To Be Trans: Lili Elbe and Me

(April Rose Schneider has written for Litkicks about novelist Richard Farina and Rush lyricist Neil Peart. This is by far her most personal piece. Thanks, April. —Marc)

"Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad." — Euripidies, from "Prometheus"

Einar Wegener—Europe's best known transgender person in the early 20th century—lived a satisfying and perhaps gratifying male life for a very short time. He painted and partied, drank and danced and sailed on the clear calm water of life for his first twenty years. If he caught a glimpse of storm clouds gathering on the horizon he gave no hint. But the storm was coming, and a strange lightning bolt would strike Einar, shattering his egg shell mind, stripping his flesh all the way down to the bone. This is a description of the life of Einar Wegener aka Lili Elbe … and about the way my own life resembled theirs. The plural will make sense as we proceed.

I know the transgender journey well. I too suffered the same path of secret despair and self loathing in the grip of gender dysphoria before it was a recognized medical concept. At the age of 12 — a tad earlier than Einar if we are to believe the apocryphal storyline of his autobiography The Danish Girl and the movie based on it — I realized that I was the only person in the world who felt displaced in a body incongruous with my emotional self. When I was not quite ten years old I discovered the life of Christine Jorgensen, America's First Lady of Trans, and a little light went off deep within my awareness. Perhaps, I dared to hope, I was not alone?

What Would Leo Tolstoy Tell Us About Donald Trump?

I look to the greatest pacifists for inspiration when answers are hard to find, and that’s why I recently pondered what Martin Luther King would say to Donald Trump if he could witness the absurd spectacle of the 2016 Republican candidate for President. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that MLK would have counseled us to take the high road against the loudmouth boor.

But this tells us what Martin Luther King would have said to us, not what he would have said directly to Donald Trump, and likewise we can guess that the great Russian novelist and pacifist Leo Tolstoy would have had more to say about Donald Trump than to Donald Trump. This connects to one of the major themes of Tolstoy’s life’s work, as reflected in the epilogue that closes his masterpiece War and Peace. In these stirring but often misunderstood pages, Tolstoy savaged the idea that we can study politics or history by focusing our attention on individual people, no matter how much “power” these people seem to have amassed.

That kind of power is an illusion, Tolstoy said. Leaders don’t move the masses; the masses move their leaders. Tolstoy thundered at the end of War and Peace about the way intelligent citizens of a progressive society often allow themselves to be dazzled into stupidity by obsessing over the personality quirks or private motivations of individual politicians, generals or public figures. Political analysis that resembles celebrity journalism completely misses the big trends and grand motivations that move nations and masses. Our failure to grasp the actual engine of political action renders us ineffectual and clueless in the face of dramatic societal trends, even as these trends affect or dominate our lives.

But celebrity-based politics is popular — and not only among our dumber fellow citizens. It often occupies our loftier intellects, our most educated minds, our cleverest pundits. But we’re wasting our time when we approach mass psychology with a gaze attuned to individual psychology. We’re gazing at fractured miniature reflections in a room of broken mirrors, seeing fragments that fail to produce a whole. How many articles have you read about the personality of Donald Trump? Or, for that matter, about the personality of Hillary Clinton? But we the American people are suffering for mistakes that have nothing to do with the personality of either public figure. We’re so dazzled and distracted by the endless pointless clues found in the realm of individual psychology that we fail to see the evidence of group psychology that actually dominates our everyday world, and drives the decisions we live by.

To begin to understand the structure of society and the engine of history, Tolstoy said, we must broaden our focus beyond the minds of individual political and military leaders. We need to direct this attention to a more mysterious force: our group mind, our herd mind, our collective self.

Sympathizers and Innocents: New Novels by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Dana Spiotta

I recently enjoyed two new novels, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta, that left me thinking about the shimmering surfaces of everyday life, and the interwoven meshes of secrecy and guilt that ripple beneath. One novel is about a clever and bookish Vietnamese refugee college student in California who is really a Communist spy. The other is about a lifelong friendship between two filmmakers, one of them more commercial than the other. I recommend both for anyone in search of existential summer reading.

Beat Nourishment

" ... Then the weekdays would come again and the parties were over and Japhy and I would sweep out the shack, wee dried bums dusting small temples. I still had a little left of my grant from last fall, in traveler's checks, and I took one and went to the supermarket down on the highway and bought flour, oatmeal, sugar, molasses, honey, salt, pepper, onions, rice, dried milk, bread, beans, black-eyed peas, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, coffee, big wood matches for our woodstove and came staggering back up the hill with all that and a half-gallon of red port. Japhy's near little spare foodshelf was suddenly loaded with too much food. "What we gonna do with all this? We'll have to feed all the bhikkus." In due time we had more bhikkus that we could handle: poor drunken Joe Mahoney, a friend of mine from the year before, would come out and sleep for three days and recuperate for another crack at North Beach and The Place. I'd bring him his breakfast in bed. On weekends sometimes there'd be twelve guys in the shack all arguing and yakking and I'd take some yellow corn meal and mix it with chopped onions and salt and water and pour out little johnnycake tablespoons in the hot frying pan (with oil) and provide the whole gang with delicious hots to go with their tea. In the Chinese Book of Changes a year ago I had tossed a couple of pennies to see what the prediction of my fortune was and it had come out, "You will feed others". In fact I was always standing over a hot stove.
— Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

There have been times in my life when I would read the Beat classics — Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, Corso, McClure — in hope of a lightning bolt. There have been times when I found that lightning bolt.

In other phases of my life, I feel distant from that source of inspiration. But I can still grab a chunk of it, a bite, a nibble, not necessarily to change me but to nourish me, to fill me up, to keep me going. I think that'll be the mood I'll be in when I attend a few cool New York City events kicking off this Friday, June 3 and going on till Wednesday, June 8 at new downtown gallery called Howl! Arts. The festival is called Beat & Beyond: A Gathering and it will feature a lot of great writers and happeners: Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, John Giorno, Steve Cannon, Peter Stampfel, the Last Poets, Hettie Jones, Ann Charters, Bob Holman, Margaret Randall, David Amram, Ed Sanders and the Fugs.

Phases of Change

A few weeks ago I showed up for a cool poetry reading at a dive called Gunther's in Northport, Long Island, a bar famous for being Jack Kerouac's favorite drinking spot when he'd lived nearby. This reading was significant to me because something was happening for the first time. When I was called to the mic, I was introduced as Marc Eliot Stein.

Marc Eliot Stein? Who the hell is that? It still jars me, three months after announcing my decision to dispose of the pseudonym I had used for over 20 years, to remember what name I'm going by these days. I had been performing spoken word poetry as Levi Asher for over 20 years by now, so I felt a bizarre disassociation as I began to perform. What does Marc Stein know about poetry?

Well, the reading turned out fine: I found my voice inside Gunther's welcoming walls, and by the time I stepped down from the mic I felt like Marc Eliot Stein had made his debut.

And now in two weeks ...

Here I am again, now appearing at an extremely exciting event. The Left Forum has been holding annual gatherings in New York City since Ronald Reagan was President, and this year's event has an absolutely amazing lineup including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, and one of my favorite living political philosophers, Slavoj Zizek. So I'm very psyched to be doing a panel discussion at this event, and I plan to hang around all three days and soak in the good spirit. Come by if you can! As befits a leftist forum, the prices are reasonable.

Revolt on Mount Parnassus: An Allegory in Copy/Paste


PARIS - AUGUST, 1870 - An incorrigible, horrible genius. A fifteen year-old! disembarks at Rue de Maubeuge. A concussion of uncombed hair infested with a plague of lice. Soiled clothing. A homicidal cupid with the enormous hands of a strangler. A smarmy smirk, perfect skin, a beautiful terror with cherub lips and a pernicious grin. Paris is about to fall and the air is crisp with revolt like the pit of the stomach before a first sexual encounter. Crackling on the skin is the charged abstraction of rebirth that floods the streets and minds with the absolution of seditious acts. Napoleon III is only days from being overthrown, the empire toppling and Arthur Rimbaud treats the skittish police and then the magistrate with "ironic disdain" and is immediately sent to the prison at Mazas in the eastern district of the city, the officers finding the boy’s poems in his coat completely indecipherable.

Rimbaud is swept up along with the banished rebels and dissidents that have returned to the city for a revolt and subsequent looting. Anyone suspicious is immediately detained. The soil so rich and fuming and moist and ready for the outgrowth of new ideas, new conclusions, new leaders sprung from the spontaneous executions of the authorities, administrative officials and appointees like the upsurge of puberty in the newly crowned youth, and like Rimbaud himself too! described by the prefecture as, “without domicile or means of support.”

Manacled and riding through the old avenues in the back of a police carriage, all that Rimbaud has furiously studied comes alive now as he sees everywhere the Medieval narration of the city of Francois Villon's time. All around too is the contemporary descriptions of Victor Hugo's Paris. Raised in the wilds of the Ardennes, his eyes bulging at the modernity in front of him, hands cuffed behind.

Beverly, Clearly

For a long time I thought her name was Beverly Clearly. That's because she wrote so clearly. For real: as a kid I would look at the covers of these wonderfully readable books, and "Beverly Clearly" was the author name I saw.

It's rare that I have a chance to celebrate a favorite author who is turning 100 years old. A couple of months ago I wrote an R.I.P. for David Bowie, who died way too young, in which I named his five most genius songs. Today, I'm going to going to list seven Beverly Cleary genius moments to celebrate her 100th birthday, which is a much happier reason.

To top it off, I'm doing this totally from memory, despite the fact that I haven't actually read a Beverly Cleary book in probably four decades. I remember these seven moments in these books not only because they thrilled me as a reader, but because they inspired me as a writer.

Beverly Cleary's stories are often about crisis situations, and they achieve a considerable psychological depth. She managed to attune her existential awareness to the intellectual level of a kid or a tween or a teen, but that doesn't mean that the crises she describes are not complex, not twisted, not severe. It only means that the words she uses to tell the stories are simple enough for a third grader to understand, even when her observations are sophisticated enough to recall the works of Jean-Paul Sartre.

What Would Leo Tolstoy Tell Us About Donald Trump?

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Beat Nourishment

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