Thursday, June 22, 2023

Not trying to cause a big sensation

On identifying with not identifying, with Phillip Lopate (plus, the Who)

I've been on a big Phillip Lopate kick of late. One of the great pleasures for me in reading personal essays is the moment of recognition, of feeling "seen" or "heard" in a stranger's experiences. Such an identification is especially nice when I share little context with the writer—in the case of Lopate, there's a nearly quarter-century gap in our ages, and our religious/cultural and regional differences—he's Jewish, I was raised Catholic; he was born and raised in Brooklyn, I in suburban Washington D.C.—while not by any stretch vast, are unalike enough that when I find myself overlapping with his insights and perspectives, as in a transparency, I'm reminded again of the essential and eternal shared through-line among human beings.

In "'Howl' and Me," a terrific essay published in 2006 (gathered in Portrait Inside My Head) about his complicated attitudes toward Allen Ginsberg's epic poem, Lopate describes a feeling that I've often had myself: the deep reluctance to label oneself a member of "a generation." He wrote, "'Howl' proffered one more temptation which I resisted mightily, and which was contained in the words 'my generation'," adding, "This may not be the proper occasion to explore what lies behind my distrust of that (to my mind) smug, self-mythologizing notion. Oh, what the hell."
To quote Ben Hecht: "It is, as I have long suspected, very difficult for a writer to write about anybody but himself." Certainly true for me. In any case, I find the words "my generation" presumptuous; I don’t feel it's my right to generalize for all those who happened to be born during the same decade as myself. Or perhaps it isn't humility but vanity that won't allow me to speak of myself in any but idiosyncratic terms, resisting sociological categories that would place me in a collective epoch. 
My college students and younger nieces and nephews often stare at me suspiciously when I confess to not knowing, or anyway needing to regularly remind myself, which so-called generation I'm a member of. Like Lopate, I've long resisted the label, irked at being "defined" by what the pop media or sociologists have determined are the key aspects of the massive group of people who happened to have born around the time I was, as if our exposure to the same media, news events, and cultural Zeitgeists was a strong-enough glue to bind us together as a tribe with lifetime membership. (I've long been an proponent of the "age is just a number" bromide, anyway.) When my students attempt to amiably pigeonhole me given my age, I smile and roll my eyes at the parlor game—go ahead, if it works for you. Joyce Carol Oates remarked that the essay "is not place- or -time-bound," that it "survives the occasion of its original composition." In a funny way, I've always thought about myself similarly. I'm struck every semester by how consistently my twenty-something students explore in their essays more or less the same core issues—family politics, friendship, childhood, ill-fitting personae—that my students have always explored, over the course of the decades I've spent teaching. Though I encourage them to avoid clich├ęs, I find myself myself muttering, the more things change....

I recognize that I'm likely in the minority about all of this, in denial that the decade in which I was born is indeed a kind of birthmark that I don't (choose to) see, and wouldn't to be able to rub off if I wanted to. If so, I have Lopate in my corner, which I'll take gladly. As a self-taught essayist (and, for that matter, teacher of essays), I'll be forever in Lopate's debt for his guidance from afar. His wonderful Art of the Personal Essay anthology is a kind of literary travelogue that I've hold closely to for decades as I've visited the many countries of the essay, places I first stumbled through as an awed, ignorant, and  innocent tourist. It's dog-eared. At one point in "'Howl' and Me" Lopate remarks that he has spent his life "striving for skepticism and stoicism." That's another way I identify with him, and it's nice to have his essays around as reminders that there are others like me, and, maybe, you.


One man who's actively courted identification with his generation is, of course, Pete Townshend; it's impossible for me to hear the phrase my generation and not immediately think of the the Who's brilliant 1965 single. Though Townshend was fated to dodge incoming barbs for the rest of his career—did you really want to die before you got old?; you should've died before you got old!, and the rest—"My Generation" indeed defined him as a spokesperson for the kids near his age in England in the mid-1960s. He's carried the assumed mantle around for decades, and just last year he spoke about the song's origins. Appearing on Radio X's "According To Google" series, he said, "'My Generation' was inspired by the fact that I felt as artists we had to draw a line between all those people who had been involved in the second world war and all those people who were born right at the end of the war."
Those people had sacrificed so much for us, but they weren't able to give us anything. No guidance, no inspiration. Nothing really. We weren't allowed to join the army, we weren't allowed to speak, we were expected to shut up and enjoy the peace... And we decided not to do that.
Here's a man far more confident in finding connections between himself and his generation than I, a self-described loner, am. (A notorious contrarian, Townshend's disavowed the spokesman label as many times as he's preened with it.) Maybe the roiling, historic intensity of that decade had something to do with Townshend's identification with the times—having grown up, relative to the pop boundary-pushing '60s, in a less charged era, I felt less bound to my epoch. I don't know; I'd rather be untethered to my origins, less time-bound, as in Oates's essay ideal. I'm not sure that I've gotten to the bottom of just why that is. Perhaps my disinclination to identify with my generation is pathetic, a head-in-the-sand insistence that I matter on my own terms, not history's, cultural genetic markers be damned.  The space between Lopate's skepticism and Townshend's righteousness feels long, but it might only be two sides of a coin. 

Anyway, PLAY LOUD:

"Pete Townshend And Broken Guitars London, 1966" (detail), by Colin Jones

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Born in 1954, I was among the first cohort to be given a label upon our births, and we never had that luxury to forget it. Ah, soon we'll all be history. Bye, Boomers!