Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Lopate on Lounging

I'm finding the writing of Phillip Lopate a great balm in these pandemic times. His skepticism, humor, and self-effacement are tonics against the global anxiety we're all manifesting while locked down at home. Yet, as with almost everything I read—or watch or listen to—these days, I'm finding particularly ironic notes that were unintended by the writer. In his terrific essay "A Passion For Waiting," in Against Joie De Vivre (1989; reissued by Nebraska in 2008), Lopate confronts his distaste for hanging around in for long hours bars and coffeehouses. Now: what a luxury to chide oneself for! The hours that some are able to spend lounging around in public, drinking, holding forth, or cultivating a loner persona, and which Lopate laments that he lacks the constitution for, now seem to be, absurdly, a kind of Golden Era, even though the stay-at-home orders we (well, most of us) are following are only weeks old. Many details in books and movies and songs—road trips! sold-out shows! Happy Hour!—now cast in sharp relief the communal freedom of movement and gathering that until mid March I took for granted.

Anyway, Lopate wrote his essay in the 1980s, a time when he was living and teaching in Houston, affecting a man-about-town, bachelor lifestyle. "One of the things for which I chastise myself most often is that I have never learned to sit around bars or cafes for hours, just being a regular," he complains. "I envy people who can, because they seem somehow effortlessly to be able to make themselves part of a community—and in big cities, any sense of fellowship is at a premium." On occasion, Lopate will gaze through through the window of his corner Irish bar at "the laughing patrons" and "once or twice a year I even make myself go in, nursing a beer and gazing at the ball game while trying to imbibe the atmosphere." Here Lopate makes a characteristic turn toward the contrary: "But as soon as some stranger who has had a few begins to tell me his life story, covering me with undeserved tenderness one moment and arbitrary scorn the next, I can't help thinking about making my getaway. And, of course, the barfly can see that in your eyes, no matter how far gone he is."

Also typical of Lopate is his anxiety that he was born in the wrong century and thus he's missed the real thing, in this case the coffeehouse "as it throve in its legendary prime, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," not the joint "as it crops up now, with its fly-in-amber air of studied indolence." London coffeehouses, he reminds us, "played an immense role in the intellectual life of that time: the latest plays, satires, political pamphlets were circulated, discussed, sometimes even written there, the witty remarks of a Swift or Goldsmith were sparked there, and quickly made the rounds; Addison and Steele's newssheets, Tatler and Spectator, sprang from the concentration of coffeehouse life."

Those first issues of Tatler and Spectator were "subdivided according to the coffeehouse from which their intelligences were ostensibly gathered: political news from one establishment, literary talk from another, religion, fashions, and so on, from still others. In those days not only layabouts but the most vitally active, prolific members of society frequented coffeehouses. It was your social duty and pleasure to spend a portion of the day there; you knew you could expect to meet your friend at such-and-such an inn between certain given hours." Lopate marvels—and here the pang of our current situation is graphic—"How few of us have the opportunity to see our good friends daily!" And also, he adds, our "enemies, rivals, and indifferent acquaintances," as well.

Famously, Lopate is constitutionally unable to remain happy with himself; though it's more accurate to say that he's most comfortable with his own ambivalence. His essays are shot through with skepticism and bolts of self-interrogation, which has led some readers to assume that Lopate is a grouch (and some critics, too; the New York Times review of Against Joie De Vivre was titled "An All-Out Assault On Fun"). I've never felt this way. Lopate is simply, complexly, human, leavening whatever pleasures and joy he experiences with the very realistic, sobering notion that this too shall pass, that the native state of the human is some blend of frisson and doubt. "But even when I try to dawdle [in a coffeehouse], with the assistance of a book or newspaper, my impatience forces me to get up after an hour and ten minutes at most," he laments. "Apparently I lack what Walter Benjamin called 'that passion for waiting, without which one cannot thoroughly appreciate the charms of a cafe'." 

Lopate ends the essay with a balanced take on his sensibility, at once nostalgic for a time he never experienced and accepting of his own cynicism, recognizing with a sigh that "intellectual camaraderie and self-forgetful cooperation" probably constitute the "high-water mark" in his romanticizing of coffeehouses. "But having said so may idealized things about them, I have to admit that I would probably have been just as uncomfortable hanging around in them."
For one thing, I lack the Sitzfleisch, the sitting power. It would also be difficult for me, knowing my competitive nature, to spectate in loud brilliant groups, waiting to insert an occasional bon mot of my own through the fumes of conversation. Even if the Algonquin circle were to be revived tomorrow, with a chair for me, and if the talk were particularly sophisticated and bitchy, l would probably feel too threatened to stick around for long. I suspect I have more interest in regretting these roundtables of intellect as something the contemporary world has deprived me of, than in actually joining one if given the chance.

Vintage coffeehouse photo via Pinterest

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