Reading Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project felt a little bit like reading Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory, just with a focus on travel and literary and art criticism. In some ways, Crispin’s book is the spiritual sister to Despentes’ fiery polemic, partly because both books are imbued with an uncompromising feminist vision of the world that is angry, smart, and curious.
Crispin, who is perhaps best-known to bookish nerds online as the founder of Bookslut (which ceased publishing in May of this year) has a voice that is distinctive and clever; readers of her blog who loved her writing will inevitably love the book. I count myself as a fan—even when I disagree with her views or politics, I’m always interested and never bored.
Kathryn Davis writes in her blurb, “I’d follow Jessa Crispin to the ends of the earth” and I’m pretty much in agreement; well, maybe not to the ends of the earth, exactly, or not before Crispin and I have split a bottle of wine between us first. But to the cities and places she takes us throughout the book? Sure, I’m game. Part of what will make a reader enjoy this book is how much she will click with Crispin’s voice, and how interested she’ll be in Crispin’s musings, which are eclectic and intriguing and run the gamut from psychology and classical music to mystery cults and art.
When the reader meets Crispin at the start of the book, she’s in a bad place, literally and figuratively. She needs to leave Chicago, and leaving Chicago is also a way to get out of her head, though by the end of the book, the reader and Crispin are aware that there’s no getting out of the latter. But the mind can make room for other minds, and doing so might make it expand outward in ways that might render the whole brutal process of life worthwhile. There’s no cure for the dark night of the soul, but there may be reasons to stick it out in this world for just a bit longer.
Crispin heads out into a fascinating assortment of cities. Each chapter in the book is organised according to the city and the “dead lady” (or man) that inspires or accompanies her travels. In the first chapter, where she lands in Berlin and has William James along as “a friend, a mentor, a professor, and some sort of idealized father”, she unearths an observation about German characteristics that feels wholly original: “The Germans may look like proper churchgoing Lutherans on the outside, but they are all at heart tree-worshiping animists from way back, starting with the pagan cults in the Schwarzwald, to the nature idolatry of the romantic and counter-Enlightenment movements in the nineteenth century.”
One is never certain if the assessment is accurate; in fact, that’s beyond the point, as almost all assessments of a national or cultural character inevitably reveal something about the person doing the evaluation. Indeed, Crispin is always on the alert to the divine, the mythical, and the dark menace underlying the modern vision of tourism-board approved fun and adventure. There’s a yearning in her writing to be re-enchanted with the world; to not merely “find oneself” in the places one visits, but to temporarily exit the frequently claustrophobic space of the self and merge with something else (be it another person, idea, or ghost).
In the chapter on Galway, Crispin’s fascination with Maud Gonne gives us a lushly-written example of this. The river outside her apartment window, Crispin writes, is “black as ink and swift”. “It has places to be, and it pulls under all who fall in,” she continues, before ending the paragraph with “How deep? I’ll let you know when I get down there.” Understanding both the terror and the allure of the pull of the dark river is at the heart of Crispin’s project, and the river manifests in many ways: family, a small-town one is trying to escape from, a love affair with no foreseeable advice column-approved future, art, politics.
Maud Gonne’s story is a fascinating one, and her personality bewitches from the start: she makes a pact with the Devil as a young girl and attempts to undo her British military father’s legacy by throwing herself into the work of the Irish resistance. Crispin filters Gonne’s life through her involvement with Yeats and the Golden Dawn as well as her political convictions and the demands placed on her, as a woman, in that specific time period in Ireland.
In another chapter on the south of France, Crispin finds a kindred spirit in Margaret Anderson, whose background as “a small-town girl from the middle of nowhere” in the American midwest closely resembles her own. “I have lost track of whether I am writing about Margaret Anderson or about myself”, Crispin says, tracing the contours of Anderson’s life as it closely overlaps with her own: Anderson, too, started a literary journal without coming from the right (read: privileged) background and worked her way into making a name from herself by hurtling in from the margins.
Even when talking about herself, Crispin takes the circuitous route and rarely, if ever, confesses in the hopes of being recognised or affirmed. This deliberate taking-the-long-route to knowing the self mirrors her physical travel. It’s an intriguing and challenging aspect of her work that differentiates it from what seems to be a current publishing trend: personal essays by young, well-read, intelligent, often middle-and-upper class North American women. The memoir-essay trend can often be reductive, boring, and patronising in its attempt to be universal when writers approach their work thinking that simply over-sharing every aspect of their personal lives will trigger a moment of recognition in the reader that will make the reading process worthwhile in jolts and spurts.
Crispin doesn’t go down that route; instead, she locates herself among others to glean some sort of comprehension of the human condition in the general sense. As such, she takes in everything—even the parts she doesn’t like, and holds it up to the light for close observation. Her chapter about Jean Rhys in London, for example, might be uncomfortable for many readers whose understanding of feminism is determined within a liberal framework of sisterhood based on identity as stable and static, like a badge one wears at all times, instead of determined within social relations influenced by class, power, race, and sexuality. Crispin doesn’t let Rhys off the hook for what can be interpreted as manipulative behaviour that exploits the position of women in a male supremacist society (all the better to gain the protection of some men). Many women have done it; nevertheless, it doesn’t make it any easier on other women who find themselves unable to exploit gendered norms because they are already considered undesirable or outside the realm of worthy womanhood due to their class position, for example, or race.
I’m sympathetic to Crispin’s attempt to work this out. In our thinkpiece era of swift thinking and easily-digestible opinions, however, I wonder how many will simply dismiss her as being anti-feminist. There’s nothing wrong in monetising your hotness, for example, so long as you’re ready to admit you’re doing it at the expense of the un-hot, “unfuckable” woman. In which case, it’s not really sisterhood so much as it is looking out for one’s own. It’s that unwillingness to be honest, maybe, that makes liberal feminism feel disingenous; that, and the unwillingness to take note of how class and race and one’s sexual or gender identification makes a world of difference in how you’re treated in the world and how you’re allowed to move through it.
Reckoning with some of these heavy questions is central to The Dead Ladies Project, but Crispin has a style that is light and fleet-footed, much like Odysseus, whose symbolism crops up in the final chapter during her stay on a Greek island. Crispin is assured in her knowledge and feels no compunction to drop names of fashionable theorists or artists; she is unashamed in being decidedly anti-materialist and in her desire to commune with the spirits of people who have gone down the road before her. She wears some of her convictions on her sleeve: “But I have always believed in the gods, and the gods have always expressed themselves to me with books.”
As someone who feels like she has on occasion been saved by books, it’s hard not to be moved by that. More importantly, it’s hard not to admire a writer who stakes out her own territory through the road less travelled, who takes the form of the personal essay as a stepping stone for the journey instead of its final destination.
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