Essays

We Know Less Than We Think We Do: Why David Brooks Is Not a Pariah But a Harbinger of Hope

“They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand. And until they understand it, they cannot be released from it...We cannot be free until they are free.” –James Baldwin, “Letter to My Nephew James” 1. As of this writing, the town of Ferguson, Mo., is in its third day under a state of emergency, following protests to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, and the police shooting that injured 18-year-old Tyrone Harris, Jr. In radio interviews, Ferguson residents expressed unsurprising frustration and fatigue: “I’m fed up with it. I’m tired of it;” “When it’s all over with and said and done, we still have to live here.” Referring to the chaos that breaks out when citizens try to congregate peacefully, one man said, “I think next year, you're going to see the exact same thing. And that's sad.” People who know me will tell you I’m not an optimist. The glass is usually half empty; the worst case scenario looms; I don’t hold my breath. At this moment, it’s particularly easy to feel this way -- helpless, pessimistic -- about race in America. Which is why I am surprised to find myself rooting for -- eagerly awaiting -- something that many would consider highly improbable: a retraction and an apology by New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks for his July 17 opinion piece, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.” 2. It’s been a month since Brooks wrote, in a direct address to Atlantic columnist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, By dissolving the [American] dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. Brooks’s column, along with the voluminous online indignance that ensued, disturbed me; but I am more essayist than journalist by temperament, and so my response has been slow to form, relative to the news cycle. I am tempted to conclude, It’s too late, that ship has sailed (helplessness, pessimism). But then I think: “when it’s all overwith and said and done, we still have to live here.” In other words, a plea for a mea culpa from Brooks is not just about words published on July 17; it’s also about something persistent and fundamental in how non-black people, conservative and liberal alike -- who don’t have to live in Ferguson, when it’s all said and done -- engage with black lives, and black deaths, in America. 3. I am a left-of-left liberal who also happens to respect David Brooks’s pragmatism, his intellectual agility, and his clarity and economy as a writer. I appreciate his presence on NPR and PBS. I understand why liberal news outlets foster Brooks’s ubiquity: for all his alleged smugness, he praises and critiques policies and politicians equally on both the Left and the Right. Where he sometimes oversimplifies ideas, he eschews oversimplification of partisan packaging. I disagree with him frequently, but his commentaries don’t make me wince or shout. A low bar to clear, you might say, but a significant one, in this age of unbridgeable ideological hysteria. This summer, in succession and by coincidence, I read both Brooks’s collective biography The Road to Character and Coates’s epistolary essay Between the World and Me. I found both compelling. The day after I finished reading the latter, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White” was published. Between the World and Me -- a 150-page essay-letter from Coates to his teenage son, which describes a self-deluding white America that has relied, is relying, and will continue to rely on “defiling and plunder,” on “breaking[ing] the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation” for its peace and prosperity -- has earned Coates an endorsement from Toni Morrison as this generation’s James Baldwin. Brooks responded to the book with considered duplicity -- the ultimate effect of which was to demonstrate precisely what drives Coates to conclude that “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct...sometimes it is insidious... and to impress upon his son Samori that my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic -- an orc, troll, or gorgon. Coates also invokes Solzhenitsyn -- “'To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law'” -- and then applies these words to the myth of the American Dream. Throughout Between the World and Me, Coates reiterates -- through memory, historical survey, recaps of police killings of African Americans -- that the Dream is a myth because it is available only to “Dreamers,” i.e. those who (knowingly or not) buy into the White “syndicate.” This is the foundation of the Dream -- its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. (This last aside -- in case it’s not clear out of context -- is Coates’s impersonation of a Dreamer.) Brooks’s rebuttal focuses too on the American Dream, which he is eager to defend. I think you distort American history...Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America. In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow. In other words: the bad old days were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. As preamble to his hard pivot toward refutation, Brooks approaches then dismisses the crucial act of listening-and-hearing, with a rhetorical structure that is ever the enemy of authentic conciliation: I verb x, but... We’ve all been in these arguments with our loved ones: I hear what you’re saying, but you’re being unreasonable. I’m sorry I hurt you, but I was right and you were wrong.  I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask... Brooks, of course, does not have to do any such thing. But he does ask. And what’s more, his questions are disingenuous: “Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” The questions are disingenuous because he has already answered them for himself (no, no, yes), as evidenced by the publication of the column. The divestment of power by asking before negating is mere performance. 4. All this said, I do not wish nor intend to demonize Brooks; others have done the job thoroughly. Rather, I propose that his column was not an irredeemable offense, but a concrete opportunity. What Brooks has done is common, not extreme nor “fantastical;” no tobacco has been spat. Maybe I should just say nothing and let it sink in BUT is more often than not how a well-meaning majority person responds -- liberal and conservative alike -- when an unsettling truth about the foundations of her worldview and day-to-day well-being is presented. The need to reframe and control -- to redline discussions on American whiteness and the enduring structures of racialized injustice, especially when the discussion is not conceived from a majority point-of-view -- simply exemplifies the predictable expression of white cultural power in the everywhere/everyday ways that Coates describes throughout Between the World and Me. Coates’s Dreamer dissects, double-talks, and reframes because she can; and because she cannot abide the constriction and instability she experiences within this non-majority-centered conception of reality; and because it’s too awful to imagine that it’s really that bad, now, today, in 2015; and because, Jesus, what if it is that bad? No, no, it can’t be that bad. It isn’t. You’re distorting it. Or, as Brooks suggests, your realism is excessive. If we can recognize that David Brooks is neither troll, nor gorgon, nor orc; that he is enacting what is enacted all the time, every day, by more non-monstrous people than we care to acknowledge; if we can quiet the Twitter indignation and see Brooks’s response for the utterly commonplace expression that it is, then we can see, possibly, the opportunity here. One worth rooting for. 5. To those who feel that too much ink is spilled by and about Brooks already: the essence of the opportunity is in Brooks’s very ubiquity. He is a privileged public figure, with significant cultural power. He has a platform among elites across the political spectrum. He has also just written a thoughtful book about self-inventory and moral depth -- a book that seeks to foreground a moral logic in which Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility, and learning... The Road to Character is lucid and well-organized, as you’d expect. Each chapter profiles an individual whose “U-shaped” journey through trial, failure, and personal moral development Brooks admires: Dorothy Day, George Marshall, George Eliot, Bayard Rustin, Frances Perkins, St. Augustine, and others. I found The Road to Character persuasive, and I believe it’s a book I will return to for insight on how to live, and how admirable individuals have struggled for that insight. I also found it earnest. Road originally caught my attention because it is a personal book. In interviews, Brooks has discussed his impetus for writing it: how, in mid-life, he found himself more professionally successful than he ever imagined, but at the same time not very happy. He writes in the introduction: Years pass, and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom. Not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth... In the second-person “you” we hear an anxious intimacy, a simmering melancholy -- the feeling of Brooks revealing to us, and to himself, that he has skin in the game. And then, he makes the inevitable shift to first-person: I wrote [this book] to save my soul. I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness...I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I’ve also become aware that like many people these days I’ve lived a life of vague moral aspiration -- vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose... I’ve discovered that...it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve...you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. Notice the pivot back to second-person; the anxiety of a deeper self-revelation returns. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly that this effects in the reader, though perhaps something related: a point of connection in hearing this confession that being a well-paid Know-It-All is a problem with real stakes, a road to isolation and emptiness. The Road to Character returns over and over to two core virtues. The first is recognition of one’s own brokenness. The profiled figures are all “acutely aware of their own weaknesses,” participants in the Kantian tradition of humanity as “crooked timber.” They also face down those weaknesses, work tirelessly at seeing themselves clearly and at getting better. In this manner, these individuals ultimately influenced human history and culture, far beyond themselves. By successfully confronting sin and weakness, we have a chance to play our own role in the great moral drama...we have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world. Closely related is a second core virtue, which Brooks depicts as troublingly absent in American culture today: humility. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success. But that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character... In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. “My favorite definition [of humility],” Brooks has said, “is radical self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.” Other-centeredness. Herein lies the hardest work for Brooks and Coates’s Dreamers. 6. As a pundit, Brooks’s job is to say things and write things; he is not expected to do things. But as an author of a book about moral evolution, he has stepped onto the stage of moral action -- in his own words, onto the path of “moral adventure.” He writes of a desire to manifest “ripening virtues,” as exemplified by his subjects -- to submerge his ego to a greater mission as George Marshall did, to respond to the broken world’s clarion “summons” as Frances Perkins did, to be able to relinquish ego-centered control as St. Augustine did. An email from a man named Dave Jolly  provides "the methodology of the book”: “What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life...is what gets transmitted...The message is the person...” The convergence of The Road to Character and the conflict that arose from Brooks’s public response to Between the World and Me constitutes a summons -- away from mere “teaching” via words, and into the adventure. The moral imperative of this moment in America centers around black lives, black deaths. Here is a substantive chance to build virtue and be of service, to play a role in the great moral drama of right now. The July 17 column is exemplary, in both senses of the word. It does, as I’ve described, exemplify the common response when one is faced with a version of America that upends both existential and material stability. But it also exemplifies an honest, and failed, attempt at dialogue about race. If Brooks was trigger-happy, if other-centeredness eluded him, if he needed to get his word in edgewise, he is not alone. That Brooks’s from-the-hip response to Between the World and Me was unseemly, blind spots on display, is no surprise; arriving at something true and consequential in a struggle over conflicting realities doesn’t come fast or easy. Meaningful transformation in this struggle might be compared to writing itself: you have to write the shitty first draft in order to move forward. Without the shitty draft there’s nothing to revise. So it’s not so much a retraction as a revision that we need. The column is Brooks’s honorably shitty draft -- his stumble backward from revelations about “what he’s paid to do,” a lack of integration between his moral aspirations and his habit of sending pithy, fast-finger bytes to print. He writes in Road: We have the tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite...We know less than we think we do. Old habits die hard. A person of character faces down those habits when it matters. We need Brooks to model the humility and courage he admires and articulates. And we need the process of individual transformation to have consequence beyond the individual. None of this is easy. It’s messy and perilous -- U-shaped, in Brooks’s words, not linearly ascending, and the U’s descent can be deep. A revision usually means more revision to come. There are not many people I would exhort to such public self-inventory. But the characters in Road light the way -- with their willingness to fail, get better, fail again, re-examine what they think they know, then ultimately step into the greater moral drama that requires them. 7. I started with the notion of optimism. I’ll finish with a word about hope. Note that I have thus far used words like await, anticipate, root for, opportunity, and desire. Like “love” and “friend,” “hope” has lost its power and concreteness. Hope has become wimpy and puling and dishonest -- the opiate of old church ladies, the toothless promise of an upstart young black senator’s presidential campaign slogan, a million years ago. “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law,” Coates writes. It is wrong to claim our present circumstance -- no matter how improved -- as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children...you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope. Coates’s rejection of spiritual redemption for the pillaging of black lives is a hard pill to swallow; it is also the strongest thread of Coates’s message to his son. But there are moments when Coates doesn’t seem to swallow the pill fully himself; where he expresses something like an inability, and a kind of awe in the presence of the very spiritual depths -- I’ll call this hope -- that he denies. Recalling his visit to Dr. Mabel Jones -- whose son, Coates’s classmate at Howard, was killed senselessly by the police -- he writes: As she talked of the church...I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life. In Dr. Jones’s face, Coates sees “the odd poise and direction that the great American injury demands of you” and compares it to the faces of civil rights activists in photos from '60s sit-ins: They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. I wouldn’t over-read these moments as actual ambivalence on Coates's part about his materialist reality, but they do belie, in my reading, a deep fatigue. Hope -- of the real, exceptional kind that Coates witnessed in Mabel Jones -- is neither wimpy nor toothless. Hope may be the hardest work there is. And yet still, the watching world expects hope from its victims. It’s terrible what’s happened to your sons, your brothers, your sisters, your community; but surely there is HOPE? Even if, say, you don’t buy the premise that today’s American Dream is a white dream built on black bodies, you might at the least recognize that we who are not black -- and we liberals may be guiltiest of this -- have built our sense of hope on black hope. In the wake of death after death permitted by unbridled ignorance, negligence, and a heritage of hate (and let us not forget that these are only the cases that break into mainstream media), we who absorb this violence indirectly have become accustomed to witnessing, and perhaps now implicitly demand, the hope that rises up from ashes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching deliverance through nonviolence, members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston preaching forgiveness, President Obama reconciling his white grandmother’s racism with his own black body and incanting amazing grace; the displays of dignity by grieving mothers and widows, like Mabel Jones. When Ta-Nehisi Coates rejects that role for himself and his son, when Eric Garner’s mother will not forgive the police officers who killed her son, when some residents of Ferguson say they’re fed up with protesting, they are saying to the Dreamers: you’ve lived off of our bodies, now you want us to supply you with hope? That’s enough; that’s too much. “Excessive” is an apt word for this moment, but it’s been poorly applied. What is excessive is for a white person to suggest that Coates should have a more hopeful assessment of American history and his son’s reality. We must shift the burden of hope elsewhere. Dear David Brooks: I hope that I have not failed to express myself as earnestly as you have. I hope there is enough humility in my words to convey something meaningful. I hope you hear in these words not petty attack but respectful exhortation. I hope the news cycle does not trump the moral adventure. I hope you know that I, and many who read Between the World and Me and “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” are on the side of real and truthful hope.
Post-40 Bloomers

Small Victories, Large Discoveries: On Fishes, Ponds, and Finding Open Spaces

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. In his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a lengthy chapter to the proverbial fish-in-pond question: Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond? Most of us would surely answer, “Well, it depends” -- and Gladwell (with his characteristic passion for truisms) acknowledges as much: There are times and places where it is better to be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond; where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all. Two of these times and places, according to Gladwell, are 1) Paris in 1874, and 2) Brown University in recent years. In the case of the former, he refers to the first independent exhibition mounted by Impressionist painters, who for years had failed to gain access to the prestigious Salon and accompanying patronage such access guaranteed. Their scenes of everyday life, indistinct figures, and visibly expressive brushstrokes did not at all please the tastemakers of the day. When then-outsiders Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet led the charge in April 1874 to hold their own small, DIY exhibition apart from the Salon -- 30 artists in three rooms on Boulevard des Capucines, in contrast to the Salon’s massive production in which paintings were hung floor-to-ceiling on countless walls -- it was a risky, scandalous moment. They were scorned by the Academy and its patrons. But their goal was to “advance without worrying about opinion,” and this they accomplished. It was, in Gladwell’s unqualified estimation, “better” that the Impressionists -- at the time a mere collective of unknown, experimental painters -- chose to be big fish in the little pond of their own making. History would, of course, agree. Gladwell’s contemporary argument -- which focuses on choosing a college and is exemplified by the story of a young woman named Caroline Sacks -- can be summed up thus: when it comes to indicators of success, how smart or talented you are is not as important as how smart and talented you feel. Caroline Sacks earned her ivy-league degree, but, in the end, she didn’t pursue studies in science, which was what she loved; she was subsumed by competition and feelings of inadequacy. “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be doing science,” she says. Gladwell’s conclusion is that it’s better to place yourself in a milieu where you feel confident and visible rather than inferior and lost-in-the-crowd. In an intellectual environment, being a little fish in a big pond is demoralizing; demoralization leads not only to failure but eventually to quitting your path, sacrificing your dreams and passions to the deep-sea bottom of the big pond. Notwithstanding Gladwell’s oft-maligned tendency to oversimplify -- to make social science of anecdotes -- his arguments at the least proffer hypotheses worth taking out for a spin (his New Yorker essay on late bloomers was one of Bloom's site-launch inspirations, after all). When I consider the fish-pond conundrum, I find myself shifting to a different nurture-and-thrive metaphor (Bloom-related, of course): any gardener knows that when putting plants or seeds in the ground, you must mind the distance in between -- too close, and they’ll compete to their detriment for air, sun, moisture, and nutrients; too far and weeds will fill the space, guzzling up the nourishment and leading to sparse harvest. In other words, living things thrive under definite environmental circumstances -- including relative position to fellow organisms. So the question for a student, or an artist, or anyone seeking to achieve goals and dreams might be: Where can I best blossom -- upward and outward, deeply rooted and nourished? 2. The pond that Dave and Reba Williams swam in was, initially, that of Wall Street finance. Dave had been an art lover since his youth, though. In his mid-30s, he found himself struggling in his career after “a couple of unlucky or poor employment choices.” He was married, with two children, and he needed to focus and get settled. Nevertheless, one day in 1968, a colleague told Dave about a prints exhibition, where he’d found original etchings and lithographs for sale in a manageable price range, and Dave immediately went to investigate. That day he fell in love with prints, and by 1975, Dave had collected some 25 prints, but he’d also undergone a seismically destabilizing divorce that left him with debts, alimony payments, and private-school tuitions. On the other hand, he was getting married again, to financial analyst Reba White, who would become his lifelong partner in the soon-to-be-launched adventure of print collecting -- an altogether new pond for both of them. Dave’s memoir, Small Victories: One Couple's Surprising Adventures Collecting American Prints, is the story of the Williams’s 30-year journey in dogged self-education and research, collecting, and curating. Published earlier this year by David Godine, Small Victories manages to both sweep informatively through the history of American printmaking and stir the reader to ask herself how she too might pursue her creative projects with the same rare combination of joy, sense of mission, intensity, shrewdness, and humility that the Williamses exemplified. Embarking on their art collecting adventure as a later-life second act and with financial limitations that many collectors don’t have, the Williamses recognized at the outset that they needed to choose their proverbial pond wisely. In 1978, when Dave landed a good position with Alliance Capital, he also landed an office space with empty walls that both he and Reba immediately saw as their “gallery.” “Big prints seemed like the answer for the expansive space,” he writes, “so we gradually added contemporary works by living artists. But this didn’t seem to satisfy.” And why not? Contemporary prints were expensive. Even worse, we were doing what most other collectors were doing in the late 1970s, seeking the big, colorful prints that living artists continued to make following the 1960s ‘print revival.’ Moving with the herd offended my investment sensibilities. Living artists and fresh-off-the-presses prints provided little opportunity to discover new fields or obtain new insights. What could we contribute? It wasn’t that they didn’t have the same acquisitive impulse of many collectors: by Dave’s own admission, he was image-addicted -- “A fever can be treated and cured, but the only relief -- temporary, of course -- from the desire to acquire, is to acquire.” But hand-in-hand with that impulse was an implicit set of values that he and Reba shared, and those values only deepened as they progressed: “What could we contribute?” I read the question as not purely selfless, yet still powerful when understood as a basic human need to do something impactful -- to prosper by way of munificence. The Williamses needed an open space in which to root and thrive, a pond in which to swim and not just tread water among the throng. What they did, in fact, was dig their very own pond. Reba proposed that we use the Alliance walls to build a big, affordable American print collection emphasizing less-familiar artists from an earlier time, the first half of the twentieth century. We would seek the work of artists whose signatures were not household names, try to find great prints by lost or forgotten printmakers. Less money, more prints. It’s notable -- and inspiring to me -- that the fundamental assumption behind the project was that there is a vast trove of extant art that has been lost or forgotten; that what has risen to the surface as “great” or popular at different moments in history is incomplete. Commercial trends, media hype, the whims of good and bad fortune, and occasional nepotism inevitably elbow out quiet or challenging gems of great beauty and value. We can cite many examples of posthumously recognized masterpieces. And so, if you have an opportunity -- plus passion and resources -- it is a worthy endeavor indeed to seek out and discover what has been regrettably passed over. The simple truth -- that not all good or great art is recognized -- is easy to forget. We can too readily entrust tastemakers of the day -- the Academie of 1874 France, A-list publishing houses and magazines, even the Twitter kings and queens -- to point us to ideas, works, and forms that are worthwhile. Recently I was made aware of a new online literary publication called the James Franco Review, the mission of which reads: • This project is about visibility of underrepresented artists and narratives. Not satire. • We have a desire for diverse literature and are questioning literary journals and the publishing industry. What happens when work is considered blindly? What happens when editors are asked to question where their tastes came from? At the James Franco Review, we don’t know why some stories and poems get published while others don’t, or what it means for something to be right for a magazine. We seek to publish works of prose and poetry as if we were all James Franco, as if our work was already worthy of an editor’s attention. An artist competing for an open space of recognition -- the attentive reception due one’s unique talents and contribution -- can only hope that there are James Franco Reviews, and Dave and Reba Williamses, digging their thoughtfully conceived little ponds all the time. 3. As their brainstorms became more serious, the Willliams’s pond became even smaller: [W]e established rules: only prints made by American -- United States-citizen -- artists; only prints made in the twentieth century, with emphasis on the first half of the century; and only prints featuring images of America. And the prints would mostly be black ink on white paper, not color. Why these choices? We learned from dealers that American prints were under-collected by institutions and individuals. We saw them as bargains, compared to Old Master and nineteenth-century European prints. They were mostly American scenes, and they were mainly black and white...Most important, there were many, many possibilities to choose from, and not much competing demand. We dove into our new project headfirst, evading the collector herd. Again, the Williamses fashioned a strategy that was equal parts pragmatism, ambition, and aesthetic passion. They wanted an open space -- enough sun, air, and healthy soil, if you will. Enough opportunity for learning and discovery apart from cutthroat hordes. Having started on their project later in life, perhaps they also felt some propulsion toward more -- bargains, and a large supply with little demand. Having moved in affluent circles, perhaps they knew too well the intense herd mentality of status-seeking among peers. Reba was the voracious student and researcher. So when print dealer David Tunick said, “Spend just a few hours researching any aspect of American prints, and you’ll become the expert on that topic,” an additional appeal presented itself -- to develop a bona fide expertise in a field as yet unpillaged by art historians. Reba went back to school, earning her PhD in art history from CUNY Graduate Center; her dissertation topic was the history of the Weyhe Gallery, a New York gallery that, writes Dave, “early in the twentieth century, did more than any other to promote prints by American artists.” With the scope of their pond determined, with Reba’s talent for research, with Dave’s “addiction” in full force, and with a mission to bring attention to the undiscovered driving them, they went forth to build a remarkable and renowned American print collection. 4. Small Victories is filled with examples of how setting a clear, modest path, away from the din, can lead to moments of great discovery and reward. Dave writes, for example, about how prints from the 1930s WPA era opened windows onto that historical moment: “Although the WPA administrators demanded an uplifting and optimistic tone in murals, the prints were censored very little, probably because prints are often considered a lesser art.” Lucienne Bloch, who had worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera, was commissioned to paint a mural of children in a playground that was located in an African American neighborhood of Detroit. She told us that the WPA administrators wanted only white children in the mural, so that’s what she painted. But she also made a realistic lithograph of the same scene with black children, titled Negro Playground, Detroit. The Williamses acquired and later exhibited this print. Other WPA artists whose prints became part of their collection included Joseph Vogel, John Langley Howard, Florence Kent Hunter, and Rockwell Kent. [caption id="attachment_76946" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Florence Kent Hunter, "Decorations for Home Relief," ca: 1938-9.[/caption] Their WPA research led to other screenprints made prior to the 1960s pop-art explosion. Dave writes that they were “the first collectors to take early screenprints seriously and do the necessary research,” and thus, as David Tunick had earlier predicted, they became “the experts” and “changed perceptions about early screenprints, rescuing them from the art orphanage and reviving them as sought-after collectibles.” Screenprint artists that made up this part of their collection included Ralston Crawford, Harry Sternberg, Elizabeth Olds, Ernest Hopf, Anton Refregier, Hugo Gellert, and Ben Shahn. In 1991, after an exhibition of their prints at the Newark Museum had proved disappointing because their curatorial partner had “wanted to show only the best-known prints by the best-known artists, while we wanted to show great work by lost and forgotten artists,” the Museum’s director, Sam Miller, asked the couple a question that sent them on their next mission: how many of their prints were made by African-American artists? Miller was interested in mounting that exhibition. Once they determined that only one print in their collection qualified -- Sargent Johnson’s "Singing Saints" -- the Williamses set out to locate and acquire more; if the work of African-American printmakers was under-collected and under-exhibited, they wanted to change that (as did Sam Miller). “We took an unorthodox approach -- and one we never used again. We sent Reba’s list [of more than 50 African-American artists] to every art dealer we knew, or had even heard of, and offered to buy any prints made in the 1930s and 1940s by any of the artists on Reba’s list for whatever price the dealer asked.” They succeeded in buying up more than 100 prints. With such an aggressive approach, they did face trust issues. When the African-American artist Raymond Steth heard about their buying binge, he came in person from Philadelphia with his portfolio to make sure they were worthy buyers; he made them promise to never sell his prints and to donate them to a major museum. What likely earned Steth’s trust was Dave and Reba’s evident love for the work they collected. Dave writes in detail about every artist and print featured in Small Victories, demonstrating his intimate relationship with each print and passing that involvement on to the reader. Of Steth’s print "Heaven on a Mule," Dave writes: It is a remarkable print, an emotional experience...Steth explained that there was a religious cult that believed 
that if you put on wings, went to a hilltop with all your earthly possessions, 
and prayed, angels would come and take you to heaven. In the print, a commotion in the clouds overhead hints that the angels are on their way. [caption id="attachment_76948" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Raymond Steth, "Heaven on a Mule," ca: 1935-43.[/caption] Of a depression-era print, Raphael Soyer’s "The Mission," Dave writes: The scene is in a church mission, and the hollow-cheeked, near-starvation poor are concentrating on their coffee and bread -- except for one. A central figure stares out at the viewer in anger, eyes intense and mouth tightly drawn. I can read his mind: “I’m mad at the world. It’s not my fault, but I’m desperate and can’t do anything about it.” Along the way, many delightful discoveries were born of their decision to stay focused and small: prints from short-lived, forgotten creative movements like Indian Space; the discovery that Connecticut, where they had settled by 2007, had been home to a major American Impressionist colony (which they only learned when they agreed to a small exhibition at the Greenwich Historical Society); a beautiful collection of flower prints all done in black-and-white that innovated modes for capturing the essence of “color” via monochrome aquatints; and little-known experimental works by star artists who, when making prints, were free to depart from their best-known styles, e.g. Frida Kahlo’s only print, "Frida and the Miscarriage," and Alex Katz’s atypically black-and-white "The Swimmer." 5. I write all of this from Paris -- 140 years after that first Impressionist exhibit, and yet I've decamped here this summer for the very reason of finding a bit of open space. I have lately come to realize that fierce competition -- whether the hothouse of literary commerce, or the more general ubiquity of unbridled American capitalism -- dampens me: I need a regular antidote, lest demoralization set in. Throughout my life I have, by no conscious choice of mine, swum in big ponds, and as a small fish have not fared particularly well. The older I get, the more I seek open spaces and warm souls. I want to grow, upward and outward, deeply rooted and nourished. But what of the value of competition and intense selectivity? In a Slate article, ”The Trouble With Malcolm Gladwell,” psychology professor Christopher Chabris writes: Perhaps tough competition gives students a more realistic view of their own strengths and weaknesses. An accurate sense of one's own ability could help the process of acquiring expertise….Finding your skills may trump following your passion. If you can’t cut it, maybe it wasn’t meant to be; you have to compete to find out. Competition separates the contenders from the dabblers. Well, it depends. Of course I come back to what it means to be a “Bloomer,” embarking “late” on a venture or passion. When you’ve lived a little, you perhaps better understand that in the school lunchroom of life, the cool kids’ table is an illusion; everyone’s eyes are wandering, and the competition to get seats at the one table is a sham. Also, Dave and Reba Williams likely did not wring their hands too much over their parameters: they hadn’t the luxury of time to waste, to fall in with the trendy multitude on roads well-traveled and wade toward some dribble of fulfillment. If they were going to make something of their mission, and enjoy it, they really had to start out thinking small. Paradoxically, the imperative of efficiency spawns surprising and significant revelations -- the fact that many talented fish have gotten lost or drowned in the big ponds of history, for example; and that a world in which institutionalized tastemakers are never challenged is a world lacking sorely in creative victories, small and otherwise. Images courtesy of Dave H. Williams/David R. Godine. Homepage image: Raphael Soyer, "The Mission," 1933.
Essays

Mourning, Meaning, and Moving On: Life After ‘Mad Men’

1. At the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, I loop back around to the beginning of “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN,” an exhibition that “explores the creative process behind Mad Men.” I arrived later than I’d hoped, just as the crowds were beginning to bottleneck, and was nudged through the narrow display corridors more quickly than I would have liked. The exhibit is a well-conceived combination of captivating eye candy -- Megan’s "Zou Bisou Bisou" outfit and Pete’s plaid pants, Don’s office and the Ossining kitchen recreated in full, embossed business cards from each incarnation of the agency, every item from the Adam Whitman shoebox, a copy of Sterling's Gold -- along with the pen and ink and paper behind all that. I crane my neck behind rows of bodies now three-deep, trying to read an entry from creator Matthew Weiner’s 1992 journal, in which he describes a character for a screenplay he was writing: “He will be brave and cunning but he is ultimately scared because he runs from death and family; for him they are the same.” A security guard hovers, scolding anyone who whips out an iPhone before any camera triggers can be tapped. I linger around a standalone display case containing that most romantic of artistic relics -- scraps of paper on which Weiner scribbled character, plot, and theme notes whenever they came to him. I wait for the guard to drift to the other end of the exhibit, then hold my phone over the glass and tap-tap-tap, working my way around all four sides and drawing looks. Later I see that the glare and shadows and sometimes illegible handwriting have obscured many words, but I make out a few things, like, Am I supposed to pretend that I can’t open a jar so you can prove you’re a man All your lies hit @ once even though you do them one @ a time a same story as the Chip n Dip Don seeing a woman / inverse of the pilot  Peggy and Betty have lunch Fear is contagious. Permeates its expectations. I’d trekked out to Queens on a Sunday morning -- the Sunday of the series finale -- because I wanted to somehow mark the end, and begin my pre-mourning. It’s an absurdly dramatic word, I know -- mourning -- implying real loss. It’s just a TV show, the level-headed inner voice says. But lately I find myself leaning into the gap between rational assertions and a stirring in my gut: yes, of course, It’s just a TV show. So too, When God closes a door he opens a window and I have my health. Nevertheless, experience tells me there may be something interesting, there in the gap, in the dissonance. As I moved through the exhibit the first time, I found myself surprisingly less interested in the fabulous clothes and mid-century-modern office furniture (although I did love the smudgy worn leather of Don’s Eames desk chair) and more so in these glass-encased scribbles, along with mounted script outlines, the recreated writers’ room whiteboard (a grid of color-coded index cards), and three-ring binders that contained things like “Notes from Tone Meeting.” In other words, the museum curators smartly anticipated what seems to me a real question we’re all left with after spending eight years with Mad Men and now reminding ourselves that It was just a TV show... We know that we became absorbed, that we experienced great pleasure in watching, and that we couldn’t wait for each new season to begin. We know, or feel at least, that we have participated in something significant, a cultural moment. But what I want to know now, or try to know, is this: Is it art? 2. I can hear the chorus of responses, falling into three camps: 1.) of course it is, 2.) of course it isn’t, 3.) who cares? Yet for me the question is there, with no obvious answer. And it matters: I believe there may even be moral stakes here. Our current golden age of TV demands a considerable intensity of involvement from its viewers: when it comes to compelling serial drama, you care a lot about your show and its characters, or not at all. When the subject of Mad Men -- or Breaking Bad or The Wire or House of Cards or any number of shows -- comes up in a conversation, the parties are typically all in or all out. In the case of the former, the talk zooms zero to 60, whatever conversation you’d started is supplanted; in the latter, with the all-outs, the word “investment” almost always comes up -- as in, “I’m not prepared/willing to make the investment.” Indeed, watching these shows costs; a seven-season, 92-episode show like Mad Men is a significant expenditure -- by my math, some 200+ hours (if you’re a re-watcher, as I am). There are myriad other things we could be, should be, want to be doing with our time and energy: how can we not ask, What’s it worth? And I do think about those hours -- about the 15 to 20 books I could have read; about the four hours per week for a full year that I might have spent exercising, mentoring a young person, self-educating about global threats, growing food, helping a friend in need, freelancing for extra income, writing fiction, writing letters to my government representatives, calling my mother. Et cetera. So since the credits rolled on the finale last week, I’ve been thinking less about “what happened” to Don and Peggy and Betty and Joan and Pete and Roger. Or even what happened to American culture, fashion, and gender politics between 1960 and 1970. What I’ve been wondering is what’s happened, over the last eight years, to us. What has the show done to us; what has it meant. Has it done or meant anything? For this is what I mean by that highfalutin word “art” -- something that changes me, shows me something that matters, something that will last. 3. Behind a work of art, there is an artist; and the MoMI exhibition title says it all: “Matthew Weiner’s MAD MEN.” Yes, there is a team of writers, and sometimes they are given due credit. But also (from an interview in The Paris Review): At the beginning of the season I dictate a lot of notes about the stories I’m interested in. Then for each episode, we start with a group-written story, an outline. When I read the outline, I rarely get a sense of what the story is. It has to be told to me. Then I go into a room with an assistant and I dictate the scenes, the entire script, page by page. And: I am a controlling person. I’m at odds with the world, and like most people I don’t have any control over what’s going to happen -- I only have wishes and dreams. But to be in this environment where you actually control how things are going to work out, and who’s going to win, and what they’re going to learn, and who kisses who... And (from The Atlantic): Much of Mad Men is driven by Weiner’s id, by his own dreams, by what he calls a “wordless instinct,” a conviction that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Some aspects of the show may seem “dreamlike or whatever” to others, but Weiner told me he often experiences things in a very different way than most other people do. And (from Vulture): Apparently, one of the actors on The Sopranos said, “My character wouldn’t say that,” and [David Chase] replied, “Who said it was your character?” [Laughs.]...The [actors] definitely thought I was picky and vague, I will say that. I was frustrating to work for because...I’m not always articulate about what I want. There’s a lot of material on Weiner -- he has not shied away from interviews -- and I’ve combed only a fraction of it. What I gather is that, as Mad Men gained in acclaim, Weiner gained total freedom: what the characters say and do, the visual, psychological, and emotional tones of the scenes -- in the end, it’s Weiner’s vision, and his call. In that sense, he is the Don Draper. But is the landscape of a writer’s id necessarily artful? We are meant to believe that Don’s creativity works this way -- successfully, unquestionably. Does Weiner’s? In answer to a question about the poems he wrote in college, Weiner said, [They were p]retty funny, a lot of them, in an ironic way. And very confessional. A lot like what I do on Mad Men, actually -- I don’t think people always realize the show is super personal, even though it’s set in the past. It was as if the admission of uncomfortable thoughts had already become my business on some level. I love awkwardness. That awkwardness, that instinct, truth that is stranger than fiction, that picky vagueness -- one might say these are the marks of Weiner’s artistry. When I think back on seven seasons, it’s the weird stuff that floats to the surface: Peggy doing the twist in her awful green skirt toward a glowering, glossy-lipped Pete; Joan hoisting up her accordion and crooning in French; those horrible giggling aluminum-ad twins; Grandpa Gene grabbing Betty’s boob; Lane flaunting his “chocolate” playboy bunny in front of his father then getting beaten with a cane; Ken’s eye patch against his unsettling cheerfulness; Ginsburg’s nipple freak-out; the cringyness I still feel when rewatching Megan’s "Zou Bisou Bisou" performance. These moments felt bizarre, distinctly off, and made me always aware of an authorial sensibility: someone put that accordion in the script, told those girls to giggle, and crafted that palpable awkwardness while Megan flung her hair and legs around. Why were the characters doing these things? Because Matt Weiner’s dreams, wordless instincts, and experiences said so. “The important thing, for me,” Weiner said, about writing for The Sopranos, “was hearing the way David Chase indulged the subconscious. I learned not to question its communicative power.” 4. It was Nicholson Baker who once said that he writes best first thing in the morning, before even turning on lights, so he can write “in a dreamlike state.” I always liked the romantic purity of that; and yet, that’s the raw-material part of the process. What next? In undergraduate writing classes, I sometimes introduce the idea of “the moral point of view” -- which I borrowed from Anne Lamott’s sometimes cloying but often useful Bird by Bird. Lamott invokes the term moral -- with all its baggage -- then both deconstructs and reclaims its significance. It’s not about judging characters, or readers; it’s not about black-and-white messages or lessons. It’s about the author having a stake, and exploring/expressing his worldview, lest the work risk being mere craft, bloodless and forgettable. That stake, that world view, could be a pressing, unanswerable question; a hope, or a shade of darkness; an incisive observation about human nature. Is the strangeness of dreams a world view? Life as a series of unresolved and awkward non sequiturs? In Mad Men, people come and people go. They sort of change, but also not really. Many of them behave in disturbing or creepy or inconsistent ways. Ultimately we don’t know the fates of most of the people who come on screen, and neither do the principal characters. If a young man runs into a beautiful woman at a party on Mad Men and she gives him her phone number and he writes it on a piece of paper and then he loses his coat, he will, on a normal TV show, end up figuring out how to find her. On Mad Men, he will never see her again. (from an interview with Esquire) This approach unsettles the typical viewer and is likely a main reason -- along with its decided racial homogeneity (but more on that later) -- the series is not more numerically popular, by ratings standards. I myself have no trouble with narrative non-resolution per se; but it’s hard to know if what Weiner crafts in his episodic world is so much like life that it sometimes seems strange and unreal, or if he’s forcing the weirdness and illogic too hard -- manneristically. The young man will never see the beautiful woman again; but will he think of her? Will he care? Does Weiner care? Does he have any stake in it? Should we? Herein is evidence of a “moral point of view” that discomfits even me, a devoted viewer. Yes, people come and people go, that’s life; but in the world of Mad Men, it doesn’t seem to matter. Peggy’s abandoned baby, and the subsequent easy chumminess of her friendship with Pete (the father) is one example. The inconsequential in and out of so many characters with whom we spend significant time -- Duck, Freddy, all of Don’s women (Megan included) with the possible exception of Rachel, Beth, Joyce, Ginsburg, Lane, Ted, Margaret, Hildy, (and what ever happened to Polly the Golden Retriever?!), et alia -- is another. There is an uneasy tension between caring about the characters and not caring about them; between them mattering and not mattering. That tension seems to push and pull between the authorial side and the viewers’ side: why is it so easy to discard these broken people? Is it the show that discards them, the nature of episodic TV? Is it Weiner who dictates the emotional reality of the characters out of his own emotional instincts? Or is it, as Weiner would have us believe, real life itself? To be clear, the question isn’t should it matter; the question is does it? “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” These words -- Don to Peggy after she has given birth to the baby she didn’t know she was carrying -- essentialize Don’s character journey. “You have to move forward. As soon as you can figure out what that is,” he says to Roger over drinks in Season 2. And in the series finale, the words come back yet again, Don to his pseudo-niece Stephanie (with regard to another abandoned baby), slightly softened: “You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” Stephanie doesn’t buy it, but for the most part, the principal characters do: they move forward -- they both forgive and seamlessly forget -- and it’s we who may be shocked by it, not them. 5. Move forward. Mourning? “Mourning is an excuse to feel sorry for yourself,” as Don made clear to Betty in Season 1. Life is a sequence of episodes, nothing more and nothing less. In this light, there is a coherence to Weiner’s landing and thriving in the hybrid creative ground of literature and television. He grew up around books -- his father carried Marcel Proust on vacation -- but he was a slow and “not...great reader,” and had “trouble with long books.” Since he wouldn’t thus be a novelist, he turned to more compressed forms -- skits, improv, and then poetry in college. In film school, he found himself a minority among a cohort that “hated episodic structure,” films that were held together primarily by character (e.g. 8 1/2, The Godfather, Days of Heaven). “I liked episodic structure, and I thought it worked. I still think it works,” said Weiner. After film school he started reading more intentionally -- biographies, which led to an interest in the “American picaresque character.” When asked about writers who’ve influenced him, he talks about what “holds his attention” -- the compact density of poems; J.D. Salinger, Richard Yates, John Cheever. All this may point to a temperament that foregrounds the present moment -- layered, discrete, and impermanent -- over the long arc or the enduring idea. As a writer in the entertainment industry, Weiner exploits the language and practice of aesthetic concepts, alongside a certain liberty to focus on the internal engine of this scene and these 47 minutes (which will immediately be rated and valuated). The big picture is whatever the aggregate ends up amounting to, not the other way around. But in Mad Men, this hybridity may have ultimately manifest in a meta-ambiguity (i.e. an artistic ambivalence) that verges on cynical: again, while I am not at all bothered by open-ended ambiguity of plot or character fate -- I don’t need to know if Stan+Peggy makes it for the long haul, or even if Don plays out his career at McCann, blue jeans banished forever -- I am uneasy with Weiner’s playing both sides when it comes to the art/entertainment handshake. On the one hand, he talks character complexity and “Old Testament flaws” and existentialism, and, according to Hanna Rosin of The Atlantic, is “dismissive of what he calls the ‘Hollywood reaffirmation thing.’” He’s also said: “The term ‘showrunner’ is really foreign to me. It just feels like an agent term. I’m a writer-producer, and the ‘showrunner’ thing takes away the creative part of it.” On the other hand he sometimes ducks behind the “it’s entertainment” curtain, as in, don’t expect or read into this too much, It’s just a TV show. “We’re trying to entertain you,” he said, somewhat irritably, at an event at the 92nd Street Y, in response to a Big Issue question about “men” and “women.” “So, if it seems like it’s about that, you know, that may be what we ended up doing, but that’s not part of the plan.” Similarly, writers André and Maria Jacquemetton said in a 2012 interview, in reference to the show’s relationship to historical research, “we’re making entertainment, not a documentary.” In other words, Mad Men has aimed primarily to RE-flect, not AF-fect. It’s not “about” anything; it’s just episodes, and they look beautiful and move forward and express awkwardness and sometimes they build toward something and sometimes they veer off, and dead-wood characters drop off as instinct dictates, and now…well...now it’s over. If you expected something more, dear viewer, something “that will last,” then that’s your own silly problem. After all, Weiner and company would say, we’re making TV here, not the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” We’re just selling programming here, not meaning. 6. But c’mon; really? If advertising is metaphor, then the show is the meta-metaphor? Self-consciously shallow and deceptively complex? It feels like a fake gotcha, a feigned cleverness that may actually be a smokescreen for hedging. When Lili Loofbourow writes (at the Los Angeles Review of Books): I do think it’s very much to the show’s credit that it ends with an ad -- showing how monumentally frivolous its guiding vision has been all along. I appreciate that. I do. It’s even a certain kind of brilliant. It’s just not something I, personally, can love -- I’d like to agree about the brilliance -- that it’s all been a masterful trick, and the joke’s on me. But that would mean that the writers genuinely cared very little about the characters, while doing their damndest to make sure that the viewers did. And that is contempt and cynicism of quite a high order. It seems more probable that in the particular way the show hedged art and entertainment, it copped out; it settled in the end for being the head-turning bombshell at the gala, relying on her cleavage instead of her Mensa IQ, tragically underachieving. Because the characters did matter to us; but then -- and now we come to the finale -- they kind of didn’t. We believed in Peggy, in her unlikely ambition and talent, her quirky beauty and capricious taste in men, and her oddness; in the end, as she rises in the professional ranks, she really just wants a corner office at McCann and to work on Coke and to channel a Sally Albright she predates by 20 years. We felt for Joan through her ups and downs and admired her plucky, hip-swinging sensuality; what she loves, it turns out, in lieu of male bullshit and yet still uninterestingly, are making money and wielding power, like an extended middle-aged revenge fuck. We expected little from Roger and Pete, but we enjoyed them (except when we didn’t), so I’d say we’re at zero-sum seeing them keep on, more or less as they were. As for Betty, it seemed fated since the pilot that someone would kick it from too many Lucky Strikes, and she was the one at odds with her body all along; her clarity and muted emotion at the end were for me the most satisfying -- character-logical -- of anything that happened in the finale. As for Don -- Don whom I have admired, despised, defended, quoted, and rooted for most of the time -- it turns out he’s an ad man; that’s what he is. To boot, he’s not so special, really. He’s been cruel and honorable, weak and strong. He really needed a hug -- and he finally gave it to himself, via lonely Leonard and hippie self-help -- and now he can do as he’s told others to do, i.e. Put It All Behind Him. In the penultimate image, Don’s gleeful face is huge on the screen, outsizing his trail of wreckage times a million. And nothing much matters now, because the episode, and the series, and the characters, have come and gone. We thought there was some there there, and I think the writers did, too (see my end-of-season-7-part-one essay, in which the Burger Chef episode as possible series finale had me singing a very different tune); but then there wasn’t. Because if you hedge long enough, you’ll tip right over. It doesn’t take much, just a feather-like waft, or maybe just silly viewers and their need for meaning. The writers would surely say that the characters’ endings came organically from “who they are.” But I’m not really buying that, because Weiner, as creative non-showrunner, has been imprinting who he is, his authorial dreams and awkwardness and moral point of view, all along. The notion that what Mad Men does is more like real life than what other TV shows do is perhaps the most self-unaware thing that Weiner asserts, and suggests, again, some hedging: is he the show’s creator, or is he simply managing life-like characters’ inevitable behavior? The characters’ stunning disconnection from their actions and interactions -- the atomized non sequiturs that comprise their stories -- is a highly particular version of real life. I think, for example, of the Season 5 finale of The Wire -- in which the dark fate of a promising young black male (Randy) resulting from the carelessness of a dull-witted white male (Herc) is not relegated to the dead-wood pile of episodes past, but revisited and shown to the viewer; surely David Simon would say, That’s real life, and fuck yes it matters. I think too of the very satisfying series finale of Friday Night Lights, in which the saintly and sacrificial Eric and Tami Taylor finally make a selfish choice, and what we feel in those heartbreaking final moments is how everything that is now off-screen -- everyone from the past five years from whom they have disconnected and put behind them -- matters so very much. 7. As is obvious by now, I did make the investment; I ponied up big and bought what Mad Men was selling. So invested was I that I may still have been convinced of Weiner’s all-in artistry, or Loofbourow’s theory of visionary brilliance -- if it weren’t for Weiner’s final words with regard to the finale. Moved to speak out after the fact, in response to what he thought were disturbingly cynical readings of the ending, Weiner explained that the implication of the episode’s final images is that Don, “in an enlightened state...created something that’s very pure,” i.e. the most famous ad campaign in history, “Buy the world a Coke.” In other words, Weiner exults in Don’s transcendent talent, and his receptivity to artistic vision via emotional healing. In apparent earnestness, Weiner takes a final shot at resonance by celebrating the artist and the possibility of human wholeness. But what to make of an earnestness so blind to -- so disconnected from -- what it means? As we now know -- thanks especially to Ericka Blount Danois writing at Ebony -- in real life, Billy Davis, an African-American man who’d had a career as a songwriter and A&R executive, was the music director at McCann Erickson in 1970; he helped to create the Coke campaign and co-wrote and produced “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” The campaign, as the Coca-Cola Company tells it, was a team conception; but as Tim Carmody points out at The Medium, it was Davis -- one of the few African Americans at the senior level in advertising at that time -- who contributed what might be described as “pure” or “enlightened” -- the part that involved harmony and healing. Davis said to Bill Backer, creative director for the Coca Cola account: Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke...I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love. Does it matter that Weiner gave Don Draper credit for the ad? Does it mean anything? Carmody said it well: We have a long tradition in the United States of erasing the creative work of black Americans, of suggesting that the inventions of black men and women either came from nowhere, came from no one in particular, or were in fact the creations of white people. We do this in our history, in our oral traditions, and even in our fiction. Mos Def had something to say about it, too: Elvis Presley ain't got no SOULLLL (hell naw) Little Richard is rock and roll (damn right) You may dig on The Rolling Stones But they ain't come up with that shit on they own (nah-ah) I wonder if Loofbourow would say that it was all ironic meta-brilliance on Weiner’s part: in Mad Men's final act of meta-metaphor, the white man gets full credit for a black man’s work -- work of lasting greatness -- so that we can be properly entertained. I think I prefer blinded earnestness; the joke grates like fingernails on a chalkboard. Maybe Chris Rock could pull it off; Matthew Weiner can’t. One of the last installations at the MoMI exhibit is a screen display of the various opening credit sequences submitted by the design firm Imaginary Forces. It’s impossible to imagine a different choice from the iconic falling silhouette we’ve come to know so well: the sequence is beautiful, haunting, racy; and like a great first paragraph of a novel, it contains the whole of the story to come. The mysterious ad man’s ephemeral surroundings crumble around him; he falls and falls, it’s terrifying but also exhilarating; then he lands. Reclined, unruffled, and still smoking. You win, Don Draper. You always do. It would seem that I am ready to move forward, and to put Mad Men behind me like it never happened.
The Millions Interview

A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham

  James Hannaham is a busy guy. The book tour for his second novel Delicious Foods, out from Little Brown in March, has taken him to Texas, Atlanta, Phili, Richmond, and of course Brooklyn, where he lives. Not to mention his robust blog tour -- interviews, essays, the whole shebang. The book has been rave-reviewed all around the mainstream literary media; it’s safe to say that this is a “breakout” moment for the 46-year-old novelist, whose first novel, God Says No, came out from McSweeney’s in 2009. It’s important to note, however, that James -- whom I first met as a teaching colleague in 2011-- manages to maintain an easy-going poise even as his engagement in this moment is full and intense: when I first got in touch with him about an interview, he was in between readings but in the midst of installing his first solo art show, “Lengthy Statements/Brief Statements” at Kimberly-Klark gallery in Ridgewood, Queens. (Yes, Hannaham is a visual/conceptual artist as well. He was also a founding member of the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service). “Opportunities don’t give a shit about our schedules, do they?” he wrote. In terms of the interview, he basically said, Bring it on. But given the volume of attention the novel has been getting, we resolved to explore questions and topics not discussed elsewhere as of yet -- to make this NJAI, Not Just Another Interview. Hopefully, we’ve succeeded: at the least there is a special audio treat for readers at the end.* What you need to know about Delicious Foods: the story centers around the eponymous evil agribusiness, a modern slave-labor operation in nowhere, La., where crack-addicted “employees,” mostly African American, are manipulated into bogus, unpayable debts (eternal servitude in exchange for drug supply). Darlene Hardison lands at Delicious Foods after her husband, a civil rights activist, is killed, and her resourceful adolescent son Eddie follows her there, eventually suffering dismemberment (he loses his hands). The rest is by turns absurd, tragic, hilarious, and sobering -- the kind of novel that makes you wonder, by the end, how in the world the author managed to keep you both engaged and entertained, given the horror show of cruelty and sadness you’ve just experienced. Is there hope at the end of this craziness? Read on... The Millions: A much-talked-about "hook" of Delicious Foods is that alternate sections are narrated by the voice of crack cocaine personified, i.e. “Scotty.” I had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of the novel, narrated by none other than James Hannaham! In the audio, it’s starkly apparent that something like “code-switching” is going on: third-person sections are written/read in a somewhat formal, “literary-narrator” voice, Scotty’s sections in a street voice (you’ve referred to it as “trashy”). One could argue that these are archetypal “white” and “black” voices. Were you thinking in those terms as you wrote, and/or as you read aloud? James Hannaham: I was thinking in terms of “code switching,” yes, but I’m always thinking of code switching -- it comes very naturally to me as a New York-bred person with a background in performance and a fairly good ear for the differences in speech patterns and argots of various groups. It’s something that performance of the last 25 years has been honing to perfection: I’ve admired writer/performers like Sarah Jones, Danny Hoch, Anna Deavere Smith, and Richard Maxwell's plays for decades. TM: Do these voices reflect a kind of prismatic sense of your own identity? Or a mocking of those identity “codes”? JH: The voice you call “white” is a voice I actually think of as “me,” so I suppose I should take offense at that? But you know, for my entire life I’ve been taking offense at people who think that just because I can speak/write so-called “proper” English, that it suggests anything about my loyalty to black folks. Ugh. In high school, I remember nearly clocking a white girl in the face for saying that I talked “white.” A high number of my ancestors have been teachers and ministers, so to me, that voice is as black as any other “code.” I’ve appropriated it! The technical problem of moving back and forth among several characters and narrating as Scotty was a little bit of an Olympic luge, but it allowed me to use a skill set of performer tricks that has been sort of dormant since I quit Elevator Repair Service in 2002, except for when I’ve read out loud in public. TM: Why a formal narrative voice for Eddie’s sections, as opposed to, say, a closer third-person that sounds more like a kid? JH: I hate it when writers approximate the language of younger children in third person just because they are the protagonists. It’s like the writer is condescending to the reader, lying about his/her actual subject position, and hog-tying him -- or herself when it comes to the ability to observe astutely. It’s fiction, guys! There’s a certain amount of sleight-of-hand that goes on, and that’s not bad or forbidden. Plus, Eddie is an unusually smart kid and I wanted that to come across in the narration. TM: You said in an interview that writing Scotty’s voice was “fun,” and that definitely shows. I was also struck by how immaculate the rhythms and syntax of the so-called dialect are -- so-and-so “be doing” this and that, the use of the article “a” instead of “an,” the particular past-perfect verb construction, i.e. “had came,” “had went.” The third-person narration is “proper English,” and yet Scotty’s street syntax and grammatical constructions are perfectly crafted and consistent. Was writing that voice fluid and natural, or was there as much, or even more, crafting and revising? JH: This strikes at the heart of my project. M.I.A. has a line in a song called “XR2” where the music stops for a second and she says, “Some people think we’re stupid / But we’re not.” I think about that a lot when I’m writing a voice like Scotty’s -- I wanted the drug’s voice to hold its own against the other voices you call “white” and to do the same kinds of things, not to decide, since this was a vernacular speech pattern, that it should not display the same level of intelligence. Perhaps, I often think, it should display more intelligence, or a different kind of intelligence, or a wider variety of intelligences. The first drafts of it were relatively natural (a lot of people in my hometown speak like Scotty, truth be told) and yet I did spend a lot of time reading the voice out loud as I revised, and making sure that the voice was “consistently inconsistent” -- this was a discussion I had with my editor, that the voice, since it referred so much to spoken rather than written speech, would sound more consistent if it wasn’t rigidly so, if there were a reasonable number of places where it bent the rules of its own messed-up diction. TM: As the working conditions of the Delicious Foods farm are revealed, the reader recognizes a clear modern analog to slavery; at the same time, the narrative voice is darkly hilarious. Where on the spectrum of realism-absurdity do you see this setting and the events that occur? Hyper-real? Allegorically absurd? Satire? Parable? Metaphor? It’s fascinating, maybe a little disturbing, that in reviews I’ve seen references to all of the above. So is there a real business like Delicious Foods that you researched? JH: Sadly, shockingly, there are many. They include: The case of enslavers Ronald Evans and his wife, Jequita. A lot of the details of the Evans case wound up going into the book in some fashion. The case of farmworker Michael Allen Lee. The case of Joyce Grant, the one that initially inspired me, described by John Bowe in his book Nobodies. There was a six-part series by Neil Henry in the Washington Post in 1983 in which a guy who called himself “Billy Bongo” got paid to dupe a bunch of folks from DC to go all the way to the middle of North Carolina. And believe it or not, an actual place called Bulls-Hit Farm. This is, of course, just one type of labor abuse among many. I’d say that, at least in the agricultural sector, the more common scheme is to traffic Mexican nationals across the border, confiscate their passports, and threaten them in order to make them pick tomatoes in Central Florida. Or the whole sex trafficking of young Eastern European and Asian women. But there are lots of disgusting variations on the theme. Take your pick. TM: Our first introduction to Darlene is as Eddie’s crack-addicted mother, possibly responsible for her son’s having lost his hands via some gruesome violence. It’s later that we learn that she was a middle-class, college-educated woman, happily married, and involved in community organizing. Was this a kind of corrective narrative for readers who would assume certain things about female black drug addicts? Was this always Darlene’s history, or something that evolved as you got to know her? JH: I originally thought that Darlene would be more of a person connected to the streets, maybe homeless, someone who might have a little bit more jaded of an attitude but didn’t realize how naïve she was, closer to Scotty, actually, which is how that voice wound up in the book. Then I realized that for dramatic purposes, and perhaps to suggest how much can be at stake when you end up addicted to drugs, I decided that Darlene would be a different sort of person. (You find out that she went to college very early on -- Scotty says so in the first chapter.) While it felt true to the real life experiences of people who’ve ended up victims of modern slavery, I was a little bit nonplussed to have to tell the story of a black, female, drug-addicted prostitute because of how tired and unflattering a trope it is, so I tried to do everything I could to turn that annoyingly familiar stock character on its head, from the fact that she isn’t a very good prostitute to her weird experiences to the fact that her background is not what you’d expect. Without apologizing for depicting a black female prostitute in the first place, largely because I think when a gay man (like me) writes about a female sex worker he is more likely to have something humanist and compassionate in mind, something admiring of the toughness it takes survive on the streets, rather than any vicarious titillation or essentializing misogynist bullshit. TM: Related to this, you and I have talked a little about race and audience-awareness: for example Chris Rock’s talent for crafting jokes that somehow speak simultaneously to white people and black people, but also knowing when certain jokes are aimed for one crowd more than another. How much (if it all) in your writing process were you thinking about who would be reading these characters and their situations? JH: I tend to think of audience in a very limited way. Not as some mass of judgy, faceless readers, but as specific friends. So I might turn a phrase and think to myself: Colleen Werthmann would find that funny. Or Ralph Lemon is going to shit himself over this. Or Tim Murphy will love that joke. In a similar spirit, the book itself is dedicated to my cousin Kara Walker (who illustrated the cover) and my bestie Clarinda Mac Low, because I think of it as a conversation starter I could get going with either or both of them. You know, “Hey Kara -- have you heard about this?” “Oh my God, Clarinda, you aren’t going to believe what I just read about.” I like to presume that I live in a world where the humanity of black people is not an open question but a foregone conclusion (thank you, Toni Morrison!), and so I try to write without any self-consciousness about human beings and their problems (facing racial discrimination being one) rather than worrying about who will approve or disapprove. What was the slogan from that Harlem Renaissance magazine FIRE!!!? If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow; strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. Langston Hughes said that. Or, as Fishbone used to chant during their raucous live shows in the 80s, “Fuck y’all / If y’all don’t like it / Fuck y’all / If y’all don’t like it.” TM: And looping back to the question about allegory versus reality, what are you hoping readers walk away with in terms of socio-political-racial awareness? (On one hand, this can be a deductive question to ask an artist about his creative work, and yet your book party was a benefit for Free the Slaves, a nonprofit organization that battles human trafficking, so it seems perhaps a fair question?) And do you have different hopes for black readers and non-black readers? JH: I’m not really as interested in the reader’s take-away, per se, as I am in putting a metaphorical defibrillator up against their received ideas about discrimination even more than race. Depicting racial discrimination is just a way of starting a conversation about a power relationship or power food chain, really, that is hardly exclusive to black Americans and white Americans, despite how much we love to privilege it and pretend that no other struggle matters. Even poor white Americans need to be aware that they’re someone’s niggers, too, right? Almost everybody’s likely to be someone’s nigger. Didn’t Yoko Ono sing, “Woman is the Nigger of the World” in 1972? TM: I am wondering how the writing, and the reception, of the novel have affected your own sense of hope/optimism in relation to race and injustice. One reviewer seemed keen to see the novel’s ending as hopeful: From what we’ve seen go down at Delicious, from the tenacity of this mother and son, we know it’s love that keeps us going. Love is a rock every bit as hard as those diamond stars. Its indestructible beauty is enough to break down the earthly rocks that are its meager imitations. I confess that I read the book ultimately more darkly than that: the final pages evoke sheer survival as primary -- God, myth, and family all prove paltry. Even art is somewhat disempowered (“All stories betray you”). And let’s not forget that Eddie has no hands. What say you about hope? JH: I’m more on your side, frankly. I long ago adopted a happy sort of pessimism as a lifestyle choice, since I always found it best to be prepared for the worst and pleasantly surprised if things turned out great. Your reading of the ending is closer to what I’m suggesting, that love -- even the love of one’s family -- pales in comparison to the instinctual desire to survive; my suspicion is that the desire to survive, for those who haven’t lost it, is jammed into our brain stem or something, connecting us to our true animal nature. In most of the narratives of long-term hardship that I’ve read or seen (I was a big fan of a show called I Shouldn’t Be Alive), everything else tends to fall away after a certain desperate moment. You want to live simply because you want to live. I am also thinking of the end of that documentary film Hands on a Hardbody, in which the person who triumphs is not the religious fanatic with her entire congregation praying for her to win the pickup truck, but a deer stander who quietly endures with unfathomable (and entirely secular) patience. As for my hopes about discrimination and injustice, I’ll offer two quotes. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” says Martin Luther King. More recently, Kara Walker replies, in the title of a controversial drawing featuring a tiny Barack Obama trying to lecture at a podium while surrounded by what looks like an insane race riot, “The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos.” All I’ll say is, I’m her first cousin, not his. TM: In an interview you did with Bookslut about your first novel God Says No back in 2009, you revealed that you were 40 years old; the interviewer asked “What was the holdup?” and I loved your answer (because later-life blooming is my thing): “What was the holdup? I didn’t learn to read until 1990. What the fuck do you mean what was the holdup? Actually...somebody once told me that the average age for the publication of a first novel is 49. I don’t know if it’s true, but I love that statistic.” Can you talk about how God Says No -- a tragicomic novel about identity, i.e. a black, Christian, gay man muddling through identity crisis, double-life, self-acceptance -- is both a “typical first novel” and, perhaps because you were older and more evolved as a person, a subversion of the typical first novel? JH: I don't think I would've written a typical first novel even if I'd been 23 at the time. Even then, people already expected me to do weird-ass, arty things like joining a performance group. I meant for GSN to seem like a typical first novel because of the material that inspired me: clunky firsthand testimonials including magical events that happen to closeted people. I felt as if people would assume a lot of literal connections between myself and Gary, the protagonist, but that I'd set a kind of trap by doing so, a trap designed to free people from the assumption that the typical first novel is always a thinly veiled autobiography; and that if I could do so seamlessly, I would have achieved something interesting. People still think I'm from Florida because of that book, which makes me quietly proud of it.  And there are things I have in common with Gary, but not many. TM: So tell us about the über-Renaissance man thing -- actor/performer, visual artist, novelist.  How do all these parts of your brain and life work together?  Or is there a sequential trajectory to this, i.e. are you becoming “primarily” a novelist, less so a performer or visual artist? JH: There's a fine line between "Renaissance man" and "dilettante," I guess: perhaps the aura of success makes the entire difference? People seem oddly interested in making me choose one "thing" despite the many ways in which these "genres" affect one another in my head, whereas I'm perfectly comfortable trying, at least, to consider them all one thing. "Is not all one?" asks the Buddhist koan. I suppose it's funny that I left Elevator Repair Service right at the moment when they started staging novels, though I'm not sure that it means anything for me or for them other than an odd coincidence.  There are aspects of performance that still affect the way I write, and while I like performing, I was never any good at memorizing, so the aspects of putting a book out that have to do with performance without memorization (doing public readings, reading the audiobook) are kind of perfect for my "skill set," as the Millennials might put it. TM: I’m always just slightly ambivalent when I see a deserving artist's fringe-ness become “discovered.” On the one hand, it’s absolutely great -- for the artist, and also for the world.  But it’s also a little like neighborhoods gentrifying a little too much, or Bon Iver winning the Grammy in 2012 and being like, I’ve always thought this award stuff is kind of bullshit, and I don’t know what to do with the fact that I'm here.  Is it fair to say you’ve mostly worked and lived in the realms of subversion and alternativeness up until now?  And so in going from indie press to big publisher, for example, and with mainstream attention coming to Delicious Foods, do you feel that transition happening for you? Or is this just not something you think/care about? JH: I wouldn't have guessed that this book would be the breakthrough, that's for sure. I mean, more than GSN is the typical first novel, I thought Delicious Foods was the dark, ambitious, difficult, less compromised, and strange second novel, a.k.a., the flop, the "cult favorite, " if it gets that lucky. So I am a little nonplussed. But it's encouraging. I guess I don't really think of myself as "having worked and lived in the realms of subversion and alternativeness" (which you make sound so spooky) since so much of my contact with institutions has been so normal: I went to Yale and the University of Texas, for Pete's sake. I taught at Columbia. I only have one tattoo and my piercing sealed itself up. I'm built like a meathead linebacker. Could I seem less subversive? But maybe those institutional associations have provided a smokescreen for my true black gay freakiness. It's just that I don't think of my true black gay freakiness as subversive, any more than the true white straight Republican freakazoids out in the heartland think of themselves as subversive, even as they're plotting to replace the government with a bunch of gender normative marionettes and privatize motherhood or whatever. Perhaps that makes it a kind of entitled black gay freakiness. I certainly don't mind modeling that for whoever wants it. *Click here to listen to a clip from James Hannaham’s audio recording of Delicious Foods.
Curiosities

Sneak Peek at Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

Over at Bloom today, a sneak look at an excerpt from Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, featured this week on the cover of the NY Times Sunday Book Review and out April 7. Writes Philip Caputo, Nguyen "brings a distinct perspective" to the Vietnam War that "reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes."
Post-40 Bloomers

Agnes Martin’s Perfection: Now and Not Yet

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. I come back to Agnes Martin again and again. This time, I did not anticipate how difficult -- how disturbing -- it would be to re-engage with her work. I thought I knew something about Martin’s art and life, her ideas and philosophies; I thought perhaps I could write a short appreciation piece, especially now that I have the “bloomer” angle: Martin painted for 20 years, into her mid 40s, before showing or selling the work she is known for today. But the beauty Martin finally came to express presents a difficult pleasure. One must wrestle a bit with Martin -- the inspiring, paradoxical, disturbing whole of her -- which lives in the work she left behind. 2. I’d seen some of Martin’s paintings in my early 20s, but it wasn’t until 2005, a year after she died at the age of 92, that I took more notice. It was a short personal essay -- a “Lives” piece in The New York Times Magazine by artist Susan York -- that caught my attention. In it, York described a visit to Martin’s compound in New Mexico that occurred in 1983, when Martin was 71 and York in her 20s: As in her books, she spoke in absolutes. "Never have children. Do not live the middle-class life. Never do anything that will take away from your work." Martin by then had achieved success, by art world standards; twice, in fact. In 1967, at the height of a first wave of recognition, she had disappeared—from New York, where she’d been living and working among the rising stars of Abstract Expressionism, including Ellsworth Kelley, Robert Indiana, Jack Youngerman, and James Rosenquist -- and more importantly, from painting. Some conjecture that she had had a nervous breakdown, others that she was fleeing a failed relationship, or that it had something do with the death of her friend Ad Reinhardt that year. In any case, seven years later, emerging from a crucible of soul-searching, Martin resurfaced -- her work did, that is, via Arne Glimcher's Pace Gallery. By then, she was living a reclusive life on a mesa in New Mexico, where she lived and worked in much the same way for the next 30 years -- producing paintings based on the penciled grid form that she’d come upon prior to her first coming out in the '60s. In her own words, [F]inally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world. It was York’s account of Martin’s directness and dogmatism, those “absolutes,” that struck me. I was myself recently divorced, and embarking on a late-blooming artist’s life. At the time, her directives registered with me as invigorating truth. I was in my early 30s, and just such decisions about how I would spend my time and energy, how I would make money and live, how these books I hoped to write would get written were all front and center. I had always preferred solitude, to such an extreme that I worried it was a neurosis. Most people reading the essay would likely hear Martin as a kook, an outlier’s voice crying in the wilderness; but to me she was cutting through noise and confusion straight to wisdom. "Untitled" 1963 Over the next few years, I saw Martin’s paintings whenever I could. I would have described the paintings back then -- the grid paintings I mean primarily -- as “quiet” and “spiritual.” I sought them out for emotional centering. But even as I “liked” the paintings, what kept me going back was a nagging feeling that something more was happening in them; of not quite perceiving them fully. They evoked both nervous tension and wide openness; with my eye I saw the hand-penciled lines and watery bands of color expressing orderliness and infinity, control and vulnerability. Sometimes the opposing sensations would layer confusingly, sometimes they would cancel each other out and leave me feeling flat. Later I would read that Martin worked on the 6' by 6' canvass because it was “the full size of the human body” -- a person could step into it, could be swallowed, and absorbed. 3. My first encounter with Martin herself, and her verbal conception of her work (other than York’s brief account) was through Mary Lance's documentary, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World. Martin was in her late 80s during the years Lance shot the film -- lumbering and weathered and short of breath -- yet apparently working as habitually and single-mindedly as ever: the steadiness of Martin’s massive 86-year-old hand as she paints, even as she sometimes labors to speak, is a wonder. An in-person encounter with Martin for those not brave enough to pick up the phone and call, then show up, as Susan York did (as Mary Lance also did) -- even mediated through film -- may have been timely. Her gallerists and curators have generally reiterated Martin’s own insistence that her personality, her life history, are irrelevant to her work: Arne Glimcher wrote: “...she was extremely self-effacing and separated her persona from her art. She believed she was the locus where her art happened rather than its creator.” And yet critics, and the public, are generally not so easily satisfied: who was this reclusive Agnes Martin, and from where do these so-called “inspired” paintings come from? Who is the person generating these canvasses of quiet beauty? The average person finds comfort in narrative; in comprehensible cause and effect. With My Back to the World, however, provides little new insight or access, especially for those already familiar with Martin’s writings. In my recent rewatching of the film, and through corresponding with Lance, it is evident that Lance approached her subject with reverence, allowing Martin to dictate the process. That reverence translates into the film’s mode and aesthetic: if Agnes says her art is about purely abstract emotions, not personal experience or history, then the film will enact that same vessel-like receptivity; it too will be a locus, a transparent vehicle. Much of what Martin says on camera are close versions of what she has written or said before; periodically she reads directly from her writings. “I think all aggressive behavior is wrong -- where you go out and do, and attack things, like an army. That’s aggression.” “I’m just going forward. I’ve been working on the same theme for 10 years.” “The intellect is a struggle with facts...you’re certainly never going to find out the truth about life guessing about facts...I gave up facts in order to have an empty mind. I gave up the intellectual entirely.” “Beauty is the mystery of life. Beauty illustrates happiness.” The film is thus a spare and loving introduction to Martin’s work and to her verbal accounts of what the work is about; it is, I think, a better introduction than the writings alone, which, in their imperative, aphoristic, disembodied form, can come off as rigid and bloodless (she uses the word “obedience” quite frequently, for example). On screen, we see Martin’s ruddy cheeks, her deeply lined and sun-weathered face, round blue eyes, mussed pageboy; and we hear her frequent chuckle: “I made a movie about happiness, beauty, and innocence,” she says about Gabriel, her one foray into filmmaking, “to see if it would be responded to” (chuckle). Referring to her absolutist attitude (frustrating to curators and collectors) toward her earlier work, all of which she made efforts to track down and destroy, she says, “At the end of every year, I had a big fire, burned them all” (chuckle). The chuckles are both nervous and knowing. They convey at once, I guess folks think that’s pretty silly and I know better. The Martin we meet on screen, in her natural habitat, calls to mind a wry bit from York’s essay that escaped me, all those years ago: Opening the door to her studio, she said, "Never let anyone in your studio." (Surely Martin chuckled as she said this.) Lance’s film is one Martin would have approved of. And yet the virtue of unmediated presentation -- scripted as it sometimes feels -- is that Lance also gives us Martin in her self-contradictions. “I would rather think of humility than anything else,” she reads from one of her published writings, while earlier, she’d said, “Lots of painters paint about painting. But my painting is about meaning.” She resists being thought of as a mystic -- “I’m not any different from anybody. You’re not a mystic when you respond to beauty.” -- but also describes her clear memory of being born: “I thought I was quite a small figure with a little sword, and I was very happy.” She says, “It doesn’t matter where I work, it’s all the same. The environment doesn’t have any impact on my work because I don’t paint nature,” but also, “I saw the plain driving out of New Mexico, and I thought the plain had it; just the plain...When I draw horizontals you see this big plain, and you have certain feelings like you’re expanding over the plain.” 4. The contemporary culturati, however, are not satisfied. Martin’s pure abstraction and Zen-ish spiritualism negate too much of the humanist tradition, not to mention a century of psychotherapeutic theory and practice. In 2004, writing about an exhibit at Pace, Peter Schjeldahl expressed marked impatience with Martin’s as yet uninterrogated legacy of “ascetic abstractionism” and “dedicated idealism”: Her rather blowsy theories, invoking nature in strictly heady ways and harping on “perfection,” consort oddly with her pragmatic, unsentimental practice. He does grant a dynamic experience in beholding her paintings: As with Tantric diagrams, you see exactly what the work is, even as, with patient looking, you may undergo a gradual, and then sudden, soft detonation of beauty...Edge and shape, figure and ground, and matter and atmosphere are reversible, bringing about, for me, a sense of oscillation in the optic nerve...a conceptual traffic jam: sheer undecidability. My analytical faculties, after trying to conclude that what I’m looking at is one thing or another, give up, and my mind collapses into a momentary engulfing state that is either “spiritual” or nameless. Ultimately, though, he is skeptical of such experience as spiritually meaningful: When unrelated to a particular belief, might transcendence be no more than a neurological burp, soothing the mind as the alimentary kind does the stomach?...This may be the upward limit of what liberal culture can provide for the common soul. Perhaps it’s enough. Jonathan D. Katz, in “Agnes Martin and the Sexuality of Abstraction,” collected in a 2009 book published by Dia, goes further -- arguing that Martin has been too often shielded from identity-based analysis, and that she herself has conjured a “trap,” a game, disingenuously manipulating the discourse: Martin’s critics have too often been satisfied with accounts of the work’s formal operations, rarely putting even its most sophisticated analyses of structures of meaning making...into broader social-historical frames...When critics...recuse the artist in favor of the artist’s means, they unwittingly fall into Martin’s well-made trap: she has already mediated that response, not only in her paintings but through her copious statements and parables, her eremitic self-sufficiency, her Zen-inflected paeans to humility -- all of which serve to underscore that there is nothing individuated, nothing “encoded,” in her art. But what if, instead of playing along, we were to try to see beyond this authorial transparency and ask why, in the first place, an artist would strive to erect a Trojan horse of signification, seeking to elevate the operations of meaning-making ahead of the maker of meaning herself? Why. The question is about psychology, about cause and effect. Where there is a person, surely there must be an interpretable narrative. Artist Zoe Leonard, in another essay in the Dia book, expresses something similar: I can’t help but wonder what role gender played in Martin’s art making. Whether it was a factor in the choices she made regarding society and isolation...Somewhere in the work, informing the work, is a biography of a person. A person who lived, as we all do, with the specifics and complications of her own desire. A person who lived within a certain time, surrounded by society. A person who was a woman, in America, at a specific moment in history. You can see the heads butting in conflict: Martin’s moment of salvation is the social historian’s very sticking point. Finally, I got the grid, and it was what I wanted. Completely abstract. Absolutely no hint of any cause in this world. The “aggressiveness” of Katz’s investigation alone would surely have elicited Martin’s disapproval (or, perhaps she would merely chuckle and go back to work): You’re hiding something, Agnes Martin. You are evading, repressing. Your “insistently prescriptive aesthetic absolutism,” is driven by latent, unacknowledged personal experience (homosexual experience, in Katz’s analyses). Katz draws attention to Martin’s emotional instability -- by her own account and others -- along with Ann Wilson's claim that she relied on “psychopharmacological medication” for most of her adult life. He also quotes sculptor Mary Fuller (McChesney) from a 1994 interview: Talk about a manipulator. Agnes Martin was like that...she said, “I’m going to make it. I am going to make it. And I don’t care who I have to fuck or how I have to do it. And now all these things of New York are totally, totally different from the stories Aggie told us about her background...She’s re-writing this whole history. [laughs] Why not? Innocence is a great theme of Martin’s work, and at this point I find myself nostalgic for my first experience of her paintings (and increasingly grateful for Mary Lance’s unintrusive approach); for Martin is right about the perils of intellect: you can know too much as you stand before a painting, you can find yourself in a mental “traffic jam.” Are paintings with titles like “Happiness,” “Contentment,” “Innocent Love,” and “Perfect Happiness” really about those things? Can those things be experienced so purely and simply, in life or in art? And if so, can they be expressed by someone so isolated from regular, messy human connection, and potentially isolated from her very own emotional reality? Can an artist let go all emotional contradiction, and can she truly disappear from her art? 5. Sitting in the MoMA research library recently, books on Martin piled high and my head throbbing -- I wonder if I will ever experience that quietness, that centering, before an Agnes Martin painting again. I wonder if I’ll ever step inside and be absorbed. I am not buying Katz’s assault on Martin as a repressed con artist; but I am weary from the contradictions, how Agnes Martin As Presented By Agnes Martin is not computing. She said things to Arne Glimcher like, To realize yourself is great art and to do that you need absolute faith that life is perfect. Louise [Nevelson] and I have it and that’s why we’re at the top. I am the best painter in the world today. and wrote to him in a letter, I have only one worry in the world! It’s that my paintings will show downtown and fail there. They will fail because they are non-aggressive...in a competitive environment, with big displays of aggressive artwork...With the dark paintings it was not bad because they do have some ‘force.’ I did not get one compliment on that show, however! Here she seems vain and a little manic, more narcissist than Obi Wan of the desert. There is substantial evidence that she experienced mental imbalance -- in Jack Youngerman’s words, “extremity of distress,” and in her own, “unheard of torment” -- but the tight lid she kept on those parts of her life undermines the trust I might otherwise put in a concretely evolved quietude. The sun has set and the library will close shortly. My appreciation piece has gone nowhere. I reach into my pile and begin flipping through a thin catalog from 2000 -- 11” by 11”, unpaginated -- published by Pace. Martin’s paintings reproduce poorly in general, but here they are printed on vellum, in color, overlaid on white linen. There is nothing else in the catalog -- no text, no essays -- but these prints. Unexpectedly, a wave of emotion comes over me as I slowly turn each page. The throbbing in my head quiets, and I feel something gathering, pulsing, in my chest. Maybe it’s the stress of all the reading I’ve done, but I have the distinct urge to weep -- to release something. I feel happy and sad, that’s the best I can describe it. The next day I make a trip to Dia: Beacon. I spend most of my time with Martin’s “Innocence” series, initially standing in the center of the gallery and slowly turning to each of eight paintings one by one. Lines, rectangles, symmetry. Pale radiant color swathed wetly inside hand-rendered depictions of absolute form. Again, emotion wells up: I feel sorrow, and gratitude, and pity. I don’t know what I am sorrowful about, for what I am grateful, or for whom I feel pity. But I feel these things, teeming and indistinguishable. Exercising my eye now, I step closer to each painting: glowing bands of red, yellow, blue, fade or thicken at random on either ends of the canvass; wavering graphite lines dive under and reemerge over top layers of paint and stop short, inexactly, of the canvass’s edge; broad swift brush strokes wash a monochromatic canvass in ambivalent gray textures; bright white gesso gleams like artificial moonlight against the mundane white of the gallery walls; blue and yellow make green in just a few places where rectangles bleed together. My hand comes to my mouth and the emotions brim and pulse, like whiskey in the blood; like warm sun on the skin; like happiness. All this speaks to me of the paradox of perfection. Of imperfection reaching for perfection -- for truth, happiness, innocence. The artist’s received awareness of the existence of that perfection is everywhere in the work; it is the work’s “voice.” The emotion I feel could be described as the tragedy of beauty, of perceiving and expressing impossibly pure emotions. When Agnes Martin makes commands of the artist -- insisting, prescribing, “harping” -- I believe she is directing the imperatives, first and foremost, consciously -- unconsciously, to herself -- who is both the locus of art that is genuinely about “perfect happiness and innocence” and a finely cracked vessel. She is the little figure wielding her paintbrush-sword; but the paint will not stay within the lines. Unlike MoMA curator Leah Dickerman, who sees the “tension between the regularity of the grid and the handmade quality of the lines” as a calculated message on Martin’s part -- “what she gets you to focus on are the subtle variations in making the grid” -- I believe that Martin was focused on perfection, her awareness of perfection, and on heightening the viewer’s experience of life. That her own imperfections -- of her hand and her life -- live also in the paintings may not have pleased Martin, but in this sense she truly was a vessel, then: the inspirations she “obeyed” illustrate poignancy as much as perfection. Pure abstraction, perhaps not; but moving and transformative still. For a few minutes, standing in the Innocence galleries, I really do forget what was on my mind that day, the worries of the week past and coming. The holidays, with all its materialism, revealed to me anew that the physical clutter of my middle-class life is cluttering my mind. I am en route to a brief solitude retreat, and was anxious about leaving home, partner, appointments, dog. Departing the museum, as intellect kicks back in, I think of a phrase that modern Christians have used -- The Now and the Not Yet -- to describe the Kingdom of God as both fully realized, via the resurrection, and still in process, by good works. I’ve always liked the phrase. It is at once proclamatory and replete with longing, exultant and heartbreaking. * Click here to read a Q&A with filmmaker Mary Lance. Agnes Martin photo credit: Mildred Tolbert, 1954. Homepage portrait via Phaidon.
Post-40 Bloomers

Ruthless, Beautiful, Dangerous, Comforting: How It Is in the World of Tove Jansson  

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. I am sometimes tempted to create and claim an alternate childhood: sepia memories featuring fantastical lands, imaginary friends and foes, brilliant DIY costumes and dwellings; and, of course, books upon books from which such storytelling genius sprung. I am a writer, after all, and what is a writer if not a card-carrying lonely bookworm from birth? But in my real childhood, we didn’t have books; my parents weren’t readers. In any case they would not have read to us, because English was not their first language, and, looking back, I recognize that they were too troubled and exhausted for bedtime rituals like storytime. My sad childhood story, then, is that, without the solace of books, I was simply lonely. In pre-adolescence I became a romantic with low self-esteem, fixating on boys to sweeten the bitter sadness. Then, as a teenager, I stumbled from depression into organized religion: God would fill all that loneliness with his unconditional and all-powerful love. It was an irresistible idea at the time; it was what there was. Books didn’t save me until I was an adult. They are still saving me. Another way of saying this is that, literarily, I am about 11 years old -- falling in love over and again with that secret understanding, the deep solace that odd, lonely children typically find in books about odd, lonely children. I am consoled by beautiful, strange, truthful books quite as if I were still that achey-hearted, depressed young girl: I prefer these books to humans as true friends, and even seem to believe that they were written for me. This is my best explanation for why the adult stories and novels of Tove Jansson (pronounced TOO-vuh YAHN-sun) have captivated me so fully. For some 25 years, Jansson wrote and illustrated the beloved Moomintroll books for children -- 15 books that made her Finland’s best-known author abroad. In 1968, at age 54, she published Sculptor's Daughter, a collection of short childhood memoirs, and from then on wrote almost exclusively adult fiction -- 11 books over the next 30 years. But the Moomin books, and the years she spent writing them, evidently stayed with her; the result was a stirring art, both light and dark, consoling and disturbing, spare and intricate. A simplicity of expression belies the mystery of Jansson’s art -- ostensibly plain, teeming with profound delights and worries -- all of which this reader’s stunted, sad-girl soul is grateful to have discovered. Hopefully many more will soon share in the bounty: in honor of Jansson’s centenary (she died at 86), New York Review Books is releasing this fall an extensive collection of Jansson’s stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. Drawing from five previously translated collections, the new book will join three of Jansson’s adult novels -- The Summer Book, The True Deceiver, and Fair Play -- in the NYRB Classics series. 2. Jansson’s transition from writing for children to writing for adults strikes one as rather seamless; as if, like the boats and icebergs that populate her Nordic setting, she floated slowly but fatefully, propelled by gentle undercurrents and the occasional potent storm -- from dawn, to dusk, to dark and starry night. Earlier this year at The Millions, Alix Ohlin wrote: Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin...Tove Jansson understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood. What Jansson understood too was that the same secrecy and strangeness permeate all human experience; and that much of what we fear, want, and love remains unchanged, from beginning to end. Sculptor's Daughter is the book that straddled Jansson’s two literary careers, both temporally and substantively: the vignettes written in present tense, especially, read like a child speaking to another child, even as the insights and observations resonate hauntingly for the adult reader. In “Parties,” for example, Jansson invites us into the raucous evenings hosted by her artist parents, and we understand that we are encountering both the child in real time and the author in retrospect: I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes... The table is the most beautiful thing. Sometimes I sit up and look over the railing and screw up my eyes and then the glasses and the candles and all the things on the table shimmer and make a whole as they do in a painting. Making a whole is very important. Some people just paint things and forget the whole. I know. I know a lot that I don’t talk about. All men have parties and are pals who never let each other down. A pal can say terrible things which are forgotten the next day. A pal never forgives, he just forgets and a woman forgives but never forgets. That’s how it is. That’s why women aren’t allowed to have parties. Being forgiven is very unpleasant. Family photographs are interspersed with text, as if a book without visuals was not yet conceivable for Jansson; and the images, like the memoirs themselves, evoke the range of emotions -- from silliness (her father’s pet monkey Poppolino) to melancholy (a lone boat, the endless horizon) to danger (white water crashing beneath a black sky) to perfect safety (smiling, towheaded Tove at Christmastime). The Summer Book (1972), Jansson’s first adult novel, features a six-year-old girl and an octogenarian grandmother as co-protagonists. “That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad,” Ohlin wrote, observing too the seamlessness in Jansson’s oeuvre, “—that it has moments of earthy humor...renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.” Sophia and her ailing but plucky grandmother (both wonderfully complex characters) spend the summer on a tiny island-among-islands in the Gulf of Finland in the wake of Sophia’s mother’s death. The mother is barely mentioned, the father distracted and solitary; their absence is an absolute tragic presence at the same time it is irrelevant to the games, explorations, and battles between Sophia and Grandmother -- rendered in Janssonian prose that is at once austere and rich, and in vignettes with titles like “The Cat,” “The Cave,” “The Neighbor,” and “The Enormous Plastic Sausage.” Along with idyll, sadness, and humor, there is fury, terror, art, philosophy, religion, science, and -- perhaps most importantly in the universe that is Jansson’s child-adult continuum -- play. For Jansson, play is all, and eternal -- it is work, love, conflict, and art. In “The Magic Forest,” Grandmother sits on the forest floor and whittles “outlandish animals” from “wood that had already found its form...that expressed what she wanted to say,” and she collects bones. Sophia asks what she is doing, and she says, “I’m playing.” Sophia joins in the game, and when she finds “a perfect skull of some large animal” to add to the collection, they bring it to the magic forest, where it “gleamed with all its teeth.” Suddenly, Sophia screams, “Take it away! Take it away!” There is little narration accompanying this moment, but the reader recognizes the raw panic of a six year old whose mother has abruptly disappeared from her life. Death has entered the game, has overwhelmed both art and play, and Jansson’s restraint is powerful: henceforth, “Grandmother often went to the magic forest when the sun went down,” that is, without Sophia, on her own. Sophia and Grandmother are playmates, partners in crime, and arch nemeses: together they create adventures, console each other, and argue. Their companionship is as genuine and complex as any between adult peers, perhaps more so. A testament to the fineness of the novel’s art -- its authentic gaze into life’s beauty and pain -- is that, when we discuss the book as a text in one of my undergraduate classes, I can choose -- depending on the arc of the discussion and my sense of the students’ emotional maturity -- whether or not to bring out the implication, in the final moments of the final vignette (“August,” the end of summer), of Grandmother’s impending death; and thus Sophia’s double abandonment at such a young age. The complexity of the relationship stands on its own, and the students have generally not seen that sorrowful ending without prompting; perhaps they can’t bear to. 3. The responsibility of that decision is one that I believe Jansson herself would appreciate. A theme that tracks from The Summer Book into Jansson’s stories, and most notably into The True Deceiver, is that of “pure” honesty. It seems clear that during her many years as a famous children’s book author, Jansson struggled with the question of whether children need protecting from the hard truths of life, or if, like the child of “Parties” -- little Tove herself -- it was better to understand, from an early age, “That’s how it is.” In The Summer Book, when Sophia and Grandmother find a dead sea bird, Sophia becomes angry and insists on a good story to explain it; despite herself, Grandmother concedes and tells her that he died when he was singing, “right when he was happier than he’d ever been before.” Later, when Sophia prays to God to “make something happen” because she is bored, a great storm comes, and she is frightened for having caused it; Grandmother again calms her by telling her that she herself prayed for the storm first. But in a story called “The Cartoonist,” and then later in The True Deceiver, Jansson -- through the characters Samuel Stein, an upstart cartoonist, and the helplessly kind children’s book author Anna Amelein -- takes up this question directly, vis-a-vis the letters that illustrators receive from children. Stein is learning the ropes of the cartoon business, and to his elder colleague Carter, who never opens the letters he receives, he says, “You can’t do that. You’re famous, they admire you. Those letters are from children, and they need to be answered.” To which Carter replies: “You’re too young. It’s better for them to get used to it right from the start, you know, used to the fact that things don’t turn out the way you imagined and that it doesn’t matter that much.” Similarly, Anna’s newly arrived roommate and nemesis Katri Kling, an orphaned outcast in a small Finnish village defined by her cold rationalism and terrible honesty, says, “suddenly vehement” -- “But how long can they rely on what’s not reliable? For how many years do we fool these children into believing in something they shouldn’t believe in? They have to learn early, or they’ll never manage on their own.” Jansson renders a worthy battle between the always-nice, mushy-minded Anna and the ruthlessly effectual Katri, challenging the reader to see just what’s at stake on both sides of the argument. “And what about this one?” Anna went on. “Where’s the chitchat? He’s tried to draw a rabbit -- obviously no talent at all -- so here you could write something like ‘I’ve hung your picture above my desk’...You can fill nearly a whole page with the skating and the cat if you write big enough.” “Miss Amelin,” said Katri, “you’re actually quite cynical. How have you managed to hide that?”… “That doesn’t matter. The whole point is to give them a nice letter. You have to learn how it’s done. But I wonder if you can. I almost think you don’t like them.” Katri shrugged her shoulders and smiled her quick wolfish smile. “Neither do you,” she said. Time and again, Jansson took up this question, pitting blunt frankness against hand-wringing nicety. Mari and Jonna, the two women artists who live and work together in Jansson’s final, autobiographical novel Fair Play, embody yet more shades of this conflict. Jonna is matter-of-fact and unsentimental; Mari is more self-doubting and emotional. One day, Jonna shoots a seagull that has been devouring eider chicks; Mari gets upset: “You just love guns! You just can’t stop!” When she calms down, she begins to philosophize, passive-aggressively, about the temperament of the natural hunter: “He’s considered to be bold and a little dangerous. You know, a person who plays for high stakes, who can be ruthless and take chances that other people don’t dare take.” Jonna reminds Mari of a wounded gull that Mari once tried to nurse back to health, but it was “full of worms. You can’t mend what’s totally broken,” and so Jonna killed it with a hammer. “There are times,” Jonna went on without listening, “there are times when a healthy ruthlessness is the right thing.” A near-exact episode, between young Tove and her friend Albert, occurs in Sculptor’s Daughter, after which Tove thinks, “[I]t was lovely to be able to cry. Everything was over and everything was all right. Albert always put things right.” 4. The ongoing, necessary struggle between compassion and candidness -- the need for “healthy ruthlessness” in the midst of conventional politesse -- permeates all of Jansson’s work and seems to me central to her sense of what it meant to be a “woman artist.” It’s women -- weak and pathetic women -- who are dogged by what her characters often refer to as a “bad conscience.” There seems always to be one such troublesome (female) soul in Jansson’s fiction: in Sun City, her dark comedy about a retirement community in St. Petersburg, Florida, it’s Evelyn Peabody, about whom the more sensible and aesthetically-minded Mrs. Morris observes: [T]he woman stood there and rambled on about how of course he was an unpleasant old man but she had to do her best to comfort him because after all there was some good in every human being...she thought fleetingly of how often it seems to be the case that compassion derives from guilt and gives rise to contempt. Ready-made virtues struck her as being common, and she didn’t like Miss Peabody. Nobody at the Berkeley Arms home really does; even the “unpleasant old man” Mr. Thompson rejects her so-called compassion. At the annual spring ball, the mayor drops dead in the middle of the dance floor, and Miss Peabody promptly goes to pieces: Peabody just went on crying, from tension and exhaustion, for all the people who died from dancing and for all the people who never got to dance... “Peabody,” said Thompson sternly, “now that’s enough. Did you really care about the Mayor?” “No! Not about him, not about anybody! But people’s lives are so sad!”... “Bullshit,” said Thompson. “Peabody, there’s something wrong with you. If you’ll stop and think about it you’ll discover you don’t feel sorry for anyone in the whole world, but you don’t dare stop and think.” But as clear as Jansson is about the follies of guilt and abstract compassion, she never holds her characters in contempt. She gives Peabody her due, which is to say she allows her as much of an interior life as every other character (the novel employs roving narrative omniscience with great skill). In a deft shift from third person to first person, a fascinating and somewhat frequent feature in Jansson’s fiction, we get this insight into Peabody's emotional backstory: The smell of wet grass and the sigh of the rain carried her far back in time and she could remember without pain. As always, she thought about her father. She loved him. He took them on a picnic every Sunday...There were too many of us, Peabody thought, and we were too little, and Mama worried all the time—there might be snakes and ticks and it might rain. Papa would run around setting things up. One time when it was cold and windy, he found us a barn. And one time he tried to build us a hut out of pine boughs. But it was too much for him...And then it started to rain, and he gathered us under a huge tree and Mama said if there was lightning, a big tree was the most dangerous place to be. And once I tried to tell her that we liked danger, but I don’t think she heard what I said. Jansson shifts not only into subjective first-person consciousness, but into the territory of -- what else -- childhood. When Peabody remembers her parents, she remembers their anxiety and over-protectiveness, and at the same time, as an old woman, she misses being taken care of by them. She has become helpless and pitiable without them. “She should have remembered that it was always better to leave decisions to other people and not let yourself be misled by compassion. Once again, Peabody had made herself miserable, and there was no one to talk her out of it.” Contrast with Jansson, whose father was a confident, free-spirited sculptor: he kept a pet monkey and all manner of animals in the house, and in the story “The Monkey” (clearly based on her father, for the character is a sculptor), he watches his monkey dash out from under the warmth of his coat and up into a tree in the freezing cold: “[H]e thought, you poor little bastard. You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.”  Danger, cold, what have you: you've got to climb. 5. “We say the phrase ‘a happy childhood’ as if it’s a given,” Ohlin wrote, “as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness.” In her memoir, Jansson never says, outright, “My childhood was very happy,” or perfect, or ideal, and I wouldn’t guess she thought that. But what we feel, in her descriptions of what it was to be a child, is a stunning directness: unmediated, unprotected, unadulterated by “bad conscience” or anything other than pure life itself. It’s that full range of experience that brings comfort and safety, not being shielded from darkness or ugliness. Jansson respected the fine tuning of a child’s sensibilities: children know better than anyone -- better than they do as adults -- that the world is a dangerous, beautiful, terribly alive place. And a place -- as in stories like “The Storm” and “The Squirrel,” featuring female characters whose conflicts are waged within their own minds -- where one must work things out for oneself, often in pained solitude. I knew all this as a lonely child, and when I finally found literature, those truths were reflected back to me, and I found comfort. Am still finding it. And very much so in Jansson. Thankfully, art may be slow, but never too late. In a rare moment of lyricism, Jansson wrote of storytime with her mother: Through endless forest dark and drear no comfort near a little girl alone did roam so far from home the way was long the night was cold the thunder rolled the girl did weep no more I’ll find my mother kind for in this lonely haunted spot my awful lot will be beneath this tree to lie and slowly die. Very satisfying. That’s how it was when we shut the danger out. That’s how it was.
Screening Room

Please, Oh Please: On Madam Secretary and the Ladies of TV    

1. The NBC Wednesday night lineup ad shows Debra Messing Mariska Hargitay, and Sophia Bush, side by side, sultry-eyed and pointing guns at the camera.   Lady cops, badasses all, and with great hair. There’s been much ado lately about powerful women on TV. Between Shonda Rimes's Olivia Pope and her newest creation, defense lawyer Annalise Keating -- both described as “authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos” -- along with Homeland’s Carrie Matheson, Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen, and The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, a golden age of women protagonists seems to be upon us. Or is it? I’m a little concerned, frankly. True, we’re seeing a lot of women characters in high-powered jobs. And a decided feature in the current formula is that they are all extremely good at their jobs. But TV writers and showrunners also seem to be acting out the debate -- launched full-force in 2012 with Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” -- around women, work, and family. When I look at these so-called powerful women on TV, I see a kind of Rorschach for audiences around two questions: Is this a woman whose life you’d actually want? And: Is this a woman whose life reflects any reality you know? 2. I had high hopes for Madam Secretary that the writing would be smart, the show would take on complex issues of the day, and that, yes, the portrayal of a woman in high office would be engaging. Téa Leoni is terrific and winning in the role of Secretary of State Elizabeth “Bess” McCord; on this most reviewers agree (not to mention the crack ensemble cast). She’s simultaneously intense and calm, assertive and disarming, sarcastic and sincere. You trust her, and you want her to succeed. She’s sexy in a sloppy, earthy sort of way, isn’t above or below using her feminine charms strategically; and in this particular way, she is nowhere near a Hilary Clinton knock-off: she is a different girlish-boyish animal altogether, of a younger generation who didn’t have to “act like a man, dress like a man” quite so strictly in order to rise and succeed. Like Alicia Florrick, she has natural instincts for the soft power/hard power one-two punch. She’s also, unlike Hilary (public Hilary, anyway), quite funny. But in the first two episodes, I’ve had the woeful “Oh, please” reaction to a few of the show’s story elements, all of which have to do with the “having it all” trope. Bess’s husband Henry (Tim Daly) is hunky, brainy, solicitous, maternal, and utterly content (and of course he’s never had as much as a dalliance with a short-skirted co-ed). Bess initiates hand-wringing bedtime talk about not having as much sex as they used to; he assures her, silly girl, that it’s all fine. When their eldest daughter quits college because she can’t handle being the daughter of a public figure, Bess says to her go-between husband, “I just wish she had come to me.” Ick! Argh! Oh, please! She is the Secretary of State: please tell me that a woman with such grave and innumerable daily responsibilities for ensuring peace and human rights around the globe isn’t whining about “only” having once-a-week-sex with her absurdly perfect husband and the fact that she can’t be available, in the midst of a Benghazi-like debacle, to hear her spoiled daughter (“I have to get a job? But I was going to finish my novel!”) complain about her mother being too famous and her father being too supportive. Those portrayals of Secretary McCord’s personal life are unworthy of her; the writers are not doing Bess, or Leoni, justice. Creator Barbara Hall told Politico that a driving question behind the creation of the character was, “How do you deal with the president of the United States in the morning and the president of the PTA in the evening?”  Herein lies the folly. The idea that leaders at the highest levels -- that anyone who’s chosen a profession requiring commitment beyond the pale, necessarily and rightly so -- can be a “normal” parent, is goofy. The disconnect is between the writers and their own character: I don’t see Bess McCord entertaining such notions or expectations. She’s a realist, and a grownup, and can tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t. I see her recognizing priorities in any given moment, having sex when she wants it and not worrying when she doesn’t, entreating her children to rise to the challenge -- to neither be, nor expect to be, like everyone else. 3. It seems to me that Barbara Hall, and the proponents of the “have it all” camp, are perpetrating something analogous to what Naomi Wolf did with her book Vagina -- wherein she claims that women are not truly happy or whole if they are not having regular orgasms of the highest order. In response to the book, The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman said, brilliantly and hilariously: I would like to take issue with the idea that we should all have a happy vagina...It’s nice to have a happy vagina, I would hope everybody could have a happy vagina, but there are many times in a woman’s life where hey, she doesn’t have a happy vagina. And if you make her think that this is the goal, that she should be devoting her energies instead of to getting her PhD, or getting a better job or taking care of whatever it is… she needs to have a happy vagina.  She may not be able to have a happy vagina.  There are all kinds of people who are not in line immediately for a happy vagina. If Bess McCord does not have a hunky, happy husband, and if she is not attentive to/worried about frequency of sex, and if she is not skipping out of meetings in which terrorist attacks are being prevented in order to listen to her children talk about their day...then surely she is not truly fulfilled, nor doing her job(s) well. If the PTA is not as important to her as POTUS or ISIS, then she is not a model powerful woman. Me, I want my Secretary of State to be clear that, for as long as her job description includes tending to ISIS, then tending to ISIS is more important than the PTA. 4. Inherent in Thurman’s response is a worldview I happen to share: energies must be devoted selectively. We are only human, and there is only so much energy and so much devotion. Devotion, by its nature, has obsessive, singularly focused qualities. Multiple devotions compete. The idea that such competition can be eradicated from human experience -- in real life, or on TV -- strikes me as misguided, a YA version of adult life. There is a cost to excellence; else it be other than excellence. I’ll say something surely controversial: I think one can do right by one’s family and be exceptionally accomplished in high leadership, or art, or service; but I don’t think one can be truly great at both. I think we’d all be a bit more relaxed if we accepted, and stopped judging, this truth. Instead, Hall considers portrayals of more troubled figures -- characters whose professional devotion creates friction and/or specific sacrifices in their personal lives -- as “dark,” and has veered away from that toward, in her words, something more “entertaining,” and idealistic. These darker characters include compelling, if not always likable, characters like Claire Underwood from House of Cards, who decides not to have children because of her husband’s ambitions and their shared appetite for power; as well as Carrie Matheson, who deals with mental illness, alcoholism, sex-as-self-medication, and a disconnect with the idea of a “balanced life.” Perhaps also Peggy Olsen, who continually excels professionally while her love life fails and her family disapproves. I think of Sarah Linden from The Killing, who is obsessed with finding Rosie Larsen’s murderer, at the expense of devoted attention to her own son, and I think of Kima Greggs from The Wire, who’s much more interested in serous police work than the baby her partner has just given birth to. Even elegant Alicia Florrick has made choices: her kids and her career, but no happy vagina for her. I think, finally, of Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff on The West Wing, who -- in response to his wife’s desperate plea, “It’s not more important than your marriage!” -- declares, full-throated, Yes, yes it is: right now, while I’m doing it, it’s more important than my marriage. I think also of more farcical portrayals of powerful, talented women -- Selina Meyer in Veep and Laura Diamond in The Mysteries of Laura, who could give a shit about being perfect wives or mothers. It’s not that they don’t give a shit at all, but throwing off the perfectionism is what strikes me as a refreshing and more truthful brand of new feminism. Jill Lepore said it best: I think that’s so complicated for women...but I think it’s actually been a really pernicious part of the current climate of political consultancy. Political consultants are clearly advising women candidates left and right: Tell the story of how you took very good care of your children. You must tell that story, again and again and again. I think it’s really dangerous. I think it really diminishes and impoverishes the range of experiences that people running for office can have...It has a kind of traplike quality for women politicians that all smart women politicians are quite aware of, and I think it’s important to think about the consequences of it. We’re in an age of very good TV. Even network shows, I think, have leeway to be entertaining and complex and illuminating. Yes, yes it is: right now, what I’m doing is more important than a corny, conventional version of family happiness. Tell the truth, Madam Secretary; tell it slant if you have to, and with a sly wisdom, since you’ve shown in every other context so far that that’s your talent. If your husband bristles, if your kids get pissed, then let’s see how you handle that. How about, A great mom is sometimes not around, her vagina goes off duty, and she’s doing really important stuff. How about a new model, instead of a precious, poll-tested one. So, my Rorschach response: Bess McCord, in her current incarnation, is not living the life that I would want, because it reflects fantasy archteype more than reality. There is nothing real or true, or even interesting, about being Great at Everything, and that imposition both flattens and disempowers an otherwise appealing character. I’m all for a golden age; I’m not sure we’re there yet.
Essays

On the Nightstand: On Deciding What to Read Next

1. As usual, you’re talking with your friend about books.  “Have you read it?” she asks.  “No,” you say, “but it’s on the nightstand.”  It’s on the nightstand.  That’s code for, I’ve made mental note of it. Or It’s on my list but not a priority.  Or even, I actually own it, and I’ll be reading it next.  Regardless, for me, It’s on the nightstand has always been metaphorical -- an abstract and elastic category of Books I Hope To Read. That is, until recently. You could call it an “alcove,” but it’s not big enough for a queen-sized bed.  The full-sized has worked just fine, but the piles of unshelved books -- on the floor, on the dresser, on the dining chairs, in the bathroom, on top of the puppy crate for godssakes -- haven’t.  I wanted a nightstand. And so, an end table was repurposed.  Finally, I have an actual nightstand. What’s on the nightstand? Suddenly the question is not so abstract.  Of the mess of books that has been unsystematically scattered throughout my home, and my life, which ones will make it to the nightstand?  In what order will they be stacked? Perhaps most importantly: how will I decide? 2. A mini-debate recently bloomed among colleagues at the college where I teach, after the department administrator sent around a brief and innocent-enough email: would we please send changes or additions to the attached post-grad Suggested Reading List? The list, she reminded us, would be distributed to graduating seniors; a deadline was specified. "Are the students asking for this?" Professor B wrote. Was it perhaps odd to foist such a list on departing students, “a noodging sort of gesture from teachers who can’t let go?” Professor H concurred, quoting Professor L: "Why ask for a booklist now, dear graduates?  We’ve given you the tools to read and to make discriminations among the various books you encounter: So feel free to fly away from the comfortable nest of your undergraduate English Department and read what you want and when you want." Off-line conversations ensued.  Professor H came back with an idea: “[O]ne of my main goals in the classroom,” she wrote, “is to teach students to go from one book to another all by themselves; I am never so dejected as when seniors complain they have no clue as to what to read next...What if we encouraged our seniors to put together a list of books for the rest of our majors?” A week later, Professor H further articulated her thinking: “It won’t be enough, of course, to ask the grads what books they recommend. The real question is how they found them.” 3. To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads -- each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore.  Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered. As we get older -- as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular -- we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute.  Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature.  School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time. And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced -- to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms.  An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished.  By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled -- all these.  You.  At this moment in time. 4. What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs.  We are chasing something more profound than flies.  Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels...important. Since I am not so much looking for a foolproof test of a book’s “objective” quality, my decision process is no more suitable for you than my nightstand list. Nevertheless, here it is -- my provisional, evolving list of the (sometimes absurd) ways I decide/have decided what to read next: A. The 25-Page Test Standard trial run.  I bought the book on impulse; it’s been lying around for a while.  I pick it up and start reading.  Am I eager to read page 26 (even better: did page 26 come and go without my noticing)?  Am I stopping to scribble in my notebook because the book is sparking responses that matter enough to write down?  Or -- have two paragraphs gone by and I don’t know what I just read (in which case something is evidently not clicking). B. The Three-Book Shell Game Okay, the truth is, I bought three books on impulse.  I lay them out side-by-side.  I stare at them.  Which one should get the trial run first?  I stare some more.  I pick up each one, feel it in my hands -- heft, cover material.  I look at the cover for some time. Sure, there is that two-second impression; but there is also the three-minute study and consideration. The emotions and ideas it evokes. I skim the jacket copy but not too closely. I am not interested in the publisher’s sell job but rather words or phrases that resonate, with me, right now, for whatever reason.  I lay them out again. I wait. I swear to you, one of them starts to levitate. C. Narrative Point-of-View/Voice As reader, writer, and teacher, for me, narrative POV is perhaps the most intriguing, and most important, feature of any work of fiction.  Usually, I am primed for something specific: first person or third person; omniscience or (in James Wood’s terminology) free indirect style; vernacular or formal, contemporary or non-contemporary; verbal density or spareness (the author who achieves these simultaneously always wins).  When narrative voice is a driving factor, three or four pages is usually enough to determine Yay or Nay.  Do I want to hear this voice speaking for the next two days or two weeks?  Do I need a voice I can “trust,” insightful and articulate?  Or something less stable, a wild and deeply subjective ride? D. Bookshelf Staring I’ve just finished a book, and I'm on a reading roll.  I stand in front of my bookshelves.  Like yours, mine are “organized” in a particular way that would make very little sense to anyone else.  I change up this organization from time to time, and sometimes this staring prompts reorganization.  Sometimes the reorganization becomes part of the process of choosing -- handling the books and moving them around as a way of reorganizing my mind.  At the moment, there is the not-yet-read section.  But I stare at the whole canvass of books, not just that one section.  The book I’ve just read is still buzzing in my mind; if it was great, it’s buzzing in my body, too.  I want more of that buzzing, but differently.  The last book did X so well, so interestingly.  I’m intrigued by X’s impact and also interested in how X would read if it was plus Y and minus Z. I step back, lean in, repeat.  I swear to you, one of the books starts to vibrate. E. Loved This Author, Want More of Same, Read Everything in the Author’s Oeuvre This is the most exhilarating -- like falling love. The last book did X.  I want more and more and more of X.   I am learning something here, seeing something new, growing intimate with characters and ideas.  Maybe I haven't identified what, exactly, was so captivating, so I read on to find out.  More, more, more.  Sometimes I’ll read them in order of best reviewed to worst reviewed; sometimes vice versa (reading the supposedly minor works of a favorite author can be particularly illuminating); sometimes chronologically; sometimes via the three-book shell game. F. Wishlists I do keep wishlists, haphazardly.  Or, I used to.  When I’m stumped, I’ll log on to Goodreads or Audible and see what, at some point in time, I decided I might someday like to read.  Then I proceed with Item D above, the online version of bookshelf staring.  With audiobooks, a two-minute sample is usually available -- the audio version of the 25-page test combined with the narrative voice test. (As I write this, I am reminded of the usefulness of online wishlists.  It’s a place to be impulsive about books, without opening your wallet.  And looking back on your wishlists is such an interesting journey in itself:  Vasily Aksyonov?  Dorothy Day?  Suttree. I craved these books enough to click them.  What was I thinking about at the time? Hmm...) G. The “Should” Lists I really should read Thackeray.  I really should read Vollman. I really should read The Goldfinch.  Well, maybe.  I was glad I pushed myself to read Faulkner and Proust and To the Lighthouse; less so Philip Roth and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I’m still pushing with Thomas Mann, the verdict is out.  It’s good to ask yourself why you should read it.  So you don’t feel stupid in a workshop or at a cocktail party?  Or maybe because your favorite author from Item E above was deeply influenced by it.  There are better and worse reasons for force-reading. If you are a professional literarian of some sort, there are more “shoulds” to contend with: you must teach, review, converse about certain books.  I’ve been fortunate to “have” to read Jean Stafford, Esther Freud, Henry James, Carson McCullers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Steven Millhauser, Miranda July, Sherwood Anderson, on and on (in the cases of Lampedusa and McCullers, it led to Item E).  In other words, there is certainly such thing as benevolent authority, and required reading can be a blessing (that is, when it’s not a curse). H.  Recommendations from Friends This, I confess, is one of the least successful categories.  It’s not that my friends don’t have good taste.  That many of them are thoughtful and discriminating readers may be the very problem: their passions are as contextual and idiosyncratic as mine.  It would be, in a way, a little weird if the books they raved about were books that I would rave about, at the same moments in our lives.  (Recommendations seem to work better, I find, when a friend talks about something he read some time ago, within the context of current conversation -- as opposed to, “I just read this great book!”). I.  Bloom My shameless plug.  When Lisa Peet and I started writing about “post-40 bloomers,” there was a sense of mission, of trying to bring an alternative perspective to the table.  Little did we know how many important writers -- important to us personally -- we’d discover along the way. For me, to name just a few: Harriet Doerr, William Gay, Spencer Reece, Shannon Cain, Edward P. Jones, Virginia Hamilton Adair, W.M. Spackman, Robin Black.  And don’t get me started on Jane Gardam (I cannot stop talking about Jane Gardam -- Item E bigtime). J. The Dessert Selection Sometimes reading is about imaginative and intellectual expansion, the difficult pleasure that is, in the end, transformative and satisfying. But sometimes you have a reading window in which you want to treat yourself to an easier pleasure.  Life is hard; you want to be carried away, both far and deep.  As with physical nourishment, occasional dessert is as important for your health as kale.  Endorphins or something?  But let me be clear: a truly pleasurable dessert is still made of excellent ingredients, not junk.  Me, I’ve been working pretty hard this summer; for this last week, I’m delving into Bring Up the Bodies. 5. So, go throw darts at your bookshelves.  Read 10 pages aloud.  Stack up your wishlists. Read what you want when you want.  If you don’t have one, get yourself a nightstand. Photo courtesy of the author.
Post-40 Bloomers

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Burst of Sicilian Sun

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. I respond to sun, but then I come from Minnesota and had years of being disappointed by northern California with its indeterminate weather and freezing surf. I’m overdetermined for life in Africa. I love the sun bursting up every day of your life like some broken mechanism. —from Mating, by Norman Rush 1. In her introduction to Stephen Twilley's new translation of short works by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, Marina Warner writes of the “sensuous plenitude...encrusted and sumptuous” in Il Gattopardo -- Lampedusa’s only novel, and the masterpiece for which he is best known. Of “The Professor and the Siren,” the title story of the new collection, Warner writes: Lampedusa is placing himself as the heir of an imaginative literary legacy running back to the pagan past, when Christian repression and hypocrisy did not exercise their hold but instead life was bathed in a luminous intensity and heightened by guilt-free passion. I wrote about Il Gattopardo a few years ago and considered what it was that drew me to it -- the story of an aging Sicilian nobleman, a dying breed caught between old and new worlds. At that time, I attributed my affinity for both the novel and Luchino Visconti's well-known film version to the Prince of Salina’s independence of soul -- a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” After reading “The Professor and the Siren,” I see now that it was also the Prince’s lust for life -- sensual pleasures, feminine splendor, the sweltering sloth of his wild and rugged Sicily -- and his sense of loss with the coming of more pragmatic times that captivated me. Like the narrator ofNorman Rush's Mating, who was “overdetermined” for life in Africa, you could say that I -- product of an evangelical Christian upbringing and Korean heritage of stoic endurance -- was overdetermined for Lampedusa. His elevation of natural appetite as an ideal, and his vision for unity between body and spirit in their fullest expressions, radiate from the page. When I read Lampedusa the sun bursts up indeed, thawing all of that deeply seeded “puritanical horror,” as Warner puts it, and reconciling life forces that, as Lampedusa attempts to show us, were never meant to be opposed. 2. The tragedy of his literary late blooming is now the stuff of legend: Lampedusa, himself the last prince of a noble Sicilian family (Il Gattopardo is based on his great-grandfather), began writing in his later 50s and died of lung cancer at age 60 before Il Gattopardo's publication. The novel had been rejected by publishers while he was still alive, and thus Lampedusa died under the impression that his art was mere trifling, the failed scribblings of a dilettante. An earlier translation of “The Professor and the Siren,” entitled “The Professor and the Mermaid” and collected with a short memoir and the opening chapter of a second novel (a sequel to Il Gattopardo that he did not live to write), was published by Pantheon in 1962. The memoir, Places of My Infancy, was written at the prompting of his wife, a psychotherapist; she suggested the project as a way of mourning the loss of his treasured childhood home, which had been destroyed during the 1943 bombing of Palermo. In his introduction to the 1962 collection, E.M. Forster called “Places of My Infancy” exquisite -- perhaps not surprising coming from the author of Howards End. I admit that I found the piece initially off-putting: it puts so much distance between the author and the common reader as we get young Giuseppe’s impressionistic vision of his idyllic, rarefied kingdom: On the veranda, which was protected from the sun by great curtains of orange cloth swelling and flapping like sails in the sea breeze...my mother, Signora Florio (the “divinely lovely” Franca), and others were sitting in cane chairs. In the center of the group sat a very old, very bent lady with an aquiline nose, enwrapped in widow’s weeds which were waving wildly about in the wind. I was brought before her; she said a few words which I did not understand and, bending down even farther, gave me a kiss on the forehead...After this I was taken back to my room, stripped of my finery, re-dressed in more modest garments, and led onto the beach to join the Florio children and others; with them I bathed and we stayed for a long time under a broiling sun playing our favorite game, which was searching in the sand for the pieces of deep red coral occasionally to be found there. That afternoon it was revealed that the old lady had been Eugénie, ex-Empress of the French, whose yacht was anchored off Favignana. But to be fair, Lampedusa wrote these reflections for himself only; they were never revised, and he did not intend them for publication. He felt free to recall the fullness of his privilege: “For me childhood is a lost paradise. Everyone was good to me -- I was king of the home.” Beginning with the sensory richness and extravagant security of childhood was his way of exploring love and loss, the two most universal experiences. For some though, it may be hard to resist lacing Lampedusa’s biography with light mockery: “[W]hat on earth was he doing with his life anyway, and why didn't he get down to writing earlier?” Julian Barnes's imagined interlocutor posits in a 2010 article in The Guardian. “The non-literary answer: not very much.” What Barnes means by “not very much,” however, is that Lampedusa spent most of his adult life (aside from strolling to Pasticceria del Massimo for breakfast in his tailored English suits then stopping in at Flaccovio booksellers before finally settling in for the day at Café Mazzara) immersing himself in literature -- reading, studying, discussing with friends, teaching. By one account he made over 1,000 pages in notes to prepare a year-long English literature course for his nephew and a friend. Lampedusa’s eventual success at portraying a layered, multi-caste society at a time of great social upheaval is testament to the power of literature to shape the imaginative and emotional capacity of a devoted reader, no matter how sheltered his daily life. Much like Chekhov -- who, unlike Lampedusa, did have direct experience of various social strata -- Lampedusa’s narrative eye is both convincing and impressive as it roves among each segment of Sicilian society, from royalty to upstart revolutionaries to the new-moneyed precursors of the Mafiosi. 3. The short story “Joy and the Law,” for example, is a taut gem of a tale, the effects of which echo Chekhov’s best stories about peasants and functionaries (Gogol's “The Overcoat” also comes to mind): in the days leading up to Christmas, an unnamed accountant brings home to his family an enormous, fancy loaf of sweet bread, bestowed upon him by his employer. Ramping up to epic proportion the acuteness of aspirational want, Lampedusa portrays the accountant’s fog of self-deceit as a necessity for survival: [E]uphoria now welling up inside him, rosy and bright...What joy for Maria! What a thrill for the children...His personal joy was something else entirely, a spiritual joy mixed with pride and tenderness...And nothing could have dampened that invigorating sensation...nothing, not even the abrupt realization deep in his consciousness that it had come down to a moment of scornful pity for the neediest among the employees. He truly was too poor to permit the weed of pride to sprout where it could not survive. It is the wife, Maria, who matter-of-factly bursts the accountant’s bubble: she states the obvious, that the pannetone is “nothing but charity,” and deems that it must be sent to a lawyer to whom they owe a token of gratitude. The man must now spend additional money to courier the sweet bread to the lawyer, and on top of that, the package becomes lost. The reader grows as desperate as the accountant, filled with the anguish of futility and injustice. Will the universe so cruelly dash the protagonist’s hopes? the reader wonders. Then, the last lines of the story: After Epiphany, however, a visiting card arrived: “With warmest thanks and holiday wishes.” Honor had been preserved. The reader exhales momentarily, only to realize the bait-and-switch that Lampedusa has so skillfully performed: Honor? When did the story become about honor? When The Law entered, that’s when -- in the form of proper social commerce. The cost of this honor was joy, and the story conveys beautifully and tragically the universal right of the human soul to “spiritual happiness mixed with pride and tenderness,” not to mention “a respite from anguish.” Despite his privileged life, Lampedusa did not, it would seem, take such simple joys for granted. Thus the decision on the part of NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank to collect “Joy and the Law,” but not “Places of My Infancy” in this volume results in a different impression of the author from the earlier volume. The new collection effectively counters what Archibald Colquhoun, translator of both the original English-language version of The Leopard and the 1962 Pantheon collection, described as a less-than-full embrace of Lampedusa’s success in its time -- On the members of the new Italian literary establishment the book has had a different impact; it has become a bogey, for the success of Il Gattopardo, so different in outlook from most Italian postwar literature, seems to them a sign of decadence -- as well as a 1998 article in The Economist: Italian Marxists saw his aristocrat heroes as evidence that the novel was right-wing and its author a man with no sense of progress. Much of the literary Left condemned the novel as worthless because it was neither progressive nor avant-garde. (I posed the question of curatorial selection to Frank in an email, and he revealed that his intention was simply to collect all of Lampedusa’s short fiction, which meant excluding the memoir.) Whether or not literary readers today are as concerned with an author’s socio-political outlook as they were in the early 1960’s, there will surely be much in Lampedusa’s short work that appeals to the contemporary reader -- for example the way his voracious literary autodidacticism is reflected in the “mashup” quality of “The Professor and the Siren,” which, Warner points out, brings together elements of Greek myth, the poetry of Keats and Dante, Sicilian folklore, and perhaps too Boccaccio and One Thousand and One Nights. 4. The eponymous professor of the NYRB collection’s centerpiece story is Rosario La Ciura, world-renowned scholar of Greek literature, longtime Sicilian senator, and author of Men and Gods, “recognized as a work of not only great erudition but of authentic poetry.” The narrator is Corbera di Salina, a journalist and, incidentally, sole surviving descendant of Lampedusa’s lusty Prince, il gattopardo. When the professor and the journalist meet, La Ciura is 75 years old and Corbera a young man. The seedy café in Turin that the two misanthropes frequent sets the stage for Lampedusa’s otherworldly tale: It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors...submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers...It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo. Corbera is the pre-formed, peripheral first-person narrator that readers will recognize -- the Nick Carraway, the unnamed narrators of Bolaño's “Sensini” or Sherwood Anderson's “The Other Woman.” Over a period of months, the two develop a friendship of sorts -- La Ciura rails on subjects ranging from the “rubbish I happen to be reading” to the “squalid aspirations” of young men like Corbera vis-à-vis the female sex; Corbera attempts to speak his mind while also suspecting the great man’s profound unhappiness. One day, the professor summons the younger man to his home, where Corbera sees a photograph of the professor in his youth -- “with a bold expression and features of rare beauty...The broken-down senator in a dressing gown had been a young god.” Corbera then invites La Ciura to his own apartment, where he serves the old man fresh sea urchins, about which La Ciura had previously ranted: They are the most beautiful thing you have down there [in Sicily], bloody and cartilaginous, the very image of the female sex, fragrant with salt and seaweed...They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality. The professor prepares to depart for a conference in Portugal and summons Corbera for a final visit; here we begin our ascent to Lampedusa’s allegorical summit. “I’ll have to speak in a low voice,” La Ciura says, and we appreciate his -- and Lampedusa’s -- theatricality, as the young journalist and the reader are drawn deeper into both comprehension and mystery. “Important words cannot be bellowed.” 5. The peak -- of La Ciura’s earthly existence, of the story, of all spiritual incarnation, Lampedusa proposes -- is one of pure eros: purely sensual, youthful, uncivilized. The professor’s beloved is Lighea, a siren, as much animal as human and monstrously beautiful, serene, insatiably loving. She comes to him one summer in his youth from the Sicilian sea. Their consummation lasts three weeks, and during that time the professor becomes enlightened to true pleasure, “devoid of social resonance, the same that our solitary mountain shepherds experience when they couple with their goats.” La Ciura dares Corbera to be put off by the comparison, such repulsion revealing only that “you’re not capable of performing the necessary transposition from the bestial to the superhuman plane.” Lighea is all body and all spirit, powerfully attuned: From her immortal limbs flowed such life force that any loss of energy was immediately compensated, increased, in fact...She ate nothing that was not alive. I often saw her rise out of the sea, delicate torso sparkling in the sun, teeth tearing into a still-quivering silver fish, blood running down her chin... Not only did she display in the carnal act a cheerfulness and a delicacy altogether contrary to wretched animal lust, but her speech was of a powerful immediacy, the likes of which I have only ever found in a few great poets. As Marina Warner points out, Lampedusa is not interested in supplanting reason with passion, but rather reclaiming a native unity. “Lampedusa aims to fashion a coincidentia oppositorium at many levels,” she writes. “[S]upernatural and natural, unreal and material, monstrosity and beauty, animal and human, ideal love and lubricious delight.” And this is evident throughout the story in his language: beauty and blood, “insolence” and “detachment,” the professor’s gnarled hands which caress with “regal delicacy” a page in a magazine that bears the image of a Greek statue. When Corbera serves the sea urchins, the professor “consumed them avidly but...with a meditative, almost sorrowful air.” The story’s interests are thus transparent, its purposes straightforward -- though, to my mind, no less affecting for it. Lampedusa’s passion for unity of soul and body startles and moves us; in hearing the professor’s tale, Corbera in part lives it and is changed, as are we. 6. But will the general reader agree? Perhaps it depends on one’s pre-determinations. The narrator of Mating in the above epigraph likens the African sun to a “broken mechanism.” But as they say, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure: “broken” if four distinct seasons is your norm, perfectly functional if you’ve come from extreme cold and gray. In Lampedusa’s case, we can deduce that his own deepest longings were for what he had known and lost -- the magic of his childhood -- as well as for what, as he wrote this last story, he had not achieved: transcendence via entry into the pantheon of literary artists. The result, in “The Professor and the Siren,” is a tale at once pessimistic and optimistic: La Ciura can find no worthy pleasure or meaning in earthly life after his experience with Lighea, and yet in the end he joins her, answering her call to the underwater world deep below, “where all is silent calm...in the blind, mute palace of formless, eternal waters.” Light and darkness seem also to color Lampedusa’s literary stature: Il Gattopardo won Italy’s Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, and has sold well over 3 million copies worldwide; but we’ll never know what the second novel, Il Gattopardo's sequel, might have been. The fragment published in both the 1962 and current NYRB collections under the title “The Blind Kittens” does reveal that Lampedusa’s eye continued to focus on Sicilian society and the epic desires of common men. Colquhoun opined on the possibility that Il Gattopardo itself was a kind of lesser preview of the real novel Lampedusa meant to write -- would have written -- had he started sooner: “Is the novel peaks, in a more or less continuous range, of a vast submerged book that was never completed?” Broken or functional, incomplete or fully realized, decadent or democratic...I am glad for Lampedusa’s sumptuous, if scant, work, so nearly kept from us by both Lampedusa’s late start and publishers’ tastes. And while the professor’s vast book collection “slowly rots” in a university archive following his descent into the sea, Lampedusa’s small body of work bursts up like the sun, reviving those of us primed to respond. Click here to read an interview with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and translator Stephen Twilley.