“There is something disagreeable to me in any political party line,” Phillip Lopate writes in his new essay collection, Portrait Inside My Head, “which too often commits the espouser to tit-for-tat distortions and petty vituperations.” Unwilling to translate his liberalism into political action, Lopate is more comfortable with contemplation, a mode “in which skepticism, ambivalence, and uncertainty play large parts.” Aesthetics, too: being interviewed for radio before a campus protest at Columbia in 1968, he becomes fixated on a bluejay nearby; to the interviewer’s despair, he goes silent for several moments, watching the bird. Chronic introspection may be fatal for an activist, but it’s a necessary precondition for an essayist, especially one often concerned with interrogating his own mind.
If the essays collected here have a unifying theme, Lopate offers, it is “the discovery of limitations, and learning to live with them” — no great surprise from the author of Against Joie de Vivre. By his wife Cheryl’s lights, one of those limitations is a lack of empathy. Lopate responds that he’s sympathetic, just not empathetic — sympathy for him suggesting compassion, while empathy conveys “a stickier, more ghoulish shadowing that stems from the delusion that one can actually take on oneself, or fuse with, another’s feelings.” Empathy, by Lopate’s reckoning, denies a stubborn human reality: we’re all alone. Rejecting the effort to break through this barrier with “totalitarian Empathy Speak,” Lopate falls back on more reliable virtues: “Forbearance, resignation, and stoicism still seem to me the only way to go.”
That undeceived realism may trace back to his native Brooklyn, where he eventually returned to live. He characterizes the Brooklyn outlook as “combative, stoic, and resilient,” accustomed to trouble and defeat — whether it’s George Washington fleeing over the East River or the long-lost Dodgers’ promise to “wait till next year.” Yet Brooklyn is also hopelessly provincial compared with its impossible neighbor, Manhattan, and its resurgence of recent years has done little to quell sentimental attachments to its “endearing-loser past.” Lopate, who also spent years as a Manhattanite, reconciles himself to a divided identity: “I have sampled the champagne and the Ovaltine, and I will forever be split.”
Champagne and Ovaltine drinkers alike listen to the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, a long-running daily talk program hosted by Lopate’s older brother. Their close but competitive relationship offers another study in limitations. More people know Leonard from listening to the radio than know Phillip from reading his books. Often, Phillip meets people who praise him for his radio show. After noting his brother’s strengths, he gives himself the edge in the rivalry, “based on the idea that my writings have at least a chance of enduring, while his improvised radio chatter disappears into the ether.” He then softens this outbreak of hubris, saying that one of his worst traits is his need to feel superior to others, even Leonard, whom he calls his lodestar.
While Leonard often pointed him toward cultural influences when they were younger, Phillip seems to have come by his cinephilia on his own. He has long been an incisive film critic, and that passion is represented here in several essays, including one in which he describes the factors that can alter his view of movies and directors. Though he has strong aesthetic preferences, he concedes that reconsideration, the passage of time, and peer pressure can all play a role — and even admits that he has tried to force himself to like certain films. The learned, self-conscious critic can also give way to more visceral concerns: “After I became a parent, I could no longer watch with equanimity any movie in which a child was kidnapped, endangered, or physically harmed.”
Movies figure prominently in an essay examining the work of James Agee, whom Lopate deems one of the five major American film critics. Yet Agee is the one of those five with whom Lopate most disagrees, and the differences aren’t confined to critical taste; they more often involve “torturous judgments” that Lopate consider way off-base. The reader is left to wonder how Agee can rank so highly in the film-critic pantheon with these shortcomings.
In his tendency to sacramentalize his subjects, Agee reminded Lopate of a proto-Beat writer, but Allen Ginsberg was the real thing. Lopate offers a clear-headed reassessment of Ginsberg’s “Howl” and its influence. “That poem is lodged in my psyche,” he writes, “at the crossroads of my adolescent confusions,” even as he found its contents frustrating. The poem was “ludicrous and overblown,” he writes; and “why was a good Jewish boy like Allen bothering with all that Christian-saint imagery?” But he reveres “Howl” for its “phonic fireworks and flaming images” and its “superb atmospherics of place,” and he credits it with opening up Whitman for him. “Howl” also formed a boundary between poles he didn’t wish to inhabit: the purportedly stale literary establishment against which the Beats rebelled, at one end, and the Beats themselves, at the other. The Beats possess a boundless, if little-remarked, capacity for awakening latent conservatism in readers.
Literary matters aside, the book’s centerpiece is a personal essay, “The Lake of Suffering,” which recounts the harrowing struggle of Lopate’s infant daughter Lily, who suffered from a mysterious gastrointestinal disorder that inhibited her absorption of proteins. The condition led to repeated vomiting of food, weight loss, and stunted growth. Her alarmed parents eventually take her to Mount Sinai Hospital, where they spend the better part of a year. Their lives become closed-in, confined to a hospital Lopate compares to a spaceship: “no gravity, no up or down, white, weightless.” The doctors insert a feeding tube through her nose; the little girl repeatedly pulls it out, and her parents have to hold her down and reinsert it, time and again, as she wails.
The long, spirit-sapping days at the hospital come alive only when Lily’s physician arrives each afternoon. At one point the doctor offers what may be the collection’s keenest political observation: “In America, babies are not supposed to be sick. If they’re sick, people expect one of two outcomes: one, the baby dies; two, she gets all better. Americans don’t know how to deal with chronic illness.”
Fortunately for Lily, things get better. Her body adapts and she can eventually take food through her mouth and discard the feeding tube. Now 18, she has become a normal teenager: “snappish, moody, dictatorial, and self-absorbed.” Neither Lily nor Cheryl has much interest in looking back on the ordeal, but Lopate can’t let it go. He wonders if holding onto the experience is his way of reminding himself that he has borne genuine pain. In any case, he writes, “a part of me continues to haunt those wards, those corridors.”
“The Lake of Suffering” embodies much of what makes Lopate such a compelling essayist: a gift for translating the most personal experience to nearly universal relevance, while at the same time retaining a novelist’s facility for analyzing characters, including himself.
That feat also defines the conflict that some readers might feel with these essays and more generally, with the personal-essay genre that Lopate has done so much to champion. It’s writing that, at its best, can be profoundly revelatory—but also profoundly invasive, even disloyal. Those troubled enough by the latter can seek their revelations elsewhere, of course. As Lopate knows, we all have our limitations.