New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 190 pages. $24.00.
Willard Spiegelman’s collection of essays Senior Moments is quick with good sense, playfulness, and probing intelligence. His prose is so elegant that if I’d not aged beyond fervors and lusts of all vivifying kinds, I would be envious. For decades Spiegelman taught at Southern Methodist University and edited the Southwest Review. During these academic years, he wrote a shelf of bright critical studies—most analyzing poetry, particularly the works of the Romantics. He now writes for the Wall Street Journal, having transformed himself into the sort of general critic of art and literature that college professors nearing retirement often dream of becoming but don’t manage to achieve. Almost never does the moving finger that has spent years contributing to small, specialized presses move on to monitor the cultural fibrillations of the day.
Senior Moments is Spiegelman’s second volume of familiar essays, occasional pieces that transcend the moment because they are carefully honed. They startle dozy readers into thought, almost compelling them to mull over their lives. Spiegelman celebrates this world. Any image of an afterlife based on rewards and punishments, he writes, “seems implausible.” To this end he quotes Charles Lamb: Do “sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful glass, and candlelight, and fireside conversations, and innocent vanities and jests, and irony itself” go out with life? Spiegelman reckons “they probably do.” Consequently, with great gusto and joy, he gathers memories and enthusiastically celebrates living. He reminds me of Nan Shepherd. When asked if she believed in an afterlife, Shepherd replied, “I hope it is true for those who have had a lean life. For myself—this has been so good, so fulfilling.”
Spiegelman begins Moments with an essay on talk. In memory, good parents and relatives appear more often talking than acting. Pages limit analysis and determine form. Consequently, people become remarks recollected and sharpened in the tranquility of composition. Spiegelman’s mother is a Bartlett’s of the quotable. On seeing the Ghiberti Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery in Florence, she said, “If the Church just sold those doors, they could solve world hunger.” Of a social-climber who thought herself superior to her neighbors, she remarked, “The next time I see her I won’t know who she is before she doesn’t know who I am.” Spiegelman came from an extended family of great-aunts and great-uncles “one generation removed from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.” “Noise and life were synonymous.” I suspect family talk is different today. Relatives are so far apart in place and thought that familial community doesn’t exist.
In his family, Spiegelman recounts, “everybody talked about everything—except their inner lives.” Literate people are well-versed in the superficial. Surroundings forever change, provoking endless talk. In contrast, the concept of an inner life seems compensatory, a flattering construct fashioned by sad people to assure themselves they are more than they appear to be, that is, more sensitive, more imaginative, more deeply thoughtful. Most references to inner lives are platitudinous. Moreover, the organs of inner lives are usually emotional conversation-stoppers and certainly not as interesting as the pancreas and liver. Spiegelman loves the outer world and words, and he celebrates conversation, calling it “the cornerstone of democracy” and saying, “It’s not only good fences but also good talking that makes good neighbors.” Conversation, he declares, is “the essential human art.” Words can be rambunctiously disruptive, and the pressure to bleach and iron them into dead propriety never stops. This past summer, my university constructed a road across corn fields and through second-growth woods. Because a “Research Park” was being built alongside the road, someone, likely a propagandist pushing branding, named the road Discovery Drive. The name is an advertising name, a Twitter name oblivious to any sense of land or history, a name that disenchants and purges melody from the imagination. Its words lack taproots and are companions to plastic flowers and mall music.
“Here is a formula for staying young well beyond the days of youth,” Spiegelman states at the beginning of his essay on “Dallas”:
Grow old in a place where you do not think you belong. You will feel like an adolescent, because adolescents always consider themselves outsiders. Then, after decades, just as you have gradually habituated yourself to your surroundings, pack up and leave. It is time for another, perhaps the final beginning.
Does anyone belong in a Dallas-like city, and would he live there if there were no air conditioning? Still, Spiegelman makes Dallas interesting, albeit not appealing. He celebrates the beauty of redbuds, marvels at the worship of money, and describes shopping and the pervasiveness of major league religion. He mulls over the addiction to football, an opioid more harmful to the Southern mind than oxycodone. He tries hard to redeem Dallas but eventually concludes, “For all the clichés about southern friendliness and New York brusqueness or Bostonian chill, it seems to me that any city in which people bump up against one another on the streets is ipso facto more humane than one in which they merely see one another waiting in air-conditioned cars at stoplights.”
Spiegelman is too smart and analytical not to realize that the source of his inability to appreciate Dallas may not lie within the city itself but within him. A mild case of alienation, he explains, hardly
distinguished my case from that of countless contemporaries. Intellectuals, artists, and academics probably belong nowhere to begin with. We are quasi—if not genuine expatriates, with a tendency to look inward to the worlds of literature and thought. Universities, wherever they are, are all self-contained microcosms that resemble one another more than any other kind of community. My academic department [at SMU] houses many New Yorkers and other northeasterners, but only one native Texan. We came to Dallas from somewhere else. Yes, and such dislocation may be responsible for what I call, and sometimes feel, “the loneliness of the long-time college teacher.”
In describing a trip to Japan, Spiegelman writes, “Every transaction in a foreign country becomes an adventure.” “What a relief to escape from being voter, taxpayer, authority on old brass, brother of the man who is an authority on old brass, author of best seller, uncle of author of best seller,” Stephen Graham wrote in The Gentle Art of Tramping, urging his reader to “liberate yourself from the tacit assumption of your everyday life.” A good traveler, Spiegelman states, “returns exhilarated, restored, and confirmed by the jolt of strangeness.” Reading is itself a form of travel especially for oldsters whose muscles have become corpses of themselves. Spiegelman is very good on reading, noting that tastes and customs change as a person ages. “Both body and mind undergo time’s often not so subtle depredations.” For better or worse, people adjust and at seventy are not the readers they were at seven or seventeen. “The eyes require help.” The mind may have lost “the simple ability to sit still and concentrate,” and “we must work more strenuously at what once seemed easy, even effortless.”
“Brevity becomes the soul of wisdom and passion, as well as wit,” he testifies. “My preferred tastes now run to shorter things. No longer Joyce and James . . . no longer Proust, but Willa Cather, William Maxwell, and Peter Taylor among twentieth-century novelists.” Oh, dear, last week I removed Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool from my bedside table and returned it to the library. Russo has long been one of my favorite writers. I have read all his novels, but Everybody’s Fool was too long for the aged me to finish. I kept falling asleep and losing my place. At the library, I checked out Alan Furst’s A Hero of France and Philip Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence, books that I could read in an afternoon and evening’s comfortable sitting.
In one of his best essays Spiegelman ponders nostalgia. He begins by glancing back at the past. To this end he quotes the sonnets John Updike wrote as he was dying. In one he recalled the “dear friends of childhood” and thanked them for supplying him with “human types” for his writing. Perhaps, he speculated, “we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life.” Spiegelman describes the pleasures of a high school reunion. He enjoys meeting former acquaintances and recalling the past, but he realizes that nostalgia can smother. He knows that the nostalgia experienced by the aged differs from that felt by youth. For my part I think nostalgia experienced by the elderly is for life not led rather than life led—nostalgia for imagined derring-do and escapes from the conventional but not for opportunities to coin money or achieve power or position, these last seeming soiling and trivial. The reunion leads Spiegelman to ask, “When did I become old?” “We are the same, and not the same,” he answers.
We all had pretty plumage once, or, as an astute friend of mine once observed, you spend the first half of your life wishing you looked like someone else and the second half of your life wishing you looked like yourself in the first half of that life. We experience our life as continuity, not as separate steps; we confront radical change in others.
The great drawback to writing well is that the prose does not call attention to itself and allows, almost encourages, readers to slide through paragraphs without noticing the writer’s hard-won ideas. Spiegelman ends the essay by noting that looking back is a source of pleasure while looking forward “tests one’s strength and hope.” He quotes Wordsworth, who in his “Intimations” Ode said that mature people found “strength in what remains behind.” “The phrasing suggests,” Spiegelman explains, “that we are grateful for what strength remains within us after much has been taken, and also that we continue, unavoidably, to look back, ‘behind’ us, to identify and relish the source of that strength.”
In “Art” and “Quiet,” Spiegelman laments the disappearance of silence and the calm of mind that silence nourishes. In Dallas, he notes, every play or concert “warrants a standing ovation with whoops and hollers.” In cafés, all conversation other than cell phone muttering is endangered. Pop music drowns hearing and wall-to-wall televisions practically rip the retinas out of one’s eyes. Only the deaf or people who own custom-made ear plugs can safely attend athletic events. People who do not cork their ears beforehand will visit audiologists soon afterward. Even libraries have become noisy places. Echoing the mantra of interdisciplinary studies, libraries now encourage collaboration or, as Spiegelman puts it, “Engaged Learning.” “The activity demands chatter, lots of it,” he writes. Always analytical and verbal, Spiegelman is not an auditory prescriptivist intent upon banning all disruptive sound. He wonders if writers cherish quiet more than other people “if only because they know what language can and cannot do.” He observes that meeting the demands “for quiet, even total silence, requires the inevitable loss of all consciousness.” The best people can do, he thinks, is to seek quiet “when and where we can, balancing our civic, social, and personal obligations to others with our selfish need to withdraw into our own happiness.” “The final silence will come all too soon, and only in the tomb.”
The most seductive of Spiegelman’s essays is his account of moving to and roaming around Manhattan. He went to Manhattan, he explained, not only for E. B. White’s gifts of loneliness and privacy, but also “for their opposites, the gifts of public life, of crowds, the paradox of anonymous company, and the serendipity of street conversations with strangers.” He wanted to escape reliance upon the automobile, explaining that the automobile greatly influenced his decision to leave Dallas. “The automobile liberates us. It also isolates us. Walking focuses and expands the mind. Driving closes the mind to everything except driving itself.” Spiegelman is a great walker covering at least six and often ten miles a day. One day he walks from the tip of Manhattan to the toe, spending eleven hours to cover twenty miles. He explores, and his mind roams. Many of his walking moments seem trivial, but they are
like pieces of punctuation in a writer’s paragraph: they create pauses, continuities, hesitations, and momentary stopping points. Through them we ask questions or get answers to earlier questions. They provoke exclamations of wonder and good humor. A semicolon joins to two independent clauses; a chat brings together two independent people who would otherwise have remained separate.
Stephen Graham believed tramping would enrich living. He urged people to meander the outdoors. For Graham, nature was not simply natural but also freeing and therapeutic, softening the bunions raised by habit and convention. Nature, he wrote, revealed herself slowly and unexpectedly. Spiegelman is the Graham of Manhattan. His tramping blows life into his days, causing the dry sidewalks to live. “As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream,” Graham wrote, “the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” As Spiegelman roams Manhattan, endless doors and shops and buildings open, and his life becomes wondrously green and quick with people and places. Similarly, Senior Moments is itself a door, making the reader feel alive, urging him to appreciate his life, be that life composed of memories or of streets as yet untraveled.