Bob Seger was thirty-one years old when he recorded “Night Moves,” which is about as old as I was when I heard it — I mean really heard it — for the first time. You have to be at least thirty to appreciate “Night Moves.”
We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it. . . . We were just young and restless and bored. “Night Moves” is about “grassers” — parties where Seger and his friends would park their cars and put the headlights on and dance to records before (according to the song, anyway) retiring to the back seat or the trusty woods, where they devoted themselves to working on mysteries without any clues. The song is about nostalgia — Seger was as far away from 1962 as we are from the year 2000 — but the weird thing about nostalgia is that it can make you nostalgic for experiences you never had. Objects in the rearview are more precious than they appeared, especially to those teenage virgins who never did anything in the woods but hike. Ain’t it funny how you remember?
The best coming-of-age stories have a hole in the middle. They pretend to be about knowledge, but they are usually about grasping, long after it could be of any use, one’s irretrievable ignorance. Felt the lightning / And we waited on the thunder / Waited on the thunder — that’s when Seger wakes from his reverie, to the sound of thunder in 1976. It took fourteen years for it to find its way to him.
In perhaps the most perfect coming-of-age story, Great Expectations, Pip finds out too late — which is to say, right on time — that he has misunderstood everything about his youth. The fondest memory of the protagonists of Sentimental Education is when, as boys, they ran out of a brothel; their best time was something they didn’t do. Robert Zemeckis had the same idea, in Back to the Future. When Marty McFly gives his parents a better love story and changes his whole childhood, the price he pays is missing it. He can only come of age in an alternate reality. He skips the life that happened. We all do. That’s why we need so many stories about it.
“His [Hans Ulrich Obrist's] telephone is continually tinging and leaving twicks and tweets and all that,” Ed Ruscha told me, adding, “I’m like one little fragment of his interest.” Ruscha took Obrist out back to an open-air studio to show him new works in his “Psycho Spaghetti Western” series, which was inspired by roadside debris. Ruscha did not seem like Obrist’s kind of artist: his paintings have a deeply American irony that seemed destined to elude the earnest Swiss. But Obrist sought, as always, to make a connection. The strewn objects on Ruscha’s canvases, he declared, reminded him of “In the Country of Last Things,” a dystopian novel by Paul Auster.
The tour finished. Ruscha took a seat behind a cherrywood desk, and fixed Obrist with his blue eyes, a dog at his feet. Obrist asked where the new paintings would be exhibited, but it was not as easy to gain traction with Ruscha as it had been with Baldessari.
“In Rome. At the Gagosian gallery.”
Obrist, name-dropping, said that he’d once visited Cy Twombly at his studio in Rome. Ruscha didn’t seem to care. Obrist then expressed admiration for “Guacamole Airlines,” a book of drawings that Ruscha had made.
“That was forty years ago,” Ruscha said.
This must have been what it was like when Obrist was a youth, surrounded by taciturn Swiss. Obrist’s arms tend to go into motion when there is silence. He asked Ruscha about a show the artist had organized at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, in 2012. “What did you do, exactly?” Obrist asked.
Ruscha said that he had taken some “meteorites and stuffed animals and some Old Masters” and put them on display. He had included one of his own paintings.
“One no longer isolates so much of contemporary art,” Obrist said, sharing his latest epiphany. “The contemporary is now connected to the historical.”
Ruscha continued to smile. Eventually, he said, “They told me not to go throwing that word ‘curator’ around. I was told I was just assembling an exhibit.”
“Maybe we need a new word,” Obrist said.
“I don’t want to take more of your time,” Obrist said, after a moment.
On his way out, Obrist asked Ruscha to contribute to his Instagram project. Ruscha told me later, “I gave him something that said, ‘On the bag before the tag.’ Some baseball announcer said that.” He added that he had no idea what Instagram was. Obrist, in turn, didn’t catch the baseball reference.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: You’ve said that the present time is always the best time. Is that because of the chaos of the present?
PETER SCHJELDAHL: It’s because it’s the only moment ever. There is one time: the present. There’s no other time.
BOLLEN: So you feel you write best about the current moment?
SCHJELDAHL: Yes. I also breathe best in the moment. [laughs] But I mean it. People for whom the past and future exist are insane.
“A dearth of sweeping theories about the differences between the sexes will be found in the pages ahead,” promises critic Laura Kipnis in her latest book, Men. In place of theories, she assembles divergent examples of the form, a data set designed to flummox even the most determined essentializer. Here we encounter porn mogul Larry Flynt, queer theorist and poet Wayne Koestenbaum, and Straussian philosopher of manliness Harvey Mansfield. Appearances are made by quondam presidential candidate John Edwards, pugnacious author-critic Dale Peck, and a Marxist professor who, upon being denied sex by the author, pronounces Kipnis incurably “bourgeois.” (Idiosyncratic examples aside, women reading this book will do a fair amount of I-know-the-type head-nodding.) “I met Hustler magazine’s obstreperous redneck publisher Larry Flynt twice,” writes Kipnis, “the first time before he started believing all the hype about himself and the second time after.” Tasked with writing about the paraplegic pornographer, Kipnis had been collecting back issues of Hustler “the way some people collect Fiesta ware.”
For the uninitiated, Hustler is not the gauzy dreamworld of Playboy but a magazine given to photo spreads of amputees and hermaphrodites, a magazine designed “to exhume and exhibit everything the bourgeois imagination had buried beneath heavy layers of shame,” a shame to which Kipnis is not immune, though she is, like many of us, “theoretically” against all those repressions. She finds Flynt a worthy subject, his “self-styled war against social hypocrisy,” his “echt-Rabelaisian” assaults on decency precisely as revolting as they need be to show the middle-class imagination to itself. She calls herself “kind of a fan.”
This is not the approach of director Milos Forman, who chooses to make a movie that “sanitizes Flynt’s cantankerous, contrarian life and career into one long, noble crusade for the First Amendment, while erasing everything that’s most interesting about the magazine, namely the way it links bourgeois bodily discretion to political and social hypocrisy.” In other words, Forman took a complicated outsider and reduced him to a redemption story with which pious liberals could live. It was a story Flynt came to like. “America hadn’t been content with simply paralyzing Flynt,” muses Kipnis, “it had to finish the job by reconfiguring him as a patriot and then dousing him in approval for finally growing up. That’s how they get you.”
This theme, of radical malcontents swept into the ranks of the rule-following hordes, of anarchic impulses quelled and awkward histories rewritten, is not limited to Flynt. Kipnis is drawn to obsessive men, in particular obsessive men with bizarre or taboo obsessions. There is, for instance, the photographer Ron Galella, who was said to have made a “curious, grunting sound” whenever he caught a shot of his preferred subject, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Galella trailed her on foot while shouting her name, tailed her in taxis, dated her maid, violated a restraining order mandating that he keep fifty feet away, and sued when secret-service agents interfered with what he deemed “photography” and many would call stalking. Four decades later, Galella was the subject of a 2012 retrospective in Berlin, admiring critical essays, a $300 book of photos (Jackie: My Obsession), and a documentary that spends a curious amount of time exploring the photographer’s interest in artificial flowers. There is a montage of Ron rolling around in bed with his pet rabbits. Says Galella, “They’re cleaner than cats.”
To which Kipnis rightly asks: “What’s with all the fucking bunnies?” Here again was a man made safe, the air of menace softened to mere eccentricity. His admirers seek to “sentimentalize away the aggression and egotism of art,” as if appreciating an artist’s work also entailed transforming him into an acceptable dinner date.
There is much fun to be had in experiencing the way that Kipnis follows her topics into unexpected territory, which is not unrelated to her charming inability to be the kind of easily outraged critic the world often seems to want. (“I mean, how come when they were handing out moral seriousness, Leon Wieseltier got so much and I got so little?” she asks.) The Marxist who accuses Kipnis of being too bourgeois to sleep with him follows up with a condescending letter six months after their nonaffair; she replies, accusing him of being a leftist cliché; he, pointing out that they were sitting on her bed, accuses her of trying to turn a romantic evening into “history itself”: a “battle between Feminism and the Male Left.” What was she doing sitting on her bed with him, Kipnis wonders years later. “The locale seems awfully equivocal.” This all takes place within the context of an essay on the self-delusion of John Edwards, which becomes an essay on the physical ugliness of Jean-Paul Sartre, which becomes an essay on Bad Faith.
Card from Le Jour Se Lève (1939)
As a teenager in the early 1900s, Guccio Gucci was a lift boy at the Savoy Hotel in London. Inspired by the elegant upperclass guests, he returned to Florence and started making travel bags and accessories. He founded the House of Gucci in Florence in 1921 as a small family-owned leather saddlery shop. He began selling leather bags to horsemen in the 1920s. As a young man, he rapidly built a reputation for quality, hiring the best craftsmen he could find to work in his atelier. In 1938, Gucci expanded his business to Rome. Soon his one-man business turned into a family business, when his sons Aldo, Vasco, Ugo and Rodolfo joined the company.
From the age of 20, Aldo began work full-time at Gucci. He went on to open the first shop outside his native city in Rome in 1938 and soon after took over the reins of the company upon his father’s death in 1953. Gucci became an overnight status symbol when the bamboo handbag was featured on Ingrid Bergman’s arm in Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film “Viaggio in Italia”. The GG insignia became an instant favorite of Hollywood celebrities and European royalty. When Aldo opened in New York in 1953, he planted the “Made in Italy” flag on American soil for the first time. President John F Kennedy heralded him as the first Italian Ambassador to fashion and he was awarded an honorary degree by the City University of New York in recognition of his philanthropic activity, described as the Michelangelo of Merchandising. He went on to open shops in Chicago, Palm Beach and Beverly Hills, before expanding to Tokyo, Hong Kong and in cities around the world through a global franchising network. For over thirty years he was dedicated to the expansion of Gucci, developing the company into a vertically integrated business with its own tanneries, manufacturing and retail premises. In 1986 he was sentenced to one year and one day in prison for tax evasion in New York. He was 81. He did his time at the Federal Prison Camp at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. In 1987, after 66 years as a family-owned business, Gucci was sold to Investcorp.
Michael Clune’s memoir [White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin] opens a few years into his habit. He is visiting some addict friends, Dominic and Henry, in Baltimore. Henry has one arm; Dominic has a syringe sticking out of his neck. Clune has come to ask them for OxyContin, but what he really wants is heroin, ‘the white thing’. He sees a ‘half-empty white-topped vial’ on the table and starts thinking about the colour white: white Jesus, the white moon, the white teeth in Dominic’s ‘gaping red snoring mouth’, the white stoppers in the vials of Baltimore’s best heroin:
The power of dope comes from the first time you do it. It’s a deep memory disease. People know the first time is important, but mostly they’re confused about why. Some think addiction is nostalgia for the first mind-blowing time. They think the addict’s problem is wanting something that happened a long time ago to come back. That’s not it at all. The addict’s problem is that something that happened a long time ago never goes away. To me, the white tops are still as new and fresh as the first time. It still is the first time in the white of the white tops.
He also writes about his theory of addiction, in which the colour white takes on several meanings. As well as the colour of heroin powder and of the stopper in that first vial it’s also the blank memory space that allows him to believe that the first time has, in a way, never happened, and so means that dope never gets old. The novelty doesn’t come from the feeling of doing the drug, which Clune says ‘starts to suck pretty quickly’. Instead it’s the image, and the persistent newness of the image, that keeps him coming back:
Something that’s always new, that’s immune to habit, that never gets old. That’s something worth having. Because habit is what destroys the world. Take a new car and put it in an air-controlled garage. Go look at it every day. After one year all that will remain of the car is a vague outline. Trees, stop signs, people and books grow old, crumble and disappear inside our habits. The reason old people don’t mind dying is because by the time you reach eighty, the world has basically disappeared.