Anne Roiphe: Sex, Art and Booze Back When Writers Broke Taboos

It is said that certain amiable features are selected for domestication. Anne has all of them: button nose, wide eyes, round face. The amiability of her face–her appealing cuteness–probably helped get her into some trouble, and her slight regret is the bottom line of her new book. Never would she so readily say yes to being a fragile man’s muse again. “Artists,” she writes, “were permitted to do the unthinkable.” Insanity was confused with art. But art is work, and it shouldn’t be deified. The problem with worshiping stars on their way up is that any star with momentum is shooting toward its own oblivion–the bad review, the big mistake or simply the fact that fames go in and out of fashion.

“You do come out against this kind of madness in this book,” Katie said. “But it might be necessary that the William Styron is gonna be also a crazy person.”

“You know, I wouldn’t come out against artists, or say, ‘No, no, you shouldn’t be slightly crazy,’” Anne said. “You should be whatever you are. … My only point would be that the romanticizing of art and madness together can make for a lot of … collateral pain. … Frankly, I think it’s bathing the baby that’s much more important.”

Katie wasn’t the toddler who took a peep at Mr. Plimpton’s penis. She’s Anne’s biological eldest from her 39-year-long marriage to the psychoanalyst Herman Roiphe, whose passing was the subject of Anne’s 2008 memoir, Epilogue. Mr. Roiphe famously demonstrated that the psychosexual development of children began earlier than Freud supposed, and in 1985 he collaborated with Anne on Your Child’s Mind, about a variety of issues, from the effects of divorce to toilet training.

Katie’s parents’ interests begot her own preoccupation with sex and power–namely, her thoughts that women and men should seize more of both while enjoying the costumes of their respective roles. When she was 23 and a Ph.D candidate in English at Princeton, she argued in The New York Times that women were at least partially responsible in instances of date rape, and in 1994, an expansion of that argument was published as The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism. In a 2007 essay for New York, “The Great Escape,” she shared her relief at being divorced, attending parties single and dating new men. And in 2009 she charged contemporary male novelists with literary impotence on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Her last book, Uncommon Arrangements, was about literary marriages in London between 1910 and 1939 and she is currently working on a book about how authors confront mortality. Her curiosity about her mother’s 20s was the impetus for Art and Madness, to which she contributed the introduction.

The world really was very different in the 1950s. Consider periods: Those were shameful. When Anne first got hers, her mother slapped her. Now, on the other hand, “I know this with my daughter: If there was a menstrual spot on something, they said, ‘Ugh, there’s a menstrual spot.’ Whereas–don’t look so upset!” Anne said to Katie.

“I just think–”

“This is not a subject to discuss? I only mean that physical things, all physical things, were shameful: that you did have breasts, that you didn’t have breasts–”

“I think you should spea
k for yourself,” said Katie.

“I am sure. I am absolutely sure,” Anne said. “This was the old way in which this culture treated physicality.”

To go out without lipstick, Anne said, was like “walking outside without your shirt on. It made my mother furious.” Now, Anne said, “a lot of people–Katie, including you–enjoy this again, which to me is such a sign of slavery!” (Matte red is all the rage.) What about marriage then? Fluid. Now? Penis pumps behind closed doors. Alcoholism then? “How interesting!” Anne said. Liquor, she thought, was the lube for words. Now? “Unhealthy,” Katie said. Enemy of art then? All that was “bourgeois.” Now? All that is “banker.”

“Politically, communism was supposed to save the world. Look what happened to the gulags,” Anne said. “It was very hard to believe in that saving hand of God, given what we’re looking at. So, what is it that matters? It’s art, and it’s art for art’s sake. And you don’t say, ‘What good is it, what’s it going to do for the world?’ You say, ‘This carries everything that means anything to me.’”

“Maybe that was better!” Katie said.

“I’m not saying it was better or it was worse, but–”

“You are: You’re saying it was worse.”

“No, I’m not saying it was worse. I’m saying that was the way it was. I must say, I still feel that way, and I know that, to some extent, a lot of people of my generation still feel that way. Human nature is going to destroy anything that is made. That is obvious post-1945. … Somebody might release the atomic bomb over our heads.”