Monday, November 18, 2013

Lessing


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

Snowflakes

"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.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

On Obsession

I've mentioned before my compulsive need to read The New Yorker in order, no matter how far behind I get, and no matter how absurd it feels to see people's posts or hear things in conversation and file them away for three months later.  So there I am, going through the March 18th issue of The New Yorker, ready to throw it across the room because all the thoughts in the world about my own relative privilege in life still can't make me cope with a book review that's half about the author's two kitchens, one on the Upper West Side, (sadly small because it was made for servants), and one in Umbria. But then, in the back pages, in the stuff there really should be no reason but compulsion not to skip (a review of an exhibition now closed), I came across one of the most stunning photographs I've seen in a long time.

The photograph shows a woman is standing on a ladder, slightly hunched. She's wearing a brown coat, dark slacks, and high top sneakers. Her hair is thick, dark, and curled, cropped just below her ears. She's looking down at the tools in her right hand and dangling a cigarette from her left. Something about her clothes and style say "sixties," though the overall feel is so ethereal that I'm tempted to repress  all my historicist training and call the image "timeless." Behind her is a giant canvass that fills the frame, a painting-as-sculpture with a center point from which spring thick gray ridges, carved with a palette knife. The center hits just above her head, a giant crushing halo. Apparently, when viewed properly, it generates its own light, a result of the mica spread across it.

The photograph is of Jay DeFeo in 1960, working on "The Rose;" the occasion for its appearance in The New Yorker is the (now closed) show at the Whitney.   DeFeo was part of the San Francisco Beat scene and worked on "The Rose" from '58-'66, stopping only when she was evicted from her Filmore Street apartment. The work weighs more than a ton, so they had to knock out a wall and remove it by crane. When she died in 1989 it was in a conference room behind a protective wall.

I don't want to say the obvious things: about people who say women aren't as good at [fill it in] because they're not capable of single-minded obsessions, about Big Drips and flowers and the problem with flowers, and whether a 2,300 pound gray rose might solve them. I know that power is supposed to come from the work, not the struggle it took to make it. ("DeFeo was not a great artist," Peter Schjeldahl writes, "But the ferocity of her commitment and the anguish of her frustration make her a totemic figure for people who can understand those sentiments from experience.")

I'm not sure I believe this anymore, though: that thinking about the struggle or the life is a distraction, a concession to our craven celebrity culture or what have you. I've started to think that all real art is in some sense about how it has come into being, how and why it exists, why it needed to.  Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebooks, from whence this blog, is all about this. There are four notebooks. The one that contains the novel the protagonist is writing is the thinnest, but it's compelling because you see how the elements from the others are reworked and, inevitably, reduced when rendered this way. Of the novel within the novel, you think: look at all that went into making this smaller thing. Then, inevitably, of how much more of Lessing must have gone in to the making of Notebooks.  

What does it mean to work on a single painting everyday for seven years? Is it a beautiful story, an unfortunate sideline in an otherwise more productive career, or a full-blown cautionary tale?

People talk a lot about how we romanticize destructive obsessions, and there's something to that. But what about someone like DeFeo? She's not neglecting her children (she had none) or stabbing her partner or doing any of the things that, when done by artists, lead to tired arguments about whether we can "enjoy" their work. What does it mean to call this kind of obsession destructive?  We tell people to find their passion - but what that often means in practice is this.  Or else it means, find a way to feel good about your job, despite the fact that even the best ones are "too small for people" as one of Studs Terkel's interviewees put it. In one of Miranda July's stories, a character talks about her friends, the ones who work in the arts, who have decently creative jobs with nice sounding names. But none of them, she says, are as good as just singing La.

When I look at that photograph, I don't think about the things people usually talk about when they talk about a the creation of a Big Important Work of Art: about sacrifice, or selfishness, or even obsession. DeFeo was apparently a beloved member of the artistic circle in San Francisco at the time. But even if she had been a loner, I don't think I'd see that. The photograph has an obviously religious cast, with the giant "halo" and her body positioned something like Christ carrying the cross, ascending the ladder in front of her artwork as if towards the ceiling of her own chapel.  I'm sympathetic to the view that art or writing or any creative endeavor is just work like any other, and we shouldn't talk about it in such metaphysical terms. But the perhaps manipulative framing of this photograph aside, it's hard not to see a project like DeFeo's as a sacred calling.

What is an artist like DeFeo doing, if not constructing a life, the kind of life she finds bearable? The aim is not to create a beautiful object, it's to live a life in pursuit of beauty.  All meaning is constructed: here is where she finds hers. Perhaps this is not unique to the arts; perhaps this is what all unalienated work would look like. But it's something.



Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Anger and "Meaning It"

So apparently there's a new documentary about Morton Downey Junoir  out. People like to talk about how the great things they read when they were young stuck with them like nothing else but of course it's also the crap that sticks to us. I don't think I actually watched his show, though I certainly watched a lot of crap when I was in junior high and high school. But I have a clear image of him, in super close up, smoking, holding a noose, saying some one or other should be strung up by his testicles in it. I think maybe it was flag burners. Remember the flag burners?

Now if someone described someone with a noose on TV screaming about who should be killed in what manner for having the wrong beliefs or whatever, and you didn't know the time or place, probably you might  say this is a dangerous person. We might say "fascist" without being accused of hyperbole. But from the description, it sounds like the documentary makers are more interested in him as a kind of media pioneer, paving the way for the Glen Becks who walk among us, "important" in some way, worthy of more than the expected liberal handwringing.  And while I'm all for avoiding the predictable liberal hand-wringing, there's something equally tiresome about liberals bending over backwards to lend "complexity" to their discussions about the people who just plain hate them. I've been trying for a while to write something about how David Foster Wallace (not exactly a liberal but close enough) falls into this - how he was so much less smart about politics than he was about everything else. His profile of a B-list shock jock is typically brilliant in dissecting all the rhetorical and psychological tics of its subject, but in the end, you don't really end up with something that different from: white dude pissed off that people are daring to speak back to white dudes.

Presumably the filmmakers, like Wallace, would find the position of righteous indignation towards Downey tiresome and predictable. He's a buffoon, an entertainer, representative of something or other about relentless American self-invention and so forth. He's an entertainer, and  presumably "he didn't really mean it." But of course we're quick when it's other places and times to say those who seem like buffoons can be the most dangerous. In any case, at 14, I didn't know I was supposed to make those distinctions. I thought he was completely terrifying.

As a kid in the eighties and a teenager in the late eighties and early nineties, AIDS had far more of a  impact on me than anything else that was roughly construed as a "political issue."  I remember watching The Day After - or maybe I just remember people talking about it - and I remember asking my mother why there was this strange commercial on TV about a bear.  But this fear was abstract, philosophical. AIDS was visceral. I remember my parents recording the 5:30 NBC news every night on the VCR and the sound of Robert Bazell's voice signing off his dispatches from the NIH, the graphics of the cells that would come and invade your body and turn it against itself. I remember my parents watching the McLaughlin Group and Pat Buchanan shouting about quarantines. I remember our "health" class, where the proto-absitence education of choice was mostly touch-feely stuff about 50 ways you could be intimate without sex, laced with strong doses of gender essentialism. (I remember "Guys give love to get sex, girls give sex to get love" being not just something that was discussed but presented as a clear fact about the world. It may have even been an answer on a test. "There's no condom for the heart" was also a popular one.) I remember a guest "motivational" speaker saying that Magic Johnson would be condemning his wife to death if he slept with her again even once. I remember people saying that 1 out of 50 - or was it 1 out of 10 - kids in college had AIDS and if you slept with anyone it was only a matter of time until you got it. 

No one was out in my high school that I was aware of. The only time gay people were mentioned was when someone said "It's not just gay people who get it" (implication: therefore it matters) or when a certain teacher/coach would tell gay jokes to get the kids on his side. There was a substitute teacher who I guess was effeminate in some way - I only remember the way people talked about him - and he got it even worse than the other substitutes, including from the other teachers. There was nothing about gay rights in our very short history section on Civil Rights. Even though I thought of myself as "political" because I'd gotten interested in Civil Rights and feminism and even tried to organize a little "teach-in" when the first Gulf War happened, I'd never heard of Stonewall or Harvey Milk or ACT-UP. This was at a well-regarded, public suburban high school where people did well on the SATs and everyone went to college. And it wasn't the South. I got into a lot of political arguments with people that ended with them telling me I shouldn't take things so seriously. I didn't know what I was angry about yet, but I knew there was something wrong with a world where the "good schools" expected a loud mouth girl to "do well" and "be smart" but found any actually application of curiosity to the outside world embarrassing and a liability. 

Reading about this film made me think about AIDS in those years because of an essay I came across when I was teaching composition in graduate school by Randy Shilts called "Talking AIDS to Death," a follow up to And The Band Played On, where he talks about the horrible irony of being "successful" with his book while people kept dying.  (I can't seem to find a copy online but there are lots of student essays for sale that quote it and a link to a database that has an abstract and warns that the information in it was accurate in 1989 but "standards may have changed." To plagiarize Jamaica Kincaid: there's a world of something in that, but I can't get into it now.) In the piece he talks about going on Downey's show, reluctantly after being assured Downey had a brother with AIDS and would be respectful. Once they're on the air, it's all quarantines and fuming. Shilts threatens to walk off, only to be told not to worry, Downey had "a fall back position." Everyone was in on the act, it seems, but the audience.

Shilts didn't get tested when he was writing And The Band Played On, reportedly because he was afraid it would affect the "objectivity" and reception of the book.  It's an old story: feminists who write about gender, African-Americans who write about race are "not objective" or "angry." Those with less at stake, who wield their real or faked or real but amped up anger for ratings don't have to worry about such things. The righteous anger of outsiders and people fighting for their lives frightens us: it challenges us. Why aren't we fighting too, why aren't we angry?  But reactionary anger we're meant to take in stride: it's just how people blow off steam. It's just good TV.  

Maybe so. But poking around in the much the way these filmmakers seem to have done or the way David Foster Wallace does never makes good on its promise. It never unmasks some legitimate grievance at the root of all the ugliness. It never says anything useful about some populist way for progressives to talk to "the people." There's just one layer of ugliness after another. It's not without its fascinations. But better to rewatch How to Survive a Plague, reread Shilts or Larry Kramer, and imagine how ridiculous the question of whether they "really meant it" would seem.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Self-Help, Politics, and that David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech

I've been thinking a lot about self-help lately.  From a left perspective, the critique of self-help culture pratically writes itself: it encourages us to think of our problems as individual, it shuts down critique and collective action, and it blames the victim, telling cancer patients and the unemployed equally that they brought it on themselves but not thinking positively enough. Which is all true enough as far as it goes. But one of the things I liked about Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright Sided  was that, although she makes this case definitely, drawing on her own experience with the truely noxious breast cancer cult , she also talks about the roots of the movement in the nineteenth century, as an attempt mostly undertaken by women to soften the Puritan/Calvinist tradition. There is, of course, a strongly gendered component to the way we talk about self-help: just mention Oprah to the sort of fake-populist who is always waxing poetic about the wisdom of their cabdrivers and watch them go crazy about her self-esteem "cult" and "middlebrow" book picks.

But I've also been thinking about the versions of self-help that circulate in liberal/upper middle-class circles: yoga, meditation, the more "spiritual" claims of certain kinds of foodies.  Since it's graduation season, I've been noticing David Foster Wallace's graduation speech "This is Water" floating around the internet again, and now there's a "film version."   Wallace has riffed on self-help ideas in a good deal of his work, most thoroughly in the depiction of addiction and the culture of 12-step programs in Infinite Jest. His personal library contained a huge number of carefully annotated self-help books, as The Awl's  Maria Bustillos  maticulously detailed. Even without thinking of the tragic end of Wallace's life, it's easy to think about much of his work as a way to redeem self-help from the tyranny of cant. I'm thinking especially of that piece at the end (near the end?) of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, in which the interviewee struggles with his contempt for his girlfriend's New Age-isms which have, despite the aesthetic offense they give him, saved her life. (A side note which isn't really a side note: it is of course impossible not to think about the end of Wallace's life, and there's no reason to feel one shouldn't out of some lingering New Critical-taboo, which often comes from the same pseudo-sophisicated gendered place as knee-jerk Oprah bashing.)

The heart of Wallace's speech is his discussion of how, ideally, a liberal arts education should teach one not "how to think" but "what to think about" and therefore a way to manage the frustrations of everyday life. Describing a frustrating trip to the supermarket at rush hour he talks about the choice we have to see the others in the supermarket lines as something other than impediments:
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
It's good stuff, really.  One of the reasons I like teaching writing and especially "creative" writing so much is how intellectually and personally powerful it can be for students just to take a step back, to reflect, Here's my question, though: what if you are the "fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line?"  Or the clerk he mentions in a previous section, whose boredom Wallace is sure no one at Kenyon could ever imagine? What inner resources are you supposed to muster in order to not yell at your kids? To feel a little less "dead-eyed?" What about to not yell at the liberal arts grad who is looking at you as a symbol of everything about the world that depresses them? And doesn't that liberal arts grad deserved to get yelled at, just a little bit? (And, come to think of it, I'd bet that a Kenyon college graduate mother  (or father!) has yelled at his/her kids at least once in the history of the universe.)  Interestingly enough, just a few paragraphs before Wallace himself tries to steer his audience away from the kind of lazy superiority he falls into here:
Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on. 
Wallace insists his argument isn't a moral one, that he's not trying to lecture the Kenyon kids about how to be, to tell them to be more compassionate, but just to think about the control one has over one's mind. But it can't help but be moralism, because he's punching down. He figures that the main problem Kenyon kids will face is all the ordinariness of the world and the people they'll encounter who aren't as special and passionate as Kenyon told them the word would be.  He's counseling them against despair and anger when they find this out. But for people who already know this, isn't anger sometimes the way out of despair?

I'm sure that to Wallace or many who love him it would seem like I'm just doing the same thing he's talking about - running an automatic left tape through the scenario the way the Kenyon students wanted to run the liberal one. They say "modern consumer society sucks"; I say "capitalism sucks." But the thing is, big cars really are trashing our planet, and long drives to stores with musak really do make us miserable. And things are that way for reasons, and those reasons don't have anything to do with mothers who wear too much makeup. In reading and writing about second wave feminism, "Consciousness raising" gets mocked a lot but I don't think you can underestimate the liberating move of saying, this thing - be it rape, sexual harassment, my inability to take my own work seriously - it is a thing, it is not "life." Unlike a lot of lefties, I don't begrudge anyone Oprah or religion or anything that helps, and I think a lot of them actually are genuinely helpful, not mystifications or what have you.  But sometimes we fish need to say to each other: This is not the world. This is not water. This is a tank.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Being a Problem

Once, when I was studying in France during college, I was at some sort of dinner party, the kind where I was the youngest person there by about twenty years. I remember being asked about the death penalty (which often seemed to stand in for Europeans' sense of the United States's backwardness back then - ah, the relative innocence of those Clinton years) and about Virginia Woolf (because when you tell French people you're studying literature they ask you about what you've read instead of asking if you like being poor the way Americans do).  In my mediocre French I managed to say, more or less, that I was against the death penalty and very, very much in favor of Virginia Woolf.  Then the male host, who up until then had been pretty quiet, leaned in with that "ok this has been fine and all but now I will ask the really important question people are afraid to ask" posture.

"Et les noirs, aux Etats Unis?" he asked. " Comment ├ža va?" Black people in the U.S. How's that going?

Now, obviously, he  didn't rationally think there was anything I could say that would meaningfully speak to the condition of 30 million people. Like a lot of dinner party conversation, it was a performance. I think he disliked me for some reason and wanted to trip me up, to ask something 'controversial' that would throw me off balance.  The people he was talking about weren't really people, weren't really even a 'problem' or a 'question,' they were just words for him to say.  I wish I could say I whipped up a stinging reply invoking James Baldwin about how we don't have a black people problem, we have a white people problem, or something like that.  Instead I mumbled, well, that's a very complicated question. The female host saw my discomfort and changed the subject and may have shot her husband a nasty look. I don't remember exactly.

But I remember that detail from that dinner party from all those years ago because it comes to mind every time I read some article about what people - most often women, or non-white people, or poor people - are doing wrong.

For a long time I was unable to read any article like this that was about a group I'm a part of. Being relatively fortunate and white, these were usually relatively mild pieces about why there were so many single women in New York City and why so many people were stupid enough to go to graduate school in the humanities. Back when I was doing internet dating, I made a rule not to reply to the (so so many) guys who had rants about how they never wanted to date anyone who identified with any of the women on Sex on the City.  I didn't identify with them (well, almost never), but I was weary of anyone who was a little too excited to have a shorthand for the single-woman-as-problem. (Correctly so as I found out when I broke my rule).  I still have a problem getting through a lot of these kinds of articles, especially now that I'm a mother. Maybe I'm just sensitive, and this is just a variation on the Groucho Marx problem. I can't read any article that has me as a member of its problem. But I don't think I'm alone on this.

I've been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks because of these horrible ads.  Now, not surprisingly, a lot of the responses have been about the tone of them, whether they shame teenage parents and whether they'll be effective. There's been less discussion about whether they are accurate.

Kell Goff  claims that critics have focused on tone because "of course" they're accurate - a claim she finds so self-evident she doesn't feel the need to support it - although she finds time to link to a very relevant study about young people wanting to be famous.

But actually, there's a lot of evidence that they're misleading at best. This overview of recent studies  argues  that teen pregnancy is a result, not a cause, of poverty and that it actually has "little, if any, direct economic consequence.  Kristin Luker reached the same conclusion in her book from 1997, and Planned Parenthood's criticism of the ads cites the work of Frank Furstenberg,  who did an early long-term study following young mothers and their kids and found the same thing and similarly summarizes the findings.

Now, I know a lot of people find this hard to believe. But you, know, that's why we have studies: because something seems intuitive and is agreed on by both liberals and conservatives doesn't make it so. And when you think about it, it actually does make sense. Kids are expensive! scream the ads. But they're expensive no matter what age you are. If you're middle class, your income will likely go up a lot over the course of your working life, so waiting has a lot of economic benefits. If you're poor or working class, not so much. And having your kids early has some advantages: you have more energy, you're more likely to have help from your own parents and extended family. (Ironically, you'll see articles acknowledging this, but usually only when they're using it slam on women for having kids too late.) And being a parent can inspire young people to do well in or go back to school, and to achieve in all kinds of ways.

But these false beliefs have real consequences for real parents and their kids. Listen to someone who's been there: 
"As a teen mom, my life has seen some insanely high peaks of hell and it wasn’t because of my pregnancy or motherhood, it was because of the crappy experiences I had to endure with people who were (and still are) judgmental and bitter. When I wanted to apply for college in high school, my guidance counselor told me not to bother - that I should focus on trying to graduate high school first and apply to a community college IF that even happened. When I turned to people for support, they threw statistics into my face and told me I was what these very ads portrayed. I wasn’t. I’m not. And most teen moms aren’t. Until today, I still hear the “Well, you should have thought about that before becoming a mom.” 
There's a particularly awful irony here: when people cite statistics about poverty in order to talk about the challenges of helping students succeed, the administration who spent your tax dollars on this crap accuses them of "making excuses." Demographics aren't destiny! A good teacher can solve everything! Defy the odds with bootstraps! But once you're a fallen woman, the (misleading) statistics are all. You no longer have any agency.  Poverty isn't a problem in Bloomberg-land; it's a punishment.

That's why the criticism that "you can't change people's behavior by shaming them" isn't quite right. Because the people being shamed aren't ones the ads are talking to. They're the ones being talked about. They're the problem. They're the object lesson meant to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives. And we should think twice before doing anything to improve their lives - or the lives of their kids - because it will send the wrong message. That might sound paranoid, unless you remember the "debate" over welfare reform.


I remember leaving the hospital with my son just over a year ago now.  The hospital where he was born is on a busy city street, so I remember the odd feeling of stepping out from that other self-enclosed world to find the city had been going about its normal business. I remember the mix of exhaustion, adrenaline, joy and terror.  I can't imagine what it would have felt like if I had come across an ad, an official message put forward by the city of which I was a citizen, that told me my worst fears were justified, their realization inevitable, and that any joy I was feeling was a delusion to which I had no right. I would say that I wouldn't wish such a feeling on anyone, but I sort of do wish that the ad team that came up with this "edgy" concept and probably is congratulating themselves, taking the controversy as evidence they've "started a conversation" or what have you, would feel it, just for a while. Because they're the problem.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

If NY Mag Had Asked Me

So there was a bit of a noise recently after New York published this survey about the now (presumably complete) Roth oeuvre. Most of it had to do with how many women and men were included in the survey (take a guess), the probable impact of this on the answers to the question "Is Roth a misogynist?" and the unfortunate start of Keith Gessen's response to that question: "Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?" Oh, and they asked James Franco. So there's that.

So New York didn't ask me, sadly. But I do feel somewhat uniquely qualified here. I've written about Roth quite a bit, and have read almost all his books, including the lesser-known non-fiction memoirs and essays. Even the one about baseball. And because, while I'm sure many people would think this only shows my "bias," I actually think having also spent a lot of time reading, writing and thinking about feminism, might put me in an interesting position to answer these questions.

So, if New York had asked me? Well, before getting to the misogyny thing, I would have been tempted to make fun of their questions. Is he the greatest living American novelist? Like, really, the greatest ever ever? And should he win the big prize? They might as well have asked, but is he awesome. . . or super awesome?  (A fawning biographer having an affair with her famous subject would make a pretty good Roth novel, actually). Can't we leave the obsessive ranking to the Ivy League admissions offices and the guys from High Fidelity? If you have to go there, I do have a soft spot for his consistency: it is pretty impressive that of the almost thirty books of his I've read, there's only one stinker in the bunch. (That would be the baseball one.) 

So, is he a misogynist?  Presumably a lot of people find the question stupid or insulting, but I'm with Zoe Heller here: it makes no sense to celebrate art's potential to offend, and then claim that anyone taking offense is deluded or stupid. Of course, to take offense is to risk sounding like one of the Puritans Roth rails against.  That's probably why Nell Freudenberger said "I don't like the way he writes about women, and I don't like the way I sound complaining about it." And it's true that while, as everyone rushed to point out, the fact that the characters spend a lot of time thinking about fucking women doesn't mean they aren't misogynist, it doesn't mean they are, either. Straight male sexuality is as good a theme as any, and, given that Roth isn't wrong about our Puritanism, there's a tendency to react negatively to that in a way that is kind of hollow. There's a Terry Gross interview with Roth when she asks him about his character's "excessive" sexuality, and he said that the concept of normality wasn't one any serious person has any business entertaining.

But I think a lot of readers who aren't Puritans are responding to something else. At times it's the Tom Wolfe-level satirical misses: a lot of The Human Stain is wonderful but as a satire of a female academic Delphine Roux could have been written by a National Review intern over his lunch break, and about Rita Cohen, the man-eating radical from American Pastoral, the less said the better.

More than that, though, I think the interesting question is the extent to which there's an imaginative sympathy extended, one which at least attempts to see all the characters as they see themselves. Not everyone has to be George Eliot, of course, and being inside one head, with all its peculiarities and solipsisms, even the same one year after year and book after book, can be a pretty rich vein to tap. (Though the churlish part of me wonders whether such a project would get a woman author labelled as 'personal' or 'minor,' rather than land her a manly poll with big yellow circles to mark the circumference of her greatness.) And ironically, his big theme actually necessitates that Roth spend more time with his female characters than a lot of male writers. No one that I know of has asked if Cormac McCarthy is a misogynist for creating worlds where women often don't exist. Personally I prefer writers who explore masculinity rather than take it as a given universal.   I think, for example, that Junot Diaz's latest collection is brilliant in how it does that - and not only because he includes a story from a woman's point of few.  It's still noteworthy that he does this, I think, and that it's hard to imagine Roth doing this. Not that anyone has to, of course, but shouldn't it be seen as a skill that's part of what we talk about when we talk about writers who can 'do everything'?

Still, at a certain point there's a failure of imagination that does get wearying. It's interesting that Benjamin Kunkel picked as his favorite passage this one from American Pastoral: "You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again." That's Zuckerman talking about "Swede" Levov, whose placid world and un-Zuckerman like bonhomie has been torn apart by his daughter's radicalism. The daughter, Merry, is completely unconvincing as a character in her own right but completely convincing as a portrait of how the Swede would see her. But it's Zuckerman who's worried about getting the Swede right - Merry herself is portrayed as so irrational there's nothing right or wrong to get about her.

Interestingly, for me there are two times in Roth where a female character breaks outside of the projections and fantasies, one from the start of his career, and one from much later. As Vivian Gornick writes in her essay on Roth and Bellow from The Men in My Life, the relationship between Brenda and Neil in "Goodbye Columbus" has a tenderness that immediately disappears from his work thereafter: "When, close to the end, Neil says to himself, "Who is she? What do I really know of her?" it is not to demonize Brenda, it is to underscore the mystery of sexual love." To Neil's final reflection that "I knew it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way I had made love to her" Gornick remarks, "A long while? How about never?" (I'd been working on this post for a while when I realized that of course Gornick had already said it all and said it better. I don't think the essay is online but there's an interview where she talks about its argument and the relationship between sexism and the Jewish thing. There's also a fascinating 1976 essay on Miller and Mailer and Roth in this collection.)

Never indeed, but to my mind something interesting did happen late in the game with Sabbath's Theater, the winner in the "best book" part of the poll.  Drenka, mistress and foil for the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, is the one woman in Roth who is a peer of the man who pursues her - not only because her libido and erotic imagination match his, but because they're both outsiders. Unlike so many women in Roth, Drenka doesn't embody the fear of aging or illness or death; instead she's a kind of double for his own experience of isolation, someone whose solidity is as tenuous as his own. In the Gornick interview I linked above, she talks about how Roth and Bellow use women as a way to avenge the experience of feeling excluded.  By the time we get to Sabbath, though, there's something else: how the resistance to domestic and conventional life has made this almost-old man another kind of outsider, and the cost of this. Not that he should have done otherwise, exactly, but it's an ongoing joke in the book that he fancies himself the proper bohemian artist sacrificing everything for his art, but his art is puppets. 

Sabbath also points to something that's evident throughout late Roth: the sense that his protagonists are raging against an order that's long since faded away. Sabbath's friend asks him "Isn't it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero . . .Are we back to Lawrence's gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism . .. the discredited male polemic's last gasp." Interestingly, Gessen says something similar  in the rest of his response: "Still, it might be said that Roth is slightly less useful in a world that is slightly more equal than the world he knew; where men and women do not stand on opposites sides of the question of sex, but arranged, together, something helplessly, against it; where sex is less of a battlefield and more of a tragedy." I'm not sure about the tragedy part:  Everyman, for example, doesn't work because adultery no longer carries that weight. I was reading Details at the hairdresser yesterday and there was a teaser for the Roth documentary coming out. So I guess Roth is still a male symbol of some sort for some people. It quoted him saying something about all those 19th century novels with adultery as their theme. I love adultery he says, don't you. Well, many people do, it would seem. But by Everyman he was tired enough of writing it that he breaks off a scene of the protagonist's fight with his wife, noting that scenes such as these are common enough, no need to write them again.

  I do think what Gessen says applies more to the pre-sexual revolution mores depicted in things like Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go and Indignation than to all of Zuckerman and Kepesh's exploits. Still it makes me want to give Gessen the benefit of the doubt that he was making a joke with the first part. Either way, it does point to something: as Freudenberger's comment shows us, no one wants to be the reactive critic, waging a finger at the artist's vision. But Gessen gets at what's behind her ambivalence: it's Roth's work itself which is so often the "reaction." This is not necessarily a fault, but it's something that demands a better question than one about greatness.

All of which is, I suppose, to say: I would have gone with the 52% who voted "well . . .. "

Saturday, February 23, 2013

White Guys Drive Like This, or, How to Write about Music

A remember, years ago, sometime in the early 90s, hearing a joint interview on NPR with the poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. I'm going from memory here, as is permitted in a blog post, no? They were married; Kenyon died not long after I must have heard the interview, and Hall's poems about this are probably what most people know about him, if anything. Anyways, it was a typical NPR-kind of interview, in that on some level the interviewer knew that most people listening didn't really care much about poetry, but might be interested in hearing a married couple banter about their creative work. So I remember a bunch of questions about when they would give their work to each other and such. At one point one of them mentioned that they had both recently written poems about the first Gulf War (of course just called the Gulf War then), and that they had shared them with each other, neither having known before that they were both writing about it. It was a joke, they both said. His was such a man's poem, and hers such a woman's. The way I remember it, hers involved a mother holding a torn nightgown, his had footnotes referencing the Iliad. You get the idea, even if I'm remembering the details wrong. Anyways, as people know, I'm sort of blessed/cursed with remembering snippets of things like this from 20 years ago.  I'm not sure there's such a thing as "good memory"; I think if that space weren't being taken up, I'd remember other things more thoroughly, and better. Anyways, I was blessed/cursed with this particular memory when I was listening, of all things, to a podcast from Slate of a discussion about Infinite Jest, featuring Katie Roiphe. (I've been writing about DFW; this was a "break.")  At one point Roiphe said something like, well, can we all just admit that a woman wouldn't write a book like this. The other people on the podcast, both men, were a little sheepish and asked what she meant and she said, basically, well, you know, writing a big book to show that you could write a big book. 

Well. I was wondering: is it ok for Hall & Kenyon to do some variation on the "men write like this . . . " thing, but not Roiphe? If so, is it because they're writers talking about their own work? Because they were jokey about it? Or just because they're not Katie Roiphe, what with her whole history of using the "women do this" thing to make empirical claims about the world that have had a real, harmful effect?

Probably a little of all of these. And I think Francine Prose's 1998 piece stands as just about the clearest reason of why you should probably stay away from such things all together.

 And then, just as I was thinking about all of this, I came across this article by Zadie Smith about Joni Mitchell. What an article! I've mentioned before the program I taught in when I was in grad school, how they wanted our students to write personal essays and tried to get them there by having them write this sequence of exercises with images, scenes, and reflections. It didn't usually work, and the other departments really hated us, but I liked the effort to kill the five paragraph beast. Every now and then, I come across an essay, or a piece of a memoir, and I think, ah, that's it: what we were trying to do. From Joni Mitchell to Kierkegaard and Tintern Abbey . . it shouldn't work, and yet.

 I was thinking was that all the things that made it such a great piece - how she's talking about the necessary limitations on how much art we can love in one life, how she had gotten it wrong before, how she's probably still getting so much wrong. Even after this revelation, she says, I'm still mostly talking about Blue: the album "any fool" owns. It doesn't argue for why Mitchell is great; instead it helps you experience it anew through someone else's ears.

And then it occurred to me that the piece was just about the exact opposite of one the New Yorker had recently run about the Grateful Dead, which was all about completists and the lost tapes and techno-fetishism - in other words, just about every stereotypical "male" way of looking at music sent up in High Fidelity. Prose brilliantly takes down the common tropes of those who think they favor "strong" "male" writing. But I have to admit, looking at these two pieces side by side, there's something that makes me think women are more likely to achieve something I value in writing. Lots of men achieve it - but they tend to be men who have been 'outsiders' in some way, however you define that. But that's so subjective! Well, yes. The acknowledgment of one's own subjectivity - and limitations - is part of why Smith's piece transports me in a way a "my band is the best!" piece never could.  More writers of all genders should take it out for a spin.



Thursday, January 31, 2013

Brief Thoughts After Binge-Watching Girls

1) If nothing else, the show is kind of genius at creating buzz. The SATC nod in the first episode, the parody of He's Just Not that Into You in the second, to the Reality Bites-ish, "well, a voice of a generation. . . " the show practically wrote half the blog posts that would be written about it in its first few episodes. I just feel sorry for all the straight girls internet dating now who will probably be reading ads saying "don't even think of messaging me if you identify with any of those stupid girls" five years after it goes off air. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything.

2) Adam is kind of a legitimately great character: unlike any of the girls, he's sort of like someone you know but have never seen on TV. (On the other hand, I spent the first few episodes trying to remember who he reminded me of, and it was Jeremy Sisto's Billy on Six Feet Under. But still).

3) However. Hannah and Adam's relationship strikes me less as the dark, fucked-up thing the show seems to think it is and more of an unrealized S&M thing. I mean, they kind of both realize that they get off on treating each other badly, on power games, but I'm not sure if they don't know enough to be conscious of it. Yes, the awkward sex on Girls can be as good as the awkward sex on Louie, but there also seems to be this shorthand that kinky sex=bad/awkward/fucked up sex, like with Booth Jonathan in the last episode, whereas nice guy Charlie just wanted to look Marnie in the eye.  But chicks secretly like the jerks, am-I-right? In network land, the "jerk" was someone who "just wants sex." (At least that's how it was back when I watched network sitcoms. Even Six Feet Under kind of fell into that with Brenda and David.) Girls is too sophisticated for that, but is kinky=fucked up just the more sophisticated version?

4)  Speaking of which, sorry, that Booth Jonathan "I'm a man" line just made me laugh, and I didn't buy it working on Marnie. That whole storyline feels really forced and fake-daring.

5) Speaking of artists, to the extent that you I did have a pretty negative reaction to these characters, it comes from how fake their passion/interest in the "arts" they're supposedly pursuing seem to be. Yes, they're exaggerations, and ok, there are lots of superficial narcissistic types who think you don't have to be a reader to be a writer (and always have been), but Hannah does have a certain smarts and originality to her and you think she'd be reading something and talking about it.

6) I think the nepotism/spoiled/class charge is basically crap (when directed against Dunham rather than against the characters, who are indeed pretty oblivious). Her mom's an artist! Yeah, that and 2.50  . . . .The race thing is more complicated. I do think it gets more crap for it than more deserving sources (Looking at you, Breaking Bad). The response with the Donald Glover story line was clever in that it showed Hannah's incompetence in dealing with these issues (the deft portrayal of this incompetence being evidence that the show itself is less incompetent.) On the other hand, as with Hannah's narcissism, the whole "look, other characters are accusing her of what the critics do" has a bit of the "I know this is a cliche, but cliches are true" thing to it.

7) On the other hand, if the show was giving its critics the finger,  it was a much more playful, less capital F fuck you than when Woody Allen finally wrote a black character and made her a prostitute. Speaking of which, the father doing the Dead Shark speech at his anniversary dinner seems like a just as explicit and way more ball-sy of a call out about her ambitions than the SATC thing in the first episode.

8) Speaking of narcissism, I just reviewed a book about Philip Roth that spent a bunch of time playing around with character names. Stuff like that always seems a bit silly to me. But: Hannah H, Marnie M, Jessa J, Shoshanna S. What's up with that?

9) Speaking of class, the other Sunday night show I watch is Shameless, which is brilliant and fascinating, has even more of a mix of tones than Girls, and almost as many as Louie, and its class stuff could be a whole other post. I don't watch Dowton Abbey. But you do have to wonder: why do people hate on the Girls for being rich and spoiled but nobody looks askance at identifying with the Dowager?