An interview I did with the very smart and charming critic Daniel Mendelsohn is up at The Millions. Spoiler: he hates Mad Men.
The deluge of praise heaped on Joan Didion’s Blue Nights has been excessive, bordering on sycophantic. The New York Times has run three pieces about the book (a daily review, a Sunday review, and an essay about Didion as a “polarizing force”). The Los Angeles Review of Books ran a whole week’s worth of essays, some of them quite good, particularly Matthew Spektor’s.
Before the reviews came the profiles — in PW, in New York, in Vanity Fair. Among other things what they have in common is admiration for her voice, which even given the subject matter of her adoptive daughter, Quintana Roo’s, illness and death at the age of 39 in 2005, is “blunt,” and “unflinching.” The memoir itself is “heartbreaking” and “haunting,” but it is more troubling than that. Reviewers have been taken in by Didion’s ability to make wine out of water a second time, for this book follows her account of grieving for her husband, John Gregory Dunne, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a much more substantive and less solipsistic book.
To put it bluntly, there are issues in Blue Nights that need addressing. One has been done elsewhere: the question of privilege. In a well executed roundup on the topic on Slate.com David Haglund rightly points out that Didion addresses privilege directly in the book as well as pointing out all of the critics, past and present, who have found her defense lacking. What he does not point out is that there are 75 pages of name dropping (glamorous people; rich people places; brands of clothes, of dishes, of jewelry; all to the point where it feels like a Vogue article) before Didion talks about whether or not Quintana’s childhood was privileged. Yet Didion writes:
‘Privilege’ is a judgment.
‘Privilege’ is an opinion.
‘Privilege’ is an accusation.
‘Privilege’ remains an area to which — when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later — I will not easily cop.
Quintana’s suffering, however, does not negate her privilege. Rather, the fact that she has a mother who can pull strings to get her the best medical care speaks to her belonging to a different class of people than the average patient. Didion writes about doctors calling her directly and making special arrangements for Quintana (and for Didion herself) in a nonchalant and direct way that frankly reeks of privilege. Cop to it or not, what else can that kind of treatment be called? (This enactment of privilege, it should be said, takes place across the two books, not just in Blue Nights.)
In the beginning of Blue Nights Didion writes, “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” The line is repeated several times; it obviously resonates with Didion and the themes of her book. Much of Blue Nights is given over to an examination of her skills and shortcomings as a mother, and of her fears of aging and implied death. What irks about this mortality statement is that life, as Didion knows, is bigger than “our children” (never mind that the statement suddenly leaves the childless with nothing to talk about). What survives us after death is not just offspring, but art, which Didion has certainly made throughout her life. Or is what Didion ultimately alluding to with that repeated statement, as Mary-Kay Wilmers suggests in the London Review of Books, “the children who won’t be there to mourn us when we die?”
There is an elegiac tone about the praise for Blue Nights, a fear or an acknowledgement, perhaps, that this is not only Didion’s reckoning with mortality, it is her swan song. She contradicts herself here: in the PW interview it says “she is not sure if she will ever write again,” but in an excellent profile in the Telegraph Didion claims she is returning to a novel in progress. [Full disclosure: this profile is written by a friend, Adam Higginbotham. It is also the only one in which Didion laughs.] If Blue Nights is Didion’s last book, it is not her best work, but it is obviously one with great meaning to her, and a bookend to The Year of Magical Thinking, another contribution to a canon Didion obviously knows very well — the literature of grief.
Sketch: Joan Didion by Lisa Brown
Arthur Krystal is a suspicious sort of man, the kind you can imagine checking each piece of fruit for bruises and blemishes before buying a single plum. He is also the kind of man who watches Vladimir Nabokov and Lionel Trilling being interviewed on YouTube, and becomes outraged when he sees Nabokov is: “turning over index cards. He’s glancing at notes. He’s reading. Fluent in three languages, he relies on prefabricated responses to talk about his work. Am I disappointed? I am at first, but then I think: writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists; it’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write.” This observation sends Krystal on a characteristic, essayistic exploration called “When Writers Speak.” In it he tries to tease out what we expect from the public persona of our writers (especially the great ones), and why so many of them seem at a loss for words when the microphone or the tape recorder is substituted for the notebook or the computer.
There is evidence on both sides of Krystal’s argument, writers who were known wits with social grace to spare and those who can’t seem to string two sentences together out loud. In the awkward camp, Krystal cites William Hazlitt who claims, “An Author is bound to write — well or ill, wisely or foolishly. But I do not see that he is bound to talk, any more than he is bound to dance, or ride, or fence better than other people. Reading, study, silence, thought are a bad introduction to loquacity.” On the social side, he lists Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Shaw, Somerset Maugham, Louis Auchincloss, and W.H. Auden. But even Auden said that “literary gatherings, cocktail parties and the like, are a social nightmare because writers have no ‘shop’ to talk…The literary equivalent of talking shop would be writers reciting their own work at one another, an unpopular procedure for which only very young writers have the nerve.” And would surely make for utterly terrible parties.
Krystal bemoans the publicity machine which forces writers to talk, especially on the radio: “To hear yourself on the radio is to wonder why anyone has ever slept with you.” Thanks to the humilities of publicity, to be a writer in public is to be exposed to one’s audience. Writers have put forth the private self into the public realm. Watching YouTube again, Krystal sees David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose sum up the writer’s public/private paradox: “Writing for publication is a very weird thing because part of you is a nerd…another part is the worst ham of all…You want to stay in a library and the other part wants to be celebrated.” Krystal claims that even those writers who are good at publicity — he names Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, remarking that the Brits seem overall better at this chatting, self-promotion gambit — don’t talk as good a game as they write. Should Proust or Tolstoy suddenly appear on Larry King, he speculates, expect to be disappointed.
What Krystal builds to is a clever conclusion about how a writer’s work and life intersect: “Like most writers, I seem to be smarter in print than in person. In fact, I am smarter when I am writing.” He does not claim this to be an original thought; rather, he has caged it from Edgar Allan Poe, who says he picked it up from Montaigne (though this might be some typical Poe trickery since Krystal can’t find it in his Montaigne). “‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.’” This is why writers — with the exceptions noted — make lousy talkers. They need the discipline of the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph in order to do their best work. Talking is free-form, it’s meandering, it’s floating. Writing, when it is good, is grounded, and that successful tethering of ideas to a world, fictional or real, is what we celebrate when we celebrate writers. Krystal is right to be a little suspicious of those smooth-talking writers. Isn’t there a danger that they are spilling their best thinking all over the place instead of capturing it on the page for posterity? Of course, in the age of Charlie Rose and YouTube, given how much of writers’ talk is recorded for posterity, being a good talker doesn’t hurt — especially if you can manage without crib notes.
In his book Humiliation Wayne Koestenbaum “aims to pile up humiliations,” his own and others’, public and private, sexual, racial, anti-Semitic, class-based, professional, scatological, emotional and physical. In less than 200 pages there is no aspect of humiliation left untouched, from the Biblical (“[Mary] was a Jewish mother”) to the oh-so-contemporary (Google, reality television, Craigslist, You Tube). In the interim Koestenbaum scrutinizes some of the most notorious penitents and punishers in history: the Marquis De Sade, Oscar Wilde, Michael Jackson, Jean Genet, Liza Minnelli, the Venus Hottentot, T.S. Eliot, and Eliot Spitzer, to give a Whitman’s Sampler of his subjects. Yet he saves his most vitriolic and penetrating insights about humiliation for himself.
It might be inescapable in a book about humiliation to slip into the confessional, but Koestenbaum alternates between stumbling into admissions which startle the reader (one suspects by design) and immersing her in his abjectness in order to prove that humiliation “involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness…someone must be there to watch it happen, and to carry the news elsewhere.” So when English professor Koestenbaum writes about masturbating to a student’s nude picture he happened upon on the Internet, he worries that he humiliated the student. But he adds that the student had been advertising his services on a sexual website, and “in the photo, he smiled with what seemed authentic gladness.” Plus, before he told us, was there a witness? Had this really been a humiliating incident?
Koestenbaum is aware that these confessions can be transcendent, that coming out the other side of humiliation can be “paradoxically relaxing.” As many of his examples involve losing bodily control in public — children urinating at school, a concert pianist vomiting on stage, his own inability to keep his penis from getting erect at inappropriate times — this paradox seems inextricable from physical release. Humiliation is when the body takes over: by losing control of our basic functions we break the social contract.
Koestenbaum admits he finds the humiliation of women more debilitating but the humiliation of men more interesting. He loosely ties this to his queer sexuality — he feels the need to stand up for men who are publicly humiliated, while he is coolly fascinated by the experiences of women. He defends his “disgraced triumvirate of politicians,” Larry Craig, Bill Clinton, and Eliot Spitzer, hotly with the claim, “If this book has an ulterior aim, however disreputable, here it is: I want to stand up for those who are publicly shamed for sexual conduct.” Cigar innnuendos and hiring escorts and cruising public restrooms are unacceptable forms of public humiliation in Koestenbaum’s taxonomy.
Yet he’s decidedly more ambivalent about watching videos of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant getting a pie in the face: “Anita Bryant put her orange-juice fame to noxious uses, but when the pie hits her face she becomes a horrifying, human spectacle, a white body smeared with white crap. During the awful instant when Anita Bryant breaks down crying, I suddenly feel guilty for my own aggression against her.” It is the same feeling he remembers from listening to his siblings being punished, one he identifies with Freud’s essay “A Child is Being Beaten.” He’s uncomfortable in the role of witness, that point on the triangle which is most helpless and also, somehow, most responsible.
We often find humiliation funny, of course. Koestenbaum mentions Sasha Baron-Cohen and The Office, but every time someone slips on a banana peel humiliation is the engine of comedy. This is a underexplored avenue in the book; Koestenbaum is much more interested in the drama, or the melodrama, of humiliation. Rather, he describes his relation to humiliation as follows:
Although humiliation is unspeakably horrifying, it is also exciting, and I keep wanting to approach it, intellectually, to figure out its temperature and position. Any topic, however distressing, can become an object of intellectual romance.
The most romantic part of Humiliation is not the discussion of De Sadean perversions or the litany of Craigslist requests for debasement but Koestenbaum’s description of watching clips of Liza Minnelli on YouTube. “Mere quotations can’t reproduce the grain of her voice, its occupancy of pleasurable interstices between word and cry.” He clearly loves Liza, whom he can’t quite bring himself to call the h-word: “Liza Minnelli is not really humiliated; she just seems endearingly, embarrassingly uncomposed for the camera, too loose and sloppy in her locutions, too earthy, too untrimmed.” He goes on to describe the pleasure of seeing her in concert, always on the point of flailing, of falling, not wanting to fail but — and this he doesn’t say — not caring if she did. Caring is at the center of romance, and at the center of humiliation. If we didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt.