Naturally, we alumni spent the next few days conducting a social-media wake. The more I thought about it, though, the more convinced I grew that the paper’s demise was only fitting. One reason is that everything the concept of “the Village” meant to several generations of Voice readers—bohemia, nonconformity, one thriving avant-garde arts scene replacing another thanks to a talent pool regularly refreshed by new arrivals with more ambition than rent money, even a belief in New York itself as the nation’s cultural capital—hasn’t corresponded to New York’s reality in something like a quarter of a century.
But another reason, as an ex-colleague suggested to me, is that “we won.” The cultural and political assumptions and insights once confined to the Voice-defined margins have long since been absorbed into the mainstream, rendering the original source redundant. In many ways, The Village Voice folded simply because its work here was done.
A stubby, single-block dead end on the supposed wrong side of town, Henrietta Street is enormously wide, and the 18th-century brick houses that flank it are flat-fronted and vast: four stories high, with as many as five windows across each. The earliest Georgian street in Dublin — and the most intact collection of early-to-mid-Georgian houses in Ireland — it was built beginning in the 1720s for the Irish aristocracy. After the Acts of Union were passed in 1800, uniting the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, the country lost its own parliament, and the great and the good, who now spent most of their time in London, no longer had a need for Dublin grandeur. Over time, Henrietta Street became more deprived and more inhabited: In the tenement era, which began in the late 19th century and lasted until the 1970s, up to 19 families lived in each house.
Why does love got to be so sad? The question is from a song famously performed and co-written by Eric Clapton, the guitar maestro, for whom love could, apparently, be a sad affair in life as well as in art. “Layla,” the song he’s best known for, has him down on his knees, begging for love from a woman who, the story goes, happened to be George Harrison’s wife. Even rock stars get the blues. Even rock stars suffer in love. It’s a universal condition, erotic suffering. It afflicts us all. “Ay me,” says Shakespeare’s Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “for aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history / The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Why is this so — assuming that it is? Why is the erotic life so often full of grief, sorrow, or at least radical disappointment when it is supposed to be — and of course on occasion actually is — a world of joy? Is it in our stars? Is it in ourselves? Is it a societal flaw? Might we, by creating a better culture, make erotic life a sphere of enduring joy? We know, or think we know, that love promises ongoing bliss, yet it so often ends in sorrow. (“As high as we have mounted in delight,” the poet says, “in our dejection do we sink as low.”) Perhaps we should simply reduce our expectations, anticipate disappointment and dissatisfaction. But many people are erotic idealists — they seek joy in love. They are people — dare one say — whose erotic lives have become their spiritual lives. They are Romantics, and Romance is their highest good. Why does love fail them so often?
My debut novel Ponti came out this year. Alongside the excitement of publication, I didn’t expect that the feelings of vulnerability and panic that had been an integral part of my writing life would intensify. Somehow I’d hoped they would lessen, or vanish altogether. Instead I feel perishable and exposed, like a hard-boiled egg that has been shelled and left out on a counter. There is no magical, automatic end date for anxiety if you’re a fundamentally anxious and insecure person. My imposter syndrome flares up, this old fluky cluster of neuroses and inadequacies. It is bully and spoilt child, wolf and sheep, constantly trying to both push me and pull me away from the cusp of failure. My imposter syndrome is fickle, indecisive and therefore antithetical to the writing process, in which every word choice is a decision.
Some might contend that imposter syndrome and the inner critic are one and the same, but I beg to differ. A critic implies a degree of detachment, a position of removal from which one can judge and assess a particular piece of work. My imposter syndrome is murky, generalized yet far too personal. It is shame and doubt cleaved to the breastbone. The imposter does not trust her own subjectivity and finds it hard to untangle creativity and a sense of playfulness and flow from the thickening skein of her flaws. The imposter believes nothing she thinks or feels is valid or even worth saying. To a writer, such feelings of worthlessness are silencing. If I let it get the better of me, my imposter syndrome paralyses my creativity entirely, keeping me locked in a mirthless limbo between the guilt of fear-based procrastination and the feeling of being left behind.
It took four years for a glioblastoma, a brain cancer that has a median survival rate of fourteen months, to take my mom’s life. It took me those same four years to read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. My now-husband Matt gifted me the book during our first weekend together, turning it over and over in his hands, pointing out the design details that mimicked those from the first edition. He’d read it in college, when he started writing, and it propelled his move from Denver to the Bay Area. Since then, he had frequented the Beats’ Northern California haunts: North Beach, Vesuvius Café, Specs’, City Lights, Big Sur. The book had also helped him during the experience I was now facing: his father had died two years earlier from the same brain cancer my mother had just been diagnosed with. In the last months that his dad was alive, Matt, who wrote on the side while working in finance, temporarily relocated from the Bay Area to Missouri to live with his parents. The days were dedicated to his dad while the nights were spent trying to preserve the experience, writing about the beauty he found within the grief. As he wrote, he found kinship with Kerouac, a man who felt transformed by the loss of his own father.
Although Matt and I were strangers, introduced by mutual friends a few weeks after my mother’s diagnosis, our shared experience provided us an immediate intimacy. We talked on the phone for hours, he in Silicon Valley and me in Portland, about books, writing and what it was to sit vigil with the dying. We quickly fell in love, in part because we were both hungry for someone who might understand the depths of our pain. Matt was the only person I could talk to about what it would be like when my mom died. He assured me that along with her suffering, there would be grace.
The authors are right to push back hard against the cultivation of fragility and victimhood, and to defend free speech as essential to the mission of higher education. Professors and students shouldn’t be afraid to express themselves, make mistakes, find better ways of thinking and living through passionate disputation. Lukianoff and Haidt’s insights on the dangers of creating habits of “moral dependency” are timely and important, and the concluding self-help section of the book is reasonable: Keep ’em safe, but not too safe. Things may not be what they used to be, but that common-sense advice still rings true enough.
The earliest fear I can recall — that of nuclear war — was based on the fact that no one seemed in control. The Doomsday Machine in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove brilliantly captured this state of affairs. When President Muffley asks Dr. Strangelove — both roles played, of course, by Peter Sellers — if it is possible for the machine to be triggered automatically, never to be “untriggered,” Strangelove replies it is both possible and essential. Deterrence, he explains, is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision-making process which rules out human meddling, the Doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand … and completely credible and convincing. Our nation’s current wave of fear seems just as simple to understand. But it is also profoundly different. My 13-year-old daughter Louisa does not fear that no one is in control. Instead, she fears a particular someone in our country who, for all intents and purposes, is now in control. Not surprisingly, this same someone is the source of Martha C. Nussbaum’s reflections on our nation’s current reign of terror.
Authors like to flatter themselves by imagining for their work an “ideal reader,” a cherubic presence endowed with bottomless generosity, the sympathy of a parent, and the wisdom of, well, the authors themselves. In Carbon Ideologies, William T. Vollmann imagines for himself the opposite: a murderously hostile reader who sneers at his arguments, ridicules his feeblemindedness, scorns his pathetic attempts at ingratiation. Vollmann can’t blame this reader, whom he addresses regularly throughout Carbon Ideologies, because she lives in the future, under radically different circumstances—inhabiting a “hotter, more dangerous and biologically diminished planet.” He envisions her turning the pages of his climate-change opus within the darkened recesses of an underground cave in which she has sought shelter from the unendurable heat; the plagues, droughts, and floods; the methane fireballs racing across boiling oceans. Because the soil is radioactive, she subsists on insects and recycled urine, and regards with implacable contempt her ancestors, who, as Vollmann tells her, “enjoyed the world we possessed, and deserved the world we left you.”
This book is a writer’s constitutional. For 188 days, Jan Morris, now 91, has written a page or more of whatever comes into her head. These are short outings, limberings up; she does not overdo it. They are mentally equivalent to the walk she takes daily: 1,000 paces up and down the lane, singing different songs as she marches – she learned to march at Sandhurst. For this is a woman who started life as a man, who made her name as a journalist, James Morris, reporting for the Times on the first ascent of Everest in 1953. She admits now with chagrin (taking herself to task for unthinking presumption) that she had hoped she might be invited as a reporter to accompany astronauts on the first trip to the moon.