Romolo writes to wish me a happy passport-birthday. (Don’t ask. Or wait, no, ask. It’s a good story...) He tells me how he and Eric spent Christmas week in Rhode Island, where they did a guided tour of some of the Gilded Age mansions up there. “I now understand the USA a lot better,” he says, especially “it’s love of billionaires, even by those who are poor...”
I think of those Rhode Island mansions and I think of course of that Joan Didion essay, “The Seacoast of Despair.” I could get up and find it in my long-loved and much-marked copy of her collected nonfiction, but instead I let Google find it for me. (I tell you this because it will matter in a minute...) And even before I begin to re-read, I remember already the feel of the writing, like letters chiseled into flint, with a razor dipped in Everclear. I remember already that this is the essay with that line about happiness, so maddeningly short and unexplored—she says it almost in passing, like it is a given, like you have been careless your whole life, not to have known it already—and yet it is a line, a half-line, that you could spend hours thinking about:
“Happiness” is, after all, a consumption ethic, and Newport is the monument of a society in which production was seen as the moral point, the reward if not exactly the end, of the economic process.
But I do not remember the beginning, or at least and anyway, I have forgotten it enough that it rasps deliciously, like the first time:
I went to Newport not long ago, to see the great stone fin-de-siècle “cottages” in which certain rich Americans once summered. The places loom still along Bellevue Avenue and Cliff Walk, [...] monuments to something beyond themselves; houses built, clearly, to some transcendental point. No one had made clear to me exactly what that point was.
I think of that bit in John Leonard’s introduction to Didion’s collected nonfiction (and now I do get up, to get my copy...). That lone moment in which he admits to having sometimes taken furious exception to her ruthlessly scintillating condescension, for example about “the kind of jazz people used to have on their record players when everyone who believed in the Family of Man bought Scandinavian stainless-steel flatware and voted for Adlai Stevenson,” and then admits too, that nevertheless, he is a partisan, mostly because I have been trying forever to figure out why her sentences are better than mine or yours ... something about cadence. They come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves. Later he says it even better, in that Didion’s is a prose that moseys from sinew to schadenfreude to incantation [...], seasoned sarcastically.
I go back to the “The Seacoast of Despair,” and find that I had forgotten too, how quickly she can move in for the kill. How swift the ambush. No one had made clear to her exactly what the point was, but less than a paragraph later she has found it herself:
Something else is at work here. No aesthetic judgment could conceivably apply to the Newport of Bellevue Avenue, to those vast follies behind their hand-wrought gates; they are products of the metastasis of capital, the Industrial Revolution carried to its logical extreme, and what they suggest is how recent are the notions that life should be “comfortable,” that those who live it should be “happy.”
...her sentences are better than mine or yours...
I have known for years, because I have adored Didion for years, that she taught herself to type (and in a way, to write), by typing out the sentences of Hemingway. In her Paris Review interview she called them perfect sentences:
Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.
(Years later, a certain self-proclaimed “White Privileged Male” would do something similar with her. Though I happen to know for a fact he’s not the only one...)
And so it feels like some kind of full circle to find, among the results that come up when I search for “joan didion essay rhode island mansions” (remember how I said it would matter...), this bit from a book about Hemingwayan style, that points in Didion’s direction:
To view Hemingway’s performance in Green Hills in this way is to uncover a uniquely American shame, since he would then have converted the experience of killing in Africa into an allegory about the consumption ethic at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. As Joan Didion writes in her mordant essay about the empty mansions crowding the seacoast at Newport, Rhode Island, “‘Happiness’ is, after all, a consumption ethic.” In promising pursuit, not arrival, our founding document imagines American life as an unending process of creative destruction, since the getting and the having of a thing — in this case a dead animal — produces only the desire for more getting and having.
Hemingway’s Africa book then invites a reading in which it can be taken as a complex gloss on the meaning of one of his favorite adjectives, happy, as well as an investigation into how shaming our various pursuits of happiness can turn out to be.
The line of the circle comes around, but instead of closing it spirals out a little—or maybe it spirals in a little?—as I think of a favorite quote from Susan Sontag’s In America:
“I give thanks to America,” said Ryszard, “a country insane enough to declare the pursuit of happiness an [un]alienable right.”
(Elsewhere in the book, someone remarks on how it is entirely possible that wine will become American, with an American standard of excellence, just as happiness is destined to become American, with an American standard of what it is to be happy.)
Meanwhile I finish reading “The Seacoast of Despair.” It is exactly 1220 words long, and it takes less than six minutes to read (not counting all these circles, tangents, spirals and whorls). Less than six minutes, therefore, to get near the end, and lean into a reflecting pool of a paragraph like this one, some fifty-three years after it was written:
The world must have seemed greener to all of them, out there when they were young... More than anyone else in the society, these men had apparently dreamed the dream and made it work. And what they did then was to build a place which seems to illustrate, as in a child’s primer, that the production ethic led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[lunedì 30 dicembre 2019 ore 18:02:01] [¶]
These days I’m helping out as assistant editor for the prose poetry section of the very awesome Pithead Chapel, a literary magazine I have loved a long time. And so every month when the new issue comes out, I find that I love the feeling that comes from having had some small thing to do, with putting some beautiful things out in the world.
This month there’s Terese Robison’s “Buses Named, Among Other Things, Desire,” from the December issue, just out. I have not loved a line in a while, the way I love the woman in a walker in whom 80 years have suddenly taken place.
And from previous issues, there is Nicole Mason’s “In Which I am a Nesting Doll.” When I first read that in the submissions queue, I had to step away from my desk and go sit somewhere for a whole half-hour, so I could hear it humming inside.
And “The Pair of Married Mimes” by Benjamin Niespodziany. If nothing else, that last line...
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[mercoledì 04 dicembre 2019 ore 10:50:00] [¶]
Sometimes in walking through a room I think I can smell my mother. But maybe it’s just me.
[Santo Spirito, Firenze]
[domenica 02 dicembre 2019 ore 16:12:02] [¶]