Willis didn’t buy it. “The culture was complex then as it is complex, if much scarier, now. The question remains: What of human possibility? Do we simply abandon the idea?”
“For most of my politically conscious life, the idea of social transformation has been the great taboo of American politics,” Willis wrote in a review of Russell Jacoby’s Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (2005).
From the smug 1950s to the post-Reagan era, in which a bloodied and cowed left has come to regard a kinder, gentler capitalism as its highest aspiration, this anti-utopian trend has been interrupted only by the brief but intense flare-up of visionary politics known as ‘the sixties.’ Yet that short-lived, anomalous upheaval has had a more profound effect on my thinking about the possibilities of politics than the following three stuck in a time warp, nursing a romantic attachment to my youth . . . . Rather, as I see it, the enduring interest of this piece of history lies precisely in its spectacular departure from the norm. It couldn’t happen, according to the reigning intellectual currents of the fifties, but it did.
In her last decade, running the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program she founded at New York University’s journalism school, her introversion made teaching a trial
The exploration of what “it” was, why it was no longer, and how it could, in updated form, happen again engrossed Willis all her life. She was, in her deepest soul, a utopian. But as she saw with increasing clarity that her dreams would not be realized in her lifetime, she was saddened. And as a consensus gathered that even believing in those dreams constituted wingnut nostalgia, she was marginalized.
Her longtime partner Stanley Aronowitz, whom she married in 1998, believed her marginality was political. “When she’d complain that she wasn’t part of ‘the conversation,’ I’d say, ‘Ellen, that’s because you’re a radical.’” Richard Goldstein, Willis’s later Village Voice colleague and close friend, thinks her uncompromising rigor and their site need for “complete freedom,” both political and expressive, kept her from publishing in many mainstream outlets: “Ellen would not be hemmed in,” he said.
But Willis was not marginal because she stood at the far end of a particular spectrum of opinion, Snitow told me. She wasn’t even on the spectrum. “People get famous when other people are ready to hear what they’re saying. Ellen was extremely previous-way out front, beyond the paradigms people were using. Most academics [and journalists] clump around the thinking of the time. She didn’t gather the discourse at a particular moment and work with that.”
One example: at a conference of socialist scholars after 9/11, while others debated the role of oil and American foreign policy in mobilizing the attacks, Willis proposed that sexual repression was at the heart of Islamist terrorism
She evaded small talk, froze in radio interviews. “She would lob a question. Everyone would sit there terrified. And she wouldn’t say anything,” author Kate Bolick recalled. “That could go on for forty-five minutes.”
She couldn’t converse and cook at the same time. “She’d say, ‘I’m concentrating’ and wave me off,” her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, remembered.
But Willis was not lost in thought. She was found-vitalized and connected. The philosopher Jay Bernstein witnessed an exchange between Willis and Aronowitz at a panel discussion where she was onstage and he was in the audience. He challenged her. They argued. “It was like watching two people make love in public,” Bernstein recalled. “Their mutual fascination with each other’s minds made everything about their relationship both intellectual and eroticized. For Ellen it was a necessity. For Stanley, it was great good fortune.”