Birthdays are happy moments, but each year more ironically so. Religion liberates us from this growing awareness of finitude. The sacred sign’s deferral of human violence becomes the originary source of our consciousness of death; we apply this pattern of deferral to the violence of death in general. Nor is this an unwarranted extrapolation; our consciousness of death makes us conscious of human life as not mere physical existence but the life of a soul, the locus of representations by nature immortal.
I am convinced of this originary explanation. But does it provide consolation, let alone liberation, to one who has just celebrated his 59th birthday? Even if Generative Anthropology–as distinguished from previous claimants to the title–truly deserves to be called the theoretical equivalent of religion, its elegance comes at the price of the messy human specificity around which communities are built–not only religious, but also theoretical communities. An idea survives when it reflects, or generates, a collective interest…
I had begun my birthday Chronicle in this manner when Stacey reminded me that one of my grade-school teachers once asked me in exasperation whether I had been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. I was always spinning ideas and retailing information on a series of subjects–snakes, baseball, philosophy (courtesy of the New York Public Library)–and frequent sessions with Mr. B and Mr. S, our good cop / bad cop vice-principals, did little to curtail the irrepressible chatterbox. A little kid can speak freely because he isn’t expected to be a real authority on anything; in the world of adult professionals, the amateur learns not to speak out of turn.
In Chronicles 111, 113, and 122, I described my native ideology of Bronx Romanticism: an unquestioning faith in Western high culture at a time when this culture had already begun to define itself in opposition to any such faith. The Bronx Romantic is exposed to romantic clichés at too early an age to be able to exorcise them. Reaching adolescence in a world where distinction is equated with the proliferation of outward signs, he thinks he can save himself by equating distinction with the absence of outward signs. He renounces the gilded French provincial-style dining-room of his respectable Bronx household and conceives a vision of “greatness” in featureless purity. He rebels against Emma Bovary only to become Frédéric Moreau.
The Bronx Romantic freely imagines himself in the company of the immortals because he is convinced that he is absolutely insignificant. The awareness that nothing he can do could possibly be of the least consequence places him all at once on a transcendental summit inaccessible to those who actually scale the cliffs. Whatever the Bronx Romantic accomplishes in adult life is bound to be both an incredible surprise and a horrible disappointment. Dostoevsky understood the delicious irony of this paradox. “Notes from Underground,” in the bright red covers of the Macmillan edition and Constance Garnett’s understated Victorian prose that the literal-minded call unfaithful to the original Russian, was the Bible of my adolescence. “I am a sick man; I am a spiteful man. I believe my liver is diseased.” Yes!
The Bronx Romantic is of another race than the baby boomers of the forward-looking post-war era. We sprouted in the arid soil of the late Depression, when those who could blame the latter for their failure refocused their ambitions on their children. (My father was a member of the New York Bar who never practiced law; not an unusual case.) We were bearers of parental desires concrete only in appearance, motivated more by regret than hope of vicarious enjoyment.
Today’s yuppie parents, the bobos all the more so, make their children showcases for their parenting. No after-school enrichment class, movie-spin-off action figure, or classmate’s catered birthday party can be guiltlessly passed up. Full of their own anxiety for success, they project this onto their children rather than ask their children to succeed for them. These kids are not meant to fulfill their parents’ desires; it is the kids’ desires the parents rush to fulfill before they grow too old to be sure what their desires are. (See Chronicle 211). The emphasis is not on becoming but possessing; ostensibly this is done in preparation for the future, but this future so much prepared and so little defined cannot help but be–like the Bronx Romantic’s but for the opposite reason–an insufficient return on investment. The serious but banal careers with which the children of my generation strove to realize their parents’ dreams (“my son the doctor”) cannot suffice for these children. Nothing can. They should grow up to be the most accomplished generation in history as long as they keep taking their Prozac.
The incarnation of the Bronx Romantic’s family paradox, GA is both a rethinking of the entirety of human self-knowledge and an empty abstraction, an intellectual revolution and an exercise in bavardage. GA minimally explains the phenomena of human culture. It understands that significance exists only as actualized in concrete, spatiotemporal being; but knowing this, it leaves the details to others. This infuriates the specialists, whose whole lives have been devoted to the acquisition of these details. It also disregards the stuff of human lives, not least of all my own.
Anyone who’s gone shopping with me will tell you that I am exasperatingly fascinated with detail. Stacey has witnessed me examining and testing a dozen “identical” Opinel knives and accumulating over numerous shopping trips a finely nuanced collection of abrasives (grades 00, 0, 1, 2, 3 nylon steel wool, large and small (red) Crate & Barrel acrylic scrubbers, various files, rasps, and hand-drill sanding attachments, a metal brush-head fitted to a heavy-duty handle…). In Paris, we visited all three marchés aux puces and brought back from France a (red) toilet brush–shaped differently than American models–and a rubber broom. My favorite shopping places are discount stores, like Independence, MO’s fabulous Recovery Sales Outlet, where shopping fools can find everything from jewels to tools.
The charm of the “found object,” the incredible bargain you buy first and figure out what to do with afterward, or simply find on the street (my years of running in Santa Monica have produced a large collection of “streeted” coins, a pair of pliers, a silk scarf, and a couple of stuffed animals), lies not only in its unexpected entry into your life but in the mysterious way it finds there an exclusive niche that you never knew existed. Or you can renovate and return to circulation objects that had fallen out of the paradigm, like the lamp in the shape of a lovely lady that we found in an old carton and regilded, and that now stands on my mother’s nest of tables in the living room. As the new find is accommodated into the pre-existing community of objects, new categories and hierarchies emerge. People criticize Imelda Marcos for piling up all those shoes, but I am certain that in her mind each pair serves a uniquely specific function.
There is what Hegel would have called a dialectic between finding and desiring: finding a new item generates a desire for a whole series–the principle of coin, stamp, sportscard collecting. Each one of our abrasives has its specific use, real or potential, as do each of our knife-sharpening devices (try those new diamonds-in-plastic stones), four varieties of hand lotion (see Consumer Reports) or our many nail-clippers: one for the living room, one for the study, one for the office, one on my key-chain… After I discovered Chinese exercise balls in San Francisco, I made two trips to our local Chinatown to obtain, for home and office, large and small ones (for female guests), enameled and plain ones, and stone ones to avoid the clanging. (I was proud of my ability to turn the balls without touching each other in either hand and in either direction, and always considered the musical ones vulgar, until a Chinese student informed me that the point of these is not to make noise but, on the contrary, to test the practitioner’s ability to turn them silently. I haven’t had occasion to pursue this new level of expertise.) When I took up juggling not long ago, remembering that my father could juggle, I ordered sets of beanbags from each of the two juggling supply companies, one set more firmly packed, the other with a more grippable surface, six of one set and five of the other, although I could never learn to do more than three consistently. (You have to start younger.)
The details I can’t get enough of remain in the private realm where the amateur is never upstaged by the professional. Private life is, as Lévi-Strauss calls “savage” thought, bricolage, tinkering. As I work at doing the dishes, I continually improve efficiency–using plain and abrasive-covered sponges with or without detergent-filled handles, French and American Scotchbrite (available from Costco in an 18-pack), grade 2 steel wool (more effective than grade 3), dishcloths backed with nylon mesh, or French sponge-cloths that leave a surface dryer than anything on the American market, or replacing flimsy paper towels with blue shoptowels-on-a-roll–but this efficiency has no standing in the marketplace.
A way of thinking is not a Platonic essence; it operates its own narration and the drama is in the details. That of GA cannot be separated from the personal drama that began with the young kid in the Bronx and endures with the old kid at UCLA. Le moi est haïssable [the self/ego is detestable], so I speak of Generative Anthropology or originary thinking rather than my ideas. The slogans supplement the ideas’ abstractness; their familiarity through repetition substitutes for the personal specificity that is the shyly veiled reverse face of originary thinking–provided the familiarity has been achieved. Not long ago a group of UCLA faculty got together to consider applying for a grant to study the relationship between religion and science. As I expounded my grand originary vision of the subject that the others were attacking piecemeal from the perspective of dreams or emotions or pain or what-not, I suddenly saw myself in their eyes as peddling some crackpot scheme–Iterative Ecology, Correlative Doxology, Rebarbative Pomology–that gives you all the answers before you’ve even heard the question. We never did apply for that grant.
The Bronx Romantic clings to empty transcendence out of fear that the world will not love him enough if he merely participates in it as a historical being, unique only as historical beings are unique. This weakness is also his strength; who else would have an interest in the minimal unity of the human? But birthdays teach even the Bronx Romantic that this unity, lived by a finite being, can be understood only through finitude. Both the generality and the particularity of life are all there is. While I can still make out the scar from my old phonograph-needle vaccination, maybe I’d better crank up the old turntable; vice-principals beware!
— Eric Gans