My review of Willard Spiegelman’s latest collection of essays, Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, appears in the new issue of The Hopkins Review, Volume 10, Number 2, Spring 2017, alongside poems by Sunil Iyengar, R. Nemo Hill, Elise Paschen, and J.D. McClatchy, a translation of Heine by Terese Coe, fiction by Joanna Pearson and Jonathan Gottschall, a portfolio of drawings by William Bailey, and much more. You can learn more about the journal and subscribe here.
Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead by Willard Spiegelman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 208 pp.
As Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, where he taught for many years, Willard Spiegelman made a name for himself with a number of impressive book-length studies, including Majestic Indolence, an examination of his much-loved English Romantic poets, and Imaginative Transcripts, which addressed the likes of Jorie Graham and John Ashbery. His role as a commanding scholar and critic took a remarkable turn in 2010, when he published a charming collection of personal essays ambitiously (and cheekily) titled Seven Pleasures, Essays on Ordinary Happiness—after the trivium and the quadrivium, otherwise known as the seven liberal arts—which brought him before a general readership. The volume included pleasing observations on “dancing, reading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writing,” presenting these ordinary pursuits as deep wells from which one may draw with great satisfaction. It proved a popular book, something an author of thoughtful poetry criticism hardly dares dream of, and it changed the trajectory of his writing life, making him a celebrity beyond the groves of academe. Spiegelman’s latest (again cheekily titled), Senior Moments, Looking Back, Looking Ahead, brings the author’s deep knowledge of literature to bear on a fresh array of topics, eight altogether in this case, including three locales, Dallas, Japan, and Manhattan; and some broader categories, such as talk, books, art, nostalgia, and quiet. Those hoping for a dissertation on the pleasures and pains of aging will find instead a droll look at the world and how it has changed in Spiegelman’s life (he was born in 1944).
Spiegelman remarks that he did not set out to write a memoir but that the book gradually turned out as something resembling one. While it contains no outrageous confessions and often only loosely bears upon its author, it is roughly structured according to stages in his life. Stories of his childhood in Philadelphia give way to episodes in Dallas, where he spent much of his life teaching, then Japan, which he visited only once, and finally Manhattan, where he has retired and seems to enjoy himself immensely (he encouraged others to follow suit in “For a Long Life, Retire to Manhattan” in the New York Times). Even the most personal episodes serve as points of departure for imaginative dilations on art, literature, cuisine, language, friendship, and the culture at large (this last is where we find the critic at his most acerbic).
The book begins with something of an origin story. We see the development of a critic, connoisseur, editor, and raconteur in what may seem, at first, the unlikeliest of places, working class Philadelphia. From the start, his wonderful talent for linking literature with life is on full display, as he relates that “unlike Shakespeare’s Cordelia, whose voice was ‘ever soft’ . . . my mother’s was loud, grating, often shrill, and always capable of penetrating the bowels of any department store when she was trying to locate a wayward child.” His mother’s voice is styled as the very fabric of his less-than-literary childhood in Philadelphia. He goes so far as to say that “when I hear a Philadelphia accent, I hear her.” Yet it was in this rough, Philadelphian English that he felt the first stirrings of his calling as a man of letters, catching what he calls “phonophilia: love of sounds,” though adding “at least certain ones.” He goes on,
I can still hear, through the years, my family chattering: assertively, ironically, simultaneously. Language was the best way to make one’s mark. I hardly knew it at the time, but language became my life’s leitmotif.
While his love of language brought him great success as a literature professor, it is the “spoken language, even more than writing” that “brings us together.” As a boy expanding his vocabulary, he was “discovering the essential charms of poetry itself, with its combination of the semantic and the non-semantic. Rhythm, rhyme, and music: melody enhances the meanings of words and the power of communication.” Lessons begin to emerge. Everything matters. Everything is relevant if understood and used correctly. This explains much of Spiegelman’s appeal to a wider readership in his later career.
Other chapters are no less personal, though they are more topical, including the truly charming one set in Dallas, in which he relates that “I have not really accepted the fact that Dallas has been my home for most of my life.” And why is this? He’s a northerner through and through, so much so that he can’t help but summon Robert Lowell’s “savage servility [that] slides by on grease” when contemplating the automobile (rather than walking) culture of Dallas, soon followed by Frank O’Hara’s claim he was “always made a little nervous when he could not have a subway sign clearly in view.” A native of colder, more crowded northern cities, Spiegelman found that Dallas took some getting used to. He regales us with hilarious stories of himself as a Yankee fish-out-of-water, as when, for instance, he decides one day he will walk rather than drive only to find himself parched and soaked with sweat upon arrival, exhausted and disoriented, as if having been lost for a year in the Gobi Desert. To give some sense of his ample range of reference, he also marshals Wordsworth (from The Prelude, no less), Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Amy Clampitt (whose letters Spiegelman edited), and Keats, to name only a few, all for an essay on the home of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders! Along the way, he provides a riveting history of the architecture, demography, local culture, politics, and eateries of Dallas, along with brazen remarks worthy of a true card-carrying a member of the cognoscente, as when he finds himself in a barber’s chair asked about his favorite team and replies that his preferred sport is opera.
Spiegelman has since retired to Manhattan, an island much more suited to aesthetes and flâneurs, remarking that such a move is “an act of bravery” that prepares “a person for the end. The anonymity of metropolitan life gets you ready for the anonymity of the grave,” though he somewhat surprisingly admits he finds “this assessment comforting rather than macabre.” As with all his tales, he provides memorable sketches, including one set at the Fairway Market on Broadway at Seventy-Fourth Street, where a man encounters
a woman examining the string beans. Speaking perhaps only to herself, she is entranced by the quality of the produce: “Such beans, I’ve never seen such gorgeous beans.” Picking over them individually, she turns to him and repeats her excitement: “Have you ever seen such beans? You can’t get green beans like these where I live.”
Thinking that perhaps she has come from the Bronx, New Jersey, or even farther away, he politely asks, “Where are you from, madam?”
“I’m from Eighty-Fifth Street.”
Spiegelman has a keen ear for such moments, giving him the ability to conjure tableaus that reside somewhere between Vaudeville and a Saul Bellow novel.
Predictably, the chapter devoted to books is among the strongest. In classic style, Spiegelman addresses not only the titles he’s loved and returns to on a regular basis but also those he’s decided ought to be jettisoned from the “lists one made in youth,” admitting he has consigned such ogres as Schopenhauer, Kant, Pound’s Cantos, Nabokov’s Ada, and Melville’s Pierre; or, The Ambiguities to the column “I’d rather not,” equitably explaining that “time’s passing requires that we make choices, positive and negative.” He takes time to lament that while “half a century ago, high schools and universities provided space and time for expansive leisureliness,” during which one might consume Middlemarch or Moby-Dick, today “college professors have thrown up their hands and accepted the new realities; they assign only parts of books, selections from Melville, juicy chunks of Homer,” which leads to a pedagogy based on “greatest moments, the biggest hits.” We suspect that literary matters may be deteriorating all around, and Spiegelman’s mordant opinions along these lines have only just begun.
His is not, however, a “they have the numbers; we the heights” position. Spiegelman is quick to dismiss notions of “high” literary encounters crowding out other kinds of reading or simply reading for the sake of enjoyment. It’s an open secret that the most imposing authority on Joyce’s Ulysses or the Greek of Hesiod might well be caught spread out on a beach towel with a Robert Ludlum novel. “Giants of reading are never snobs; they take to everything, traveling in the realms of tin and brass as well as silver and gold.” His explanation for this is somewhat unsettling. According to Spiegelman, the driving energy behind the serious reader is less thirst for transcendence than something akin to the obsessive poking and stroking of a cell phone.
From the sublime to the mundane, the ennobling to the trashy, a genuine reader will pick up anything in sight, often regardless of style or substance, rather than do something else. When trapped, he’ll aim for a matchbook cover. He may well be on to something. Perhaps a love of literature begins with a simple compulsion borne equally out of curiosity and boredom.
Spiegelman is truly in his element in the chapter, which contains much wisdom and worthy advice. Consider these examples, all three drawn from a single paragraph:
. . . complexity is not synonymous with depth, nor simplicity with superficiality.
Style makes its own demands . . . my definition of good writing: it is what makes you interested in something you are not interested in.
Quality of syntax and language indicates quality of mind.
He finds that shorter works are better suited to his current reading life, and that includes lyric poetry. It’s clear he simply couldn’t resist zinging the reader with a quote from a rather unusual source in defense of his preference: “A great twentieth-century intellectual once said, ‘I read poetry because it saves time.’ That was Marilyn Monroe.”
Spiegelman is not always such fun. He is downright scathing when he turns his attention to the dwindling of quiet public spaces, suitable for contemplation, relaxation, and that nearly-vanished art, conversation. The title for the chapter “Quiet” may be construed in the imperative as much as in the indicative mood. One almost hears him shushing from the page. “One can read a book anywhere,” because “every reader is a solitary.” Much to his chagrin, this is not the case with painting and sculpture. Much as he loves them, he feels he can no longer enjoy them as he once could. Museums have become hives of noise and distraction, thanks to the likes of Thomas Hoving at the Met, who helped to pioneer the “blockbuster” art show. “Everyone knows the feeling: discomfort, annoyance, rage, and entire range of emotions provoked by other people when one might wish to have total solitude, or at least relative peace and quiet. Welcome to the modern museum experience.” For Spiegelman, Sartre’s oft-quoted reflection holds true, “l’enfer est d’autres personnes.” This is no less the case for the modern dining experience. “Restaurants like to pump up the noise and the music in order to turn tables more quickly, and also to make people think they’re dining where the action is.” He finds such experiences purely frustrating and is surely not alone. He recounts one occasion on which he visited an empty restaurant blasting obnoxious music. After asking for a room without such interfering noise, he is, with his friends, led into a room with wide-screen televisions blaring football. A request to turn the TV off only leads to a short interim of silence before the music kicks back on again. It would be comical if it weren’t so nearly nightmarish.
A book that dedicates itself, at least obliquely, to the later years of one’s life must grapple with certain topics, such as the long look back (even if one is determined to look forward, as the book’s subtitle reminds us). True to form, Spiegelman’s lively chapter “Nostalgia” brings us Odysseus’s yearning for Ithaka while the guest of Kalypso and makes reference to Ruth “among the alien corn,” as Keats has it in “Ode to a Nightingale.” He summons Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen alongside the songs of Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and the popular paintings of Norman Rockwell and Currier and Ives, all plaintively reminding listener and viewer of departed worlds. Beneath the emotional transports made available by immersion in these works of art, we are confronted with the fact that “life itself becomes, chillingly, shorter with each passing day.” Yet the best kinds of nostalgia remain a consolation. Happy memories bring “at least the luxury of solace.”
The passage of time is perhaps nowhere more obviously apparent than when seen through a succession of high school reunions—Spiegelman can’t resist calling upon Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu before bringing us to his own—each anniversary culling the original cast and working unforeseen transformations upon those who remain. The most one hopes for is the “unchangingness” of one friend, for which he is grateful: “She looked just like herself, even a bit more so.” For every moment of relief, though, there are others of disappointment.
Someone came up to me at the reunion and said, “Remember me?” He wore no name tag. How could I remember this man, who bore no resemblance to anyone I had ever seen?”
But even this awkward instant proves an occasion for some fun. When the mysterious man introduces himself, “‘Hello, Willard. I’m David Smith. Do you remember me?’” Spiegelman tells us “the correct answer is, ‘David, of course. You haven’t changed. How are you?’” After all, one should never “give the other person a chance to embarrass both of you.” Even the mortifications of aging give Spiegelman material for laughter, as when he informs us that “you spend the first half of your life wishing you looked like someone else and the second half of your life wishing you looked like yourself in the first half of that life.” The book fairly brims with such wonderful turns.
Senior Moments shot up the Amazon best-seller lists in the categories of both “Aging” and “Gerontology,” which may mislead readers who find themselves treated to a literary feast rather than dour ruminations on what are sometimes referred to as the Golden Years. What they find instead is a tough and cheerful literary universe. When grappling with John Updike’s (very) late sonnet sequence, composed during his final visits to the hospital, Spiegelman sums them up as a “product of what I can only call intelligent, rational nostalgia.” This is a real achievement given the tendency of such exercises to turn maudlin or desperate, or more realistically to simply not happen at all. When telling of his twin Amazon list successes one evening at a reading, he was moved to confess he wasn’t sure what the difference between aging and gerontology might be, if there was one at all. A gerontologist in the audience eagerly raised his hand to deliver a bon mot every bit worthy of one of Spiegelman’s essays, one Spiegelman enjoys repeating with great aplomb: “The difference between gerontology and aging is that gerontology is a science; aging is an art.” Indeed, if it is an art, Mr. Spiegelman proves in these pages that, as with so much else, he does it exceedingly well.