Reprinted with permission from the author. Lopate has two essay collections coming out in February, “Portrait Inside My Head” and “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction,” both from The Free Press/Simon & Schuster.
Over the years I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live. Not that I disapprove of all hearty enjoyment of life. A flushed sense of happiness can overtake a person anywhere, and one is no more to blame for it than the Asiatic flu or a sudden benevolent change in the weather (which is often joy’s immediate cause). No, what rankles me is the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.
The French, who have elevated the picnic to their highest civilized rite, are probably most responsible for promoting this smugly upbeat, flaunting style. It took the French genius for formalizing the informal to bring sticky sacramental sanctity to the baguette, wine and cheese. A pure image of sleeveless joie de vivre Sundays can also be found in Renoir’s paintings. Weekend satyrs dance and wink; leisure takes on a bohemian stripe. A decent writer, Henry Miller, caught the French malady and ran back to tell us of pissoirs in the Paris streets (why this should have impressed him so, I’ve never figured out).
But if you want a double dose of joie de vivre, you need to consult a later, hence more stylized version of the French myth of pagan happiness: those Family of Man photographs of endlessly kissing lovers, snapped by Doisneau and Boubat, not tomention Cartier-Bresson’s icon of the proud tyke carrying bottles of wine. If Cartier Bresson and his disciples are excellent photographers for all that, it is in spite of their rubbing our noses in a tediously programmatic “affirmation of life.”
Though it is traditionally the province of the French, the whole Mediterranean is a hotbed of professional joie de vivrism, which they have gotten down to a routine like a crack son et lumière display. The Italians export dolce far nienteas aggressively as tomato paste. For the Greeks, a Zorba dance to life has supplanted classical antiquities as their main touristic lure. Hard to imagine anything as stomach-turning as being forced to participate in such an oppressively robust, folknik effusion. Fortunately, the country has its share of thin, nervous, bitter types, but Greeks do exist who would clutch you to their joyfully stout bellies and crush you there. The joie de vivrist is an incorrigible missionary, who presumes that everyone wants to express pro-life feelings in the same stereotyped manner.
A warning: since I myself have a large store of nervous discontent (some would say hostility) I am apt to be harsh in my secret judgments of others, seeing them as defective because they are not enough like me. From moment to moment, the person I am with often seems too shrill, too bland, too something-or-other to allow my own expansiveness to swing into stage center. “Feeling no need to drink, you will promptly despise a drunkard” (Kenneth Burke). So it goes with me—which is why I am not a literary critic. I have no faith that my discriminations in taste are anything but the picky awareness of what will keep me stimulated, based on the peculiar family and class circumstances which formed me. But the knowledge that my discriminations are skewed and not always universally desirable doesn’t stop me in the least from making them, just as one never gives up a negative first impression, no matter how many times it is contradicted. A believer in astrology (to cite another false system), having guessed that someone is aSaggitarius, and then told he is a Scorpio, says “Scorpio—yes, of course!” without missing a beat, or relinquishing confidence in his ability to tell people’s signs, or in his idea that the person is somehow secretly Saggitarian.
1. The Houseboat
I remember the exact year when my dislike for joie de vivre began to crystallize. It was 1969. We had gone to visit an old Greek painter on his houseboat in Sausalito. Old Vartas’s vitality was legendary and it was considered a spiritual honor to meet him, like getting an audience with the Pope. Each Sunday he had a sort of open house, or open boat.
My “sponsor,” Frank, had been many times to the houseboat, furnishing Vartas with record albums, since the old painter had a passion for San Francisco rock bands. Frank told me that Vartas had been a pal of Henry Miller’s, and I, being a writer of Russian descent, would love him. I failed to grasp the syllogism, but, putting aside my instinct to dislike anybody I have been assured I will adore, I prepared myself to give the man a chance.
Greeting us on the gang plank was an old man with thick, lush white hair and snowy eyebrows, his face reddened from the sun. As he took us into the houseboat cabin he told me proudly that he was seventy-seven years old, and gestured toward the paintings that were spaced a few feet apart, leaning on the floor against the wall. They were celebrations of the blue Aegean, boats moored in ports, whitewashed houses on a hill, painted in primary colors and decorated with collaged materials: mirrors, burlap, lifesaver candies. These sunny little canvases with their talented innocence, third generation spirit of Montmartre, bore testimony to a love of life so unbending as to leave an impression of rigid narrow-mindedness as extreme as any Savonarola. Their rejection of sorrow was total. They were the sort of festive paintings that sell at high-rent Madison Avenue galleries specializing in European schlock.
Then I became aware of three young, beautiful women, bare-shouldered, wearing white dhotis, each with long blond hair falling onto a skyblue halter—unmistakably suggesting the Three Graces. They lived with him on the houseboat, I was told, giving no one knew what compensation for their lodgings. Perhaps their only payment was to feed his vanity in front of outsiders. The Greek painter smiled with the air of an old fox around the trio. For their part, they obligingly contributed their praises of Vartas’s youthful zip, which of course was taken by some guests as double-entendre for undiminished sexual prowess. The Three Graces also gathered the food-offerings of the visitors to make a midday meal.
Then the boat, equipped with a sail, was launched to sea. I must admit it gave me a spoilsport’s pleasure when the winds turned becalmed. We could not move. Aboard were several members of the Bay Area’s French colony, who dangled their feet over the sides, passed around bunches of grapes and sang what I imagined were Gallic camping songs. The French know boredom, so they would understand how to behave in such a situation. It has been my observation that many Frenchmen and women stationed in America have the attitude of taking it easy, slumming at a health resort, and nowhere more so than in California. The émigré crew included a securities analyst, an academic sociologist, a museum administrator and his wife, a modiste: on Vartas’s boat they all got drunk and carried on like redskins, noble savages off Tahiti.
Joie de vivre requires a soupçon of the primitive. But since the illusion of the primitive soon palls and has nowhere to go, it becomes necessary to make new initiates. A good part of the day, in fact, was taken up with regulars interpreting to first-timers like myself certain mores pertaining to the houseboat, as well as offering tidbits about Vartas’s Rabelaisian views of life. Here everyone was encouraged to do what he willed. (How much could you do on a becalmed boat surrounded by strangers?) No one had much solid information about their host’s past, which only increased the privileged status of those who knew at least one fact. Useless to ask the object of this venerating speculation, since Vartas said next to nothing (adding to his impressiveness) when he was around, and disappeared below for long stretches of time.
In the evening, after a communal dinner, the new Grateful Dead record Frank had brought was put on the phonograph, and Vartas danced, first by himself, then with all three Graces, bending his arms in broad, hooking sweeps. He stomped his foot and looked around scampishly at the guests for appreciation, not unlike a monkey-grinder and his monkey. Imagine, if you will, a being whose generous bestowal of self-satisfaction invites and is willing to receive nothing but flattery in return, a person who has managed to make others buy his somewhat senile projection of indestructibility as a Hymn to Life. In no sense could he be called a charlatan; he delivered what he promised, an incaination of joie de vivre, and if it was shallow, it was also effective, managing even to attract an enviable “harem” (which was what really burned me).
A few years passed.
Some Dutch TV crew, ever on the lookout for exotic bits of Americana that would make good short subjects, planned to do a documentary about Vartas as a sort of paean to eternal youth. I later learned from Frank that Vartas died before the shooting could be completed. A pity, in a way. The home movie I’ve run off in my head of the old man is getting a little tattered, the colors splotchy, and the scenario goes nowhere, lacks point. All I have for sure is the title: The Man Who Gave Joie De Vivre A Bad Name.
“Ah, what a twinkle in the eye the old man has! He’ll outlive us all.” So we speak of old people who bore us, when we wish to honor them. We often see projected onto old people this worship of the life-force. It is not the fault of the old if they then turn around and try to exploit our misguided amazement at their longevity as though it were a personal tour de force. The elderly, when they are honest with themselves, realize they have done nothing particularly to be proud of in lasting to a ripe old age, and then carrying themselves through a thousand more days. Yet you still hear an old woman or man telling a bus driver with a chuckle, “Would you believe that I am eighty-four years old!” As though they should be patted on the back for still knowing how to talk, or as though they had pulled a practical joke on the other riders by staying so spry and mobile. Such insecure, wheedling behavior always embarrassed me. I will look away rather than meet the speaker’s eyes and be forced to lie with a smile, “Yes, you are remarkable,” which seems condescending on my part and humiliating to us both.
Like children forced to play the cute part adults expect of them, some old people must get confused trying to adapt to a social role of indeterminate standards, which is why they seem to whine: “I’m doing all right, aren’t I—for my age?” It is interesting that society’s two most powerless groups, children and the elderly, have both been made into sentimental symbols. In the child’s little hungry hands grasping for life, joined to the old person’s frail slipping fingers hanging onto it, you have one of the commonest advertising metaphors for intense appreciation. It is enough to show a young child sleeping in his or her grandparent’s lap to procure joie de vivre overload.
2. The Dinner Party
I am invited periodically to dinner parties and brunches—and I go, because I like to be with people and oblige them, even if I secretly cannot share their optimism about these events. I go, not believing that I will have fun, but with the intent of observing people who think a dinner party a good time. I eat their fancy food, drink the wine, make my share of entertaining conversation, and often leave having had a pleasant evening. Which does not prevent me from anticipating the next invitation with the same bleak lack of hope. To put it in a nutshell, I am an ingrate.
Although I have traveled a long way from my proletarian origins and, like a perfect little bourgeois, talk, dress, act and spend money, I hold onto my poor-boy’s outrage at the “decadence” (meaning, dull entertainment style) of the middle and upper-middle classes; or, like a model Soviet moviegoer watching scenes of pre-revolutionary capitalists gorging caviar, I am appalled, but I dig in with the rest.
Perhaps my uneasiness with dinner parties comes from the simple fact that not a single dinner party was given by my solitudinous parents the whole time I was growing up, and I had to wait until my late twenties before learning the ritual. A spy in the enemy camp, I have made myself a patient observer of strange customs. For the benefit of other late starting social climbers, this is what I have observed:
As everyone should know, the ritual of the dinner party begins away from the table. Usually in the living room, hors d’oeuvres and walnuts are set out, to start the digestive juices flowing. Here introductions between strangers are also made. Most dinner parties contain at least a few guests who have been unknown to each other before that evening, but whom the host and/or hostess envision would enjoy meeting. These novel pairings and their interactions add spice to the post-mortem: who got along with whom? The lack of prior acquaintanceship also ensures that the guests will have to rely on and go through the only people known to everyone, the host and hostess, whose absorption of this helplessly dependent attention is one of the main reasons for throwing dinner parties.
Although an after-work “leisure activity,” the dinner party is in fact a celebration of professional identity. Each of the guests has been pre-selected as in a floral bouquet; and in certain developed forms of this ritual there is usually a cunning mix of professions. Yet the point is finally not so much diversity as commonality: what remarkably shared attitudes and interests these people from different vocations demonstrate by conversing intelligently, or at least glibly, on the topics that arise. Naturally, a person cannot discourse too technically about one’s line of work, so he or she picks precisely those themes that invite overlap. The psychiatrist laments the new breed of ego-less, narcissistic patient who keeps turning up in his office—a beach bum who lacks the work ethic; the college professor bemoans the shoddy intellectual backgrounds and self centered ignorance of his students; and the bookseller parodies the customer who pronounced “Sophocles” to rhyme with “bifocles.” The dinner party is thus an exercise inlocating ignorance—elsewhere. Whoever is present is ipso facto part of that beleaguered remnant of civilized folk fast disappearing from Earth.
Or think of a dinner party as a club of revolutionaries, a technocratic elite whose social interactions that night are a dry run for some future takeover of the State. These are the future cabinet members (now only a shadow-cabinet, alas) meeting to practice for the first time. How well they get on! “The time will soon be ripe, my friends. . . .” If this is too fanciful for you, then compare the dinner party to a utopian community, a Brook Farm supper club, where only the best and most useful community-members are chosen to participate. The smugness begins as soon as one enters the door, since one is already part of the chosen few. And from then on, every mechanical step in dinner-party process is designed to augment the atmosphere of group amour-propre. This is not so say that there won’t be one or two people in an absolute torment of exclusion, too shy to speak up, or else suspecting that when they do, their contributions fail to carry the same weight as the others’. The group’s all-purpose drone of self-contentment ignores these drowning people—cruelly inattentive in one sense, but benign in another: it invites them to join the shared ethos of success any time they are ready.
The group is asked to repair to the table. Once again they find themselves marvelling at a shared perception of life. How delicious the fish soup! How cute the stuffed tomatoes! What did you use for this green sauce? Now comes much talk of ingredients, and creditis given where credit is due. It is Jacques who made the salad. It was Mamie who brought the homemade bread. Everyone pleads with the hostess to sit down, not to work so hard—an empty formula whose hypocrisy bothers no one. Who else is going to put the butter dish on the table? For a moment all become quiet, except for the sounds of eating. This corresponds to the part in a church service which calls for silent prayer.
I am saved from such culinary paganism by the fact that food is largely an indifferent matter to me. I rarely think much about what I am putting in my mouth. Though my savage, illiterate palate has inevitably been educated to some degree by the many meals I have shared with people who care enormously about such things, I resist going any further. I am superstitious that the day I send back a dish at a restaurant, or make a complicated journey to somewhere just for a meal, that day I will have sacrificed my freedom and traded in my soul for a lesser god.
I don’t expect the reader to agree with me. That’s not the point. Unlike the behavior called for at a dinner party, I am not obliged sitting at my typewriter to help procure consensus every moment. So I am at liberty to declare, to the friend who once told me that dinner parties were one of the only opportunities for intelligently convivial conversation to take place in this cold, fragmented city, that she is crazy. The conversation at dinner parties is of a mind-numbing calibre. No discussion of any clarifying rigor—be it political, spiritual, artistic or financial—can take place in a context where fervent conviction of any kind is frowned upon, and the desire to follow through asequence of ideas must give way every time to the impressionistic, breezy flitting from topic to topic. Talk must be bubbly but not penetrating. Illumination would only slow the flow. Some hit-and-run remark may accidentally jog an idea loose, but in such cases it is better to scribble a few words down on the napkin for later, than attempt to “think” at a dinner party.
What do people talk about at such gatherings? The latest movies, the priciness of things, word-processors, restaurants, muggings and burglaries, private versus public schools, the fool in the White House (there have been so many fools in a row that this subject is getting tired), the underserved reputations of certain better-known professionals in one’s field, the fashions in investments, the investments in fashion. What is traded at the dinner-party table is, of course, class information. You will learn whether you are in the avant-garde or rear guard of your social class, or, preferably, right in step.
As for Serious Subjects, dinner-party guests have the latest New Yorker in-depth piece to bring up. People who ordinarily would not spare a moment worrying about the treatment of schizophrenics in mental hospitals, the fate of Great Britain in the Common Market, or the disposal of nuclear wastes, suddenly find their consciences orchestrated in unison about these problems, thanks to their favorite periodical—though a month later they have forgotten all about it and are onto something new.
The dinner party is a suburban form of entertainment. Its spread in our big cities represents an insidious Fifth Column suburbanization of the metropolis. In the suburbs it becomes necessary to be able to discourse knowledgeably about the heart of the city, but from the viewpoint of a day-shopper. Dinner-party chatter is the communicative equivalent of roaming around shopping malls.
Much thought has gone into the ideal size for a dinner party—usually with the hostess arriving at the figure eight. Six would give each personality too much weight; ten would lead to splintering side-discussions; eight is the largest number still able to force everyone into the same compulsively congenial conversation. My own strength as a conversationalist comes out less in groups of eight than one-to-one, which may explain my resistance to dinner parties. At the table, unfortunately, any engrossing tête-à-tête is frowned upon as anti-social. I often find myself in the frustrating situation of being drawn to several engaging people, in among the bores, and wishing I could have a private conversation with each, without being able to do more than signal across the table a wry recognition of that fact. “Some other time, perhaps,” we seem to be saying with our eyes, all evening long.
Later, however—to give the devil his due—when guests and hosts retire from the table back to the living room, the strict demands of group participation may be relaxed, and individuals allowed to pair off in some form of conversational intimacy. But one must be ever on the lookout for the group’s need to swoop everybody together again for one last demonstration of collective fealty.
The first to leave breaks the communal spell. There is a sudden rush to the coat closet, the bathroom, the bedroom, as others, under the protection of the first defector’s original sin, quit the Party apologetically. The utopian dream has collapsed: left behind are a few loyalists and insomniacs, swillers of a last cognac. “Don’t leave yet,” begs the host, knowing what a sense of letdown, pain and self-recrimination awaits. Dirty dishes are, if anything, a comfort: the faucet’s warm gush serves to stave off the moment of anesthetized stock-taking—Was that really necessary?—in the sobering silence which follows a dinner party.
3. Joie’s Doppelgänger
I have no desire to rail against the Me Generation. We all know that the current epicurean style of the Good Life, from light foods to Nike running shoes, is a result of market research techniques developed to sell “spot” markets, and, as such, a natural outgrowth of consumer capitalism. I may not like it but I can’t pretend that my objections are the result of a highminded Laschian political analysis. Moreover, my own record of activism is not so noticeably impressive that I can lecture the Sunday brunchers to roll up their sleeves and start fighting social injustices instead of indulging themselves.
No, if I try to understand the reasons for my antihedonistic biases, they come from somewhere other than idealism. It’s odd, because there seems to be a contradiction between this curmudgeonly feeling inside me and my periodically strong appetite for life. I am reminded of my hero, William Hazlitt, with his sarcastic grumpy disposition on the one hand, and his capacity for “gusto” (his word, not Schlitz’s) on the other. With Hazlitt, one senses a fanatically tenacious defense of his individuality and independence against some unnamed bully stalking him. He had trained himself to be a connoisseur of vitality, and got irritated when life was not filled to the brim. I am far less irritable—before others; I will laugh if there is the merest anything to laugh at. But it is a tense, pouncing pleasure, not one which will allow me to sink into undifferentiated relaxation. The prospect of a long day at the beach makes me panic. There is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and “have fun.” Taking it easy, watching my personality’s borders loosen and dissolve, arouses an unpleasantly floating giddiness. I don’t even like water-beds. Fear of Freud’s “oceanic feeling,” I suppose. . . .I distrust anything which will make me pause long enough to be put in touch with my helplessness.
The other repugnance I experience around joie-de-vivrism is that I associate its rituals with depression. All these people sitting around a pool, drinking margaritas, they’re not really happy, they’re depressed. Perhaps I am generalizing too much from my own despair in such situations. Drunk, sunbaked, stretched out in a beach-chair, I am unable to ward off the sensation of being utterly alone, unconnected, cut off from the others.
An article on the Science Page of the Times about depression (they seem to run one every few months) described the illness as a pattern of “learned helplessness.” Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania described his series of experiments: “At first mild electrical shocks were given to dogs, from which they were unable to escape. In a second set of experiments, dogs were given shocks from which they could escape—but they didn’t try. They just lay there, passively accepting the pain. It seemed that the animals’ inability to control their experiences had brought them to a state resembling clinical depression in humans.”
Keep busy, I always say. At all costs avoid the trough of passivity, which leads to the Slough of Despond. Someone—a girlfriend, who else?—once accused me of being intolerant of the depressed way of looking at the world, which had its own intelligence and moral integrity, both obviously unavailable to me. It’s true. I don’t like the smell of depression (it has a smell, a very distinct one, something fetid like morning odors), and I stay away from depressed characters whenever possible. Except when they happen to be my closest friends or family members. It goes without saying that I am also, for all my squeamishness, attracted to depressed people, since they seem to know something I don’t. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the brown-gray logic of depression is the truth. In another experiment (also reported in the Time’s Science section), pitting “optimists” against clinically diagnosed “depressives” on their self-perceived abilities to effect outcomes according to their wills, researchers tentatively concluded that depressed people may have a more realistic, clear-sighted view of the world.
Nevertheless, what I don’t like about depressives sometimes is their chummy I-told-you so smugness, like Woody Allen fans who treat acedia as a vanguard position.
And for all that, depressives make the most rabid converts to joie de vivre. The reason is, joie de vivre and depression are not opposites but relatives of the same family, practically twins. When I see joie de vivre rituals, I always notice, like a TV ghost, depression right alongside it. I knew a man, dominated by a powerful father, who thought he had come out of a long depression occasioned, in his mind, by his divorce. Whenever I met him he would say that his life was getting better and better. Now he could run long distances, he was putting healthy food in his system, he was more physically fit at forty than he had been at twenty-five, and now he had dates, he was going out with three different women, he had a good therapist, he was looking forward to renting a bungalow in better woods than the previous summer. . . .I don’t know whether it was his tone of voice when he said this, his sagging shoulders, or what, but I always had an urge to burst into tears. If only he had admitted he was miserable I could have consoled him outright instead of being embarrassed to notice the deep hurt in him, like a swallowed razor cutting him from inside. And his pain still stunk up the room like in the old days, that sour cabbage smell was in his running suit, yet he wouldn’t let on, he thought the smell was gone. The therapist had told him to forgive himself, and he had gone ahead and done it, the poor shlemiehl. But tell me: why would anyone need such a stylized, disciplined regimen of enjoyment if he were not depressed?
4. In the Here-And-Now
The argument of both the hedonist and the guru is that if we were but to open ourselvesto the richness of the moment, to concentrate on the feast before us, we would be filled with bliss. I have lived in the present from time to time, and I can tell you that it is much over-rated. Occasionally, as a holiday from stroking one’s memories or brooding about future worries, I grant you, it can be a nice change of pace. But to “be here now” hour after hour would never work. I don’t even approve of stories written in the present tense. As for poets who never use a past participle, they deserve the eternity they are striving for.
Besides, the present has a way of intruding whether you like it or not; why should I go out of my way to meet it? Let it splash on me from time to time, like a car going through a puddle, and I, on the sidewalk of my solitude, will salute it grimly like any other modern inconvenience.
If I attend a concert, obviously not to listen to the music but to find a brief breathing space in which to meditate on the past and future, I realize that there may be moments when the music invades my ears and I am forced to pay attention to it, note after note. I believe I take such intrusions gracefully. The present is not always an unwelcome guest, so long as it doesn’t stay too long and cut into our time for remembering.
Even for survival, it’s not necessary to focus one’s full attention on the present. The instincts of a pedestrian crossing the street in a reverie will usually suffice. Alertness is alright as long as it is not treated as a promissory note on happiness. Anyone who recommends attention to the moment as a prescription for grateful wonder is only telling half the truth. To be happy one must pay attention, but to be unhappy one must also have paid attention.
Attention, at best, is a form of prayer. Conversely, as Simone Weil said, prayer is a way of focusing attention. All religions recognize this when they ask their worshipers to repeat the name of their God, a devotional practice which draws the practitioner into a trancelike awareness of the present, and the objects around oneself. With a part of the soul one praises God, and with the other part one expresses a hunger, a dissatisfaction, a desire for more spiritual contact. Praise must never stray too far from longing, that longing which takes us implicitly beyond the present.
I was about to say that the very act of attention implies longing, but this is not necessarily true. Attention is not always infused with desire; it can settle on us most placidly once desire has been momentarily satisfied, like after the sex act. There arealso periods following over-work, when the exhausted slavebody is freed and the eyes dilate to register with awe the lights of the city; one is too tired to desire anything else.
Such moments are rare. They form the basis for a poetic appreciation of the beauty of the world. However, there seems no reliable way to invoke or prolong them. The rest of the time, when we are not being edgy or impatient, we are often simply disappointed, which amounts to a confession that the present is not good enough. People often try to hide their disappointment—just as Berryman’s mother told him not to let people see that he was bored, because it suggested that he had no “inner resources.” But there is something to be said for disappointment.
This least respected form of suffering, downgraded to a kind of petulance, at least accurately measures the distance between hope and reality. And it has its own peculiar satisfactions: Why else do we return years later to places where we had been happy, if not to savor the bittersweet pleasure of disappointment? “For you well know: while a single disappointment may elicit tears, a repeated disappointment will evoke a smile” (Musil).
Moreover, it is the other side of a strong, predictive feeling for beauty or appropriate civility or decency: Only those with a sense of order and harmony can be disappointed.
We are told that to be disappointed is immature, in that it presupposes having unrealistic expectations, whereas the wise man meets each moment head-on without preconceptions, with freshness and detachment, grateful for anything it offers. However, this pernicious teaching ignores everything we know of the world. If we continue to expect what turns out to be not forthcoming, it is not because we are unworldly in our expectations, but because our very worldliness has taught us to demand of an unjustworld that it behave a little more fairly. The least we can do, for instance, is to register the expectation that people in a stronger position be kind and not cruel to those in a weaker, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.
The truth is, most wisdom is embittering. The task of the wise person cannot be to pretend with false naiveté that every moment is new and unprecedented, but to bear the burden of bitterness which experience forces on us with as much uncomplaining dignity 0as strength will allow. Beyond that, all we can ask of ourselves is that bitterness not cancel out our capacity still to be surprised.
5. Making Love
If it is true that I have the tendency to withhold sympathy from those pleasures or experiences which fall outside my capabilities, the opposite is also true: I admire immoderately those things I cannot do. I’ve always gone out with women who swam better than I did. It’s as if I were asking them to teach me how to make love. Though I know how to make love (more or less), I have never fully shaken that adolescent boy’s insecurity that there was more to it than I could ever imagine, and that I needed a full time instructress. For my first sexual experiences, in fact, I chose older women. Later, when I slept with women my own age and younger, I still tended to take the stylistic lead from them, adapting myself to each one’s rhythm and ardor, not only because I wanted to be “responsive,” but because I secretly thought that women—any woman—understood love-making in a way that I did not. In bed I came to them as a student; and I have made them pay later, in other ways, for letting them see me thus. Sex has always been so impromptu, so out of my control, so different each time, that even when I became the confident bull in bed I was dismayed by this surprising sudden power, itself a form of powerlessness because so unpredictable.
Something Michel Leiris wrote in his book, Manhood, has always stuck with me: “It has been some time, in any case, since I have ceased to consider the sexual act as a simple matter, but rather as a relatively exceptional act, necessitating certain inner accommodations that are either particularly tragic or particularly exalted, but very different, in either case, from what I regard as my usual disposition.”
The transformation from a preoccupied urban intellectual to a sexual animal involves, at times, an almost superhuman strain. To find in one’s bed a living, undulating woman of God knows what capacities and secret desires, may seem too high, too formal, too ridiculous or blissful an occasion—not to mention the shock to an undernourished heart like mine of an injection of undiluted affection, if the woman proves loving as well.
Most often, I simply do what the flood allows me to, improvising here or there like a man tying a white flag to a raft that is being swiftly swept along, a plea for love or forgiveness. But as for artistry, control, enslavement through my penis, that’s someone else. Which is not to say that there weren’t women who were perfectly happy with me as a lover. In those cases, there was some love between us outside of bed: the intimacy was much more intense because we had something big to say to each other before we ever took off our clothes, but which could now be said only with our bodies.
With other women, whom I cared less about, I was sometimes a dud. I am not one of those men who can force himself to make love passionately or athletically when his affections are not engaged. From the perplexity of wide variations in my experiences I have been able to tell myself that I am neither a good nor a bad lover, but one who responds differently according to the emotions present. A banal conclusion; maybe a true one.
It does not do away, however, with some need to have my remaining insecurities about sexual ability laid to rest. I begin to suspect that all my fancy distrust of hedonism comes down to a fear of being judged in this one category: Do I make love well? Every brie and wine picnic, every tanned body relaxing on the beach, every celebration of joie de vivre carries a sly wink of some missed sexual enlightenment which may be too threatening to me. I am like the prudish old maid who blushes behind her packages when she sees sexy young people kissing.
When I was twenty I married. My wife was the second woman I had ever slept with. Our marriage was the recognition that we suited one another remarkably well as company—could walk and talk and share insights all day, work side by side like Chinese peasants, read silently together like graduate students, tease each other like brother and sister, and when at night we found our bodies tired, pull the covers over ourselves and become lovers. She was two years older than I, but I was good at faking maturity; and I found her so companionable and trustworthy and able to take care of me that I could not let such a gold mine go by.
Our love-life was mild and regular. There was a sweetness to sex, as befitted domesticity. Out of the surplus energy of late afternoons I would find myself coming up behind her sometimes as she worked in the kitchen, taking her away from her involvements, leading her by the hand into the bedroom. I would unbutton her blouse. I would stroke her breasts, and she would get a look in her eyes of quiet intermittent hunger, like a German shepherd being petted; she would seem to listen far off; absentmindedly day-dreaming, she would return my petting, stroke my arm with distracted patience like a mother who has something on the stove, trying to calm her weeping child.I would listen too to guess what she might be hearing, bird calls or steam heat. The enlargement of her nipples under my fingers fascinated me. Goose bumps either rose on her skin where I touched or didn’t, I noted with scientific interest, a moment before getting carried away by my own eagerness. Then we were undressing, she was doing something in the bathroom, and I was waiting on the bed, with all the consciousness of a sunmote. I was large and ready. The proud husband, waiting to receive my treasure. . . .
I remember our favorite position was she on top, I on the bottom, upthrusting and receiving. Distraction, absent-mindedness, return, calm exploration marked our sensual life. To be forgetful seemed the highest grace. We often achieved perfection.
Then I became haunted with images of seductive, heartless cunts. It was the era of the miniskirt, girl-women, Rudi Gernreich bikinis and Tiger Morse underwear, see-through blouses, flashes of flesh which invited the hand to go creeping under and into costumes. I wanted my wife to be more glamorous. We would go shopping for dresses together, and she would complain that her legs were wrong for these new fashions. Or she would come home proudly with a bargain pink and blue felt minidress, bought for three dollars at a discount store, which my aching heart would tell me missed the point completely.
She too became dissatisfied with the absence of furtive excitement in our marriage. She wanted to seduce me, like a stranger on a plane. But I was too easy, so we ended up seducing others. Then we turned back to each other and with one last desperate attempt, before the marriage fell to pieces, sought in the other a plasticity of sensual forms, like the statuary in an Indian temple. In our lovemaking I tried to believe that the body of one woman was the body of all women, and all I achieved was a groping to distance lovingly familiar forms into those of anonymous erotic succubi. The height of this insanity, I remember, was one evening in the park when I pounded my wife’s lips with kisses in an effort to provoke something between us like “hot passion.” My eyes close, I practiced a repertoire of French tongue-kisses on her. I shall never forget her frightened silent appeal that I stop, because I had turned into someone she no longer recognized.
But we were young. And so, dependent on each other, like orphans. By the time I left, at twenty-five, I knew I had been a fool, and had ruined everything, but I had to continue being a fool because it had been my odd misfortune to have stumbled onto kindness and tranquility too quickly.
I moved to California in search of an earthly sexual paradise, and that year I tried hardest to make my peace with joie de vivre. I was sick but didn’t know it—a diseased animal, Nietzsche would say. I hung around Berkeley’s campus, stared up at the Campanile tower, I sat on the grass watching coeds younger than I, and, pretending that I was still going to university (no deeper sense of being a fraud obtainable), I tried to grasp the rhythms of carefree youth; I blended in at rallies, I stood at the fringes of be-ins, watching new rituals of communal love, someone being passed through the air hand to hand. But I never “trusted the group” enough to let myself be the guinea pig; or if I did, it was only with the proud stubborn conviction that nothing could change me—though I also wanted to change. Swearing I would never learn transcendence, I hitchhiked and climbed mountains. I went to wine-tasting festivals, and also accepted the wine jug from hippie gypsies in a circle around a beach campfire, without first wiping off the lip. I registered for a Free School course in human sexual response, just to get laid; and when that worked, I was shocked, and took up with someone else. There were many women in those years who got naked with me. I wish I could remember their names. I smoked grass with them, and as a sign of faith I took psychedelic drugs, and we made love in bushes and beach-houses, as though hacking through jungles with machetes to stay in touch with our ecstatic genitals while our minds soared off into natural marvels. Such experiences taught me, I will admit, how much romantic feeling can transform the body whose nerve-tendrils are receptive to it. Technicolor fantasies of one girlfriend as a señorita with flowers in her impossibly wavy hair would suddenly pitch and roll beneath me, and the bliss of touching her naked suntanned breast and the damp black public hairs was too unthinkably perfect to elicit anything but abject gratitude. At such moments I have held the world in my hands and known it. I was coming home to the body of Woman, those globes and grasses which had launched me. In the childish fantasy accompanying one sexual climax, under LSD, I was hitting a home run, and the Stars and Stripes flying in the background of my mind’s eye as I “slid into home” acclaimed the patriotic rightness of my semenal release. For once I had no guilt about how or when I ejaculated.
If afterwards, when we came down, there was often a sour air of disenchantment and mutual prostitution, that does not take away from the legacy, the rapture of those moments. If I no longer use drugs—in fact, have become anti-drug—I think I still owe them something for showing me how to recognize the all-embracing reflex. At first I needed drugs to teach me about the stupendousness of sex. Later, without them, there would be situations—after a lovely talk or coming home from a party in a taxi—when I would be overcome by amorous tropism towards the woman with me. The appetite for flesh which comes over me at such moments, and the pleasure there is in finally satisfying it, seems so just that I always think I have stumbled into a state of blessed grace. That it can never last, that it is a trick of the mind and the blood, are rumors I push out of sight.
To know rapture is to have one’s whole life poisoned. If you will forgive a ridiculous analogy, a tincture of rapture is like a red bandana in the laundry that runs and turns all the white wash pink. We should just as soon stay away from any future ecstatic experiences which spoil everyday living by comparison. Not that I have any intention of stopping. Still, if I will have nothing to do with religious mysticism, it is probably because I sense a susceptibility in that direction. Poetry is also dangerous. All quickening awakenings to Being extract a price later.
Are there people who live under such spells all the time? Was this the secret of the idiotic smile on the half-moon face of the painter Vartas? The lovers of life, the robust Cellinis, the Casanovas? Is there a technique to hedonism that will allow the term of rapture to be indefinitely extended? I don’t believe it. The hedonist’s despair is still that he is forced to make do with the present. Who knows about the success rate of religious mystics? In any case, I could not bring myself to state that what I am waiting for is God. Such a statement would sound too grandiose and presumptuous, and make too great a rupture in my customary thinking. But I can identify with the pre- if not the post-stage of what Simone Weil describes:
“The soul knows for certain only that it is hungry. The important thing is that it announces its hunger by crying. A child does not stop crying if we suggest to it that perhaps there is no bread. It goes on crying just the same. The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”
So much for joie de vivre. It’s too compensatory. I don’t really know what I’m waiting for. I know only that until I have gained what I want from this life, my expressions of gratitude and joy will be restricted to variations of a hunter’s alertness. I give thanks to a nip in the air that clarifies the scent. But I think it hypocritical to pretend satisfaction while I am still hungry.