Ten Years Gone (and other things)

I’m afraid that Long Pauses is fast becoming an outlet for end-of-the-week rambles, written while I drink away a Friday afternoon. The following is an incomplete list of topics I would cover at much greater length and with much greater insight given the time, energy, and inclination.

Radical Liberalism. I’ve spent all day, every day this week sitting in the library, chugging through my Norman Mailer chapter. In the true spirit of “writing as discovery,” I’ve realized in the last day or two that my chapter is really about trying to define the term “New Left,” which is actually a good bit more difficult than you might imagine. One of the Right’s great rhetorical victories over the last three decades, I think, is their collapsing of fifteen years of socio-political history (roughly 1960-1975) down to a single pejorative. “New Left” has become synonymous with the countercultural excesses and lame pseudo-Maoist ramblings of the late-60s and early-70s. I’m trying to complicate that (as they say in the trade) by reading the larger narrative of the Cold War Left and by looking more closely at the various stages of the life (and death) of the New Left.

Two years ago, when I first pitched my dissertation idea to a faculty member in hopes that she would agree to join my committee, she listened patiently as I rambled and rambled, then she interrupted me to ask, “Okay, so what’s the point?” I told her the truth — that I had no idea what my point was but that I hoped to find my own politics during the writing process. Dramatic pause. “Great,” she said. “Your project will have a voice. Count me in.”

I can’t say that I’ve necessarily found my politics yet, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover much that is worth salvaging amongst the wreckage of the New Left, especially among the group of intellectuals who, through their work in the 1950s, were instrumental in shaping the theories of the Free Speech Movement and the early ventures of Students for a Democratic Society. In that regard, Kevin Mattson’s book, Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970, has been a great resource, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve been using it to the point of plagiarism.

Summer Reading. I would also probably write about this article in which Michael Chabon describes the months he spent sitting in a crawlspace, producing what would eventually become his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I haven’t read Pittsburgh since, oh, 1994 or so, but, coincidentally, it’s been on my mind lately. As have Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both of which Chabon mentions as direct inspirations. Actually, I knew they were his inspirations already. He and I talked about it when I was writing my Master’s thesis — and by “talked” I mean “exchanged emails for a week or two.”

The main reason I’ve been thinking about Pittsburgh and Columbus is that my summer is settling into a pleasant but oddly-disciplined routine. I get to the library at 8:30 and spend an hour or so drinking coffee while checking email and reading blogs. At 9:30 I reread everything I’ve already written and spend 30 minutes or so editing. At 10, a woman sits down at the table four chairs to my left (did I mention I always sit in the same place?), and she studies there while I write. Just before noon, we both get up and leave. I take a walk and get some lunch. I don’t know where she goes. After lunch I grab a cup of coffee, return to my table on the 4th floor, and write until 4:30.

As Chabon mentions in that piece, both his and Roth’s novels (and Fitzgerald’s) are built around a simple, 3-act structure: June, July, August. Both also feature protagonists who work in a library. Get the connection? Sidebar: I’m about to begin rereading E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, which features a protagonist who is trying to complete his doctoral dissertation, a study of the Cold War Left.

Life. Art. Life. Art. My daughter. My sister. My daughter. My sister.

Oops. Beer’s empty.

Trouble Every Day. I would definitely write about Claire Denis’s film, which I watched for the first time a few days ago and which was every bit as beautiful and every bit as disturbing as I expected. (See new title image.) In the process, I would also unleash a breathless diatribe against the shameful lack of curiosity that characterizes so much of American culture, from the White House — and especially the White House — on down. I would rant about Bush’s sickly, starved imagination and about evangelicalism’s fear of metaphors, and it would all be inspired by Mick LaSalle’s mind-numbing review of Trouble Every Day in the San Francisco Chronicle. Stuff like this wouldn’t piss me off nearly so much if critical response didn’t directly impact our ability to see these films. Is it any wonder that L’Intrus, the best new film I saw last year, can’t find American distribution when a critic for the major newspaper of America’s most progressive city won’t give even five minutes of thought to Denis’s work?

The Song of the Moment. A week or two ago I had one of those “sit down cross-legged in front of the CD collection and pull out stuff you haven’t listened to for years” kind of nights. Without really meaning to, I found myself distracted by a mood. Every song I cued up would have sounded better coming out of a record — you know, with the breath and hiss and pops of a turntable. They also would have sounded better coming out of a car stereo, if the car were being driven with the windows down on a warm spring evening. I’m still thinking of putting together a mix CD. Let me know if you’re interested.

“Ten Years Gone” was the first song I hit that made me turn out the lights and close my eyes. What I really wanted to listen to, I discovered, was side 3 of Physicial Graffiti. (I had to make do with “disc 2.”) I love how Bonham drives that album by always staying at the very back of the beat. His drum fills actually make me anxious. I always worry that he won’t get there in time.

And Other Stuff. Like how excited I am about the prospect of buying new Sufjan Stevens and Pernice Brothers albums in the next few weeks. And how much I enjoyed Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, which I also saw for the first time this week. And how it feels to live without a kitchen for going-on-six-weeks-now because the contractor and subcontractors are having issues. And how that damn wooden chair at the library is giving my back fits.

And so on.