Mirabile Does the ’70s: Anti-Mass and Erica Jong

Going underground should not mean dropping heroically out of sight.  There will be few places to hide in the electronic environment of the future.–Anti-Mass:  Methods of Organization for Collectives

Anti-MassI recently ordered something from a catalogue, and now the retailer follows me around the internet with ads.

This is the electronic environment of the future.

Who would have guessed that Anti-Mass would be right?

I was not particularly radical in the 1970s, but I read the underground newspapers. One summer an anonymous essay, Anti-Mass:  Methods of Organization for Collectives, was reprinted in several papers. I read it with interest, probably at the Mill, where  I went for spumoni ice cream almost every night.

But the tone was officious.

The mass is an aggregate of couples who are separate, detached and anonymous.  They live in cities physically close yet socially apart.  Their lives are privatized and depraved.  Coca-cola and loneliness.”

I wanted to be a part of the aggregate of couples, Coca-cola and loneliness or not.  I was a romantic.  I wanted the opposite of Anti-Mass.  My favorite book was Wuthering Heights, weird and powerful, the story of the quasi-feral passion of Catherine and Heathcliff.   I date my detachment from my radical older friends from the summer I read Anti-Mass.

A few months later I enrolled at the university and was so busy studying classics that I had no time for politics.

How to Save Your Own Life penguinI had been an accidental radical. I came of age among Democrats, hippies, feminists, and liberals.   My best friend’s mother was a feminist; I became a feminist.  We read D. H. Lawrence, Doris Lessing,  Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, and The Environmental Handbook.  We went to Robin Morgan’s poetry reading at the Women’s Center, but it was so crowded we didn’t stay to get an autograph.   After a strip of fly paper fell in my beautiful long hair and I had to cut it off, lesbian feminists started hitting on me and told me I had “confused sexuality” (meaning heterosexuality) because I didn’t sleep with them.

Those were strange times.

The language of the 1970s put me off politics as much as anything else.  Elitism, struggle, imperialist, co-option, anti-work attitude:  so much to be careful about.  The slang also was markedly of the times and I must admit I never used it:  “into,” “far out,” “right on,” “bummer,” “rip off.”  Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks, though the language seems a bit dated, is a hilarious novel about the ’60s and ’70s, making use of the lingo.  Sheila Ballantyne’s Norma Jean, the Termite Queen is the best mad housewife book of the ’70s  .And  one reason I’ve enjoyed Erica Jong’s novel, How to Save Your Own Life, is that she humorously captures the unique introspection and sexuality of the ’70s  Her heroine, Isadora Wing, writes honestly about her ambivalence not only towards sex with her  boyfriends and husband, but “the gay-chic phase of the Women’s Movement.”

It was stylish to have sex with a woman, and Isadora thinks she might want to write about it, but then she finds  she loathes cunnilingus.

Art and politics, politics and art. Strange bedfellows. Stranger still than Rosanna Howard and me. Can any feminist dare tell the truth about c***-eating in this day and age?..

I began to understand what it meant to be a man, fumbling around—is this the right place or is that?—getting no guidance from one’s subject (who is too polite and ladylike to tell) and wondering, wondering if she is going to come now, or now, or now —or has she already, or will she next summer, or what?

No, I don’t think anyone would write about this today, Erica!

And, by the way, I am pro-gay rights and gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean “the gay chic phase” of the ’70s was wonderful or perfect.

There was a lot of general kindness in the ’70s.  There were many very  kind, brilliant, magnanimous people who would feed you, let you stay the night, and help you with any problems.  There was much less fear.  Few people locked doors.  A friend and I in graduate school kept our back door open, and imagine how surprised we were one morning to find a possum in the kitchen eating the cats’ food.

My friend’s parents lived in a tiny collective, and, having reread Anti-Mass, I know why it was small:  “The collective should not be larger than a band–no orchestras or chamber music please.”

I’m not keen on the pro-ads, anti-books philosophy of Anti-Mass. “Don’t read any more books–at least not straight through.  As G. B. Kay from Blackpool once said (quoting somebody else), “Reading rots the mind.”  Pamphlets are so much more fun.  Read randomly, write on the margins and go back to comics.”

Collectives were hard on people.  How many divorces because a man or woman started having affairs with a woman or man in the collective?  My friend’s parents got divorced; she was depressed.  The divorce could have happended any time, you may say.  But it is somehow more traumatic if you’re all living together, and one half of a married couple starts having sex with a single woman.

Amazing time, amazing books and documents.  I’d love to interview everybody and write a book about it.  These times are forgotten.

3 thoughts on “Mirabile Does the ’70s: Anti-Mass and Erica Jong

  1. An interesting post. I remember the 70s, from a different point of view. I was slogging along in a difficult marriage with little concept that I — I myself — could end it. The revived feminist movement got my attention, and I gradually came to understand that I was the value, not the “institution” of marriage. It had very little to do with sex and an awful lot to do with who was in charge of my life.


  2. I became “converted” to feminism only in the 1990s when I realized that the movement was about more than an elite group of women seeking power – which was how it appeared to me from my small vantage point in the 1970s in NYC. At the time the radical movement which I sympathized with and marched for was against the colonialist war in Vietnam, and against the fascist organization of economics in the US which has grown ever larger and more dominant today. At the time it may have appeared that liberal forces were getting somewhere in maintaining a decent standard of living for workers (middle class and otherwise), small gains and perhaps the feminist movement would help women to achieve higher salaries and more access to divorce and protection against abuse. Today looking back if there was success, in the 1970s began a quiet movement ruthlessly to change the very structure of our laws, put reactionary people in charge everywhere, but especially at the state level (so they could as they have done gerrymander the state), take over the courts this way. ALEC is one result of this. I see continuity between the later 60s and 70s and what we face today, If you want to demonstrate on behalf of animals rights, you are at risk of being accused of being an eco-terrorist; prison sentences are ludicrously long, solitary confinement handed out to many as a matter of course to break your spirt. Here on the Net if you say little you still get whiffs of this surveillance and harrassment is how I’d put it.


  3. SilverSeason, I’m so glad it turned out well for you! (I hope it did.) The feminism of the ’70s helped us with marriage, work, so many things.

    Ellen, many feminists dropped out of the other movements so they could take charge of their own politics (and groups). I protested the Vietnam war, but must admit my politics were more personal. One of the reasons I liked feminism was that it was something I could adapt to my way of life. Yes, there is (overall) maybe less freedom today. (I’m not sure about that, though.) Hardly anyone bothers to protest anything, and the Occupy movement couldn’t get organized (even some conservative Republicans in my city joined the Occupy movement. I can’t think that would have happened in the ’70s).

    Well, Barbara Kingsolver is still radical, writing a novel about climate change (Flight Behavior). But it’s a quieter age.


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