywood, and for whom he had recently completed some research) led to Weinstein offering the couple free accommodation in a cottage in the grounds of Foxwarren, a country estate in Surrey that she and her company, Sapphire Films, had taken over four years earlier for the purpose of making programmes for British television. Weinstein was keen to use the cheap and available talents of American blacklisted writers who could no longer find work in the film industry at home.
In March 1958 Stead and Blake left their one-room flat in London and moved into the roomier (if barer) “little stone hut”, as Stead called it, above what had once served as the estate’s stables. A few months later she described the bucolic scene in a letter to a friend. Slipping into the vernacular, Stead watched with amusement the exploitation of this earthy, English pastoral (and England’s favourite Green Man myth) by invading American artificers, masters of cardboard and trompe l‘oeil:
Foxwarren does suggest old England, cockfights, and some portfaced squire getting The Fancy down for dark work in the barns. I expect Foxwarren itself (a magnificent park it once was with a warm beautiful ‘Queen Anne’ manorhouse, on a very high hill brow over-looking much common and countryside) was named after the foxes there: we have quite a lot in the now restricted park…There is the ‘deer park’, some paddocks which were a deer stale, hence no use for grazing now (they ruin the land as sheep do): this deer park now has a Hollywood two-dimensional castle on it, a heavy baronial affair used for the ‘Robin Hood’ series (TV) and the English history series being done by the Encyclopaedia Britannica (now an American concern).
Later, however, Stead, improvising cleverly and good materialist that she was, was able to recycle these fabulator’s props for more immediate use. In October 1959, suffering from ‘flu and the autumn cold Stead wrote to a friend:
This place, though not so much as last year, still has some theatre relics, some properties around; left over from the ROBIN HOOD days; and I found, eg an old screen, hessian on wood. It had something pasted on it, presumably a ‘wall’ or ‘booth’ but I have stood it against the wall facing, which is all stone, etc. I had first decided on a ‘window’, what the stage calls a practicable window, which is down in the stable. But I found the cupboard door, which is now under my feet acting as a mat; and so on. (The floor is cement – old stable floor.) I am not VERY warm, but not so bad as last year…
At Foxwarren the Blakes met again some of the writers they had known in Hollywood – Jerome Chodorov, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott and Ring Lardner Jnr, who had all spent a year in jail as a result of their refusal to testify before the HUAC. Rowley says that Stead was particularly impressed by Lardner Jnr, describing him in a diary she kept at Foxwarren as “dark and tall, with a lank, Indian-looking face”; he was the scriptwriter for the Robin Hood series (he also worked on Sir Lancelot), together with Ian McLellan Hunter, and as with most blacklisted writers the need for subterfuge meant that they wrote under pseudonyms such as ‘Oliver Skene’ and ‘Philip Rush’, changing them from time to time in order to allay suspicion.
Like many who came under her patronage, Lardner Jnr had decidedly mixed opinions about Weinstein, seeing her both as a philanthropist and an exploiter. Stead shared his doubts, harbouring equivocal feelings towards her landlady of the kind which (as with her conflicted feelings about her friends Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten) sparked in her the desire to create, to write out of this ambiguity. So at Foxwarren, Stead put aside Miss Herbert (which she had been writing on and off for five years) and began a new work of fiction based on Hannah Weinstein and her husband, variously called Fan Pearl or The Golem:
Because of her past which, because of past connections with the great radicals, people thought of as a radical past and because she was a clever convincing talker, talents like Catchbone and many others, with better names, saw their future and fortune in her. She enjoyed creating her own society, was charming, gave parties and was believed to have helped many people: at least she helped them in little ways, or at least in her company they met “useful” people. The poor, degraded, frightened could for the first few months find a sort of welcome with Fan: at that time she was feeling her way, she had an idea; she would build a new theatre empire out of the free-floating and high-paid talents of the radical world. The persecutors had done her a favour: they had thrown these brilliant talents on the labour market and denied them all employment: they had once worked for fantastically high wages, now they must work for nothing and find doors shut, or must work under assumed names…These high-starred gentry found in her a foster-mother; they were anxious to work for reduced wages.
Weinstein was not the only one in Britain happy to benefit from the persecution taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. In Scoundrel Time, Lillian Hellman’s account of the McCarthy era, she recalls that Alexander Korda quickly lighted upon the opportunity to acquire the services of blacklisted writers at cut-down rates, offering her one-fifth of her Hollywood wages to work for him an offer she readily accepted because “we needed the money and it was no time to argue.” Later, she claimed even that diminished recompense was denied her when the miserly Korda “cheat[ed her] out of a third of the fifth he had offered…”
One page of Stead’s putative novel about Weinstein was scribbled on the back of a script for Robin Hood. The work was never completed, perhaps because the similarities between Weinstein and her husband, and Stead’s characters in I’m Dying Laughing – begun in the late 1940s – were too great. (Weinstein, like Emily and Stephen, thought of herself not as an exploiter but as a communist.) As Rowley records: “Hannah Weinstein and John Fisher had something of the crazy qualities of the McKenney-Bransten menage. Hannah was charming and hardworking, tiny and full of energy, but she had an ‘unquestioning egotism’ and a weakness for luxury. Fisher was empty, authoritarian, fraudulent and an incurable spender.” Stead wrote to a friend that Weinstein was incapable of seeing the damage her husband was doing to the business: “She’s going down with him, down, down to the devil.” And in January 1961 Stead’s diagnosis of their relationship proved accurate when Fisher was declared bankrupt and responded to the shame (as Stephen reacts to his, in I’m Dying Laughing) by trying to commit suicide. Shortly after, Foxwarren was put in the hands of the receivers and the Blakes moved to Hawley near Camberley.
In 1991 the writer Michael Eaton and filmmaker Philip Saville having read some of the recently published work on McCarthy in Hollywood, came across the story of the blacklisted writers who ended up in England working for British television. They, in turn, put these exiled scriptwriters into a script of their own, Fellow Traveller, intercutting between the dramatically different stories of their lives: before the HUAC trials and the golden, glamorous days of the Left in Hollywood, rallying the film community to the noble anti-fascist cause; and then to the bleakness of post-war England, all rain, ration books and lousy coffee. In particular Eaton and Saville pieced together and dramatized a story that had hung around Hollywood about a psychoanalyst, posing as a communist, who worked for the FBI by persuading his worried patients as they lay on his couch, that it was right for them to testify. In his autobiography of the McCarthy era, Alvah Bessie (one of the Hollywood Ten, who, as Atlas reported to the HUAC, had been present at the Communist Party meeting which forced Albert Maltz to retract his New Masses article) wrote of the time when he went to a psychiatrist for help after dreaming that an F.B.I. man was sleeping with his mother.
A corresponding incident is reported by Sterling Hayden who appears to have visited the same analyst, Ernest Philip Cohen. When Emily argues, at the Holinshed dinner, that Marx and Freud are diametrically opposed she is asserting the official line – as Doris Lessing writes in her autobiography Walking in the Shade, “communists did not go ‘into analysis’, for it was ‘reactionary’ by definition”, a point Emily makes when she reminds the dinner-party comrades that psychoanalysis is “boogoy [bourgeois] – it’s anti-Marxian.” Navasky corroborates this saying that in the Forties analysis was grounds for dismissal for communists in America. But on the West Coast there were a few men man who practiced with the approval of the Party, one of whom: “(…turns out to have been a lay therapist), who was in and out of the Party, had enough informer-patients to justify an enquiry as to whether he was indeed converting his patients into informers, as alleged, whether under his care they persuaded themselves that informing was a sign of emotional maturity.”
Cohen was analyst to Hayden, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield and many other agents and writers and, as it transpired, at least a dozen of his patients co-operated with the Committee. The idiosyncrasies of Cohen’s career certainly suggest double-dealing: he moved from therapy to become a captain in a sheriff’s office, and later still, special agent in the Department of Justice, where he seems to have turned his skill in coaxing confessions from clients to work upon real criminals, with equal success.
In Fellow Traveller the betraying psychiatrist is exposed when he attends a Peace Conference in England a few years after the war’s end. The ‘hero’ of the film, a screenwriter exiled to England to avoid the call to testify before the HUAC, and writing scripts for a television series of Robin Hood, confronts the psychiatrist, asking how he, a communist, has been able to get a visa to attend a Peace Conference at a time when McCarthy’s men are keeping dissidents from leaving the country by withholding their passports (much as the iron curtain kept East European dissidents sequestered at home). The conference in the film was probably modelled upon the Sheffield Peace Conference of 1950 which in her memoir Lessing says that she helped to publicise by leafleting door to door.
I was met at every door with a sullen, cold rejection. The newspapers were saying that the festival was Soviet inspired and financed – and of course it was, but we indignantly denied it and believed our denials. It was a truly nasty experience, perhaps the worst of my revolutionary duties. It was cold, it was grey, no one could describe Sheffield as beautiful, and I had not yet experienced the full blast of British citizens’ hostility to anything communist.
In the event the conference never took place. It was cancelled because incoming delegates were refused visas, and transferred, as a footnote in Lessing’s book states, to Warsaw. But despite the Party’s disapproval of psychiatry, the idea of the communist as confessor, of a charismatic father figure, was a potent one. To some the party leaders themselves were priestly, quasi-religious characters and, as Mary McCarthy suggests, perhaps those involved in show business and the arts were particularly susceptible to them, finding in their combination of public performance and powerful mystery a mirror for their own lives:
…I had a curiosity about the Communist men I used to see there [at CP fund raising parties], not the actors or writers, but higher-ups, impresarios and theoreticians – dark, smooth-haired owls with long white lugubrious faces and glasses. These were the spiritual directors of the Communist cultural celebrities and they moved about at these parties like so many monks or abbés in a worldly salon…these men, who had the air, as they stood with folded arms, of listening not to a disagreement but to a confession.
If the figure of the father-confessor loomed large in the McCarthy era, then I’m Dying Laughingmight be thought of as a portrait of its corollary – the renegade daughter who needs to confess all. But rather than a symbol of filial obedience, the lost lamb returning to the flock, Emily’s confessions, the “irresistible…verbal excess” which compels her to articulate every fear, idea, secret and betrayal, make her a taboo-breaking figure. The volatility, intelligence and comedy invested in her speech act in some profane, Foucauldian manner, not to assuage the guilt but to multiply the sin, making it worse by repeating it, spreading it around. An early demystifier (who nevertheless understood the attractions and mystifications of power), Stead did not believe that the flawed and tyrannical figure of the father, the politician or the psychiatrist was capable of delivering Emily (or any of us) from the burden of responsibility for her own life.
vii. American Amnesia
It had been a long haul (Stead had begun to sketch out ideas for I’m Dying Laughing in the early Forties) but in 1965 she believed she had accomplished her task and finished this most troublesome of novels. She duly posted the manuscript to her editors and a few close friends to garner their initial reactions to the work. But the responses Stead received were not at all those she had hoped for. While many of her readers thought the novel brilliant, they also believed there was still more work to be done on it.
Cyrilly Abels, her New York agent, wanted to know more about Emily’s past and felt that Emily’s and Stephen’s disagreements with the Party weren’t clear, while Maurice Temple Smith, her editor at Secker & Warburg in England, wanted substantial cuts and a re-think of the first half of the novel. The feeling was that a new generation of Sixties rebels were embroiled in different political battles and had forgotten, or were unaware of, what happened in the (albeit very recent) period of history that Stead describes in I’m Dying Laughing. Because of this Stead would need to explain what had stirred her protagonists’ passion and sense of injustice, to spell out why Stephen and Emily had become communists, and what it meant to be a member of the Party. Her friend, the poet Stanley Burnshaw, wrote to her from London after reading an early draft of I’m Dying Laughing, warning her how outlandish the period now seemed: “The whole Hollywood situation sounds incredible today, and so does all the kowtowing to the party hacks through the forties and fifties. The CP and the radical movement are absolutely nil here; you wouldn’t believe it. And your novel will come upon a reading public that regards the American experience with the CP and the radical left as nonsensical, idiotic, meaningless.”
So Stead struggled to emend the manuscript as she had been advised. Her principal alteration was the creation of three new back chapters that precede her original starting point in 1945 and the geo-politics of the Hollywood Glens. These fresh chapters give an account of Emily’s and Stephen’s meeting a decade earlier en route to Europe; the odd couple’s surprise at falling in love in Paris while attending an anti-fascist writers’ conference; and the comedy and tribulations, particularly those concerning food, of their early married life back in New York. (Faced for the first time with the “millionaire asceticism” of Anna, her prospective mother-in-law, Emily has to suppress the epicurean habits she has acquired in France and remember that marrowbone and gravy, not veal cutlets and truffles, are to be the order of the day.)
Layered into this often comic narrative are Emily’s and Stephen’s explanations of their growing radicalism. Between them they recite the bloody roll call of twentieth century American history: the defeat of The Wobblies; Frank Little’s hanging in Butte Montana in 1917; the execution of the Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti; the glamour and heroism of John Reed; Eugene V. Debs polling one million votes for socialism in 1920, the slaughtered Lindbergh baby, and now the Depression and millions of homeless Oakies (“how did it happen?…The USA is a rich country”). In the face of all this, they find only the weak hope of Roosevelt, undermined by the lack of any national “system” or philosophy to solve the country’s vast problems. In characteristically droll and allusive manner, Emily proposes an American fable about this worried nation burying its head in the sand: “We started out like no other nation with a philosophy, a constitution – a cartload of furniture to fix our little grey home in the west. But the landlord, known as Wolf, is knocking at the door, and even he is going to be hungry, tonight. No, I won’t think about it till I get home again.” Stead was later to claim that political explanations were weighing the book down, hampering the central theme of the Howards’ marriage, but much of the finest writing in I’m Dying Laughing emanates from attempts, like this one by Emily, to dramatise the state of the nation. Despite Stead’s desire to curtail the literariness of her writing, her gift for transfiguration shines through in passages like these where she (and Emily) characterise the stale political world, lightly transforming it (here, by alluding to the childhood mythology of The Wizard of Oz and Little Red Riding Hood) and so bringing it to life.
About the same time as Stead was working to reanimate her readers’ memories, reminding them in these early chapters of what it felt like to be young in the Thirties, Albert Maltz was also confronted with a lack of comprehension about his communist past. Explaining why he had knuckled under and agreed to re-write his New Masses article, why he had adhered to Party discipline, Maltz also had to look back to recount how, in the pre-war years, the Party had become the focus for (and repository of) a powerful idealism – the belief that communism might deliver a kind of paradise on earth:
Well, in those years people concerned about the future of the world had a great deal of interest in, or excitement about, the Soviet Union…one heard things that were very exciting to intellectuals – that abortions were free, that divorce and marriage were up to the people to decide, as well as the fact that they had no unemployment and we had tremendous unemployment.
And then if you began to observe the domestic scene you found that the Communist movement at that time stood for a good many things. It was the Communist movement that was organizing the unemployed. It was the Communist movement that raised the slogan ‘Black and white, unite and fight!’ and spoke out against racial discrimination. It was the Communist movement that proposed social security, which became the law of the land. It was the Communist movement that was very important in the organizing of the CIO and the industrial unions.
And if furthermore you had read in the Marxist classics, you found what I still think to be the noblest set of ideals ever penned by man…where else in political literature do you find thinkers saying that we were going to end all forms of human exploitation? Wage exploitation, exploitation of women by men…the exploitation of colour by white peoples, the exploitation of the colonial countries by the imperialist countries. And Marx spoke of the fact that socialism will be the kingdom of freedom, where man realizes himself in a way that humankind has never seen before.
The question of the influence that such ardent political feeling had upon art (asked of radicals and the films they made in Hollywood) has also been the cause of much speculation in relation to Stead’s writing. I have argued that the politics of Stead’s novels has flummoxed many critics. Her tendency to concentrate on left-wing figures that are unheroic and unappealing, as in I’m Dying Laughing, on renegades who inhabit (what she thought of as) bohemian wastelands, has confused some into believing that the political weltanschaung in her books is at odds with the political views she claimed in life. The issue has been most clearly understood by Angela Carter who asserted that Stead wrote as consistently from the Left as Evelyn Waugh had from the Right – she “takes the validity of the ideology for granted”. The way in which history was playing it out, Emily’s never-ending list of Kronstadts, made one’s relationship to the Party more complicated, but never diminished one’s belief in the ideas (the same ideas as those extolled by Maltz) behind it.
It was not just Stead, as Carter says, who took it for granted that good, intelligent people would support communist ideas, if not be Party members: the intelligentsia in American and Europe was dominated in the pre-war years by left-wing hegemony. This spirit of the times is well-expressed in Richard Attenborough’s film Shadowlands. Set in England in the Fifties, it tells the story of the love affair between the American poet Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. Getting to know one other they discuss their political beliefs and Lewis tells Davidman he was never a member of the Communist Party, not even in the Thirties. Davidman, finding this impossible to comprehend, demands to know, in a tone half-bemused, half-accusatory: “Why weren’t you?”
By the mid-Sixties, when Stead was confronted with the daunting prospect of going back and annotating her characters in I’m Dying Laughing, the worst excesses of McCarthyism were over, (though trials continued as late as 1964). A decade later Lillian Hellman’s account of the period was added to that of Burnshaw and Maltz. She, too, believed that Americans had already forgotten what happened under McCarthy, and because of this, those who had failed to speak out, who had been duped into writing for CIA funded magazines (like Encounter) or supporting CIA backed organisations, now felt no need to apologise for their acquiescence (however unintended): “None of them, as far as I know, has stepped forward to admit a mistake. It is not necessary in this country; they too know that we are a people who do not remember much.” Hellman’s reasons for not forgetting were personal as well as political. McCarthy not only interfered with her ability to make a living, and destroyed her faith in an intellectual community which failed to defend the persecuted, “whether they were my teachers or my friends or strangers whose books I had read”; it also hastened the death of the man she loved.
Dashiell Hammett went to jail in 1951 for a year for refusing to name names, he was ill when he went in and worse when he came out, Hellman reports. Called to testify again in 1955, he had a heart attack later that year, and although he lived another five, the time in jail, harassment by the Inland Revenue and the strain of being followed by the FBI, all considerably weakened his health. Arthur Miller, like Hellman was one of the few prominent artists and intellectuals who did speak out, and who refused to comply with the Committee’s requests for information about communist friends. A decade after writing The Crucible he, too, was taking stock of the past, considering whether or not he could forgive his former friend Elia Kazan for his behaviour during the time of the trials (he had not only testified as a friendly witness, but in 1952 took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times urging others to do likewise), whether Miller should work with him again in the setting up of a centre for the Arts in New York, the Lincoln Centre: “What it came down to now was whether his political stance and even moral defection, if one liked, should permanently bar him from working in the theatre, especially this kind of publicly supported theatre.”
In making his decision Miller found himself, as Stead, Maltz and Hellman had, coming up against the problem that America, a country with its eye always on the next ‘hot’ story, was forgetful about its own, even very recent, history: “I had not changed my opinion that his testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee had disserviced both himself and the cause of freedom, and I had no doubt that he still thought himself justified. In the intervening years, of course, the whole Communist issue had gone cold, and a new generation hardly understood what it had all been about.” But there were some around Stead who never gave way to this kind of collective amnesia, companions in memory who, like Miller, refused to forget. When the most trusted of these, her husband, died in 1968 it seemed to Stead as if the times had gone to hell: “You came at a bad time” she told Joan Lidoff, grouchily in 1973, when she arrived to interview her five years after Blake’s death. But she recounted to Lidoff, with some poignancy, the quality of Bill’s memory and the reinforcement it afforded her over the maligned I’m Dying Laughing: “I read it to Bill. His eyes had gone. And he liked it. Well, of course, his memory was perfect for detail. He remembered all of that. But people don’t remember all that, you know. The thirties was a hundred years ago. So I started to go to work and explain it all to people. And it got me down. I don’t want to write like that, filling in all kinds of details. These reference books kill me.”
Perhaps it was unease at the ferocity of Stead’s portrayal of monstrosity and debauchery that disturbed those who looked at it and demanded re-writes, rather than simply the belief that America was now living in an “eternal present”, suffering from a form of collective forgetting: though the country’s forgetfulness troubles its more conscientious biographers: Elmore Leonard, for instance, often returns to the idea that American modernity is intent upon expunging history, he writes of the “the past…being wiped out by condominiums”; Studs Terkel has said that as a nation Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, the terrible and wasting effect of which is the “elimination of the past, of history”; Gore Vidal habitually refers to his country as “the United States of Amnesia”; while Frederic Jameson’s formulation of ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ is precipitated by, and a response to, “the matter of historical deafness”. It seems likely, however, that beyond the dilemmas posed for the writer by this shunning of the past, Stead’s readers felt there was need for some explanation for the terrifying picture of human beings that she presented in I’m Dying Laughing that the optimism of youth was necessary to counterbalance and explain Emily’s and Stephen’s great and lavish Fall.
But having struggled for so long with this demanding novel these final acts of reworking and elucidating her story proved too onerous for Stead, and as Ronald Geering, the executor of her estate, relates in his Preface to her book, Stead came to believe she was being drawn into writing a different novel and into sacrificing some of the force of the original version. “My forthcoming novel is now in the dustbin or as good as” Stead wrote despondently to a friend: “I ploughed it under – instead of dying laughing it was dying of boredom and overwork and what Bill used to call ree-search. It is not my métier and it got me down, so low I could not even read a book – any book.” The difficulty was compounded by the fact that once again Stead was presenting fallen, not positive heroes. She had chosen to write about this period not by focussing on a trial of the HUAC, but by presenting a witch-hunt perpetrated by those on her own side. She did not seize the opportunity to display left-wing heroism, to show the brave struggle and ultimate vindication of those who refused to testify and then were cast out, but, typically for her, concentrated instead on those on the left who reneged on the faith, gave up and lost their way.
viii. Monstrous Humans
Unlike Stead’s characters, the man with the most to lose – the writer with the largest pay packet in Hollywood – refused to play the part of Judas. Dalton Trumbo was earning $75,000 a script at MGM before he was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten for declining to answer questions about his political beliefs before the HUAC at their first round of hearings in 1947. (It really was baffling to the prosecutors on the Committee as to why such wealthy people should be communists: when asked what he thought about this, Louis B. Mayer, who, among many others, named his employee Trumbo, answered: “In my opinion, Mr Congressman, which I have expressed many times, I think they are cracked.”) Twenty years later, though, Trumbo was, rather remarkably, neither acrimonious nor judging of those who had informed on their friends: “…it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some were diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims…”
Others of the Hollywood Ten (all of whom had been imprisoned for a year for refusing to testify as friendly witnesses before the Committee) felt they were unable to deliver such Christ-like absolution, not only because Trumbo exonerated the informers, but because (more importantly) in so doing he depoliticized the struggle of those who had resisted. Questioning survivors of the period, Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund found that the rest of the Hollywood Ten: “…disagree[d] violently with Dalton Trumbo’s speech of forgiveness – his infamous “only victims” speech, delivered to the Writers Guild when it awarded him its Laurel Award – because they d[id] not see themselves as victims, but as political fighters.” Similarly, Stead would have found the idea of characterizing her two renegades as victims, both repugnant and inaccurate. To do so would have been to call forth in her readers feelings of sympathy and commiseration for Emily and Stephen: as Angela Carter pointed out in a trenchant review of Stead’s work: “Stead’s greatest moral quality as a writer is her lack of pity…for Stead, pity is otiose, a self-indulgent luxury that obscures the real nature of our relations with our kind.”
In her drawing of Emily Wilkes and Stephen Howard, Stead fleshes out something that is infinitely more ugly, self-deceiving and destructive, than victimhood. However, I’m Dying Laughing amounts not to a portrait of monstrosity, as this might suggest, but of humanity, delivered without blandishment, without flattery. Indeed, Stead’s illusionless view of humanity (one might call it her literary creed) is articulated in the novel by Emily’s friend: addicted to pills and a battered wife, the pathetic Violet Trefougar, thinking of bullies and victims, articulates what Stead shows us on every page of this novel: “Every human being” she declares, ruefully, “is a sort of monster if you get to know them.” (While Emily, more characteristically, sharpens her aphoristic wit on the subject of the nature of humanity like this: “Nothing inhuman is alien to me”.)
Denying her readers what have become (at least at the tail end of the twentieth century) among the more stultifying pleasures of the text, Stead refuses to collude with us by lubricating our feelings of moral superiority, because she knows, like Emily’s granny, “a battling old lady who subscribed to the Clarion” and whom Emily owns as her “ideological” parent, that “life is really tough: you can’t flatter it.” So we are blasted, rather, with an altogether less onanistic and more disturbing picture. As with the contorted and savage portraiture of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, Stead’s bruised creatures bring us face to face with ourselves, “never asking”, as Carter writes with some wonder, “if [we] wish to be so furiously enlightened.”
i. “To write is to fight” – Stead’s arguing fiction
In the latter years of her life, having wandered for nearly half a century in Europe and America, and after her husband had died, and her ocean of stories had just about run dry, Christina Stead returned to live – and die – in her native Australia. Here, for the first time, the stature of this largely uncelebrated and often misunderstood author began to seem irrefutable: along with Patrick White (her friend and champion) she took her place as one of Australia’s greatest writers. With this recognition Stead was at last granted the laurels and accolades that her work had always laid claim to.
“Intelligent ferocity” was Stead’s avowed aim in writing. It is of the kind that William Golding once described, coming off the page at you like a fist. From the beginning, the young Christina had learned to rhyme writing with fighting: “as soon as I fisted cat before mat, they recognised at school that I was a word-stringer.” And since she was naturally truculent, words strung together were never simply a matter of aesthetics for Stead, “The sensuality, delicacy of literature does not exist for me; only the passion, energy and struggle, the night of which no one speaks.” In the end, too, from her homecoming in 1974 to her death just short of a decade later, Stead continued to punch defiantly, if no longer off the printed page, then from bellicose letters she fired off to friends, or from an arena she seemed to relish late in life: the combat zone of the interview. She was someone who told us long before Foucault did, that the will to power can be read in every discourse, that to speak – or to write – is to fight. “It’s as if”, said Angela Carter (a rare example of Stead finding the kind of reader she deserved), “the successive novels were parts of one long argument”.
Much of the belated critical interest in Stead came from feminists who (finding her condition of neglect the condition of all women writers, bar a handful) had embarked upon the redefinition of the literary tradition, re-evaluating women writers and drawing into the mainstream those who had been left along the wayside. In England, Stead’s work was reprinted by the Virago Press who were engaged in just this kind of revision of the canon. So one of the questions most often put to Stead in the 1970s (and in her seventies, too: born in 1902 she was an interesting barometer of the century) was about her attitude to the then flourishing Women’s Movement. She was invariably spiky on the subject: “It’s nonsense. It’s eccentric. It’s not a genuine movement. It’s totally, purely middle class. A waste of time”, is typical among her responses.
Stead agreed that women writers had been neglected, marginalized, silenced and self-censored (Teresa, Stead’s avatar in For Love Alone (1944), looks for women writers to illuminate her feelings but finds “nothing in the few works of women…that was what they must have felt.”) Yet she anticipates feminist writers like Carter and Joan Didion who were interested in writing as an act of power, rather than as a site from which to define women’s powerlessness. Like them she was aroused by the idea of writing as something combative. Stead felt, as Didion did, that writing was “a hostile act”, which involves “trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture.” She did not fit comfortably into the model of the sick outsider that many literary feminists began to work from. For example, Elaine Showalter discussing Virginia Woolf in A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Susan Gilbert and Susan Gubar examining nineteenth century women writers in The Mad Woman in the Attic (1979) argued that women’s condition of illegitimacy infected their writing: women were essentially orphaned without mother-authors to guide them. Where such role-models did exist, the lives and work of these isolated precursors invariably carried warnings of madness and self-destruction. The inheritance of the woman writer was one of invalidity, ostracised from the male canon, they were left with the “anxiety of authorship”, a sense that authorship and femininity were a contradiction in terms: to practice writing was to erode feminine identity, ultimately, to destroy oneself as a woman.
Stead never entertained this form of neurosis, had no interest in parading herself as a victim. Her writing, like her peripatetic life (she called herself “the wandering planet Chris”) is characterised by its ambition, movement and changeability, rather than the drama of confinement that Gilbert and Gubar identified as the story of so many women writers’ lives and the subject of their work. Her model, instead, was one of Nietzschean overcoming: she identified with strength not weakness, a childhood instinct which was reinforced when, as an adult, she encountered communist ideas about the importance of holding the centre ground, and the dangers of being on the outside, of belonging to any form of bohemia.
Because of this, Stead’s antipathy to the broader Women’s Movement lay not only with its failure – as she saw it – properly to locate the problem of women’s subjugation within the class struggle (“all these things are not Women’s Lib. They’re a question of industrial regulation, impact on the trades unions and so forth”); but also with its espousal of confrontational tactics that lined women up against men, and of the promiscuous counter-culture – “they include absolutely everything”, bra-burning (“What would I do without a bra, I should like to know!”); drugs (“to take by mouth, for fun”); creches; laws protecting homosexual rights; “whether the sun should rise or set…and everything in one roof” – all of which she regarded as ephemeral and unserious, “clouding the issue”. It was not that Stead disagreed with the basic diagnosis that women are patronized and discriminated against: “I know what women have to put up with; I’ve written about it, I know”, she insisted. But she repudiated the idea that the problems women face are unique: “It’s the whole system that has to be changed. Men have lives of drudgery, too!” And her most fundamental disagreement had to do with the idea of there being a separate realm for women: “Women’s culture. Women’s lib. I don’t know anything about it. It’s not a subject that interests me. I can’t interest myself in an island full of women. Because I believe that the sexes stimulate each other. You manage him and he manages you. And it’s a good thing. It’s nice working together. You get something from each other. It’s a true fertilization…” Stead’s refusal to sign up with the sisterhood (“I wouldn’t join in. I couldn’t. I would hate it”) still rankles with some critics and even in the most recent biography (1993) – Hazel Rowley’s impressive and usually restrained portrait – there lurks a sense that somehow Stead lacked the necessary rectitude: “Politically and intellectually, she always allowed herself to be guided by the man she loved.”
The man she did love for most of her life, finally marrying him twenty-four years after their affair first began, was William Blake (he had changed his name from Blech in 1936). She thought him the perfect mate for her, describing him as “the man I never had a moment’s trouble with in forty years, the lucky wife’s catch.” He was an American, a secular Jew, an economist, a communist and like Stead – who met him on her arrival in London in 1928 – an expatriate. But while Blake was undoubtedly a forceful personality who had a strong influence upon Stead (friends remember how garrulous Blake was, how “withdrawn” she could be), Rowley’s assertion that Stead was “politically and intellectually guided” by Blake makes the question of influence, simply, into a patriarchal one (a husband dominating a wife). The truth, I suspect, is more complicated: Stead had ideas of her own which communist philosophy (and sometimes Party doctrine) gave shape and legitimacy to. The question of influence in this marriage is one I shall try to unravel here: how ideas about ‘bohemia’ and ‘decadence’ that were a part of Stalinist ideology (expounded by Stalin’s commissar of culture, Andrei Zhdanov and his acolytes), and which for a quarter of a century were in the hair and the heads of most leftish writers in the West, interacted with Stead’s esoteric view of life.
ii. Critical Difficulty: Marx or Nietzsche?
Perhaps underestimating the way in which ideological conviction combined with the idiosyncrasies of Stead’s personal conviction (germinated in the heat of family warfare, her “seedbed of pathology” as Carter called it), critics have often found it difficult to place her on the map. This is Edmund White on the problem:
Stead troubles many readers who keep struggling to uncover what she ‘really’ believes or stands for. Having just reread five of her books I’d be hard pressed to give a précis of her philosophy, partly no doubt because she thought in the concrete particulars of dailiness rather than in abstract universals. Her characters might discuss the Spanish Civil War, the profit motive, the need for premarital chastity, the law of the jungle as applied to Wall Street, but the author’s own views of these questions remain shadowy…in Stead’s fiction, ideas are used to render fine shadings in portraits, not to ring up an ideological total.
While Stead was never a Party member, and Blake only fleetingly, they both thought of themselves as communists, remaining faithful to the Party far beyond the breaking points of ‘56 or ‘68 which saw off less thick-skinned fellow-travellers. Stead was not really a “joiner”, though, (her criticism of the left can be just as devastating as her dismissal of the Women’s Movement) and many have responded, as White does, to the lack of ‘position’ in her endlessly shifting narratives by seeing her as an artist somehow beyond ideology, simply using “ideas…to render fine shading in portraits”. But this view of Stead as an unmade maker, (carrying “very little theoretical baggage”), fails to take account of the profound way in which ideology influences her writing, extending far beyond “fine shading” in character: the difficulty and tension in her work -what many have seen as Stead’s flagrant perversity – arises precisely out of a battle of ideas (crudely, one between Marx on the one hand, and Nietzsche and Darwin on the other) that is being played out in her writing, (“as if the successive novels were parts of one long argument”).
Lorna Sage, in a 1992 essay on Stead, says that it is “Marxist critics who come closest, in theory, to describing her kind of world”, decrying the false dream of pluralism and an ever-expanding ‘free’ space, insisting instead upon a prescribed, materialist world that cannot be transcended (not even in art). These arguments are raised today against postmodern pluralism, but the debate is not new. Contemporary scepticism about plenitude and the free play of the imagination echoes uncannily the objections of communist critics and intellectuals to modernism and experimentalism in art, that Stead heard in the pre-war years when the call was for a ‘realist’ depiction of working class struggle.
The attack upon modernism was often framed in terms of decadence, effeteness and sexual perversion. Mike Gold, a lifelong friend of Stead and Blake and an Editor of New Masses, (a communist journal founded in the early Thirties to promote ‘proletarian realism’, which they and several of their closest American friends were involved with), provides an example of the bullyboy rhetoric that was common currency among the apparatchiks. Denouncing “politically imbecile” writers, Gold sneered at “pansies” like T. S. Eliot for his “dull, bloodless, intellectualistic poetry”, and Thornton Wilder (a closet homosexual), the “prophet of the genteel Christ”. He dismissed Dostoevsky altogether, while his favoured sobriquet for Proust was the “master-masturbator of bourgeois literature”. The style was not Gold’s own: his posturing is typically Zhdanovist, reminiscent particularly of Karl Radek’s vulgar attack on modernism at the first Soviet Writers’ Conference in 1934, (where the Union of Soviet Writers was founded and where Zhdanov established socialist realism as the key Soviet doctrine on art). Here is a description of the scene by David Caute from his study of the broad left movement, The Fellow-Travellers:
When Karl Radek informed the Congress that Joyce’s Ulysses was a dunghill swarming with worms seen through a microscope held upside down, even the communist Wieland Herzefelde [the montagist John Heartfield’s brother] rebelled. Radek held his ground: Joyce was morbid, backward-looking. But, protested Herzefelde, had not the admired progressive Dos Passos learned much from the Irish writer? That, said Radek was precisely the trouble with Dos Passos. He then heaped onto the same dunghill as Ulysses, the works of Proust, Eliot, Faulkner and Kafka.
Stead, too, was in thrall to the Party line in the Thirties. The following year she attended, as Secretary for the British delegation, the communist-sponsored First International Conference of Writers for the Defence of Culture. Held in Paris, this was a broad church meeting of anti-fascists and among those taking part were Gide, Malraux and Aragon; Forster and Huxley headed the British group. Stead wrote a report of the conference for the July issue of Left Review, and her description of writers in the West presiding over “the last corruptions of capitalist decay” reads as if it had been extracted from a speech by Zhdanov the year before, when he railed against “the decadence and disintegration of bourgeois literature resulting from the collapse and decay of the capitalist system…Now everything is degenerating – themes, talent, authors, heroes.”
Nearly thirty years later Stead’s world-view is still very much informed by her communism. In an unpublished review of Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt (1972), Stead says of Virginia Woolf: “One might think that the established order of the fairytale hierarchies of kings, lords and ladies were necessary to these sick minds…She was not a writer for the general public, but for a literary set.” And in a letter to a friend, grumbling about her difficulties in completing the piece, she writes: “The world of vicars and baronets and marriages for land cannot appeal to me…The question for me privately is what she (VW) saw in J.A. [Jane Austen] that gave her comfort…” Stead’s complaints about Woolf – and the doubts about her relevance and representativeness – are not dissimilar to those made by Zhdanov in his ‘report’ of 1946 expelling the poet Anna Akhmatova from the Union of Soviet Writers, forbidding any further publication of her work.
Akhmatova’s poetry is utterly remote from the people. It is the poetry of the upper ten thousand in old, aristocratic Russia…What can there be in common between this poetry and the interests of our people and State?…Akhmatova and her like have no time for Soviet Leningrad. They see in it the embodiment of a different social and political order, another ideology.
The debate, of course, took place at all levels of eminence in the communist movement. In its grander form, in ‘Expressionism: its Significance and Decline’ (1934), Lukács argues against art forms associated with modernism such as Impressionism, Symbolism, Abstraction and Expressionism, not as Zhdanov, Radek and Gold do, for their disordering eclecticism or pluralism, but because, Lukacs asserts, the intention of such art is to speak of subjectivity, essence and purity. This contention (in direct opposition to the Zhdanov line), can be traced back to Engels’ belief about the ability of Balzacian fiction to portray a total and connected world. From his multitudinous, teeming realism, Engels thought, more could be learned “than from all the professional historians, economomists and statisticians of the period together.” Lukács gives a quotation from Lenin that warns, similarly, against the reductions of monistic or essentialist thinking, advocating wholeness and complexity and stressing the dialectic as a tool in helping to achieve pluralism: “There are no ‘pure’ phenomena, nor can there be, either in Nature or in society – that is what Marxist dialectics teaches us, for dialectics shows that the very concept of purity indicates a certain narrowness, a one-sidedness of human cognition, which cannot embrace an object in all its totality and complexity.”
Lukács says that modernist art represents, “purely subjective expression, emptied of content and separated from the objective reality, [it] can only produce…a rigid combination of sham movements.” And he sees the root of this “separation” in Nietzsche: “The expressionists…deny objective linkage between objects and processes in the external world. This series stretches from Nietzsche and Mach through to Spengler…” It’s a complicated and peculiar argument in that it invokes the very thing it attacks: an essentialist view of art (the modernists/ Nietzscheans are “sham”) is employed to counter essentialism. However the confusion is perhaps instructive in that it mirrors – and gives a context for – the kind of self-reflexive difficulty that permeates much of Stead’s work, which contains precisely this mix of Marxist and Nietzschean thinking.
In an interview at the end of her life Stead recalled that in high school she had known Thus Spake Zarathustra by heart, “Nietzsche” she said, “has a tremendous influence on me.” This influence she thought, had “nothing to do with theory or philosophy”, but with the poetry and the rhythm of his language, “the way everything was a chant”. Critics, however, have been interested primarily in the thematic echoes to be found in her work (one finding Nietzsche’s “poetic style” only an “added attraction”). In ‘Christina Stead: The Nietzschean Connection’ (1983), Rebecca Baker argues that it is the influence of Nietzsche which “helps to explain the phenomenological approach to her writing and her view of what she does as an artist. She consistently describes herself as an observer, a typical comment being, ‘I say what I see’”. Stead’s depiction of writers and aspiring writers in her novels, and her autobiographical portraits (in The Man Who Loved Children, 1940 and For Love Alone, 1944) echo “Nietzsche’s view of the special status of the artist” and “his emphasis,” in The Birth of Tragedy, “on the artist’s self as an appropriate subject matter”.
Attesting to the way in which Stead’s writing is infused with strands of Marxist and Nietzschean thinking (and to the difficulty of placing her, simply, in either camp) are critical responses which attribute these various influences to the same passages in Stead’s work. For instance, Jennifer Gribble, discussing the immense appetite of the protagonist of Stead’s last novel, I’m Dying Laughing, discovers Nietzschean (and Darwinian) influence: “Strenuously living her life, Emily earths Stead’s vision once again in its Nietzschean sources. In Emily’s “insatiable hunger for existence” are individuated the struggle and pain and ruthlessness of nature’s “constant proliferation”, the “pushing into life” Nietzsche finds in the Dionysian energy of Greek tragedy.” In a review of the same book, though, Lorna Sage argues that Emily’s craving should be understood not as a symbol of her will to power over others but as an explanation for her communist aspiration. It’s a model which in its insistence on desire and extravagance, turns on its head the Zhdanovist vision of communism as hard and self-denying. Another way of understanding what Sage is saying about Stead is to think of this as a peculiarly Nietzschean reading of Marx – or Marxist reading of Nietzsche – in which the struggle for greatness and superiority is the province of all: “Emily is a communist precisely because…she’s grown-up as an expert wanter, full of greed and need for life, scornful beyond anything of poverty of aspiration – everyone should want elaborately and richly, and not be fobbed off with less than the best.”
So despite articles by Stead for New Masses which, like her report from the anti-fascist conference in Paris, advocated the Party line, her fiction, open to multiple interpretations and thereby flouting Party orthodoxy, received short shrift from the kind of communist critics who recognised themselves in the “fanatics or dreary committee people or rabbinical post-graduates” that Stead disparaged. She often found herself under attack for misrepresenting the movement or creating characters that were, as one colleague at New Masses put it in his review of Letty Fox: Her Luck: “…the most unnatural of revolutionaries but the least interesting and important. To present them as Miss Stead does without the contrast of one genuine Communist, distorts the picture beyond the broadest limits of caricature”. Stead’s insistence on depicting communists and radicals as she knew them to be, rather than as the representative types which the Party line on the arts required, is one example of the way in which her work produced this self-reflexive difficulty, not only in the text but in the responses which her writing drew: her fidelity to the real, ironically, placed her in a position in which she was criticised for the lack of realism in her work, for being “unnatural”, for “distortion” and “caricature”.
iii. Bohemia: Politics and Art
Party critics were hostile because rather than concentrating on positive role models – heroes and heroines of working class struggle – the body of Stead’s work focuses upon exclusion, on those outsiders whose battles in life were neither typical nor exemplary; unlike the protagonists of the ‘proletarian literature’ that leftist contemporaries of Stead – men and women like Mike Gold, Ruth McKenney, Josephine Herbst, Germaine Taggard, Clara Weatherwax and James Hanley – were producing in America and Britain in the Thirties and Forties.
As, later, some feminist critics would construct theories about women and writing upon the reassuring notion of female exclusion and victimhood, so, too, these communist writers and critics preferred their narratives to be about casualties of the system they opposed (in this case capitalism rather than patriarchy – Gold, for instance, argued that the ideal literary subject would be “the sensations of the robust young man [who] sees his strength sapped by the furnace’s mouth”). If Stead’s characters had been merely preyed upon and “sapped” her work might have been more palatable, but the majority remain defiantly unbowed, and those who, like Caroline in Cotter’s England (1967), are “a born saint and a born victim”, tend to come to instructively unpleasant ends. As Jose Yglesias noted, she is a remarkably unconsoling writer: “…because her vision is so radical, she disquiets the mass of readers who are middle class; because she is so original and tough-minded, left-wingers feel no comfort of recognition.”
Stead is not romantic about rejection or isolation, she reveals the scars of illegitimacy and her figures are contorted by the ostracism they suffer. But despite this, these “damned souls” are often so unsettling precisely because of their ability to feed off their oppression, to create themselves out of it. “I am my own maker” insists Louisa, the rebel daughter in Stead’s autobiographical novel, The Man Who Loved Children (1940). Such figures perversely regard themselves as powerful and their subjugators as weak:
She felt a growing, sullen power in herself which was merely darkness to the splendid sunrise that she felt certain would flash in her in a few years. She acknowledged her unwieldiness and unhandiness, but she had an utter contempt for everyone associated with her, father, stepmother, even brothers and sisters… [Louisa] had many other intimations of destiny, like the night rider that no one heard but herself. With her secrets she was able to go out from nearly every one of the thousand domestic clashes through a door into another world, forget about them entirely. They were the doings of beings of a weaker sort.
Against tyrants and tormentors Stead’s protagonists can exert the full force of their stubborn individuality, their will to power: in her second autobiographical novel, For Love Alone, Louisa’s teenage counterpart, Teresa, feels the “flash” of “destiny” now upon her: “The nineteen-year-old said calmly: “I told you I would kill you if you insult me. I will do it with my bare hands. I am not so cowardly as to strike with anything. I know where to press though – I will kill you father.” In adulthood, this fiery revolt finds many of Stead’s characters, unsurprisingly, political radicals (echoing Stead’s own progress from Nietzschean adolescent to communist adult): most are a part of the movement – the spectrum ranges from the Massines’ utopianism, to Sam Pollit’s New Deal enthusiasm, through Letty Fox’s radical chic, to Nellie Cotter’s working class activism, and the lapsing communists-in-exile of I’m Dying Laughing, Emily and Steven Howard. But all Stead’s vibrant, restless, selfish people stand in testimony against the flat idealizing of socialist realism.
In her essay, Sage argues that Stead’s vision is ultimately one of loss – “that the waste of talent in the world is real and unredeemable”; that there’s “only the actual, material world where hunger isn’t transcended, but perverted.” That Stead was such a troublesome writer for the communists (and indeed for readers today, as White attests) has much to do with the fact that her characters inhabit this place of “waste” and “perversion”, a political, social and cultural space that both she and the communists of the time referred to, disparagingly, as ‘bohemia’: “a ghetto of the spirit where people rot and betray each other”, is how Sage describes it. Bohemia is a fallen place. It is where Stead thinks the Women’s Movement belongs. Its inhabitants have denied the ‘reality’ of Marxist materialism and become ‘eccentric’ in their beliefs and pursuits, waylaid by false gods.
Sage’s argument about waste chimes with Stead’s own. Here, for instance, Stead speaks in terms of loss when a writer she admired, Doris Lessing, succumbed (so she believed) to the cultural wasteland: “…the early work from South Africa, beautiful. And then she became sort of steeped in Bohemia…I think she could have done better with her considerable talent.” But this picture of Stead as someone having Gramsci’s quality of intellectual pessimism, as a writer who refuses sentimentality and bravely speaks up about the things we would rather not be reminded of, “insist[ing] on the reality of the losers”, falls short, I think, in that it speaks to Stead’s intention, perhaps, rather than to what’s on the page. It does not take full measure of Stead’s intimate relationship to the ‘losers’ and to the bohemia they inhabit (which, as she admitted to a friend in 1965, was ambivalent and perverse – “Why do I write about all these worthless people? Why don’t I write about someone positive and worthwhile?”) Nor does it do justice to the challenge to ‘reality’ that bohemia makes.
For the straightforward Stalinists, the culture of bohemia meant obscurity; non-signifying, it was an empty place of irrelevance and decadence: “artificial, reactionary, useless, epigonic, decadent, stale, stilted, a hopeless void, just a phantom…” is, for instance, how one Comrade Zenkevitch describes writing (in this case, John Lehmann’s annual Orpheus) not deemed to have achieved the Party’s strict standards of moral and linguistic propriety. Stead draws her own picture of bohemia in several of her novels, perhaps most notably in her portrait of the post-war years in Cotter’s England. Here, it, too, is a place of unreality – abysmal, “spectral”, it exudes a deathly nihilism.
Through the figure of Nellie Cotter, the novel’s bohemian antiheroine, Stead examines the ‘corruption’ of working class radicalism in England when it develops unattached to the Party, becoming susceptible to demagogues and the kinds of mysticism often generated in exclusion and isolation. Adrift from the political centre, Nellie becomes warped, lost in bohemia and sexually paranoid, malignantly exercising power over those even further outcast than herself: she ends by traducing her revolutionary faith and bullying a lonely and impressionable young woman into suicide, seducing her with the idea of death.
…Nellie was impatient with “revolutionary pipe dreams.” No City of the Future! The here and now of pain! Can a slum-mother look beyond the next rat-squeak, or an invalid beyond the next ache? “Most of their rebel talk, sweetheart, is whistling down the wind. It may be heard and may cheer a heart in an orchard two miles away or it may be lost altogether for eternity. You can’t feed the hungry on maybes. For those whose torments are like ours, who understand as we do, there is sometimes only one answer.” Death was the answer… “…Perhaps there is something totally unlike anything ever imagined. I’m a materialist, pet, remember, but still we know nothing: there is the Unknowable. It would be an intoxication, the best to plunge into the unknowable…The Bride-of-Death. That would be something glorious to experience, the last submission, the splendid last breath, the sacred swoon…”
For Stead, bohemia was a kind of existential hell, a reflecting pit into which feelings of loathing, horror and disgust were poured only to be thrown back up. The Party saw bohemia as a diversion, a ghetto, signifying dead-end politics rather than the true path to revolution; in Cotter’s England, it’s a childish, Peter Pan-like limbo, dangerously entrapping adults in a world of play and make-believe, stunting, and keeping them from adult ‘reality’: “Nellie’s a prisoner of Bohemia. She won’t grow…she never got out…” (The official line on the slippery world of childhood was that maturity meant leaving it behind and accepting the objective reality of the adult world, a place where proper grownups arrived unmarked by childhood’s playfulness or cruelty, uncontaminated by its free-wheeling imagination, its metamorphosising and transgressions.)
But we should not be surprised when Angela Carter, writing about Stead, reaches to the poet Blake for an analogy, because for all Stead’s denigration of bohemia and its fallen citizens, the world she presents is a cuspate one: we are perched somewhere between heaven and hell. (“If I were to choose an introductory motto for the collected works of Christina Stead, it would be…from The Marriage of Heaven And Hell…‘Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.’”) And Stead’s hellish underworld is fraught with “contraries”: as I argued, for the Stalinists and for Stead, bohemia is a prison that keeps you from the truth – but at the same time – for Stead, it is also “a magic carpet” that transports you up “off the hard street stones into culture.” Stead’s most nightmarish, satanic characters are also her most seductive, her monsters – murderers in effect, if not in fact (Sam Pollit, Robbie Grant, Emily Wilkes and Nellie Cotter) – speak a mesmerising language, they are snake-tongued beguilers who can make you believe what you know isn’t true: “Nellie’s a thrilling woman! She can make you see things her way, though you know it wasn’t so.”
So although one may argue that Stead, like a good communist “didn’t believe in pluralism”, Cotter’s England is littered with the apparatus of literary pluralism: angels and devils; puppets and mirrors; doubles and inversions: all of these inhabit her story. Stead was not happy with the title Cotter’s England, although she preferred it to the American one, Dark Places of the Heart. She wrote to her publisher (Secker), “There is a dancing in a hall of mirrors; and the entire story of this eccentric brother and sister is a dancing, nothing but reflections.” A reading which finds these “reflections” only antipathetic (wasteful) doesn’t take account of their disruptive power, of the energy and charge they engender in the narrative. In Cotter’s England, bohemia is a place of hypocrisy and travesty, where people act out roles, disguising their true natures: but it is also – in other words – the place of art, where the ‘real world’ is recast into something eerily familiar, yet askew.
When Nellie and her brother Tom walk into a funfair hall of mirrors they see “a ballroom of the strangest people, but always the same two”; the mirrors reveal Tom as “A playing-card king”, and Nellie as “the spindling hatchet witch”. These fantastic illusions, rather as Stead’s New Masses critic had complained, “distort the picture beyond the broadest limits of caricature.” The witchy Nellie, (a bit like Snow White’s mother), “displeased” with what these looking-glasses reveal, wonders at their purpose: “They’re distortions of human beings! Why do we like it, Tom?” Why do we look at these weird transformations that art produces: for their self-shattering revelations, for their ability to alter our ‘reality’? In Stead we see, perhaps more clearly than in any other writer this century, the war between the childhood dreamer, reader of Shakespeare, Anderson and the Grimm Brothers (those enchanters and fabulists, masters of fiction), and the adult political conscience caught up in a movement whose ideas about art – in their insistence on a form of ‘realism’ so tightly prescribed it left no room for art to breathe – were inherently anti-art.
Stead was notorious for confounding interviewers by disavowing art, claiming that her ‘fiction’ was ‘real’, that nothing was made-up or self-created (“Of course it’s exactly word for word.”) And yet she was known, for her early work, as a fabulous artificer: in the first published book, The Salzburg Tales (1934) she is like Scheherazade stringing her stories into one glittering assembly. True, later on she consciously abandons these decorative arts of myth-making and tale-telling in search of a less transcendent, more palpable worldliness. But this treacly, crystallizing stuff of metamorphoses, that denatures and makes strange, leaks inexorably from her pen: it’s at work inThe Beauties and Furies (1936) infecting Marpurgo’s dark demagoguery and the ethereal statuary of Coromandel; it stains the songs and rhymes, stories and limericks Sam Pollit chants to his clan of little people in The Man Who Loved Children; and we sense it in the aroused reverie of the adolescent Teresa, in her fairytale daydreams of captivity and escape at the start of For Love Alone.
In a letter to her brother at the time of Stalin’s death (1953), Stead writes awkwardly of the Father of the Russian people, as if she cannot quite allow any connection between a man who is for some a satanic figure, and, for Stead, as he still was for many on the left, this (longed for) wise man. (In Doris Lessing’s novel, The Golden Notebook, written a decade later, she includes a wish-fulfilment fantasy about comrades meeting Stalin and finding him the man they want him to be: someone who has “an honest kindly face” and a “fatherly twinkle in his eyes”): “…if Stalin appears to some to have been an anti-Christ, to a lot of others he stood for the Soviet world; a childish but comfortable way of feeling, which also arose in his interesting and apparently goodnatured sane wise mind.”
Stead gives a late, revisionary view of her own father, David, in an essay called ‘A Waker and Dreamer’ (1972), but this time she manages to join together these apparently irreconcilable views of the patriarch (much as E.M. Forster’s famous injunction demands: “Only connect, and the beast and the monk…”) Here the father figure is the longed for comforter and enlightener, an angelic man, “rejoicing”, “teaching”, “shining” down on the people; and he is a messianic figure – politician and trickster:
David was ‘floodlit’…remarkably fair…and [had] a speaker’s mobile mouth…Among humane people, some are quiet, almost taciturn; but others rejoice openly in the mass of humanity, in teaching, bringing the light, and when they are in the midst of people and their own good work, they actually shine; as when the congregation of Latterday Saints (the Mormons) saw Brigham Young turn into Joseph Smith (to justify his election), on the platform, before their eyes, as he spoke.
David’s appearance, of whiteness, fairness and all that goes with it, dazzled himself. He believed in himself so strongly that, sure of his innocence, pure intentions, he felt he was a favoured son of Fate (which to him was progress and therefore good)…
What joins the illusionist to the deceiver, the deluder (“to justify his election”) – making the Blakean dualism of the benign and the sinister – is the spell-binding power of “the speaker’s mobile mouth”. Stead’s charismatic father, “dazzling” others and himself with his easy, prolific talk, is not so far from the Russian Father, or at least the beneficent daddy-of-the-people she wanted Stalin to be. If Stead was suspicious of her talents, her soaring imagination and linguistic fluency, then these, after all, were her father’s gifts: “Fine writing must have come easily to her”, Carter thought, “roughness, ungainliness, ferocity were qualities for which she had to strive.” An earlier incarnation of her father, Sam Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children, dominates his family with the unstoppable force of his rolling, ludic lyric. In defiance, Louisa/Stead creates a language of her own that is strangled and hard: the father tells the (ugly) daughter that beauty is truth; the daughter tells the (beautiful) father that the truth is ugly.
In ‘Wakers and Dreamers’ Stead describes her father as being like Adam; and Sam is forever roaming around his own paradisal garden, master and namer of every genus of plant, animal and tribe: while his wife, Henny, and daughter, Louisa, are consumed with Eveish dissatisfaction and a rebellious thirst for knowledge of life beyond the gates of Eden. For these refuseniks, the ones who refuse to dream the master’s dream or to sing the “mouthy jailor’s” song, and insist instead upon the bothersome details of material deprivation or their own subject status, paradise is a prison. Or, as Milan Kundera said in a different context, a gulag. At the end of his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980), Kundera (himself a subject of the Stalinist Eden in post-war Czechoslovakia) published an interview in which Philip Roth talks to him about an idea of treachery or bad faith, where the lyrical and the revolutionary collude:
PR: …In one of your books you characterize the era of Stalinist terror as the reign of the hangman and the poet.
MK: Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.
PR: In your book, the great French poet Eluard soars over paradise and gulag, singing. Is this bit of history which you mention in the book authentic?
MK: After the war, Paul Eluard abandoned surrealism and became the greatest exponent of what I might call the ‘poesy of totalitarianism’. He sang for brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows; he sang for comradeship and against isolation, for joy and against gloom, for innocence and against cynicism. When in 1950 the rulers of paradise sentenced Eluard’s Prague friend, the surrealist Zâvis Kalandra to death by hanging, Eluard suppressed his personal feelings of friendship for the sake of supra-personal ideals and publicly declared his approval of his comrade’s execution. The hangman killed while the poet sang.
Kundera’s formulation of the lyric is, of course, specific to Eluard’s kind of revolutionary eulogy. (But it is, I have argued, one that Stead recognized in – and portrayed as – her father’s idiom.) This is a debased lyric, put in service, it is turned in upon itself and made false (individual, free expression curtailing individuality and freedom). In the same way, socialist realism might be thought of as a form of debased lyric: a circumscribed praise-song of Belief which insists, monistically, there is only “brotherhood, peace, justice, better tomorrows”, and turns its back on doubt or difference, on “isolation”, “gloom” and “cynicism”. And this, too, is the tenor of Sam Pollit’s song, one of “depraved healthiness” Stead calls it, and just as rejecting of the depressed non-believer: “Looloo…I don’t want you cynical…You’re still in tutelage, thank God, and I hope still to make you more amenable! I won’t have this cussed obstinacy. I’ll break that miserable dogged spirit of yours: it will get you nowhere. What man will look at you with your piggish sulky, thick face always gloomy?…You have got to cheer up; you have got to smile.”
v. The Artist in a Totalitarian Age
Christina Stead’s interest in the relationship between ideology, power and language is the most consistent feature of her wide-ranging work. She is an artist who does more than reflect the stormy times she lived through: her oeuvre enacts the struggle of the writer in the age of totalitarianism. She was active – as a writer, as a believer, and as a dissident – in an era of dictatorship and demagoguery, when Stalin and Hitler coerced half the world with their intoxicating dogmas, their government of the tongue. Stead was interested in the power of language to liberate, but cognizant, also, of its corrupting capability: as she demonstrated in The Man Who Loved Children, she was aware that a part of the insidious nature of totalitarian speech-making was that it couched inflammatory passion and prejudice in the language of science and rationalism – in Zhdanov’s “steely realism”. The corrosive effect of this can be felt everywhere in Stead’s writing: the Nietzschean sense that language itself has become untrustworthy: that within it neither lyrical impulse nor logical deliberation is authentic or moral. There is a suspicion of the power of all language to steal you away from yourself, to blind you with its suasion (this is the hard correlative of Didion’s understanding of writing as forceful and imposing); and, in Stead’s novels, the knowledge that under totalitarianism argument becomes lethal – a matter of life and death – is affirmed by the number of characters who are persuaded into suicide (Henny, Caroline, Stephen) by bludgeoning, bullying wordsmiths. As Carter observes of Stead: “The way she finally writes is almost as if she were showing you that style is itself a lie in action, that language is an elaborate confidence trick designed to lull us into acceptance of the intolerable, just as Sam Pollit uses it on his family, that words are systems of deceit.”
In The Man Who Loved Children, Stead gives us in Sam Pollit a domestic tyrant, a daddy whose sugary, cooing, seductive tongue makes him an improbable forerunner of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert: his overbearing passions and monstrous egotism are relentless, blinding him to the autonomy of others (in one grotesque episode Sam tries to force Louisa, his adolescent daughter, into mouth-to-mouth feeding). Pollit’s gross intrusiveness into the lives of his children is that of the totalitarian who must see and know all (the obverse of Breton’s dream of living in a glass house where he would freely reveal all). Stead portrays “Sam, the Great I am”, as a monomaniac who tries to encompass the world: to own it, master it, ingest it. While Louisa his sceptical daughter, grows weary of her father the Master-author; leery of this indiscriminate peddler of words, selling brotherly love one minute, eugenics and gas chambers the next: “My system,” Sam continued, “which I invented myself, might be called Monoman… Monoman would only be the condition of the world after we had weeded out the misfits and degenerates.” There was a threat in the way he said it [addressed to the doubting Louisa]. “This would be done by means of the lethal chamber and people might even ask for the painless death, or euthanasia, of their own accord.”
Stead’s response to the deathliness of this patriarchal language is manifold: in The Man Who Loved Children, the garrotted homemade speech that the disbelieving daughter makes up in response, and stages as a play, ‘The Tragedy of the Snakeman, or Father’, sounds like the death-rattle of some late Beckett play; hers in some eerily prescient way is a post-holocaust language, alienating and opaque:
Megara: (Shrieking feebly) Ia mort. Ib esse aliensis! Ib mort im! Occides! Occides! Mat!
Anteios: Ia solmo brass im. Men libid fill (but in embracing Megara, Anteios hisses again like a snake).
Megara: (Shrieking hoarsely) Mat, rom garrots im, Occides! (And she dies.)
[Daughter: I am dying. You are the stranger. You are killing me. Murderer! Murderer! Mother!
Father: I am only embracing you. My beloved daughter.
Daughter: Mother, father is strangling me. Murderer!]
But in I’m Dying Laughing(1986), the novelist Emily Wilkes tells her husband that words can still communicate meaning, that, in a totalitarian age, a writer must believe in and struggle for the truth, or be a lost, and damned, bohemian: “I think a writer has a tremendous responsibility to tell the truth and tell it with all the skill and ability and experience – he has – to rise above himself…To be a writer in an age when the truth will set us free – means to be a writer of the truth; or to be an utter, utter, decadent damned soul.”These divergent responses to the problems of language are not untypical of Stead’s own “struggle for truth”: there are few final solutions to be found in her work, it is characterized not by the answers it proposes but by the awkward questions it raises, and the contradictions it thrives upon. This refusal of vulgar summations – even the formal ones art asks for – is a mark of her strength and sophistication, but it makes Stead a difficult writer to ‘place’: as I have tried to show, any attempt must emphasize the specificity of her ‘position’ (including, but not limited to, her politics) and the idiosyncrasy and power of her textual strategies.
If there are no easy answers to be found in Stead’s writing in relation to these questions this is not, as Edmund White mistakenly believes, because she is a writer without commitment. Rather her refusal of fixed positions registers the idea – anticipating Foucault – that “power is exercised from innumerable points,” it is “multiple and mobile” and comes from everywhere (from the oppressive father and the rebellious daughter): hers is the kind of difficulty created by the dissemination of political consciousness, and it is out of the clashes that contending voices give rise to that her best writing is produced, even when the source of their power troubles her, or is something she does not fully understand – as is the case with her relationship to bohemia.
Perhaps we can serve her best by following the maxim of a writer to whom she is often compared: D.H. Lawrence believed that we should trust the tale not the teller – attesting to fiction’s powers of prophecy, its ability to reveal what is important, above and beyond what a writer can tell us. If we do this (and with the advantage of hindsight) we can see how prescient Stead’s novels and short stories are. She may have disapproved of bohemia, of the narcissism and performance that its self-consciousness entailed, but as an early disbeliever in the bourgeois notion of the autonomous self she also sensed its importance. Acknowledging this, in a review of The Beauties and Furies in 1982, Angela Carter wrote:
…Stead is certainly not a writer of naturalism nor of social realism, and if her novels are read as novels about our lives, rather than about the circumstances that shape our lives, they are bound to disappoint, because the naturalist or high-bourgeois mode works with the convention that there exists such a thing as ‘private life’. In these private lives, actions are informed by certain innate freedoms and, however stringent the pressures upon the individual, there is always a little margin of autonomy which could be called the ‘self’. For Stead, however, ‘private life’ is itself a socially determined fiction, the ‘self’ is a mere foetus of autonomy which may or may not prove viable, and ‘inner freedom’, far from being an innate quality, is a precariously held intellectual position that may be achieved only at the cost of enormous struggle, often against the very grain of what we take to be human feeling.
Carter’s assertion that Stead should not be read as a naturalist is corroborated by many passages in her writing: among them, the surrealist dream sequences and the episode in the Club of the Somnambulists in The Beauties and Furies; the references to a world filled with “imps”, “devils”, “witches” and “vampires” in Cotter’s England; and Emily’s nightmarish derangement in I’m Dying Laughing. The fascination bohemia held for Stead, her investigation of its anarchic shape and meaning, of what she often felt were its inhuman feelings, atmospheres and manifestations makes her a precursor of those contemporary writers – Carter is the obvious example – whose own physical and psychological landscapes are places of bastardy and waste. However, there were a couple of occasions when Stead appeared to recognise the importance of bohemia, if only for others, suggesting that this was where the future lay. These unusual acknowledgements – given her anxiety about the subject – surface in an interview in 1970 when she told Jonah Raskin: “I have a friend – an American friend – who tells me that Bohemia is necessary for people from the Mid-West. I don’t need it. Greenwich Village would be a prison for me. For some Bohemia is liberation, but not for me.” And they appear in her notes for an unpublished story called ‘More Lives Than One’, which was based, Rowley says, upon a letter from her friend Edith Anderson:
I share your feelings about Bohemia, but I also think it’s the only place that has accepted certain people, and that it isn’t so simple to state that Bohemia has ruined people… Maybe it’s American and English Bohemia that are so especially revolting. Ernst is a product of Berlin’s Bohemia of the twenties, and I’ve met a couple of the leading spirits of that Bohemia…I found them charming and admirable and fine…They would horrify the Communists even more than the respectable bourgeois; you know how easily horrified most Communists are. And yet there is nothing horrible about these people, on the contrary I hope that everybody will be like them in the future when human beings will be permitted to be beautiful without having to be ashamed of it.
But Stead was unlike her female contemporaries Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Jane Bowles and Carson McCullers – who were all drawn to bohemia, and found in it mirrors for their own isolation and aberrance as writers who did not fit the mould, whose work seemed too odd or dislocated to be truly representative. Though driven to explore the bohemian world (“I feel it my duty to ‘understand’ – to understand all is not to forgive all”) more usually she regarded it, not as Anderson did, as a utopia, a place of beauty, but, along with the “horrified” Communists, as a dystopia in which bohemia’s enactment of pluralism and difference aroused shame and fear, not “hope”: Cotter’s England, Stead told Stanley Burnshaw, is an “attack on mental, moral and physical squalor enjoyed in Bohemia which I detest, and all that goes with it: self-congratulating vice, the vanity of ignorance…”
Stead’s inability to find any consolation in the idea of bohemia, then, was born in equal measure from a Communist fear of sexual deviancy, coupled with a refusal to romanticise illegitimacy, and a Nietzschean determination not to be left by the wayside or flung to the margins, not to settle for less. So in her final work, I’m Dying Laughing, Stead did not write about the idea of bohemia as a dream where “human beings [are] permitted to be beautiful without having to be ashamed”, but as a nightmare signalling the failure of the two great dreams of the twentieth century: the nightmare of greed and rapacity lurking behind the American Dream of freedom and success; and the nightmare of totalitarianism (that Kundera recognised) lurking behind the Communist Dream of “everybody living in harmony, united by a single common will”.
In the struggle for hegemony both capitalists and communists dogmatically insisted that their dreams were not dreams but the only reality. Stead felt sympathy for the Communist Dream (as did many of her generation) but as a writer she refused both these versions of ‘reality’, seeing them as illusions, and wrote instead of a more turbulent and precarious existence. Her realism is not based on determining fictions of the self (whether bourgeois or socialist), but in the (heroic, Nietzschean) idea of self-making, in an elective, mutating self she had believed in as a child (think of Louisa’s “growing sullen power”, her “intimations of destiny”), which her nomadic, creative life as an adult confirmed for her. But, as I argued, Stead does not turn away from the political realm. Rather her forte is contemplating the collision of these dreams which governed so much of life in the twentieth century – understanding their importance, and the world as it is, in which we must fight to survive.
This, then, is the subject matter of Christina Stead’s last novel, I’m Dying Laughing. But its fate also exemplifies Stead’s troubled relationship to bohemia. Largely unknown and unread, the book is indeed hard to ‘place’ (as it is, now out of print, hard to come by). Despite its power, I’m Dying Laughing has not been recognised and accorded its rightful place in the canon, and this, I think, is largely because of the particular difficulty inherent in any ‘reading’ – the problem of understanding Stead’s complex relationship to bohemia and to communist ideology. So it is this that I’m going to attempt here, trying to illuminate I’m Dying Laughing and its author by ‘placing’ them in their proper historical, cultural and theoretical context.
Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole’s novella about a trainee psychiatrist and would-be writer returning to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007. Subsequently, his novel, Open City, about a psychiatrist and would-be writer who has travelled in the other direction, was published in the US and UK in 2011. Now Cole has extended his early novella into a novel and published it for the first time outside Nigeria. The back-and-forthness of this sequence is not untypical of Cole’s work which occupies a new ground of uncertainty opening up in twenty-first century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture. Every Day is for the Thief is presented as fiction but is interleaved with Cole’s photographs of Nigeria, heightening the sense of actuality, and pays homage to Michael Ondaatje’s memoir, Running in the Family, about his own journey home to Sri Lanka. As Ondaatje’s book opened with him leaving a snow-bound Toronto for a steamy Jaffna, so Cole’s closes with his narrator returning from the heat of Lagos to a New York where “snow is total.”
More tellingly, Cole steals an image conjured by Ondaatje of acrobats in formation walking through the stately doorways of his family home. For both writers, this is a figure of dislocation and disorientation – on return the houses seem not to have grown smaller, as one might expect with the passage of time, but bigger. The playfulness of the image is also in keeping with Ondaatje’s account of the charmed world his Sri Lankan family inhabited. For Cole’s narrator however – while Ondaatje remains talismanic (spotting another Ondaatje reader on a bus he is overjoyed with a sense of fellowship) – his own feelings about coming home veer more towards frustration and disillusionment. Even before reaching Nigeria he is embroiled in corruption, bribing the consulate to acquire his visa. Once in Lagos, at every turn, he is blocked by people demanding kickbacks, pay-offs and hand-outs. Everyone is involved from the police to the local street gangs (“area boys”), and paying up leaves him humiliated and complicit. Without recourse to external authority or law to make rational sense of life, the narrator finds many Nigerians succumbing to magic thinking – the remnants of ancient shamanism mixed with the revelations of a new Pentecostalism – inventing bizarre explanations for even the most commonplace event.
This is the quagmire that Cole explores in Every Day is for the Thief. Just as the narrator’s movement is continually hampered, so the country as a whole is stagnating, unable to progress in any meaningful fashion or to become part of international culture, the “civilization” through which nations and people communicate and share ideas. Equally, Nigeria seems incapable of evaluating its own past. On a visit to the National Museum, hoping to discover more about the Benin figures he has seen in New York, London and Berlin, he finds a lamentable state of affairs: the country’s dictatorships lauded as “achievements”, many works of art plundered, and a recent museum director afraid to handle those still in his keeping, spooked by their fetishistic power.
All of this leaves the narrator bemoaning Nigeria’s lack of “order” and clinging ever more tightly to the values he has acquired in the west. Indeed, at times, he seems perilously close to a parody of the “oyinbo”, or white man as foreigners are called in Yoruba, claiming, ludicrously, that there is no music in Nigeria, by which he means there is very little Bach. Yet there is more at stake here. Cole’s narrator is dismayed by Nigeria’s endemic corruption for its own sake, but takes it so personally because it thwarts the kind of writer he is striving to become: one at liberty to saunter, observe and reflect upon the city, just as he is intellectually able to freely associate with the writers of the world whose ideas he would bring to bear upon Lagos. In this light, “civilization” is more than just a colonialist trope, it is an indication of freedom and modernity, a precondition for the literary detachment and cool rationality the narrator prizes. What’s impressive about Every Day is for the Thief is that Cole makes no attempt to abstract such sentiments from the narrator’s position of relative advantage (he, at least, is free to leave), nor from the way Nigeria – so replete with story yet so “hostile to the life of the mind” – exposes the tendentiousness of his humanism and the callousness of his aestheticism. Seeing a young thief set on fire in the market place, the narrator’s horror quickly gives way to a sideswipe at those American writers, such as Updike, condemned to eternal suburbia, while he, by comparison, has the drama of Lagos “where life hangs out”.
After the narrator has returned to New York, there is a coda. He recalls a stroll through Lagos when he came closest to being the unrestricted flâneur: “People are hard at their work and I alone wander with no particular aim.” Losing his bearings, he finds the heart of the city: at its “meaningful centre”, an alley of coffin-makers. The place, he feels, has “a comforting sense that there is an order to things”, making him reluctant to return to the city’s normal bustle. So the novel closes in what seems like a dead-end: this street of coffins is everyone’s destination, rich and poor, beggar man, thief, and there can be no other magically revealed meaning. Except for this: having learned from Ondaatje, a master depicter of all forms of labour, Cole rounds off Every Day is for the Thief by showing that even in the most intractable circumstances there is pleasure in how things are made, dignity and order in work; just as the carpenters have “borne witness” to the city in all its grief, so, too, has the writer.
This article appeared in the TLS on 23.7.2014 as “Humiliated and Complicit”.