The Last of Her Kind

I tend to read streaks of related books. They can be related by author or by subject. I think everybody reads streaks by author. Right now I’m in the middle of a Ward Just streak and a Howard Swiggett streak. (I hope to write an essay about Swiggett someday.)

I really like streaks by subject. Last year, doing research for a book I’ve been writing, I read four novels and one play about intellectual mentors who lead their protégés to commit crimes and/or get themselves killed. (The best of these is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.) This intersects with another streak about boarding schools and colleges.

My latest streak is about radicals, terrorists and extreme altruists. The first book was Ward Just’s The American Ambassador, and I’m planning to read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Marge Piercy’s Vida, as well as a non-fiction work about Theodore Kaczynski.

I just finished the second in this streak, a novel entitled The Last of Her Kind, by Sigrid Nunez.

I loved this novel. It tells the story of three women starting in 1968: Georgette, the narrator, who is looking for love; Ann, Georgette’s roommate at Barnard, who is a stone radical; and Solange, George’s sister, who runs away from their squalid home and abusive mother at the age of 14, embarking on a physical and spiritual odyssey. In these three women we have three of the paradigmatic types of young females of the era: Cosmo girl, radical and hippie. (All we’re missing is a women’s libber.)

It doesn’t have a lot of plot and it’s not told in perfect chronological order. It’s more like a new friend telling you about herself, partly in order, partly with vignettes strung together by association and partly with events revealed only when she feels she can reveal them. One Amazon reviewer labeled this narrative “stream of consciousness.” I generally hate stream of consciousness story telling, and I easily followed the logical and emotional thread of Georgette’s account, so that was not a problem for me. It’s really an imagined memoir.

I’m trying not to give away more than is necessary to communicate the set-up of the story, but since the jacket copy refers to the central event of the story in vague terms, so I feel that my doing so as well does not constitute a true spoiler. Ann does something very violent which changes her life and several lives around her. Nunez is brilliant in creating a situation of perfect ambiguity, in which Ann’s action can be seen as either justified or irresponsible, depending on your premises (rather like Ayn Rand’s play Night of January 16th). This action superbly integrates Ann’s character, the political beliefs of the people involved, and the tenor of the times. We see this action from the perspectives of quite a few people in the story and it is a good example of the starkly different interpretations people can have of an event.

The novel focuses mostly on 1968 – 1978, but it covers events since then as well, alluding obliquely at the story’s end to 9/11. I really enjoyed following up on the story’s characters. We’re so used to seeing a 1960s radical or hippie frozen in time, forever 20 years old, that we forget that such people grow and change – or fail to grow and thus destroy themselves.

Please do not get the idea that this novel is a nostalgic tale of those “far out” times. It’s not. While we view the characters through Georgette’s generally sympathetic eyes, we are frankly shown the consequences of their beliefs and actions, and many of those consequences are brutal. At the same time, the novel does not shy away from showing how unpleasant being poor and/or black in America can be. I could imagine that both a hard-core liberal and a hard-core conservative could enjoy this book if they were honest with themselves, because it is perfumed by the air of truth.

Author Sigrid Nunez

In some novels by and about women – Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is frequently alleged to be an example – men come off rather badly. At first this seems to be true of The Last of Her Kind, which had not one but two rapists, various drug dealers and Mick Jagger among its characters. But some of the minor men, though they seem like losers, are genuinely nice guys. And just when you thought there were no wonderful men in Nunez’ world, we encounter one: decent, loving, cultured, loyal. And we see him grow.

Georgette is a narrator who is nice to spend time with. She may not be some people’s idea of ambitious, but she is earnest, a good observer and well read. She drops in interesting references.

One of these references is to a French philosopher named Simone Weil (1909 – 1943). When some in the press compare Ann to Patricia Hearst, Georgette compares her to Weil. Weil was a hard-core altruist. When she was six years old and heard that the soldiers fighting in WWI had no sugar, she refused to eat any herself. During WWII she basically starved herself to death in sympathy to citizens in occupied France living on meager rations. In between she taught Greek classics, became sympathetic to Roman Catholicism without being baptized (she came from a family of agnostic Jews), and expounded mystical ideas on God, the self, the void, beauty, etc.

French Philosopher Simone Weil (1909 – 1943)

Weil was definitely anti-materialist. She gave away most of her salary. She often slept on the floor. She probably died a virgin, because, although an affectionate person, she did not like to be touched. T. S. Eliot likened her to a saint, and she had a considerable influence on both existentialist and Catholic thought in the decades after her death (although that influence has waned since the 1970s).

Weil and Ann from the novel are each in some sense “the last of her kind.” Both are altruists all the way down, although Ann has sex and is an atheist. Ann is definitely a lot angrier than Weil, who could be beatific in her enraptured contemplation of God.

Perhaps Ann has more in common with Bill North, Jr., the terrorist in The American Ambassador. Both have nothing but contempt for their parents. Like Bill, Ann does not call her parents Mom and Dad, but Sophie and Turner. Both have no sympathy for those who do not share their views. There is a slight difference between them in that Ann generally thinks it possible to make a difference working from within the system, while Bill is so alienated from bourgeois capitalism that he sees kidnapping, bombs and murder as necessary and deserved. Simone Weil, from what I’ve read so far, was not a violent or hateful person. She did try to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, but she was so near-sighted and such a bad shot that no one would let her get near a gun!

I am trying to build up a portrait of the radical/terrorist/altruist type. What I am seeing so far is that they all belong to what I call the Cult of Suffering, by which I mean the intellectual-emotional position that the suffering of others should be our primary fixation in life, while the health and happiness of the fortunate (including ourselves) is not important and may even be a sign of exploitation. I am sure there are commonalities that I do not have enough examples of to identify yet. I don’t think I see what Ayn Rand called “the hatred of the good for being the good,” but the jury is still out. It’s a little risky to use fictional examples in my sample, but I feel they can illuminate the often tangled and diffuse mass of information surrounding real figures.

I think such a study – which I admit I am carrying out unsystematically – could be valuable in understanding the operation of morality and in figuring out how we can have a stable society. Besides, it’s interesting!

I invite you to share any insight you have on these subjects or any book or movie recommendations.

2 thoughts on “The Last of Her Kind

  1. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who gunned down innocent and defenseless kids on an island in the summer of 2011 is a very interesting example of the terrorist/altruist type. Unlike the terrorists back in the 1960s and 70s, however, he is not a leftist radical but labels himself a Christian conservative and militant nationalist. Like many liberal conservatives and libertarians, he is deeply opposed to the multiculturalism that has invaded Western universities, and lists Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and Ayn Rand (!) among writers he recommends. He has, of course, been accused of being a narcissistic egoist, but denied this in court, asserting that he was an altruist who sacrificed himself — along with others — to save Europe from radical Islamization. His altruism, though, does not seem to spring from what you call the Cult of Suffering. Rather, it is, as in fascist ideologies, strongly grounded in a Utopian ideal of national purity and superiority that necessitates great sacrifice in order to be realized.

    I don’t think the Cult of Suffering necessarily issues in a terrorist mentality, though in many cases it can do so. But in other cases, it can also spur a more humane altruism, manifested in a genuine desire to alleviate innocent sufffering and injustice by legitimate means and driven by a deepfelt compassion — as expressed in the works of Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. I’m not sure whether terrorists, of whatever brand, are fully capable of that kind of compassionate altruism. To commit an act of terror, you have to be, or become, a ruthless fanatic, insensitive to human suffering. In the case of Breivik, an interesting thing was that he quite deliberately used techniques to eliminate his capacity to empathize with others in order to be able to go through with his terrorist plans.

    As for fictional studies of the terrorist psychology, a classical ‘must’ read, I think, is Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” (or “The Devils”). Likewise Hugo’s “Ninety-Three”, which uses the French Revolution as a backdrop to dramatize the conflict, pertinent in any revolution, between the use of violence and the claims of mercy and compassion. As an aside, this is a thematic point Ayn Rand largely ignores in her Introduction to the novel, claiming that it’s not about the French Revolution but about “man’s loyalty to values” and the greatness men are capable of when they fight for their values, whatever side they’re on. I find this most curious — as strange as to say that “We the Living” is not about Soviet Communism. But that’s a different discussion.

  2. I think we have to differentiate between a heartfelt and passionate sympathy for the suffering of others, such as was felt by Hugo and Dickens, and the Cult of Suffering, as represented by some 1960s radicals. The first is born of empathy and still celebrates life and happiness – as we can see in Dickens and Hugo. The second seems to see only the dark side of things. The exception to this last point seems to be where the altruist sees the earthy and simple joys of the suffering classes, as in the way 1960s radicals loved black music. There is always an element of condescension to this feeling, in my opinion. I wouldn’t put the Cult of Suffering and humane compassion on the same spectrum at all.

    It is still early in my “research,” but I think the common element in the radical/terrorist/altruist type may placing one aspect of reality above all others, whether it is suffering, the environment, racial purity or whatever. Even if there is some legitimacy to the fanatic’s concern, his obsession leads him to subordinate every other concern to his. He cries out, “THIS is the most important thing! Don’t you see it? I’ll make you see it whether you want to or not!” The Cult of Suffering is perhaps just one example of this. Ted Kaczinski’s concern for the environment and slavery to technology was another.

    The origin to this fanaticsim, as I suggested in my review of The American Ambassador, may be the intrinsic view of values, which holds that values are aspects of existence without reference to consciousness, context, human needs or a process of discovery. As such, an “important” value would override any value based on happiness, comfort, convenience or any other “subjective” factor, which would be regarded as selfish, hypocritical, petty, etc. An intrinsic theory of value has trouble with a hierarchy of values, with balancing values, with any notion of values that puts things “farther away from” the self as less important than things nearer. (For example suffering in Africa as opposed to one’s mother suffering.) There are no “centers” or origin points to value. Intrinsic values would thus override the notion of individual rights.

    It is important to note that the intrinsic theory of values is also integral to most religions. Any values that emanate from God would be absolute and beyond human questioning. This could be the connection between secular and religious terrorism. I plan to explore the metaethics and psychology of intrinsicism further as I pursue the subject further. However, I’ll be careful not to make an obsession out of it.

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