Notes on X

Here’s something amazing I learned from Dreaming in French:  The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, by Alice Kaplan (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2012).  Apparently, even Susan Sontag struggled against an inner Disney Princess!

The X Factor

With two books in print, life went on–the more and more dazzling public life, the secret inner life.  Life and work were tightly combined, yet under the pile of manuscripts, cultural outings, and intellectual connections was a constant buzz of worry, a struggle that preoccupied her throughout the winter months of 1960, in her daily existence with [her lover] Irene and her son David.  She called it “X”–the overwhelming desire to please, to appease, to see oneself through other people’s reactions, to spare other people’s feelings, to care what they think.  Women, she decided, were X; America itself, with its cult of popularity, was “a very Xy country.”  “X is the scourge,” she wrote in February 1960:  “How do I really cure myself of X?”  She made lists of X situations, X feelings, X characteristics, and finally connected her personal problem to a concept in existential philosophy:  “X is Sartre’s bad faith,” (125-26).

My guess is that some (most?) of you women readers can relate.

In reading the section on Sontag, she reminds me of no one so much as Marie de l’Incarnation, or at least Natalie Davis’s perceptive portrait of her in Women on the Margins:  Three Seventeenth-Century Lives (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1995).  Both of them left young sons behind in order to devote themselves to their vision of a worthwhile inner life and a legacy of religious or intellectual leadership, neither of which was compatible with the responsibilities of wives and mothers as they were understood in their own times.

11 thoughts on “Notes on X

  1. Interesting. I know I’ve cared too much about what other people think and that I’ve put too much of a priority on care-giving. On the other hand, I can see some of this as a strength as long as I don’t let it control me. It took years to reach a level of functioning where I don’t, mind you!

    I can’t fathom leaving a child behind for my interests, though. Maybe it’s because I have a child who’s going to continue to need our care and support for some time to come? Because we don’t have a support network alternative? Or maybe because my interests just aren’t consuming enough?


  2. There are many men who “desire to please, to appease, to see oneself through other people’s reactions, to spare other people’s feelings, to care what they think.” Way too many for my taste.


  3. Yeah, koshembos, it totally sucks that some men aim to please others and care about others’ feelings. I think you miss the point of Sontag’s analysis.


  4. I think you and I read Sontag the same way, Historiann, though I am not sure we all come to the same conclusion about what to do. There may not actually be such a thing. Aim for what feels right for me, recognizing that the feeling is conditioned by the environment in which I work and live, and that I need to give myself some leeway.

    I am about to move to a new university, where I will be the first woman ever hired to the academic faculty of my new unit (a young woman hired to a contingent position, also a first, will start at the same time). I have been pondering dialing down my attire, which tends toward the colorful. This is a leadership role and I don’t want to be too easy to stereotype. But then, there were butterflies in my hair when I was offered the job. I don’t think anybody who knows me would say I avoid difficult situations, capitulate, etc. even though I prefer working in a concensus style that certainly does value the sensitivities of others.


  5. I think you’ll have to see what the locals are wearing to work before you can make up your mind about your wardrobe. Administrators seem to be more effective when they try to listen and learn first, without making too many changes, and then look for allies for their initiatives. Being one of only two women, both of you as firsts, may give you more leeway wardrobe-wise because it’s not like there’s an established precedent for what women proffies or administrators wear in your division.

    (Don’t buy suits, though. They’re not in, and moreover, they might send the wrong message in your field esp., in which I imagine that male proffies probably show up in jeans or cargo pants and polarfleece most days.)

    I don’t know what to do about X other than try to ignore it, or to think like a man. Don’t worry about what’s for dinner until dinner time. Don’t think about doing anyone else’s work but your work. Don’t think about who’s going to pick up the children until they need to be picked up. Assume someone else will solve these problems for you.

    What’s the worst that could happen?


  6. I think it’s interesting that Sontag say “X” as an American problem — explains Koshembos’s comment there. This is gendered, but in complicated ways. (I suspect few men would worry like Truffula about what they wear.)

    I don’t worry about kids or meals, but I do worry about what happens to junior faculty if I make service decisions that serve my needs. That’s my “X” right now…


  7. My concern is to set the right tone when I start. I can wear what I want (and decorate my office as I please) where I am now because my work and teaching have a reputation. I agree that judging by appearances, men don’t face this sort of decision.

    I had a great conversation with two undergraduate women recently about not letting social pressures define us. The conversation–during a reasearch group meeting–was inspired by the glitter I was wearing at the time. I got interested in the subversive power of sparkles thanks to a charming young man I know who wears glitter. I like to imagine that there is some good in being my flowery, sparkly bada$$ self.


  8. I love the ranty-rant post! You know what would be Teh Awesome? A “Best of Historiann.” Especially for readers like me who discovered you more recently and would otherwise, maybe, spend the rest of their lives in woeful ignorance of gems like that.

    Oh, and toasted bread butts are the best delivery system for huge heaps of scrambled eggs, because they don’t fall apart under the weight. Crumpets have the right heft, too, but being chewier they are harder to cut, and amusing accidents can ensue, involving eggs flying across the kitchen after a knife-slip.

    Who says academics don’t make important observations?


  9. Can we get a grant for it, is the question. Thanks, loumac!

    I like truffula’s bada$$ sparkles, as well as her attitude. Why assume that the glitter will define you, when you have the power to redefine glitter?

    (LUSH has lots of skin products with glitter in them, FWIW, if you don’t already know about them.)


  10. I have truly caught h*** in life for not understanding X well enough. Not that I don’t do all the X things — I do, I do them extra — but I never believed in it or liked it, and this is the problem people have with me.


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