A Remembrance of Ellen Willis

A Remembrance of Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis, who died in November at the age of 64, was such a unique and wonderful set of contradictions—or seeming contradictions. She was a staunchly radical feminist who believed in pleasure, happiness, and freedom. She was a fierce polemicist on the page who, in person, was often painfully shy. She loved long nineteenth-century novels, but was an ardent reader of the tabloids. She was one of the most instinctively ethical people I have ever known, and yet she hated any hint of sanctimony or self-righteousness. She was a dyed-in-the-wool bohemian who was obsessed with real estate—which is to say, she was a true New Yorker. And for me, part of the fun, and the adventure, of being Ellen’s friend and colleague was discovering that these disparate characteristics weren’t really contradictions at all: that somehow, in her inimitable way, she had put all the pieces together.

Much has been written about the merging of high and low culture, but Ellen really lived that mix. She approached just about everything—George Eliot and The Sopranos, Herbert Marcuse and Lou Reed—with equal thoughtfulness, seriousness, dignity, and care. Ellen lacked both pretense and condescension. Her writings on pop culture weren’t a form of slumming; she genuinely—though not naively—believed in the emancipatory possibilities of the demotic, because she had experienced them herself. And though Ellen, like so many of us, was increasingly alienated from the culture in which she lived, she never became a mandarin. (In a 2005 piece, she chided Susan Sontag as a “curmudgeon” with a “free-floating animus” toward pop.) Up until almost the moment of Ellen’s death, the world, and its possibilities, held her interest.

Ellen didn’t get everything right, but she got an awful lot right. Early on, she saw that the Iranian revolution would be a disaster for women and other freedom-lovers. When some on the left were urging “cultural sensitivity,” she condemned the fatwa against Salman Rushdie as a barbaric assault. She called herself an “anti-anti-Zionist,” and knew that the world’s obsession with Israel’s purported crimes wasn’t just, or even mainly, about territory: “It’s impossible not to notice,” she wrote in 2003, “how the runaway inflation of Israel’s villainy aligns with ingrained cultural fantasies about the iniquity and power of Jews; or how the traditional pariah status of Jews has been replicated by a Jewish pariah state.” In a particularly sharp and refreshing piece written after the invasion of Afghanistan, she took on the moralism of the pacifist left: “For at the heart of the matter is an unspoken meta-argument: that America is a sinful country, and must achieve redemption through nonviolence.” The pacifist left, she charged, holds that “as abstract human beings we are entitled to theoretical justice; as (tainted) Americans we must turn the other cheek.”

Yet unlike, say, Camille Paglia, El...

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