Our Friend Phillip

Our Friend Phillip

An Unexpected Blog From Phillip Lopate

By Ned Stuckey-French

Ned Stuckey-French

This past February, at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, DC, I went to a panel about how to follow one’s train of thought in a piece of writing. The panelists included my friends Phillip Lopate and Sarah Einstein, and after it was over, I went up to say hello to them, but AWP can be like a high school reunion or wedding reception on steroids—full of frustrating five-minute half-conversations. Phillip and Sarah are terrific writers and talkers, and I was hoping to catch them for something more substantial—ten minutes, maybe twelve. During a pause in the conversation Phillip revealed in a way that seemed at once conspiratorial and as if he couldn’t help himself: “I’m doing a blog for The American ScholarYou should read it. It’s funny.”

After four days of drinking from the fire hose that is AWP, on returning home, I found Phillip’s blog and began reading. I couldn’t stop. It is funny…and touching and wide-ranging and learned and honest. “So, you’re conducting a column,” had been my response at AWP, to which Phillip replied with a shrug, “Yes, I’m now a columnist.” But it’s more than that. It’s something akin to the eighteenth-century periodical essayists (Addison, Steele, Dr. Johnson) or their early-twentieth-century imitators, the Manhattan wits (Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, Don Marquis). It’s as if he’s delivering a short essay each week.

This kind of delivery is a gift, but one Phillip claims to give grudgingly. He launched his blog last year and in his first installment, titled “We Begin,” he wrote: “I am starting a blog, something I thought I would never do.” Book editors had long told him that the Digital Age required a platform. He would have to publicize his books online, but, he wrote, he’d always played “the geezer card. Never, never would I consent to keep a blog, that catchment for random drivel.”

Finally, however, with that first blog post on the first of June, he had given in. He allowed that he was getting paid, though not much (he joked that maybe the federal government would increase the hourly minimum wage), but he had talked himself into it, telling himself it might help him “generate some unexpected material and fresh ideas.” There was much trepidation, much hand-wringing, but he’d do it: “One year, 400–600 words a week. I am on the road to hell. Or simply, I have finally joined the 21st Century, 16 years into it.” Methinks he doth protest too much. Ten months in and by my count some installments are well over 1,200 words.

There’s a clue to why his blog works so well in the title of that first post: “We Begin.” That “we” smacks a bit of the journalistic “we” that E. B. White was required to use in the Notes and Comment section of The New Yorker. White found it to be a fake, corporate voice, as in “we found a new little tobacco shop in the East Village last week.” Who found it? The entire staff of The New Yorker traipsed over there? Of the journalistic “we,” White said he thought only the Dionne Quintuplets should be allowed to use it.  “Anonymity, plus the ‘we,’” he said, “gives a writer a cloak of dishonesty, and he finds himself going around, like a masked reveler at a ball, kissing all the pretty girls.” White wanted a byline and accountability, so in 1938 he left The New Yorker for Harper’s, where for the next five years he wrote the columns that became most of the pieces in his ground-breaking collection One Man’s Meat.

But the “we” in Phillip’s title has a second resonance, which I think is the main one. It is the “we” of address, it is the “we” of you and me, dear reader. No one knows the history of the personal essay better than Phillip. He understands full well the significance of the fact that it’s personal. The essay is familiar, informal, and intimate—especially the essay in its Montaignean (as opposed to Baconian) tradition. As Montaigne himself put it:

The essay in this tradition is tentative, skeptical, digressive, and, above all, conversational. It goes some place without knowing where it is going to go. It revises itself. It is one person speaking to another, a late-night talk where ideas are tried out. Or, as Phillip puts it in his first post, “Good thing I’m not a purist. I’m an impurist.”

Which is not to say these pieces are not often tidy, well conceived, and self-contained. One post, for instance, consists of a profile of his first wife’s father. It is a tour de force. I can hardly imagine a fuller meditation on the relationship between a son-in-law and a father-in-law. Phillip is a renowned film scholar as well as novelist, personal essayist, and educator, so one post contains a film review of La La Land and Jackie (he likes them both); another surveys the offerings at this year’s New York Film Festival; and a third is a remembrance of his friend, the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who died recently and unexpectedly as a consequence of a medical error.

Other posts are narratives, and again, they are often funny. One, titled “The Big Schlep,” tells the story of planning a Golden Globes party with his wife and daughter. In this story Phillip plays The Little Man, the hapless modern husband we’ve met before in Thurber and Benchley and that lives on in Dagwood Bumstead or Everybody Loves Raymond. Here’s Phillip adopting the role:

I offered to vacuum, but the job was assigned to our daughter, because “Daddy doesn’t vacuum right.” I started to object that, the last time, I did a great job vacuuming, which even she had had to admit, but it is no use, I will never escape the stigma of inept vacuuming.

So I was sent out to buy supplies.

At which, of course, he also fails, bringing back in addition to the food, beer, and wine on his assigned list some veggie chips, which his wife deems “old-ladyish and ridiculously expensive.” But the party is a success. Later, he’ll take the veggie chips to his office at the university.

We already know, however, that this luckless schlep is the luckiest man in the world. We have met wife Cheryl and daughter Lily elsewhere in these blog posts and have seen how thoroughly in love he is with them. Cheryl’s dry humor keeps him from both self-pity and self-importance. One post, “Holding Onto the Banister,” is the story of Phillip’s cautiousness. As he has grown older, his fear of falling has increased. He tells us about walking downstairs in his quiet house each morning and holding onto the banister. As he takes the steps one at a time, his mind turns to Primo Levi “and his fatal tumble.” Like Levi’s biographers he wonders if it was suicide or an accident. He worries that he has passed his wariness on to Lily, who avoided the rough and tumble as a kid playing soccer: “How I sympathized with her, while wishing she could have taken after her intrepid mom, who is far more at home in the challenge of objects and nature.” But then the essay turns happier and Phillip makes peace with his cautious nature and he resolves, “as I get older, I will continue to hold on to banisters (my wife being my principal banister), just to be on the safe side.” In a post about “his favorite time of the year,” “September Song,” he writes about how he loves being an academic and heading back to school, but how he felt melancholy this September because Lily, while still in Brooklyn, was now a college graduate, fully employed, and taking the subway into Manhattan each day. He “alone return[ed] to the groves of academe” this fall, so he and Lily are “no longer in sync.”

The blog, which is called Full Disclosure, is now up to forty posts, and in it, Phillip adopts many roles besides husband and father. He is a lecturer in China, surprised by his students’ knowledge of and fascination with the United States and its culture. At times, he is a political pundit, reluctantly but inevitably, railing like so many of us against Trump, whom he characterizes as “a Black Hole of Intellect” and “the Inevitable Subject.” Even when “resisting Mr. T****,” the problem of persona persists, for, he acknowledges, “In his naked need for self-approval, I see myself. He is the Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll. He is already inside me. Can you blame me for trying to eject him from my consciousness by resisting further thinking about him?”

But Phillip is a real intellectual (not a Black Hole or braggart). I know of no one with his range of interest or reading habits. In his blog, he is a literary critic reading English women novelists (Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Bowen, and Elizabeth Taylor); an art critic (at the Guggenheim for the Agnes Martin retrospective); an interpreter of documentaries (about the artists Eva Hesse and Ida Applebroog); a pilgrim (at the home of the early-twentieth-century Chinese essayist Lu Xun); and a blues fan (listening to Bessie Smith and John Lee Hooker).

He is also a downsizing man of letters, selling his thirty-five boxes of papers and correspondence to the highest bidder (Yale), but he feels more “like a shmata salesman laying out the season’s dress line.” (Here too, it must be noted, he reverts to hapless Pop. Cheryl thinks his “handwritten scrawl by which I had marked the boxes’ contents with Sharpies was sloppy,” and while he sleeps, Lily stays up late and rearranges the boxes in a “prettier display” the night before the librarians from Yale arrive.)

Three or four times in the blog he is a tennis player, though always the amateur, the novice hoping to find a teacher who will help him learn to follow through and hit it “on the rise.” Elsewhere he travels back in time and is a young man in his teens and twenties who is “mad about jazz,” hanging out in some club in the Village till two o’clock, waiting for Monk to finally show up. Or he goes further back, all the way to junior high, where as a member of his Hebrew choir he was “told I could become a cantor if I played my cards right,” and it sends him off thinking of all the things he could have been: “Lopate the cantor, Lopate the lawyer, Lopate the corporate boss, Lopate the psychotherapist, Lopate the editor.” This sets him to wondering, “Are they the impostors, or am I?”

Like so many essayists before him, Phillip is trying to sort out the difference between persona and self, the public and the private. Essayists, unlike fiction writers, cannot hide behind their characters, as Fitzgerald hides behind Nick Carraway. Or can they? Here’s the way Virginia Woolf summed up the essayist’s dilemma: “For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.”

But even writers, good writers, great writers, essayists of the first order, like Phillip Lopate, can have a hard time resolving this contradiction. Sometimes he feels he’s worked it out:

Susan Sontag wrote in her diaries how tired she was of her ostentatious public self, this shrill “Susan Sontag” who had little to do with her quiet inner core. I do not have this problem: the writer in me has merged with the private self to such an extent that I can no longer see any difference between the two.

But elsewhere in his blog, he says this:

A therapist once mockingly characterized me as having an “amphitheater personality.” Maybe so: I go into a trance and shed my reserved demeanor. For all my misgivings, the two AWP panels, especially the second one, came off well, and the audience left seeming pleased.

Maybe he’s saying the same thing in different ways. I do know that at the AWP panel he did come off well and he seemed like himself up there, and that self is one I recognize in his essays, and now in his blog.

Maybe it’s because he knows how to be a friend—on the page and off. Friendship is a subject he returns to again and again in the blog. He writes about his women friends, friendships ending, the death of friends, and, with tongue (partly) in cheek about “how to be popular and well liked.” In his September 2nd post, Phillip writes achingly about the death of his good friend Peter: “I ask myself, ‘Could it be that I was in love with him, and didn’t know it while he was alive?’ Not exactly, any more than I am a little in love with all my friends.” It made me think a line from Montaigne’s remembrance of his friend Étienne de La Boétie, “Of Friendship,” the simple clarity of which astounded me when I first read it in my early twenties: “If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: because it was he, because it was I.”

A few weeks later, in early October, Phillip wrote a whole post about Montaigne and La Boétie. He focuses on the passage from “Of Friendship” when Montaigne gives the reader the scene of his friend’s deathbed. La Boétie calls out just before passing away, “My brother, my brother, do you refuse me a place?” Phillip, like Alexander Nehamas and other Montaigne scholars, wonders if The Essays of Montaigne might not be read as a long conversation with his lost friend. Then, at Rosh Hashanah services and hearing the prayers with their “insistent plea to ‘inscribe us in the Book of Life,’” Phillip is “lulled into peace and repose by listening to the service in Hebrew, a language I could not understand,” and he begins to write his blog post in his head.

I thought about this. The post was in his head, now it is on the page, or rather on my screen, given to us as Montaigne gave those essays to both La Boétie and his living readers, then and now. Thank you, Phillip.

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