Dreaming of Hitler: Passions and Provocations

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Overview

“Lush and uncensored” essays (Village Voice) on spanking during sex, shopping, Martin Scorcese, Israel, breast reduction, Gary Gilmore, depression, and other matters, by “one of the few contemporary essayists who have (and deserve) a following” (New York). “Everything Daphne Merkin writes is so smart, it shines” (Washington Post Book World).

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Overview

“Lush and uncensored” essays (Village Voice) on spanking during sex, shopping, Martin Scorcese, Israel, breast reduction, Gary Gilmore, depression, and other matters, by “one of the few contemporary essayists who have (and deserve) a following” (New York). “Everything Daphne Merkin writes is so smart, it shines” (Washington Post Book World).

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Editorial Reviews

Elle
Daphne Merkin is a writer who is unafraid to confront the dark night of her own exacting, inquisitive soul.
New York Magazine
One of the few contemporary essayists who have (and deserve) a following.
Peter Kurth

What's eating Daphne Merkin? The question has some twisted implications given that Merkin's favorite topic is sex -- specifically, her own libido, and more broadly, what she herself calls "the tired conventions of heterosexuality and its reflexive power plays -- it's Hegelian divisions of dominance and submission."

Merkin, of course, is the woman who caused such a rumpus last year by confessing her desire to be spanked in the pages of the New Yorker. If these collected essays are any indication, her quest for self-abasement didn't end or begin with a check from Tina Brown. In Dreaming of Hitler we read about Merkin's ongoing battle with depression; her "decades of therapy"; her difficult relations with her Orthodox Jewish parents (and especially with her "cruel," "mercurial," "withholding" mother); her yearning for thinness; her polycystic ovaries; her breast-reduction surgery; and what she regards as her "deviant" temptation to swipe trinkets from the shelves whenever she shops on the Upper East Side (which she does quite a lot, by the sound of it).

Indeed, "The Shoplifter's High," her essay on Manhattanite-female pinching trends, shows Merkin at her best and her worst -- her best because she is never less than insightful, intelligent, wryly composed and highly literate when she writes on any subject; her worst because she is apparently incapable of writing about anything without steering the subject back to herself. Merkin isn't the kind of writer who simply brings a strong personality to bear on her material, or who views a particular topic through the lens of her own perceptions. She actually defines the world and all its inhabitants through her own experience, and she takes herself very seriously indeed, whether she's writing about Adolf Hitler or Norman Mailer or raising children or buying dildos. "I stood there and gaped," Merkin recalls, "not knowing where to begin, other than with the conviction slowly forming in my mind that the problem of penetration -- the wish to be filled with something hard and penislike and not-female -- would not go away, even for lesbians."

Alas, Merkin writes about sex with a tightness so controlled it eliminates any trace of eroticism. She's a straight man's dream girl, all objects and ground rules, scenarios and "roles." As a divorced woman, a single parent, a lapsed Jew and a would-be sexual renegade, Merkin is "in the habit of ambling through the world, lonely as a Wordsworthian cloud," as she puts it, "in search of company to pass the hours" when she isn't "staring at a blank piece of paper" or worrying about her tan. Non-Jews would do well not to laugh at her childhood dream that she once talked Hitler out of murdering her people, but gay men have a right to be offended by her discussion of AIDS as "a PC illness." And after reading her essay, "On Not Becoming a Lesbian," lesbians everywhere will be grateful she failed the test. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
In these idiosyncratic essays, Merkin (Enchantment) muses about sex, marriage, pregnancy, divorce, books, writers, celebrities, breast reduction, diets and other disparate topics. Some of her opinionated essays, such as fantasies about spanking during sex and an apology for upper-class women's shoplifting impulses, border on the trivial. Nevertheless, many of the pieces are trenchant. There is a thought-provoking assessment of Claire Booth's Leaving the Doll's House, an affectionate reminiscence of Diana Trilling and a perceptive description of Martin Scorsese's directorial methods on the set of The Age of Innocence. Merkin is at her best in a section titled "In My Tribe," where she includes candid impressions of modern Israel, an attempt to discover the meaning of the biblical Song of Songs and thoughts on the Book of Ecclesiastes, which calls up childhood memories of Succot in her family's Orthodox household. The poignant title piece, revolving around her adolescent dream of meeting Hitler and trying to convince him that he really doesn't hate the Jews, is especially moving. The essays were originally published in the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review and other journals.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In these idiosyncratic essays, Merkin (Enchantment) muses about sex, marriage, pregnancy, divorce, books, writers, celebrities, breast reduction, diets and other disparate topics. Some of her opinionated essays, such as fantasies about spanking during sex and an apology for upper-class women's shoplifting impulses, border on the trivial. Nevertheless, many of the pieces are trenchant. There is a thought-provoking assessment of Claire Booth's Leaving the Doll's House, an affectionate reminiscence of Diana Trilling and a perceptive description of Martin Scorsese's directorial methods on the set of The Age of Innocence. Merkin is at her best in a section titled "In My Tribe," where she includes candid impressions of modern Israel, an attempt to discover the meaning of the biblical Song of Songs and thoughts on the Book of Ecclesiastes, which calls up childhood memories of Succot in her family's Orthodox household. The poignant title piece, revolving around her adolescent dream of meeting Hitler and trying to convince him that he really doesn't hate the Jews, is especially moving. The essays were originally published in the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review and other journals. (June)
Library Journal
"If there is any overriding theme to this collection, I would say that it is one of exposure, pulling or coaxing out of the closet some of the many skeletons we habitually shove inside it." From confessing to the sexual pleasures of spanking ("Spanking: A Romance") to probing Jewish self-loathing in the shadow of the Holocaust ("Dreaming of Hitler: A Memoir of Self-Hatred"), essayist and novelist Merkin (Enchantment, LJ 8/96) dares to ferret out "what's going on under the [polite] surface." These reviews, profiles, and articles, previously published in such publications as The New Yorker, Tikkun, and Allure, are provocative in their subject matter, witty and graceful in their prose style. Great fun to read, they are also insightful and thought-provoking. There are a few misses here (the fluff piece on Donna Karan), but these are more than compensated by such stimulating essays as "A Complicated Friendship: Remembering Diana Trilling." Highly recommended for all collections.Wilda Williams, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of essays and articles that startle, charm, challenge, amuse, and elucidate.

Novelist Merkin (Enchantment, l986) writes nonfiction for such diverse publications as Esquire, Mirabella, Partisan Review, and the New Yorker. Her topics range from celebrity interviews with Richard Burton and Martin Scorsese to reflections on self-improvement, such as tanning and breast reduction. Among weightier matters are the guilt that Hedda Nussbaum must bear from the death of her daughter, Lisa, and the self-hatred that Merkin acquired about her Jewishness. What makes Merkin's reflections special is not the subject—how much has been written about Burton, Scorsese, and Growing Up Jewish in America?—but the quirky even-handedness of her approach. Nothing is too trivial to be taken seriously (e.g., sun-tanning) or too tragic to find its place in the scheme of daily life. Merkin's approach to both the solemn and the silly is at once good-humored and erudite, nonjudgmental and literate, emotionally adventurous. Merkin calls it "risk-taking at one remove." Nevertheless, her expression of the "truths that get whispered between women in private" is on the edge, as in the chapters "On Not Becoming a Lesbian" and "Spanking: A Romance." In the former, her preference for women as friends and companions does not translate into sexual preference, but a predilection for spanking as foreplay is confessed in the latter. A section exploring being a Jew includes the title essay, about both the Holocaust and self-hatred. It is at once extremely personal (they are, after all, her dreams) and universal (who hasn't had a fantasy of saving the world?).

The author looks at the dark side of the human spirit without guilt or shame. Pungent observations tempered by graceful interpretation—and some very sharp wit.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780517706268
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/27/1997
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 363
  • Product dimensions: 6.41 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.23 (d)

Meet the Author

Daphne Merkin's work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and other leading periodicals. Her highly regarded novel, Enchantment, won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. Born and raised in New York City, she is a graduate of Barnard College. She lives in Manhattan with her young daughter and is at work on a novel called The Discovery of Sex.
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Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader
On Not Becoming a Lesbian 3
Now, Voyeur: The Erotic Life of Movies 15
Extramarital Cravings 26
A Taste of the Stick: Joel and Hedda, 1988 37
Desperately Seeking Torture: S&M on the Internet 43
Spanking: A Romance 49
Coda 66
Ready, Willing, and Wary 73
Secrets of a Pregnant Woman 77
The Knight in Shining Armani 86
My Kingdom for a Scarf 90
A Complicated Friendship: Remembering Diana Trilling 94
On Not Attending My College Reunion 101
Notes of a Lonely White Woman 106
Dancing with My Daughter 115
In the Country of Divorce 118
O Whither Has Thou Led Me, Egypt? - The Fate of Richard Burton 131
How Dreary to Be Nobody 138
Clean Streets: Martin Scorsese Among the Gentry 153
Mailer at Sea: The Writer as Director 169
In Search of Adam Duritz 178
Postscript 193
Acting the Victim: Claire Bloom vs. Philip Roth 195
These Unhappy Breasts 205
The Pursuit of Thin 213
Donna Karan's World 222
Am I Tan Enough? 229
The Shoplifter's High 239
The Talking Cure Blues 251
A Family and a Fortune: Sallie Bingham's Revenge 260
When She Was Bad: Anne Sexton at Home 270
The Fall of the House of Gilmore 282
Jerusalem, Under a Low Sky 297
The Last Yom Kippur of Yaakov Riegler 314
Ecclesiastes: A Depressive's Lament 319
Enter the Shulamite: How Sexy Is the Song of Songs? 331
Dreaming of Hitler: A Memoir of Self-Hatred 346
Publication Credits 365
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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, June 16, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Daphne Merkin, author of DREAMING OF HITLER.


Moderator: Welcome to the barnesandnoble.com event auditorium! Daphne Merkin, author of DREAMING OF HITLER PASSIONS AND PROVOCATIONS, is here to answer your questions about her new collection of essays. Welcome, Ms. Merkin!

Daphne Merkin: Thank you for having me.



Erin from Manhattan: Your essays are so wonderfully varied and eclectic. You give the impression that you could write about anything. What topics would you opt to stay clear of, because of boredom or taboo?

Daphne Merkin: I've stayed clear of writing about depression as a specific topic rather than as a sub-theme in a larger piece. I was actually commissioned to write an article about my own experience of depression and hospitalization but this was during the period of my divorce and my lawyer actually suggested to me that it would be wise for me to stay away from the topic. I actually think, that for all the writing that's purportedly out there about depression -- Styron's DARKNESS VISIBLE and Susannah Kaysen's GIRL INTERRUPTED -- it's a subject that hasn't been gone into in the depth it deservers.



Naomi from Hartford: Will you ever write fiction?

Daphne Merkin: I actually have written a novel, ENCHANTMENT. It was published in 1986 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and is sadly no longer in print but is available from libraries et al. I've also been working for the last umpteen years on a second novel which I've stalled on, because I can't figure out who reads 'serious' fiction, if anyone.



JudithB. from Hinsdale, IL: What do you think of the latest trend in memoirs, and do you think your work is like a memoir?

Daphne Merkin: I don't think it really is the latest trend, other than in the eyes of desperate magazine writers looking for copy. Memoirs have always been around in abundance; I think the only real change is that more people are drawn to reading the memoirs that are out there because of the abundance of 'confessional' outlets -- TV talk shows being the most visible and constant example. In some ways I think DREAMING OF HITLER has a strong memoiristic component and I actually considered, at one point, billing it as such -- to cash in on the trendiness of said genre, of course.



Jacob from Boston: Of all the essays included, why did you pull out DREAMING OF HITLER for the title of the collection?

Daphne Merkin: Because I thought that the tension inherent in the title (the original title of the essay from which the book title was taken is "Dreaming of Hitler A Memoir of Self-Hatred") was indicative of a certain conflictedness with which I approach most issues and which I value. I used the word 'dreaming' in its more neutral, fantasy sense -- not in the romantic 'I'm dreaming about the cute guy I met yesterday' sense.



Anonymous: Your piece on Hedda and Joel is heartbreaking and illuminating. I recently saw her interviewed with, I think, Barbara Walters. Did you see the interview, and if so what did you think of it? Which leads me to another question How often to you keep up with subjects you cover in your [book]?

Daphne Merkin: Most of the subjects I write about interest me enough so that I think I'd in some fashion or other keep up with them. Hedda Nussbaum is certainly a case in point, and I read with fascination the small article that appeared about her and her 'rehabilitation' in the Sunday Times Magazine a month or two ago. I didn't catch the Barbara Walters interview, but would have loved to have seen it.



Dale from San Francisco: Do you ever read feminist theory? If so, who do you like or recommend?

Daphne Merkin: I have trouble with feminist theory because it takes so pre-conceived a view of things. The one feminist critic I find somewhat interesting -- this must be the most lukewarm of recommendations possible -- is Julia Kristeva. She's a French psychoanalyst and literary theoretician who writes interestingly about sexuality and loneliness, the latter being my favorite subject.



Alex from New York City: What impact did the infamous (now infamous) spanking piece in the New Yorker have on your readership? Has it grown, become more diverse? Did you lose readers?

Daphne Merkin: Frankly, I'm tired of the now infamous spanking piece -- and recreationally speaking, it's had a counter-phobic effect on my erotic life. I think it's certainly brought me readers who've read nothing else I've written. One negative by-product of this piece is that it's trailed me ever since the day it appeared in a way that I'm not always comfortable with.



Karen from Los Angeles: From your writing it's clear that you pulled away from your orthodox upbringing. As you get older, do you find you are coming back to it? Have you ever considered writing about that?

Daphne Merkin: Truthfully, I think it's impossible to completely pull away from an orthodox background. I'm always conscious I'm not being orthodox, if you know what I mean, so that in some way I'm always dodging that shadow. Lately, especially given the fact of my having a daughter who I'd like to acquaint with some of the basics of Judiasm so that she can decide whether or not to pull away from it in the years to come, I've been thinking about how to re-connect to this aspect of my background.



Sue from New York City: I loved your book. I've read a number of your essays over the years, and enjoyed them, so I was so pleased to see they've been collected. Would you talk a bit about the essay "Notes of a Lonely White Woman"? I often feel that PC has gotten out of hand and forces us to obstain from fluid language and into a pit of jargon that merely masks the problems inherent in our society without addressing the real issues at heart. How do you cope, for lack of a better word, as a writer in this climate?

Daphne Merkin: I cope by pretending to myself that PCism is a passing fad, rather than a way of looking at culture that's here to stay. It probably is here to stay, however, which means that I will end up being locked in a room with John Simon and a few others.



Jennifer from Detroit: Of the many things you write -- articles for Harper's Bazaar, serious essays for The New Yorker and book reviews which do you prefer, which brings you the greatest joy?

Daphne Merkin: I think I get the greatest satisfaction -- greatest level of absorption, which is why I write -- from the more serious pieces.



James from A town, I like to call, Portland: I live in the grayest part of the nation. When I read your essay "Am I Too Tan," I felt an instant kinship. No matter what, I can't give up going to the salon to catch a few golden -- albeit phony -- rays of sunlight. Have you mastered being pale and pasty? How do you deal?

Daphne Merkin: No, I haven't come to any enlightened terms with being pale and pasty. I've been known to frequent the salon myself (although I'm too embarrassed to admit to it, and I'm always wildly explaining that I happened to fall asleep in the sun, or something). For people to whom being tan means being a better version of their own pale and pasty self, there's no renouncing tanning.



Joan from New York City: I read the Mirabella interview that AM Homes wrote and couldn't help but think that you were one step ahead of her throughout the interview. Do you find it difficult, being an inquisitive journalist, to submit yourself to these encounters?

Daphne Merkin: At risk of sounding arrogant -- by why not -- I completely agree with you. But what really bothered me is that she couldn't be bothered to get my remarks straight. I've never in my life said anything is "where the action is," and was somewhat horrified to see this pollution of my own elegant language in print.



Deborah Meao from Mich: WHat is it about upper class, educated, independently minded women you find so fascinating?

Daphne Merkin: I suppose because I am one, and underneath every upper class, educated, independent minded woman is often someone fairly confused, afraid, and primitive.



Rick from CT: Do you think your essay about spanking could have been published in the New Yorker of 10 years ago? What magazines do you read today? Aren't most of them awful?

Daphne Merkin: No I don't think it could have been published ten years ago. I read New York Magazine, because it's like a quick bite, and I intermittently read a gaggle of other magazines, including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. But most of them are awful.



Lena from NYC: I am a single woman living in NYC. I work long hours and have many friends but am more often lonely than not. How do you deal with being lonely in NYC? What are your outlets?

Daphne Merkin: My major outlet for my own loneliness -- and I think NYC, because of its general atmosphere of hyper-stimulation, must be one of the loneliest cities going -- is reading, watching late-night TV (not talk shows, which make me even lonelier) and talking with my daughter.



Eileen from New York City: Do you get feedback from the people you have written about? Norman Mailer? Scorcese? Do you care what they think of your pieces, does that enter you mind when you are writing about them?

Daphne Merkin: Diana Trilling once said to me that there's no 'echo' when you write. I think she meant this in contrast to thirty years ago when people really seemed to get excited about what they read -- on a level higher than the celebrity of the writer or the amount of money he or she made. Norman Mailer once wrote me, quite patronizingly, that I wrote well 'for a girl' (this was in response to a review I did of THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG) and Scorsese invited me to dinner. Overall, though, the only people I really expect to hear from are the two or three close friends who leave dutiful messages on my answering machine after something of mine appears in print.



Chris from Hatfield, Mass: What is your writing process like. What does it take to make you want to sit down and share your thoughts on a particular topic?

Daphne Merkin: I spend inordinate amounts of time avoiding writing -- more so than other writers, or maybe that's what every writer thinks. I am curious about a lot of things, so I'm always rationalizing my distractions as material for my writing. When I get anxious enough -- either because of an internal need to write or because of an externally imposed deadline -- I drag myself to my desk. Sounds pleasant, doesn't it?



Lisa from Chicago: It struck me while reading "In The Country of Divorce" that so many women who have 'been there' choose not to share the dark secrets of marriage with younger women -- until it's too late. Was there a time when you simply could not write about divorce because it was too painful? Is there anything you won't write about?

Daphne Merkin: I think I had to have been fairly along in the process of my divorce to even begin to conceive of writing about it. At the very beginning, it felt like 'the horror, the horror' and I couldn't have seen my way clear to writing about it. I think I probably wouldn't balk at writing about anything -- as long as I could write about it at the level I wanted to.



Andrea from New York: Having been on both sides of the business -- editor/publisher and now published author -- are you more or less cynical about the desire for good literature in this country? And do you wonder how books actually make it out of the stores and into the hands of readers?

Daphne Merkin: The answer, sad to say, is yes and yes. But, I'm always surprised how a certain kind of reader does manage to cut through the junk that's at the front of chain book stores in general and manage to find worthy books, like my own.



Lorraine from Long Island: "The Shoplifters High." I remember reading that article a long time ago and laughing out loud. I too am a petty thief. I tend to go for salt and pepper shakers from restaurants. I think that I've actually picked up this bit of thievery from my grandmother who is constantly swiping crackers and bread from restaurants. More than the high, I think it's a fear of scarcity. Even though we're wedged nicely in the upper middle class, it's the tiny things that we're afraid of being without. Does this work at all with your theory of not wanted to pay full-price?

Daphne Merkin: Yes, I am always eyeing items like over priced lip glosses and wondering idly could I sweep one into my bag. I never balk at paying for things like getting my washer/dryer fixed or new air conditioning. I think it has something to do with the pull of small luxuries and a certain amount of conflict about their value.



Diane from Philadelphia: When your daughter is old enough to understand the pieces you have written, do you want her to read them? Do other remembers of you family (your parents?) read your articles--specifically those that pertain to them?

Daphne Merkin: I certainly wouldn't try and stop her from reading me, although I feel my writing is sufficiently uncomfortable-making that I'd want her to be forewarned about the content. My mother has read everything I've written -- with varying responses. My father has just turned 90 and has read me very selectively, partly out of his natural inclination not to read this kind of writing and partly through my mother's protective intervention.



Moderator: It was our pleasure to have you here tonight, Ms. Merkin. Thanks for being here and for responding to our questions. Goodnight and best of luck with your future endeavors!

Daphne Merkin: Thanks for having me. It's great to know there are so many smart readers out there.


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  • Posted June 11, 2011

    So honest

    If I could only open up about the dark places in my heart like Daphne Merkin does....

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