When Mary MacLane was 19-years-old she wrote a book about her life and got it published. She then became something of a celebrity (the book sold 100,000 copies in its first month of existence) and a scandal and went on to a life as a writer, actor and journalist before she died in 1929.
The book wasn’t about very much, just about being her, and the pain she felt at being alone and stifled and puzzled and bored by other people as she waited for the Devil; he would have grey eyes, she always wrote and make her “his dear little wife.” MacLane’s desire to be small and cherished by a force larger than her own in a world where one didn’t seem likely to exist for her was something that charmed me deeply when I first read it, having never so much felt the feeling of being girls together with someone as I did in response to this desirous author.
The book is, by turns, redundant, self-absorbed, and deeply fascinating. It is, in some ways, blogging before there was blogging. It is deeply aphoristic, and often plagued by that “but what do we care what you ate for lunch” factor that we all often experience on the Internet if we are, in fact, fascinated by the lives of others.
MacLane first crossed my radar when I was just a few years older than the author had been at the time of the book’s writing in 1902. Someone, and I can’t recall who (an ex-boyfriend, I think, but I am not sure — if it’s anyone with whom I am still in touch and you are reading this, please let me know; it’s something I’ve treasured for years), gave it to me as a gift.
It was, in a way, a Illegitimi non carborundum (Don’t let the bastards grind you down) gift. Whoever gave it to me was someone I knew through Mindvox (I did not know until just now that it had merited a Wikipedia entry; gosh, that’s awkward), an early high-profile online community that dominated the social life of at least my early to mid-20s. I was well-known on the small site (Who wasn’t? But the fact is I also wound up in at least one major article because of it (in Sassy of all things) and worked for the service for a time). For every person who was engaged with what I wrote there were people who not only found me irritating, but someone who needed to be silenced — through bullying, pranks, and even threats. I was, without a doubt, irritating, confronting and self-absorbed, but on Mindvox, which was littered with a zillion petty and public dramas (many of which, yes, I was involved in), the sin was really that I wasn’t particularly ashamed of this.
Which isn’t to say I was running around with great self-esteem or anything. I wasn’t. But then again, neither was Mary MacLane, who wrote of her genius, her remarkableness, her loneliness and her unlovableness. MacLane, who as the 38-year-old I am now I feel as if I should disavow for her overwrought self-aggrandizement was a lifeline for me. Ironic, perhaps, when in her lifetime MacLane had to respond to accusations that her book had led at least one girl to suicide (a matter on which MacLane declared, “I read of the Kalamazoo girl who killed herself after reading the book. I am not at all surprised. She lived in Kalamazoo, for one thing, and then she read the book.” Although later she also noted that, “It is with pain that I read of the dire effects of my book upon the minds of young girls.”)
MacLane and my relationship with her work, echoes back to the post I made the other day about liminality — MacLane was a real person, but one who was also performing herself (as we all arguably are with different levels of awareness and intentionality). By the experiences I described the other day, her non-fictional status should have made her a harder to achieve imaginary companion and self to me; but, rather, I have to argue that MacLane’s life and mode of living that life only underscore the arguments I make for the use of the fictional/non-fictional dichotomy over the fictional/real dichotomy; that is, if we must have dichotomies at all.
Mary MacLane has long been a quite, distant interest of mine. It takes, generally, too much work to explain to you that her assertion, “I do not see any beauty in self-restraint,” was not something I read as license to my excesses so much as acknowledgment that the world is cruel and hard when it demands secrecy about things common and shameful only because we have made secrets out of them. It takes, generally, more work (and the enduring of more jibes than I prefer) to talk about the truth I find in her thoughts on fame and happiness and the maw within her: “I want fame more than I can tell. But more than I want fame I want happiness.” And it takes wasting a lot of time on assuring people that I don’t think all that of myself, when I am enraptured by the emotional pain she seemed to feel at her own intellect: “I am a genius. Then it amused me to keep saying so, but now it does not. I expected to be happy sometime. Now I know I shall never be.”
Oh, how I wish Mary MacLane had had the Internet! She might not have been so lonely. Strangers would have sent her gifts, and people would have bullied her. Her hypothetical contemporary fate is so remarkably clear in her actual historical experience and narration.
The first complete collection of MacLane’s works, A Quite Unusual Intensity of Life, collecting for the first time MacLane’s complete works, is to be released in September 2011. The book will, no doubt, be met with a certain degree of dismissive criticism — why not just read overwrought blogs on the Internet, after all? But the material is, I suspect, valuable, even if just for how the world doesn’t change very much.
When I first read MacLane, I wondered if I should lament that the Devil I was longing for didn’t have grey eyes. Now, nearly twenty years later, when I consider the hand MacLane held out to me, even if she would have never have meant to, I lament merely that I myself don’t have grey eyes and am, as such, inadequate, no matter how much I claim her as one of my own.
4 thoughts on ““let me but strike the world in a vulnerable spot, and I can take it by storm.””
I am a perfect stranger and I have an honest to god confession to make, and it’s that for some reason I become infuriated by people who think they are better, deeper, more complex, more unique, whatever— than anyone else. People who are self-absorbed. People who are hopelessly wrapped up in their own angsty personal mythology.
I hope this comment doesn’t sound rude because I’m not trying to be rude. I’m pretty much just the passionate knight of Eleanor Rigby.
I’m actually impressed by how gracious this is; you didn’t make it personal outside yourself, and I appreciate that. I think everyone’s better at something that someone, and some of us do see things less commonly seen. Does that mean anyone is worth more than anyone else? That’s a moral/ethical question for another post, but to me, no — life is life and someone’s value in some absolute, abstract manner is not for me (or anyone) to determine. But are some people more useful to certain moments? Or better writers or actors or mothers or cooks or drivers or whatever? Sure. It’s weird and uncomfortable, but I don’t know how to get around it — there’s lots of people I don’t want to read a book by; and lots of totally different people I don’t want to eat a meal from, and so many people who do the stuff I do better and more by so many degrees I’d cease to function if I thought about it too hard. But so it goes. All I can do is do what I can.
I think that’s because it really was an honest confession of my actual feelings, which aren’t coming from a hateful place but from the passion I have for the idea that even the most uneducated person is just as complex and deep an entity as the most learned intellectual. That’s the sentiment I’m trying to voice here.
It is not one I disagree with; certain types of education merely often certain types of advantages; they also create certain hinderances and we all have different preferences when it comes to narrators, observers and actors.