book review: Vivian Gornick’s “Revolution as a Way of Life”

Last month, I read the article “Love and Anarchy” by Vivan Gornick in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was adapted from a recently released book titled “Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life” by the same author. Because the essay was intriguing and, honestly, quite sexy, I quickly purchased the full book on Kindle.

Emma Goldman, anarchist, feminist, and free-lover, was a real character, to say the least. She was well-known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for her fiery, eloquent, prolific lectures on both the political and the personal. As her biographer repeatedly stresses, Goldman’s staunch belief in freedom was not the product of reason but of emotion; she felt oppression in all its forms especially profoundly, and she felt the need for genuine and far-ranging freedom with an intensity foreign to all except her closest anarchist comrades; as such, Goldman’s lectures apparently conveyed moods more than arguments. This type of anarchism is interesting, for it stands in stark contrast to the kind of academic anarchism with which I’m familiar (although ultimately I can’t get on board with this emotional anarchism; a topic for another time).

However, Goldman’s across-the-board emotionality, elations and depressions and all, seems more exciting and less maladaptive in the short essay than it did in the full book. Although Goldman was an ardent proponent of free love and open marriages, she was prone to bouts of jealousy and therefore never able to put her ideals into a stable practice. To get a little Freudian, Goldman seems destined to perpetually yet unsuccessfully search for male affection to replace that which was lacking from her father. Hers are not the romantic liaisons of a liberated woman so much as a psychologically imprisoned one; the recounting of Goldman’s romantic history is thus more painful to read than it is enrapturing.

Indeed, the revolutionary’s entire life, and not just her love life, was cyclical and tempestuous in its swings between hope and despair, joy and sorrow. For this reason, the biography becomes slightly tedious to read – up and down, up and down, rinse and repeat. I don’t think this is the fault of the biographer, though, and is rather to her credit insofar as she accurately conveys Goldman’s bipolar moods.

Incidentally, this book serves as an effective way to learn about the political climate in this time period if you’ve all but forgotten everything about it you learned in school, like me. While the prose tends towards the over-the-top flowery, this may be necessary in order to capture the over-the-topness of Goldman herself. Not a must-read, but recommended, particularly to those with an interest in the (possibly pathological) psychology of radical politics. You could have no better character study than Emma Goldman.

One Comment

  • Ah, good ole Freud.

    I generally find that where ideals are high, there is a tendency to be somewhat more emotionally aloof. The ideals matter, the emotions are harder to ground because they are not the ideals.

    I tend to be pretty freedom loving myself, actually. It’s hard to mix freedom and love for it seems everyone wants to stake a claim or else they feel insecure.

    Anyway, I think if you enjoy ideals, then revolution is a natural extension of that, because reality often doesn’t translate to ideals in a freedom sense.

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