Empty Vessels


Arts & Culture


“You’ve got a lot to learn,” a man she meets on an airplane says to Lise, the protagonist of Muriel Spark’s 1970 novella The Driver’s Seat. “Rice, unpolished rice is the basis of macrobiotics… It is a cleansing diet. Physically, mentally and spiritually.”

“I hate rice,” Lise says.

“No, you only think you do,” he replies.

This character, the overconfident, pushy bore bent on convincing people they do care about things they aren’t interested in, is so familiar that if we laugh in recognition, it’s only to keep from crying. We can all at least be thankful that in the past five years the problem of men explaining things to women has not only come to public attention, but been packaged, meme-ified, and widely distributed—it’s a thing, a concept with which to view power dynamics and discourse, and avoiding mansplaining is maybe becoming a cultural value.

In her November 2012 article “A Cultural History of Mansplaining” for the Atlantic Monthly, Lily Rothman defines mansplaining as “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.” This is a phenomenon that people have found instantly recognizable and endlessly applicable to cultural situations and to their own experience. Take for instance this, from Twitter user @PedestrianError: “I don’t normally unfriend people on Facebook, but there’s on perpetual mansplainer that I think is gonna have to go.” Or @abrahamjoseph on the New York Democratic Mayoral Primary debate: “de Blasio using his mansplaining voice on this slush fund question #nyc2013.” It is so useful a concept—and so consistent a pattern, to take The Driver’s Seat as only one example—that it’s strange that no one attempted to articulate it before Rebecca Solnit’s seminal 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me.”

Solnit begins “Men Explain Things to Me” by describing the many obnoxious men who have attempted to educate her on subjects that, as a historian and author of significant acclaim, she has researched and written about. Over the course of the essay, as Solnit points out with some wonder in an introduction she wrote for it in 2012, she explores how “what starts out as minor social misery can expand into violent silencing and even death.” This is because male explaining, arrogance, and condescension is a way that women are robbed of their voices, their ability to testify with authority about their experience and their knowledge.

This issue is intimately connected to the origins of the Women’s Movement, as “at the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, date rape, marital rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible.” In feminist politics this interplay of witness and silence is more straightforward than in feminist art. In literature and cinema, female characters’ reticence can be an act of refusal—a choice to step away from the table and leave the game, to guard what is private. If, in Solnit’s words, men’s condescension “crushes young women into silence by indicating … that this is not their world,” female silence can throw the lies, delusions, contradictions, and cruelties of this male world into stark relief.

Dame Muriel Spark was the most slight and sly of the great twentieth-century novelists. All of her books, including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie most famously, but also The Girls of Slender Means, Memento Mori, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, and more than a dozen others, are immaculately off-kilter, with plots that feel carefully controlled and at the same time subject to any whim that might take the author—because Spark’s authorship is never invisible in her novels. She inhabits any character’s subjectivity that she wants, whenever she wants, and moves liberally forward and backward in time. In The Comforters, her first novel, published in 1957, she takes this self-consciousness to the extreme, when one of the main characters, a critic who is writing a history of the novel-as-art form, begins to hear the disembodied voice of the author narrating The Comforters as she lives it. The presence of a writer so skilled and daring and strange is what makes Spark’s novels so delightful, and also what edges them in something sharp, something that might be danger.

Hidden in Spark’s very weird and unsettling oeuvre is The Driver’s Seat, which might be her weirdest and most unsettling book of all. It follows Lise, a thirty-four-year-old Danish office worker, as she travels to Italy for vacation. The third of the book’s short chapters begins: “She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie.” With this alarming revelation, we are aware that for the rest of the book we will be working back to the moment of Lise’s murder, discovering whodunit and why.

At first we might assume that we are reading a standard thriller, and that Lise’s death will have a standard thriller explanation. It is clear that Lise is deliberate—the novella’s first scenes show her searching for the perfect garish traveling outfit. She is loud and obnoxious in the ticketing line at the airport, and after, she is seemingly pleased with her performance. “It is almost as if, satisfied that she has successfully registered the fact of her presence at the airport among the July thousands there,” Spark writes, “she has fulfilled a small item of greater purpose.” Lise cultivates her conspicuousness.

For a while it seems plausible that Lise is a spy or international criminal, with her meticulous, puzzling behavior and horrifying death all connected to some mysterious mission. When she follows a businessman on to the plane purposefully and sits next to him, and he looks at her with fright and recognition and scrambles to change his seat, it seems plausible that she is seeking a figure from her past, maybe a former lover, maybe for purposes of revenge—and that the unspeakable past they share leads to Lise’s death. But we flash forward to the businessman’s interrogation by police after he has murdered Lise, and he tells them “quite truthfully,” according to the narrator, that he never saw her before that day at the airport. Lise’s actions and her death cannot be explained by motivations common to the thriller genre; there are more disturbing sexual and psychological forces at play.

But, like a standard thriller, The Driver’s Seat is scattered with clues that only register with the audience in retrospect, particularly about Lise and the businessman’s pasts. The businessman, it turns out, is the nephew of an old woman from Lise’s hotel, Mrs. Fiedke, who she spends the day shopping with. At first Mrs. Fiedke only says that her nephew has been sick, but she hints at something more sinister—she speaks of putting her nephew in a clinic and comments, “It was either that or the other, they gave us no choice.”

When Lise finally finds the businessman again in the lobby of her hotel late at night, she drives him to the park where she will force him to kill her. She accurately describes the mental institution he has been in and diagnoses him with something she calls the “madhouse tremble.” “You’re a sex maniac,” she says, and correctly guesses that he raped and stabbed a woman. There is a quick allusion at the beginning of the novel to “months of illness” in Lise’s life, and her actions call her mental state into question. We might assume that the businessman is a type that she can identify from her own time in a mental hospital, and that this type of man is the only one she imagines is suitable to commit her murder.

Identifying Lise’s “type” is a recurring thread—she is constantly commenting that a man she sees or encounters is not her type; she says to random strangers, “You’re not my type.” She gets the phrase from Bill, the man she meets on the plane, who is an “Enlightenment Leader” in the macrobiotic movement, and who takes a shine to Lise immediately. “Forget him,” Bill tells Lise when the businessman changes seats on the plane. “He wasn’t your type.”

Bill is a total blowhard, preaching about the macrobiotic diet, Yin and Yang, and his spiritual need to have one orgasm a day. One can picture him, as Solnit describes, with “that smug look… [of] a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.” Bill feels free to attempt to control Lise’s life from the time that he meets her. “You’ll soon change your eating habits,” he tells her on the plane, “now that we’ve got to know each other.” When they get off the plane, Lise cries, disappointed that another man on her plane was not her type. “I can give you what you want,” Bill says. “Wait and see.” He is sure of this because he doesn’t think she could possibly know what she wants, so he has taken on the authority to dictate her desires.

It should not be a surprise, then, when toward the end of the book Bill forces Lise to the ground and attempts to date rape her. “Violence,” Solnit writes, “is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist.” “I’m your type,” Bill insists, not asserting any intuition about Lise’s psyche, but more asserting that she is empty of thoughts, convictions, and intentions, able to be filled with an identity of Bill’s choosing. As Solnit writes, “explaining men still assume I am… an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge.” Solnit acknowledges that the “empty vessel” image is one that evokes both an educational and sexual authority that men assume over women.

But Lise also seems to view herself as an empty vessel—or at least as a blank canvas where she can project a variety of fluctuating identities. We are told repeatedly that Lise is “neither good-looking nor bad-looking,” and, at thirty-four, she is neither old nor very young. Compounding Lise’s generic appearance is her lack of interiority—contrary to Spark’s inclination to enter the subjectivities of all of her characters, the characters in The Driver’s Seat are opaque, with Lise’s thoughts seeming to evade the narrator. Because of this, there is a constant emphasis on Lise’s expression, as if the narrator is trying to guess at what is going on in her mind: “Lise looks, for an instant, slightly senile, as if she felt, in addition to bewilderment, a sense of defeat or physical incapacity.” The narrator acknowledges the futility of this close observation. “Who knows her thoughts?” the narrator asks. “Who can tell?”

All we know about Lise are external things she may have affected: her gaudy wardrobe, her rude and erratic behavior. She repeats to everyone she meets that she can speak four languages, a practice that indicates a kind of childish arrogance, but also underlies the indeterminacy of her identity. And she readily invents different backgrounds for herself. She takes refuge in a mechanics’ garage when the police fill the streets with teargas during a student protest. “I’m only a tourist, a teacher from Iowa, New Jersey,” she tells Carlo, the owner of the garage. “I’m a widow,” she continues later, “and an intellectual… My late husband was an intellectual. We had no children. He was killed in a motor accident. He was a bad driver, anyway. He was a hypochondriac, which means that he imagined that he had every illness under the sun.”

All Lise’s eccentricity may reveal more cunning than instability. “So she lays the trail,” Spark writes of Lise’s movements, “presently to be followed by Interpol and elaborated upon with due art by the journalists of Europe for the few days it takes for her identity to be established.” The ultimate purpose behind the identity Lise has constructed for herself may be achieve perfect victim-ness—both anonymous and conspicuous, fitting one expected profile for a victim, the woman traveling alone on vacation; she makes herself memorable to those she encounters but is careful to reveal no details of her current life or her past, so that the coverage of her murder in the media is protracted and sensational.

At the end of the book, the businessman accuses Lise of being afraid of sex. “It’s all right at the time, and it’s all right before,” she says, “but the problem is afterwards. That is, if you aren’t just an animal. Most of the time, afterwards is pretty sad.” This revelation of Lise’s extreme loneliness and isolation and sexual ambivalence provides insight as to why she would want to seek such a gruesome death—she wants a moment of rapture where she would experience no “afterwards,” where during what afterwards there was she would be the center of attention, where the man who had given her that rapture would be brutally punished.

Lise’s quest for sexual control suffuses the most important recurring image of the novel: that of the driver’s seat. Two times in the book, Lise is almost raped—once by Bill, and the other by Carlo, the mechanic, after he has offered to give her a ride back to her hotel. Both times, Lise manages to get away and steals the man’s car in the process. When the businessman is being interrogated, the police bring up his previous crimes, saying, “The last time you lost control of yourself didn’t you take the woman for a drive in the country?” “But this one took me,” he replies. “She made me go. She was driving.”

It might seem counterintuitive that despite Lise’s desire to sit in the driver’s seat, she still ultimately takes the passive role; she wants to receive violence, not inflict it. In this, Lise’s imagined death seems related to more benign sadomasochist sex practices. BDSM is, after all, often called “sex play,” and it is about assigned roles and exchanges of power. The person who appears to be being dominated may in fact have control of the way that the fantasy plays out. This uneasy intertwining of a subversive but safe fantasy that exaggerates traditional gender dynamics and the horrifying realities of female victimization is one thing that makes The Driver’s Seat a truly frightening book.

It is clear in The Driver’s Seat that a man who is Lise’s type will not act like a predator—when she first encounters Bill he is described as “the hungrier man.” “You look like Red Riding-Hood’s grandmother,” Lise says to him. “Do you want to eat me up?” Lise thinks that a sickly looking man she sees on the plane might be her type, until she hears him discussing going on safari. “He wasn’t my type anyway,” she says. “Shooting animals.”

The man Lise is looking for will display something else: fear. When the police interrogate the businessman about his encounter with Lise on the plane, he says, “I was afraid.” “Afraid?” the police respond. “Yes, frightened. I moved to another seat, away from her.” “Why is everyone afraid of me?” Lise asks Bill on the plane. We must note that the performance of predation is also evidence of fear—most exaggerated exercises of male strength and power are suffused in resentment, a response to a perceived threat to that power, especially from women. For men who are sick, “sex maniacs,” this fear is not hidden; it looms closer to the surface. The inability to mask their fear is what ultimately makes them unhealthy, not what they are capable of—Bill and Carlo, both seemingly functional, prove themselves prone to terrible violence. Fear is pathologized; violence against women is not.

This cuts close to what might be the book’s truest meaning. The last line of The Driver’s Seat discusses the procedures and accessories of the criminal justice system, “all those trappings,” Spark describes, “devised to protect them from the indecent exposure of fear and pity, pity and fear.” Predation, machismo, violence—these are all “trappings” protecting men from fear. These trappings point to more fundamental ones, the lies on which advanced societies are built. This is a book about a vacation, and Lise spends much of her time shopping. She lingers in a large department store, where she absently buys clothing and a food blender, things she knows she will never use. But political disturbances are constantly threatening to disrupt these scenes of leisure and consumption.

There are the student demonstrations that cause the incident with the teargas; Lise hears on television about a coup in a Middle Eastern country and later sees the Sheikh of that country with his entourage exiting from a hotel. Bill tells her that he plans to inaugurate the cultural center he is opening in Naples with a presentation hilariously titled “The World—Where Is It Going?” and we are conscious that supposed political or spiritual awareness can be just another trapping, a distraction, a conceit. There is a commotion when a “hippy” is asked to leave the department store, and in this scene we see the trappings of consumerism and entertainment instantly at work, distracting from the political tensions underlying civil society. “The quarrel melts behind them,” Spark describes, “as they come to the television sets.”

Political intrusion in leisure society was a common artistic theme in the 1960s and 1970s—we might think of Agnès Varda’s film Cleo from 5 to 7, which obliquely comments on how the Algerian War haunted 1960s Paris, or director Luis Buñuel’s political farces The Phantom of Liberty and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This was a time both of rapidly expanding consumption and political uncertainty, with the third and second worlds asserting a destabilizing presence in the first world through the rise of modern terrorism. What is so powerful and perverse about Lise’s death is that it rejects or dissolves the trappings that project safety, comfort, and wealth in contemporary western society. She insists on being killed by a man who cannot perform masculine strength or aggression, who kills only out of fear. She refuses any “sex play” that might separate her fantasy from reality. And the image of her, stabbed and bound in a public park in a tourist city, threatens any connotation of escape that “vacation” might hold.

One of the most powerful images in The Driver’s Seat is of Lise’s modern, modular apartment, where “space is used as a pattern in itself,” all the pinewood furniture hinging and folding so it is out of view when it is not in use. The apartment seems to represent Lise, with her internal life so carefully hidden by her external qualities; in her mind as in her home, “nothing need be seen, nothing need be left laying about.” But it is also an image for society, with external trappings hiding the danger and ugliness that is everywhere.

“The swaying tall pines among the litter of cones on the forest floor,” Spark writes of Lise’s apartment, “have been subdued into silence and into obedient bulks.” The apartment becomes a figure for the order that civilization imposes over nature, human or otherwise. This is a lie too, of course, a superficial order masking a more primal disorder; in The Driver’s Seat any power attained is temporary, fraudulent. Before he kills her, Lise gives the businessman the keys to Bill’s car. “You’ll be caught,” she says, “but at least you’ll have the illusion of the chance to get away.” Maybe that is all the driver’s seat provides, the illusion of control, the illusion that one can escape the inescapable: death, and the world’s raw core of fear.

Alice Bolin is a writer living in California. Follow her on Twitter at @alicebolin.