Philip Roth, Buses, and Me

May 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I met Philip Roth once, in March 1988. It was in the Port Authority, in the waiting room for the bus to Newark Airport.  He was sitting in one of the seats against the far wall.  The other areas were about equally full, so I walked towards him.  He looked up and saw me looking at him.  I sat down one seat away.

“You’re Philip Roth, aren’t you?” I asked, by way of explaining why I had been looking at him. 

“Yes,” he said.  “Who are you?”

“Nobody,” I said.  “A reader.”

“A reader,” he repeated as though to himself, “well, that’s good.”

The rest of the time in the waiting room, he spoke to the woman on his left, who I assumed was Claire Bloom.  I could catch bits and pieces of her conversation, the British accent.

On the bus, he wound up sitting across the aisle from me.  I searched my mind for the right opening.  Finally, when he was not speaking with Ms. Bloom, I said, “Is it often that you get recognized in bus stations?”

“It depends,” he said.  “If the bus is going to Newark, there’s usually somebody.”

Roth readers less forgetful than I am will recall the opening line from Zuckerman Unbound (1981). “What the hell are you doing on a bus with your dough?” a fellow passenger asks the very Roth-like Zuckerman.

The other Roth bus quote has stayed in my mind. It’s the opening of a chapter in Portnoy’s Complaint: “Did I mention, Doctor, that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?”

But I didn’t think of either of those at the time. For much of the remaining twenty minutes of the trip, I actually carried on a conversation with him.  We talked about the decline of journals like Partisan Review.  I asked if he were still active in getting Eastern European writers published in the US.  He said (I think) that there was not a lot of material there.  I asked if he had helped to get Kundera first published here.  He said that he had helped get some of his stories published.

He asked me if I’d read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and said that he hadn’t thought much of the movie.  Here is approximately what I said:  I was disappointed.  It didn’t seem as good as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, especially “Lost Letters.”  The author seemed more distant from the characters, less involved with them, as though he didn’t care so much about them.

“I think you’re right,” Philip Roth said.
Did he really think I was right?  Maybe he was just being polite.  Maybe, even if he thought I was right, he also thought that the point was irrelevant.  I should have asked him what he thought, but then I didn’t think it was fair to ask a writer to comment on the work of another.  It was probably the kind of question he got asked all the time. 
When he got off the bus, he shook my hand and said it was nice meeting me.  I, of course, said the same.

Anachronistic Language and Television — On Second Thought

May 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on my post about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here) has me rethinking my position. Maybe it’s not just a matter of right and wrong, historical accuracy or inaccuracy. It’s also about cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Much as I dislike the anachronisms, maybe I wouldn’t like the show so much if it were linguistically faithful to the period.

With the props, there’s no problem. We’re all cultural relativists. We think about those objects in the context of the times. We don’t mind a Studebaker parked in the street. And we’d howl if it were a Camry. But when it comes to language, we’re ethnocentrists, judging yesterday’s language by today’s norms. 

To get a sense of this, I tried a thought experiment: What if the characters in the show spoke the way people in 1958 really spoke? Most of the dialogue would be the same, of course, especially for her parents and the other more conventional people in the show.  But the people in a hip Greenwich Village club would be using words and phrases that were cool then but have long since disappeared.

Imagine Midge and Susie in conversation.

SUSIE: Nice necklace
MIDGE: Yeah, some cat that was here last week laid it on me for twenty bucks.
SUSIE: Solid! You could hock it for more bread than that.
MIDGE: But I think it’s hot, you dig?
SUSIE: Nah, he’s probably just like that with chicks.
I exaggerate.  My point is that we can accept the period decor – the clothes and cars and furniture. Those are externals. If I were to walk around on the sound stage of Mrs. Maisel, I’d still be me. But language is internal. We think it tells us about the person, not the historical period. The outdated language makes the character a different person, and we don’t feel as close to her as we would if she spoke like us. Dig and cat and bread make her less (to use the current and very recent term) “relatable.” (Of course, given the show’s penchant for anachronism, I wouldn’t be surprised if in Season Two Susie tells Midge, “If you’re gonna do stand up, you gotta be relatable.)

It’s easy to be a cultural relativist when it comes to the physical world. OK, we think, this is what a living room was like in 1958. We don’t think, “What kind of person would watch an old TV like that?” But with language, we’re more ethnocentric. Using those obsolete words today would seem forced and phony, so we make the same inferences about the characters that use them. “What kind of person would speak like that?” we ask. And the answer is, “Someone trying too hard to get us to think they’re hip.”

By contrast, unless our anachronism sensors are tuned in, when we hear them talk about “kicking ass” or being “out of the loop,” we think that they’re speaking “naturally” —  using standard language to convey information, not to create an impression. They’re not phony, they’re relatable.

School Shooting + Guns + Flag — How Embarrassing

May 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Embarrassment happens when someone sees something you don’t want them to see, and you think that they will draw an impression that is not the one you want them to have. It’s embarrassing to be discovered cheating (on a test, on your spouse) because then people will get the impression* that you cheat – an accurate impression, but one you don’t want them to have. It’s like Michael Kinsley’s observation about politics: a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.

Less than an hour after the gun slaughter in Santa Fe, Texas, a man showed up at the school carrying a large flag and a large pistol. Someone tweeted a video of him, adding that another man said that what the gunslinger did was “an embarrassment.”

It was embarrassing because someone might see this flag-waving gunslinger and get the impression not just that flag-waving and gunslinging are part of the American way of life, our American exceptionalism, but that these go along with our exceptionally high number of school massacres. Someone might get the impression that the guns and the massacres are just as American as the Stars and Stripes.

The man in the video had committed a gaffe.

Anyone who has taken intro sociology will recognize that I’m using Erving Goffman’s ideas about impression management and the presentation of self.

Tom Wolfe and the Novelistic Techniques of the New Journalism – Reading Minds and Making Stuff Up

May 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to the obit in New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York Magazine in June 1970, “will be taught as long as there are journalism schools.” The obit also refers to the ”novelistic techniques of New Journalism.”

I’ve never taken a course in journalism or in writing novels.  But I would think that there is an important difference. A novelist can tell you what someone in the story is thinking and feeling and never be wrong.  After all, it’s the novelist who is creating everything.  If Robert Ludlum tells you that Jason Bourne is thinking something, that’s what Bourne is thinking. By contrast, the journalist can’t just guess or invent what’s going on in a person’s mind. Someone, preferably that person, has to tell them.

Unless the journalist is Tom Wolfe. Apparently one of those “novelistic techniques” is knowing, without anyone reporting it, what people are thinking. Usually, it’s what Mr. Wolfe wants them to be thinking. And what he wants them to be thinking about is themselves – their status and style. A central element of “Radical Chic” is, (again in the words of the NY Mag obit) “rich people acting a little absurd.”

The piece opens with Leonard Bernstein in 1966 (four years before the famous party) awake in the pre-dawn hours sketching out the idea for a concert piece. Wolfe’s source for this is one page in The Private World of Leonard Bernstein (1968), by John Gruen. Gruen’s account is based the notes Bernstein himself jotted down that morning. The piece would involve Bernstein with a guitar, a “Negro” (1966 remember) who speaks to the audience, and finally Bernstein making a very brief anti-war statement. “‘It’s no good,’ says Lenny,” Gruen writes. Bernstein never composed the piece.

In Bernstein’s notes the guitar is just a guitar. In “Radical Chic” it becomes “A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown!” I guess that those details are “novelistic,” and the exclamation marks make it more convincing. But basically, Wolfe just made it up.

Wolfe continues with his version of Gruen’s account.

For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart.

Wolfe is telling us Lenny’s thoughts – Lenny’s all-caps egotistical fantasies. But neither Gruen nor Lenny mentioned anything like that. Wolfe just novelistically made it up.

Wolfe does his mind-reading act again and again..

The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong — somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade.

God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. [boldface added; italics in the original]

Wolfe uses that phrase, “Deny it if you want to,” four times. The implication is that if you want to know what people were thinking, if you want to fact-check and confirm that their “nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status,” you can’t ask them. They’ll deny it. You just have to take Tom Wolfe’s word for it. Trust me.

A Black Panther official explains the situation of the Panthers who were arrested.

“They’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . .” —But everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows. They are so, somehow . . . black . . . so funky . . . so metrical . . .

How does Wolfe know that “everyone in here” loves these verbal mannerisms and for those reasons? He doesn’t tell us. We just have to take his word for it, as though he were a novelist telling us what his characters are thinking. In fact, in later years, Wolfe did write novels. But in “Radical Chic” he claims to be not a novelist creating fictions but a journalist reporting events.

If only sociologists and ethnographers could get away with this kind of non-fiction. . . and get rich to boot.

(See yesterday’s post for more on Wolfe.)