Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The passionate muse

A few more words about the book I mentioned yesterday, Claudia Roth Pierpont's Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, a collection of biographical/critical essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker. Let me say at once that Pierpont is exceedingly smart and has her own literary gifts. These are incisive and insightful essays.

It is an eclectic collection of women she writes about: Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, and Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. One suspects the choices were decided more by the random requirements of The New Yorker than any foreordained common theme.

Mae West and Ayn Rand? Eudora Welty and Anaïs Nin? Gertrude Stein and Margaret Mitchell? Well, OK, passionate minds, but what else?

A passion for writing. And a passion for sex. Even physically plain Eudora Welty, who for all I know was a lifelong virgin, fell madly in love; alas, with a gay man who could not return her ardor.

The two passions are no doubt related. As Pierpont says of Mary McCarthy, "It is easy to draw from her novels the idea that good sex requires some of the same gifts as good imaginative writing, and that the critically withholding self can't perform either very well." That is about as close to a common theme as one can find in Pierpont's feminine pantheon.