Sunday, August 05, 2018

Portrait of My Body (1996)

After publishing his large (and essential) anthology of personal essays, Phillip Lopate went to work on his own third collection of them. This time, he says in the introduction, he thought he had to be more careful to include only personal essays—no "literary essays, film and architectural reviews, magazine articles about urbanism and travel, ephemeral 'relationship' pieces.... The dread of all publishing companies is to be caught publishing a random collection of pieces." Accordingly, some of the 13 pieces here are winsomely personal: about shushing in movie theaters, remembering Greenwich Village, and the title piece, equal parts candor and dry wit about his body parts. He likes his legs a lot, for example, because he likes being tall. Many of the pieces touch on his marriage and child. It's a grand joke in his circles that his first collection was called Bachelorhood. His second was Against Joie de Vivre, leading to conjecture this one would be called Against Bachelorhood, a kind of apologia. It may be somewhat awkward for him but I like the sound of the marriage and family here. Speaking of being against things, Lopate notes a theme of "resistance" that runs through these pieces. It's perhaps most explicit in "Resistance to the Holocaust," which is less a personal essay and more a personal opinion—or even polemic—but a useful and interesting one. That's not least because, writing in 1989, he has some air of authority and prescience on the topic. Essentially his argument is that by making the Holocaust a unique event in history, which cannot be compared with other genocides, it must be removed from history and the sphere of critical examination. Lopate is very careful to detach himself from deniers—as a Jew himself, he makes clear he understands all the stakes. It's a subtle point, his resistance. It's more about sentimentality and hagiography obscuring the truth. In some ways, in these various themes of resistance, Lopate comes across more like a basic contrarian, a position with which of course I have much sympathy. If so many people are for it, in the world of human psychology herd instinct, then how can it possibly be any good? At the most fundamental level, this is the attitude all good writers should bring to the party, not just personal essayists. Good stuff again.

In case it's not at the library.

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