Conversation — February 21, 2013, 9:00 am

Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and To Tell

Phillip Lopate on eclectic curiosities and the old-school essayists

Philip Lopate. Photograph by Jill Krementz

Phillip Lopate. Photograph by Jill Krementz

Few writers have investigated the complexity of their own minds as thoroughly as Phillip Lopate. For more than thirty years, he has essayed on topics ranging from cinema to the history of Manhattan’s waterfront to his distaste for dinner parties. His newest books, Portrait Inside My Head: Essays and To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, were both released this month from Free Press. The former is a miscellaneous collection; the latter is on the craft and styles of various essayists, and includes the essay “Between Insanity and Fat Dullness: How I became an Emersonian,” originally published in the January 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Lopate agreed to meet me at his house in Brooklyn on Christmas Eve morning. He greeted me in his living room, which had become a staging area for the imminent arrival of holiday guests, and suggested we go up to his study, a small cube of a room on the top floor that was brimming with books older than me. Among them was a copy of an influential book he’d edited, The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (1997), an essential text for upstart essayists and students of writing. I took a seat, and he wheeled his chair close enough for our knees to touch, awaiting my questions.

JG: How do you define your role as an essayist?

PL: I see myself as a transmitter of a tradition. As you can see from the books in my office, I’m far more interested in Max Beerbohm than I am in, say, the latest attempt to hybridize fiction and nonfiction. When I teach, I’m trying to convey my love for Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb, Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin and George Orwell. Their sentences excite me tremendously. I can’t help being much more plugged into the past.

I experienced the avant-garde as a kind of bullying influence when I was quite young. I grew up in New York. One of my theories is that native New Yorkers are more traditional and that the avant?garde always comes from the provinces. In the arts, it’s people like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol who believe the hype about New York and come to New York and add to the avant-garde. Whereas a New Yorker tends to say, “Yeah, yeah, OK. Avant-garde, so what?”

When I went to college, I was surrounded by people who were interested in William Burroughs, John Ashbery, Beckett and post-Beckett. The whole sensibility was, “Beckett has done this, now how can we advance his heroic move?” I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll read Henry Fielding.” If I need to experience avant-garde, I’ll read Don Quixote or Tristram Shandy.

From “The State of Nonfiction Today,” in To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction:

But if consciousness isolates, it also heals and consoles. In my own writing I am trying to say, among other things, “This is my consciousness, now don’t feel so guilty about yours. If you have perverse, curmudgeonly conflicted, antisocial thoughts; know that others have them too.” (9)

JG: In your new book on craft, To Show and To Tell, you talk about the excitement of essaying sentence by sentence. What advice do you give young writers about crafting a sentence?

PL: My first advice is to immerse yourself in reading — and not just your contemporaries. To investigate syntax and not just to write a simple, clear, seven-word sentence. To some degree, Strunk and White have done a lot of damage by stressing clarity and concreteness as the only important elements in writing. A complex thought requires a complex syntax. It requires semicolons; it requires dependent clauses; it requires following out the thought. For me, it was very helpful to read philosophical writers, because they wanted to think at the highest possible level. I read things like Rilke’s Letters of a Young Poet or Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. Also Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag. I became invested in the adventure of the mind. Their sentences tend to be more paradoxical.

One of the things I try to do, which Emil Cioran talks about, is to think against myself, because if you’re just writing to persuade there won’t be any surprises, but if you catch yourself and say, “Yes, but . . .” or, “What’s the other point of view to this?” or, “That’s all very well and good, but so what?” then you create more tension. That’s one of the ways that sentences can get more interesting, if you stage a confrontation between parts of yourself.

JG: Where do you begin your essays?

PL: That’s something I got from Montaigne. He liked to hang out in a mental place where he really didn’t quite understand what he was thinking. He was comfortable with being confused or being aware that he was being pulled in different directions.

I often start out in a place that feels like a baffling cul-de-sac. I think, “How did I get here? What’s going on?” I can’t start out in a self-pleased place because then there’s no tension. There’s no place for the essay to go. I’m often exploring these paradoxes and anomalies inside and outside myself.

JG: How much is tension evoked by the chosen persona on the page?

PL: Max Beerbohm says, “The only people who take themselves very seriously are madmen.” You have to be able to take a step back and have perspective. That is always a trait of the best essayists and memoirists.

One of the reasons autobiographies and memoirs used to be written by older people and not twenty-somethings is that they wanted to be able to look back on the ups and downs of life with some perspective.

JG: Perspective allows the writer to get away with being wrong, right?

PL: Yes, absolutely. One of the strategies of the essay is, “Hey, we’re just a little form here, not the Nobel prize–winning form. So let’s have some fun because we’re not going after the big bucks.” Essay collections are not going to get the big advances. You start out with the form’s tropism toward the small, the minor, the overlooked, the neglected. The persona of the essayist is not one of bluster or megalomania, it’s more one of self-mocking. It’s part and parcel of the genre to have modesty in oneself and perspective. Making fun of yourself is nothing new. It’s a little bit of sugar that makes the essay go down.

To Show and TellJG: In To Show and To Tell you talk about the language of authority. Where does it come from if an essayist should be self-questioning?

PL: That’s the key question of younger writers. “That sounds all well and good, Lopate, but where does your authority come from? How can I do the same thing?” Authority is earned over a long period of time. It’s also attained by bluffing.

I wrote a book called Being With Children (Poseidon, 1989). Afterward I was asked by the New York Times Book Review to review a book about education. My book had been about education, but I realized that for me to pretend to be a reviewer for the New York Times Book Review I would have to invent a persona, invent a character, somebody who felt very comfortable about doing this, which I hadn’t done before. I was also a ghostwriter when I was younger, and that meant I had to inhabit an authority that wasn’t mine. I would pretend to be psychologists, architects, educators, and so on for the guys who hired me. It begins with kind of a fiction. What I was responding to was tone. I was trying to get a tone of authority. That’s something I write about in To Show and To Tell.

While part of the authority comes from aping a certain kind of adult tone, part of it comes from owning your confusion. So you say, “I don’t know this, that means what I do know has extra authority behind it.” You can trust this writer because the writer is telling us that he doesn’t have all the answers. You develop more credibility for the things you do stand behind.

Portrait Inside My HeadJG: Why did you begin Portrait Inside My Head with an essay titled “In Defense of the Miscellaneous Essay Collection”?

PL: I’m rebelling against a marketing problem, which is that publishers often want you to write about one thing so they can pitch it, so it can be described it in one line. One of the decisions I made in this most recent collection was that I’m going to put in personal essays, literary essays, architectural essays, film essays because all of this is stuff I’m thinking about. I trust that the personality of the writer will hold it together.

Miscellaneous. It’s considered a curse. “Oh, my God! This is just miscellaneous. This is just random.” I’d say, “Yeah, yeah. So? What’s so bad about that?” I’m interested in many different things, most of us are. I’m advocating for that range. Inside my head there’s the lover, the parent, the intellectual, the non-intellectual, and the sports fan. Sometimes sports take up 80 percent of my brain. I wake up in the morning and think, “Who’s on the roster of the New York Knicks?”

JG: What’s the secret engine of your writing?

PL: My engine is curiosity. I’m much more drawn to curiosity than I am to obsession. To me, obsession is someone going on and on in a boring way. Obsession is overrated, but curiosity will take you a long way.

When I wrote my book Waterfront (Anchor, 2005), I had to keep investigating things I knew nothing about, like marine biology, engineering, and the politics of big infrastructure projects. The learning led me through my curiosity until I was able to write something. You don’t have to know everything about it. You just have to know enough to be able to write about it, and in that way the writer and the reporter are similar.

I’m an amateur scholar, a library rat. I didn’t become a professional scholar, but I’m always nibbling at different subjects and trying to learn more about them because I do think that there’s a limit to how much you can write about yourself. You write about your traumas early, and then you’ve used them up.

I often tell my students to develop some expertise and some specialties so that they’ll always be called upon to write about something. It could be bowling; it could be oil production; it could be anything. The point is that you immerse yourself in matter. This is something that writers like Balzac understood. You need material. We’re living in a material universe. We can’t write out of our feelings. We need to understand how things are done, how things are made.

You have to keep taking that self out to explore the world, and that’s one of the key skills, to be able to find the balance between self and the world in your writing. I developed a lot of sub-specialties to do this. They include movies, architecture, urbanism, education, the essay itself, literature in general, so I’m not bothered by writer’s block because there’s always something else that I can write about.

JG: How hard is it to find the balance between the self and the world for you?

PL: Certainly, being able to be alone with yourself and being able to become friends with yourself are very important skills for anybody who wants to write. I’ve known students who were brilliant and verbally very accomplished. They had a hard time just planting their ass in a chair and being alone. It’s not a collaborative art like being a symphony instrumentalist or being a filmmaker. You have to accept the solitude. I am a somewhat gregarious person. That is, I do not ever want to just be home writing. I don’t want it. I use teaching as a source of energy, to replenish me. I’m glad to be able to leave the house sometimes.

There’s this rhythm of going out and coming back. I think of it like an actor’s role. The actor has to be alone in the dressing room then has to go out and perform in front of an audience. He can’t always be onstage. Sometimes professional actors seem very reserved when they’re not acting. They’re not putting out a great deal because when they’re not acting they’re in-gathering.

It isn’t easy for the loved ones of writers. To some degree, when you’re a writer you’re always writing in your head. Sometimes my wife or my daughter will say, “What is that expression on your face? What’s the matter?” I’ll say, “I’m just kind of writing a thing in my head.It’s thinking. One time my daughter said, “You just sit there in the chair and think?” I said, “Yeah, you should try it some time.”

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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