Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
Vivian Gornick: The Hardened Heart
I have loved these people . . . and all for the same reason. I am hungry for the sentence structure in their heads. It’s the conversation between us that makes me love them. Responding to the shape of their sentences, my own grow full and free: thought becomes expressive, emotions clarify, and I am happy, happier than at any other time. Nothing makes me feel more alive, and in the world, than the sound of my own mind working in the presence of one that’s responsive.
Approaching Eye Level
HB: In Approaching Eye Level you wrote, “I love my hardened heart — I have loved it all these years — but the loss of romantic love can still tear at it.”
How do you harden your heart?
VG: I meant to say hardened against romantic self-deception, against sentimentalizing, against being blinded. Women like me who became feminists decided, however great the pull of romantic love, however necessary it is to love, not to push ourselves out of shape, not to put ourselves into exile. If that is what threatens, I will harden my heart against it.
VG: You fall in love and it doesn’t get as far as it used to. You fall in love and it has different consequences.
This, of course, is what everyone is thrashing around with. It’s modern life. Romantic love today, no matter who you are, does not bear resemblance to what it was fifty years ago. When I write something like that, I’m announcing a shared change.
HB: You wrote a piece several years ago critical of writers for refusing to acknowledge this.
VG: It was called “Tender-Hearted Men,” and it’s about Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, and Richard Ford, three writers who are much lauded for the power of their prose, the intensity of their visions. They are considered the three major writers who are tough and realistic, who tell it like it is. And I consider them extremely sentimental, essentially nostalgic, wanting things to be as they once were between men and women.
They’ve taken up where Hemingway, who is their antecedent, left off. They are not the sexists that Hemingway was. They are tender-hearted and to some degree regard women as fellow-sufferers. However, they long for things to be as they once were between men and women; that’s at the heart of all of their work. No matter how smart and tough and realistic they seem on the surface, theirs is a sentimental view. It’s a shame. Even though they know a lot and say a lot of smart things and are wonderful writers sentence for sentence, as it were, they are objectionable and adolescent in their knowledge.
HB: You make it sound like a kind of fundamentalism or romantic backlash.
VG: You can’t solder back the nuclear family, you can’t solder back the belief by human beings that their lives are given to them by powerful institutions — I see them all as one — of nation, church, state, family.
All of us, and by all I mean even those who consider themselves perfectly ordinary Middle Americans, all of us do drugs and divorce. Everywhere in every single town in America. Janitors and secretaries. Everybody, Everybody.
And you when you use the word “divorce” you can rest assured that at the end of that word there is somebody sitting alone in an apartment a number times a week, no matter what, no matter what, and having this penetrating experience. It’s full of despair and chaos and confusion, and most people are in no position to make any sense of it. Nevertheless they are experiencing it and out of the experience comes knowledge about themselves that is irreplaceable and cannot be undone.
This implements the loneliness of the American character. Americans know more about this than any other people in the world
A couple of years ago I went to Europe with a friend who is an academic. We met with academics everywhere, people who are exactly like myself in the large cities of Italy, France, and Hungary, and I could not help but feel the tremendous discrepancy between what they knew about themselves and how they made sense of it, and how we did.
HB: You didn’t feel envy that something was a little more intact in their culture?
HB: That they had retained something we had lost?
VG: Not true at all. I felt their restlessness, their dissatisfaction, their boredom. They’re suffering from exactly the same sense of discontent that overwhelms the whole world. They know less about what to make of it, I think, than any secretary in the English department.
HB: You are a connoisseur of connection. In Women in Science: Portraits from a World in Transition, you compare the writer to the scientist, and say that while the scientist is always asking questions about nature, the writer is no less rigorously asking:
How is it between people, and why? What keeps these two together and pulls these two apart? And what is the relation, here among these three, or these four? Is it the connection life giving or death dealing? Is it symbiotic or parasitic? Central or tangential? Vigorous or inert? What is going on here?
VG: Definitely. That is the territory of a writer. You discover early in life that is your preoccupation. How are human beings connecting? As with the scientist, it's the will to make sense of things, to put things together so that you can make sense.
HB: Connection is crucial to your work, but I think the theme of your work is work itself. You often describe how difficult it is to work, and how important, writing, for example, that, “From the Greeks to Chekhov to Elizabeth Cady Stanton: everyone who had ever cared to investigate the nature of human loneliness had seen that only one’s own working mind breaks the solitude of the self.”
The fact that your work exists is evidence you've won some victories.
VG: The fact that it exists is a testament to the fact that I stay with it.
HB: You go to the lab everyday.
VG: I go to the lab every day. Mine is the story of a woman, a feminist — but let's backtrack a little bit. Feminists, once we got it, once we saw that we had been made by the womanness of our lives, almost all came down on one side of things or the other. One side was work, the other love. Some feminists centered on woman as sexual object — on men, love, rape, marriage. And there were a lot of us for whom the central thing was work. We saw ourselves quintessentially as human beings marked to be women by virtue of inability to take work seriously.
It became the great preoccupation of my life that I had been cheated of my life because being a woman encouraged the completely neurotic belief that you had the right to not work. It was OK if you didn’t work seriously, you were a woman. It was the shock of my life to discover the deeper truth that everybody, men and women, has trouble working, because to work seriously was to be a grown up. And nobody goes gently into that awful night, nobody wants to grow up.
Men are forced to mature against their will. Women are forced not to mature. Men mature because no matter what they feel, they have to work. If you didn’t take work seriously and you were a man, you were pathological. But if you didn’t take work seriously and you were a woman, you were a normal person.
This has been my crusade. This has been the struggle of my existence. Now, Thousands of women didn’t respond this way. They weren’t neurotic about it. Once they saw what it was all about, once they got it, they simply dove in. But I did not, could not. I had to face the fact that I remained as neurotic as ever about it, only now I was terrifically aware of what it all meant, and that it was a terrible thing not to take work seriously.
Now I do a kind of work — writing — which is the thing itself. Writing throws me up against myself as very few other kinds of work can do. Writing makes you face yourself, create yourself, be accountable to yourself as practically no other kind of work does. It’s iconic, symbolic of the condition itself. And so I recount this struggle because it’s emblematic.
HB: I almost agree with you. But in your own work, the belief in and focus on work predate the feminist analysis.
VG: Definitely. But there’s no guarantee that I would have been able to face whatever was required, to continue to take it seriously, to give myself the discipline necessary to do any work.
HB: In Approaching Eye Level and some of your other books you describe the moment of transition in feminism. You record the life, the liveliness, the life-givingness — and then the hardening into dogma. You note when it happened, and what is was like to detach yourself.
But isn't the moment of inspiration in social movments always followed by the moment of dogma? Isn't hoping otherwise like wanting to detach yourself from your shadow?
VG: You’re right, it does. But when you come out of it, when you live through it — yes, and many people do terrible things during it — you can absorb it and reintegrate around it. If you can absorb what you know about yourself and about dogma, that is the lesson, the piece of information you include in your own struggle to know yourself better, and the world in which you live.
HB: You write about letter writing in “On Letter Writing” in Approaching Eye Level. It’s a very lovely piece but I feel like it’s a little dated because it does not touch the new form.
VG: I don’t do it so I don’t know anything about it. I think that e-mail is probably a hybrid of some sort.
HB: But it’s also unique.
VG: It’s neither letter writing nor phone.
HB: It’s also almost conversation; it’s informal. It’s also almost real-time but not quite.
VG: I find it so strange that you can send a message and within minutes or seconds get the answer.
HB: But if we are talking about loneliness and connectedness, it’s worth mentioning the growing role of email and the Internet in people’s lives. You’re saying an old form of connection is in crisis. But what’s replacing it? Is this the place in the puzzle where digital culture fits perfectly?
VG: I know people who have met whole groups of people. They call it their email community. I don’t know what that’s all about. Do you talk to strangers or you talk to your friends?
HB: Both. For instance there are things I can say to friend via email that I would have trouble saying even on the phone.
VG: Well that’s like letter-writing.
HB: But I wouldn’t do it in a letter; I wouldn’t take the time. Letter-writing is too grand a gesture. Email is the right angle of attack for a lot of things.
VG: The question of time is very important. I associate letter writing with a world that’s gone, a world that has to do with the true limitations of time and distance being traversed in an old fashioned way. In other words, you had to wait three, four, five days or a week for a letter, at the least.
HB: Now sometimes you have to wait minutes.
VG: And you get antsy waiting those minutes, right? In letter writing, in the course of waiting for the reply, and thinking out your own reply, you went through an act much closer to that of writing. You had time to think things over, time to register a change of mood, a change of thought.
When I walk in the street, I am thinking, I am daydreaming, I am reviewing my work. I’m living with myself; walking the street and living with myself as well as with everybody else. It was the same waiting for a letter. It was different way of encountering yourself.
Email may be yet a third form of communication, which will have a third set of results in the human psyche. But it doesn’t actually have to do with people encountering each other in the flesh.
HB: So what?
HB: Neither does phone. I have friends I communicate with mostly by phone and one friend I never communicate with any other way.
VG: True, and there used to be pen pals; people had correspondences.
HB: What are you working on now?
VG: I’m completing essays for a second collection, critical instead of personal essays that come from work over the last fifteen years. This second collection, Approaching Eye Level being the first, is called The End of the Novel of Love, and is about why I think love is no longer a metaphor to make literature.
HB: "What’s love got to do with it?"
VG: I don’t think you make literature any more out of it.
HB: What about life?
VG: Same thing. When, after “Tender-Hearted Men” came out, I said this in a creative writing class, the graduate students said in great distress, “Don’t you believe in love?”
And I thought about it, and said, “I experience being in love. I need love. But, no, I don’t believe in it.” And that led me to articulate further what I meant. The belief in romantic love as a salvation has been a metaphor for a hundred years. Karenin, Bovary . . .
HB: Shubert. I was at a piano recital last night and heard Shubert. It’s amazing to listen to Shubert in 1997.
VG: There you go, that tremendous belief in love as a salvation, and not just in the music but in everything, just as it had once been religion and just as it had once been nature. It was one of the great metaphors. I don’t believe in it, and I don’t believe you can make a great work any longer with romantic love at its center. I want to argue that and lay out all my objections.
HB: If romantic love is dispensed with, are there other forms of attachment that compensate?
VG: I didn’t say it’s dispensed with. I just said you can’t make a great metaphor out of it.
It’s a sign, like everything else we’re talking about. This is a century in which the idea of merging with others, of discovering oneself through merging, is in terrific crisis. I don’t know what the answers are. I don’t know what’s ahead. I only know it’s in crisis. And because it’s in crisis you can’t make metaphor out of it. In order to make a metaphor, you have to believe that it really explains something crucial about life.
Not that we don’t still long for love. But the fact is no one can go into romantic love any longer with the extraordinary ignorant belief that we had when we were young. For years you could believe you could fall in love and it would change your life. You can’t believe that any more. You just can’t. You’re still left with you.
You need it, you hunger for it, it heals you, it’s comfort, solace, euphoria, a million things. But romantic love does not provide friendship or partnership of the mind or the spirit. It can and should but that’s not the fundamental job of romantic love, erotic love, and the other is what’s required now, not the excitement.
You know I’m right.