Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Getting Personal

Selected Writings

Phillip Lopate

Basic Books ($25)

By Ricky Opaterny

It is no small irony that Philip Lopate is considered a master of the personal essay and yet his work is almost entirely out of print. Getting Personal, a selection of essays--that range from the confessional to first-person journalism and criticism, draws work from six of his books, four of which are out of print and one that has not been published yet. Thus this substantial volume serves as a sort of greatest hits collection, giving readers access to his work in the form he is best known for, yet it is also smartly designed to trace the arcs of Lopate's personal and professional lives, making it "the informal version of the autobiography he never got around to writing."

Following Lopate's "Notes Toward an Introduction" and an amusing follow-up by a fictitious doctor mourning the author's death (quoted above), the collection is divided into six sections stretching from childhood to middle age. Lopate lays out his vision of the personal essay in the introduction: "I am endlessly interested in the wormy thoughts and regrets and excuses and explanations that people have for their behavior." And later, "I believe in the aesthetically impure as an accurate reflection of reality." This approach makes for an often exciting stream-of-consciousness reading experience, but also permits the perils of self-indulgence and excessive self-reflexivity. Lopate is at his best, ironically, when writing about other people: the Korean woman whose father's poetry he translates, the fellow teacher who commits suicide, the elementary school students with whom he stages Chekov's Uncle Vanya. His writing on film that appears throughout the volume, though it displays an obvious love of the medium, is less engaging.

While recounting the Chekov play--which must be one of the greatest achievements in elementary school theater history--Lopate quotes one of his actors describing the audience of students as "just childish little babies. It's not our fault if this is too mature for them," and then analyzes, "He had already acquired the artist's advance defense mechanism for rejection by the public." Lopate's tactic is not so exonerative, but rather self-questioning and defeating, though only to the point at which it reveals his ambivalence about the topic at hand, taking the questions his work poses and examining them from two, three, four different sides in succession. However, what is illustrative in this passage is the balance with which Lopate can juxtapose observations and self-revelations.

When the pace of his writing moves quickly, Lopate can get away with long passages of thinking on the page that are redeemed by his humor. In an essay against the supposed staples of leisurely activities--dinner parties, idle time, living in the present--Lopate, in the space of a page, makes references to "Laschian political analysis," William Hazlitt, Schlitz, and a study on depression conducted by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. On the same page, he makes the reader laugh out loud: "The prospect of a long day at the beach makes me panic. There is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and 'have fun.'"

In another piece of ostensible opposition titled "Resistance to the Holocaust," Lopate uses a similar hyperbolic technique to impress his point on the reader--in this case that the Holocaust has been abused as a cultural phenomenon: "Sometimes it almost seems that 'the Holocaust' is a corporation headed by Elie Wiesel, who defends his patents with articles in the 'Arts and Leisure' section of the Sunday New York Times." This is the best piece of Lopate's criticism in the collection. His arguments against treating the Holocaust as an event outside of history without comparison or as an event that must influence all art that follows it are lucid and seem eerily contemporary, since they are equally applicable to the post-9/11 American zeitgeist in which historical contexts and precedents have been abandoned. 9/11 has become like the Holocaust, as Lopate sees it, both a silencer of public discourse and an absolute justification to be applied seemingly at will.

Though he claims not to spend these essays looking for himself in others, Lopate's long hard looks are directed both inward and outward. The last two substantial essays in the collection focus on a pair of paternal figures: the author's father and his colleague at the University of Houston, Donald Barthelme. Both are distanced from Lopate in life--that unexpected distance is part of their attraction--and brought closer through his writing about them; in discussing the latter, he writes: "The difficulty is distinguishing between what was really Donald and what he evoked in me." Barthelme remains rather aloof throughout his relationship with Lopate, who, after the great writer's death, uncertainly labels them "close colleagues, friends, almost-friends." The most memorable image of Barthelme is of him helping Lopate move boxes to an apartment in the West Village on a ninety-four-degree day--being used by the author like a "drayhorse." Barthelme's generosity here is obvious despite his taciturnity, and Lopate, in all his gregariousness on the page, manages to return that sentiment with sympathy and humor, trying not to write to the end of understanding, but simply to hold up, in art, the contradictions that he sees in life.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents