Sunday, July 28, 2013

Unwritten Memoirs

Memoirs make a wonderful read. You don’t have to be famous or even outrageous to produce a fascinating book of recollections. Even the humblest persons may have had enough of a roller coaster ride through life for an absorbing account. Of course, being a famous writer can make for spellbinding memoirs—think Gombrowicz, for instance—but most great writers have not bothered. They were probably saving up the good stuff for their fictions. Certainly the most celebrated British memorialists, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, were quite ordinary enough.

I myself never considered writing a memoir—at least until now, when I realize that not having kept a diary disqualifies one as a memorialist. Memory alone is not—to use a Borges word—memorious enough. And yet already a good many years ago, the worthy E. L. Doctorow, then working for a reputable publishing house, took me to lunch and tried to persuade me to write a memoir. It was only one of several suggestions, including a book about mathematics, for which I was about as qualified as piloting a space capsule.

But memoirs, would they have been as impossible? I am not a particularly modest person, but at that time I felt significantly qualified only for turning down such an undertaking. Yet perhaps it should have been a sufficient incentive to be prodded by so distinguished a person as Doctorow, even though he had not yet written Ragtime, to get up from that lunch and start keeping a journal.

Now I do wish I had kept one. To those who still (more rarely) propose my doing so, I reply, “Look at the opportunities I let slip by unrecorded and without which a memoir would be pointless.” Quite a few of them involve writers or future writers. Digging back into early days, I come up with watching a Harvard dance from the sidelines alongside of William Gaddis and hearing him jeer “Vive le sport!” as well as say some other things which I now regret not writing down.

Even more regretfully, I recall a much later lunch with Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favorite writers, and his then translator, Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, after having written some glowing blurbs for his books. All I remember about that enchanting occasion is how beautiful Borges’s English was. Another time, I arranged for the near-blind Borges and his sighted companion to be put up in a friend’s large apartment free of charge during their New York stay. That time I did not even approach him, not wishing to make him feel obligated to reward me with a meeting.

I spent some time with the French poet Pierre Emmanuel, but all I recall is his love of women with heavy legs and thick ankles. I spent more time with a greater poet, Yves Bonnefoy, when I was writing my Harvard Ph. D. thesis about the prose poem as art form. All I remember from his conversation is his disapproving of my imputing in my thesis deliberate ambiguity to Rimbaud, something Bonnefoy claimed entered French literature only much later, with Paul Valery. I still wonder whether he was right.

There was a brief but stimulating relationship with two important German Swiss writers, Max Frisch and Friedrich Durrenmatt. To the former, I lost a girlfriend he memorialized in Montauk; the latter invited me to come visit him in Switzerland, I don’t know how seriously. I was also friendly and shared a girlfriend with, Hans Egon Holthusen, a then noted German poet, critic, and prose writer, now rather forgotten. Of our many conversations, I remember only two. One, about how I should wear more pointy shoes, the kind he favored. Another about how in attacking other writers I should use such safely unactionable terms as ass or asshole.

In Budapest, I got to know some Hungarian writers, notably the splendid Ferenc Santa, whose terrific short story “Nazis” I translated for my anthology Fourteen for Now. I now recall nothing of our lively conversation, at the end of which he gave me one of his novels that, to my shame, I still haven’t read. A perhaps even greater writer, Gyula Illyes, a poem of whose I had translated in verse, I unfortunately did not get to meet.

I also got to know a good many well-known Americans, as well as a lot of film people, but they would require a whole separate blog entry. Here let me record only my missed memoirs of some famous women. There was, first, the talented and beautiful French Canadian movie star, Genevieve Bujold. She had met me briefly at a film party, and, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a press agent that she would be in New York on such and such an evening on which I was to take her out. It was her imperious command.

Well, I took her to a delightful play by Alan Ayckbourn, which we both enjoyed. During intermission, the conversation somehow turned to feet. She declared that hers were very pretty, and promptly shed a shoe for confirmation. She was right. After the show, we drove around in a cab from restaurant to restaurant, all of which regretted, but their kitchen was closed. Not even my favorite French restaurant relented, though I told them that Mlle. Bujold was in a taxi outside, waiting and hungry.

We ended up in a then popular Hunanese restaurant, where, however, the specialties were not the dishes that she, a vegetarian, ordered. When I delivered her to her hotel, and hoped to get to see more of her than her foot, all I got was a chaste goodnight kiss and the enthusiastic suggestion to come visit her in Hollywood, where I would especially enjoy talking to her brilliant son. He was then eight or nine years old.

I did like the ladies of the ballet. I had had a lovely relationship with June Morris during my Paris Fulbright. However, a poem I wrote about us, she said, would shock her mother. A poem I wrote about and sent to Melissa (“Millie”) Hayden, a superbly down-to-earth broad, she repudiated as incomprehensible. Patricia Wilde was also a platonic friend.

I had a date with the Royal Ballet’s great Lynn Seymour, the recent subject of a rapturous tribute from the New York Times’s chief dance critic. Like Alastair Macaulay, but for a different ballet, I fell under the spell of the magnificent Miss Seymour. I took her to the City Ballet for Balanchine’s dance tribute to England, “Union Jack,” which I thought particularly appropriate. But Lynn was unimpressed, and made some unfavorable comments I wish I had recorded. Of our conversation, I remember only how earthy, tough and profane she was, deliciously so, but not at all the creature I had admired onstage. At that time, I found this disappointing; now I would have delighted in it.

My other, closer nexus, was with one of the greatest and loveliest ballerinas of all time, Suzanne Farrell. She had liked a piece I wrote about her and George Balanchine. And I remember how touched I was when, quite a bit later, I came upon her surrounded in talk with a group of admirers. She promptly left them, coming toward me to warmly greet me. This led to several lunches at the restaurant Santa Fe, near where she then lived. And to fine, unrecorded conversations.

I recall a couple of dates with her. One was to a performance of Horvath’s “Don Juan Returns from the War,” which we both liked. As we walked up Eighth Avenue, she joyously remarked, “This makes me understand something important about Mr. B.” as the ballet people called the glorious George. But what was that something?

Another time I took her to a drama critics’ award party. I had hoped to impress my colleagues with my date, the great and gorgeous Suzanne Farrell. Well, they weren’t in the least impressed, most of them not even knowing who she was. To her credit be it said that she was nowise affected by remaining unrecognized and unadulated. I now think it might even have come as a relief. But what did she say?

One last great lady, this time of opera, and one that I did not date, but had a very long, jolly phone conversation with. The film critics were awarding Diane Keaton for her role in “Annie Hall.” Because Annie is much concerned with wanting to be a singer, I thought the presenter could aptly be Beverly Sills. However, in an utterly charming and modest way, “Pinky” kept declining my most persuasive, affectionate arguments. I wish I had recorded her gracious and amusing objections, as spirited as they were witty. Still, in the end she yielded, and proved the most winning presenter. What were her words?

Selfishly I do recall her telling me, years later, that whenever she got a new issue of New York magazine, she turned first to my column rather than to the worthy music critic’s one. But I was not supposed to tell him that. If he reads this blog, which I very much doubt, he will surely no longer mind. If he does, though, let me say that I usually read his column before checking out mine.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


If you add up the number of practitioners of the seven cardinal (or, in lay terms, deadly) sins, I doubt if the number will equal that of those guilty of stupidity. Ergo: Shouldn’t stupidity make it as a deadly, conceivably the deadliest, sin?

I can say this with some confidence, having evinced some form of stupidity at all stages of my life, the memory of which haunts me despite all attempts at expiation. To be sure one of the problems with stupidity is that it often masquerades as something lesser, like, say, laziness, as in the following example.

Back in my graduate student days I was very friendly with a fellow graduate student in Comparative Literature, the brilliant future academic, Claudio Guillen. Handsome, witty and wise, he was also the son of Jorge Guillen, one of the greatest Spanish poets. Anyway, one day Claudio asked me whether I had ever made love to a Spanish girl. These young women, he said, offer up to you their breasts on a silver platter.

Now you’d think that with such a potent incentive, I’d have embraced the nearest Hispanic girl, even a mere Latino, even if she were no Penelope Cruz or Dolores del Rio. But I didn’t, and haven’t to this day. Is that sloth or stupidity? I rather think the latter, considering that I would have settled for a mere china platter.

Stupidity! Today you see it all around you. Sometimes it is relatively harmless, such as my getting on the wrong subway train or forgetting to fully turn off the bathroom tap. And, of course, one must not confuse the incidental stupidities of an intelligent person, or even of a mere intellectual, with those of a permanent, thoroughgoing stupid individual. Which reminds me that it is a bit stupid of the English language not to possess a single-word noun for a stupid person, such as German has in Dummkopf, or Russian in durak. Granted, we have such supposed substitutes as moron, cretin or idiot, but these are really unwarranted insults to people genuinely afflicted with those ailments.

In any case, the stupidities of intelligent people, though by no means inconsiderable, are no competition for those of the born stupid, which can be colossal, stupendous, tragic. Take for instance the murderous stupidity of some who own guns, even though they shouldn’t and wouldn’t if our laws were smarter. These fellows (we read about them daily) get into arguments they cannot win except by shooting the other chap dead. There follows equally deadly vengeance.

Additionally, there is the even greater stupidity that they often shoot, through misidentification, the wrong person, a mere innocent bystander. Or worse yet, because they are not only stupid but also poor shots, they kill a nearby four-year-old girl, or some poor wretch sitting too near his or her window.

That is the gun-toting stupidity. Now take the religious stupidity, which manifests itself as some sort of fanaticism. Hereabouts it often takes the Tea Party, born-again Christian form, whereby one bombs a clinic where abortions are legally performed.

Farther east, it produces such things as Muslim fanatics, who shoot little girls merely because they attend school. Or suicide bombers, who think they will be rewarded in heaven by seventy-odd virgins administering oral sex. This is particularly stupid for several reasons.

In the first place, girls good at blowjobs usually don’t go to Heaven. But girls who make it to Heaven for not practicing oral sex, what earthly, or rather unearthly, good are they? Or if they are, after all, adept at it and in Heaven, must there not be bitter competition between those chosen and those bypassed by the dead bombers? Or, if all must get their turn, how can one dead male satisfy all seventy plus without his being worn to a frazzle and doubly dead?

One of my readers noted another problem. If I converted to Islam and turned suicide bomber, and thus went to Heaven, how would I put up with those fellationist Arab virgins, all of whom would have Barbra Streisand noses? It is, as the King of Siam was apparently given to remarking, a puzzlement.

Another major form of stupidity is stealing masterpieces of painting from museums. Never mind the unremarkable stupidity of the museums; what about the monumental stupidity of the thieves? How can you possibly sell a master painting readily recognized as stolen from a museum? Can you count on some Oriental potentate to be dumb enough to buy something he’ll have to hide from both others and perhaps even himself? And even if such a millionaire nincompoop exists, how does the thief, from the other end of the world, find and gain access to him?

Apropos hiding, this can beget epochal stupidity. Take the recent case of a dumb Romanian who, with some native Dutch help, lifted seven masterpieces from the Rotterdam museum. He left this sevenfold deadly sin in a plastic bag with his mother in their native Romanian village well behind God’s back. The brilliant woman figured out that if the masterpieces were not found, there would be no evidence. And her son, who indeed was found, would have to be released from his incarceration.

So she hid the plastic bag in ever more ingenious places, culminating in a well-covered hole she dug in her garden. But even this did not seem safe enough, so she dug up the bag and carefully burned it to a crisp in her oven. Or so, perhaps mendaciously, she claims. Now any number of experts have scrutinized those ashes, and though there is no incontrovertible evidence, what they found is consistent with burnt canvas.

It might help if stupid persons recognized their own stupidity, and so took certain precautions, refrained from some rash deeds. But anyone who recognizes his stupidity is ipso facto no longer stupid, may even justly pass for a person of rare intelligence. If, on the contrary, such abstention were a common phenomenon, the people mouthing off on television would instead shut up and so get booted off, thus causing millions of stupid TV addicts to think twice—or even just once—before turning on the idiot box. (Again, my apologies to bona fide idiots.)

Many stupidities are harmful, but, I repeat, there are also harmless ones that prove soothing to their practitioners. Thus William Buckley, Jr., definitely a very smart person, wrote that he couldn’t stand remaining alive if he didn’t believe he would be reunited with his beloved predeceased spouse in Heaven. There are, granted, those cynics who believe that he would end up in the other place, but such determinations are not my point. Similarly, Nancy Reagan firmly believed that she would rejoin her Ronald in Paradise. If I could trust such distinguished believers, I would also believe in those seventy-odd Muslim virgins and their alleged ministrations.

But enough of this and back to my initial query: Why isn’t stupidity one of the deadly sins? Presumably because unlike, say, lust, sloth or greed, it is involuntary and uncontrollable. One is born with it and willy-nilly remains faithful to it. As the German proverb has it: Born stupid and void of any added learning. Bloed geboren, nichts dazugelernt.

Yet are those officially recognized deadly sins any easier to control? Does the lecher want to be a lecher, does the lazybones choose his sloth, is the miser a clandestine philanthropist? No to all.  How, when and wherefrom those compulsions came, they became destiny, just like stupidity.

Besides, intelligence and stupidity can cohabit in the same mind. Take the contestants in the TV show “Jeopardy.” They astound by instantly having the correct answers to the most diabolically contrived questions, often of the most esoteric, trivial sort. But then they will flub or be dumbfounded by the seemingly most obvious ones that anyone could answer.

What are these contestants then? Idiot savants? Perhaps. Or just smart people with certain ineluctable stupidities.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Passion is generally considered a good thing, obsession a bad one. But are they really two separate, diverse things or merely different degrees of the same phenomenon? In other words, when a worthy passion is overdone, does it degenerate into an obsession?

Yet consider the movie, based on a novel, “Magnificent Obsession,” in which a worthy subject ennobles an obsession. Still, obsessive behavior of any kind is generally reprehended: too much of a good thing may cease to be good.

And yet . . . It is obsession that made Columbus discover America; without him we would all be Indians if we existed at all. I forget which famous medical researcher (was it Paul De Kruif?) had to eat some human excrement to prove something about an illness and immunity from it. Speaking metaphorically, Galileo had to eat shit from the Church and curb his admirable obsession with the truth. But then, is an obsession with the truth really an obsession, or rather a matter of justified perseverance? Perseverance that amounts to passion.

Think of what the filmmaker Dreyer aptly entitled “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Or of the passion portrayed in Bergman’s marvelous movie entitled, in Sweden, “A Passion,” though in America it foolishly became “The Passion of Anna,” presumably on the notion that “A Passion” would suggest Christ and thus keep away the irreligious.

Either passion or obsession sustained at length can become fanaticism. But there is no doubt that passion enjoys a mostly positive reputation, whereas obsession tends to be held in disrepute. After all, there is such a thing as a passionflower, whereas an obsession flower is unimaginable.

Still, “passion” may pop up where logic calls for “obsession.” Take, for example, Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” which surely deals with obsession. To begin with, there was an autobiographical novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti called “Fosca,” after its heroine or anti-heroine. It is the tale of the unsightly and hysterical Fosca’s maniacal pursuit of the handsome officer Giorgio, leading to an unlikely, irrational Pyrrhic victory as it lures him away from his beautiful mistress.

When Ettore Scola made his movie from that novel, he did not call it “Fosca”—perhaps even to avoid confusion with “Tosca”—but more likely because the near-pleonastic “Passione d’amore” was much more resonant. For another thing, Visconti had already made his successful, unrelated “Ossessione.” Certainly “Ossessione d’amore” would have been clumsy and devoid of oomph. So too the Sondheim musical based on the movie became “Passion,” what with “Obsession” without a “magnificent” preceding it unlikely to suggest B.O. (box office); at the utmost body odor.

But consider how the very English language comes out on the side of passion. The word “passion” is in just about everybody’s vocabulary, “obsession” not nearly so much. Moreover “passion” has a rich and revered progeny—passionate, dispassionate, impassioned—whereas “obsession” has a comparatively obscure family. Certainly “obsessive” and “obsessional” are not parts of the run-of-the-mill, popular vocabulary. They do not come trippingly off the workaday tongue and are relegated to a more recherché idiom.

Indeed, the shorter word tends to sit much better with the vox populi than the longer one. So we get “conjugal” rather than “connubial,” “marriage” well ahead of “matrimony” and “passion” far more readily than “obsession.” Even two monosyllables are preferred to one polysyllable: what chance against “full moon” has “plenilune’?

I myself have had my innings with “obsessive.” My good wife, though by no means hostile to cleanliness, felt that I was washing my hands too often—a case, I think, of a mild predilection being misdiagnosed as an obsession. In due time I was directed to a specialist in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for assessment. I had two fairly expensive sessions with this fancy OCD shrink, during which I came perfectly clean with my fondness for washed hands, but was nevertheless found innocent of obsession of either the Lady Macbeth or the Pontius Pilate kind.

Passion does have a disadvantage, though: it evanesces; whereas obsession persists. Proust has declared hat physical passion is unsustainable beyond two years. And, truth to tell, I don’t think I have ever encountered a couple who, after a few years of marriage, displayed the aura of physical passion, although, I admit, absolute certainty would have required my hiding under their marital bed. I did, however, hear once and only once about a couple of high-school sweethearts who allegedly maintained a passionate relationship over many years of marriage. I say “passionate” as distinguished from “sexual,” which can be indulged well enough without much true passion. But hearing about that extraordinary couple is no guarantee of authenticity. There too hiding under their bed would have been required.

As some sort of admittedly subjective test, I turned to my “Bartlett’s” (granted not the latest edition, but I doubt if a few years made a significant difference) to do some research. How many quotations would there be for “passion” as opposed to those for “obsession.” Clearly the worthier, more fragile and elusive but finer condition would earn many more entries than the mundane, prosaic, widespread one. And there it was: 62 entries for “passion,” and only one for “obsession”; to my way of thinking proof of the superiority of the former.

And what was the solitary entry for obsession? It came from the prayer written in her Book of Devotion by Mary Stuart before her beheading. It runs (I excerpt): “O Lord my God, I have trusted in thee . . . In prison’s oppression, in sorrow’s obsession . . . etc.” It takes the impending shadow of the executioner to elicit one memorable recording of obsession.

Well, you say, isn’t that a rather circuitous way of arriving at the obvious conclusion, namely that passion is better than obsession? Not quite. By upholding the lasting supremacy of passion over obsession, we make out a stronger case for it, its fragility and its preciousness, its need of nurturing and the rewards thereof.

At the same time, this is a screed against most kinds of obsession, as being a parody or perversion of passion, even if the boundary between it and pure passion is regrettably porous. Yet it behooves me to confess to an obsession of my own, an obsession with symmetry over asymmetry, with aesthetics as a form of morality, and with tradition as so often preferable to mindless novelty.

If I believed in pronouncements on tombstones—if, opting for cremation, I would even have a headstone--this is what I would have it say: “He loved beauty above all things, and above all types of beauty that of the female face and form. If Heaven existed, this rather than asexual angels, is what it would abound in.”