I recently had occasion to do some reading up on the life of novelist Carson McCullers, and I found what I read quite engrossing. She was a passionate, unconventional woman who, in spite of being plagued by a recurring illness that left her entire left side paralyzed by her early 30s, possessed an incredible drive to live and create. And here’s where it got really fun for me:
McCullers moved to Manhattan at 17 with no money to make it as a writer. Make it she did, while rubbing shoulders with some of the great creative personalities of the time. At one points she lived in a big house in Brooklyn with, among others, Richard Wright, Gypsy Rose Lee, and W.H. Auden (who is very high up on my list of Poets Who Are Not Frank O’Hara). She was best friends with Tennessee Williams, probably my favorite playwright.
Once again I fell victim to that form of cultural nostalgia common to creative people, who pine after the artistic and intellectual urban communities of the past while bemoaning those of the present as bland, soulless and creatively bankrupt by comparison. This is a mode of thought I find self-indulgent and rather awful, but am nonetheless hopelessly susceptible to. As much as I like to pretend otherwise I am a romantic at heart, and nostalgia is the most romantic of emotions.
Cultural nostalgia has been on my mind ever since I read Patty Smith’s Just Kids earlier this year. I was fully prepared for it to be overhyped pseudo-poetic drivel designed to make NYU hipsters purchase feather necklaces and pine for a more “authentic” past. I was pleasantly shocked to find that it was a beautiful, genuinely poetic portrait of emotional and creative companionship during an iconic period in New York’s cultural history. And of course it made me pine, if not for a time when things were more “authentic” (barf), then at least for a time when young creatives could afford downtown rents, because downtown was a basically a step away from being a slum.
The other thing that had me pondering the nostalgia issue was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. One of the many things I love about this film is that it perfectly elucidates my feelings on cultural nostalgia – which is that it is bullshit and a trap, but a pleasurable one, and to some degree necessary to the creative imagination. Creative people need idols to emulate and heroic maxims to aspire to, and with this kind of idolatry comes romanticism and selective memory. If we can’t believe our idols were perfect (or perfect in their imperfections) along with the times, places, and cultures that permitted them to flourish, then what inspires us? It is wonderful and seductive to believe that had we lived in Paris in the 1920s, we too would have hobnobbed with Hemingway and Salvidor Dali, drunk champagne and danced the Charleston, and painted a masterpiece. Inspiration is the desire to participate in an ideal. The fact that the ideal is fabricated doesn’t make it any less necessary.
Of course the flip side of this, which Woody Allen touched on, is that when you idolize the past to the extent where you cannot abide the present you become a joke – disgruntled and discontented and impossible to talk to at parties. And, of course, you are delusional. I never get it that bad, but I do find myself sliding in this general direction when I read about people like Carson McCullers and Patti Smith. I have a nagging fear that New York City (where 95% of my nostalgic longing is focused, for obvious reasons) is irrevocably changing for the worse. The physical landscape gets relentlessly more commercial as the cost of living climbs to suffocating new heights, and the recession has done nothing to slow this down. And while this is a matter of personal taste, I feel there is no one as creatively vital in modern New York as the writers of the first half of the century or the musicians of the 60s – 80s.
I can’t help but feel those two things are related – as New York City becomes increasingly unlivable the creative people either move elsewhere or devote their energy to full-time jobs in commercial media to pay the rent. When my mom moved to the Upper West Side in 1975 she could cover her expenses with a part-time job as a secretary because her share of our apartment was $75/mo. When I think of what I’ll need to sacrifice to move back to New York next spring, contemplating my young mother’s New York makes me feel alternatively starry-eyed and furious.
Granted, this form of head-shaking is a favorite indulgence among native or long-time New Yorkers, and we are full of shit. New York’s history is one of inexorable, breakneck change. Its inhabitants have always sighed that things were better before, and yet New Yorkers keep churning out revolutionary work and will continue to do so. And the rest of my generation will resign itself to pass months or even years trapped in the bedrooms of our youth, blogging into the aether as we weep for a past when two young drifters could rent a massive loft in Chelsea for $400 a month, with love and the romance of their poverty to sustain them through the heatless winter.