Ellen Willis, 1942-2006
Ellen Willis peered. Maybe it was shyness, maybe myopia; she was afflicted with both. But she always seemed to be looking away from you and intensely at you, as if to get you in focus. This off-center, out-of-focus focus, and the urgent, almost aggressive way in which she listened, could make Ellen a little scary. If you disagreed, you knew you had to think fast, and with extraordinary rigor, to argue your point. But the conversation was an adventure: It went somewhere unexpected. As an editor (I was lucky to be among her writers at The Village Voice in the early 1980s), she demanded the same precision. But she wasn't bossy. She was like one of those chiropractors who realign you with hardly a touch.
Ellen was among the great radical intellectual writers and activists of her generation, the author of scores of seminal essays and the founder of several radical feminist groups. She died of cancer two weeks ago, at 64.
The huge hole her death leaves in the world makes me know what that peering gaze was: clairvoyance. Not the prognosticating kind, though she was reliably years ahead of most everyone's thinking. I mean, literally clear-seeing. Whatever she turned her attention to - from Bob Dylan to terrorism, Deep Throat to the Democratic Party, marriage to LSD - she illuminated anew. The first of her three essay collections was called, appropriately, Beginning to See the Light.
Ellen was seeking something she once called Reality - capital R. Reality was a combination of certain unchanging principles and the sped-up spectacle of real people, real life, realpolitik. At her memorial, in New York on November 12, her husband, the sociologist and labor activist Stanley Aronowitz, called her "a spontaneous philosopher." But abstraction held little interest for her. "She never read the fancy stuff," Stanley continued. "She'd say to me, 'In 25 words or less, tell me what Walter Benjamin was about.'" Ellen was the best kind of journalist: She scoped the scene, then figured out what was happening. Each of her pieces is witty and aphoristic, thorny to grapple with, silky to read.
Before any other intellectual either left or right, Ellen took popular culture seriously; she was The New Yorker's first rock critic. But that seriousness came from joy. She adored mysteries, tabloids and, most of all, rock 'n' roll. She never looked more blissful than when she was dancing. She was not embarrassed to use the word ecstasy.
For Ellen, pleasure and happiness were basic human rights, the alpha and omega of politics. "The power of the ecstatic moment - this is what freedom is like, this is what love could be, this is what happens when the boundaries are gone - is precisely the power to reimagine the world," she wrote, "to reclaim a human identity that's neither victim nor oppressor." But pleasure could not flourish without freedom, so political struggle could not end with economic security or even justice. "Freedom was her criterion," said Stanley. "You could talk to her about health care in Cuba, and she'd say, 'That's nice, people have health care in Cuba. But are they free?"
This unwavering championship of freedom - and of culture, sex and unconscious emotion as central to politics - often put Ellen at the margins of the movements she felt closest to. She critiqued authoritarianism and Puritanism wherever she found them. Yes, in the religious right, but also in left anti-consumerism and feminist campaigns to outlaw pornography. And while she deplored Israel's Palestinian policies, she also decried what she saw as left-wing anti-semitism.
Ellen could be cranky with her comrades, no question. But dissatisfaction didn't lead to disaffection. "The struggle for freedom, pleasure, transcendence is not just an individual matter," she wrote. "The social system that . . . as far as possible channels our desires, is antagonistic to that struggle; to change this requires collective effort."
In 1969, with Shulamith Firestone, Ellen founded the radical feminist group Redstockings; in 1978, with a dozen New York women (including me), the pro-abortion-rights street-theater group No More Nice Girls. At her death, she was directing the cultural-reporting program that she had founded in 1995 in the journalism department at New York University. When the graduate students went on strike, Ellen, a fierce unionist, taught her classes off campus.
Ellen called herself a democratic socialist; she proudly called herself a feminist. But at heart, she was a utopian. "For most of my politically conscious life, the idea of social transformation has been the great taboo of American politics," she wrote in a review of Russell Jacoby's Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age. "From the smug 1950s to the post-Reagan era, in which a bloodied and cowed left has come to regard a kinder, gentler capitalism as its highest aspiration, this anti-utopian trend has been interrupted only by the brief but intense flare-up of visionary politics known as 'the '60s.' Yet that short-lived, anomalous upheaval has had a more profound effect on my thinking about the possibilities of politics than the following three decades of reaction. The reason is not . . . that I am stuck in a time warp, nursing a romantic attachment to my youth, and so determined to idealize a period that admittedly had its politically dicey moments. Rather, as I see it, the enduring interest of this piece of history lies precisely in its spectacular departure from the norm. It couldn't happen, according to the reigning intellectual currents of the '50s, but it did."
Ellen's quest for "it" - the utopian moment, the truly radical change - was a meandering journey. "She was always seeking the burning tip, the place where political life is alive with desire," wrote her dear friend and comrade Ann Snitow, "and that place was always changing." So she kept retracing her steps, scouting new routes to the same goals, or new goals.
A year before her death, at a discussion group in New York, Ellen shocked everyone in the room, myself included, by suggesting that feminist abortion politics had run its course. Once, it was the focal point - that "burning tip" - of a demand for sexual freedom. But liberals had turned liberation into "choice." The only life-and-death passion left on the subject was on the other side. Maybe we should move our freedom fighting somewhere else, she ventured. She waited until the gasps had died down, and then, always the pragmatist, suggested: How about international politics?
As far and wide as Ellen's gaze turned, it also stayed close to her own desires and demons. In 1976, the long, strange trip took her to Israel, where, to the alarm of his secular family, her brother had joined an Orthodox Jewish sect (he is now a rabbi). She spent a month talking to Michael and his rabbi, and hanging around with the women in his community. Reality and happiness were not just her personal grails, she discovered; they were at the top rung of Jewish law. She found herself reconsidering everything: her life of friends and movies, sex and work, even her beloved freedom. "What was the point of sitting home scratching symbols on paper, adding my babblings to a world already overloaded with information?" she mused in Next Year in Jerusalem. Why not follow her brother's path?
Re-reading that piece last week, I already knew the end of the story. Ellen would return to New York and over the next three decades become a leading intellectual and activist, a proud and loving mother, a loyal friend and comrade, and a generous mentor to many of America's feistiest journalists.
Still, I felt a moment of retrospective terror. What if Ellen had become an Orthodox Jew, applying her sui generis mind and heart to the fight for Jewish women's education, for changes inside the family and synagogue? Judaism would no doubt be richer for it. But the rest of the world - the world where I live - would have been infinitely the poorer.
Where would we have been without Ellen Willis? Where will we be now?
EMAIL THE AUTHOR // LETTER TO THE EDITOR