Archive for the ‘selfcriticism’ Category
Will Self has a piece in the Guardian about his relationship to modernism – and the fact that he intends to write in a more modernist, less reader-friendly form moving forward. Feels a bit like a deathbed baptism from a man to young to go in for such a thing, and we’ll wait to see what the output of Self as born-again avantgardist looks like. But in the course of this, Self says some highly interesting – and fascinatingly inconclusive – things about his relationship to J.G. Ballard and his works – things that speak volumes I think about the strange nature of Ballard’s influence on “innovative” British fiction in recent years.
First, Self describes finding inspiration, a “sense of traction,” in the course of rereading Ballard in the 1980s.
In the winter of the following year I was living – in slightly more congenial circumstances – a few miles away in Barnsbury, north London. The flat was better-heated, but the chill winds of modernism were still blowing through my mind. I was reading JG Ballard’s novels – or, rather, rereading them, because as an adolescent SF fan I had gobbled them up along with Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, never pausing to consider that Ballard’s psychic probe into what he termed “inner space” was an altogether more seriously artistic endeavour. But in 1987 I got it: reading especially The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash, I was gripped by an unaccustomed sense of traction – I could see a way to get on. It was an experience I hadn’t had since, on reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time, aged 16, I had this epiphany: that of all the arts, fiction is the most powerful, since, with no materials other than a pen and paper, a writer can convince a reader that a man has changed into a monstrous vermin.
Then – this is where it starts to get interesting – Self seems to acknowledge that Ballard’s not actually all that modernist. That is to say, that rather than formal experimentation, what we have in most Ballard (aside from The Atrocity Exhibition and a few other minor works) is outré content strung out along rather conventional narrative frameworks and constructions.
In his memoir Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his own Josipovici- (or Self-)style modernist moment: a prolonged rubbing and itching induced by the old-style corsetry of English fiction in the 1950s. Ballard turned to science fiction – he said – because “what interested me were the next five minutes”, rather than a simple past to be evoked by the simple past tense. Ballard, who I knew personally, could be a little disingenuous about the extent of his own influences, preferring to be seen – in literary terms, at least – as entirely sui generis, but this is a forgivable foible in a powerfully original writer. Apart from the advanced experimentation of The Atrocity Exhibition, which exhibits elements of the “cut-up” and “fold-in” methods originated by the Dadaists and channelled into English by William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, the great majority of Ballard’s fiction has altogether traditionally realist formal properties. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition of these hokey characters and straightforward plot lines with the outlandish psychogeographic content of Ballard’s fictive inscape that makes the books so profoundly unsettling, and ensures that they have remained surfing the zeitgeist to this day.
Following on from this judicious doubling-back on Ballard’s ostensible modernism, Self shifts to discuss Ballard’s 1995 introduction to Crash. (Some of this document is available here.) He’s exactly right to do so: Ballard’s introduction to Crash, which was written in 1995, twenty years after the original book, is a fascinating and utterly modernist document, a vivid take on what’s wrong with the contemporary non-experimental novel, and how what’s wrong with the novel has something to do with changes in culture itself. In fact, one might be tempted to think of the introduction (I certainly am) as a bizarrely anachronistic contract, drawn up two decades late, that the novel itself that it introduces almost entirely fails to fulfill.
Most of all it was Ballard’s introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash that lit a path for me. In it he united his own modernist sensibilities with what he termed “the death of affect”, a wholesale loss of feeling occasioned by the impact of the atomic bombs that ended the second world war, and then irradiated through the emergent mass communications technologies of the postwar period – in particular TV. It was this, Ballard wrote, that made it impossible any more to suspend disbelief in those omniscient and invisible narrators of naturalistic fictions, whose tendency to play god with their characters had surely always been a function of their own status as personations of God. [...] A year or so after my reimmersion in Ballard’s oeuvre, while I was commuting to work at a Southwark office from the flat I shared with my first wife in Shepherd’s Bush, I began to work seriously on what would become my first published book, the story cycle The Quantity Theory of Insanity.
So, is it suggested here that it wasn’t so much Ballard’s fictional works as this one introduction to Crash that spurred Self on to his own work? His own work, written in a way that he is, in this very piece, now renouncing? A few paragraphs later, Self parallels himself with Ballard yet again, but in a negative light: “Like Ballard, on the whole I have been content as a novelist and short-story writer to deploy difficult content in lieu of formal experimentation.” So, in this article about the origins of Self’s modernist impulses, Ballard features as a key figure who, in the end, doesn’t live up to what it says on his tin.
Quite interesting, isn’t it? Through Self’s article – and without Self quite saying it straightforwardly – we get a picture of Ballard as a writing whose work seems to gesture in the direction of the avant garde but doesn’t quite, an author who had important thoughts about the future of the novel but failed to follow through on them, a novelist incredibly influential to English writers who intended to disobey the normative mandates of fiction in this country but who, because they were following someone who didn’t live up to his own advice, perhaps have consistently failed to do so – in fact have one after another managed to write moderately modernist works that never quite get around to problematizing the fundamentals of fictional form (character, plot, description, etc) nor the ideologies that underwrite them.
I could give you a list of who these writers are, but that would be impolitic. Anyway, I’m writing something about this at the moment, something that uses Adorno’s concept of “moderate modernism” to think through the workings of Crash and a work by a contemporary author. So you’ll probably see more notes like this on here soon.
He can hardly wait to get up to his room to watch his movie! There are movies that you can watch on the computer, and sometimes the car chimes with a ring that’s so beautifully engineered as to make him wonder why he ever developed doubts in the future.
He overhears, woman to woman: “Big news! I got my first paying customer this week!” The other claps. “Fifteen hours work. Fifteen hours work for one-thousand dollars! I picked out her entire wardrobe, right down to the underwear and accessories. She’s so busy, with the business, that she says she just doesn’t have time. And so my first paying customer!” The other asks a question about her sweater and she replies, “Yeah, Anne Taylor.”
He is not sure that he has any use any longer for the New York Times email updates. Over the years, he has subscribed to them and unsubscribed from them only to subscribe again. They are an index of a certain mood, and as such are unbearable once that mood has slipped away.
A woman sits at the next table listening to a tutorial on her new iPhone. He listens too, percolating in anger.
An older guy says “red wine for me” and his younger wife says “make it a big one.”
Crossing the street, he hears a scream, really a yell. He thinks, first, “The surplus of our industries shouts at passing buses from street corners” and then, as he crosses another street, ”Our industry’s surplus shouts at buses from our corners” and then, much later, “The future like the past. Sometimes moreso, sometimes less so.”
He can’t understand what his daughter says on the phone. Most of his side of the conversation revolves around asking her to repeat what she just said.
Later, reading Bookforum in the backseat of the car until he gets woozy, his mother asks “What do you call a PhD in physiotherapy?” He responds “a PhD in physiotherapy.” Later he is asked several times if he has ever been to this particular chain restaurant. Each time, unfailingly, he responds in the affirmative.
They seem happy enough, the people playing golf.
On the TV, someone says “One thousand of these are being offered exclusively to the viewers of this network.”
A life lived with only the most casual relationships. The people who serve you various drinks, the people who sell you various items, some of them on a daily basis. The people who work on airplanes and who work in airline terminals. The people on the phone. This life somehow balanced awkwardly, verging even on imminent collapse, with the increasing mandate to “up-sell.” He is offered credit cards and membership cards and other special offers and opportunities to make donations to local charities. His drinks go from small to medium and then to large, though he refuses the option of a shot of flavor, hazelnut maybe.
Mid-range relationships: Doctors and therapists. Long-distance friends. The colleagues he doesn’t really talk to. Parents.
His father says “Boston really blew it signing this guy” and then “You know I don’t know half the players on either Boston or Tampa Bay” and then “Oh, Longoria got picked off.” He tears another page out of Bookforum.
He handles, earlier, an iPad in the Apple Store. Just as one tipped off as to a catastrophic terrorist attack would ready in his mind the phrase like a Hollywood movie! he has readied It looks and feels like the future! Though he’s had the opportunity to handle one before, he has put it off as long as possible – put it off until today. He nearly purchases one just to have something to think about for awhile – like an irresponsible person in a personal crisis would purchase a pet. He pictures himself, his future, laying in bed reading ebooks and watching movies and then realizes that his future feels less metal and glass and ebooks and more cigarette butts and paper cups and humidity both inside and out.
His father says, “The course was designed by Arnold Palmer. That’s why it doesn’t have any fairways near the greens. Arnold Palmer believed, at least at one point, that you should be able to make the green in one.”
He notices that the road in has been built on a berm and then he sees the tiny stream. He pictures first a flat and flooded road and then the building of the berm with fill.
So what happened today? Was woken up at 7 AM to watch the older one while my wife and the younger one got some more sleep. I sleep now in the loft, by myself, and have done so for quite some time. “Our” bed is the bed where everyone else sleeps. This, I think, is a fairly common situation.
Made coffee and got the milk out of the freezer. Our refrigerator stopped working on Friday and no one could come to fix it until Monday. So frozen milk.
Played “animal doctor” with the older one. She picked up the idea for this game a few weeks ago when we visited the school she’ll be attending in the fall. The reception class has in one corner a sort of veterinary clinic, complete with lots of real and realish medical implements and lots of stuffed animals to operate on. We had a hard time dragging her out of the classroom when our visit was over. So now we play at home, mostly looking at non-ear parts (including, yes, the bummies) with the ear-examination device. Then we give shots. And then we feed them tea.
My wife and I have always had problems with weekend mornings. Anxiety sets in. While most people with kids and many without have no trouble sitting the weekend out, relaxing at home, and the like, we’ve always felt this soft desperation about making our weekend days good and full. Back before kids, it was often the negotiation between work and play. Now it’s generally about the sort of things we can manage with the kids, what’s realistic, what can be done without collapse or tantrum or more trouble than it’s worth. She is frustrated – she hasn’t been to central London, save for surgical appointments, in months. But it is too late and too hard to go to Hyde Park or the like.
We settle on swimming. Our area is renowned for its swimming provision – a large complex with an indoor pool and what they quaintly call a “lido” in the UK. After a bit of passive-aggression passed triangularly – father to mother to older daughter and back again – we pack our old D’Ag bag with swimming suits and towels, load the double stroller and make our way to the pool.
Despite what the website says, the pool is closed from 1-2. It is 12:45 when we arrive. My wife gives a bit of lip to the attendant; the attendant doesn’t respond. And so we have lunch at a “cafe” nearby. There’s something they call a “cafe” here that roughly corresponds with the New York diner in their ubiquity, the quality and variety of food on offer, and the cheapness of the fare.
I hold the younger one in my lap while we eat. The older one eats all of her ham and cheese sandwich – she is coming along a bit lately on the eating, on not needing to be begged to eat.
We decide to save the big pool for another day and instead head to our usual park, which has a wading pool for kids. It’s the one pictured at the top of this post, and it is lovely. No frills but well kept, full of stuff to do but nothing glamourous or noteworthy. Tennis, a playground, room for football (but no fields or goals), blacktop for bike riding or basketball, and a wading pool with a cafe.
American parks almost never have cafes. Almost every park in London has one. They are lovely. I am sure they are cost-intensive, but they make you feel a bit like you live in Europe, at least when you’re an American. Perhaps Americans know what I mean when I say this – the Europeaness of sitting at a council-run cafe in the middle of a neighborhood park.
Luckily for us, one of the girls my daughter goes to school with is in the pool when we get there. We hesitate about whether we should move over to join the other mother – perhaps she wants her time alone, why didn’t she come over here near us, what will we say when we get there? My daughter is just now hitting the age where she can reliably and steadily play with other kids, with friends, without constant parental intervention. They splash about in the pool for an hour or so before another one of their classmates shows up, and then there are three. My wife takes the baby over to talk to the other two moms; I look at my iPhone and watch my daughter.
Then there are errands. A trip to the photoshop to pick up some prints. A trip to the office supply store for a posterboard – I never asked my wife why she needs that, it occurs to me now. And then home, where I answer an e-mail from a student who has just now written me, all too late, about doing a PhD on Joyce. He seems to be a foreign student, though he’s studying right now in London, and wants to self-fund. We are under pressure to admit just about anyone who will self-fund at this point, as it’s one of the only ways we are able to raise revenue, and raise revenue we must.
It’s four o’clock by then, and by implicit pre-agreement I am to get some work time this afternoon. (The math is complicated – but the fact that I got up at 7 AM this morning has something to do with it). I have to write a feature for a magazine and I am two weeks late. So I head back downtown to write for an hour-and-a-half in the same Costa where I always write. I write 400 words, drink two medium lattes, and I tell myself that I will finish the rest tonight.
On the way home, I notice one an advertisement for this week’s edition of the neighborhood paper. Waitrose, apparently, is moving into our shuttered Woolworths in the centre of town. This makes us happy, as we have fond memories of the Waitrose on Finchley Road when we lived a bit west of here. But it will likely put some of the local butchers and fish-mongers and fruit sellers and probably the independent grocery next door out of business.
I put the Yankee game on my computer. It is a terrible game – the Yanks are beating the Mets 13-0. We debate ordering Thai or making the Chicken Kievs that are in the freezer, and decide on the latter. I defrost then defrost again then preheat and then insert and then put a pot of corn on and run out to get a cold bottle of Coke (as the fridge is broken). What I buy is no colder than the unopened bottle we already have. I read the Observer as things finish cooking; the younger daughter is asleep next to me in her little bouncy seat.
The older one is now asleep or getting there and my wife is feeding the baby. The Yankee game is still on but it’s not getting any more interesting. I noticed that we can watch movies on our computer via our Sky subscription – maybe I can talk my wife into watching sex, lies, and videotape tonight, which is on offer. And then I’ll finish the piece – 1300 more words – or I won’t and I’ll break my promise to start working on the book tomorrow. My wife will take the baby up to bed with her at 10 or 10:30. I will go to bed at midnight, 1 AM at the latest.
So why am I telling you all this? Is it meant to be interesting – and if so, in what way? Am I bragging about my well-accoutred North London life? Or am I braying about the busyness of all this – the fact that there is barely time to work or even breathe? You might think I’m admirable or cowardly, you might want my life or detest it. You might find me disgusting for taking up space with the description of this day, or it might strike you as totally apropos, apropos of something, who knows what or maybe you know.
It was not a particularly interesting day – perhaps not even infra-interesting, though that’s a trickier issue. I am spending a lot of time thinking about the everyday lately, and on more than one front – intellectually, personally, perhaps artistically and politically as well. It is both lucky and unlucky that I am about to spend so much time thinking and writing about it, as it is something that I have an extremely ambivalent relationship towards. Odi et amo, as someone once said of something else. There’s a part of me that belongs exactly nowhere but in a semi-suburban living room or the aisles of a supermarket, the same part of me that buys too many newspapers – all of the papers, sometimes – and wants things calm and orderly and basically like some sort of Ikea spread-vivant, a family barbeque in a social democratic country, in a park that you get to by train or bus, and with food purchased at a kiosk whose sign is written sans serifs. But then there’s another part of me that is nothing but chaos and dysrhythm, grandiloquent thought and speech, drink and brokenness and poor poetry, crispé comme un extravagant, back-alleyed and ill-tempered and too loud.
Henri Lefebvre, in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life, has a section called “Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside,” and in that section is the following passage:
And in life itself, in everyday life, ancient gestures, rituals as old as time itself, continue unchanged – except for the fact that this life has been stripped of its beauty. Only the dust of words remains, dead gestures. Because rituals and feelings, prayers and magic spells, blessings, curses, have been detached from life, they have become abstract and ‘inner’, to use the terminology of self-justification. Convictions have become weaker, sacrifices shallower, less intense. People cope – badly – with a smaller outlay. The only thing that has not diminished is the old disquiet, that feeling of weakness, that foreboding. But what was formerly a sense of disquiet has become worry, anguish. Religion, ethics, metaphysicas – these are merely the ‘spiritual’ and ‘inner’ festivals of human anguish, was of channelling the black waters of anxiety – and towards what abyss?
I am trying to place it, the everyday, trying to figure out the frame and the use. What to make of the generic universality of certain elements – for instance the way that taking care of a child puts you through certain nearly universal or maybe fully universal (careful, careful) movements and gestures and probably thoughts. And I am trying to make sense of the lingering disquiet that Lefebvre mentions above. What is both hope-inducing and intellectually-terrifying to me is the fact that the recent recession of the dystopian imaginary – the backing up of the threat of the flash and burn and all of the other catastrophes has taken away an ideological-aesthetic crutch that allowed shorthand-in where only full consideration will really do. As if by fiat, we are suddenly under a mandate to stop changing the subject when it comes to the everyday. No news event is going to save us from the question that we are faced with, that we’ve long or always been faced with.
Instead we are brought face to face with the rhythm, probably permanent, of recurrent mild to severe economic crisis coupled with mild to middling affectual, ethical and intellectual crises. Please believe me when I say that I am fully aware of the class understructure of the question that I am asking (or trying to find the words to ask) about my day. I just happen to believe that much of what has gone on, for at least the last half-century, in the world is staked on this sort of Sunday – its pleasures, which are very real, as well as its equally-real if more softly spoken anxieties. The long sunday is an ad with products. It’s just still to-be-determined what the products are, which ones we want, and what to do about it once (if) we figure all of this out.
One of the many things I’ve been figuring out lately about myself is what to make of my religious upbringing. That sounds wrong: “religious upbringing.” Makes it sound like we sat around discussing Bible stories at night instead of watching TV. Wasn’t like that. But I did go to Catholic school from the age of 3 till 18. 16 years of religious education, that makes. And I attended Mass, weekly, from 3 or so until 17, when I got my driver’s license and I could claim I was going to church and instead go sit around in exotic Barnes and Nobles scattered around northern NJ. I most definitely, and thickly, went through the whole I am going to hell, definitely going to hell. I promise I’ll never lock myself in the bathroom again and do that to myself. I am going to hell phase. Not nice! Horrible at the time, then came to seem trivial and cliche a bit later once I’d “lost my faith,” now seems more serious and deformative than I had thought, those early years of sexual efflorence while still under the chastening, condemnatory wing of Jesus H. Christ.
It’s funny. During a moment of real stress the cause of which I can’t quite put my finger on now, I started going to Mass again for a week or two during my second year of grad school. Talked to my wife about converting, even. (There was a funny scene where I tried to explain to her why she couldn’t go up and receive communion with the rest of us Catholics – she still thinks I’m crazy, but when we talk to other Lapsers they agree that, no, I told her the right thing). I can’t remember now what this was about – I think it was an intellectual crisis of some sort but it remains hazy.
But then again, on the other hand, there’s this sort of thing:
…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
I always listened quite closely when people told me to listen. Quite a lot of Catholic education is self-contradictory, equivocating, incoherent. You’d put your hand up and ask, But father, does that really mean that rich people basically can’t go to heaven? I mean, if that’s what Jesus is saying, it means that… and they would sort of brush you off and say that it’s a lot more complicated than that. Or sometimes, they’d have a well-prepped response to blur things out a bit. “Rich” doesn’t mean “rich” in the sense that we think it… Etc… It was a frustrating, confusing experience for someone with a predilection to very, very careful reading and taking things very seriously in general.
Even though there’s no heaven, and no kingdom of god, I happen to believe, no know, that Jesus was right about the rich man. This is how the religious stuff has stuck on me, absolute rules and imperatives unanchored by any visible system of reward or punishment. Ads without products, in a sense. But true to the first and basic a priori of religion itself, just because this seemingly necessary structure of consequence is invisible doesn’t mean it’s not there… It may be all the more there because I can’t touch it, edit it, argue with it….
Synecdoche, N.Y. Well, yes. And there’s lots for me to say about it, I think, but most of it’s still working its way out. And, look, I understand that there’s a certain (hohoho) degree of identification that’s at work in how I watched the thing.
But one thing for now.
One thing that is amazing is how hard Kaufman goes at, among so many others but in particular, Lars Von Trier and David Lynch. With Von Trier: Kaufman enframes the gesture of staging the epical theatrical work on the unfinished floor of the unfinished studio space, in effect thematizing and really psycho/aesthetico-pathologizing the primary formal conceit of LVT’s semi-completed, seemingly-halted two part triology. All of these actors carrying on daily life insanely in an unmarked, inapproriate production space in SNY slips into what it perhaps always was: not just a Brechtian estrangement technique, but more pressingly a seriously belated estrangement technique that slides over into directorial sadism verging on the pervvy interest in making people perform ordinary actions as if unobserved and in inappropriate locales. (The bit where Cotard [spoiler!] sees his daughter performing behind glass would be the underscoring echo here…)
I even wonder if the little tiny traumwitz about the set of twins with three names isn’t a sort of crosshanded smack at Von Trier and the fact that the third part of USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy has a name but no substantial presence. Three names for two films. And throwing Emily Watson into film – who’s never quite lived up to her early performance in Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves – only underscores what Kaufman is working through here….
With Lynch: Kaufman appropriates the movie-as-screen-fantasy-for-inappropriate-desire and relegates it to the status of just one of many possibilities for the ultimate “meaning” of the film. Further, it is distinctly a “relegation” because repressed or not-quite repressed homosexuality of the protagonist is perhaps the least interesting possibility of the many on offer. When (spoiler, I guess) Cotard’s daughter asks him for an apology for running off to have “anal sex” with his homosexual lover, we feel that we’ve arrived at a place where reductive resolution to the questions on offer in the film has been offered to us, and we’re glad when the film moves past it. In short, Synecdoche exposes the ultimate reductive simplicity of Mulholland Drive (lost Hollywood, yes, fucked up love affair, yes, broken career, sure) – which is an incredibly ballsy and unexpected bit of meta-critique, and incredibly effective for its ballsiness and unexpectedness.
(Oh, and the old lady in the hall outside his ex-wife’s apartment is the lady from Mulholland Drive, Coco, right? Sorry – I have crap for internet tonight, so my research opps are a bit crimped…)
He hits these two very, very hard, I think, while at the same time swiping enough from them that the entire film comes to seem to be something paradoxically like a retaliatory homage, a devastating genuflection. There’s lots of other meta-theatrical and cinematic work to talk about, ranging from the small but lovely joke about Harold Pinter at the start of the thing to the amazing homage to Samuel Beckett at the end.
Truly, the metatextual stuff is the easiest thing to talk about – there are way better things to take up. Not the least of which is Kaufman’s presentation of the particular sort of mental / spiritual illness whose primary symptom is having a career that teeters between miserable local productions (whether staged at the Schenectady community playhouse or they feature Nicholas Cage) and impossible ambition bent (but distractedly so) on nothing less than world encompassing hypermimesis (there’s 17 million people in the world and each one of them…) that nonetheless resolves down to death and dating. And further, CK’s contextualization of this malady in turn as a symptom of a particular sort of white male early middle-agedness and early-middle-aged life-situation is, well, similar at least to one of the barely but all-too-visible subthemes of this blog, among many, many other things.
Trying to work this shit out while living in a dying old company town upstate is at once something I’m intimately familar with (I’ve heard the local academics talking seasonal poetry on NPR, yes I have) and a consumately American theme that touches on the less-than-volatile relationship between intellectual and material production in the era of diminishing returns, returns that just keep diminishing and on all fronts at once.
Oh, and how all that there relates to an unstinting preoccupation with dystopian collapse. Yep, that’s there too. Jesus.
More when I can.
Thrift stores here have become impromptu laboratories of the changing mores and attitudes in a country adjusting to newfound wealth. Young Poles here in the capital are now confident enough in their ability to buy new clothes that they at last have taken to wearing old ones. Those eking out a living on fixed incomes, especially retirees, still lack the means to do otherwise.
And so the hip and the strapped meet at secondhand stores like Tomitex, on Nowowiejska Street in downtown Warsaw.
The pronounced stigma of buying used clothes in a poor country was once a powerful deterrent for shopping — or at least admitting to shopping — at secondhand stores, known here by the derogative colloquialism lumpex, which translates as something like bum export. That stigma has been replaced among the young by a playful attitude toward vintage clothing and bargain-hunting that would not be out of place among their contemporaries in London or New York.
A subset of early memories drawn from the summerlong visits back to my mother’s home town in very rural Nova Scotia, the fishing village where she grew up focuses on visits to Frenchies, a used clothing store that at that time was a single store or maybe there were a couple but since then has branch out to become a sort of pan-maritimes chain.
(You can only imagine, or perhaps you can’t, how weirded out I was when Calvin Trillin wrote a piece about the store in the New Yorker. Gemein/Gesell gone wild! I’ve never felt so authentique in my life, so townie, organic even….)
I am quite sure that my mother wore mostly used clothing during her childhood and the few stories that I’ve heard about my father’s home growing up and clothing are troubling and not to be gone into here. But these stories happen to be the very sort of stuff that a form of therapy that would be able to work between the traditional registers of psychoanalysis and issues of class and money and ideological drip would make hay with, if such a practice properly existed. At any rate, both of my mother and father come from shitty circumstances, differently inflected but ultimately the same cocktail of alcoholic fathers, overworked mothers, nowhere locales, zero cash, and a fortunate and unlikely escape to university or vocational training in a tiny (large to them at the time!) city.
Anyway, I grew up with very real used clothing antipathy – probably of just the same sort of attitude described in the clipping from today’s NYT up top – and definitely caught from my class-shifting parents. They wore used; their son would wear – and learn to expect nothing less than, actively be disgusted by anything other than – new. I can’t remember exactly how this feeling was transmitted to me, but I am sure – especially now that I’m thinking about it in light of this article – that it was in fact transmitted, and done so by my parents rather than some sort of ambient socio-ideological vapor.
But when my mother and I would go to visit the family up in Nova Scotia, we would always make a trip or two or three to Frenchy’s over the course of the summer. You won’t be surprised to hear that these were horrible experiences for me, filled with a variety of dread that’s close to the fear and anxiety that comes of going to the doctor for an injection or the dentist for a drilling when you’re a child. I didn’t really understand wealth and poverty at that point, I wasn’t embarrassed at all. It was the visceral disgust that came of trying on clothes that had been worn by other people, that had encased other children’s bodies, caught their spills, been inextricably soiled by their skin. And it only got worse when we’d actually bring these items home, and later, perhaps the next day, I would be expected to wear them – not just for five minutes in a fitting room, but all day, straight through to my bath at night. The memories get vague at this point, start to break down, but I think at a certain point my eight or nine year-old self went into revolt, simply refused to wear the items any longer. I think, further, I have a memory of my mother conceding, likely throwing the stuff in a bag that was kept for our own clothing donations.
It felt dirty to wear the clothes. Dirty in a way that was unbearable, visceral. This is, of course, just how I’d been raised to feel.
All of this I’ve thought about, when I’ve thought about Frenchy’s, before. What I’ve never yet thought about – and what the article about Poland has led me to consider – is what exactly my mother was thinking when she took me to this place and put me through the experience of trying on and later wearing the clothes that we found there.
The hometown-girl made good in the States amidst relatives, trying to fit in with the people back home, playing along. She never dresses her son in anything but new things, normally, but it is true what the cousins and aunts keep saying, that there are great bargains to be had there, and they always outgrow everything so quickly anyway. Perhaps – probably – it never registered how deeply she’d woven this message into her son. Perhaps it came as a great shock when he refused that morning to wear any of it ever again. Quite likely, almost definitely, there was at least a passing thought that she had spoiled him – that even if she didn’t really want him wearing this sort of stuff, it wasn’t a great sign that he didn’t want to wear it. Her cousins’ kids, of course, didn’t resist. This is where there clothes came from, had always come from, whether by the standards of the village they were rich or poor. (They were all more or less poor and since these days they have only gotten poorer, disasterously so by North American standards…)
Probably she wrote his – my – behavior off as childish temper, a burst of willfulness that was unusual for me. I was a good child, vaguely angelic (but just think of what keeps the good angels good angels), and generally did everything that I was told to do. The clothes at Frenchy’s were crumpled in piles, piles dumped hourly on tables made of 4X4s. I can’t remember now whether you paid by the item or by the weight of the bag that you filled. Or perhaps on another level or even the same level, she understood. She hadn’t wanted to go along anyway. I wonder if she had bought anything for herself. If she did, I wonder what she did with it. I am very sure, absolutely sure, that she’d never have worn it.
Many of my friends, now and before, wear or wore vintage clothing. I could do, but it’s not really me. At this point, I think it’s not even really the childhood anxieties about it. At some point when I was sixteen or seventeen, suddenly this no longer really bothered me anymore. Before then I disliked wearing the handed-down uniforms that we were given on the baseball and basketball and football teams I played for. Then, suddenly, it no longer mattered. Surely it had something to do with the arrival of sex on my scene, and the very different relationship to other people’s bodies that comes of it. But still, today, it’s just not my thing. I’m one of those catholic school boys who never really gets over the uniform. Every single day, working or not working, I wear a variation on the outfit I wore during my first nine years of school. A collared shirt and a sweater, never sneakers, chinoish pants. I skip only the tie – I almost never wear one. Some of the clothes I continue to wear are older than used – shirts I got when I went to university, sweaters that are almost worn through. A long Italian wool coat I bought – my best friend bought the same sort, same day – during the last winter of high school, when I was feeling like a poet. (A colleague stopped me in the hall a month ago when I was wearing it and said that it is a “poet’s coat, you know, the sort of thing that Eliot or Lowell wore.” (I should use this story as an exemplary anecdote when I teach “The Dead” because it’s so exactly right…) Part of me was ecstatic to hear this; most of me was dreadfully embarrassed. He was, I’m sure, hazing me – I am, after all, the new guy still.
My wife pointed out today that now my mother makes her take her to fancyass but dowdy consignment stores. She’s of limited mobility, and so has to be taken places, and it’s consignment stores that she wants to go to ahead of any other place. It’s something we’ve never really understood, my wife and I, and would laugh off as just another parental absurdity. She has the money to buy what she likes as far as clothes go; why does she does she insist on sifting through the crap at these places? It is interesting and strange to think that my mother, perversely, may finally have learned to occupy the place where she lives – that she has finally forgotten Nova Scotia and Frenchy’s and wherever the clothes came from when she was a girl and before there was a Frenchy’s to visit.
Of late, but really forever though couldn’t articulate it, if I am not feeling like I am walking around in London but my fucked up head and heart are in Shitsville, Canada, I am feeling like I am walking around in Shitsville, Canada but my fucked up head and heart are in London. Either way, wherever head and heart and the rest of me are located absolutely or relatively, I have just now categorically refused to wear the semi-worn shirt from Frenchy’s, stated my refusal in no uncertain terms, even with stamping feet and tears in my eyes, but am wearing the damn thing anyway, feeling the dirt soak in through every tiny little hole.
Ah, well. This is all starting to feel a bit The Best American Essays 2008. And there’s surely a little narrative hiding in plain sight that’s prefitted for The Best American Short Stories 2009, and all that that sort of thing drearily entails. So I’d better stop before I over-epiphanize this shit. No one’s paying for it, anyway, neither by the item nor by the pound.