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Throughout my early life and into my thirties, I lacked a metaphysical view of any sort. What I had, however, was an intense and even anguished yearning that deepened as I got older. Growing up in Manhattan, a churning whirlpool of cultural and erotic distractions, I could not shake the feeling that something was absent from my life and the world around me, something as essential as it was unknown, and virtually inconceivable. I belonged to an artistic but deeply atheistic New York City milieu; my father was an abstract painter and my mother was a writer and editor who had been part of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Both of them had rejected the religions of their ancestors, and internalized the scientific view of a world lacking the sacred. The edifices of organized religion—the gray stone synagogues and massive churches around my neighborhood, the Upper West Side—seemed like somber remembrances and archaic vestiges of the past. I found it almost unbelievable that people would still participate in that kind of worship to a god that had clearly died, as Nietzsche put it, or absconded from the scene long ago.
Culture was my religion—at least its nearest approximation. I recognized myself in Allen Ginsberg’s howls, in T. S. Eliot’s wasteland of fossils and fragments, in James Joyce’s “silence, exile, and cunning.” I felt, with Rainer Maria Rilke, the inaccessibility of the angels hovering over our “interpreted world.” I identified with my father’s tenacious and uncompromising struggle, waged in his cavernous SoHo loft, to pull out of paint and canvas some pure symbol of his longing for being, his awkward authenticity a stance beyond what the market could bear. I identified, also, with my mother’s quiet desperation, the attention to detail in her prose an effort to rescue from life some small but enduring essence—so different from the tidal throes of the Beats, their self-mythologizing mysticism, yet connected to them by a secret desiring strain, as well as shared history.
From my parents I inherited the discipline of solitude, the habit of contemplation. They had found their identity in fleeing the conformity of their parents’ world for the comparative freedoms of bohemia and the life of the mind—this escape from the ossified past shaped their worldview. They belonged to the generational movement of the postwar era, embracing modernism, shedding old conventions.
New York in the 1970s was a city of old ghosts and frayed nerves. My mother and I lived on stately, gloomy West End Avenue, in a turn-of-the-century apartment building lacking a thirteenth floor. I attended the progressive Bank Street School down the street from Columbia University—its focus was on “learning how to learn,” rather than learning anything in particular. Most of our teachers were leftists with a certain slant on history. They had us read Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials, The Crucible, several years in a row, teasing out the paranoid strain in American life that resurfaced as the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. To this day, I know no other languages, can barely do long division. My early education may have incapacitated me in certain ways, but it helped shape me as a generalist, a perceiver of pattern rather than a delver into detail.
My grandmother lived a few blocks away from my school. In her apartment with the upholstered furniture covered in vinyl slipcovers and the piano that nobody had played in decades, I spent the most stifled afternoons of my life. An ambience of irreparable loss seemed to linger over her and her two elder spinster sisters who lived upstairs. I watched chunks of the Watergate hearings while lounging on her couch. Out of some sense of civic duty, she followed that spectacle of national disgrace from opening gavel to closing bell.
Everyone I knew, adults and children as well, seemed to me to be fleeing from unspoken trauma. I suppose the trauma was history itself, its wars and diasporas, pogroms and Final Solutions—that long-playing nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus seeks to awake at the beginning of Ulysses. My grandmother and her sisters had been marked by the lean years of the Depression, and, before that, by the death of their father, Samuel Rosenberg, a gentle rabbinical student from Poland who could not make it in the New World, putting his head inside a gas oven decades before Auschwitz decreed a similar fate for our relatives who stayed behind. I know nothing about them, not even their names. In the aftermath of my great-grandfather’s suicide, the family burned his papers and poems, never spoke of him again. Around this repression, like an original wound, a scar tissue of secrecy and sorrow had grown. More than half a century after the fact, they remained pierced by the shame of it.
That sense of unreeling trauma was also, I now realize, my own psychological response to my parents’ separation. I was five when my mother and I moved to the Upper West Side, after years of screaming fights between her and my father, caused by his shoddy and unsupportive behavior. Much later, I learned he had never wanted a child, acquiescing uneasily to the situation.
When I was eleven, I became very sick, with osteomyelitis, a bacterial infection of the bone that in my case announced itself as a sharp and unyielding pain in my lower back. I spent eight months in hospitals, much of that time encased in a body cast at a children’s residential ward in upstate New York. My disease did not seem like an accident to me. It seemed like a fateful culmination. All the wrongness of things pointed toward it, like a giant accusing finger. My sojourn in the world of the sick left me feeling semidetached from my body for a very long time. I acutely felt, and feared, the nearness of death, the onset of nonbeing. My mother’s first husband—another abstract painter of Irish Catholic descent—had died, drunk, in a motorcycle crash, and her anguish over that traumatic loss had condensed into anxiety that weighed on me, keeping me away from physical risk. The scoliosis I developed in the wake of my disease seemed a fulfillment of her forebodings. In my own mind, I felt the damage done to me made me unsuitable for adolescent attractions, and for a long time I feared sexual contact, as if it might endanger me by breaching my interior exile, the severity of my self-consciousness.
Growing up in New York City was a teaching in impermanence. A bookstore, a movie theater, a cafe would arrive, as if to crystallize a certain idea of culture—down my block was the New Yorker bookstore, with its worn wooden spiral staircase and its encyclopedic assortment of science fiction; another block away was Griffin, a used book store whose diffident attitude to its dusty wares seemed designed to encourage shoplifting—and then vanish like a twig carried off by the rushing torrents of the river of oblivion, named Lethe by the Greeks. My friends and I spent much of our high school years in revival houses, making diligent dilettante studies of Godard, Fassbinder, Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick, adding their phrases and poses to our lexicon.
Our parents had participated in the radical shifts of the 1960s, escaping the stilted past—that past embodied, for me, in the almost luridly repressive force of my grandmother, for whom culture had stopped with Schubert’s quartets and the lieder of Schumann. No such freeing gesture seemed possible for my friends and me. We had the permanent presentiment that we had arrived too late—there would be no new underground, no French Resistance, no Summer of Love, not even another cleansing scrub of nihilism like the Punk Era that exploded in the late 1970s and immediately collapsed on itself. The revolution—any revolution, or movement, or meaning—was over. It had ended in failure, and we had lost. The butterfly lay crushed under the tank tread. History had snapped shut its traps, and we were exiles in a time after time—the permanent three A.M. of those who “hope without hope,” in T. S. Eliot:
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
In place of revolution, we witnessed a repetition of gestures and pseudo-rebellions that quickly revealed themselves to be marketing strategies. We were subjected to the AIDS plague, Reaganomics, Star Wars, and Gulf War syndrome, to the endless banality of cynical glitz paraded on television as if it mattered, or made sense. We learned to avoid the dangerous white-eyed stares of crack addicts, step over armies of the homeless, and dodge brazen hostility from poor minority kids from the nearby housing projects, who mugged us out of boredom.
No film summed up the menacing and claustrophobic mood of our New York better than Taxi Driver; it was one of the films we returned to again and again, my friends and I. It was a touchstone for the chaos we felt around us, the frustration that permeated the air like a nearly palpable force. In the ever-tightening gyres of Travis Bickle’s psychotic mind, fixated on yet denied reality by the neon-lit spectacles of porno and politics, of trash-talking human beings who were like living pieces of trash, we could not help but recognize an echo of our own predicament. We almost lived more in the movies, books, video games that we absorbed than we did in the reality surrounding us, which seemed its own dark movie, its own fable of futility.
We were humanists with little interest in science, yet science and its technological expressions were the stabilizing force, the glue holding together our drab and doomed world. Materialism seemed iron-clad; evolution told us how species arise and die out—even the sun would flare out and collapse someday; entropy was the inevitable rule bringing an end to all things. “The whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins,” wrote the philosopher Bertrand Russell, encapsulating this modern vision. “Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built.”
Our self-conscious inwardness was a peculiar epiphenomenon that happened to pop up in some complex living systems. It was a by-product of the opposable thumb, an adaptation made by some clever primates trying desperately to avoid getting eaten by fiercer creatures. We could chalk up the success of our species to the law of the jungle, genetic mutation, and the survival of the fittest. We implicitly accepted that our identity and memory, feelings and ambitions, were, as DNA researcher Francis Crick confidently proclaimed, “no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Or, in the assertion of academic philosopher John Searle, “It is just a plain fact about nature that brains cause consciousness.”
No scientist, as of yet, had figured out how consciousness emerged in the brain—but we were assured that it was only a matter of time before that last detail was ironed out and our three-pound jelly of gray matter yielded up its ultimate secret. Our best minds were working on it round the clock. We could rest assured, as well, that there was no life after death, no continuity of soul or flight of spirit. All that was superstition. What was not superstition was what was factual, quantifiable, tactile; whether nuclear bomb, body count, or skyscraper. Oblivion was not superstition. It awaited us after the music of our allotted time ended and we sucked our last breath.
I dropped out of college after two years—Wesleyan University in snowy Connecticut was a playful paradise for some, but a combination of intellectual boredom and erotic failure poisoned the atmosphere for me—and entered the working world, using my mother’s connections to secure editorial jobs in magazines. For a few years, I flourished in the hectic hothouse and pinchbeck glitter of the “roaring eighties.” By trial and error, I learned the overuse of alcohol to overcome my own shy resistances and the defenses of women. I was feted by publicists, met rock stars and movie actors, was flown to Munich to discuss Bambi, banality, and the baroque with the pop artist Jeff Koons and his wife, Cicciolina, Italy’s famed porn star and politician. As some kind of internal reaction to this submersion in slickness, in the new and the now, I also became obsessed with chess and played in weekend tournaments at the Marshall Chess Club on Tenth Street, its paneled chambers smelling of stale pipe smoke and male sweat, draining my brain in losing contests with weird Russian adolescents, sporting taped-up glasses and misbuttoned plaid shirts, who melted down my defenses, drip by drip, over four or five hours. Life almost seemed a kind of chess problem; office politics and relationships required strategic positioning and tactical response. I interviewed the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in his Fifth Avenue hotel room, preparing for a match against IBM’s Deep Blue. The computer was catching up to his game, and I could feel his strain as he sought to defend his turf from the accelerated onslaught of integrated circuits that would soon rip the crown off his head. It seemed symbolic of our time: The approaching age of Artificial Intelligence was being promoted in the glossy pages of Wired magazine, whose pundits thrilled that our machines would soon surpass us. I stopped playing chess soon after that meeting.
Out of inherent idealism, I also started a literary magazine and small publishing company with friends while in my early twenties. I drew inspiration from the Beats and earlier modernist movements such as the Surrealists, Dadaists, and Vorticists. I had grown up with stashes of slowly yellowing literary magazines from the 1950s and 1960s stored on my mother’s bookshelves, such as The Evergreen Review, Paris Review, and Floating Bear, a stapled-together, mimeographed broadsheet edited by the poet LeRoi Jones, and always loved the form. Publishing such journals seemed essential for nurturing and inspiring a burgeoning underground scene, advancing the edge of the culture. It was also, I discovered, a great way to meet girls. Through our parties, we gained a low-level notoriety—written up in Vogue and New York Times trend pieces—and an increasing deluge of submissions, almost all of them terrible.
Seeking shadowy currents of vitality, we published stories of sexual malfeasance and personal dissolution, amidst more normal fare. But even the most imaginative acts of perversion, artful cries of despair, or exquisitely rendered relationship stories ceased to thrill me after a while. Instead of defining new forms of perception, we seemed to be stuck on repeat. The works of new fiction as well as art proclaimed masterpieces by the mainstream also left me cold. I began to suspect that our culture, whether experimental or conventional, obscure or acclaimed, was only echoing past achievements, not breaking new ground.