Monday, April 19, 2010

Throbs and Pulses

For years my father has strolled to Readings to perve: at books, DVDs, imported magazines and newspapers. Sometimes he picks himself up a copy of the New York Review of Books, and I read it second-hand.

For his birthday this year, I bought him a subscription to the Review. Its criticism, essays, poems and surreally-civilised personal ads will turn up promptly at his door - fresh, brimming, irresistible.

But on my wine table is an old Review cast-off, which is a corker: the recession, Berlusconi, US health reform, Houdon, and new fiction by Atwood, Banville and Oates.

And if this weren't enough: Tony Judt, in marvellous form. His essays 'Girls, Girls, Girls' and 'Work' are sumptuous, keen-eyed, intelligent and bold.

Judt's writings remind me of just how late we always are: how much of lived history is lost as generations change - all the grit, shine and buzz of everyday life; all the idiosyncratic throbs and pulses; all the palpable taken-for-granteds.

Unless, of course, we have someone like Judt to put pen to paper:
In 1992 I was chairman of the History Department at New York University—where I was also the only unmarried straight male under sixty. A combustible blend: prominently displayed on the board outside my office was the location and phone number of the university’s Sexual Harassment Center. History was a fast-feminizing profession, with a graduate community primed for signs of discrimination—or worse. Physical contact constituted a presumption of malevolent intention; a closed door was proof positive.

Shortly after I took office, a second-year graduate student came by. A former professional ballerina interested in Eastern Europe, she had been encouraged to work with me. I was not teaching that semester, so could have advised her to return another time. Instead, I invited her in. After a closed-door discussion of Hungarian economic reforms, I suggested a course of independent study—beginning the following evening at a local restaurant. A few sessions later, in a fit of bravado, I invited her to the premiere of Oleanna—David Mamet’s lame dramatization of sexual harassment on a college campus.

How to explain such self-destructive behavior? What delusional universe was mine, to suppose that I alone could pass untouched by the punitive prudery of the hour—that the bell of sexual correctness would not toll for me? I knew my Foucault as well as anyone and was familiar with Firestone, Millett, Brownmiller, Faludi, e tutte quante.1 To say that the girl had irresistible eyes and that my intentions were…unclear would avail me nothing. My excuse? Please Sir, I’m from the ‘60s.

1 comment:

Emma Kirsopp said...

wow! What can I say....
My mouth is watering...