No Context Necessary

Lately, when meeting new people, I’m drawn to perceiving the context–of our introductions and the little discussions about things we all know about together–squarely within George W.S. Trow’s grid of two hundred million. Two hundred million in 1980. Now three hundred million, and much more tightly knit. It really doesn’t matter if I and the other person don’t possess a capacity for eventual intimacy with one another, the very fact that a series of events has lead us together means that we are immediately familiar with each other. We can talk, we can get along, we can construct a setting that ensures we’re both satisfied that this is where we enjoy being for the time.

If on the off chance we’re faltering and unable to generate a steady context, there’s always, at bar, diner, living room, a television, uniting us.

To Trow, acts of intimacy become fleeting, enjoyed by oneself for a moment before being dumped into the context of massive scale and of comparison, of cultivation for memory, and of decision as to the consequence. To bind our relations into such a scale and template, I think we end up expecting our decisions to be swept up into the cold machinery of childish context. That is, we default to fatalism and laziness, at the expense of personal revolution.
____

When Trow died, on Nov. 24, I was in a motel room with a long lost loved one beside me and asleep, exhausted so quickly from all that we could and would share and spend. I watched television. The local news. I was sixty miles from home, but still I could see my favorite newscaster. It was nice — mostly because I can’t look and listen to him without thinking of Jim Dial, that indefatigable bearer of news from Murphy Brown, and with a little Kent Brockman thrown in

and so he always makes me laugh and enjoy myself as I take in the news. Though honestly I hardly even listen to the words. I mostly listen to the sounds of the words. His delivery is perfect. He needs to narrate everything.

But this night I followed the words. The motel was in downtown, not far from the studio. And the news was about underground explosions, due, most likely, from the inexpertise of the energy coop that was having a go at competing with energy giant PG&E. Smoke was issuing from sewer grates, blackouts were rolling. The great part about it was that the power in the studio was flickering in and out. And our newscaster, Dale, was commenting on it when it happened, chuckling a little, but staying composed and steady, plowing forward with the things we needed to know. Being in the downtown area at that moment, lying on that motel bed, I felt like I was a part of things, like I was with the action.

My eyes drooped and I scrunched up closer to her. I faded in and out, and then one time I opened my eyes to see the screen filled with static. Dale was gone. The studio had completely lost power, and the TV didn’t know what to do. That evening, in this place, on this channel, on the day of Trow’s death, we were cut off. I wrapped myself around her and together we slept.

The background is distant, the sense of protection is distant. People are so frightened. There is so much distance between them and their protection. They reward anyone who can convince them that there is no distance.

In the vast distance between the protection and the protected, there is space for mirages of pseudo-intimacy. It is in this space that celebrities dance.
____

The New Yorker put up the opening section of “Within the Context of No-Context.” And Hendrik Hertzberg’s nice eulogy.

His impact on the magazine was as noticeable as it was, at first, anonymous. His unsigned Talk of the Town stories—chronicling popular music, the remnants of Edith Wharton-era “society,” Harlem flash, and the new culture of marketing and strobelike celebrity—broke the mold of fusty “visits” and facty catalogues. The pieces were jazzy, telegraphic, emphatic.

“All sentences, all paragraphs about this part of my life, my life as a writer, must begin with George Trow” is how Kincaid begins the introduction to a collection of her own Talk stories.

I started reading the Ahmet Ertugen (who died a week after Trow) profile, from 1978, that’s referred to in the euology. But I became entrapped by the second paragraph. I read it five times in succession. It so abruptly steps far beyond a profile of a person. It’s astounding, and fairly overwhelming.

At lunch, Ahmet was not entirely comfortable with me, or I with him. We had known each other for several years. I first met him at a time when his hegemony in the music business had reached a climax. For some time after that, I tried to find the locus of his authority and could not. I was by turns infatuated and disappointed. In time, I learned that this was appropriate–that Ahmet was himself always infatuated and always disappointed, and that at the heart of his achievement there was no answer stated or question posed but, rather, only this: the rhythms of infatuation smartly expressed. Then I found that to notice the manifestations of infatuation (which I had perceived at the start as ephemeral) was instructive. At the moment I met Ahmet, at the beginning of this decade, it was assumed that the style of the years to come would derive from the principal styles of the nineteen-sixties–and this expectation has not been disappointed entirely–but then as I saw Ahmet together with important custodians of the style of the nineteen-sixties and noted his greater power and presence, I began to understand that it would be his style (eclectic, reminiscent, amused, fickle, perverse) that would be the distinctive style of the first years of the new decade, that Ahmet would achieve this new importance as exemplar precisely because he lacked the inflexible center I had confusedly looked for, and that he would achieve it through his intuitive, obsessive mastery of the modes of infatuation, this mastery having made it possible for him to absorb into himself the power of several archetypal American styles that had fallen into disuse among Americans but still had great power when they were expressed in a manner that the contemporary public could accept, which is to say when they were expressed in a manner that divorced style from substance and had no reference to any authority that could be perceived as inhibiting. There was something moving about this–that so much was possible through restlessness–but there was something disturbing about it, too, and the fact that my approach to Ahmet had become as unstraightforward as his own mode (to which I had adapted myself) made it difficult for the two of us to see one another without some embarrassment.

I’m so glad for this handy searchable archive.
And I can’t wait to take in his other works.
____

To whomever’s reading this, I think we probably listen to much of the same music, watch the same movies, read the same books and blogs, listen to the same news, see the same television shows, own the same dvds of television shows, have the same rack in the living room to display the dvds of television shows, think about many things in similar ways, and we could, if we tried, get along well. It would be so easy.

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