A Defense of Radical Selfishness

By posted at 6:00 am on October 10, 2016 1


The final scene of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying takes place in the bath. Heroine Isadora soaks in the tub and contemplates herself in the water: “The pink V of my thighs, the triangle of curly hair, the Tampax string fishing the water like a Hemingway hero, the white belly, the breasts half floating, the nipples flushed and rosy from the steamy water.” She’s waiting for her estranged husband, but when he enters the scene, it suddenly cuts short — the novel’s final sentences are, “I hummed and rinsed my hair. As I was soaping it again, Bennett walked in.”

It’s a distinctly abrupt note to end the novel, but appropriate for a book that takes place largely inside the protagonist’s head. Isadora is an authorial avatar to whom the term “thinly veiled” hardly applies. Her biography mirrors Jong’s almost exactly, and there are moments when the book reads as more memoir than novel. Isadora’s narration is highly introspective, rarely stepping beyond the boundaries of the self. (One chapter is literally written as a movie in which she is the star.) A 1973 review in the New York Times saw this as grounds for critique: “There is some great humor…but often Isadora’s condescension and self-consciousness reduce the experience for the reader.” Too much self; not enough other.

coverNonetheless, Jong’s personal writing has political roots. It’s possible to situate Fear of Flying within a tradition of women’s “self-centered” writing, arguably beginning with postwar writers who recast the domestic sphere as the site of of violence, ennui, and dark beauty. “What is so real as the cry of a child?” asked Sylvia Plath in her poem “Kindness,” featured in Ariel. “A rabbit’s cry may be wilder/But it has no soul.” A generation later Fear of Flying focused similarly on the intimacy of inner life, but infused it with an unapologetic, cheerfully bawdy tone that broke new ground for women writers to explore this intimacy in their own work.

While Fear of Flying rode the crest of a second wave of feminism explicitly focused on politicizing the fabric of the everyday, the genre of self-reflective writing that it helped to spawn still endures, if remaining largely specific to white women of the middle class and above. (Reflecting on the inner self is a luxury afforded to those whose outer shells are relatively secure: those who do not struggle to earn enough to eat; who do not bring up children on meagre incomes; who do not occupy bodies that are sites of increasingly explicit warfare.) Even from my vantage point onto the relatively small Australian literary scene, women’s “confessional writing” is the subject of much attention, meriting a recent piece in Overland, and critiques from writers Kath Kenny and Helen Razer. It’s the familiar battleground: is the personal always political? Does a protagonist that reflects the author’s image signify a novel that is little more than a mirror? Does this kind of writing give the reader too much self, and not enough other? But in the act of reading, distinctions between self and other are rarely so clear-cut, and self-centered writing can blur these boundaries in strange and surprising ways. Taking the question of the self seriously can, in fact, open the way to a reflective reading experience far broader in scope than generally first assumed. Here, Fear of Flying still has radical lessons to offer.

Although there is a tendency to focus on the inherent literary merits (or lack thereof) of self-centered writing, we might do better to begin with the words on paper. What does it sound like, the voice of the self speaking back to the self? Isadora’s narrative style is distinctively frank and unpretentious. Sentences in Fear of Flying are noticeably short, and often connected by dashes, as if the writer simply needed to get words on paper. And indeed, this may be close to the truth: Erica Jong recalls writing her debut novel in “a mad rush, heart racing, adrenaline pumping, wanting to tell the truth about women whatever it cost me”.

So Fear of Flying was written as a crazed dash across an empty sky, the author the sole pilot of a plane with no destination. In this, the medium reflects the message — the plot of the novel revolves around a zigzagging existentialist road trip through Europe, where the only plan is to keep going. Present on this doomed trip: Isadora and flirtatious Langian Adrian Goodlove (Jong’s winking appreciation of the eighteenth-century novel is clear) whom she met at a psychoanalytic conference in Vienna. Not present: Isadora’s “perfectly nice husband” Bennett, a stable but emotionally stunted Freudian, left behind in Vienna. The love triangle acts as the book’s driving narrative force, but it’s an illusion, a flimsy paper backdrop to a much deeper drama. Adrian and Bennett are only convenient puppets fighting out the familiar conflict at Isadora’s core: security versus adventure. Death-drive versus life-force. Fear versus flying. Five years into her increasingly distant marriage, Isadora eventually finds it too hard to resist Adrian’s proposal to take off together in his battered Triumph: “I’ll discover Europe,” he tells her. “You’ll discover yourself.”

If Adrian does discover Europe, we don’t see it. Very little of the actual trip is featured in the novel; rather, their hours of driving serve for endless introspection on Isadora’s part. We travel deep down into Isadora’s childhood, her adolescence, her family history, her marriages, her struggles with writing, with Jewishness, with her husband, with herself. What sort of woman does she want to be? Her mother and sisters pressure her to “stop writing and have a baby,” but as she asks:

Why did they have to keep rushing me and trying to cram me into the same molds that had made them so unhappy?…I had published a book which even I could still stand to read. Six years of writing and discarding, writing and changing, trying to get deeper and deeper into myself…But to my family I was a failure because I had no children.

To have a child is to split and release the self in strange and terrifying ways, a prospect toward which Isadora is ambivalent. (“If I have a baby I want it to be all mine,” she says, surely recognizing the impossibility of this wish even as she gives voice to it. “A girl like me, but better.”) For now, she chooses self-containment, self-knowledge: a quest to go ever deeper. Through her work, she reproduces herself on her own terms. But she’s consumed by the hypocrisy of writing fearlessly while living cowed — hence her strange, compulsive attraction toward disastrous (but adventurous) Adrian. “No bored housewife, I,” she tells herself in that first glorious moment when the Triumph roars off and leaves Bennett behind. “I was flying.”

But liberation at the hands of someone else can only take you so far. The contradiction comes to a head when Isadora — abandoned by Adrian in Paris — is forced for the first time to cultivate survival on her own. It’s tempting to read the process of her transformation as rather too neat: gripped by anxiety in a seedy Paris hotel room, Isadora finds her journal and begins to read. “I am going to figure out how I got here,” she says to herself. Reading through the record of her life, she grows calm and philosophical. She loses her fear — and without fear, flying doesn’t hold quite the same appeal. It lacks the adrenaline of disaster, the danger that Isadora courts as an answer to “the restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up…”  By the final pages, she’s confident in her assertion that “whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew, above all, that I’d go on working …”

After hundreds of pages of neurotic dithering, Isadora’s sudden flipped switch into maturity is jarring. That’s it? Just read an old journal and you’re cured? It was the one part of the book that always felt unsatisfying — perhaps because, in a novel otherwise wedged so tightly into its own time and space, the use of metaphor was at first unrecognizable. The reality of the scene was probably not a journal, and it was probably not a night in a hotel room in Paris — but the essence remains the same: to know oneself is to free oneself. We think of being “self-centered” as a different quality to being centered in oneself, but Isadora — staring into her handwritten mirror in a hotel room on the Rue de la Harpe — invites us to question the distinction.

The metaphor can be taken further – Jong hints at it when she writes that Isadora, reading her notebook, “began to be drawn into it as into a novel”. After the book’s publication, women wrote to Erica Jong to tell her that they were just like Isadora, or that Isadora was just like them. In How to Save Your Own Life, the 1977 sequel to Fear of Flying, Isadora (coincidentally now the best-selling author of a famously racy novel) receives fan letters along the lines of:

Youre Main Character (which is also you I believe) is exactly like me in all respects although Jewish … The problem is I have three children (they are loveley kids 3, 6 and 8) my husband is very jealouse and there is no way for me to go away like you did and get Adventure or Sex or even have time to think about my Development as a Human Being and Woman … My husband told me I better not read [your book] or else he would beat the shit out of me but I read it anyway!!

Isadora could not solve her readers’ problems, but she nonetheless changed their lives — not (necessarily) by inspiring them to have ill-considered affairs, but by encouraging them to reach past the bulky cushioning of domestic life and probe the contours of their own souls. A radical task in 1973, and even today — as the continuing furore over women’s self-reflective writing demonstrates. If selfishness is a literary crime, it’s also a social one – and women, especially, are vulnerable to accusation. Private lives are ‘women’s business’, but the minutiae of these inner lives — the joys and frustrations, the strangeness, the struggles, the fantasies, and the fears — are deemed unserious, selfish, when brought out into the light. Isadora’s fundamental crime in life, as in literature, is to look too much inward, and to regard this introspection as insight.

But insight works in mysterious ways. It’s not necessarily a lightning-bolt of pure knowledge from the author to the reader. I was a teenager when I first read Fear of Flying, and much of it went over my head, but I remember the feeling of relief, of grasping a hand in the darkness: Here is someone. My copy of the book had been my mother’s, but by the time I chanced across it, she was already three years dead and I was unpacking boxes in a country she’d never set foot in. I was lonely then in a drifting, aimless way; later, when I started school, my loneliness magnified and grew teeth. Perhaps more than many adolescents, I felt ill at ease inside myself, bumping into the awkward contours of my new life.

It was no coincidence that the book which became a shield against all this — the book that I read obsessively and carried around with me everywhere — was Fear of Flying. I came across it when I most needed myself, because I had no one else. The self is, after all, a tricky thing: looking too hard in the mirror might reveal things we’d rather not see. “I want to teach you not to be afraid of what’s inside you,” Adrian tells Isadora. But really it was Isadora — self-obsessed, unliterary Isadora — who offered her readers that gift. “You did not have to apologize for wanting to own your own soul,” she reflects near the end of the book. “When all was said and done, it was all you had.” Fear of Flying made space for the self, took the self seriously, and this allowed many readers an experience that went far beyond the myopic contemplation of Isadora. It’s a lesson worth considering, as the debate over so-called ‘selfish’ writing continues: introspection can be a strength all its own, and reading has the power to place you within your own life as well as within another’s. As Isadora showed me, along with countless other readers: the self can be a lifeline, a raft, a wing to fly on.

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One Response to “A Defense of Radical Selfishness”

  1. steven augustine
    at 4:40 pm on October 21, 2016


    Great piece! I wonder how much a reader’s experience of FOF is refracted through the prism of the country she/he first reads it in (if that country is “home”).

    I was 14, living in America, when FOF came out and I spirited it away, hot off the presses, from my mother’s book shelves and secretly owned it for an essence-depleting (laugh) week.

    After reading FOF, I was prepared to be the perfect male Feminist counterpart to the succession of women I imagined might need a temporary foil on scarf-trailing Bugatti races around the hairier mountain roads of the emerging Self. What I wasn’t prepared for were several attempts, one after another, by girlfriends to trick me into becoming a father-husband-wage-slave! Ie: the same old traditionalist Venus fly trap of Love! In other words: I wanted Jong’s brave new post-Feminist vistas to open before me but most of the women (girls, really) I knew, instead, were thoroughly rooted in the 1950s.

    I entered the sexual ecology in a serious way in 1977 and by 1980, things were even *more* conservative… I had to admit to myself, eventually, that FOF was a work of Science Fiction. At best the book’s goals/dreams pertained almost solely to Erica Jong or a class of woman so rarefied I never met one in the US (Europe was another matter entirely). I never even met a woman who *hankered* for the Freedoms Wing/Jong was hankering for until I left the country. So, not only was I promised flying cars and robot butlers as a teen… I was promised Liberated Women to hang out with. I assumed, when I read FOF, that Jong was reporting from the Front Lines. In truth she was the female Gene Roddenberry.

    2.5 Babies, 2 cars, a “good school” for the kids, an expense-account job (with health insurance) and a house with a white picket fence: the same old Capitalist fantasy-nightmare that most of America seems not to have managed to shake off. The only post-1950s variant added to the paradigm: Stripping as an acceptable career path. Progress?

    Jong’s FOF was a male fantasy, too. And ah, if only…!

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