Monday, March 03, 2008
Judith Warner Is in My Head
Justin E. H. Smith
Judith Warner is in my head, and she won't leave. She's been in there for three weeks. Now I don't mean I've been thinking intensely about Judith Warner for three weeks. I mean she is actually in there, perceiving the world through my eyes, seeing everything I see, peeing standing up when I pee standing up. Seeing it all.
Let me explain. This is not like Being John Malkovich, where the parasitic consciousness takes over control of the host body. I need to make this clear: Judith Warner has no control whatsoever over my sensorimotor system. She has to sense whatever I sense, and do whatever I do, whether she wants to or not. She doesn't like Ravioli-O's? Tough.
How did this come to pass? Those who know me will know that I suffer from obsessive-compulsive symptoms, including the irrepressible desire to swallow whenever I see the letter 'A' and to feign a sort of half-spitting, half-vomiting motion whenever I spot an 'F'. I'm out of my gourd, but we knew that already. The question now is: How did Judith Warner get into my gourd?
One obsession I seldom discuss is this game I've played with myself for as long as I can remember, wherein I envision someone --someone famous or familiar, someone I admire or despise, a man or a woman, but usually a woman-- seeing the world through my eyes, and I pass my time imagining what that person would think about the situation they find me in. Thus for example when I am in an airplane I might imagine Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin suddenly popping into my head and thinking to themselves: Why, 'tis a carriage that flies through the air!
I think I do this to compensate for the absence of religion in my life. There's no God, sure, but that doesn't mean I don't get lonely. So I summon up former middle-school teachers, or Roxie Roker or Enver Hoxha, and they concentrate intensely on the world as I am experiencing it, and this accompanying psychical investment in my world is something I find very comforting.
They generally stay anywhere between 10 seconds and 5 minutes. Usually, if something else requires my concentration, as when I enter into conversation with a real, physical person, the spirit of Nia Peeples or the evil Dr. Goebbels will quickly exit my body, leaving me free to take care of my real-world affairs. If I find myself doing or seeing something that I wouldn't want my guest consciousness to do or see --when I lived in New York the sight of a New Jersey license plate was enough to spoil everything--, then I quickly annul the visitation, and Imelda Marcos or Paul Harvey or whoever it happens to be obligingly floats right out through my ear.
Somehow, Judith Warner just got stuck.
It all started when I was reading her "Domestic Disturbances" column in the New York Times of February 7. Now it can at least be said that the column has an apt title. Warner tells of disturbance, but the disturbance never proves to be untamable. Nothing entirely savage and foreign and incomprehensible in the terms of familiar domestic order may be mentioned. Things get a little crazy, but not too crazy. Thus she describes the seemingly anarchic gesture of throwing away the New Age coffee-cessation kit that had been given to her by some well-meaning sap, before informing us that in any case the "coffee" she drinks is decaf. She tells us that husband Max used to smoke, but of course no longer does. And she recounts the time she accidentally threw daughter Emilie's favorite chocolates from Paris in the trash, an apparent confession of weakness in which all that really comes across is that the girl's name is not Emily but "Emilie," and my, what cultivated taste the little one has.
Warner doses out morsels of disturbance, but will never let more than a sentence or two go by before restoring the perfect domesticity for which she is no doubt the envy of countless American women who still drink real coffee, whose husbands still smoke or have already died of lung cancer, whose daughters would prefer a wholesaler's crate full of Little Debbies. If I may be permitted to sound like Perry Anderson, hers are disturbances that leave the underlying structure rigidly in place. This structure is the bourgeois family, whose ideology would have it not just that those who manage to arrive at such a level of comfort and security as she boasts are fortunate, but that they are better, morally better.
This conviction came out all too clearly in the column that set in motion the chain of events I've been describing, where she writes of the disappointment she feels upon learning that her middle-aged "guy friends," just like any common proles, have sexual fantasies about nubile young women: "I spent the following days nursing a sputtering sort of rage," she confides. "The conversation marked the end of an illusion, you see. I'd thought that in our little bubble, a bubble, it should be said, that was defined not by class or money or education, but rather by goodness and decency and values and realness (even I am laughing now), the men were somehow different from the men Out There who dated women multiple decades younger than themselves, prized them for their looks and their fecundity and fell in love with the magical rejuvenating mirrors they found in the women's adoring young eyes."
I take this as a rare moment in Judith Warner's oeuvre, in which she gains a modicum of class consciousness, and recoils in horror. Of course her social bubble had always been constituted not on the basis of moral excellence, but on the basis of shared class identity, and of course all of the members of her class are also, simultaneously, homo sapiens. Now I am not an evolutionary reductionist, but it seems fair enough to say that when Judith Warner's friends violated her sense of propriety by simply speaking honestly, millions of years of evolutionary pressure --pressure to spread your seed as far and wide as possible, in the most fertile vessels to be found-- came weighing down in favor of their desire, and the fragile niceties of that class that she had previously mistaken for the eternal moral order of things could simply constitute no argument in response. Judith Warner's bubble got pricked.
But none of this helps us to answer the question urgently at hand: What is Judith Warner doing in my head? I can recall the exact moment it happened. There I was on February 7, reading her column, and I was so annoyed, and I wanted so much for her to see how annoyed I was, to know how strongly I disapprove of her entire Weltbild. And all of a sudden, pop, there she was, looking at her own "Domestic Disturbances" column on my computer screen and shaking her head. Well, she was not shaking her head exactly. I was shaking my head, and she was now being shaken along with it. It must be understood that, unlike all the countless thousands of visitations I'd experienced before Judith Warner, this time I had no choice in the matter. I did not will her to appear; she just appeared.
In the beginning, I resented this uninvited visit tremendously. I wanted to let her know that she was not welcome, not in my head. Whereas with earlier visitors I had always tried to put my best foot forward, with Judith Warner my initial instinct was to do precisely what I imagined she would find most unappealing: eating over the sink, drinking cheap wine out of my favorite coffee mug as I watched other people's pets doing the silliest things on YouTube, listening to Spank Rock as I did the dishes, instead of, say, Vivaldi.
Oh, to recall those early days of futile resistance! Around the beginning of week 2, something started to shift in me. I can't say what it was exactly; it came through in my behavior even before I became conscious of it. For instance, I had known that Judith Warner spoke French, as she had been a special correspondent for Newsweek in Paris. That after all is how Emilie came to love her chocolates. One morning --it must have been day 9 or so-- I was searching for something really vulgar and juvenile on the iPod, something to flush out that squatter once and for all, that damned Ms. Bartleby of my brain, and my thumb just happened to stop on an album from the one-named chanteuse Barbara, whom I hate, and whom I had only downloaded in the first place because someone unreliable told me she was "like a female Jacques Brel." I pressed play.
Soon enough, I was missing no opportunity to sing c'est une chanson/ qui nous ressemble... as I rode my bike along the canal, or to casually slide a volume of Mallarmé off the shelf of an evening, and to thumb through the pages, mouthing the lines of verse in what I took to be a fairly good accent. At the end of week 2 I even took her out to dinner, which is to say I took myself out to dinner, ordering dishes I thought she would appreciate, like shrimp scampi, and all sorts of bitter greens. By the middle of week 3 I was downloading Nana Mouskouri.
You must understand I had every intention of keeping up my resistance right through to the bitter end. But as I said my behavior changed quite apart from any decisions I'd made, just as Judith Warner appeared in the first place quite apart from my will. No, this is no game I'm playing with myself, not this time. And perhaps I was being dishonest when I claimed complete control of my body. Every day, it grows harder to say who's calling the shots.
I don't know how she got there, or why she didn't float out like Lance Bass and Ralph Cudworth and all the others after just a few minutes. Maybe she just likes it in there. Maybe it's not that she's trapped, but that she actually decided to stay of her own free will. Perhaps the domestic disturbances she's fleeing are greater than she lets on in that anodyne column of hers.
What's clear is that, as time goes by, the host and the parasite are beginning to work out the terms of a peaceful co-existence. Sure I hate her Weltbild, but how much do Weltbilder really matter at the human level? She makes me want to be a better man, and I like to think I'm showing her things she never would have stopped to notice on her own. Would she ever have chosen to read Witold Gombrowicz? I doubt it. I'm still calling some of the shots. It's all about balance, you see, her needs and my needs. It's all about taking the time to spend time together, just Judith Warner and me. And Ferdydurke, and "The Four Seasons," and a nice hot cup of decaf.
(NOTE: Fearing a libel suit, my lawyers have advised me to reveal to you that Judith Warner is not, in fact, in my head. I made it all up. It's nothing but a satire, you see. A send-up. A canard. Judith Warner is safe at home with Max and the girls, and will be returning to her regular column at the New York Times after a two-month book leave. Now, if I could just get Joyce Maynard dislodged from my colon...)
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 03:02 AM | Permalink