It’s Never Too Late to Mock Nixon, and Other News


On the Shelf

Philip Guston, Untitled (Poor Richard), 1971, ink on paper, 10 1/2″ x 13 7/8″. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

  • “I do nothing professionally, I do everything for fun,” Prince’s character Christopher Tracy says in the serially overlooked Under the Cherry Moon. It’s a line that seems to unlock some of his mystique—his spontaneity, or, as Zadie Smith writes, the constant sense of mirage surrounding him onstage: “Prince’s moves, no matter how many times you may have observed them, have no firm inscription in memory; they never seem quite fixed or preserved. If someone asks you to dance like Prince, what will you do? Spin, possibly, and do the splits, if you’re able. But there won’t appear to be anything especially Prince-like about that. It’s mysterious. How can you dance and dance, in front of millions of people, for years, and still seem like a secret only I know? (And isn’t it the case that to be a Prince fan is to feel that Prince was your secret alone?) … His shows were illegible, private, like the performance of a man in the middle of a room at a house party. It was the greatest thing you ever saw and yet its greatness was confined to the moment in which it was happening.”
  • When I’m feeling down, really down, about my potential as a shaggy creative type, I find it helps to make fun of Richard Nixon. It’s helped countless writers and artists, among them the Philips Guston and Roth, who met in Woodstock in the summer of ’71 and discovered a mutual muse in our esteemed thirty-seventh president. Charles McGrath writes, “The two men shared a love of books and of what Guston called ‘crapola’—billboards, diners, junk shops, burger joints—and Richard M. Nixon was soon added to the list … Mr. Roth began working on what became Our Gang, his book-length satire, which begins with the president, Trick E. Dixon, hoping to give the vote to the unborn and ends with him in hell, after being assassinated in a hospital where he had gone to have his sweat glands removed … Mr. Roth showed some early chapters to Guston, who in a mood of shared Nixon-loathing exuberance, responded with a flood of satirical drawings. In a couple of them Guston’s Nixon is a hooded Klansman conspiring with his cronies Spiro T. Agnew and John Mitchell, but in most he is a kind of walking gonad, his nose a penis that grows longer with every lie he tells.” 

  • The notion of toxic masculinity is gaining traction, especially as men continue to behave prominently and repeatedly like total shitheads. A raft of new books aim to diagnose the problem. Do any of them get it right? Steven Poole writes, “There are many ways to be a man, and—despite the golden-age hunter-gatherer guff endorsed in some of these books—there always have been … The idea of masculinity or manliness has been conceived as under threat and in crisis ever since it first appeared. Surely it would be more civilized to adopt the attitude of that pioneering feminist, Plato, who describes Socrates explaining why women, like men, can be guardians of his republic. Yes, they are on the whole physically weaker, but in all other respects they are people, and all traits are found in varying combinations in people of either sex: ‘The natural capacities are distributed alike among both creatures, and women naturally share in all pursuits and men in all.’ Because it reinforces the idea of male exceptionalism, on the other hand, the notion that there is a crisis of masculinity is just another sexist meme that shores up the patriarchy. And, like the patriarchy itself, it harms men as well as women. Maybe a real man is one who never gives any thought to his masculinity at all.”
  • Elena Ferrante is still reeling from Madame Bovary: “Madame Bovary struck with swift punches, leaving bruises that haven’t faded. All my life since then, I’ve wondered whether my mother, at least once, with Emma’s words precisely—the same terrible words—thought, looking at me, as Emma does with Berthe: C’est une chose étrange comme cette enfant est laide! (‘It’s strange how ugly this child is’). Ugly: to appear ugly to one’s own mother. I have rarely read-heard a better conceived, better written, more unbearable sentence. The sentence arrived from France and hit me right in the chest, it’s still hitting me, harder than the shove with which Emma sent—sends—little Berthe against the chest of drawers, against the brass fittings.”
  • John Berger, now ninety, does some wonderful things with a seafaring metaphor in a profile by Kate Kellaway: “Berger is as interested as ever in ways of seeing; that he still has the ability to give himself the slip, to turn perception into an out-of-body experience … His eye for detail remains unrivalled and consistently surprising (think of his irresistible observation that cows walk as if they were wearing high heels). Reading him is like standing at a window—perhaps a bit like the window of this study—with no one blocking the view. ‘The way I observe comes naturally to me as a curious person—I’m like la vigie—the lookout guy on a boat who does small jobs, maybe such as shoveling stuff into a boiler, but I’m no navigator—absolutely the opposite. I wander around the boat, find odd places—the masts, the gunwale—and then simply look out at the ocean. Being aware of traveling has nothing to do with being a navigator.”