Monday, April 14, 2014

The Rise of Peggy Olson, the Fall of Don Draper and the Affective Life of Capitalism

So the new season of Mad Men started last night. The official posters, with Don looking at a pyschadelic print, aren't out and out historical gaffes like this Netflix ad, but they point to a lot of the problems the show had last season. Season six was, I think, one of false starts and frustrations.  A lot  them came from having to sustain a long-running show that's worked through a lot of its premises, but others point to something interesting that's been there since the start. Mad Men started out as fundamentally a show about hierarchies. ("It's a hierarchy!" Ken cried desperately in last night's premier.  Well, it was - and largely still is - but more on that later.) Peggy's first day tour of the office showed us the lay of the land in all its beautiful horror. We knew part of the long arc would be about how the people at the top - whom we'd more or less been asked to identify with - had their positions challenged. But the show's strength was always in showing the everyday cruelties of the old order.  Many of the best episodes, like "The Gold Violin" from season 2, or "Signal 30" from season 5, have the feel of a certain kind of old school New Yorker story. As Vivian Gornick described it in "The End of the Novel of Love":
In the fifties John Cheever's stories of marital disillusion seemed profound. That famous climatic moment in Cheever when the husband realizes holds him in contempt, or the wife knows husband is committing adultery, these moments delivered an electric charge. The knowledge encoded in them seemed literally stunning, leaving the characters riven, their lives destroyed. Who, after all, could go on after this? Then came the shocker - the thing that made the story large, awesome, terrible - they did go on like this. 
This describes the lives of many of Mad Men's characters throughout the early seasons. Then, of course, as Gornick recounts "within a generation" "there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs . . . " Some of the suspense came in who would crack first, and how, and at what cost.  Betty seemed doomed if she was forced to live outside her illusions - this was true and not. Would it be Pete unable to live with his own contempt, or would Trudy beat him to it? Don and Roger, while threatened by certain aspects of social change, are poised to benefit from others - they trade in their spouses with little reprisal. Except, of course, that they discover nothing has really changed. For Roger, this works insofar as we can experience his semi-nihilistic questing as a comedy, but it's left us impatient with Don.  The wonderful Emily Nussbaum pretty much nails  the corner into which Don had been painted by the end of last season. The aside about sneering and swingers is interesting too: in an odd way, our favorite horn dog is a bit of a prude: Roger might have the most depressing stoned group sex ever, but he's still game and mildly amused at time. Don's still caught up in the guilt and secrecy. (The show's attempts to show him as kinky, like with the prostitute who smacks him, fall flat, the way so many shows still use mild kink as a shorthand for sad people having sad sex.) I remember reading somewhere about when the Diggers who set up a free store, they had to explain to people who tried to shoplift why that was impossible at a free store. There may be sex in the streets in 1968, but Don still prefers the neighbor and hotel rooms with heavy curtains. No one needs to tell Don there's no such thing as free love. The scene when his daughter discovers him is devastating - but where can we go from there?

The problem gets more complicated - but it still feels like a problem - when we think about the show's broader historical and social canvas. Here too, the show was wonderful in its depiction of the repressive Before. But once that order is shaken, it has been largely unable or unwilling to present anyone who stands for this challenge in a serious way. African-American characters appear in the background, and occasionally make a telling comment. The counterculture mostly exists insofar as it embodies aspects of Don's psychodrama. (Or, Betty's, in the first and strongest episode of season six. Her implicit sympathy for the hippie kids was a fascinating thread that was unfortunately dropped.) And then there was the hippie punching throughout season six. Or, rather, hippie stabbing.)  When Abe and Peggy argued about civil rights and women's rights a few seasons back, some of it was an easy gibe at Abe, but some of it actually got at the ways it's easier for people to support justice from a distance, when it doesn't bring their own position into question or even just make for an awkward conversation. But by the end of season six he was mostly shown as a fool. He becomes absurd the way the Beatniks Don smokes up with in the first season is absurd.

Now, it's certainly true that in any time period, even one of mass political action, the majority of people are not activists, and mostly experience change through the mundane of their daily lives. The episode on King's assassination was trying to show that in an interesting way. But there's something perverse in the way that the show keeps suggesting that while the old way is unjust, but those who directly challenge it are fools. 

Which brings us to Peggy. Some of the publicity for this season - along with the shot late last season of her in Don's characteristic pose - suggests this will be "her season." It's an intriguing possibility - perhaps the most radical and astute solution to the Don Draper problem would be if he simply fades away - like characters in The Wire, who are significant only for the ecological niche they inhabit. It also points to show's ambivalence about social change, though. That awful Netflix ad isn't just grotesquely historically ignorant. It also points to a certain reading of Peggy - she's a feminist, kind of, but not part of feminism: she represents change and the struggle for respect through her story, but doesn't have a relationship to the organized social movements of the time. Now, when you point things like this out, everyone rushes to explain to you, let again, the difference between art and politics, or to complain you're looking for agitprop. What is interesting to me about that is the idea that any portrayal of collective movements - or even of characters having some relationship to them - would automatically detract from complexity. Certainly it is easy to imagine a poorly executed story line where Betty or Peggy or Joan get their Consciousness Raised. But would it really be so impossible for some one in the Mad Men universe to have some real relationship to this movement, or the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-war movement, which captured the imagination of so many? And if we can't imagine it doing so, what does that tell us? 

At the same time, though, I think Peggy's story does reveal something interesting about contemporary feminism and its discontents. I cringed a bit at the end of last night's episode, when she cries alone in her apartment after a bad day at the office, so lonely she wanted the plumber to hang out.  But the thing is, Peggy's rise has always been more interesting precisely because it's in advertising, a field that can't possibly live up to the creative and personal energies she has put into it - as so many of our jobs cannot, not because we more properly should put them all into our home and family lives, but because of that little thing the show is actually largely about: capitalism. Much is made about Don and Peggy's affinity for each other because they are both outsiders who struggled for respect. But that outsider status also gives them a certain take on what they are doing - they take advertising seriously and are good at it precisely because in some ways they aren't taking it seriously - they know how to manipulate want and need, if often unconsciously, and they know it can always be manipulated because it can never be satisfied. We want Peggy to triumph, but we don't have illusions about what triumph looks like in the venue she's in. (Not, one should note, the venue she has 'chosen', simply the one she found herself in.) This doesn't mean that Peggy is an unappealing, proto-Sheryl Sandberg or some such. It just means that when it comes to work, we are all still living in the Before. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Before Feminism

So says Netflix.

"A hundred years of brilliant personalities and important events have also been erased from American history. The women orators who fought of mobs, in the days when women were not allowed to speak in public, to attack Family, Church and State, who travelled on poor to cow towns of the West to talk to small groups of socially starved women, were quite a bit more dramatic than the Scarlett O'Haras and Harriet Beecher Stowes and all the Little Women who have come down to us. . . But most people today have never even heard of Myrtilla Miner, Prudence Crandall, Abigail Scott Duniway, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ernestine Rose, the Clafin sisters, Crystal Eastman, Clara Lemlich, Mrs. OHP Belmont, Doris Stevens, Anne Martin. And this ignorance is nothing compared to ignorance of the lives of women of the stature of Margaret Fuller, Fanny Wright, the Grimke sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Stanton Blatch, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Paul."

So said Shulamith Firestone. (Dialectic of Sex, 1970)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

On Movie Stars and Being Moved

In 1997, I was just out of college, having gone straight to graduate school and moved to New York where I knew almost no one. I had one friend from college who'd come here to try to be an actress who was living in this dorm-style residence for women where I'd also lived briefly in college and I remember going to the lobby to meet her and feeling like I was some girl from the fifties destined to be a shopgirl while pining for life on Broadway.

One weekend that summer, I went to see two movies that stuck with me for very different reasons. The first was Neil LaBute's first movie, In the Company of Men, which was then making something of a stir for the way it shows bad man doing bad bad things - basically, a bunch of corporate assholes doing asshole stuff, one of whom fake seduces a deaf woman in order to dump and humiliate her. I haven't seen it since then - I imagine I would find it fake-daring, as I do so many of these films that "dare" to show people as completely and flatly evil - as if that were any more psychologically insightful than a Disney cartoon. Inevitably these characters are still charismatic because they are being played by attractive movie stars good at making themselves liked, so these performances are seen as "brave" and "complicated," making them "more than monsters," etc. Probably if I saw it now I would note the ridiculousness and offensiveness of the premise that a woman who happened to be deaf (and who of course also happened to be beautiful) would be so desperate as to fall for this ploy, inexplicably having no friends or romantic prospects of her own. In any case, I don't remember who I saw the movie with, but I remember afterwards we both looked at each other and said something like, ok, we each have to go home now and take twenty showers with bleach.

The second movie was Mike Leigh's Career Girls. Its world was as grounded and measured as LaBute's was absurd. I don't remember a lot of the plot but I remember the dynamics between the two main characters, college friends whose bond and struggles the movie charts moving back and forth over six years in their twenties filled with crappy jobs and desperate doomed romantic obsessions. I especially remember the game they would play of "Miss Bronte, Miss Bronte," turning to a random page of Wuthering Heights for the "answer" to a pressing question. (Roger Ebert beautifully ends his largely positive and somewhat perplexed review by apply this trick to understanding the movie. It works.)  And I remember the amazing face and performance of Katrin Cartlidge, who died way too young and was also breathtaking in Breaking the Waves.  I do remember that I saw this one with a female friend who I could tell was also very affected by it, in probably painful ways, and saying, ok, time to go home and read the Brontes. I got home that night and turned on my little clock radio to set the alarm and heard someone weeping because Princess Diana had died. I turned it off and thought, but the Brontes! Later that week I had an argument with a friend about why people were sad about the deaths of famous people they had never met, which in my young self-righteousness I saw as grandstanding and parasitic. It didn't occur to me that I hadn't been moved by the news because I'd been too busy being moved by fictional people.

Three times in my life I have been moved by the death of someone famous. Of course there are many many people I admire whose loss saddened me, but most often it's an abstract rather than visceral reaction. It's not the thing I couldn't understand when people felt it about Diana,  thinking about them something in the way I would about someone I had known. Two of these were recent: James Gandolfini last year and Philip Seymour Hoffman this week. Partly this is for obvious reasons: they were such commanding presences, and ones whose performances I'd spent so much time with, that it was hard to imagine that force just disappearing. Interestingly, both were most famous for the dark characters who are often delicately referred to as "complicated" - meaning they do really terrible shit and meaning I might likely have reacted to them with the impatience I had with LaBute's movie, but I didn't. I do wonder what they might have done if we didn't have this way of associating the powerful physicality they both had with violence or deviance. By far my favorite role of Hoffman's was Phil Parma, the kind nurse who engineers a reunion between Jason Robards' dying patriarch and Tom Cruise's misogynist "motivational speaker."  What if, I wonder, more of our best writers and artists thought that damaged people who do what most damaged people do - struggle, drink too much, take it out on themselves - were as interesting as revealing, time and again, that people who do terrible things are also damaged?

The other death that moved me was Heath Ledger's. In this case it wasn't because of any of his performances, but because of something that had happened a few months before. It started as a funny story - my first good New York celebrity story despite being a decade since that night when Diana died and I just wanted to read the Brontes. At the time I was volunteering at Housing Works bookstore in Soho. One day Heath came into the store. People started to whisper - was it really him? His companion, a woman with an Australian accent, asked if we had a copy of a certain book.  I explained that since the books were all used and donated, we didn't have database, but mentioned the section where she might find it. When I pointed to it, she asked if I could walk with her. I explained that I was working the register. And then - at least the way I remember it  - Heath said - why don't you look yourself - and gave me a look of sympathy. That's right I thought. Heath and I are having a moment. It's me and him against her.  It reminded me of what people always said about Bill Clinton - the making you think you are the only one in the room thing. Eventually he bought a couple hundred dollars worth of mostly elegant hardbacks. I remember one of them was Chomsky - one of the linguistics ones. He said "you have a beautiful store." He joked about whether his credit card would work. I think I have enough on that one. There it was on his American Express - H Ledger. It didn't work at first, so I rubbed it on my shirt. A week later he came in again, this time with his daughter. A couple months later, he was gone.

Sometime after that, I read what is probably my favorite short story, Miranda July's "Roy Spivey." It begins like this: "Twice I have sat beside a famous person on an airplane." The first part of the story is the narrator's account of the odd conversation with she has with the second of these, a movie star.  At the end of the flight he explains that they won't be able to talk when they get off.  They come up with a code: he will say "Do you work here?" and she will say, "no." But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. work here, she says. will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her.  This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to give weight too:  the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside. The narrator wants to mark that her connection was real, but it was too late. "His eyes were mute. He was acting."

In a brilliant n+1 essay, Christopher Glazek talks about the psychic space taken up by those who die while young and beautiful, thinking about how Joaquin Phoenix's response to his brother River's death has resonated with his own experience of his brother's mental illness. I realized while reading that if I had seen My Own Private Idaho and Running on Empty before rather than after River's death, his would have been the first to have shaken me, the way it did so many about my age.

The idea of separating an artist from his or her art can mean a lot of things in a lot of different contexts, most of which I think are largely impossible, even if desirable. This is especially so in the case of movie stars, who live inside the instruments of their art.  At the end of July's story, the narrator finds the movie star's number after many years and thinks about how the idea of their connection has promised to save her. At the end of Glazek's essay, he describes why we cannot help but read our lives through those of the stars, especially the damned stars, no matter how complicit or parasitic that may make us.
When art fails to provide catharsis — when the movies won’t resemble reality, or admit their own unreality — the tabloids take over. Here, at least, the world is half-acknowledged, if not transcended. Recognition, of course, is not the same as resolution: the only thing like life is life, which is so much longer than a movie. The story seems never to end; the suffering does not stop.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Last week I went to buy a new blank notebook. The situation had gotten pretty desperate:  the scraps of paper I was using were taped to other scraps.  Somehow I went to my campus bookstore three times before I could find where they were keeping them. But how many to get? I needed one for my teaching notes, one for notes on various writing projects, one for a personal journal. Should there be one to take notes on things I was reading? Some of those were related to the writing projects, but some might be extensions of the journal. And sometimes the journal would turn into a story if I got bored with telling it straight.  Someone suggested another one for to-do lists and life management. In the end I bought four, but already they're all mixed up, what is in one should be in the other . . . 

"Shouldn't you just get one?" someone asked. Oh no, I said, haven't you read The Golden Notebook? That's how she went crazy.

The title of Doris Lessing's most famous and ambitious novel is a dream of integration. Anna, Lessing's protagonist, has one notebook for memories of childhood, one accounting for her political life, one in which she writes a novel, "Free Women," and one personal journal. Trying to bring them together into a single one, she falls apart.  In any earlier version of this blog I had a line across the top taken from The Golden Notebook: "Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love. . ." 

I first read The Golden Notebook in a Modern English Literature course in college. The professor was a little self-conscious about teaching this feminist classic to a bunch of young feminists at a woman's college, so he asked if any of us wanted to teach it. Being the not-yet-recovering terminally "good student" I was at the time, I volunteered. I guess it was the first time I did what I now do for a living. As a graduate student not quite a decade later, I tried to teach it.  I got called for jury duty just as we were to start. Now when I look at the cover, I think of the dark bench and the video screens of the Brooklyn courthouse, hoping my name would not be called for just a little longer so I could figure out how to lead a discussion of what the Communist Party might have meant to British housewives of the 1950s.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. For as long as I can remember, also, that desire, and what it might mean to articulate, let alone fulfill, it, has terrified me. Is it selfish? Is it a way of setting oneself apart from others? Was it setting oneself up for failure? Would it make it more difficult to enjoy friendship, romance, and the other consolations of what is sometimes mistakenly called everyday life? Does it mean shirking one's responsibilities to be a thinking person who acts in the world from conviction, political and otherwise? No book I know makes me think about these questions the way The Golden Notebook has. Does trying to live the different lives Anna tries to - peruse writing, romance and sex, to be a political person in the world - feel impossible because of external constraints, or will these things always come into conflict? We see experiences get mulled over, reworked, transposed into fiction. We see how much more went into the shaping of Free Women than is in the book. So how much more must have gone into The Golden Notebook?  How much of a life can a book contain? Should it aspire to be "better" than a life - more finely tuned - or should it give us an intimation of life in all its messiness? Towards the end there is a series of sketches for stories and novels Anna thinks of writing. I once thought about trying to do a series of exercises around them, except they are already complete as they are. How many of these sit in our notebooks, or in the notebooks of someone who lived to 94 and published 50 novels? 

When people talk about The Golden Notebook, they tend to talk a lot about the sixties, and that generation of feminism, and how this is or is not "relatable" to young women today, and how Lessing came to antagonize the feminists who revered her. But the other thing that has stuck with me from Lessing is her accounts of her early life - what Anna was writing in her black notebook. This is a woman whose father worked at the Imperial Bank of Persia, who came of age in a country called Rhodesia and saw the Communist Party there as a way to escape and create and intellectual life. If anyone truly had a long 20th century, it was her. Her famous cantankerousness always seemed well-earned. In the first part of her memoir, Under My Skin, Lessing talks about the shadow the First World War cast across her childhood: 

"There were also the wounded from the war, of whom my father was one, and the people whose potential was never used because their lives were wrenched out of their proper course by the war - my mother was one. During that trip through the villages of France, then in Scotland and towns in England, were revived in me the raging emotions of my childhood, a protest, an anguish, my parents'. I felt too incredulity, but that was a later emotion: how could it have happened? . . I wonder how many of the children brought up in families crippled by war had the same poison running in their veins from before they could even speak. We are all of us made by war, twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it." 

The last veterans of that war are gone now, and soon the children who were the last to remember it will be gone too. In place of their memories we will write essays on "the idea of memory." Throughout Under My Skin she expresses credulity that things really were as she remembered them.  If I were writing this at thirty, she says at one point, it would be one book. At forty another. And what would it be should I write it at 85?  It was, and is all of these, and now it is ours. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


"You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else."

If you've been reading the news lately, you might think this came from a particularly blunt self-proclaimed truth-teller following the chorus of millinial-bashers, telling the young'uns to buck up and stop expecting life to be fair. Stop thinking you're special!  And enough with the trophies already!
But I suspect a certain generational subset (late X, early millennials) will instantly recognize this little bit of "tough love" as the wisdom of Brad Pitt, aka Tyler Durden, aka the "every nice-guy's" alter-ego anti-hero of the 1999 cult film Fight Club. (I suppose film buffs would say it was too mainstream and popular to be a cult film, but hey, some cults have lots of members.)  Back before the 2008 crash, before the 2001 crash, before two wars, Tyler bellowed out his cry against the spiritual emptiness of nineties prosperity and consumerism. We haven't had a war he says. We haven't had a Great Depression.  "The Great Depression is our lives."

Looking back of course this seems like a dark joke along the lines of the prescient Onion headline marking Bush's election: "Our national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over." You want a depression to give your life meaning? Done! My friend Ben Balthaser has a smart article about (among other things) how Fight Club combines strains from the nineties global justice movements, a concept of rebellion as a form of hallucination, and a healthy dose of wounded machismo. (Is there another kind?)   Even during a time of prosperity, the film suggests, young men need to realize that the world is dark and violent place and overcome their domestication at the hands of doting mothers, absent fathers, and leather sectionals.  (My extensive research shows that nearly everyone who was a young single woman during the peak of the movie's popularity had at least one boyfriend quote Tyler Durden asking why a "guy like him" should know what a duvet was when the subject of cohabitation, a trip to IKEA, or the possibility of buying one's own furniture arose.)  Fight Club appealed to a certain kind of young man, I think, in a kind of masochistic way: it accused them of being emasculated wimps, offered them a fantasy of a way out, then rebuked them for falling for it. In this context, the "not a special snowflake" line serves to critique the hypocrisy of consumerist individualism while also offering a different kind of distinction, the brave world of the ones willing to live without illusion.

I don't know whether college and post-college kids still go in for Fight Club. That line about snowflakes came to mind recently because now, when you hear about  someone talk about how the young must realize they are not "special snowflakes" it doesn't seem to have anything to do with resisting coy marketing come-ons. It's become a way of dismissing the impact of economic crisis as the result of so much permissive parenting, and noncompetitive soccer games, something like when people blamed the hippies on Dr. Spock.  There are certainly some quirks of contemporary parenting in certain social strata that could be described as permissive, and there's interesting points about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to talk about.  But the subtext of the snowflakes/tropies thing is not about that: it's about the notion that parenting should be about initiating kids into a world of hierarchies. In a country with shameful levels of inequality and child poverty, it seems a sick joke to try to diagnose a cultural pathology rooted in being too kind to children and having too much equality.

The most terrifying book I've read in recent years is Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.  The novel begins in a boarding school where the students there are treated well. Their lives seem innocent and their surroundings beautiful, but we are ill at ease from the start. Ishiguro's tight, unshowy writing has a light touch - the opposite of Fight Club - but the doom is unmistakable: a terrible fate awaits these children.  They are in fact, the most un-unique of snowflakes: clones being raised to provide organs for donation. When you summarize it that way it sounds like that's the big "reveal." But what's fascinating - and terrifying - about the book is that it's not a sci-fi dystopia, much less a staging of some bioethics debate, as much as an allegory for our world so close to the actual thing that it barely needs its premise. The faculty at the school who clash over how much and when the children should be told about their fate resemble earnest liberal parents and teachers: is it better to shield them from what is to come, if just for a while? Is truth-telling less cruel? But it's a hard world, after all and we best be prepared. You can almost hear them saying "In today's global economy, every clone-child must be able compete."

Crucially, no one in the book rages about the injustice of it all or plots for a Hunger Games-style revolt of the clones. Not because they believe it is just or they have internalized their oppression or some such but simply because that is normally what happens, and Ishiguro is interested in working through how we push against our knowledge of the unthinkable. The children's one hope lies in the illusion that, in essence, they will be recognized and judged as "special snowflakes." The boarding school has been collecting their artwork for display. The rumor is that, like in some twisted fairy tale, if two students fall truly in love, they will be spared, and the artwork is the key to their souls that will allow that truth to reveal itself. Of course, there is no such way out. The art is just something for the kids to do, some fuel for their illusion that they are cared for, that their inner lives are cherished. Not long after I read the book I came across a cartoon in the New Yorker where employees of a slaughterhouse are looking out over a pen of cattle. "Just before they're slaughtered," one says, "each one gets an achievement award."

I suppose you could read this as endorsing the crusade against participation trophies. But part of what works about Ishiguro's novel is that it isn't about scoring points against the liberal position by pointing out its hypocrisies. On some level, you could say, it's a conservative novel, showing how we all accommodate ourselves and our children to what is unthinkable: here, that they will die young, the rest of us, that we will die. But I think he also wants us to understand what makes the children take their "art" so seriously, and believe so dearly it will save them. Middle-class and upper middle-class parents get mocked a lot for wanting their kids do art and music, for thinking that they must be "gifted," for not realizing that talent and the right to do creative work must be reserved for the very few. When decent futures and meaningful work are scarce, expecting them is seen as an exercise in entitlement, and we try to repress all the evidence of how powerfully we desire them. If we can't make a world where they are available to all, we could at least stop making fun of parents for wanting to shield their kids for it just a minute longer.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My Joan Didion Problem: On Empathy

I've always had a problem with Joan Didion. Once on a long drive I listened to the audiobook of  My Year of Magical Thinking. I ended up pulling over to a rest stop and crying. A cop came and asked me if I was ok. It was a big book at the time, everyone found it moving, and I guess the fact that I was in that rest stop means I found it as moving as everyone else. But I remember that, while moved, I was mad at her. There was something about the way she described and remembered her life with husband that grated. She introduced us to their inside references, then picked them up later, as if we would then feel part of the charmed life she was recalling.  I've always had a weakness for the memoirs of old movie stars rock starts and other creative people with charmed if tragic lives. I think it is likely these books are not good for me. Oh, they make us think, if only I had arrived in the East Village in 1968, I would have met Robert Mapplethorpe. Um, no.  But there was something else going on here, something I put my finger on after reading Nick Paumgarten's profile of James Salter, when he quotes Salter as saying the writer should make the reader envious of the life the writer appears to be leading. I don't think Didion was necessarily courting our envy, but there was something there, and throughout her writing, that suggests she does not wish us well. 

As anyone who's ever taught composition knows, the "personal essay," as Didion's are generally considered to be, has an authority problem and an evidence problem. It's always at least three parts ethos and pathos to one part logos. So much of Didion's appeal seems to be wrapped up in a particular ethos, one rooted in the absence of pathos. A cool customer, as she describes herself in Magical Thinking. Presumably she would not start crying while listening to the audio version of her own book. From this ethos comes a recurring argument of sorts: life is tragic, the soft-hearted are fools, the utopians most of all. The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, many about some aspect of "the sixties," circle these themes again and again. As someone who has read a lot about that period and its social movements and will confess to having the nostalgia for it that can only come from not having lived through it, I always thought their arguments were "wrong," but I took them to be a natural outgrowth of her skepticism, a useful corrective to romanticizations of the period, the ever-elusive "smart conservative" view liberals are always looking for.  

But then, recently, I reread her essay “On the Women’s Movement.” It was published in the Times in 1972 and was in included in The White Album. You don't find it in the composition anthologies the way you find "In Bed," and "On Self Respect" and "On Keeping a Notebook," probably because it's  too particular to the moment, too polemical, too untidy to fit snuggly in the section of an anthology dedicated to "identity" or "gender." And what saturates the essay is not a cool, critical distance, or skepticism, or even irony.  It's contempt. It's only through this contempt she is able to make sense of the fact that the movement's radical ideas - which she also dismisses - have found a popular audience. To Didion, this is possible only insofar as these women have mistaken the movement for a program of midlife empowement: 

It wrenches the heart to read about these women in their brave new lives. An ex-wife and mother of three speaks of her plan "to play out my college girl's dream. I am going to New York to become this famous writer. Or this working writer. Failing that, I will get a job in publishing." She mentions a friend, another young woman who "had never had any other life than as a daughter or wife or mother" but who is "just discovering herself to be a gifted potter." The childlike resourcefulness-to get a job in publishing, to be a gifted potter-bewilders the imagination. The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life, somehow touches beyond words.
I suppose this is what people mean when they said that Didion’s writing is “tough” or “tragic,” but it seems to me nothing but a high-minded way of telling the proles to stay in their place. That women must grapple with “the real ambiguities and the real generative or malignant possibilities of adult sexual life” would seem to mean that they must stay in their marriages, that they must have children, that they must recognize that being a writer is something granted only to a few – presumably, including Didion. 
If you were supposed to live in New York, you already did, if you were supposed to be a writer, you already were. 

Because wealthy and middle-class women were traditionally raised to dabble in the arts, to use their art history degrees as hostesses and museum volunteers, and because, when turning away from these roles, the idea of "creative expression" was often the language they had to imagine a different life, women like Didion -  "real artists" - often felt the need to distinguish themselves from such amateurs and dilettantes.  Unlike many of today's anti-feminist populists, Didion doesn't care or pretend to care about the women feminists are leading astray with their contempt of the family and so forth. When she says "somehow touches beyond words," there is no empathy there - she finds these "childlike" women touching because they are pathetic to her. That she is so certain these women are aspiring to something where they have no place suggests that the notion of women as an oppressed class - though not without its problems and complications - is not as ridiculous as she assumed. 

Leftists often make the point that in an anti-political culture, psychology takes the part of politics: we think activists must be motivated by their relationship with their parents or sexuality or what have you. Self-help takes the place of solidarity, therapy takes the place of action. In a certain way, Didion herself is making a version of this point when she talks about the popularity of the feminist movement among largely non-political women looking for personal transformation. But in fact her essay ends up proving that the reverse is also true: that in an anti-political culture, contempt takes the place of critique. Proclaiming that it's never too late to be your best self, move to New York, and throw pots may not be the revolution, but between that and contempt, I'll take pottery every time. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Best Half Hour of (Recent) Television You've Never Seen

When I hosted a party for New Year's Eve '09/'10, as midnight came around, we tried to figure out what we should toast about the soon to be departed, not so beloved, mostly low and dishonest decade. We came up with the rise of the Latin American left and the whole (second?) (third?) golden age of television.  Now of course I would never compare television to a world changing historical event that gives you renewed hope for the future of the planet, but you may have noticed I'm a bit of a sucker for this whole whichever  golden age it is and I guess I'm marginally more qualified to discuss it, so.

Most fans of this stuff have their own pick for the best show of the '00s that hasn't gotten it's due. In Treatment is mine. But really, when I say this, what I mean is this one episode. It doesn't have a proper title, but Pine Barrons, the Suitcase - think like that.

When I was about twelve, I decided I wanted to be a psychologist. I was fascinated by adult emotions, by the seemingly inexhaustable complexity of their emotions, actions, and words. I thought it would be great to be able to hear everyone's secrets, that everyone would have to be honest with me. (Ha!) Probably this fantasy was a safer version of what I really wanted: an idealized version of the patient experience, to feel absolutely listened to, understood. This was pretty much the same reason I got interested in literature, but that's another story.

In Treatment had a gimmick-y sounding structure. It aired every night of the week when it was on HBO. Each of the first four nights, the therapist, Paul, saw a different patient. Then, on Friday, he saw his own therapist. The sessions of course moved a lot more quickly with a lot more immediate high points than a normal therapy session would, but everything on display - the sensitivities, the hesitations, the false starts, the defensiveness, the sometimes circular and sometimes associative logic - are instantly recognizable for anyone who's spent any time in on the couch. (We can still call it that even though we sit up now, right?) And of course Paul uses all the same evasive moves on his therapist his patients have been using on him.

It was a perversely market-unfriendly set up, and I haven't had much luck persuading friends to watch it from this description.  And for some strange reason, "It was based on an Israeli series!" "It was created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez's son!" "There's now something like 10 versions!" haven't done the trick either. I suspect it's that most people find the thought of listening to other people's therapy sessions unbearable, like listening to other people's dreams. Which I actually love listening to, so, maybe my twelve year-old self was onto something.

But really, the reasons people should watch it are all in that episode.  (I guess I should say this paragraph has "spoilers," though that seems odd in the context of this show.) One of the patients in the first season is Alex, a navy pilot.  His therapy raises some of the same questions as Tony Soprano's, though to my mind in a more morally complex and interesting way.  Like Tony, he comes into therapy for a narrow, self-serving reason (do we all?):  to be function better, to relieve stress without changing anything central about his life. Like Tony, he does a more aggressive and asshole-ish version of the testing most new patients do. Tony insults therapy and brags about his money and young girlfriend; Alex makes it known he is the "best of the best," probes his therapist's credentials, and insults his sub-par coffee maker.

Most essentially, both Tony and Alex have killed innocent people as part of their jobs. Neither of them want to confront this in any real way; both want to continue to do their jobs effectively. Understandably so, one almost wants to write - and that's where the wrinkle comes in. Both therapists see a suffering person and want to help. Their patient's victims are not there. As ethical people, and as believers in their profession, they (and we) think that one cannot or should not be able to live with having killed innocent people, that it must be confronted, dealt with, although they/we also suspect from that the pure self-interest point of view, these patients might be better off with a full dose of repression.  For me, the whole arc of The Sopranos, NJ vs. NY and all the rest of it aside, is about how a man whose life doesn't bear examination flirts with the idea of examining it and inevitably pulls back. Melfi shuts the door on him in the second to last episode, but it was never really open. I think it's meant to be an open question whether or not she is culpable in making him a more effective gangster, or whether we are culpable for inevitably being "on his side" throughout. What's clear is that he was never getting out. You can say this makes the show tragic - I actually think it makes it limited in a certain way, no matter how brilliant.

You don't have to be an anti-war pinko like me to see that Alex is in a similar situation, though it helps. Even if you think the Iraq war was justified, and that the "accidental" deaths of the children in the school he dropped bombs on and others like them are defensible costs in the name of some greater good, I think most people would acknowledge it's hard to take Alex's initial self-presentation - that he's basically fine with it all and just needs the therapist to sign off on his plan to go back to the bomb site,  but not because he has a bad conscience, of course - at face value.  Paul doesn't believe it, of course, so he pushes. They dance around the usual stuff of Alex's family and marriage, and Alex tries to best Paul by taking up with another of his patients. He eventually decides it's not therapy he needs - it's to go back to Iraq, to start flying. Shortly after this he is killed in a training exercise, and there's speculation it was a suicide. In the final episode of his story, his father comes to see Paul.

His father is brilliantly played by Glynn Turman, who played mayor Royce on The Wire. (If nothing else that show demonstrated how many wonderful and criminally underused African-American actors are out there.) In talking to him, Paul is "breaking the rules" since the confidentiality of what Alex told him is supposed to live on even after Alex is dead. Like teaching, I think, therapy is often about how to create a sense of connection and even transgression without actually throwing out all the rules, and Paul tries to do this, dancing around the questions but unable or unable to disengage. Turman speaks up for stoicism, for repression, for doing what you have to do to survive without opening up every wound, accusing Paul of poking around where it wasn't his business to be. It's a familiar argument of stern patriarchs, but it has a poignancy and credibility when coming from an older African-American man from the south. Here the meaning of therapy diverges sharply from in the Sopranos. It may be that Alex's killings are different from Tony's only in that his are justified by the culture as a whole rather than just a reviled if romanticized subculture.  But his father's resistance is something else altogether. It's about what happens when you suffer injustice so baked into the wider world that there seems no sane response except to view family and community as sacrosanct and keep outsiders at a distance as much as possible. Paul had no right to poke around in Alex's psyche - not just because it was dangerous but because it wasn't his place. Paul says that sometimes people like an objective voice, an outsider they're not entangled with. To which the father replies, like a prostitute paid for her discretion?

Because our culture is so off-kilter politically, "both sides have a point" is most often the motto of brain-dead hacks.  In dramas, even the smartest ones, we're meant to identify with a central figure and see other people they way they see them - as opportunities or obstacles. Conflicts tell us about a character and reflect what we wish we would say in a situation. Watching this episode made me think about how rare it is to hear to people articulate fundamentally conflicting world views and not feel like the game either is rigged or staged. How much self-examination can we bear? Does someone who has made others suffer deserve aid and comfort? Is it wrong to pay someone to care about us? Which kinds of caring are ok to do this for? (I don't happen to think either prostitution or therapy are wrong, but that doesn't mean I think Alex's father is wrong, either.) If we lived in a smarter more humane world having more humane debates maybe a scene like this wouldn't be so striking. Of course, if we did, all the elements of Alex's storyline would also have played out differently.