A Week in Culture: Hilton Als, Writer


The Culture Diaries


There is not enough time for anything, ever. The point was to start this journal yesterday, a Monday, since everyone’s “official,” week begins then—back from the weekend, off to MOMA, what’s at the Frick, that kind of thing—but I didn’t. And this has nothing to do with my general tardiness as much as it does my ambivalence about keeping a record of anything that can’t be contained in a photograph; sometimes I sit in my underwear in my house in despair over how paltry a thing words can seem, particularly when I’ve written them. But challenge is my middle name, and this journal, this record of my life in culture that I meant to begin at the start of the week but didn’t, is my attempt to meld experience and memory with words and see what we come up with.

As it happens, my week in culture began not today or Monday, but Saturday, when I was standing on a train platform in Jamaica, Queens, and I saw a beautiful older man in a sky-blue Mao jacket; he was fine-boned, as though drawn out of thin air by Ingres, or David Hockney. Bill Cunningham, of course, the great documentary photographer who, for over fifty years, has been chronicling the hem-lines and moral fashions of any number of New York-based women. Bill was on his way to Bridgehampton to cover an event for The New York Times, but he wasn’t staying overnight. “I never do,” he said, silently wondering. He’s an incorrigible romantic, in love with Manhattan, a city the poet Marianne Moore described as being home to “the savage’s romance.” Bill is a former hat maker from Boston, and his pictures finds a forum where female beauty plays itself out, gladiator fashion: who will win in the world of trend? Ever trendy, I was off to Sag Harbor to visit some fashionable friends.

As a matter of fact, my week with culture didn’t begin until several days before that, when I went to visit beauty editor Jean Godfrey June at Lucky Magazine. Jean is the best writer in the fashion business, but I don’t consider beauty fashion since beauty has less to do with the fluctuations—and insecurities—of fashion as it does with wanting to put a nice face on most things, not to mention people. In any case, Jean was very excited by Rodarte’s latest foray into trying to make fashion and beauty fit their world view: cosmetics they’d designed for
MAC. Eyeshadow that looked like shimmering, electrified goldfish circling in black vials; “gothic” colors that felt like the best color field painting I’d seen in a while.


Speaking of fish, Elizabeth Bishop trained her astonishing mental cinema on that very subject in her exceptional, “The Fish,” a poem that is second only to that of her mentor, Marianne Moore’s, nearly
unsurpassable treatise on the passage of time as exemplified by those creatures that swim and eat in what Moore called “the turquoise sea of bodies.” Indeed, time’s various erosions are referred to in another profound poem by Moore titled “A Grave,” where the author opens with a nearly haiku-like hush (“Man looking into the sea”) as she digs deeper and deeper into what the sea offers us: a grave filled with life and death.

I suppose that Bishop and Moore—the latter being one of my favorite writers—have been on my mind more than usual in this city where the heat makes complete rivulets of us all, because I’ve been reading, ever so slowly (the mind works slowly with minimal air-conditioning) Bishop’s complete correspondence with her near
contemporary, Robert Lowell. It’s very difficult not to like this book, and not at all difficult to feel slightly put off by its correspondents, both of whom subsisted largely on trust funds while writing or drinking or periodically going under the wave of madness that licked at their respective heels for most of their lives. But I don’t feel put off by any of that so much as their constant indirect discussion about the hierarchy of taste, or connoisseurship, and
Bishop’s tendency to downplay her achievements, which does nothing to disguise her ambition. Or her fetishization of her difference vis-à-vis others. As it happens, the passages that are hardest to read in the Lowell-Bishop correspondence is when she refers to her black servants, or the blacks that serve her and her upper-class girlfriend, Lota, a city planner. I can’t skim over those sections; they’re jolts, racial tics that spoil reading everywhere. (I started reading Blake for the first time this summer, and was stopped dead in my appreciation of his fairies and angels and hope when I read, “The Little Black Boy.” I put my Penguin Blake down, wondering what he
would have made of colored hands like mine turning his pages.) Back to Bishop: I’ve always found her work slightly lacking because of her closeted relationship to her feelings, let alone the too perfect surface of her poems. (I don’t give a fig about her sexuality. Yes, yes, of course it’s all buried in her work, but sometimes you want a poet to leave the seams showing. Bishop’s work is too self-consciously re-worked to make my heart or mind leap. She doesn’t traffic in the unexpected. She’s everyone’s favorite poet because she makes poetry palatable. No lumps, no excess of sugar, no bitterness. No real life taste, then, at least insofar as this reader’s concerned.)

Of course, my interest in Lowell came about because of my baby writer fascination with Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who’s 1979 novel, Sleepless Nights, I read only after I’d written about Billie Holiday myself in Upstart, a literary magazine put out by Columbia University. (Holiday remains the great character in the book, the other is Hardwick’s sensibility.) In the meantime, I’ve played catch up with Lowell by reading, this summer, The Dolphin, where, “notoriously,” he used some of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in a book that chronicles his love for his new wife and family. In Lowell’s work one finds what’s missing in Bishop: egotism and lust. Who would you rather spend the weekend with? Bishop would make your bed and complain about it behind your back, perhaps; Lowell would probably never quite register that you’d come to stay.


I suppose that there are many novels that are set during the summer because it’s a lonely time of year. Friends come and go, comfort comes and goes, which makes it a perfect time of year to indulge in melancholia. (Fall has always struck me as a happy time of year; it signifies the start of the real new year in culture, fashion, and what
not.) So armed, I finally managed to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant film, There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector living in early twentieth century California.

I had been put off watching the film by former friends who didn’t like it, especially the music. But once I started watching it, I realized that my female friends—the friends who put me off the film to begin with—had a different relationship to fathers than boys do. Generally speaking, a girl will hope for a good father as long as she’s breathing, or feels she can attract one, whereas boys, gay or straight, are slightly repelled by the idea of sharing space with another man who had a hand in shaping you but maybe not loving you. In any case, part of There Will Be Blood‘s unquestionable greatness has to do with Anderson’s deep understanding of patriarchy—specifically white male patriarchy—certainly as it lives and hammers and stomps and kills in a forum littered with money and thus power. It was fun to hear Lewis’ voice—a John Huston inspired voice that made me interested
in the star’s performing self for the first time since I saw him in My Beautiful Launderette.

Here, he sheds real tears about his isolation—and then sucks his face dry so he can sink his teeth in the hands of male love, particularly as it’s offered by his son, H. W. Plainview, played beautifully in an off-handed, Linda Manz-like daze by a Texas-born non-professional named Dillon Freasier. Like most great film actors, Freasier doesn’t so much emote as move through space, his character’s intentions strapped to his back. Watching him with his black hair slicked down, his black vest encasing his small, white-shirted frame as he walks through the hot, dry, air, Anderson made us see how H. W. was born of Daniel’s redoubtable self without necessarily staying in it. Perhaps he would move on (he does, eventually) but not before the gothic horror that informed so much of his life—and the lives of the men who made America—had entered his blood, tainting it forever.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Als’ culture diary. Als is a staff writer at The New Yorker.