Wednesday, January 1, 1997

Q&A Phillip Lopate: Dodging Beckett

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

   One Saturday morning when I was about ten years old, we were all hounding him [his father] because he wouldn't take us anywhere; and this time I joined in the assault. Suddenly he lashed out at me with rabid fury: "You! You stay out of it, you're a cold fish." . . .
    "Cold fish" is an awful judgment to hang on a ten-year-old kid. But give him his due, he could have had a prescient insight: I often think there is something cold and "fishy" about me. Or perhaps he was really saying, "You're like me, detached, unemotional." An inverted compliment.
   So I became a writer.
  "Portrait of My Body"

HB: Let me start with the very last piece in "Portrait of My Body." You've just become a father and describe the experience as "so shocking and strange; on the other hand, so typical, so stupefyingly ordinary." That seems to me an emblem for the personal essay as you practice it.

PL: I care about daily life. The surrealists were always trying to find the miraculous in the ordinary. I'm not looking for the miraculous but for the puzzling, the intriguing, the spin on daily life. What is more common than birth? All of us have been born. Yet there is something violent about it.

HB: I loved the description in that essay of you and your wife's efforts to conceive: "At first we were frisky, reveling in it like newlyweds. Later it became another chore to perform, like moving the car for alternate-side-of-the-street parking . . . "

I enjoyed the book, though it took a while for me to trust that all this attention to daily life would not turn out to be narcissistic or trivial.

PL: I'm essentially a storyteller, I wouldn't embark on something if I didn't think there was going to be aesthetic pay off. I only use what I think I can get some kind of irony out of or amusement. Humor is very important, irony and wryness.

HB: You're a novelist, and have published collections of poetry. At what point did you make your commitment to the personal essay?

PL: I realize, looking back, that I was always attracted to the voice of the personal essay, even when it showed up in poetry and fiction. I was drawn to Fielding's essays, to Balzac's mini-essays, and to Dostoevsky's digressive Underground Man -- to the sound of somebody expatiating.

I love the sound of analysis. I've always liked to read Freud, for instance. It doesn't matter if I agree or disagree; he's one of the great prose writers. The sound of analysis is very close to me, and of rationalization. It raises issues of the unreliable narrator. I was always drawn to unreliable narrator fiction whether it was Ford Maddox Ford's "The Good Soldier" or Gide's "The Immoralist" or even Celine.

I value the act of judgment that a reader has to engage in, and the question, at every moment, of whether to go along with the writer or not. It is dialogue with the writer, rather than just agreement, that I find stimulating. I'm not looking for total merger.

HB: In your introduction to "The Art of the Personal Essay: an Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present," you suggest that the novel itself may have arisen from the unreliable narrator of the personal essay. How so?

PL: In the eighteenth century you find both forms, the novel and the essay, exploding. Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, Swift -- all of them were writing in a mocking, or rather a self-mocking narrative voice. Defoe, too, was a crossover. If you read Addison and Steele, for instance, you find more fictive elements in than you would expect in an essay. They employ scenes, false narrators, and the like.

HB: But that's not true of your work. You are always in contention with yourself. There's imagination, but not a lot of fantasy.

PL: I agree, I'm not much of a fantasist. For me, imagination is something that develops out of observation and reality. Though I wrote "The Rug Merchant," a made-up story with made-up characters, it's easier for me to write about myself. I do think that many of the transparent personae that Lamb or Addison and Steele used were ways of speaking for themselves through lively fictive narrators. That freedom encouraged me.

HB: In the introduction to "The Art of the Personal Essay," you talk about the construction of a persona. I sense a paradox here. The personal essay has confessional connotations but the persona you talk about needing is a mask, a fictive self.

PL: Is it a fictional or a partial self? One becomes a personal essayist because one feels that one can never come to the end of oneself, to the end of confusion and contradiction. You're never telling the whole truth. When I write, it's not that I'm lying but I'm selecting out so much.

HB: And it was Freudianism that gave you the initial push toward the pleasures of self-analysis.

PL: In the fifties, in Brooklyn, it was Freud and Dostoevsky, Kafka and stickball. My mother used to see a therapist in the Bronx.

HB: From Brooklyn to the Bronx for a therapist?

PL: Yes, and she'd come back and tell us Dr. Jonas said this, Dr. Jonas said that. The sense that there was an authority out there, the shrink, the analyst, intrigued me. It was another figure in my childhood, like the writer, who understood.

HB: Your writing has patience. It's not rushed, not out to dazzle or knock the reader out with just once punch. It's out to take someone along. And it's not about fragments or discontinuities. There's a sense of the self's intactness. So you don't get to claim the cachet of the postmodern; anything but.

PL: In "Portrait of My Body" I make explicit comments about my distance from the self-congratulations of modernism. I draw my main strength from Montaigne, who you can see either as a proto-modernist or just as a guy writing in the sixteenth century. I don't feel obliged to connect myself to the adventure of modernism. I certainly don't feel sympathetic to a kind of moldy anti-modernism. We can take a pluralistic attitude. We don't have to salute the modernist flag.

Coming of age as a writer, I was drawn to patient voices like Fielding, for instance, who were not discontinuous. And the greatness of Montaigne is that he seemed to have an intact self even as he says that man is a continuously changeable animal. That's the rock that I want to build my work on.

HB: You write about Beckett spelling the ruin of many an aspiring writer. Beckett loomed so large in the sixties. How did you manage to escape him?

PL: I did an end run around him. I decided not to be involved with him at all. As long as there was a Machado de Assis, an Italo Svevo, as long as there was mischief afoot in the world, and a sense of plenitude and vitality, that interested me a great deal more than the ruins.

I wasn't any good at ruins. When I tried to write bleak Ashberry-like poems for instance, things that had the taste of ashes, I couldn't do it.

HB: Do you think of Ashberry as bleak? I think of him as coming as close to creating compute-generated poetry as a non-computer can. He beat the computer to it.

PL: In Ashberry, things can't be allowed to add up. When he reads poetry, he looks at the poem as if to say, what have we here? Where does this piece of paper come from? There's a slight snarl on his face. In a way, he doesn't even own the poem. In that sense, it is as if computer generated.

He was the major poet the same way Beckett was the major prose writer. I was a parvenu, a kid from the slums happy to be invited to the party at all. I wanted to be let in, so how could I feel the world was coming to an end? I've always been anti-apocalyptic in sensibility, maybe because I want to have a chance to be middle class. And I don't like the bullying tone of apocalypse. In my essay, "Resistance to the Holocaust," I talk about the Holocaust as a rhetorical bully, and I think of apocalypse as a bully. There's no argument. Everything goes up in flames, and humor goes out the window. I'm a skeptical not an apocalyptic thinker.

HB: Why did you leave poetry behind?

PL: I found I could do everything in the essay that I was doing in poetry. Plus, I had written two books of poetry and was actually known as a poet, but had never trained as one. I kept coming up against this guild mentality that you had to be passionately concerned with sound in poetry, with music, syllabification, meter -- Marianne Moore did it this way, Pound the other way. You had to care about measure, the variable foot, all these issues poets were debating and I never cared about very much.

I was working intuitively with sound but didn't feel the visionary zeal that many poets do, that poetry's a special thing. I didn't like that pain-in-the-ass pathetic quality of the poet.

HB: It seems, ultimately, you have more allegiance to the prose in life.

PL: I loved the Portuguese poet, Passado, and Pavese -- poets who had a prosaic quality. Late Randall Jarrell had that quality, Frank O'hara had it. I liked prosy poets, so why not just go into prose? I liked Niconar Parra, who wrote anti-poems. But if you're drawn to the anti-poem, you're asking for trouble because the people with credentials are going to say you don't belong. When I went to Houston to teach and had already published a book of poetry, they told me you can't teach a poetry workshop; we have poets. I said OK, I'm not going to get into this guild. And once I started writing essays, everybody responded as though this were my form.

I developed a voice. I became an essayist. And then I fell in love with the tradition.

HB: You tend to identify the speculative, floating, flaneuristic consciousness of the essay writer with bachelorhood.

PL: With bachelorhood and with the city. It's a lot easier to develop a detached persona, as did Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, Lamb and Hazlitt, if you're not married.

But bachelorhood is, in part, a pose. I didn't take it totally seriously. Even when I took it on, I'd already been married once. It interested me as an avenue of literary expression. I like this idea that you take a position but then you think, what if I'm wrong? You think against yourself. I have reason to be skeptical toward myself; I've been wrong a lot. Especially on issues of compassion and solipsism, if you examine yourself you may find you have a hard time putting yourself in somebody else's shoes.

HB: And the personal essay is a way of finding out what shoes you're already in?

PL: Definitely. It's a way of exploring the borders of the self, because you can forgive yourself if you get to know yourself. When I spoke about the stench of myself, I was aware there are certain things that would be irritating to loved ones. It's a little progress one makes in these areas, even after you've located them. There's a stubbornness. I'm not sure I can really change that much but I can at least report what it's like to come up against what I call the catastrophe of one's personality.

HB: You seem to need to dodge whatever is set and predicable about yourself, including, finally, bachelorhood.

PL: Certainly having a child has been a revolutionary experience in my life. There's so much responsibility you can't walk away from, so many times when you can't be selfish.

HB: So much for flaneurism

PL: Exactly. I can't be a flaneur anymore. I took it as far as it would go. I got married and had a child partly because I sensed I wasn't getting the same kicks out of flaneurism that I once had. I was having to goose myself into appreciating the street.

I don't want to go stale. I don't think I'll write another collection of personal essays anytime soon. This last collection, for better for worse, cleared the decks.

HB: You have not only practiced but proselytized for this form of investigation.

PL: I don't think it's understood that well. To give you an example, Joan Didion's last book of essays attracted very little attention, whereas her recent novel got major reviews. Well, she happens to be a better essayist than a novelist.

HB: You're critical of essayists who attract readers with the lure of knowledge -- writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks. But what's wrong with people's wanting to learn?

PL: I think it's great that they do. I've always told my students you have to deliver world, not just your feelings. You have to do research. There's a lot of research in my pieces, about literature, urbanism, the movies. But what I have always backed away from is the explainer -- what Gertrude Stein calls the village explainer -- who becomes a kind of everyman and loses his or her idiosyncrasy. To be honest about it, I've never gotten much from Lewis Thomas. He's a good explainer but doesn't interest me as a man. He doesn't dramatize his contradictions. I would rather read Loren Eisely, who was neurotic. I'm looking for texture or taste.

HB: And Oliver Sacks?

PL: He's a genuine original. Sometimes his pieces make me uncomfortable because he raises certain issues of personality and then refuses to deal with them, but he always makes you think he is singular. For better or worse, he's not trying to be everyman.

HB: Let's talk about your essay, "Resistance to the Holocaust." Speaking as a Jew, you say, "I must be lacking in tribal feeling. When it comes to mass murder, I can see no difference between their casualties and ours." But when writing about your father in "Portrait of My Body," you accuse him of being unable to relate personally to the Holocaust; you're upset that he lacks the very feelings you disown.

PL: After having written "Resistance to the Holocaust," it occurred to me I could have written the exact opposite essay. I had enough feelings that go the other way. I purposely put in that piece about my father because I wanted people to realize that there was a contradiction. You spotted it.

HB: You're not alone, as you know, in your feelings about the Holocaust. Jerzy Kosinski, near the end of his life, took a similar stance against what he thought of as the Cult of the Holocaust.

PL: Kosinski was excited by the essay. A few days before he took his life, he talked to me about it. I must say, I had no idea he was going to kill himself. He didn't look like a man who was close to suicide.

"Resistance to the Holocaust" argues there's a lot more to Judaism than the Holocaust. It's a very theologically and intellectually rich religion, and I don't want to let that all go.

HB: Most of your essays poke at the nerve of your Jewishness. When writing about movies, for instance, you say you only allowed yourself feel spiritual transcendence in the movie theater. Outside, the Talmudic style of skeptical questioning took over. You write that the spiritual appeal of a Bresson or Mizoguchi "came into conflict with a competing spiritual claim, indefinitely put off but never quite abandoned: to become a good Jew sometime before I die."

What do you mean by a good Jew?

PL: Somebody who is observant without necessarily believing in God.

HB: So a bad Jew is someone who is observant and believes in God?

PL: I'm being provocative on this issue because I'm perversely the only one in my family involved in Judaism. Everybody else became a devout atheist. So I became the family skeptic .

HB: You approach these issues obliquely. There's no essay that focuses on them, and no essay from which it's absent.

PL: Yes. I think of myself as a Jewish writer and an American writer. Every essay has something of both.

HB: Would it be correct to say there's been a kind of mellowing in your work?

PL: There's the mellowing that comes with middle age. I think of "Bachelorhood" as not particularly angry; the bachelor both engages with the world and remains detached. "Against Joie de Vivre" deals with anger, grief, with everything that is irreconcilable. "Portrait of My Body" is a mellowing; there's more acceptance in it, and more obligation toward wisdom. We don't have that many years to become wise. And we have an obligation not to become bitter, to observe but not to become bitter.

HB: What I probably enjoyed most about the book is the pace, the lack of haste, the obvious pleasure in the writing, which makes a point all of its own to the reader.

PL: Opportunities for wit will come. You don't have to pump it up all the time. I feel I'm writing against a style, the prevailing poetic style that's hushed, that aims at a feeling of white space and wonder through minimalist effects. I think people are being trained in schools to work with sensuous concrete imagery, and to move from image to image like an archipelago. They try to get all their meaning to come from images. Just as I'm not a particularly fantasizing writer, I'm also not a particularly metaphorical writer. What attracts me is the sound of a mind trying to puzzle things out. That sense of thinking is absent from a lot of American writing now.

I don't feel a need to construct rhapsody. My task now is to glue together my essayistic and my fictive voice so that I can write a book that has some of the trustworthy fullness of the essay but is a novel.

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