Thursday, August 26, 2010

Interlinear Commentary on a Few Lines by Michael Chabon

Chabon, Michael.
Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, 2009 Quoted passages are on pages 200-203.

The seventies have always been prone to more ridicule than their twentieth-century cousin-decades, without anyone giving sufficient notice to the fact that it was the seventies themselves that originated the teasing (
Annie Hall, Nashville, "You're So Vain"). At the time I remember dancing on the tops of tables in the schoolroom to "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever." It was like dressing up (I'm a little younger than Chabon). The Bicentennial was the same way. I went as Uncle Sam to see the D.C. fireworks. Of course I looked ridiculous. To get at Chabon's point here, compare You're So Vain (1972) to I've Never Been to Me (1982 -- actually written earlier, but nobody cared until 1982). Carly Simon is smiling, even now. Charlene Duncan makes paradise sound like the DMV. It required no retrospection for the occupants of the zone now understood as the seventies to acknowledge the goofiness in all their pieties and solipsisms, and it is a mark of our own naivete (at the least) to suppose that a straightfaced young tax attorney going out on a Saturday night in 1974 wearing platform boots, glitter mascara, and his hair combed up into a two-foot Isro, for example, did not realize that he looked pretty silly. I remember grown-ups doing all sorts of non-silly things in the decade, of course, but those are not the things that became the seventies in memory, the notion that everybody became so self-absorbed that they let the country go to hell while they were tripping over their wingtips. It's just that looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not an inevitable result of the taking of risks. Saturday Night Live. Apocalypse Now. Fear of Flying. Free To Be You and Me. All had moments of intense silliness. The sense of liberation that resulted from such risk-taking, however conventionalized or routinized it became, was felt for a little while to be well worth the price in foolishness. It is amazing to me the number of people who will make total idiots of themselves out of fear of looking like an idiot.

We are crippled in so many ways today by the desire to avoid fashion mistakes, to elude ridicule -- a desire that leads at one extreme to the smiling elisions of political candidates and on the other to the awful tyranny of cool -- that this willingness is hard for us to sympathize with or understand. I don't agree with any of that. "Smiling elisions" were as rampant in the seventies as in any other decade, as was the "tyranny of cool," and while I think there is a general reluctance to see things from the point of view of a different person, I'm not sure the seventies the greatest victim of this near-universal solipsism. But I do agree that there is a humorlessness about the hilarity that people find in the decade. In this age of, we have forgotten the seventies spirit of mockery that smirks at the pretensions and fatuities of others in a way that originates with and encompasses ourselves. I've been watching reruns of Saturday Night Live, and this statement describes the humor. Steve Martin's humor depends on the idea that he is a bit of an ass. Ditto Bill Murray's lounge singer. Gilda Radner is more earnest, but the central conceit of her characters is that they are fundamentally silly, and she is brilliant for her full embrace of the lunacy.

Atom for atom, we are made of exactly the same stuff as all the stars and galaxies. I love this essay. It's about Voyager and the seventies. It's called, "Like, Cosmic," and in it Chabon meditates on the recording that is traveling with the Voyager spacecraft beyond the limits of our solar system. It includes whale songs, Brandenburg concertos, heartbeats. It's an attempt to marry science and Crunchy Granola Suite. And it hits the fundamental paradox of the seventies, one that continues to shape the way I see the world -- the tension between the constantly repeated "You are special," and the equally true "You are just like everybody, everything else." That is one of the cosmic, Warlock worthy facts that I learned in the seventies. Chabon's a sci-fi guy. I identify with him, but I imagine he's even more on Keifus's wavelength. Actually, let's see if Keif has found him already. Yup!. If you drop the S in cosmic, you arrive at the understanding that vanity, pomposity, and foolishness are at once communal and individual, like stardust. Million year old carbon. Joni Mitchell, baby! And, while we are on the subject, Blue (1971) and So Far (1974) may be my favorite albums of all time, and saddled me with the illusion that the failure of romantic love is the key to all genesis, as long as you manage to maintain some kind of sense of humor.

I'm skipping ahead a bit now... I might as well say that this essay comes from a collection titled Manhood for Amateurs. Every essay in it was a revelation to me, an account of what had been happening by somebody who found a language that I had been longing for.

What happened in the seventies was that, as at no other time before or since in our history, Americans -- especially American women -- were, for better or worse, free. I'm not sure "free" is the right word here. "More free?" "Relatively free?". Liberated, we cast aside the laws and limitations of the old familiar system to sail like Voyager out into the interstellar medium beyond. You can see it on the album covers of every band of meaty bohunks from Cleveland or Sheffield -- the Raspberries, the Sweet, Aerosmith -- who ever appeared with their hair piled high atop their heads and their masculinity fully, if amusingly, intact. One of the things that shocks me about the original Saturday Night Lives is their totally casual sexism. Carrie Fisher has written about the same attitude on the set of Star Wars, but I can't find the essay. So I don't want to go overboard here. But Chabon's book is largely about how it has been to be male for those of us whose mothers were the first generation of readers of Ms. magazine. We've been trying to figure out how to be sons, fathers, and so forth. And Chabon and I are both aware that we've inherited a lot of the bad of the seventies as well -- Chabon in public, and I in private, cringe at innumerable instances of either direct misogyny or idiotic attempts to avoid sexism in ways that just wind up being both sexist and idiotic. I make no claims to have moved beyond, or learned, or grown.

But look: playfulness is also a legacy of the decade, a kind of playfulness that we thought could resonate The personal was a mantra of seventies feminism, but the spirit of the age, embodied perfectly in the interstellar voyage of Ann Druyan's amorous EEG, might be The personal is universal, or The personal is fucking cosmic, baby! And so now, I find, I am an amateur man. I have, as a legacy of my boyhood, more ways of being male than my father had (You want evidence? Consider the lifetime count of diapers changed. august: about 2 a day for two years, so call it 730. Father of august (and august's brother): 0.) I don't know that this makes me a better person, or wiser, or anything else, except that it has meant that I have had more to figure out, more choice and also more confusion. Part of the equipment I have brought to handle those rolls is a sense of humor. Fatherhood is zany. In my version, it's a lot like Bill Murray's lounge singer, or a Chevy Chase pratfall, or a scene from Star Wars, or a muppet.

Originally I was going to say more about politics and political memory, and about the ways false claims about the seventies support political myths now, but it's hard to follow up on the muppets. One of the most amazing things about Season 1 of Saturday Night Live is how unfunny the muppets were. Also: Franco is not as dead as I would like him to be.


Keifus said...

You know, I don't really trust professional men, so there's one thing.

In my personal historical revision, I think of the seventies as the most self-aware decade of my living years, at least within the media it allowed. I picture an American gaze straight to its own navel (which according to my map appears to be in approximately Kansas City, go figure) in the early 1980s. There was a more palpable social consciousness in 70s, as I recall. We'd only just got out of Viet Nam. I had a lot of exposer to things like the world wildlife federation (which still could imagine it had a chance 30-odd years ago) and big natural food movements. Huge environmental legislation passed, and some things actually got cleaned up. Feminism was still angry. Etc.

As for entertainment, the films of the 70s are generally well-regarded, and imagined as more adult, although any pulp or animation that trickled down my way was execrable. Except for the muppets, which were totally awesome.

It's unfair to imagine the fashions as uniquely bad, or as uniquely self-parodying. I have a funny story about an outfit my so-called friends convinced me to buy to go to a dance club in 1990 or so, when I was drunk (and no more belonged in a club then than I do now).


(Never read Franzen, and don't know anything about his writing. He seems pretty well represented too.)

august said...

Hi Keif,

I was pretty much imagining you and Dawn as the audience for anything I post here (with perhaps an occasional appearance from Ted). I have a lot of crud cluttering my head at the moment, and this seemed like a good place to sweep it.

My sense is that there was a politics in the seventies that conformed to my ideas of justice and fairness. Not that everything was fair or just, but then, in sharp contrast to now, I could have reasonably expected enough of a critical mass of voters to support things close to me that those things could be debated in the public sphere. There's plenty that did not happen (ERA!), but what I find depressing now is that issues that strike me as common sense (like -- perhaps having a worldwide American imperium creates more trouble than it's worth) render me damn near the lunatic fringe. It's not that the entertainment was better, it's just that it reflected a sensibility with which I can still identify. And it seems to have become the building blocks of my sense of self: Free to Be You and Me, Star Wars, the Bicentennial, Watergate -- that's kind of who I am and how I see the world.

Thinking about the seventies in those terms helps me with two things. It helps clarify my sense of unease with most of what's happened in the U.S. since Reagan -- it's a point of reference for a critique of contemporary politics. And it's also a scrapbook of my earliest memories, my bits of language and metaphor that I put together as best I could in the course of making me. Neither is a project that seems likely to have wide appeal, thus explaining (by me to me) my residence so close to the lunatics.

And of course, there was all the horrible, horrible stuff that happened then. I don't mean to gloss over it. I just think the contemporary reactions to the horrible stuff were more persuasive than most of what has come since, in particular the neo-lib "Everybody's an independent entrepreneur!" Kaus/Sullivan/Clinton (and I think it's fair to include Obama) style politics.

I'm looking forward to Kavalier and Clay. Franzen has moved to my back burner. Joan Didion, of all people, has emerged as my primary literary interest of the moment.

Keifus said...

Dawn gave me the heads-up, which helped. If you need the uncluttering, I'll happily read it.

what I find depressing now is that issues that strike me as common sense render me damn near the lunatic fringe.

Good Lord, tell me about it.

This afternoon, I read Carter's "malaise" speech. It wasn't primo rhetoric, and it's not like Carter dared defy the imperium, but it's closer to honesty than anything I've heard from a president since I've been in double digits. I mean, there was all sorts of weasely diplomacy and threats that followed, not to mention the covert violence (and there was conservation anyway), as well as market drives that developed new oil sources, but Carter wasn't really so wrong just the same. All that happened with energy (and the economy) afterwards was borrowed time, which, good Americans we, charged to the damn limit. Shouldn't I be happier to have lived in a golden age?

But on the other hand, I always worry about centering my conceptions of the past around my own life. (The best time of the world was when I was a kid. The worst time was when my body started to fall apart, etc.) And I don't really trust nostalgia. The old days were unlikely to have been so great. There were subversive movements in pretty much every decade, but I agree that the seventies may have had some more of them in the popular, accepted discourse. (How will the 2000s look in hindsight? I suppose in America, the 1770s and 1900s (-ish) really have to take the cake, though.)

You know, as for formative things no one cares about, I tell anyone who will listen that I learned social commentary from vintage MAD magazines. Did it screw me up or make me sane?

I liked Kavalier and Clay: a pretty good story, and there was a real love for the comic book as both real art and cultural signifier. Less nostalgic than appreciative, and it came through. I remember there was a sentence that annoyed me though. Let me know if bothers you too.

IOZ used to say good things about Joan Didion. He was right about Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad in that similar context, so I figured she was worth checking out.


("Exposure," sheesh.)

august said...


Your post reminded me of a lot of the things historians are supposed to learn to do, and of why history is not (and cannot be) science. We are supposed to learn to use nostalgia. We are supposed to be able to characterize change over time. We are supposed to note structural continuities, and to discern the revolution from the mood swing. We know the 1870s are different from the 1970s. Does it follow that the 1970s were different from the 1980s? Zoom in with enough detail, and it is self-evidently true. Back off into generalization, and we discover we are all humans, nothing new under the sun, etc.

I don't feel that I'm under the illusion that the sixties and seventies were a great time, no more than I think that the eighties to present have been the country's nadir (I'd vote 1861-1865 for that). Slouching Toward Bethlehem is merciless on the subject of hippies, really brilliantly so. Fair enough, but why is pacifism dead? Not merely unpopular, but on a list with polygamy and monarchism. I can understand being opposed to socialism, but I don't understand how and when the word became a synonym for communism and inherited all the Red Scare baggage. I'm still kind of horrified at what happened to the word "liberal."

"Nostalgia" to me means a longing, an ache for return. I don't want the seventies to come back, not least because my way of being male (like Chabon's) would have been wholly alien to life then. I'm trying to do something more like genealogy, to follow certain concepts forwards and backwards between then and now.

I can mark the distance, and kind of see what happened, but I still don't really get it. There's just a jarring disconnect between what is presented to me as a commonsense view of the span of U.S. history that overlaps my lifetime, and my own experience of that same time. I find it frustrating.

Keifus said...

Nostalgia is also a marketing tool. Reagan traded in on a 1950s nostalgia that wasn't entirely true. (I think of that decade, and see a lot of veneer. I mean, civil unrest everywhere, labor problems, the beginning of covert imperialism, the beginning of the big flameout of energy and land consumption, all of that smoothed under a carefully chipper white-boy crew cut.) That sort of bullshit cultural memory is still animating our politics.

That's an interesting comment on history. I don't think I can dispute that people, collectively anyway, adopted different ways of considering and dealing with the world in different times (just like they do in other places) but there's got to be an element of universality too. Isn't finding the common experience a big part of history too? I generally assume that people act understandably given the cultural and technological environment of their times. Isn't history how we come to an estimate of human nature in the first place? And with that model, isn't that how we then try and back out new understandings of the world in other times and places? (It's science-like!) Using romanced views of the past makes sense to me, and so does marking a geneaology. Believing a romanced view of the past, especially one that validates your formative experience, probably means you've just bought something.

(Crap, now I'm going to have to figure out why I liked Kavalier and Clay, and hated Underworld.)

I see some resonance in the last 30-ish years to the early twentieth century. No, the radical movements are completely neutered now and there is more social equality, but we seem to be in a similar sort of spiral, where wealth is concentrating, and more easily gaining power that helps it to further concentrate. Of course, we are in much different points in the arc of the industrial age. I think it's now in the face of decline. (I'm no historian, but it's as good as I can do to explain the mystifying mess of things from then to now.)

august said...

My comment just got eaten.

Historians are in theory interested in continuities and structures, it's just that pointing out exceptions to the rule is easier. When Gregor and I have run into some kind of disagreement, it's usually along those lines. Gregor is looking for a clearer, more elegant account of cause and effect, and I tend to go for exceptions, cavils, complexities. That's one reason Gregor is such a great writer -- he tries to zero in on the core of the issue and cut out noise.

There's a big philosophical issue embedded in your question about universalities, but my discussion of it got eaten, so I'll just say what it is and leave it at that. Basically historians are uncomfortable with the whole idea of universality. If you want universal you're better off in biology, philosophy, mathematics. For historians, the fear is always that if you make a claim, some jackass grad student will show that in the south sea islands, in a suburb of Little Rock, and perhaps for about 10 minutes in the 14th century your universal claim does not work.

There is a paradox, however. Historians seem totally comfortable believing on the one hand that each age/person/polity/whatever is unique, but at the same time they think that all ages are transparent to history. So the only universality that all historians agree upon is one that seems dubious: "I am capable of understanding any previous age."

This is one of the things (obviously) that is rattling around in my head. I'm fairly sure my profession is fundamentally bogus. Yet it still seems marginally less bogus than other professions, and self-evidently preferable to anything else in my skill set.

Keifus said...

I didn't really mean a universality of history, although I'm as guilty of talking about it that way as anybody else, what with this event analagous to that one and all.

I was thinking more of universality of human nature, within certain fuzzy boudaries and vague probabilities. And I'm trying to say that "history" is the basic data set there, how we induce what that nature is, and relative to what sorts of events. If a theory is considered utterly refuted (and not adjusted, modified, discussed, or limited) by some minor ill-fitting piece of data, then that bothers me. (Still gotta read Thomas Kuhn, yeah yeah.)

And I definitely mean a qualitative understanding. I expend more posts than anyone's really interested in reading, trying to work out some aspects of the philosophy that interest me. How well can we understand human behavior really? Economics pretends that it's got a good handle on the description, but I think it greatly overextends its claims. (Some of its more egregious failues include the non-monetary incentives and activities of people even when those behaviors greatly influence their purely economic activities anyway. For at least the powerful people of the world, history picks up some things that economics fails to describe, or in my taxnonomy, at least it ought to.) I don't follow much behavioralism, but I suspect a similar deficit of scope. And it's interesting to me how a zillion individual choices (the perception of rationalism is another overextended claim) add up to collective behaviors that one is at least able to, if not predict very well, at least rationalize. I'm interested in how the same animals with almost the same genetic capabilities, that at some point had nothing more going for them than a laughable vocabulary, nonetheless have built up and stored knowledge and how that has fed back into our physical and decision-making environment ever since. I'm interested that the details of history—in terms of the quality of lives for so many individuals, and what is more important than that?—matter and are different even in historical circumstances that are otherwise similar, and I wonder how it's better represented in our discussion of the past.

(Now copy, and then submit...)


Dawn Coyote said...

After beginning careers in their teens, marrying, having children and spending the latter half of the sixties posted at an army base in Germany, my mom and dad in the seventies came back to Canada and became children again. The culture of the times offered a panoply of experiences and entertainments which they embraced with all the fervor of orphans at a Christmas party.

They made friends who shared their interests, and began exploring the world on snowmobiles, in powerboats, and around each others’ livingrooms, with cocktails and pot and dubious interactions with each others’ spouses.

It didn’t take long before it began to fall apart, but by then they were committed to the lifestyle and not prepared to return to their more innocent and prosaic lives. Drama ensued. Affairs were had. Accusations and ashtrays were hurled. Separations were undertaken, and then discarded. All this took place to a soundtrack of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Derek and the Dominoes, Led Zepplin, David Bowie and Pink Floyd.

This was the environment into which I fledged. I was 6 in 1970, and an alcoholic by ’79. I did the only thing that made sense to me: dropped out of high school and became the hostess of my own party, my parents’ party having wound down into bitter squalls of drunkenness and infidelity by that point.

I look back on that time fondly, but it took me a long time to figure out that it wasn’t the way that life was for most people, and it wasn’t going to work out well for me. That entire decade was like a long viewing of Eyes Wide Shut. If the director didn’t die at the end, he should have.

The seventies did not teach me to dress fashionably, they taught me to dress in costume, which I did up until about five years ago. Women over forty in sequined lederhosen just don’t have the same √©lan as twenty-somethings in the same gear. As far as “tyranny of cool” goes, my friends and I in the seventies were cool unto death. We were terminal cool.

My mom became enthusiastic about feminism in the 70’s. Feminism contributed to the breakdown of my parents’ marriage (not that it needed any help), and, almost three decades later, the residual confusion over gender roles contributed to the breakdown of mine.

Coming into social awareness in the period of redemption after Viet Nam, I was not prepared for Iraq. It undid me, and yet I still cling to ideals founded in the seventies: fairness and justice, and the belief that knowledge/understanding is an antidote for any and all social ills.

I could never claim any affinity for history, but I tend to see connections and look for patterns. Like the other night–I was watching Midnight Express, which opens with an image of the Blue Mosque, and then cuts to a guy strapping bricks of hashish around his body with duct tape. I thought about how I was visiting the Blue Mosque the day the Twin Towers were attacked by suicide bombers who had strapped planes around themselves, and how around the time the movie was made, I was selling hash in Ottawa which my dad got from his Turkish friend for five dollars a gram. No real pattern there, except the odd set of experiences which make up the intensely personal lens through which I view the world.

I cannot bring myself to watch Mad Men, more out of fear of its fictions than its truths, and my inability to tell the difference.

My most recent revelation: poop is stardust.

august said...

When I got married, my wife had a cat (August) who sat in my lap as I typed and whose litterbox was next to my desk because mrs. august felt that it was too gross to have it in the bathroom. Shortly after the arrival of our daughter, the cat died, replacing one variety of poop with a panoply of scatological sights and sounds. It has been clear to me for some time that poop is stardust, but I have never heard it said so well.

Dawn, that may be your greatest post ever, a takedown so vivid that I'm left with just, just, wow. I wonder if your parents were posted at the same army base where I was born.

I did sit through a season of Mad Men, and found it just too painful. I have a hard time figuring out why I found it painful, as if the introspection would expose off something even more uncomfortable about me. I have a horrible time reading stories and watching films about adultery. I think I'll leave that for a separate post.

Anyway, Joan Didion for the sixties, and now Dawn for the seventies, remind me of how the period earned its reputation. Still, sure a lot of hippies were dippy kids. A lot of soldiers are dippy kids. Why then is pacifism dead and militarism rampant? Yes confusion about gender roles broke up a lot of marriages. But people were right to be confused about gender roles. If gender roles aren't perplexing, then they are straightjackets.

In the seventies, a world was coming into focus on the horizon in which brute labor would be less valuable, in which both spouses in a marriage would have to work to maintain their standard of living, in which women would sometimes earn more than men, in which being gay would not have to be a disease, in which the poisoning of the environment might become a greater threat than foreign invasion, in which certain myths of North America would crumble. Those things were true and remain true regardless of how many key parties took place.

I think all of that is compatible with your view of the age. Affinities and patterns. On Sept 11 I was in China, wondering if I had been wrong all along, and whether attacking Afghanistan really did make sense under the circumstances.

This is fun. I'm glad I came back.

Dawn Coyote said...

I don’t lament that the gender role confusion destabilizes relationships, but it’s a hard pill to swallow, so many years out. It made me realize that social change moves at a glacial pace, regardless of the upwelling sentiment of the times. Social movements surge forward, submit to backlash, fold back on themselves, are renewed. I suppose it’s more of a spiral than a straight line, but at least there’s measurable progress. Perhaps pacifism isn’t dead, but merely dormant; temporarily cowed.

We were in Germany from late ’64 to ’69, in Lippstadt and Soest. My brother was born there in ’66.

You are very kind, august. If I’m more thoughtful than usual here, it’s because your post and your discussion with Kiefus are a warm fire in the cold vacuum of the interwebs. This is fun. I’m glad you came back, too.

I put Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album on my Amazon wish list before I even began typing my earlier reply.

I really really love the idea that poop is stardust.