BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT by Ellen Willis
Kirkus Star

BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this very impressive collection of essays and articles (mostly from The New Yorker, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone), what is perhaps most striking about Willis' personal journalism is the constant interplay of its basic strands--anti-Élitist, radical, feminist, Jewish; these divergent impulses seem to temper each other, and they usually keep Willis from going too far over the edge into doctrinaire stridency. Included here are Willis' best pieces on rock music from the late Sixties: while other writers were sighing or oh-wow-ing over Bob Dylan and The Who, Willis appreciated them with calm, clear-headed discrimination--an esthetic response shaded by her awareness of rock music's political nature (radical, anti-Élitist). But when, in other pieces, Willis turns to radical politics directly, she modifies her support with feminist anger over the male domination of the ""counterculture."" And though her feminism itself is fairly shrill--she calls the Right-to-Life anti-abortionists ""the most dangerous political force in the country. . . the cutting edge of neo-fascism""--Willis is quite ready to write a strong essay finding fault with the feminist anti-pornography crusade (because it is Élitist and runs counter to her championing of all-out sexual gratification). Finally, in some conflict with all these feelings, is Willis' Jewishness: there's a fervent, crystalline piece on anti-Semitism (""To kill a gnat, imagining it's an elephant, is to feel powerful indeed""); and there's her famous Rolling Stone article about her near-conversion to Orthodoxy in Jerusalem, a conversion which ultimately seemed impossible to reconcile with feminism. So, throughout, you get a feeling of mix and fluency from the mobius strip of ideas in this collection. And that sense of constant motion and clashing thoughts (conflicts which make Willis miserable--like Joan Didion but without the melodramatics) can even lead you to forgive or overlook her many lapses and annoying tics: the dry, scolding tone; an embarrassing piece which winds up comparing The Velvet Underground's Lou Reed to Baudelaire; hyped-up praise for Tom Wolfe; moments of excess, pretentiousness, muddle-headedness, and trendy posing. Not always likable, then, and not always convincing--but there's never a doubt that the voice and the mind here are extremely valuable.

Pub Date: March 4th, 1981
Publisher: Knopf