Blazing in ‘Airless Spaces’

Oct. 26, 2017, 4:34 p.m.
Blazing in 'Airless Spaces'
Graphic by Emma Fiander

Sex, gender, technology, Marxism, Freudianism and plenty of dialectics — “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution” has it all. Written by radical feminist Shulamith Firestone in 1970, this seminal text of feminist theory took the world by force, predicting the end of capitalism, calling for the destruction of biological sexual dichotomy and comparing giving birth to “shitting a pumpkin” (perhaps Jack-o’-Lanterns would be a more proper comparison this time of year). Firestone confronts the reader with plans for the complete overhaul of society as we know it, presenting comforting and painful ideas both. If you have any interest in feminist or Marxist theory, read this book. You won’t regret it, even if you disagree with her completely. However, this is not the book this article is going to discuss. (I know, what a dishonest opening. But stay with me here. Or go read “The Dialectic of Sex” first.)

After publishing “The Dialectic of Sex” when she was 25, Firestone disappeared from the public eye, an unexpected move from the up and coming feminist theorist. While her book was discussed everywhere from book clubs to academic circles, Firestone herself simply disappeared, retreating from her newly found limelight into solitude. Over the next decades, she suffered from deaths of loved ones and serious mental health issues and eventually was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her consistent hospitalization only dragged her farther from the society she once dedicated her life to analyzing and changing for the better.

Then, in 1998, 28 years later and almost out of nowhere, a new book appeared on shelves with Firestone’s name on it: a tiny book, a mere 160 pages and only about the size of an open hand, entitled “Airless Spaces.” This book, a collection of short stories ranging from a few pages to a few sentences, tells the stories of “losers” who find themselves in and out of hospitals and poor living conditions. Split into five parts — “Hospital,” “Post-Hospital,” “Losers,” “Obits” and “Suicides I Have Known” — the stories explored the depths of mental institutions and broken households through the eyes of various patients (“losers,” as Firestone lovingly calls them), ending with an unnamed character who can only be Firestone herself recounting the suicide of her brother. Though fictional in nature, “Airless Spaces” draws heavily from Firestone’s own experiences in and out of hospitals: certain characters experience situations Firestone herself did and interact with her actual acquaintances, including Valerie Solanas, another radical feminist of the period and author of the “SCUM Manifesto.” Though obscured by fictional elements, this short text tells the stories of Firestone’s lost years, the years of her solitude.

“Airless Spaces” is a book about those forgotten by society, those who suffer and die and are lost. Firestone writes as if she is tired, her words are clear yet unemotional, deadpan and drained of purpose — a complete departure from the Firestone of “The Dialectic of Sex” whose unfaltering cries for radical change touched the hearts and minds of every reader whether or not they agreed with her. Yet, I can think of no better tone to describe the barrenness of the hospitals and households she conjures from her imagination and memory both. The world of “Airless Spaces” are forgotten and dark. The people are suffering, lost to even themselves, as they wander the maze-like halls of the hospitals and their lives. Even the slight moments of joy are forgotten seconds after they occur. The dim fires of hope quickly die, for fires cannot burn in airless spaces.

“Airless Spaces” is not a happy book. It is intensely hopeless, drawing the reader into the depths of depression Firestone herself retreated into. But not every story needs to be hopeful. Firestone’s story itself does not have a happy ending: her lifeless body was found in her home in 2012, dead for upwards of a week without anyone noticing, forgotten to what friends and family she had.

Firestone was incandescent, but even the brightest fires go out. What happens to the revolutionary when she has contributed all she can to the cause? What happens to the theorist when she has no more words to write? What happens to the rebel when she can no longer punch back, try as she may? Whatever the answers may be, “Airless Spaces” serves a warning towards one possibility — the revolutionary descending into suffering and obscurity despite the changes she caused and the world she created. Firestone, whether she knew it or not, remains an influence and a beacon of hope for many. Despite her fears, she will not be forgotten.

Contact Ben Maldonado at bmaldona ‘at’

Ben Maldonado studies history. His column "Eugenics on the Farm" will be appearing every odd week of winter quarter.

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