From Montpellier to Richmond

December 31st, 2007 § 2 comments

“Life, though it looks tender on the outside, is very crunchy on the inside, which may be why we prefer it with food.”

I have always had problems when it comes to heroes. I remember Mr. Harutunian, when I was in his English 101 honors class, pacing the classroom, asking of us, who are your heroes? I think his point had something to do with my generations problems, and what he saw as a lack of something. I do remember, however, vividly thinking about the idea of a “hero” for the first time in my life. Who were my heroes? The question seemed absurd to the point of being completely baffling, I could not think of anyone I knew personally, and my generational references were not large enough to provide someone either-perhaps that was his point, we don’t have any. Perhaps he was questioning-much more likely, really-what a hero was, why we had them (if we did), and how a hero might change with someones age and interests. Who did the public provide for us, who did we construct ourselves, and to whom, within the confines of our reality, would we give that title? To have a hero, it seemed, one must completely agree with, support and believe in, that person or thing implicitly and without question-a feat impossible for a 16-year-old, frustrated and suspicious. I had a very similar problem when Gregory Volk, the first day of his seminar, asked what artists we would “one-hundred-percent” (with emphasis on each syllable) stand behind: in other words, what artists did we believe in implicitly? Again, I was at a loss for words and intentions. Was he trying to find out what kind of artists we were by our loves and inspirations, was he testing our knowledge of current artists (the one I believe to be true), was he seeing if we looked forward (to the forerunners of ‘art now’) or backwards for our references? If he had asked who I looked at and why, I could have given a coherent list of artists and explanations, though it might be a bit shabbier and more dated list than it should be, but I could not think of a single artist who I would “stand behind”. Why? The same reasons, I believe, I could not pick a hero at 16.

It was Katherine Hixson ( ironically enough) who gave her class an essay by Gopnik to read when we were (oddly enough) talking about food, Alice Waters, and Proust in the Critical Issues/Fiber & Material Studies class. After suffering through maddening selections of Proust (which I am now determined to reread), Gopnik’s essay was humorous if dense, and enlightening of a profession I had never given much thought to. It was a mad bit of luck that I began my stay in France around the same time that I began to read Paris to the Moon, the source of the essay, and a book that happened to be about Gopnik’s five year stay in Paris with his wife and newborn son. I am not sure I have ever agreed with a book so heartily, for while his stay and observations went much deeper than mine-he became a part of the culture rather than an onlooker from the sidelines-his descriptions were a part of my everyday life. I doubt very much if a French person would feel the same way, but American to American, expatriate to expatriate, it was right. He has an incredible habit of drawing large sweeping conclusions out of small, unimportant events and objects. I subscribed to the New Yorker this year because of him, only to find, much to my disappointment, that he does not write very often, of course when he does it is worth the wait. A few weekends ago while bookstore shopping in the National Gallery, Jake found his new book, Through the Children’s Gate, a Home in New York, a book about his return to New York City shortly before 9/11, and the raising of his family after. Although I never would consciously have said it, I never thought I could disagree with his conclusions.

From the first, however, this book proved a challenge. I have not (yet) lived in New York, and those small and privileged secrets that filled Paris to the Moon with endearing charm, are probably not absent here, but they are absent for me. The America he describes, pulls apart and reconstructs, however, is the same America, in some general way, that I have lived in. The issues he raises are as always insightful, engaging, and relevant, and yet the conclusions he draws from them, while valid, logical, and well defined, are not the conclusions I draw. While my committee would cry in outrage at such a statement, I do not meant it in “that” (or their) way. I still enjoy his writing, he is above all a journalist and a good critic of the arts, his articles and their topics are both incredibly specific and generally interesting-he calls careful and almost sensitive attention to that which we overlook. I will still scan every New Yorker for his articles first, but this brings me back to the idea of “a hero”.

It seems to me that we make them whether we want them or not, we latch onto them even if we don’t realize that is what we are doing. Disagreement is the food of most good discussions and ideas, why then would I be disappointed that I disagreed with some of his conclusions? Because, without even realizing it, I was expecting to agree, to believe implicitly in his observations and explanations of a world and culture that is so troubling and puzzling. The word “hero” seems to mean the same thing as having “artists you stand by”, and is similar to holding beliefs that never change. Perhaps all people want to have a place they can go where they do not have to doubt, question, or think independently, and need someone who they can believe when everything else is a lie: God, a Hero, your Mother. The truth is what Gopnik’s 5-year-old daughter pointed out, that he doesn’t really know anything, he is just guessing. It is a little depressing when one of your heroes is brought down by the voice of inner reason, and where once you had “what was right” you are now left with a semi (more than most)-interesting intellectual trying to make sense of his own life. Olivia is right, he is just guessing, but since he guesses are still better informed and more experienced than mine, they are well worth heeding-when it comes down to having a hero (of sorts anyway) or guesses, I suppose I prefer guessing back.

(On a side note, since I can’t very well write a review of the whole book, this is the review I found the most apt, including the part about Charlie Ravioli.)

§ 2 Responses to From Montpellier to Richmond"

  • For The Bayman says:

    Fearing again completely overtaking your blog, here are more letters that i will not remember when you respond. – later decided to send them electronically as this would take many pixtures – I cannot believe that someone like hixson would bring up heroes – it is such a male concept and speaks in the bipolar aspects that allows no middle ground and also a hierarchy. It could be the fact that we seem so pressed for time that one has to talk in sound bites and thus speaking of heroes can shorthand thinking but that implies a common knowledge and assessment of the person and volk with 100% backing? Really?
    Doesn’t this smack of cult of personality?
    And you worrying about how you will be perceived by the names you bring out – second guessing – are you ashamed of the people who influence you or don’t want to bother justifying them?
    Peer pressure?
    Professor pressure?
    What if you changed the word “hero”?
    My influences:
    society of friends
    john roemer my social studies teacher in upper school
    rio branco

    Ask me 10 minutes from now and the list will change and you have non clue on why – well some you do as you know me


    Why would there there be contemporary heroes shouldn’t we still be assessing these people wouldn’t that be like retiring a ballplayer’s number while he is still playing? Can there be respect and where on the hero scale does it fit in? It seems that rattling off contemporary heroes is more an ego trip and one-upsmanship than anything else. The more recent the less of a filter there is to access and frankly i cannot remember names there are so many, i only seem to remember trends unless i see the same name over and over again.

    Gopnik was in paris – you weren’t so why is gopnik being in nyc and you not be any different? Is this what i hinted at as the stereotype of france paris=france?

    I bring this up due to my weird wandering habits, brasil being niterói and not rio and always having to state “i lived in niterói which is across the bay from rio.” camberwell south london – when i was looking for a place to live south london might as well have been brighton so again having to state that for me it was trains and buses not the tube. Points of reference were peckham, new cross, blackheath, tooting

    And then there is newfoundland…

    France doesn’t interest me – here i have cast the same stereotype on the land as most tourist do. I wanted to go to portugal this winter and to porto more than lisboa but would have taken either.

    Carol hated paris to the moon, i read gopnik as he is a friend of kennedy’s and thus affords conversation when we talk – which leads me back to the blog comment.

    Ps. Have been writing a blog entry on the new yorker also

  • a guzman says:

    I would be quite happy to change the word “hero”, what I don’t like is the idea of having to agree, especially if that thing is not finished. Expecting to agree with Gopnik in the first quarter of the book led me to think, well, maybe he means this is a way I have not thought of, maybe he is right, because I felt obligated to believe. By the middle of the book it could not only be denied that he was “staking his claim as a New Yorker” and his book became drenched in a kind of positivity that I don’t like. What had happened to his well aimed critical voice? I was annoyed, but by the end he had pulled back somewhat and it was more interesting, but in the end it was still a compromise of likes and dislikes. You can’t like and dislike a hero, you can’t like some things about them and not others, which seems much more productive anyway than liking everything, because if you do you are not really left with a hero, but a person you are almost in a conversation with. Anyway, that is how I felt, and it reminded me of the questions of my past and of art.

    I don’t like being asked to talk about my influences for all of the reasons you said, but with Volk it was a game to prove who you knew, and how many obscure artists you could pull out of your hat to impress GV. Perhaps that was not really the intent of his questioning, since he had to know what artists to talk about in the seminar, but that is how the grads responded. I kept well away from the discussion because I don’t think my influences are as “artlike” as art people think they should be, I look mostly to things outside of art and not to the latest trends. “Doesn’t this smack of cult of personality?” Well, I am not really sure what that means but I think the answer is yes all the same. Also, I did not like the wording of his question, what if an artist I like now, in a few years makes something I hate? What if they change course and are no longer interesting or relevant? What if my work changes? Nothing wrong with any of those things, but I do not want to “stand behind” someone that is changing. And because Gregory is Gregory and never uses a word without thought, I am sure he meant what he asked. Yes, respect is a much better word and way to think about it, why was that not the question?

    Of course I don’t think Paris=France, I know the south is very different in a lot of ways, but even on that note I have been to Paris more times than I have been to NYC, and for much longer periods of time. I also think that while there are huge cultural differences we see between states and even areas in any state, I don’t think as a foreigner you see them quite as much….the longer you stay the more you see. But I think it really just comes down to the fact that I agreed with his “experience” of Paris and what he made of it because I had seen and thought very similar things. When he talked about places in Paris I had also been to most of them. And I think a lot of what he talked about was not the subtleties of French culture really, but the difficulties (and pleasures of course) for an American to live there. In truth he probably showed more of what Americans are like, or how the French seem to us because of who we are, etc. (By the by, we liked everything outside of Lisbon better than we did Lisbon.) Carol and I might just have to have a conversation about that book one of these days….I still do think he is a good writer with interesting things to say. I think he appeals to me because often he tackles the completely mundane or odd (ie Switch Hotels).

    I think I am still too young, or too idealistic, or too ignorant, to disregard any place. I would like to see everything.

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