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Christina Stead and the Politics of Bohemia 5: History’s Inescapable Reckoning


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. 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.” 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 Communist 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…oh dear, I’m dying. Help me, Ste-ph-phen. I can’t he-elp it. Oh, dear, I’m dying. I’ll die.””

Djuna Barnes's passport photo, 1929

Djuna Barnes’s passport photo, 1929

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, 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…”.

Irving Cobb's autobiography, Exit Laughing, 1941

Irving Cobb’s autobiography, Exit Laughing, 1941

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.

Donald Ogden Stewart's autobiography, By a Stoke of Luck, 1975

Donald Ogden Stewart’s autobiography, By a Stoke of Luck, 1975

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.

stead idl

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.”

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