Commentary Magazine


"Swept Away..."

To the Editor:

When William S. Pechter [“Watching Lina Wertmuller,” Movies, January] did not like Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away and felt uncomfortable about such a film being made by one woman and hailed by others, he might have lingered in his puzzlement. The film I saw was about the prolonged feeling of helplessness and puzzlement, in men and women, about how one faces paradox and resists tyranny. The experience of trying to find the small limits of one’s power under conditions of oppression has been documented by people in the Resistance during World War II, by people in “Iron Curtain” countries today, and begins to be documented by women as their primary experience of the world. In this view, everything is political. Labels are unimportant; intellectual allegiances do not weigh; the range of vision is skewed constantly by the question, for or against? Life is an unremitting test: what degree of subversion and/or honesty can be introduced into the situation without finding oneself annihilated?

If one is poor or weak and one fights all the time in invisible ways, the dream is of giving in and getting it over with. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Do With Me What You Will are titles of novels that deal with this situation and catch the fantasy—as does A Woman Called Solitude. The fantasy of submission is neither as obsessive as the resistance to tyranny, nor is it entirely feminine and focused. Rape is only one of its forms. In the movie, the male lead is shown to be as terrified of submission, intoxication, loss of control as the female. . . .

The first twenty minutes of the film hone in on the bottomless, paradoxical, and cruelly imperious misery of the female lead. She says she hates the hypocrisy of wealthy Communists, but her talk expresses human longing without hope. Where can such longing go in modern life—for men and for women, for rich and for poor? Rich men sleep a lot, own private yachts, and funnel dreams into worldly domination, ideological abstraction, and vacation. Unlike Lady Chatterley the new rich woman, marooned in wealth, gender, and functionlessness, cannot even imagine salvation through sex. Be it overcooked spaghetti or hypocrisy, whatever exists, she criticizes. Unlike her North Italian prototype (Shakespeare’s Kate), she cannot even protest that the last thing she wants is a man. She wants nothing, an objectless condition her privilege contains. She can only want that things not be as claustrophobic as they are, and the claustrophobia of the luxury yacht is heavily filmed. . . .

Cut down to wilderness-survival, the film bears amusing cross-cultural comparison with Deliverance: the absence of woman in that wilderness, the uses of gentleness and justice. Here the man knows his yearnings to dominate, while the woman has been corroded by her critical view of the world. All she has is resistance, the desire not to give in, the reduced center of integrity of all long-powerless people. So he dominates and is brutal, Calibanesque, lords it over her, and rapes her (Shakespeare provided a near-rape). Then, in opposition to Clarissa, The Story of O, Deliverance, in which savage titillation tends only toward further violence, we are asked to submit to a new sensation. When the man takes the woman’s earrings, we are invited to wonder about politics as symbiosis rather than domination-subordination. The man gets there sooner than the woman, is there already when the woman asks him to sodomize her. Offended by her use of big words, he protests that he does not feel as if he is violating her and she submitting to another perversion. What are the beauties of symbiosis and what are its flaws? How long can it go on?—only on an island, in the most impossible Prospero’s isle imaginable. And why is the woman so happy? . . .

Circulating in Princeton, New Jersey is a novel manuscript by Cynthia Gooding. . . . The novel’s location is Seville, the main character is a sixty-eight-year-old woman, part-Negro in blood, deeply Negro in identification. Her fantasy is of total yielding to her white lover, discovering the experience of her female ancestors at the hands of white slaveowners. For forty years, she has avoided yielding, because she fears that if she submits, she will become capable of torture, murder, and maiming. The novel suggests that the longing to come out of the cold has very little to do with rape and very much to do with feelings of profound ambivalence about savagery. . . .

Swept Away is a milestone in exploring optimistically, briefly, life after the yielding. The beauty of the lyrical duets comes from having given in and found that rather than becoming more savage, both man and woman are gentled. . . .

Because of the charge of male arrogance in traditional Jewish culture, Jewish male intellectuals are in a particularly vulnerable position when faced with works of art and cries for justice offered by women. If puzzled, their stance of puzzlement becomes more important than their capacity for cleverness. Many men I know felt uncomfortable watching and being asked to sympathize with the man in Swept Away. They did not assume that Lina Wertmuller was putting thumbs in suspenders and showing that she too could play a porn, chauvinist number. We sat together, they and I, and wondered. We are asking Mr. Pechter to try as carefully as we do, in our discomfort, to see what he watches.

E. A. Socolow
Princeton, New Jersey

_____________

 

William S. Pechter writes:

E. A. Socolow is quite right in thinking I didn’t like Swept Away, and quite wrong in thinking the fact that it was made by one woman and hailed by others made me feel the least bit “uncomfortable” (“disgusted” would be more like it); and I invite her not to invite me to join her and her enlightened male friends in lofty acts of consciousness-raising. Whether Miss Socolow is right or wrong in her flight of free association on the film itself, I leave it to readers to judge without my succumbing to any further temptation to draw on the vast reserves of my capacity for cleverness.

_____________

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