“Other People, Parts I and II
I posted the first part of this new essay in haste, because I felt a weakness coming on, but I have now revised and expand the first part and added a second.
“L’enfers c’est l’autre.” Whatever Sartre meant by “Hell is other people,” he was certainly right about the people he liked to refer to as “salaud”—the scum who think only of their own interests and reduce the universe to their own dimensions, in other words, people like Sartre and his friends. Still, as human beings we have no choice but to be, to a certain extent, solipsists, people for whom the world disappears temporarily every time they fall asleep and permanently, so far as they know, when they fall asleep for good.
Our tastes almost inevitably become a touchstone for our assessment of someone else’s qualities. What sort of a person, after all, drinks oaked California chardonnays, spends money on avant-garde ramen noodles, or reads Margaret Atwood? Not anyone I wish to know. At the other end of the spectrum are the self-styled “conservatives,” who are eagerly following the Olympics, studying the carefully staged dramas of the NFL and NBA, and holding their breaths until the next Bond or Speilberg film product is spat out of the Hollywood nightmare machine. The German proverb, man ist was man isst, is true enough, but it is not just what we put into our mouth that makes us who we are, but what we put into our minds, via our eyes and ears, that not only transforms the essential us but also clothes that essential core into a social personality that enables friends and neighbors to pigeon-hole us as sports fans, loaded pizza-eaters, and soft pornography addicts. If you think you are fooling anyone by going to church occasionally or having a copy of The Conservative Mind on the DVD shelf, think again.
None of us, probably, can see ourselves as others see us, much less see other people as they see themselves. Not long ago a literate friend asked me if I thought he was weird for thinking of scenes from fiction, while he was attending a family reunion, a wedding, or a funeral. I was not really the person to ask this question, since I an even more prone than my friend to these bookish hallucinations. It is hard to wade into a trout stream without getting a flash of Nick Adams or catch a glimpse of the Colosseum at night without thinking of Daisy Miller or look up the Arno at Pisa without hearing Shelley’s lines.
Within the surface of the fleeting river
The wrinkled image of the city lay,
Immovably unquiet, and forever
It trembles, but it never fades away;
You, being changed, will find it then as now.
His question, nonetheless, set me thinking about fiction and those experiences we persist in calling “reality.”
Once upon a time, there was a large class of British and American readers who could not escape these fictional memories any more easily than they could escape their own reminiscences of lost time, but even subliterate and non-literate Americans, as I learned from my students decades ago, were haunted by other people’s memories that came to them from movies and pop music. As a young barfly, I drank occasionally with a well-connected man in his early 20’s. Joe was not a great reader—though I do remember a few comments he made on Hemingway—but he could quote long stretches of dialogue from Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo. Today, this Bogartian erudition would not be difficult to acquire, but I am speaking now of the late 1960’s, before Netflix, before DVDs, before VHS, before, even, cable television.
Since the 1960’s (at least) Americans have been putting together “the soundtrack of your life,” as the vulgarians at our local NPR station like to put it, and replaying it endlessly to manufacture what they might, without ever reading Proust, refer to as a Proustian moment. In graduate school, I shared a house with a fellow-student, who controlled or enhanced his moods by the albums he put on: Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins, movie sound tracks. He also kept a joke and anecdote file he would consult before going to a party, where he wished to shine as a conversationalist. A less authentic or substantial human being I have never known, but even with a very modest share of brains and even less of what it takes to learn classical languages, he squeezed out a modest career in a state university.
A joke that has to be swotted up is as authentic as a mood that has to be hyped by booze and other men’s music. Once, when I was about 19 years old, I returned to Northern Wisconsin and spent a day trout fishing with a boyhood pal. We stopped in Nebagamon for a couple of beers, and, as we were driving back, he turned on the radio, which was playing the one hit of a goofy Bay Area rock band named the Mojo Men. I cannot hear the song without being back on that summer afternoon. I wrote a poem, but still have not decided whether or not to include an explicit reference to the group. I’ll conclude this first part of the essay with the poem.
Return of the Native
The hottest day of 1968,
wading sunstruck, half-frozen in the Brule,
chest deep, skating my dun across a pool--
rain-guttered drop-off from a pebbled spate.
Who would dryfly this drain? Only a fool
who had learned nothing from ten years of school
exile except how to uncomplicate
by scraping all the best parts off the plate.
Going back to town on four-laned 53,
a coupl'of beers, top down, the Mojo Men
warbling their weird joy, and I am home free,
leapfrogging the unspent years that might have been,
the backseat dates and deer camp chivalry,
the fleeting trout I'll never catch again.
I have been hovering on the verge of making a point: The events of our own lives—suitably redacted and clarified by the creative force of memory, amplified by the music and books and even films we love, haunt and sometimes overwhelm the present. We are back to Proust, the centennial of whose death we'll be celebrating next year.
There are days when the things I am doing in the here and now are constantly echoed and challenged by things I saw and heard perhaps 70 years ago. This is not some new development brought on by hardening arteries and softening brain or even by the Chinese microbes that have pinned me to the mat for 18 days straight and terrified the world with their infinitesimally low death rate. The reality of COVID in all its forms and our perception of it are as out of synch as the stories given by eye witnesses at the scene of an accident.
Art and literature, no matter how tawdry and incompetent, have taught us how to view ourselves and the people we meet, and anything like an objective perception, when we shall see reality face to face, is reserved for another plane of existence. It has been like this for at least 50 years and probably for as long as I have had memories. I am surely not unique or even eccentric in being haunted by other selves.
I reassured my friend that his literary memories were quite normal, especially for someone who has spent the most active part of his life reading and writing books. “If you were a gardener,” I added, “You’d have been studying the grass or the flowers and comparing them with your own efforts, and if you were the wrong kind of lawyer, you’d be estimating the chances of damage suits arising from the carpet laid clumsily upon the stairs or the string of lights hung only 8 feet above the party pool, where any foolish daredevil might dive out from the side, grab hold of the lights, and electrocute himself when he hit the water.
The difference is that poetry and fiction, like painting and music, appeal to vastly more people than gardening and the law. People who think they hate poetry walk around with catchy advertising jingles in their head, and hard-headed businessmen, who would not be caught dead reading Dickens or Forster, can be addicted to the tawdry blockbuster movies that have deformed their characters and parched their souls.
When we look among the generations of men for a nation of art-lovers, we would not think, immediately, of 21st century Americans, but of Athenians of the Age of Pericles, Florentines in the time of the Medici, Englishmen in Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but, if we set aside all questions of quality and look only for the quantity of art consumed, we Americans can boast of being the one people in human history that is most devoted to the arts. Our passion for art possibly exceeds even our passion for sport. After all, what is the biggest topic of conversation the day after the Superbowl? The strategy? The performance of the rival quarterbacks? No, it is the commercials that receive the most attention.
Anti-American art snobs will ridicule the proposition, and say something about “art for art’s sake.” But when was this ever true? Dr. Johnson was speaking partly in jest when he declared that no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money, but many of our own language’s greatest writers were shrewd managers of their income stream. Shakespeare was an actor and producer, Dryden, when he fell out of royal favor, pioneered publication by subscription. Trollope, as is well known, actually maintained a schedule with required word-counts. Wherever we look, at Renaissance Italian painters and German composers, we find creative men who expect proper remuneration for their work.
Some good artists, to boost their earnings, even resort to hackwork, though in fairness it should be said that they are buying the time they can use to produce a masterpiece. Fifty years in classics departments, young professors were sometimes told that we had to teach big lecture courses on the classics in translation in order to justify the five students we had in second year Greek.
The beautiful Athenian vases we can see in the British Museum or the Ashmolean fall somewhere between fine art and a Mason jar. To be fair to Shakespeare and the rest, we should concede that having an audience is at least as necessary to writers and painters as having an income, It is all very well to tell yourself—as I do everyday—that nothing matters except the quality of the work you are creating, but, as the years go by, the mute inglorious Miltons, with that manuscript of the Arthuriad in their desk, will eventually turn to gardening or to drink.