Life & Living I (Introit) [Proofed] [Amended]
“The IQ test results have come in.” In her cartoonishly intimidating German accent, the venerable psychoanalyst continued. “They place you in the second percentile of intelligence.” There was something here about American intelligence, or intelligence among Americans, but the accent was very much on second percentile. “This is not uncommon among college graduates,” she went on. Then, after a pause, “I think that it is time that you stopped pretending that you belong in the first percentile.”
A little slow, as usual, I was still dwelling on the second percentile. That’s not so bad, I thought, but can it be common among college graduates? There are so many college graduates, and even the second percentile must be rather small. Of course, I might have been getting it all backwards, proof perhaps that I really wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. I was hearing the doctor say that it was common for college graduates to belong to the second percentile. I wasn’t hearing that members of the second percentile were common among college graduates. It never occurred to me, for example, that members of the first percentile must be even more common among college graduates. Then again, I do think that I was hearing quite accurately what the doctor was trying to say.
Then I caught up. Stop pretending.
If I were a journalist, I’d look into the claim about how common second percentilers are among college graduates. But I’m not, and even as I sat there, over forty years ago, in what was masquerading as therapy, I was ever more persuaded that terms like “common” and “college graduate” didn’t mean anything very definite — and as for “intelligence” — ! I had undergone the two days of IQ testing, in a pleasant office overlooking River Oaks, with a kind of bountiful condescension, as though I had volunteered to share my specialness with the administrators of such tests and perhaps teach them a thing or two. Now, my good behavior was being rewarded with unpleasantness. Stop pretending. Did I pretend to have a high IQ? Never. I’d met a few people who did (although I never stopped to wonder how they knew, since it was a given that one could never be told one’s score), and most of them seemed to be brittle and humorless. I was very smart; I’d been told that all my life. But it meant more to me that I was special. “Special” meant that I was off the charts, not a point on the line from moron to genius.
At another session, the therapist, Hilde Bruch, who was one of the first theorists of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, told me that because, at the age of 25, I had not done anything remarkable, it was unlikely that I would ever do anything remarkable. She meant that, while I met get rich, I would never be Goethe. But I probably wouldn’t get rich, either, because, well, that was why — as we both knew without our saying anything too grossly candid — why she had taken me on. I was not the victim of an eating disorder. I was the son-in-law of one of her close friends on the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine, and it was Dr Bruch’s job, as a favor to her friend, not to make me feel better about myself, but, quite the reverse, to prod me into getting a real job and buying responsible insurance policies, so that her friend could stop subsidizing the lifestyle that her daughter and I were pursuing at the time, cheap though it may have been.
It was a reckoning: now it was official. I had been weighed in the balance and found second percentile. On the one hand, I was reminded that everyone, for purposes of convenience, is somewhere on the line from moron to genius, and that that is that. I was also reminded that thinking that you’re special is pretty much the same thing as pretending to be in the first percentile of something. At the time, I had not heard the saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I certainly thought that I’d been killed, or something like it, for a few weeks. It was crushing, frankly, to have been found out. Even I felt that I had found me out. In time, however, I accepted the importance of being responsible and objective. If I was remarkable in any way, I would have to prove it. And that was that.
Even though I buckled down and went to law school a few years later, I never get rich. Only for a short time did I earn enough money to pay for a responsible homeowner’s policy (not very expensive, because we rented). I have no doubt that Hilde Bruch, were she still alive, would say that I’d turned out just as she feared. But I did stop pretending. I no longer located specialness within myself; I wasn’t special. But I was on to something special. I was sure about that.
When I told this story to my sixth and last psychotherapist, he smiled and said, “And yet all of her theories turned out to be wrong.” I haven’t checked that out, either.
“The results of the IQ test have come in,” said the venerable old lady in her cartoonishly intimidating German accent. “They place you in the second percentile of intelligence.” There was a pause. “This result is not uncommon among college graduates.”
I pursed my lips in a gesture of modified satisfaction. Second percentile wasn’t so bad. I should have been surprised to hear that I was in the first, because I was so bad at arithmetic. Geometry, trigonometry: I did fine with them, but the moment I had to compute integers (much less fractions!) I broke down. My addition was whimsical, in that I often confused seven for nine and vice versa; and when it came to subtraction I had to write things down. Not uncommon among college graduates, though? That was ambiguous. What’s “uncommon”? Which college? It never occurred to me that most second-percentilers with scholarships or affluent parents would be college graduates.
“I’m telling you this because I think that it is time that you gave up pretending that you’re in the first percentile.” Which, as you can see, I hadn’t been doing; but I knew what the doctor meant. She had earlier remarked that, as I had not yet done anything remarkable by the age of twenty-five, it was unlikely that I would ever do anything remarkable.” Knowing I might think that she was talking about science — no concern of mine — she mentioned her beloved Goethe.
It took a few days for my self-esteem to crumble, but crumble it did, and when I put it back together, it was different. I had always thought of myself as special. Now there was a shift, subtle and certainly unconscious for many years, but a real difference. I no longer located specialness within myself. It was something out there, and the only special thing about me was that I was aware of it, even if I couldn’t talk about it. I continued, however, to expect the world to treat me as special, or at least to exempt myself from ordinary requirements, such has having a decent job with a future, and making sure that my wife and baby were covered by insurance of various kinds. When I did buckle down, a few years later, it wasn’t because of Dr Hilde Bruch’s admonitions.
Hilde Bruch had made her reputation theorizing about and treating the victims of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Needless to say, I wasn’t seeing her professionally because I was one of the afflicted. I was seeing her because my mother-in-law, a different kind of doctor but a colleague of Dr Bruch’s on the faculty of the Baylor College of Medicine, thought that it might do me some good, which was her oblique way of firing some big guns at my self-importance without saying anything herself. If I put up no resistance, that was because I had already been to two psychoanalysts, starting in sixth grade, and I found the experience intriguing. The previous analyst was a fan of R D Laing, so I read The Divided Self and learned that going without dreams for a week or more is a warning of imminent psychopathic collapse. The analyst broke up with his wife, who happened to be my internist; the internist called me several times, in tears, to see if I knew anything. It was all very exciting and unprofessional, until, of course something stuck: stop pretending.
Had I been a journalist, I’d have checked out Dr Bruch’s assertions (how common?), but the special something at my personal vanishing point warned me away from slipping into the contemporary scene. It had always done that. The first thing that I understood about my special something was a sort of angelic pronouncement, not unlike what the old prophets heard, that the people all around me were living without any true sense of perspective. They didn’t know, to answer that most childlike of questions, where anything came from. They were adrift in a highly stimulating sea dotted with desert islands, on the more desirable of which you might find yourself at a good cocktail party or perhaps even an orgy. Journalists were the professional chroniclers of these antics, and although most of them had a much better command of history qua dates than the man on the street, their understanding of it was mostly bromide. Not so many years ago, in one the last sessions with my sixth and final therapist, I recounted the story of Dr Bruch and IQ test, which I’d been shocking friends with for years. He smiled sweetly and observed that most of Dr Bruch’s theories had been discarded by subsequent research. Not being a journalist, I didn’t check that out, either.
The sensible thing, if you think you have a special understanding of something, is to study it conventionally, however insincerely, until you have acquired a nice rack of credentials. Then you can begin raising questions. Then you can start calling attention to the cracks in received wisdom. My difficulty with this approach was twofold. First, I found it impossible to work hard at something I didn’t believe in; belief was the only impetus for me. Second, I suspected that conventions of any kind were lethal to special vision. Now, as we shall see, I have been a committed observer of most social conventions ever since an embarrassing youthful period in which I flouted as many as I could. My rudeness didn’t come naturally, but was an early response to the burdens of prophecy. I learned the hard way that you cannot win friends and influence people if you refuse to answer “How are you?” in a conventional way, or if you insist on making a fuss about “please” and “thank you.” But social conventions govern relations between human beings, between men and women. Academic conventions govern relations between the mind and the morass of assumption that goes under the tidy-sounded title, generally accepted opinion. I still have no idea what an “intellectual” is, but I will swear that generally accepted opinions are viruses capable of bringing intellectual life to a standstill. I will ask only that you consider the colossal and distracting ruckus imposed on humanity by the idea that man is a rational animal. We still haven’t quite survived that one.
Things felt wrong when I was a child in Eisenhower America (Eisenhower was one of the few good things about it, but he kept that a secret). I don’t mean that I had any sense of the big picture, politically or otherwise. I just noticed that nobody was quite as happy as 1950s television said we were. I don’t want to overstate my perceptiveness; I think it’s enough to say that I noticed a crack and couldn’t take my eyes off it. Over time, the crack got longer, and longer still; and I began to expect to find it. It had something to do with institutions — schools, businesses, churches, clubs; any entity that was supposed to go on existing no matter how often the faces of people who ran it changed. There was something about institutions that people didn’t understand. Later, when I found out what it was, I would see why they didn’t want to understand. For the time being, though, my skepticism about institutions meant that I was not a joiner.
Because I was not a joiner, and because my interests were peculiar — even I couldn’t have said what they were — I did not have many lasting friends. Not shy, and rarely at a loss for words, I always had a good time at parties, but it was all something of an act, because I could never talk about what really mattered. My loneliness was intensified by a lack of sympathy for all the other bright young people who thought that there was something wrong with American society. They wanted to reform it, revolutionize it. They wanted to tear down old restraints. Hating destruction of any kind, I wanted at least to find out what those old restraints had been expected to accomplish, and why they were no longer a good fit. I never succumbed to the notion that the world used to be a better place, but it seemed obvious that we couldn’t understand what was going on until we understood what had happened before. And yet this put me at odds with nearly everyone. On the one hand, radical students regarded history as a distracting waste of time, a story about the abuse of power — period. On the other, traditionalists were affronted by my habit of analyzing things. And they were insulted when I suggested that most of their traditions were of fairly recent origin.
I expect that anyone who is lonely is going to consider suicide, as I did quite often when I was young. Once, I even gave it a try, although I made sure that I didn’t succeed. It was certainly not a play for attention; the attention that I got in aborting the attempt was embarrassing enough. Everyone wanted to know why, of course; I could only reply that I didn’t know but that I was very unhappy. I was a freshman in college at the time, the perfect age for such despair. As time went by, though, I had ever less reason to believe that I was in for a rosy future; despair ought to have increased. When I graduated with my all but useless bachelor of arts degree, I had no career plans of any kind. All I wanted to do was sit somewhere and read. I was always looking for people to talk to, and not finding them, because I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to talk about. Suicidal or not, there was clearly something wrong with me. And yet I never believed this for a second. There was nothing much wrong with me, and nothing much wrong with everybody else, either. But our means of interaction were defective.
Later, I would learn about the prophets. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible don’t play a big role in Catholic teaching, and like everyone else I assumed that prophets were men who could see the future. (Like everyone else, I made assumptions about things that I didn’t consciously think about.) The prophets foretold a grisly future for the Israelites, and that is what befell them, but prophecy as such was not involved. The prophets were simply exhorting their countrymen (especially the rich and powerful ones) to adhere with greater fidelity to the terms of their covenant with God. Their many derelictions would surely bring down divine punishments! From a more secular viewpoint, it might have been seen that that covenant defined a society in which the Israelites could live; experimenting with alternative lifestyles, which is what the prophets were on about, was probably a bad idea. It still is, I think, unless you are living where your lifestyle is at home.
Without being aware of it, I discovered that I was comfortable with complexity and that other people weren’t. I often wonder to what extent this comfort with complexity is an inborn feature of my brain. That’s a depressing conclusion, because it means that I might as well not bother to open my mouth. I like to figure things out as much as anybody, but I don’t like to solve problems. The difference is that problems vanish when they’re solved, while figuring things out always leads to expanded understanding. I learned that I was not competitive, genuinely uninterested in demonstrating my superiority to anyone else. To say that sport of any kind bored me to sobs is to say everything there is to say on that subject — although, if taken to a baseball game, especially a night game in a small park, I will pay attention (but I will not remember who won). My laziness has led to some unhealthy physical outcomes, but all my life I have been disinclined to make any physical effort that did not directly feed my mind. Even taking a walk is a bore — restorative at times, but inherently tedious. Why not just sit down with a good book, or have a nice chat over a cup of tea? Had I lived in a milieu that emphasized social dancing, I would have fared better. I really do like to dance. Letting a rhythm flow through was a kind of feeding my mind, not unlike the reset of electro-shock. Music has always organized me. Meanwhile, of course, I am holding my partner and we are talking. We are talking about nothing, but doing so as nicely as we are dancing. The old-fashioned and much more energetic group dancing that you see in Jane Austen adaptations also appeals to me. But life has offered few opportunities for that.
Meanwhile, life went on, and my search for that something special, which I could feel but not describe, made me feel somewhat like the blindfolded victim of a tease. I knew only that if I took off the blindfold, I would lose the game forever; what I could see with open eyes was precisely the obstruction to understanding. Every now and then, in a weak moment, I would indulge in a fit of system-building. If this, then that — all clever people are trained to be good at such exercises. But getting this and that right was impossible. Why? Because what I was looking for (even if I didn’t know it) was not an explanation of the universe; nor was it at all arcane. So much is clear to me now. But of course I persisted in thinking in terms of a secret solution, a reduction of everything to one graceful formula, because that was the paradigm of all thought, aside from poetry. Progress would be made, and could be made only, by patient investigations of causes and effects. To say that there were things to be discovered was to say that the answers were hidden. But they weren’t hidden. It was the questions that were hidden. That is actually the root truth of all scientific inquiry, not because that’s how science works but because that’s how our minds work. When we figure things out, something very strange happens. We think that we have found something, but in fact we have lost the ability to overlook it. It is our minds that change, not the world.
For a long time, I correctly believed that I needed to know more about things, but I was wrong about why. I thought that more knowledge would lead to more comparisons and contrasts, a more intricate understanding of the world. In fact, the pile-up of knowledge, instead of yielding a pattern or complex of patterns, revealed a discontinuity in everyday ways of understanding things, particularly ways of understanding people, people as individuals and peoples as members of groups. (People who have been swallowed into masses have ceased to be people, at least during their immersion.) There were at least two ways of seeing everything. It was something like Japanese, with its Chinese characters for substantives and its native characters for everything else. Except, of course, that in the case of my special something, the two sets of characters could not be harnessed to speak one language. Everyone, educated people especially, were bilingual without being aware of it.
And that is my special something, or at least the root of it: I learned — and I hate to put it that way because it sounds like a party trick — how to make one language out of two. [I taught myself...] Just to prove that I really am an exasperating egghead, I proudly announce that my special something is a critique. That’s what I’m calling it, anyway. And that’s all that I’m going to say about it now; I shall give a more enlightening account of it at the end. Between then and now I hope to entertain you with an account of my intellectual biography, which if nothing else will explain why I am under the impression that I have hit on something special. Let me just leave you with an old bit of wisdom: Man is a creature between the beasts and the angels. Although it expresses a truth, it doesn’t do it very helpfully. More anon.
One morning in July, 2016, I finished reading a book about Keats. Have you read Keats? In school, maybe? Do you read poetry anymore? I do. Not very much, to be honest. Not as much as I’d like. We’re too busy, right? For poetry, you have to slow down, which ought to be easy but isn’t. And if I’m bored, reading poetry doesn’t seem to be the answer. But here’s the thing: the book about Keats that I read was pretty exciting, once I got the hang of it. It was about Keats’s odes. You remember, the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the “Ode to a Nightingale”? Anyway, there are six of them. Keats wrote them all in about six months. The first one isn’t very good; the last one is a masterpiece. The book shows how Keats taught himself how to write better odes. It’s kind of a master class, pointing out all the mistakes as well as the brilliant bits.
Helen Vendler wrote the book. She’s a scholar at Harvard who wants more out of poetry than pretty verses. For her, a poem has to have structural integrity. It has to hold together in one piece, and it shouldn’t have any loose ends. Vendler’s book on Shakespeare’s sonnets is amazing. You wouldn’t believe the way she can unpack fourteen lines, how much meaning she kind find in such a small place. It’s like Grace Kelly’s overnight bag, in Rear Window. Vendler even finds meaning in the things Shakespeare leaves out. You know those games that people play to exercise their minds, so they won’t get Alzheimer’s (they hope)? Trying to keep track of Helen Vendler taking apart one of Shakespeare’s sonnets is better.
But I was talking about Keats. If you remember his Odes, they’re full of references to Antiquity — obviously, in the case of “Grecian Urn.” They’re called Odes. They aim for classic perfection. But they fall short, according to Vendler. Each a little less than the one before, but they all fall short — until the last one. The last one is not actually called an ode. It is called, simply, “To Autumn,” and, what’s more, there are no overt classical references in it. That, it turns out, was part of the problem with the earlier pieces. Keats had this goal, inspired by Milton. Milton wanted to replace all the Greek and Roman images with Christian and English ones. Keats wanted to do something a little different. He wanted to create an art that was indistinguishable from nature. That’s the best way I can put it. And in order to do it, he had to deny himself the poetic shorthand of gods, goddesses, and magical properties that poets are supposed to have at their fingertips. Keats wanted to hold onto the feelings of traditional poetry, but he also wanted to do without labels.
For a while, the “Ode on Melancholy” was my favorite poem in the world. I memorized a couple of lines.
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen by none by him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine…
Great stuff, it sounded — even thought I never believed it. I don’t think that there’s anything melancholy about love. Oh, I know that line, post coitum omne animal triste est. But that hasn’t been my experience. If you smoke after making love, of course you’re going to feel dismal. I have this funny postcard. There’s a couple in bed together. The guy, who’s kind of scrawny, is sitting up, skin and bones, and he’s saying, “But after the sexual desire is fulfilled, what happens then?” His nicely tucked-up lady friend, who is not scrawny, just smiles, as a thought bubble floats over her head. In the thought bubble, a full breakfast awaits on a checkered tablecloth. Let’s have something to eat!
Keats. The beautiful thing about the Grecian Urn is that Keats, who appears to be talking about it, has actually made it up. He is not writing about an object in a museum. His urn lacks the common features of an urn, its handles, its fluted rim, its base either round or square. Keats’s urn is nothing but a memorial. It is an urn, and not a slab, because Keats wants it to turn round, repeating its narrative endlessly. The procession will never return to the village from which it set out or reach the altar toward which it is headed. The heifer will never be sacrificed. The lover will never catch up with the girl. The figures may be carved in stone, but they move with the urn’s rotation. It is something like Rilke’s Archaic torso, which is not described but created by shafts of sight: our sight as we glance at it; its headless sight, which seems to originate in the Zeugung, testicles (literally, witnesses). As we read Keats’s poem, it creates the urn for us — all we need to know. The poem not only is, but holds, its own work of art.
I didn’t wait until Vendler got to the end to read “To Autumn.” I knew its first line by heart, and found it beautiful. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” The rest of the poem, though, didn’t knock me out. Maybe it was too agricultural. It didn’t occur to me to think of Virgil’s Georgics, which I used to read, and try to like, when I kept a garden in the country. That was a long time ago, and my garden was purely ornamental. When I went through the poem with Vendler, I remembered that Keats had finished with ornamental gardens in the “Ode to Psyche,” having built in that poem a virtual shrine to his own soul. As a poet, throughout the course of creating the Odes, Keats learned not to worry that the gross material world would sully his poetry. Vendler showed me that what I had taken to be mousy details of a farm no longer green were linked a tight net of significance, more emotional than informational. It was not a picture but an existence: to read the poem is to inhabit it, to see what Keats shows in the first two stanzas and to hear the sounds made by birds and insects at the end. I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of Wallace Stevens: “This is the barrenness/Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.”
Now that I was done with the book, my spirit was a heavy cornucopia, overloaded not so much with riches as with the sense of richness itself. And I was troubled by that line of Stevens. My trouble would be expressed for me, the very next day, in a remark by François Mauriac, a French writer whom I can never really quite place. He said, of Virginia Woolf, that she was a writer “moving toward silence.” For both Keats and Woolf, rich artistic production was placed very closely to death. Keats would die two years after writing the Odes, at the age of twenty-five; Woolf had known madness before she began as a writer, and it would be fear of madness (occasioned by war) that made her take her own life at the age of fifty-nine.
I read the Mauriac quote in Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, which I pulled down from the shelf after reading To the Lighthouse. In my jumbled fashion, I had begun re-reading To the Lighthouse before quite finishing Helen Vendler’s book about the Odes of Keats. The two went well together. Woolf’s prose is almost as charged as Keats’s verse, even without the discipline of meter. It is more urgent because it is less “poetic.” Woolf was determined not to strike the classical realist poses that she disdained in writers like Arnold Bennett, a man who was as celebrated in his day as Woolf is now. Keats’s language is hardly vernacular, but in stripping away the explicit references to Arcady and the Hippocrene he was striving for a purely English poetry, not out of any nationalistic feeling but simply out of concern for linguistic coherence.
I had been moving through To the Lighthouse very slowly, partly because I was so excited by the wrapping-up of The Odes of John Keats and partly to make sure that I followed every tendril of Woolf’s impressions, of the impressions of her characters. I wanted especially to savor the irritability of Lily Briscoe, who stands in, somewhat, for the author, while Mrs Ramsay represents the author’s long-dead, still-adored mother. Julia Stephens’s greatest gift to her daughter was an early death; for Virgiinia’s older sister, Vanessa, would never have dared to be as bold as she was, after their father’s death, if her mother had been watching. And so Virginia would not have been free. She would never have been able to breathe her own atmosphere. She would certainly never learned how to write the kind of sarcasm that fills To the Lighthouse. Sarcasm that is grating and rude is easy; the gentle but wounded sarcasm of Woolf’s greatest writing requires a carefully trained hand.
At the end of the day on which I finished reading Vendler on Keats, I picked up To the Lighthouse at the point where Mrs Ramsay is reading “The Fisherman’s Wife” to her youngest child, James. James is a funny fellow; it’s hard not to suspect that Woolf, who had no children of her own, had been learning about them from Sigmund Freud, whose works, in translation, she was publishing with her husband, Leonard, at the Hogarth Press. James loathes his father with the impotent madness of a full-blown Oedipus complex. (Of course he outgrows and forgets it.) Every time his father walks by, James wants to slay him. The reader wouldn’t mind if he did. Mr Ramsay is an ego on bookmarks.
Presently, I reached Chapter XVII, which is the long dinner-party scene. It is not really a dinner-party, just dinner in a country house with fifteen or sixteen people at the table. Mr Ramsay sits at one end and Mrs Ramsay at the other. Woolf hovers over Mrs Ramsay’s end, where, as a result of Mrs Ramsay’s seating arrangements, the geometries of conversation are more interesting. Woolf’s tone is that of a somewhat world-weary, irreverent sophisticate. Everyone is dressed for dinner and is more or less comme il faut (except for Charles Tansley — there is always a Charles Tansley figure in Woolf, and you never know whether you’re supposed to feel sorry for him because you’re helplessly looking down on him, or whether you ought to be frank about his failure to measure up), and everyone professes, according to Woolf’s report of private thoughts, to be bored to death. Why do we sit through these damned dinners, everyone seems to protest — silently. Meanwhile, the conversation bumps and flows as it will. The soup course is ingested.
Then the scene changes slightly, as in Continental plays, with the addition of three characters. Two of them, a young man and a young woman, have just become engaged, crowning a project of Mrs Ramsay’s. The third character is not the maid but the lidded bowl that she carries, a boeuf en daube, or beef stew, that the cook has prepared following a recipe that was brought over by Mrs Ramsay’s great-grandmother. (Virginia Woolf had a French great-great-grandmother.) The daube is set before Mrs Ramsay; the chatter subsides. Mrs Ramsay is deeply pleased that the couple will forever associate their engagement with the delicious stew.
They’ll say that all their lives, she thought, and an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought. This will celebrate the occasion — a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound — for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands.
As I read this ceremonial description of an elaborate stew, I was suddenly so overwhelmed, so thrilled, so unnerved by this festal lyricism — so reminiscent, if not of Keats’s poetry, then of Keats’s world on the one hand and of his poetic resources on the other — that I was nearly sick. I wanted to shout. I waited for my wife, Kathleen, to finish what she was doing, and then I began to read it aloud to her, in a voice that was more like a shout.
with its shiny walls! and its confusion! of savoury brown and yellow meats!! and its bay leaves and it wine,! and thought.!
I know that the final two words refer to the subject of the sentence, which is Mrs Ramsay, in parallel with “peered,” but it is also impossible not to regard “thought” as an ingredient of the daube, too, even if it isn’t preceded by a possessive pronoun. Virginia Woolf, a serious baker of bread, would know how much thought goes into cookery. To the Lighthouse gently insists throughout — in Lily Briscoe’s mind, not so gently — on the kinds of thought of which men seem determined to remain adamantly unaware. Mr Ramsay is a metaphysician, we are told. He worries that nobody will read his work after he’s gone. Meanwhile, the daube, served up to us here with a pagan ritualism that brings Keats’s urn to mind, embodies a recipe that dates back to the Eighteenth Century, if not earlier.
I am not going to explicate my thoughts. Pointing out the connections between Keats and Woolf that ravished me would be pedantic and exhausting. And beside the point: for I am not here to trick you into thinking that I could be a genuine literary critic if only I put a little work into it. I am past all of that. Ambition, like the insistent appropriation of classical claptrap that burns through five of Keats’s Odes with such heat that there is nothing left for the sixth, the title of which does not even include “Ode,” is spent, leaving only me, reading, writing, and palpating savory meats — or at least, as in the case of that night’s dinner of homemade fennel-sausage pizza, browning them with mushrooms — living a life that such moments make worth the trouble. For they are the life, the life amidst the living.
No, she said, she did not want a pear. Indeed she had been keeping guard over the dish of fruit (without realising it) jealously, hoping that nobody would touch it. Her eyes had been going in and out among the curves and shadows of the fruit, among the rich purples of the lowland grapes, then over the horny ridge of the shell, putting a yellow against a purple, a curved shape against a round shape, without knowing why she did it, or why, every time she did it, she felt more and more serene; until, oh, what a pity that they should do it — a hand reached out, took a pear, and spoilt the whole thing.
As I settled down from the bliss of brilliantly juxtaposed readings, each informing the other and lighting me up with an intensity that banished, for the moment, all thought of silence and death, I began to realize — the coins didn’t completely drop until the next day — that I had reached the point in my life that I had always hoped to attain.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself — before I tell you a whole lot more.
An early Baby Boomer, I was born at the beginning of January 1948, in New York City. Almost immediately, I was adopted by a couple living in Westchester County, to the north of the city. In 1955, I flew to Bermuda in a Pan Am Stratocruiser — the second level was below the main cabin. I was a few months shy of ten when, in October 1957, Sputnik circled the earth. In 1963, the Beatles took off while I settled in at boarding school; I was fifteen. JFK was assassinated right before Thanksgiving. In 1970, after graduating from Notre Dame, I found a job with a radio station in Houston. I was twenty-six when Nixon resigned. Three years later, I went back to Notre Dame for law school. In 1980, at the age of thirty-two, I passed New York State’s bar exam, and in the following year I married my second wife, Kathleen Moriarty, in St Thomas More Church. In 1985, I bought a PCjunior, and eleven years later, when I was forty-eight, I joined an online listserv. Now you know everything.
Mrs Ramsay does not know a lot of the whys and wherefores of her life, and she does not want to know: when the hand reaches out and spoils her arrangement, she is confronted by the paradox of all domestic arrangements, which is that while they are made to be enjoyed, they are made in the delusion that they will not be unmade. This is as true of the unlovely tasks, such as emptying the dishwasher, as it is of the piling up of fruit on a decorative platter. It is important, when emptying the dishwasher, to keep at bay the knowledge that all the dishes will be taken down from the cupboards, covered with food, and set in the dishwasher again — very soon.
A lot of my living is spent in the running of a house. This does not mean that I am always on my knees scrubbing floors — modern life is not so dirty, and, thanks to the size of the building that Kathleen and I have lived in, in four apartments, for thirty-six years, our visitors’ shoes must cover a great deal of corridor carpeting before they reach our front door. What housekeeping means to me will emerge in what follows, not because I am particularly good at it or have useful insights to offer, but because it is what grounds me in a life of reading and writing. It is my living. For thirty-five years or more, while Kathleen has pursued her securities-law practice, I have made the bed, done the laundry, organized the dry-cleaning, shopped for food, made all the meals, and cleaned everything up. It would be possible to do everything that I do around the house more conscientiously than I do, but it has always been our understanding that I do as much housework as I can while continuing to read and write. Learning how to shift gears between life and living has taken a long time. Lots of things have taken a long time, in part, I think, because I started off on the wrong foot.
With my birthday so close to New Year’s Day, and my back-row height, I was allowed to start school a year early. So, instead of being the oldest kid in the class, I was the youngest, and size and literacy did nothing to diminish my immaturity. Because I was “smart,” it was taken for granted that I was more intelligent than I was in fact. I was great at skills that didn’t involve judgment, like spelling bees. I was a year behind everybody else when it came to sitting still.
There was also the complicating factor of sport. I bring up sport not because I was bad at it, or couldn’t care less about it — there is nothing remarkable about that, and I survived the grinding tedium just like everybody else who hated it. What made me different was my linebacker build. By refusing to play football, or anything else, with even so much as the slightest pretense of zeal, I was depriving my class and my school of a valuable resource, and I was not allowed to forget it. Again, this would not have been worth noting had I grown up in a world that did not turn to schools to supply sport. My shying away from games may have had no direct impact on my report card, but the fact that athletics and academics involved the same bunch of classmates certainly challenged my morale.
Tall and smart, I was bound for success in postwar America. By the time I reached high school, my clearly foreseeable failure to achieve this destiny made me question my existence. To distract myself from wretchedness, I read history books and listened to chamber music. I tried to take up cooking, but this was forbidden. To put it in the language of Trollope, gentlemen did not cook. In my mother’s language, cooking was for fairies. So the cooking had to wait until I was on my own, and then I had to teach myself everything.
Learning how to bake bread took me up a particularly Alpine learning curve. I was a junior at Notre Dame. I had a car and I lived off campus that miserable year, and at the end of the day, after stopping off at Louie’s to hang out with friends while I drank a quart of beer and munched French fries, I would drive to the other side of South Bend and let myself into my upstairs flat. The winter night was young — why not bake bread? And let’s open a window, too, before it gets too hot in here. Loaf after leaden loaf refused to rise under these conditions, and I can’t think why I didn’t just give up bread for life. Bread? No, that’s something that I simply can’t do. I have heard many people, most of them women who cook very well, make this claim. I know that it is never true. Or, rather, it might be true of the first couple of tries. It takes a while to learn to treat a bowl of dough as though it were an infant in a cradle.
For me, cooking has always been a selfish thing. I learned how to cook because it was the only way I knew of to make food that tasted the way I wanted it to. I made the dishes that I wanted to eat. And then, because most recipes produce more than one serving, I would share the results with near and dear. It is also true that, while I’m perfectly happy to eat alone at a restaurant if I have a book — it’s great cover for eavesdropping, although you have to remember not to giggle — I don’t care to go to much trouble to cook for myself alone. My default home-alone dish is spaghetti alla carbonara, largely because Kathleen doesn’t care for it. She doesn’t like parsley, and the egg yolk puts her off. Sometimes I make it with pancetta, which I fry in a thick slice and then mince with a mezzaluna, but sometimes I just chop up leftover bacon.
I was ambitious once. A little more than thirty years ago, Kathleen and I moved into our first two-bedroom apartment. We decided to make the second bedroom a multipurpose space. There would be bookshelves for the library, and a pull-out couch for guests. And there would be a dining table. A real dining table, one with leaves. I began to ask everyone I knew to come over for dinner. Two or three nights a week, we had guests. Mostly just one at a time. It was not long before I was undertaking complicated, multi-course meals, all of them involving sophisticated recipes. The climax of this pursuit was a dinner for eight with two waiters. I myself never left the table. The only thing I remember about the menu is a crown roast of lamb, with a minted red-currant jelly. The soup might well have been Billi-Bi; I used to make that a lot. For dessert, it might have been Julia Child’s dacquoise.
I learned a rich lesson from all of this fussing. Conversation is the only important thing about a dinner party, provided that the food isn’t actually bad. You must cook to please your guests — many people are intimidated and annoyed, and certainly distracted, by elaborate dishes, and I myself dislike anything that forces me to poke at food with knife and fork, as if I were eking out sustenance. And you must not wear yourself out in the kitchen. You must not allow yourself to concentrate on the food. Because you, too, are one of the guests, which is probably why great restaurants are such a good idea.
I also learned how to time things, how to coordinate the cooking of several dishes so that they all came out at the same time, and to pace the preparation so that no more than twenty minutes passed between courses. Now that I am older, I have lost the taste for multiple courses, but I used to regard one-dish meals, with perhaps a store-bought treat at the end, as impoverished. Even a simple meal, however, requires a good sense of timing.
Finally, I learned that I am not a chef. The idea of working in, much less running, a professional kitchen is scarily unappealing. I, like the other people at my table, have other things to do; we are all eating because we have to, and I have taught myself to cook only because we might as well do it well.
The falling-off in my dinner party career owed to something unexpected: too often, guests canceled at the last minute. Dinner for eight would become dinner for six, or even five. I invited only people whom I wanted to have in my home, but after hearing their (usually) less-than-convincing last-minute excuse, I wanted never to see them again. I began to suspect that they felt the same about me, that they had accepted my invitation in a moment of weakness. As indeed it may have been: it may be that my culinary ambition bled over into another kind of ambition. I may have been guilty of trying to run a salon, of bringing together “interesting” people whose “interesting” qualities would be thrust into relief while enjoying my hospitality. It would not be disagreeable to find myself at the center of a network of amusing New Yorkers. I can’t say for sure, though, because it never happened. The project flopped, I suspect, because it was never really social, as, after all, anything involving other people ought to be, but literary. I was trying to make things happen that I had read about in books.
My father, who was a dear man even if he wasn’t my father, once quipped, to a visitor who remarked on the many shelves of books in my bedroom, that I had “more books than sense.” I like to think that this is no longer true. But it was certainly true at the time, and still true until not too long ago, that most of what I knew of the world came out of books set in faraway times and places, books that were not very good sources of information about the world I lived in. But I thought that there was no reason to learn from experience, because experience was tainted by the involvement of people who hadn’t read very much, and who therefore didn’t know very much.
For me, the two things were not just connected but essentially the same. And they still are, even though I am far more open to learning from experience than I used to be. There are people who say that book-learning is useless. But without it there is no perspective, no contrast, no clear and distinct imagination. Somebody used to tell a joke about knowing what’s in every book in the world: words. Yes, indeed — the words of other people. Words written down in an intelligible text and preserved on paper bound in some way or other. That is all there is to books. Almost all books are full of information, which the skeptic will dismiss as irrelevant to the problems at hand. But behind the surface information — the lakes of Asia, the biochemistry of nutrition, the reign of any king Louis you like — there is information about human beings. There is always that. Writers are always telling you how they judge the world. Reading a great many books introduces you to the characters of a great many writers.
Not that publishers haven’t tried hard to stamp out the differences. Most books are written pursuant to a formula, and are designed to add only marginally to our stock of information about the world. Even if you write off the formulaic books, however, and ignore them altogether, that still leaves more excellent books than anyone will ever have the time to read. The whole job of teachers, especially in high school, is to open up students to the world of books that are too good to miss.
Nevertheless, for most of my life, I really did have more books than sense. I shied away from experience. In my ideal world, nothing happens. As it is in no danger of being realized, it is a comfortable ideal, but it is also genuine. I have a very bad startle reflex; I recoil from significantly unexpected developments. All news is bad news. It would be simple to say that this has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, but it was always the case, and if I didn’t dislike change quite so much when I was young, that is only because I didn’t know what could happen. I can’t think of anything that happened, during my childhood, that I experienced as a welcome surprise, a change for the better. Boarding school turned out to be one, but then I wasn’t expecting anything out of boarding school, except living apart from my mother. I was sure that she wouldn’t show up in the dorms, and I was not unpleasantly surprised. The resort hotel that we visited twice in the late Fifties would have been a delightful surprise if it hadn’t taken eleven hours of four-lane highway driving to reach it. It was a glorious relief instead.
The great thing about books was that everything happened in the book. If you closed the book, everything stopped, and stood still, right where it was, until you opened it up again. The other day, I was reading a story by William Trevor, and I reached a very uncomfortable point. A young and seriously innocent Irishman was about to be assigned a terrorist bombing job. The story is called “The Mourning,” and I took it at practical face value. I put the book down for a while. You can do that, when you’ve had too much, when things are about to get too unpleasant. You can get used to the new situation. Then you can go back and read it. Who would prefer real experience to that? Not I.
Books are great companions; I always have one with me. They can also be involuntary armor. Books make a lot of people uncomfortable. You don’t read much about them, because people who don’t like to read much neither write nor read books; there is no market for the reader who isn’t one. But I imagine that people who don’t care for books are in the majority. I have decided, on the basis of no medical evidence whatsoever, that the ability to read fluently is a gift, like any other physical gift. We don’t think of it as physical, because we’re slugs stretched out on a sofa, but of course it is physical, utterly dependent upon functional bodily organs — eyes, nerves, and even hands. For people who like to read, the effortless transformation of inkblots into narrative has to be recognized as a gift, which, like any gift, can be improved into a skill with practice. But the person who is not born with the right eyes or the right nerves will never be a reader, not under current medical dispensations, and it’s incumbent upon readers to recognize this. I think that it’s the second hardest thing to do. The hardest thing to do is to imagine not knowing something that you know. Births and deaths help us to understand the difficulty, if not to overcome it. You can remember the world before your children were born, but it’s scratchy and uncomfortable. And it is hard to know that people whom you loved have died, and are no longer around. Try to imagine not knowing how to drive a car! Sit behind the wheel, and try to imagine not knowing what to do next. That is the hardest thing in the world. The second hardest is imagining someone else’s difficulty with a skill that you have mastered. I’m not talking about virtuosity here, the heights of facility at something already unusual (playing the piano well) attained by a master. The master has other worries — is anyone else as good? Good readers rightly do not think of themselves as virtuosos. (And even the best readers regard very difficult writing as somehow defective, unlike the show-off whizzing through Liszt.) But they do have a skill that isn’t equally distributed. I don’t think that this is anything like sufficiently understood by people who wind up in the élite. We’ve been too prone to regard non-readers as people who have made poor decisions.
Whatever my thoughts about non-readers, I learned that many people are made uncomfortable by a show of books while I was still in my twenties. Like every healthy person, I’m comfortable when I’m in my house, either alone or with friends and family. But partly from my mother, and partly from inborn curiosity, I have the entertainer’s awareness of bombing. During my stay in Houston, I began to notice that people who asked if I had really read all the books on the bookshelves in my living room were really asking something else. They might be asking if the books were a pose. They might be asking if I finished what I started. What they mostly seemed to be asking was what to do if you find yourself in the same room with someone who has read all those books. Where is the panic button?
Something else that I have decided is that movies are a form of literature. For the most part, I regard literature as the imaginative use of words, and I would have to wade into murky arguments about the manipulation of signs and other dreadful bores to make the case for movies as literature. Instead, I shall simply observe that what would have been quotations from Shakespeare in an old-fashioned bookish household are usually rags from Fawlty Towers in ours.
Basil: Seriously, Sybil, do you remember, when we were first … manacled together, we used to laugh quite a lot.
Sybil: Yes, but not at the same time, Basil.
My bookishness, constructed as it is of language, leaks into everyday speech. I love talk. I don’t care for talk that is merely clever, any more than I like overly salted soup; but without cleverness talk is hard going. Unlike salt, my kind of cleverness is a very local thing, limited to fans of BBC comedy. Whatever I may say later, I am not to be mistaken for a shy man. If I’m quiet at first, that only because I’m reconnoitering. Once I feel that I know where I am, I begin to open up. If my old friend Fossil Darling in the room, I’ll probably say something so clever but so insulting that we’ll both stop dead in our tracks and stare at one another while everyone else freezes. Then we will collapse in laughter. This is all that’s left of my life as a wit. I should have been beaten up and left for dead many times if I were not so large. I had a very hard time resisting the urge to make a zinger worthy of Oscar Wilde. Wilde, however, was a genius in the universal sense; I only in the local. I don’t think that I’ve ever said anything that could be extracted from its context as elegantly as this:
New York hostess: By now, Mr Wilde, you’ll have heard that I’m thought to be the ugliest woman in New York.
Wilde: In the world, madam; in the world.
If Wilde really said anything so beastly to a lady it can only be because she was trying to pre-empt his barb.
Another thing that I didn’t learn until late middle age is that, when it comes to talking, I am a terrible flirt.
I never thought of it as flirting, because I had been doing it since childhood, although now that I think of it I remember my father’s stockbroker’s making a big deal about suing me for alienation of affection, because his wife took such a shine to me, and a not altogether maternal one. My father’s stockbroker was a gruff but dapper Irishman who laughed as rarely as possible whilst also trying to be funny. It was an Irish type of wit; I’ve read the like in the pages of every Irish writer, especially Frank O’Connor; there was always a measure of insult, but the insult was meant to challenge, not to sting: it was much like throwing a ball at someone, to see how, not if, it would be caught. I knew my father’s stockbroker was kidding about the alienation of affection, but I learned a lot from the joke — eventually.
When my parents gave cocktail parties, my sister and I passed hors d’oeuvres. We were little waiters. Because we were not actually waiters, the adults would talk to us and ask us how we were doing. I remember nothing about these encounters except that they seemed as natural as breathing. We had nothing to do with fixing drinks, of course, but that only gave me something to look forward to. The adults always seemed to be having a very good time. One or two got tipsy, we could tell; but no one got drunk. That may have been because they already were; looking back, I can see a lot of behavior that would pass for “maintaining.” I don’t remember learning anybody’s name — I always knew them. For every Mister, there was a Missus.
I grew up with the idea that having fun required the flow of liquor, but it wasn’t the only bad idea on offer in Bronxville. Bronxville is a village in Westchester County; it is not in the Bronx. And yet, in a strange sort of way, it might as well be. Like the residents of most suburbs, residents of Bronxville do not wish to live in New York City. Unlike most of their county neighbors, though, they do not wish to live anywhere near New York City. Perhaps that has changed now. Perhaps there are as many people in Bronxville who come from Bronxville as there are people who come from far away. But I should wager that it’s one or the other. In my day, most of the good fathers in Bronxville had very good jobs in the City; that, and that alone, was why they were here. They were not here for the culture — oh, spare them that! They were not here to have interesting conversations with strangers who might well be “of the Jewish persuasion.” They were here for the job. It is very easy to imagine Bronxville as an enclave in Kuwait. Why not the Bronx?
In either case, it would not be so lovely as it is. It’s a measure of Bronxville’s general unreality, I suppose, that the place is a forest with houses. It was even more forested when I was young, before the blight of Dutch Elm disease. Elm Rock Road was a cathedral of green, one of the village’s few long, straight alleys. At its west end, it dropped sharply to Masterton Road, which curved among gracious houses like an illustration in a children’s book, before dropping itself onto Midland Avenue, at the back of Bronxville School, which was the size of a small college even though there were only eight hundred students K-12. The school was really the great draw — the school, and the students who weren’t in it.
Bronxville is not far from where I live, but I don’t have to go there to experience its environment. The smell of the earth after a summer rain, the eccentricity of a sudden granite outcrop, the dramatic slopes, and the heavily forested terrain are all available on the short walk from the subway to The Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park, at the north end of Manhattan Island. As a bonus, there is the lordly Hudson, which can’t be seen from anywhere in Bronxville.
There were two bookshops in Bronxville. One of them was called Womrath’s. (It was part of a chain, its specialy a lending library, but I didn’t know that then.) One day, I saw a book that I had to have. (Desiring a book that you subsequently own does not really teach you much about desire, but I didn’t know that, either.) The book was so serious that it had no dust jacket. It was the Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse. I was dismayed to find that I did not have enough money to buy it. I had almost enough; I was pennies short. Without giving the matter a thought, I walked the mile home — for the distance between the shops and our house was almost the diagonal of the square mile — and, without stealing anybody else’s money, got what I needed and walked back to Womrath’s. The man behind the counter was a little puzzled; of course he had seen me, an hour before, languish and then leave. When I explained why I had gone and come back, he laughed. “Oh, we’d have trusted you for a few pennies.” Well, he might have done, but I shouldn’t. This is my one and only Honest Abe story.
I began reading The New Yorker when I was fourteen, again, just before boarding school, and nothing could have surprised me more at the time than knowing that a number of the magazine’s writers had lived in Bronxville. Brendan Gill, I believe, still did. Why would writers want to live in Bronxville, I wondered. And of course they no longer did, any more than the big “studio” houses atop Lawrence Hill were inhabited by the painters and sculptors for whom many of them had been built. As I say, Bronxville might as well have been in Kuwait, and this went double as far as matters intellectual were concerned.
By the time I left for boarding school, I was racked by the question whether I should grow up to be an intellectual — whether I had it in me. I suspected not, rightly, I think, now that I’m older and have a much clearer sense of what an “intellectual” is — an ideologue, really. Even then, I knew that intellectuals mastered a special way of talking; they saw the world in terms that were very foreign to my mother. I thought that she was idiotic to conflate intellectuals and Communists — those dread demons of the Fifties — but of course she was not. She was absolutely right: most intellectuals were Communists, or some kind of anti-capitalists. I knew that I was opposed to Communism, because it would require me to share my books and my records, to live on canned food and lead a colorless life. It would stamp out the prospect of growing up and having fun someday. But I was curious about everything, and I figured that intellectuals, whom I assumed to be just as curious, only older and better-educated, must have a much better grasp on things than I did. Plus, I’d get to talk to them about it. I certainly couldn’t do that at home.
If I had known the language of the closeted life, it would have been very familiar. Instead of sex, take brains. Instead of lust, take curiosity. Now, what good Bronxville boys were supposed to do was to study hard (following the curriculum) and to do very well in school. This would lead to getting a good job with a corporation, and eventually buying homes of their own, perhaps even in Bronxville. This was my mother’s dream.
If I hadn’t grown up in Bronxville, perhaps it would have taken me a long time to see the important element played by sport in this dream — the golf, the backslapping, the misogynist locker-room talk. Whatever, I knew at a very early date that I wanted to have nothing to do with it. I dreaded the idea of performing alongside a lot of other men under the reproachful eyes of their dried-up old secretaries. That was not the model for me!
There never has been a model for me, which is why I am writing this. I should like to understand a little better what I’ve been doing, actually. For a long time, it was completely mysterious. I went from day to day without more of a sense of the future than that the days to come would be like the days behind. This never troubled me much as an adult, because by then I was certain that the meaning of life, if there is such a thing, cannot be named by human beings. This doesn’t mean that life is senseless or absurd. It does mean that you can spend too much time thinking about yourself.
In one of Ian McEwan’s novels, Black Dogs, a dying woman tells her son-in-law something that, to her, is very profound, however clichéd:
In the end, though, it hardly matters how you describe it once the essential truth has been grasped — that we have within us an infinite resource, a potential for a higher state of being, a goodness… (17)
This is a pithy statement of something that I don’t at all agree with. For me, the key words are within us — that’s where I disagree. What we have within us is a virtually infinite resource and potential for madness. The higher state of being and the goodness do not come from within us at all. They don’t come from an immaterial supreme being, or from any non-human agency, either. The idea of goodness comes from other people, other people whose goodness we feel and wish to emulate. Left to ourselves, strictly to ourselves, we should barely have minds at all, much less intelligible visions of a better world. We get all that from other people. Other people around us, other people who have died before us. The grosser instances come from experience, from our encounters with people, but a lot of the fine-grained understanding comes from books.
I don’t mean books of philosophy, although I don’t exclude them; I mean any and all books. (Well, not porn.) By this time in my life, my brain is such a repository of half-remembered fragments of passages, characters, situations, hopes and outcomes that I hardly know where I let off and the reading begins. Did that happen to me, or was it in a book? I’m usually pretty good about making the distinction accurately, but it doesn’t matter very much, so long as I don’t go round pretending to be Emma Woodhouse’s special friend. Ease of access to this vast attic is a measure of my good spirits; when I’m anxious, I’m shut in myself, but when I’m confident, I all but disappear outward into a galaxy of real and imagined people.
If I learned long ago that my world expanded outward with every page I read, it has been much more recently that I’ve seen how other people — family, friends, neighbors, strangers — enrich us as individuals. By which I mean that they change us. We don’t like to think about this. We don’t like to admit that we’re permeable and alterable. But simply by causing you to dislike me, if that’s what happens, I’ve changed you. As I do if we become friendly. We might be willing to acknowledge that our world is changed by the other people in it, but I hold that we ourselves are changed, transformed in some cases. When it happens, when we feel that we are changing, we feel that the change is happening within ourselves, but it would be better to see the change as occurring, not in some deeply interior fold in the brain, but in the emotional or affective force field that we all project and by means of which we all interact.
In order to get through the day, we tend to interact according to conventions. In a corridor, we walk to the right — if that is the local convention. If I say “hello,” you say something of the kind, unless you mean to make a point of not doing so. In small towns, everyone greets every passer-by. In Manhattan, people only greet people whom they already know, and usually with an air of surprise, as if to say, “You! Amidst all these strangers!” Conventions come and go. I notice that women are more and more surprised (and gratified) when I stand back in an elevator and signal them to step out ahead of me. I can only wonder how many notice that I have removed my cap. Young men don’t seem to be subjected to much gentlemanly training anymore. But then, fifty years ago, no man of my age would have run an errand to the market across the street wearing Bermuda shorts, no matter how warm the weather. I no longer do so — in the cold months.
Perhaps I am more aware of these interactions than most people — not more alert to them, just aware — because I don’t have a job. A job subjects the person who holds it to an array of conventions so much more extensive and fixed than the conventions that obtain among the general public that they require another word, and “uniform” is it. Whether or not special clothing is part of the uniform, the range of suitable behavior is hugely limited by any job. Within the workforce, there are more or less rigid hierarchies, while dealing with customers and clients the only appropriate relationships are essentially formulaic, with personable characteristics serving much the same role as a scent or the decoration of an office (these also severely limited). The uniform is a very practical way of reducing distractions so that a worker can focus on what’s to be done. Even without a job, I have a pretty formidable uniform: I am surrounded by the silence of my apartment. It is a uniform that I can don and doff whenever I want to, but such is the utility of conventions that I find it useful to keep to a schedule. Because I am alone, no one knows what I’m doing and no one cares, so in addition to a schedule I need solid good habits to get through the day.
I was not good with discipline when I was young. I did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Because most of what I wanted to do was solitary, quiet, and not destructive, I was not your typical disciplinary problem. Self-control came fairly easily. But I was often slow to pay attention to what other people wanted me to do. It was hard to do things “because I had to.” That’s true for everyone, I suppose, but far too often I wound up managing to avoid doing what I didn’t want to do. My readiness to accept punishment could further irritate my elders. I was supposed to learn from punishment; instead, as modern economists have come to understand, I was pricing it, and finding that punishment was the better deal. Or, given my o’erweening pride and obstinacy, that it felt like the better deal. Of course, I also hated and dreaded punishment, but I kept that to myself. It never occurred to me that this was extremely masculine behavior, that I was insisting on personal autonomy. I thought I was just being stubborn.
Long before I began subscribing to The New Yorker, I was a devoted reader of Model Railroader. Here is another thing that I did not understand until I was almost elderly: that Model Railroader is not aimed at children. Not children, not even teenagers. It is aimed at prosperous, middle-aged men, ideally with an engineering background and plenty of disposable income, free time, and empty square-footage. I had been started off with the usual Lionel set. My contemporary-minded parents chose a diesel engine for me, one with New Haven (New York, New Haven & Hartford) markings. I hated it. I hated the repulsively unlifelike third rail running down the middle of the Lionel O gauge tracks. I pined for HO. When I was twelve years old, I was allowed to take the train (New York Central) to Grand Central Terminal by myself, and to walk from there to Polk’s Hobby Shop, on Fifth Avenue near 33rd Street. With my Christmas takings, the only steam locomotive that I could afford was a pathetic little thing whose prototype shunted cars in train yards. It did not even come with a coal tender. By now, I was lost in the raptures of very realistic and utterly unattainable layouts. The romance of trains came to an end with our move to a new house with a smaller basement. And puberty.
There was a great deal about real-world sexuality that I never imagined, because it could only be hinted at with words. I truly did not understand desire. Perhaps because my prevailing desire is really little more than curiosity — I want to know things — I did not imagine how powerful desire could be. I associated desire with crime, and crime with mental affliction, and mental affliction with therapy. If you wanted something too badly, you went to a doctor, and the doctor would talk you out of it. Because — as I knew all too well from books — intense desires always burn themselves out, so what’s the point?
My phlegmatic constitution, even more than having been the youngest kid in the class, may explain why it took me so long to understand why sex was such a big deal. I am not going to have very much to say about my sex life, for general (not personal) reasons that I’ll go into later, but one very uncomplicated little fact about me is that my curiosity about what books called wet dreams was never satisfied. That’s a delicate thing to confess, I know, but I feel obliged to acknowledge the fact, which I take to be an abnormality.
At the age of thirteen or thereabouts, I was overcome not by sex but by art. Overnight, I developed a passion for Mozart and a thirst for English history. It was now that I became a real reader. As a child, I had read Hardy Boys mysteries, partly because they were mildly thrilling but mostly so that I could boast of the speed with which I got through them. I never had any interest in children’s books. As for music, I listened to WQXR, the classical radio station then owned by the Times whenever I was home sick from school. I also liked dance music from the Thirties and Forties but not the up-to-date stuff that my father listened to on WNEW. If I’d known his name, I should have been able to tell you that I loathed Nelson Riddle. (I don’t anymore.) One thing led another, and then I was knocked over by a tidal wave of Mozart and anybody who wrote before he did. It would take me a very long time to approve of anything connected with or dating to the Nineteenth Century, even Jane Austen, whom I thought I liked, and Tchaikovsky, who was gorgeous. My thoughts about sex remained those of a child until I was in college, when considerations of status rather than desire finally got the motor running.
One of the last things that I remember happening in Bronxville occurred midday one Sunday. We would be moving to Houston soon, although I’m not sure that I knew that at this time. I was home from college, where, by now, I had fallen in love with Wagner’s Ring cycle. It took a long time to acquire the recordings, because they were so expensive. Finally, I had Die Walküre, the best-known and -loved of the bunch. While my parents and my sister were at Mass, I took the advantage of being alone in the house to turn up the volume. The music was so loud that I didn’t hear the car pull into the garage or the door open and close. When at last the music died away from natural causes, all I heard sobbing. It was my mother, sitting at the kitchen table downstairs. She had burst into tears upon walking into the house. She simply couldn’t stand the noise. She was overwhelmed by a sense of having gone wrong with me.
As a small child, I misbehaved in all the usual ways, but was made to feel uniquely perverse. For example, I redecorated the quilted bedspread in my parents’ room with a vivid red lipstick. I have since learned that this sort of thing is bound to happen, if lipstick is available. Nevertheless, the aura of perversity stuck. I began to be aware that I was getting into trouble for doing things that really were unusual. I remember liking to nuzzle my face in the skirts of my mother’s mink coat, only when she was wearing it but not because. I liked the luxuriant softness. I am not a connoisseur of touch, but I don’t think that this is owing to my mother’s retreating disapproval. I was also keen on lifting the skirts of girls’ uniforms on the playground. I’m pretty sure that I did this because it was naughty and involved girls, but not to peek at underwear. Later, I would find it irresistibly hilarious, in dancing school (which I loved for all five years), to untie the bows at the back of my partners’ party dresses. It’s sick and disgraceful, but I laugh as I write this.
So my mother may have been right to sob. When I think about my unhappy childhood, I usually conclude that I simply didn’t fit in. I didn’t fit in with my mother, and I didn’t fit in with Bronxville. There were enough points of contact to make the other points of conflict hard to explain. I could be a very good boy, and I liked being a good boy, but I could also decide to find out what happens when you pull out the chair behind someone who is sitting down. Someone almost as tall as you are, but also, once again, a girl. I was always curious about girls, but not in the normal way. What, you may ask, does pulling out chairs have to do with my mother or with Bronxville? I don’t know, but I’ve a strong hunch that there’s a connection. Hazarding a guess, I’d say that it was something like the appeal of a pie-throwing scene in a Three Stooges movie. [?]
My mother, who was not my mother, was an unusual snob. She did not keep up with the Joneses. She kept up with Jackie Kennedy if she kept up with anybody. (I don’t know what she did prior to 1960.) Like my father, she came from an Irish Catholic family that crossed the Eastern seaboard as quickly as it crossed the Atlantic, and settled in the Midwest. Both of my parents were born in Iowa, as it happens. Their backgrounds were similar in a negative way: they weren’t like the Irish from New York or New England. They were much more mainstream Protestant in their culture. My father’s family was reserved and somewhat ascetic. My mother’s father was an insistent extrovert.
I don’t think that either of my parents’ lives was stunted in the least by the Depression. My mother’s father was an insurance adjuster, and apparently pretty good at it, because he wound up with his own bureau, headquartered in New York. Or at least that was my impression; my father always whispered that he lived beyond his means. My father grew up in Clinton, on the banks of the Mississippi, and came East only when his father was appointed to the bench of what was then called the Customs Court. My mother grew up in Wilmette, outside of Chicago, but went to high school in Bronxville, of all places, when her father transferred to New York. She was already there when my father’s family arrived and settled in a rented house not far from a distant cousin who founded a well-known law firm that (amazingly, if you ask me) still bears his name. One of the unusual things about growing up in Bronxville was the fact that my parents had grown up there, too, sort of. It amused me to think of us as “old Bronxville” — we were so not old anything.
My mother had a taste for pretty things. I thought they were all hideous, and sometimes said so. Either that, or I clumsily knocked them over. I had much better taste, I thought. To be honest, I had no taste at all. Had money been no object, I’d have wound up with the same sort of country-house-library look that Ralph Lauren has been peddling for decades. I’d have chosen my books one by one, but I’d have lined the walls with suitable prints by the yard. The idea — and I shudder to think how easily I might have embraced it — was to live like an old family congenitally deprived of imagination but generously endowed with Cape Cod Chippendale. I should have posed as an unconscious snob.
My mother saved her snobbery for parties. Her fetishes ranged from the tortellini served at Barbetta to Orville Redenbacher popcorn, which, you may be surprised to learn, started out as a niche product, not easy to find. If she did not actually find them herself, she knew how to buy them in bulk. Her parties almost always featured what you would call beef fondue — chunks of tenderloin that you were to boil in oil until cooked to your taste. My mother called it something else, and the way she said it came out “beef bourjenon.” It seems cruel to say this out loud, as it were, but she certainly did, and no one corrected her. I can still remember how dangerously I blushed when I learned what it was that she thought she was saying. As a rule, I was always keenly aware of how fatally, if slightly, her aspirations exceeded her sophistication.
But her taste for hideous pretty things saved me. I still have a few of her treasures, and I rather love them all. I love them because I’ve learned to live with and to see them — that’s really all there is to good taste. I should be disinclined to save anything for purely sentimental reasons, if only because such things remind me how mortal my sentiments are and how denuded of value objects without other redeeming qualities will be when I’m gone. I have also learned to make the most of what I have, and to make room for anything interesting. When we moved into this apartment, not long ago, I took advantage of the blank canvas, so to speak, to hang things in a way that reflected how I felt about them, and not the order in which they had been acquired. One picture that moved from obscurity to prominence was an ink drawing of the Place de l’Étoile, washed with green and brown, that Kathleen’s uncle was given by his Princeton roommate, who made it. For one reason or another, this picture wound up in the dining room of the apartment in which Kathleen grew up. We have a few of her family’s treasures, too.
I know that the only thing really strange about it is me: I see the things that are strange more clearly than most people would care to do. And I have cultivated the strangeness, often without knowing it. In my book room, there are many primers on foreign languages. I speak no language but English. I can read French quite well and Italian passably, but I can’t understand anything with my ears. I have spent a lot of time memorizing words and speech patterns in Chinese and Nederlands, not to mention the German that I have learned from opera librettos. All to no avail, if proficiency were the objective. But it never was. My time in foreign parts has been brief, never long enough to call for speaking the language. Instead, I have used the other languages of the world to deepen my sense of English. It was a great gift, never having had to learn the basics of English. I don’t know how anybody does it. But to speak a language without being aware of how it works is a limitation. The only way to find out how your language works is to study another.
It took me a long time to understand why I studied foreign languages; I was always afraid that it was yet more snobbery. (I am ashamed of the Latin that I have taught myself.) It took me a long time understand a lot of things, because the ostensible reasons were always so plausible. Take writing. I knew that I liked to write — but about what? Did I want to write fiction? No — although that took a long time to admit. Did I want to be a journalist? Too much risk of formulaic thinking! I was not going to be an academic. So, what then? It never occurred to me that I like to write was itself the springboard. I learned it very slowly, from writing on the Internet, writing about anything that I thought I could make interesting. As the years went by, I wrote more and more every time that I wrote at all, until, just about a year ago, I began to sense that what I was writing was telling me what to write about. And now we are here.
A shorter way of putting it is that I wrote my way out of a cloud.
Learning how to read and write has taken just as long. That is why it has taken so long to begin.
I was capable of reading and writing at the usual time, perhaps a little on the early side.
In any case, that is how I acquired my first aspirational book. Part of me still wants to be someone who delights in the verse of Pope, Johnson, and Cowper.
But it is also its object. It is not intended to lead to anything else, except the pleasure of more talk. Not now, but some other time: something to look forward to.
There was also the problem of Kathleen, who quite often couldn’t make it home for dinner, either. Even weekends were not secure. In those days, she seemed to be working all the time. Sometimes she worked on vacation as well, although, usually, it was no more burdensome than taking two or three phone calls.
Isn’t that, when you think about that, a terrible idea? How awful it would be to pass somebody a cup of tea and to think, Why, this is just like Emma, or I might as well be in The Seagull!
For many years now, our dining table has been a round glass top on a pedestal. The diameter is four feet, roughly. Eight people can be squeezed in, and with jolly results, but five seems to be the normal upper limit. Six might seem
Lately, I regard myself as having written my way out of a cloud.
Nevertheless, there have been a lot of things that I wanted badly, and they have all been, very much, things. Roomfuls of things. Rooms. I have longed to live in grand spaces. And yet I also have a taste for closet-sized rooms with big windows; at least I think I do, since I have never actually been in one. I think that my long-running interest in history put its strongest roots into visions of palaces and promenades where great people signed important documents. Over time, though
And this is perhaps the easiest way to begin discussing my notorious laziness. My body is a great placid mass that has to be wooed like a St Bernard to get up and go into another room. It would make an excellent guru, keeping perfectly still, if it were possible to do the guru thing in a well-upholstered and well-ventilated chamber through which a stream of small but delectable sweetmeats were constantly to pass. And of course books. Why on earth would I want to meditate when reading about the Wars of the Roses empties my mind?
I might fancy the life of a Renaissance courtier, but I should hate having to live it, all that standing around wondering who’s trying to kill you. I should itch with misery in those tight, expensive clothes! I know that I should be utterly incapable of keeping other people’s rank in order. [Really? With your command of genealogy?] The wonderful thing about the (few) cocktail parties that I go to is that nobody is more important than anybody else. This has nothing to do with democracy, although it may be related to the Republic of Letters, and does have something to do with the dream of the salon. It must be a sign that I have at least as much sense as book-learning that I almost never have a problem striking up a conversation, at least if there are women present.
Every once in a while, I pay a formal visit to these old memories, by re-reading the book that engendered them, and then I am always shocked by the changes. Anything at all may be different. It is not unusual to wonder if I actually did read the book before. I may have completely misunderstood it.
It is interesting to compare this impression of change with the lack of it in the watching of films. Watching a film for the second or third time, say after many years, we see that while we have forgotten things they are instantly familiar when we see them again. A movie is comprised of scenes, and we remember them as we remember things that we have seen. Books are different. Books contain nothing but explicit details — endless details. The arrangement of these details into a coherent whole is an act performed by the reader, not the writer. The good writer guides us, but the bad reader now and then skims, missing a detail that might turn out to be important. Or that might mean much more twenty years later. Books change because the reader changes. Readers do so much more than viewers. Even the name of the second Mrs de Winter is a kind of detail, precisely because we never find out what it is. That we don’t think to ask unless we’re tipped off is another detail.