Goodbye, Ellen.
November 10, 2006 6:43 PM   Subscribe

Ellen Willis was a writer and critic who wrote for the Voice, the Nation, and Dissent, among many others; her NYU homepage and Wikipedia entry link to a number of essays and reviews, all of which are worth your time. She didn't make me a feminist, but her writing gave me much of the intellectual framework of my feminism and throughout the depressing retreat of the '80s reminded me there was still humor and hope. (From her Wikiquote page: "My deepest impulses are optimistic; an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.") She died yesterday, of lung cancer, at the absurdly early age of 64. I'd like to quote from her "Escape from New York" (Village Voice, July 29-Aug. 4, 1981), an account of a bus trip across the country that shows her inextricable mix of the personal, the political, and the just plain human: [more inside]
posted by languagehat (15 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I sleep and am awakened by a man's voice, somewhere to my rear, yelling and cursing: "Don't touch me, you cocksucker, I'll break your leg and break your head with it."... People begin yelling at him to shut up and let them sleep. "Hell, I won't shut up! When I have to stop talking, I'll move to Australia!" Finally the driver pulls over, stalks to the back of the bus, and threatens to throw him off at the next stop. He quiets down for a while, then starts in again ... By this time it's dawn, and I can see that our foul-mouthed paranoid is an elderly blind man.

In Gallup, New Mexico, in front of the restaurant where we're having lunch, a Navajo man in jeans and a white hat is sitting on a ledge. The blind man starts wandering off in the wrong direction; the Navajo goes after him, takes his arm and turns him around. The driver shouts, in a voice loaded with contempt, "Hey! Don't you bother the people on this bus! Just leave them alone!" As I pass the Navajo on my way into the restaurant, I acknowledge the incident with an uncomfortable, I-know-that-was-racist half-smile. He responds "Hey, sweetie!" and starts following me; I retreat into the cafe. When I return, he is panhandling. He approaches a teenager who has long, straight hair and a backpack and looks like a granola ad. "You're giving a bad impression of the Navajo people," she says primly. I feel depressed.
And here's a bit from earlier in the article:
It's unseasonably cold, and on the bus from Oakland to Los Angeles the heat isn't working. ... I huddle in my jeans jacket, which until this morning belonged to my friend Lou. I love the jacket, but what warms me is my friend's gesture. I hardly ever give my clothes away. I'm not an impulsive giver. A Marxist might say I've been infected with the what's-in-it-for-me commodity exchange ethic of capitalism. A feminist might say I've been preoccupied with the unequal struggle to take care of my own needs. Anyway I'm grateful to Lou for doing what I find hard to do. It's as if I've received not only a jacket but a vote of confidence that what I've received I will someday in some way pass on.
And she did. Goodbye, Ellen.
posted by languagehat at 6:44 PM on November 10, 2006 [2 favorites]

posted by trip and a half at 7:01 PM on November 10, 2006

Very sad. Years ago, she wrote an essay on Creedence Clearwater Revival for The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll that always stuck with me.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 7:02 PM on November 10, 2006

I just heard an old interview with Ellen Willis on NPR (Fresh Air, I think) and I did what I hardly ever do: I sat in the car after I finished driving and just listened with the lights off.

She made feminism seem so simple, logical and reasonable, and made me realize how much she and others like her have informed my views on sex and equality.

A shame she's gone.
posted by Richard Daly at 7:02 PM on November 10, 2006

In her "Three Elegies for Susan Sontag," she shared a piece of the experience of the cancer diagnosis within an apt account of Sontag's "Illness as Metaphor":

Shortly after I was asked to write an obituary for Sontag... I received my own cancer diagnosis. Caught early, amenable to the latest advances of allopathic medicine -- still, the disease did not strike me as a brute, dumb fact. A life-threatening illness, it seemed to me, was a spiritual crisis by definition. Unanswerable questions about etiology were the least of it (though in truth I was instantly swamped -- I imagine the ghost of Susan stifling a smirk -- by a wave of superstitious terror and guilt, produced by the fantasy that every mean-spirited thought, let alone act, I'd ever committed had somehow converged in an unlikely spot on my non-smoker's lung). The real questions were about the future.

She goes on to say, of the book, that it is without a protagonist, set in a terrain without inhabitants; or rather they are opaque, their presence revealed only by the tropes that surround them, as black holes are detected by a bent gravitational field. It is a somber silence, befitting the author's funeral; for death is truly the kingdom where metaphors come to an end.

I am still overcome by that image, written by a brilliant writer who has learned of her imminent demise. She faced the end of the book, of every book, the only way she could: she wrote about it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:46 PM on November 10, 2006

Thank you, languagehat. What a beautiful tribute to a great person and writer.

My deepest impulses are optimistic; an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect.

I'd never seen that particular quote before, but now I will never have to look for a way to concisely explain my own deepest impulses again.

posted by melissa may at 9:53 PM on November 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I really, really wish I had known of this writer's work while she was alive, but I am very glad you've made me aware of her, now. Thanks, languagehat.

posted by cgc373 at 3:24 AM on November 11, 2006

i second melissa may. that qoute was instantly entered into my file of other peoples thoughts which are quite valuable to me and i will be using it
posted by localhuman at 4:13 AM on November 11, 2006

I thought her take on Tom Frank's Whats The Matter With Kansas was the best response I had seen.
posted by bonecrusher at 5:43 AM on November 11, 2006

Took me awhile to recognize the name. I remember reading that Creedence piece. She could write and loved the rock and roll.
posted by jonmc at 6:11 AM on November 11, 2006

Thanks very much for that link, bonecrusher; that brilliant essay makes me miss her even more bitterly.
The cultural radical impulse is rooted in the core elements of the democratic ideal: equality and freedom. There is a clear logic in the progression from affirming that all men are created equal, with the right to choose their government, enjoy freedom of speech and religion, and pursue happiness, to demanding that these rights apply to racial minorities, women, homosexuals, young people, atheists and other groups in one way or another denied them; that the challenge to repressive authority extend beyond government to institutions like the corporation, the family, and the church; that the pursuit of happiness include freedom from sexual restrictions dictated by patriarchal religious norms; that free speech include explicitly sexual and anti-religious speech. Such demands, however, challenge not only deep structures of social privilege and subordination but our very definition of morality. All of us living in Judeo-Christian or Islamic cultures have imbibed from infancy a conception of sexuality—and desire more generally—as dangerous and destructive unless strictly controlled, of repression and self-sacrifice as indispensable virtues. Movements that encourage us to fulfill our desires are bound to arouse conflicting emotions, to intensify people’s yearnings for freedom and pleasure, but also their anxiety and guilt about such primal rebellion. An outpouring of social experiment and innovation liberates creative energies, but also rage—at oppression, at losses of status and privilege, at the sources of anxiety and confusion. Cultural radical demands immediately question and disrupt existing social institutions, yet building democratic alternatives is a long-term affair: this leaves painful gaps in which men and women don’t know how to behave with each other, in which marriage can no longer provide a stable environment for children but it’s not clear what to do instead. Is it really surprising that cultural revolution should cause conflict?

To argue that this conflict has no political significance is to say that democratic values have none—never mind the blood and passion expended by democrats and their enemies. To argue that one’s “material interests” have only to do with economic class is to say that sexual satisfaction or frustration, bodily integrity and autonomy or the lack of same in the sexual and reproductive realm, the happiness or misery of our lives as lovers and spouses, parents and children are ethereal matters that have no impact on our physical being.
jonmc: Yeah, as soon as I posted this I kicked myself for having forgotten to mention her wonderful rock criticism. She loved the Stones despite their misogynistic lyrics, saying "A liberating form can transcend its regressive content." Here's her list of Desert Island Discs:

Velvet Underground (Golden Archive Series)
Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde
Bessie Smith The Bessie Smith Story Vol. 4
Otis Redding The Very Best of Otis Redding
John Fahey Vol. 1: Blind Joe Death
Lotte Lenya et al. The Threepenny Opera
Tupac Shakur 2Pac—Greatest Hits
Marianne Faithfull Broken English
Various Artists Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs (Music from HBO Original Series)
The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on November 11, 2006

She loved the Stones despite their misogynistic lyrics, saying "A liberating form can transcend its regressive content."

Heh. Dave Marsh said a similar thing about Dion in an essay about the irony of the man who sang 'The Wanderer' complaining about 'Runaround Sue.' He said they belong in the Museum Of Male Chauvanism, but that even there people will be dancing to 'em. Ellen Willis seemed to have a similar understanding and spirit.
posted by jonmc at 8:51 AM on November 11, 2006

Thank you for introducing me to such a powerful writer.

posted by owhydididoit at 10:47 AM on November 11, 2006

She was a founding member of the Redstockings, one of the earliest radical feminist groups in the United States. Great writer too...

posted by jonp72 at 1:02 PM on November 11, 2006

posted by jokeefe at 5:36 PM on November 11, 2006

« Older Celebrity mistaken for Taliban terrorist   |   Without cows there would be no cheese in the... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments