In the Age of Paradox, Action Supplants Attitude

In our self-proclaimed headlong abandonment of the Age of Irony, we may be rushing into an Age of Paradox. Which in an inside-out, topsy-turvy way makes sense, if you think about it, since Irony carried to extremes ends up as Paradox, at least as this correspondent sees it.

For instance, while it’s generally assumed (and people like Peggy Noonan make a career of telling us) that the Cold War ended in 1989 with the collapse of the “Evil Empire,” everything I read suggests that in the next decade or so, this country may face the prospect of being squeezed between Russia, the world’s second-largest producer of oil, and China, the world’s largest producer of labor, as we try to pay for these “import” addictions with an already overvalued (and hence vulnerable) dollar. So who can say that the Sino-Soviet threat is dead?

That’s my big end-of-year/beginning-of-year thought. From Irony to Paradox, in small matters as well as large. For example, it wasn’t until the final days of the year that I fell upon my nominee for Book of the Year, namely Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk.

I’d heard about it when it came out in October, but hadn’t really focused on it. For some reason–possibly because Ms. Volk isn’t a “Usual Suspect” (see below)–it wasn’t reviewed in this paper.

This is a book I recommend on every single possible ground I can think of for telling my readers to buy a book: It’s funny, it’s affecting, it’s wise, it’s New York, it’s close to the bone, it’s wonderfully well-written. Above all, it’s about how a real family functions, about what makes a real family work , and that’s why I’m sending a copy of the book to each of my six children–and that’s where the paradox angle comes in.

Ms. Volk has to be more or less my age; we grew up at roughly the same time, but at opposed ends of the same Manhattan latitude: she on the West, me on the East (although she’s ended up on the Upper East Side, and I in Brooklyn.) Hers was a tightly knit, reasonably advantaged extended Jewish family, but of a kind emphatically not found in the pages of Bellow or Salinger. No overeducated neurasthenics here; the Volks aren’t the Glasses. If the words “psychiatrist” or “therapist” occur in Ms. Volk’s pages, I’m damned if I can remember where.

I, on the other hand, had a classic Manhattan WASP upbringing: Buckley (which has disowned me as an alumnus); Sunday school at St. James; supper on the help’s night off with Great-Aunt Mary Whitney Bangs, either at Hamburger Heaven or the Colony Club; squash lessons at the Racquet Club, and dancing class at Barclay and De Rham.

About all Ms. Volk and I had in common culturally may have been clothes from Best & Co. or De Pinna, which is why reading Stuffed gave me–almost by opposition or elimination, you might say–insights into a matter that has vexed me for almost my entire adult life: how come the privileged, high-WASP family culture in which I and so many people I know were raised has proved absolutely catastrophic for our generation. I recall saying to the late Mildred Newman that if I ever wrote a book about WASP childhood, I intended to call it Orphans with Parents . Of course, if you grow up, virtually speaking, on a servant-manicured island set in a sparkling sea of gin, you’re probably in trouble from the git-go, but the booze alone isn’t the answer to why so many of us, who are now in our 60′s, began our own families determined to the point of obsession to “break the chain,” to raise our children in a way different from that in which we were raised. Or to why I have so often found myself reflecting, with a certain grim and shaming satisfaction, that Hell has got to be the posthumous condition of existing through eternity knowing what your children think of you.

The short-form answer, for those of you who are wondering, is that the family life described by Ms. Volk is defined by human dynamics and relationships, while the old WASP way was defined largely in terms of institutional dynamics and relationships–of which “family” was one, to be sure, but pronounced mainly in the abstract (as in “Mayflower”) and rated alongside, but not above, schools, clubs and other signifiers of status and alienation.

And one wonders, of course, whether family values–East Side, West Side or elsewhere around the town–are still possible in an era which esteems the market as the measure of all things.

For there’s another paradox, best exemplified by a column my friend Susan Lee wrote in The Wall Street Journal recently extolling–no other word for it!–the collapse of Enron as proof positive of the virtue of markets. Susan is an avid free-marketer, but she’s also a divinity student, and I have to wonder whether she really believes–or whether they teach in the seminary–that the implacable arithmetic of finance (no force of nature is as unyielding, forgive the pun, as compound interest) is God’s will. My own guess is that the innocent disemployed people on the lower floors at Enron, like those who mourn the innocent people who perished on the upper floors of the World Trade Center, are thinking in terms which no algorithm of profit or loss can encompass, and for which no faith in “markets” can offer an iota of consolation.

Anyway, here we are, in 2002. With resolutions and wishes. My resolution is, as always, to stick with the words of the old Josh White song: “Going to live, live the life I sing about, down in my soul, down in my soul / Going to fight for the right and shun the wrong.” In other words, pound the pulpit with same fist I now use to endorse my Social Security check.

What do I wish for in 2002? Three things: First, to hear no more from the Usual Suspects, the people whose views The New York Times (and another broadsheet I cannot mention) always solicits–not because they have anything to say, but because their names are well-known. To assert that the terrorists of 9/11 deserve the worst that God and man can devise, but also that someone putting a Stinger missile into the Four Seasons (which is to the Usual Suspects what the Galapagos are to guano birds) at lunchtime should be considered for the Medal of Freedom, is probably to overstate the case. But not by much. All I do ask is that our new Mayor disdain the example of the paper of record and turn his back on and a deaf ear to these useless, self-promoting clowns. They have nothing to offer. They live a life apart from the millions he was elected to lead.

The second wish is to find a way to restore an appreciation of the past–specifically the Western tradition in thought and art–and its uses to my children’s and grandchildren’s generations, which cover an age span of almost 45 to just 2. Somehow, in the late 1970′s, a disconnect occurred which seems as abrupt as a plug being yanked out of a wall socket. I’d like to find a way to plug it back in.

And my third wish, finally? Just this: I’d like to hear “conscience” return as a central consideration of our public discourse. It’s a word that’s been virtually expunged from the language in which Americans think about themselves/ourselves. Understandably so, given its unmistakable overtones of “other-directedness,” which is alien to a society that looks solely to the mirror and the wallet for moral and behavioral referents.

But there’s hope. Conscience seems undeniably connected to guilt, to a sense of relative or comparative advantage not entirely deserved, nor sufficiently deployed to help others or to make the world–or the nation, or our neighborhood–a better place. The hatred that took those several thousand lives on 9/11 was directed at all of us. It’s going to be payback time for a while to come, and this must be as much a matter of civic restitution as military retribution.