THE PHILOSOPHER WILLIAM JAMES once described his bedridden sister, Alice — one of history’s most influential diarists — as a “bottled-lightning girl.” He intended this as a compliment, and it characterized not just Alice, he thought, but a particular type of American woman. Full of energy, but stoppered by societal gender roles. James may have meant well, but as a phrase, “bottled-lightning girl” can’t be said to have aged particularly well. And yet it’s appropriate to a discussion of Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project, since William James is the book’s first dead lady (three of nine ladies are men), and because Crispin, while neither bottled nor a girl, can safely be described — given how often we see her “drunk and sobbing on the floor” — as a bit uncorked.
The Dead Ladies Project is a sometimes rollicking, sometimes panicked, but always insightful and moving chronicle of a series of intellectual apprenticeships, with “guides” ranging from writers to philosophers to editors to composers. To give her investigations flesh, Crispin visits European cities important to each of her mentors’ lives, making her study at the same time a journey, an Intellectual Grand Tour.
James is the first stop, in Berlin, where, as a directionless young man, he suffered the emotional crisis that resulted, eventually, in the personal fiat that Crispin, too, takes as motto: “My first act of free will is to choose to believe in free will.” Crispin has been having a crisis of her own, which we’ve witnessed in a brief Chicago prelude: the police arrive at her apartment after she “made threats against [her own] life” during a call to a friend, and then turned off her phone. Crispin describes herself at this moment as “pretty unwashed and terrified,” and her literary journey won’t change much. What the intervention in Chicago kick-starts is a global search for how to endure.
Thus The Dead Ladies Project is less a series of pilgrimages than an exercise in what might be called “lived criticism,” the hidden thesis being that the stakes of our intellectual lives are high — life and death — and that the way to survive, to go on, is to embody the lives and ideas that make our own lives seem worth living. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that even though The Dead Ladies Project is very much a book about books, it would be a mistake to say that it’s a book about reading. Rather, it’s a book about being — but to be, according to Crispin, you must read. Being requires a companion, a text, and texts also need a companion, a context — and that’s why a “lived critic” must venture out into the world.
Furthermore, that’s why we’re exposed to so much of the author’s inner turmoil — the drinking alone, the promiscuity (“my slut days” — and I should shoehorn in here somewhere the fact that Crispin founded and edits the indispensable literary magazine Bookslut), and the harsh treatment she doles out to lovers and guides alike. Crispin is no fawning hagiographer. “Sometimes I want to drown her in the bathtub,” she writes of Rebecca West, reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in a rented Belgrade apartment. And who will not feel for the lover, some random sap, who shares the author’s William James fascination — he even points her to James’s “Is Life Worth Living?,” which she uses to contextualize her impulse to end her own life — yet finds himself unceremoniously shuttled out of both her book and her bed? “Have I always done this,” Crispin writes, “treated men like doors rather than partners?” Perhaps.
But all of this is important, for though a more traditional criticism or literary meditation would stifle the self, Crispin flaunts it, lets all the lightning out of the bottle. And though The Dead Ladies Project is of a third-, or fourth-, or fifth-wave feminist bent — one chapter follows James Joyce’s underappreciated wife, Nora Barnacle, in Trieste; another, in London, takes Jean Rhys to task for pretending “to be stronger and more independent than she really is” — it’s not really Crispin’s femininity that’s on display here, it’s her humanity (rollicking, as I say, panicked), and, more often than is comfortable, she returns, internally, to what, statistically anyway, is a more masculine pursuit — suicide. This investigation is in no way self-indulgent or self-pitying. In fact, it may amount to the book’s true purpose: Crispin seems to suggest that it’s only when we forget that there’s just one thing at stake in life — death — that living starts to seem not worth the bother. Reading the dead, or dead ladies, then, is a way of flirting with your own posterity, and thereby reminding yourself that it’s worthwhile to see life through to the end.
In all good books, there comes a moment when a line ostensibly about something else rings with the resonance of a mission statement. Crispin offers several of these. When she says, discussing James, “that scarcity, depression, thwarted ambition and suffering most often leave the person a little twisted,” we’re invited, I think, to squint in at the autobiography poking out from between the lines. And again, when she writes of Igor Stravinsky, in Lausanne, that “the job of the artist should not only be to take dictation, it should be to make oneself as large a canvas as possible, to constantly be pushing at one’s boundaries,” we can’t help but recognize the sly self-portrait. By that point we’re savvy: even though The Dead Ladies Project can (and probably will) be described as a series of essays about the interesting stories of women who are too little-known (Margaret Anderson, Maud Gonne, Claude Cahun), told in far flung locales (South of France, Galway, Jersey Island), the real star here is Crispin, whose predicament is not limited to her generation, her gender, or herself. Indeed, if you can’t recognize you and yours in this passionate presence, bleeding hard-won wisdom onto the page, either you’re not looking hard enough or you’re unwilling to be as ruthlessly honest as the author manages to be throughout.
Which means, of course, that there will be times when you’ll want to drown Crispin in a bathtub. Lord knows I did. But that’s kind of the point. Because the interplay here between Crispin’s guides and her lovers is no accident. Guides are lovers, lovers guides. And if we are to have truly human relations with either, we must neither initiate their apotheosis, nor flatten them with knee-jerk condemnation. Same goes for all reading, particularly as we wince at an author’s sincere disclosures. Too often we read with anodyne dispassion; too often we level judgment rather than act as partner, co-creator. Yes, I wanted to drown Crispin in a bathtub, but when that fleeting seizure passed, I recalled why I’d kept reading as far as I had — to continue an impassioned and fruitful relationship with a lady, still alive, who is every bit as interesting as any lady in this neat cemetery of a literary study.
What’s true of me will be true of you as well. Yes, you! You, reading quickly through this review to see whether you might want to click The Dead Ladies Project into your Kindle. You, like Crispin, have been broken-hearted, and you’ve broken hearts. You have been drunk and sobbing on the floor. And you have read books by writers important to you, and you have sometimes been enraged by them, to the point of murderous fantasy. You can hide from all that, if you want. You can pretend you’re less unwashed than you are, but, if you’re smart, you won’t. You’ll buy, or download, The Dead Ladies Project and find in it a familiar soul, and, thereby, a way to endure a little longer.
J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, most recently B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal. He currently splits his time between New York City and Maine.