THE BLOG
09/26/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Fame Lunches

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There is an obligatory and routine sanctimony to op-ed columns mourning the loss of the celebrity who didn't make it. These antics usually last about a week in which the repetition becomes numbing and something more lurid (a football player delivering knock out punch tho his wife for instance) takes over. That was the case with Michael Jackson and more recently with Philip Seymour Hoffman. But just when one was about to lose patience with all the vapid and often self-congratulatory eulogizing, then came the venerable Daphne Merkin to the rescue, providing her own post-mortem for the actor on The New Yorker blog. Listen to this:

"I can't imagine I am alone in having found an almost preternatural youthfulness about Hoffman, as though he had never fully cast aside the boy he once was, alert to every slight. In any case, when I think of the actor, a line from a letter by Malcolm Lowry, author of 'Under the Volcano,' the ur-novel about the unslakable thirst for self-destruction, comes to mind: 'I am a small boy chased by furies,' Lowry wrote to his mentor, Conrad Aiken. I like to think of Hoffman in a heaven that's a big swimming pool, held aloft by the buoyancy of the water, resisting nothing, chased by furies no more."

Daphne Merkin is a disappearing species. John Gross wrote a book entitled The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800. Merkin is part of an almost extinct breed, the belle letterist. Neither academic, nor journalist, these essayists find their roots in a style, sometimes aphoristic, that goes back to Montaigne, in which everything high and low qualify as ingredients for a delicate recipe known as sensibility. Dwight Macdonald and Susan Sontag were two of Merkin's storied predecessors. However, she is not only increasingly singular but sui generis within her chosen vocation to the extent that she has also created a reputation as a provocateur. She's the author of a collection of essays entitled Dreaming of Hitler: Passions and Provocations which contained an essay on her own adventures being spanked ("Spanking: A Romance"). The controversy Merkin has created is both admirable and obfuscating to the extent that it camouflages a glorious talent for the iteration of states of being. Merkin has just published a new collection of essays The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontes and the importance of Handbags. She reads both books and the world like no one else. The Fame Lunches includes pieces on topics as varied as Michael Jackson ("Locked in the Playground"), "The Unbearable Obsolescence of Girdles," Henry Roth ("Portrait of the Artist as a Fiasco") and V.S. Naipaul ("Brilliant Monsters"). She upsets the applecart by beginning her piece on Michael Jackson's pathology which she describers as representing

"in his one tortured and talented being every conflict of identity imaginable--beginning with race and gender-- on the most astonishingly primordial level"

in her own therapist's office where she discountenances the accusations of pedophilia, saying "he strikes me as presexual." She employs a wistful irony in citing Milan Kundera's erotic masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being in her search for an anachronistic undergarment, finally concluding,

"It was incontrovertible: where girdles had once reigned, rowing machines, ab crunches, personal trainers, and plastic surgeons now held uncontested sway."

No matter how exalted or banal the subject, Merkin never fails to underscore the phylogenic consequences of an ontogenic decision. On Henry Roth's incestuous relationship with his sister she pulls out her full psychic artillery remarking,

"within the context of the violently dysfunctional marriage of their parents, and the generally xenophobic climate of the Roth household, the incestuous detour makes a kind of anthropological sense, as though an ingrained Jewish pattern of tribal endogamy had been taken to its logical conclusion."

Here Merkin takes over a role Lionel Trilling once occupied: the literary critic as psychoanalyst. One of her recurring themes is the price paid by those whose wounded existence leads to the creation of art (a theme famously dealt with by another great belle lettrist Edmund Wilson in The Wound and the Bow). In the V.S. Naipaul ("Brilliant Monsters") essay, Merkin deals with "the human wreckage" left by a man who inflicted great mental and physical pain on his wife and mistress respectively and wrote with what she calls "a wounded pen." Don't miss this latest collection of essays.

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}