The Residue of Design
Four times a year, an odd and wonderful journal called The Threepenny Review appears in my mailbox. Unlike the vast majority of periodicals I read, Threepenny seems oblivious to the otherwise ubiquitous values of timeliness, gloss and hipness and in particular to the odious idea that an article must be pegged to an upcoming event (the release of a movie, the launch of a perfume, the impeachment of a president). Instead, Threepenny seems to consider literary interest, depth, complexity and quality the criteria by which an article should be judged (and published). Recent issues, eclectic as always, have included essays on Roland Barthes, “King Lear,” baseball, Brassai and Turkish minarets, written by some of our finest critics--John Berger, Susan Sontag and Michael Ignatieff among them.
The Threepenny Review was founded in Berkeley in 1980 by Wendy Lesser, who was 27 and is still its editor today. Since then, Lesser has written several books, on topics ranging from art to executions, as well as numerous critical essays. In her new book, she tackles the story of her own life although, not surprisingly, “The Amateur” is not a typical memoir. We learn very little about Lesser’s personal life--or, rather, we learn about her personal life to the extent that it is tied to that other life, the life of the mind. “The things that have happened to me in my four decades here in California, and the things that have happened on stage and canvas and screen and paper, are not two separate realms,” Lesser explains. Structured as a series of short but interconnected essays and written in a spare, almost austere tone, “The Amateur” is that rare thing: the story of an intellectual odyssey undertaken by a woman.
Lesser believes in choice and chance, agency and luck: “You can’t plan how the choices will turn out; that isn’t under your control. But you can certainly make them.” In her case, the luck seems to have consisted of inheriting (apparently from her mother) a nicely unobstructed access to her self. “I think I was born with a sense of an instantaneous connection between the things I perceived in the world and my feelings about those things,” Lesser observes. "[T]here is no gap between perception and response. I wouldn’t have thought this was unusual, except that I have detected the absence of it in many people. It mainly takes the form of their not knowing what they want. I almost always know what I want.” Of course there’s a disadvantage: “This instantaneous response often makes me difficult, and sometimes makes me stupid.” But life--by which Lesser means “other people and works of art"--has compensated, forcing her to “slow down and consider the details.”
Although Lesser is clearly a product of the ‘60s--she entered Radcliffe in 1969, at the height of the antiwar movement--she honors the classical aesthetic (and moral) values of coherence, unity and connection, and she scoffs at the idea that art is something we “relate” to. She begins her story by recalling how the comfortable suburb of Palo Alto, where she was raised, felt safe and yet arid, creating in her a “sense of removal from the sources of meaning. . . . [F]or the child of the suburbs, there is no imaginative echo surrounding real places, no literary ancestry infusing the objects of everyday life. Especially for the California suburbanite, there is a distinct separation between the real and the fictional.” Thus the adolescent Lesser became addicted to science fiction, the ultimate ersatz reality, which she slyly describes as “the opiate of the atheists.”
It was real novels and real cities that cured her of sci-fi, opening up "[t]he possibility of drawing together the imaginary and the real, of finding places in the mind that were also places on earth.” And it is novels and cities that teach her the dialectic--of giving up in order to gain, of fragmenting in order to cohere, of finding freedom within structure--that will recur throughout her life (and this book). "[A] city only really becomes your own when you let go of it a little,” Lesser argues. “The special quality of both cities and novels is that they are enriched by previous use, . . . made intimate by your awareness of their vastness. . . . [Y]ou become defined in relation to them; you lose yourself to find yourself.”
And so it was with literature. Lesser began her literary education by viewing novels essentially as mirrors: Characters were judged satisfactory to the degree that she admired, approved of or identified with them. Gradually, this narcissism gave way to something more complex. "[A]s I gained the city by beginning to let go of it, I also began to give literature a longer rein,” Lesser remembers. “It was not that I grew to like [Dickens’] Esther Summerson (does anyone?), but rather that I came to understand the value of not liking her. That a world could be alien to me and still mine--that empathy was a hard-won claim and not an easy virtue--was something that both novels and cities could teach me.”
Lesser believes that every critic needs a few “touchstone artists"--artists, that is, whom the critic finds so compelling that they force her to interrogate her responses. For Lesser, the choreographer Mark Morris fits the bill. Not surprisingly, then, it is through her discussion of Morris’ aesthetic values that Lesser most clearly reveals her own. "[Morris’] sensibility is both omnivorous and highly discriminating,” she observes. “He may be broad-minded, but he is also a snob.” She refers to Morris as the “controlling force” of his company but then amends that the very idea of control “is false to the freedom and individuality we can see in his work. . . . If he is a controlling force, it is in the same sense that gravity is: enormously powerful, but leaving one free to move.”
Lesser identifies herself as a fan of George Orwell and even considered calling her magazine Wigan Pier (although ultimately she chose what she calls the “Brechtian overtones” of Threepenny). Yet it is the Orwell of “Politics and the English Language"--with his insistence on lucid language as a moral imperative--that seems to have influenced her most. Time and again, Lesser returns to questions of language, including the etymology of words and their social context; indeed, her book sent me to the dictionary to look up “amateur,” which turns out to mean something very different than I had assumed.
Orwell’s influence is most apparent in Lesser’s grief-infused essay on Mario Savio, leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. “He was the only political figure of my era for whom language truly mattered,” she writes. “He was the last American, perhaps, who believed that civil, precisely worded, expressive, emotionally truthful exhortation could bring about significant change.” But Lesser views Savio as a finale, not a start (hence the grief): “His was a political pathway that led nowhere, a dead end in our evolutionary development. This is our loss. We were unable to learn what he had to teach us, because we were unable to conceive of political language that could be truthful rather than just persuasive.”
In a chapter on her friend the poet Thom Gunn, Lesser writes: “This is the tale of choices consciously made on the basis of immediate as well as lasting desires; of pleasures experienced and enjoyed; of a life explored and inhabited so as to render up its manifold possibilities.” From the evidence of “The Amateur,” Lesser could be describing her own tale too. Yet she is able, also, to hear the melancholic notes that drift through the melody of her own “very good life.”
After a recent visit to New York City, she observes, “Once change had represented promise. Now it was merely threat. . . . The world was not all before me. . . . Death, after all, is a change . . . whereas what I had suddenly become aware of was stasis.” A critic who can explore the wistful sense of limit embedded in a life of achievement--and resist the seductive lure of smugness--is a critic to be treasured, indeed.