Thursday, October 18, 2012

From the Archives: Diary

The French have l’esprit, the English have humor. The Russians have something else, broader, wilder, zanier. Bakhtin called it the carnivalesque. You can see it imprinted on K.’s face when he’s had a few vodkas, or even when he hasn’t, this antic spirit that can swing from sweet boyishness into rampaging vulgarity in a giddy second, all the while retaining a certain calculated wariness. K. has been, you suspect, doted on by his elders for being a naughty boy ever since he was old enough to interject precocious exclamations into serious adult talk. His grin possesses his face absolutely — thick lips, big white teeth, wide mouth, heavy brows lifted, round eyes popped wide open — flaunting the whites — in astonished mock-astonishment, with the promise of mad abandon perpetually exuding from their depths. His impish drolleries, taken out of context, are seldom witty or humorous, but each contributes to the earthily comic atmosphere he strives to maintain. They mean to convey one message: Fun! An appealling blend of cheerful savagery and cultivation partaking of a promiscuous mixture of Near Eastern and West Asian elements, his face, captured in different moments, moods, angles or lighting, could belong to a Turkish gastarbeiter or an Iranian Pasha, a Barbary pirate or an Uzbek warlord, an Armenian anarchist or a Bollywood singing sensation. Or even, for that matter (improbably enough) — a Russian Jewish intellectual. Like a rough-hewn leading man of action, he is both handsome and ugly. Always a little bit taller and less stoutly muscled than you remember, he is always a little bit swarthier and hairier than you have permitted yourself to believe.

 “I looked inside there,” he said, referring to the common room of the Sixth Street Community Center, where the interns and their friends had gathered in disappointingly sparse clusters. “It’s the lamest party ever!” The absolutist pronouncement is one of K.’s trademarks. At the last party on the Lower East Side, he had declared that “there are no beautiful women here,” causing a friend of L. to sputter on the cab ride home, his face flushing a deep crimson, “I c-c-can’t b-believe he said that! There were S-SO MANY b-beautiful w-women there!” But this is K.’s way. Periodically, he will pay lip service to the other side of his axiomatic worldview in a tentative, bemused way. “Maybe we’re just schlubs,” he intoned and let the possibility hang in the air for a pensive moment, tittering and growling nervously under his breath. “Maybe our superiority to all other writers isn’t so assured.” This was, of course, an outlandish joke — doubting the superiority, that is.

 “He is an interesting paradox,” mused M. “Of the four of us, who can you most easily picture running around with an Uzi? And yet, he is many ways furthest to the left on Israel.” “He is a Bolshevik for Menshevik ends,” I added. “Well, that does bring up a certain means-end disconnect,” M. mused. “Maybe so, but maybe it’s also exactly what is needed in times like the present. The rest of us bemoan our troubled condition, the corruption and rot that surrounds us, thickening every day. K. asks only — what is to be done?”

 Friday, May 20, 2005

 E.B. talks like she writes

 E.B. talks like she writes. Or maybe it’s better to say that she writes like she thinks. So many colorful anecdotes, so many toothsome ironies so amiably rendered, in the most off-hand way. When she sits down to write, she is a transcriptionist of her own internal monologue. All she has to do is type. Her stories begin like shaggy dog stories, and by means of the subtlest and most extraordinary transpositions, flirt with universal significance, and then deconstruct themselves to become shaggy dog stories again. In so doing, the form of her storytelling mimics the content of her message, dramatizing the universal truth to be found in the absence of any universal truth. When she is sitting across from you at an overpriced Chinese restaurant, her face — big and narrow, and loose, and exquisitely sculptured all at once — feigning its own genuine innocence and dissembling its omniscience — is lit by soft candelight and framed by shadow. Though she is six feet tall and superbly muscled along her lanky frame — all elongated limbs and torso — she is a lightweight drinker; a single glass of white wine has made her giddy. This fact has something to do with how I wound up with EB and Dr. B.

 “I have to meet my mother, why don’t you come?” she asks, rummaging through her pocketbook for a pack of cigarettes. “I don’t smoke, except when I see my mother,” she says. “I worry about my mother, I feel for her, it makes me nervous, I have to smoke. Would you like one?” We are standing outside of the Borders Books and Music at 57th Street and Park Avenue, where she drank a single glass of white wine and I drank four. We hit things off immediately, having so many important things in common. Among them: suburban New Jersey, half-Asian violinists, a certain confidential tone. I mentioned A., a former professional soccer player who attended the same private school with her.

 “Oh, him,” she remembered. “If I recall, he was the head of the diversity committee. He used to give speeches to the assembled student body about the importance of accepting people of different backgrounds. It was very strange,” she noted. “He has returned to the school as a teacher!’

 “It all makes perfect sense now,” I averred. “He was a closet homosexual!” Even as I say this, I realize that it is my own closet homosexuality that I have inadvertently projected onto the long-limbed, golden-haired avatar of all my frustrated youthful athletic ambitions. I recalled the incipient swelling of a man’s musculature beneath his close-fitted soccer jersey, the flop and sway of his straw colored hair, matted in sections, flailing in others, as he sliced through defenses with heedless aplomb. But the conversation soon turns to other things. “Did you go to Harvard?” she wants to know.

 “No, I went to Rutgers,” I say, with a certain defiant solemnity.

 “Ah, Rutgers,” she begins, with a smile.

 “You are about to say something charitable about the State University of New Jersey?” I demand. “

"No, no. It’s about my favorite English teacher.” She went on to tell a shaggy dog story about an English teacher at her private school with a PHd. from Rutgers: how she took EB. and a friend under her wing as her prized students, how she would assign five page papers and how E would turn in 40 page essays, and how the teacher dutifully, painstakingly worked her way through all of it, how the teacher eventually had her husband abandon her for the mother of the other favored student, how she wound up last Christmas in that very man’s apartment amid his paintings. Lastly, how she had gotten in touch with this teacher who relayed all of her sorrows to her, but concluded that she was once again in love with a poet.

 “Ah, the last is the most tragic thing of all!” I interjected.

 “So, anyway,” she concluded, “that is what I know about Rutgers.”

 We compared spiritual upbringings – I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church, her father was a Marxist-Leninist. “So you grew up with historical inevitability?” I asked. “In the eighties, no less!”

 “No, but we do play this game where we try to see if we can get my father to say that ‘religion is the opium of the people,” she says. Then she talks of her mother. A Chinese lab assistant who was fired by her mother is suing her mother, alleging that it was a racially motivated firing. “But, in fact, as my mother has pointed out to her – all of her employees are Chinese!” she exclaims. But then, the employee has shot back that her mother hires the Chinese because they are docile and can be exploited. “In fact, my mother loves the Chinese!”

 “We have been talking of all things!” she enthused to K. when he appeared to check up on us. “The fear of death, the yearning for eternal youth, the acknowledgment of the fact that one must fulminate against this corrupt desire, and yet our craven acquiescence to it.” “E. knows all things, and W. is interested in all things,” says K. with his accustomed condescension. K. was looking, as always, like a vision of rude health — swarthy, hairy, compactly massive, and all the more so for the tall, slender, dark-haired Jewess next to him. Later, EB would call her “the most observant girl I have ever known.” She certainly has bewitching eyes. K. went quickly on his way. L.’s amiable mother amiably nudged us up the escalators and out the door. We emerged into the clear and warm night air. I let her light me up. We made it the restaurant and met her Dr. B, who talked about experimenting on monkeys, prep schools, and her admiration and love for her daughter. The food was awful at $40 a plate, scarcely distinguishable from the slop served at all-night take out places with bulletproof plexiglass shields. My fortune cookie read: “You have an interest in Chinese culture and all things Chinese.” Outside the restaurant, we said brisk and oddly peremptory goodbyes. The buzz had subsided, and I walked thirty blocks downtown through clusters of gaudily attired women tottering drunk on stiletto heels to take PATH station home.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

 A foray into the world republic of letters

After the reading we found ourselves at a sidewalk cafe with a pushy waiter. Toward the meal’s end M. wondered aloud if there was anything our man could’ve done to be more rude. Mostly, he tried to make us feel small for ordering within our means. You imagined him making wisecracks at our party’s expense in the kitchen, mimicking the apologetic tone he was able to extort from us with his imposing height, wiry musculature, and oily smile broadcasting the chagrin at our reluctance to splurge on expensive bottles of wine that it affected to hide. You could see how effective it might have been with people more easily cowed or less defiantly cheap than our party. There were six of us — the two subcontinental novelists and their female companions, M. and I, and we were just geting to know one another.

 P. endured this with exemplary geniality. Ever since he accidentally bumped into that Times reviewer at that stylish magazine party in Lower Manhattan, he had had to contend with a reputation for being a repository of all human virtues. It’s just good breeding, the kind you get as a matter of course in ancient and proud civilizations like the one that still flourishes on the Indian subcontinent, but it was easy to see why it would tempt an American into grotesque hyperbole with an Orientalizing cast. “Here, surely, was the young Siddhartha Gautama himself:” our man at the paper of record had written, “a scholar-sophisticate, a personality both cosmopolitan and ascetic, at large and at home in the world,” and he followed this up with such kindly words about P.’s achievement in the book he was reviewing that no one could begrudge him his self-gratifying reverie. P. really did have a spareness and translucency of aspect such that never sullying his digestive tract with animal fats and byproducts (he has never tasted meat) might imbue, and an easy genuineness to his smile that might strike a New Yorker grown accustomed to the wheedling, manipulative grins of his metropolitan adversaries in the scrimmage of appetite as holy. You sensed that P. didn’t say “We _must_ get together soon,” without intending to do so, and so forth, none of which should be taken to mean that he didn’t have a wicked tongue when he needed to, or an powerful sense of irony, especially toward Westerners that wanted to make him into a object lesson of some kind or other. And, of course — let’s admit what boringly commonplace Americans we are and say that his soft Oxbridge accent tinged with Brahmin spice impresses us too.

In any case, there was only one Siddhartha at the table, and he was seated across from me. S.’s novel came out just last week, to good early notices, though the bulk of them are still yet to come. He is tall and husky and would be cast in the role of warrior-king opposite P.’s saint-prince, though he is no less measured and gracious in his speech and gesture than his peer. The novel he intended to write, he explained at the Half-King, was the novel he would like to read which did not in fact, exist prior to his writing it: a depiction of his remote and war-torn Bengali homeland which would have nothing at all to do with the metropolitan India depicted in Bollywood musicals or other Oriental kitsch popular with Westerners. After the reading he was subject to the inevitable questions. “How many hours a day do you write?” from a pretty blonde woman, who turned out to be Sebastian Junger’s girlfriend. S. handled them with his accustomed aplomb.

At the restaurant, S. spoke about the presence of the West in his youthful imagination. Growing up in the 1970’s, Bengalis had access to American movies of theWorld War II era, but the most up to date heavy metal music of the day: Judas Priest, AC/DC, Iron Maiden. The memory of long Bengali hair and band insignia etched crudely into the skin brought a smile to S’s face. Attending an Irish Catholic school in his village, S. aspired to a cosmopolitan destiny. He went to college in Calcutta, worked as a journalist for a year and then, in 1998, appplied to the graduate English program at Columbia University. By phone, Gayatri Spivak asked him if he wanted to study with her. He responded “No, I don’t really agree with much of the work you are doing.” She came back with a bracing candor. “I can see how you’d have your own perspective on these issues,” she said. “I’m glad that you don’t want to work with me. In fact, I’m tired of all the people that want to come here and replicate the work that I do,” S. recalled. She then proceeded to help him get into the program.

 After reading, S. was approached by one of the Half-King’s waiter who, in between serving his customers in the section of the restaurant, peeked in to hear S. read with growing excitement. It turns out the waiter was a Bengali. “It was clear that he was very excited and impressed by writers,” S. said. “He said that one of reasons he likes his job is that the bar is owned by Sebastian Junger, and he gets to meet and be in the presence of other writers.” We all cooed, enchanted by that special feeling we get when the humanity of those we might otherwise ignore is suddenly disclosed. “He wanted to know if I knew Jhumpa Lahiri. He said he saw her once buying candies in Jackson Heights. Then he wanted to know if I knew Monica Ali. I had to admit that I did not,” he said. “His name is Shilling,” S. added to cap it all off.

 “Shilling,” we asked, inclining our heads, quizzically. “Yes, his name is Shilling, his brother is named Dollar and his other brother is named Farthing,” S. said. “I asked him if he wanted to go back. He said he did not. It was too violent and dangerous, and depressing. Which is true,” conceded S.

 The talk turned to books and magazines, editorial visions, neocon projects and philosophies of history. The food arrived; quite good. It was revealed that J., the proprietor of the much lamented and defunct magazine had been a man of independent means, the heir to an underwear fortune. Was it Hanes or BVD? M. was quiet, himself the recipient of a (much scattered and dispersed) textile fortune himself. 

Later, taking a last drink after the two couples had left, M. offered his appreciation of the Indians. “They are educated men, and they know it,” he said, “and they do not apologize for it.” He had recently published a beautiful essay about smoking that has rewarded repeated re-reading. Certain phrases from it flit through my subconscious, especially this one: “The more I smoke the less I’m actually alive and the more I become a hysterical medium for other people’s lives.” This captured something I have been wanting to say. After all, none of us are real people, we are merely surrogates for the insubstantial motives and agendas of others, equally unreal, and they of ours. The effort to convince ourselves otherwise is the source of so much trauma, and yet we can never be free of it. Amid all this, lives build up all around us, even those of us that have done our best to hold any particular life at bay. M. bought a pack of cigarettes — $7.50! — apologized for “doing the bourgeois thing” and hailed a cab to whisk him uptown. I walked to the 23rd St. PATH station through the lingering brisknes of the softening late-April air, and, finding myself short of funds, jumped the turnstile. posted by wesley

| 7:28 PM Wednesday, April 20, 2005

At the National Arts Club The Women Come and Go

 V. comes dressed in a pinstriped suit of antiquated cut with a splash of red fabric around his neck. He has been handing out dead flowers all night to the proprietors of the upstart literary journal and the concentric rings of their friends, acquaintances, and readers who gaze searchingly at one another, wondering whether they can count themselves as a milieu. The opulent surroundings help; we are bathed in the amber light from the chandeliers of the National Arts Club, surrounded by luxurious appointments softened by the gentle deliquescence of just the right kind of neglect. Good cookies, free red wine, shabby gentility, well-dressed peers, and at least one young woman with a face the sight of which can, simultaneously, induce in the spectator an eerie dreamlike silence and stillness, and a sense of falling into an abyss. Every now and again a face pops out of the sea of our drab, common humanity and reminds one of the power that the human visage can exert over the adrenal glands. Think of the special fondness that a lifetime shared with a woman you loved and built a life with would inculcate, the dear familiarity of its ever-changing moods, each instilled with imponderable depths of sorrow and joy. Now imagine having all this reduced to nothingness by a glimpse of a strange woman’s face across a hallway. I stuff a third cookie into my mouth, savoring its fatty richness.

 You could say that V. is the upstart journal’s number one fan. By the stairwell we are talking about revolution, V. and I, the attractive sociologist, and B., the young novelist with the golden hair and the gracefully self-deprecating wit. Self-deprecation in its contemporary form usually signals distorted aggression against the self and others, televisual japing with an edge of hysteria. In B., it assume its classical WASP poise, signifying a superfluidity of self-esteem playfully dissembled. A man of genuine and tortured conscience, B. is susceptible to the blandishments of success and cheerfully admits to the naked hypocrisy of this, knowing you will be charmed by his candor. And though you know he knows, and he knows that you know that he knows, and though you are determined not to be charmed — you are charmed. This is charm! Stephen Jay Gould has written about the special proportions shared by all baby mammals — the head large in proportion to the body, the eyes large in proportion to the head — and how these dimensions are universally appealing to the protective instincts of adult mammals. B. is embarrassed by the lottery he won at birth, but there are many compensations for this embarrassment.

 The talk, as it often does, has turned to Ayatollah fanciers, Stalinoid apologists, enthusiasts for Che, Mao, Kim Il-Sung. And what of the revolutionary hopes of the present? Have they all been extinguished? Hugo Chavez, V. insists, only advocates the nationalization of industry and the distribution of jobs to the previously disenfranchised. Though he grandstands as a revolutionary, his meliorist ends incite no revolutionary passions elsewhere.

 “It’s enough to get him killed by the CIA,” I aver.

B. notes that, frankly, there aren’t enough Venezuelan intellectuals of the upper class to host an international brigade of liberal intellectuals in their accustomed style. “You’d have to go live in the huts with the people,” B. notes, his eyes twinkling mordantly. “That doesn’t sound like much fun. Now Argentina! That’s where you want to be! The dollar is very strong over there. You can live well, and help with the march of progress!”

 And then V. steers the subject abruptly to the avant-garde. “I come from a very bourgeois upbringing, a very proper Russian bourgeois education,” he says.

 “Yes, well, it’s a rare avant-gardist that does not come from the bourgeoisie,” B. notes.

 “Yes, yes,” says V. “Well, the truth is — if you want to have an intellectual avant-garde, you will have to deal with people like me!”

 It was the line of the night, and we told him so. Was it spontaenous? He admitted to sitting in his bedroom and thinking up aphorisms, like Oscar Wilde.

 “It’s true that Wilde was hardly spontaneous,” B. notes, “but did he admit it?”

 “Probably not,” conceded Vlad, and then produced from his inner jacket pocket a bottle of vodka and proceeded to swig from it. He offered it to each of it. We politely declined.

Later in the evening, after we have decamped to a bar, M. is scathing on the subject of V. Yes, he is merely a 20-year old kid, and wasn’t I pretentious when I was that age? M. asks, making the desultory case for tempering scorn with affection. But really, M. asks — what is he doing here? Why is he acting this way? V. proposed to write a manifesto for the upstart journal, M. discloses — a hodgepodge of shopworn ideas riddled with spelling errors that spellcheck could have easily caught. “This is not how it is done,” declares M. “It takes real work, real seriousness, not coming here among us and acting like an operator.”

 I overhear V. imploring B. to come to some event of his, and listen as B. strains the limits of his gracefulness to once again decline without giving offense. “If I were a woman I would gladly sleep with B.,” V. declares soon after B. leaves the bar.

 It is in the fatal narrative logic of such things that someday V. will put on a vivid display of his humanity that will make everyone cringe and recoil. His self-deprecation is a constant threat of this breakdown that extorts scrupulous politeness, and it is this extortion that breeds resentment. We get an inkling of the way that fraternities and football teams must feel toward their callow aspirants. We feel the root of the urge to haze. But we are not frat boys or callous people, so we keep our hazing to the level of bemused irony that V., not unintelligent by half, is smart enough to discern. “We’re dealing with you, V. — but there’s no intellectual avant-garde,” I say.

 What does he want?. V. wants acceptance. He wants mentors and friends, he wants to be a part of an intellectual avant-garde, and he lacks the negative capability to discipline his impulses. To him, this threabare improvisation of an upstart journal, “an absolute life-raft,” as M. puts it, is all he knows of glamour and worldliness, and he is hamming it up in a way that matches his own fantasies. He is unabashed about the wishes we have learned to dissemble, naked about the things we painstakingly clothe, and precisely because there is a little bit of him in all of us, he must be cast into the outer darkness where we strive to keep our own obscene human need obscured. Knowing this does not change the fact that this is so.

 Monday, July 11, 2005

 K. is sipping her coffee

 K. is sipping her coffee beneath a portentous, a slate-ochre, cloud-streaked summer sky. She watches me approach with staring, myopic, and unblinking eyes. “Watch the OC!” I urged in a hand-written note scribbled on the back of a postcard bearing a caricature of Mary McCarthy issued to new subscribers by the New York Review of Books. “Villainness Julie Cooper has your drowsy-intent, feline-myopic eyes!” K. is a bundle of nerves, anxious and alert, a burnt-out filament that still manages to issue a wobbly light. In a few days she will hear back from the human resources woman and discover that she has gotten a job that will roughly quadruple her salary. This will occassion an anxiety attack of an intensity such that she hasn’t endured in years.

“Why can’t I just take good things for what they are? I’m upset with myself for being so upset,” she will say over the phone, her voice breaking. K. doesn’t slur her words or mumble. She enunciates. And she does not have the apologetic tone of her peers. For now, picture her underneath the shade of that awning. Tiny and nimble with chestnut hair, pillowy lips, pale skin and those gray-green eyes softened by sadness and pain, slightly clenched with the effort of seeing, never quite managing to focus.

K. has been accepted into the MacDowell artist’s colony in the fall. L., who has a book contract was not. Who can say why? “She accused me of not showing her one iota of sensitivity to the fact that she needs that time to work on her book. I don’t know what more she wanted of me. I told her I was very sorry that she didn’t get it. What else did she want me to do? Hand over my spot to her?.”

 “I think that’s exactly what she wants.”


I tell K. how much I enjoy people’s humanness when they expose it. On the one hand, I want nothing to do with it. Please, world, spare me any visible indications of your human needs and desires. On the other hand, it is charming in its way. I tell K. that I have resolved to learn how to love the people I hate. I tell her that I intend to write about incest. This excites her.

“People tease me that I am in love with my brother. D. says that if he marries me he’ll have to live with the fact that I’ll never love him as much as I love my brother.”

 “So then your brother makes you glow in a way that your boyfriend does not. They have met each other.”

 “Yes, they have met, and it was a painful experience for D. But listen, my brother is hilarious, everything he says makes me giddy.”

 “Is he hot?”

 “He is very handsome. Women love him. I acknowledge his sexual allure, but I am not myself in love with him.”

 “But maybe you are in denial. Are you in denial?”

 “How can we know if we are in denial? I don’t think so. My feelings for him have always been more maternal than romantic.”

 When K. was in her early 20’s, K.’s mother got breast cancer and died. “I was embarrassed by how badly it affected me. I mean, everybody’s parents die eventually. But it took me many years to learn to deal with it.” I put these pieces together; the dying mother, the elder sister who shepherds her brother through adolescence.

K.’s brother is on his way to getting married. During the transition period in which K. ceased to be the most important woman in K.’s life, he took painstaking care to make her feel included— as a consultant on wedding issues.. “He did it with such sensitivity, and I am grateful to him for this. I have these emotions, and sometimes they are dippy and they are the grist for women’s magazines essays. But they are no less real for that.”

 When she tells me that she has gotten the job that she longs for and dreads, the one that will deliver her into a life of middle class respectability, I ask her the question that each of us is thinking. “Will K. become one of those Conde Nast girls?” “I say this, K. so that five years hence, as you are air-kissing Diane Von Furstenberg at Elaine’s, you will experience a melancholy frisson, thinking of all the innocence you have left behind you.”

 “Joan Didion also began as a Conde Nast girl,” she mentions. “But she came from a different place. She started self-entitled, and I am the opposite.” “I might seem self-entitled,” she goes on to say, in her confident, confidential tone, “but really I’m not. I come from the middle middle class.” Dear K. you don’t seem in the least bit self-entitled. You seem too marvelously human to be true.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The following letter, published in 1986 in the New York Times,articulates what has always seemed instinctively correct to me about the teaching profession:

Feminism and the Decline of Teaching Published: July 25, 1986

To the Editor: Your article on the differences in the lives of Radcliffe women and Harvard men of the class of 1961 (Week in Review, July 13) brought to mind my own recent high-school reunion, class of 1956. After rummaging through the biographies prepared for the occasion, I was surprised to discover that fully two-thirds of the women who went to college and ended up in the work force became kindergarten to 12th-grade teachers. I remembered many of these women, who graduated from college in 1960, as being among the brightest people in our class.

Naturally, this was the pre-women's liberation era, and so graduates from places like Wellesley, Barnard, Cornell and Tufts had limited vocational options. In addition, further professional training was out for many who had to bring in a paycheck to support their husbands in medical and law schools. The school systems of the period were the richer because they recruited from a captive pool that contained many of the best women graduates from our universities.

Today, task forces and blue-ribbon panels decry the declining quality of teaching in the public schools. Part of the problem has to be the laudable success of the women's movement. Why should women graduating at the top of their classes from the best universities choose teaching when all the other more glamorous and better-paying professions are at last open to them? No one would turn the clock back to the time when most college-trained women were locked into teaching careers. Yet, clearly, one unintended consequence of the women's movement has been the general decline in the quality of classroom teaching.

MELVIN SMALL Detroit, July 13, 1986

The writer is chairman of the history department, Wayne State University.