Essay Mondays: Lopate


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

I can't resist the symmetry of closing out my Essay Mondays series (for a while at least) with an essay by the editor of the entire collection, Phillip Lopate. Jenny mentioned in the comments on last Monday's post that his was the only one of the four final essays in this book that she disliked, and I can understand why: I think it walks that delicate line between funny and obnoxious, observant and misanthropic. For me it came up on the positive side of these equations—largely, I think, because Lopate himself gets the chance to introduce the essay, and concedes that it was more a stylistic exercise than a straight statement of philosophy:

Of course the central proposition is nonsensical—no one can be against the joy of life, really—and I knew that at the time, but I wanted to push a prejudice, or dark impulse, or mine as far as it would go, and see where it would take me.

Read in this spirit, I must admit to strongly relating to "Against Joie de Vivre," in addition to admiring the Montaigne-like pacing and structure of the essay. Lopate's quasi-serious narrator is certainly cranky, venting his spleen against everything from open-air picnicking, to spry, bohemian octogenarians, to dinner parties, to the insistence of a certain class of people that we should all learn to "live in the moment." Such curmudgeonliness could easily come off as pointlessly mean-spirited, but for me it didn't—mostly, I think, because Lopate doesn't shy away from making himself the butt of his wry observations. He seems to find himself just as ridiculous as he finds everyone else, and if he finds himself less annoying than he finds other people, he readily admits that it's only because of his own subjectivity. Take his section on dinner parties. It's a favorite of mine, since I also dislike the type of party he's describing: not a casual dinner shared among friends, but an orchestrated group gathered by the host and hostess, most of whom have not met before, but who are expected to make clever chit-chat about a certain set of pre-approved subjects.

Although an after-work "leisure activity," the dinner party is in fact a celebration of professional identity. Each of the guests has been preselected as in a floral bouquet; and in certain developed forms of this ritual there is usually a cunning mix of professions. Yet the point is finally not so much diversity as commonality; what remarkably shared attitudes and interests these people from different vocations demonstrate by conversing intelligently, or at least glibly, on the topics that arise.

That first sentence about celebrating professional identity had me cheering, I must admit: it's a total pet peeve of mine that the first question everyone must answer in a social setting in this country is "What do you do?" by which the questioner means "What do you get paid to do?" not "What do you do for fun?" or "What have you done today?"—yet the answer to that question generates a handy label with which the questioner can pidgeonhole the respondent. From here Lopate gets steadily grouchier (and, in my opinion, more brilliant). "Dinner-party chatter," he writes, "is the communicative equivalent of roaming around shopping malls":

Much thought has gone into the ideal size for a dinner party—usually with the hostess arriving at the figure eight. Six would give each personality too much weight; ten would lead to splintering side discussions; eight is the largest number still able to force everyone into the same compulsively congenial conversation. My own strength as a conversationalist comes out less in groups of eight than one-to-one, which may explain my resistance to dinner parties. At the table, unfortunately, any engrossing tête-à-tête is frowned upon as antisocial.

Despite the seeming perversity of his position, there is something real that Lopate's criticizing here: the shallowness that goes with pursuing joie de vivre as a lifestyle, rather than expressing it spontaneously when one actually feels the impulse, and the self-satisfied evangelism of those who have devoted themselves to such rigorous joyfulness. The compulsory nature of the glib, surface-y chit-chat at this type of dinner party; the way in which having a different kind of conversation is seen as antisocial: it points out the odd bullying cheerfulness that sometimes exists at group functions, and which one only notices if one prefers a different kind of activity to the one backed by the group. The "outsider" in these settings is in a tough position: say, for example, that she would prefer to lounge in the lodge reading rather than hitting the slopes with the rest of the gang, or take a walk in the evening air rather than make strained conversation at the party. If she simply DOES what she wants, she is perceived as unhappy or depressed (because who WOULDN'T want to be constantly around other people, engaged in active pursuits?), and if she expresses her preference ("No thanks, I don't really like skiing"), she is perceived as rude or uninitiated. In the mind of the joie de vivre bully, the oddball is plainly claiming to dislike Activity X simply as a screen for shyness, or moodiness, or because she's stuck up—or perhaps she thinks she doesn't like said activity, but that's only because she hasn't done it right. So they continue to push for conformity, never considering that their victim may simply be choosing a different activity because she genuinely prefers it.

Of course this is a simplification, an exaggeration of the facts. Lots of people, once they get to know an oddball like Lopate or me, stop taking offense when we don't want to join the group for every activity, or when we try to steer our social interactions into smaller groups, more intimate settings. Nevertheless, I think the "joie de vivre bully" is enough of a reality to merit an essay. Yet it's a difficult task to criticize this kind of behavior without seeming like a disaffected teenager—these people mean the best, after all. They are only trying to assure that everyone has a good time, and if their definition of "having a good time" is rather narrow, that's no reason to get all misanthropic on them. I think Lopate does a great job of expressing clearly what bothers him, and allowing himself a level of grumpiness and irrationality that means he (and readers who relate) can chuckle and blow off steam, while also acknowledging that he's being somewhat ridiculous, and that much of what he's saying is down to his own prejudices. It was a good mix, I thought, and a good way to wrap up the Essay Monday experience.

I have lived in the present from time to time, and I can tell you that it is much overrated. Occasionally, as a holiday from stroking one's memories or brooding about future worries, I grant you, it can be a nice change of pace. But to "be here now," hour after hour, would never work. I don't even approve of stories written in the present tense. As for poets who never use a past participle, they deserve the eternity they are striving for.

A few notes on The Art of the Personal Essay as a whole: I loved making my way through this book, and as much as I'm qualified to judge, I think it's a good overview of the personal essay tradition. It certainly expanded my list of essayists to search out and read in the future, and Lopate's introductory pages were a good length, giving both an idea of the essayist's background and a hint of Lopate's personal opinion on him or her, all in a concise format. There's a wide diversity of long and short pieces, serious and funny, past and present—I think Lopate did a good job of showing the scope of what the personal essay form can do.

My only reservation about it is that it's extremely England- and America-heavy. A quick look at the chapter divisions will make my point: after Montaigne ("Fountainhead"), the three section headings are "The Rise of the English Essay," "Other Cultures, Other Continents," and "The American Scene." These three sections are all roughly the same length, which means that not only is Lopate dividing the world into American, English, and "Other," but he's compressing the entire rest of the world into the same amount of space given to each America and England. I would have appreciated a more balanced, less "other-ing" presentation of world essay traditions.

Despite that reservation, though, this is an excellent collection. Lots of good stuff; I should think that almost any reader will discover new essayists to love.


  • I'm still waiting for my copy of this to turn up, but if this is the quality of reading I can look forward to then the wait will be worth it.

    I am also a non-dinner party person, partly by reason of my own personality but also, I think, because after years of leading seminar discussions where my role has been to get everyone else talking I automatically fall into that role over the table and spend my time encouraging other people to talk.

    I also recognise the 'joie de vivre bully' but I must be a less nice person than you because I'm not sure that they are always out for the best. I've known at least one who was deliberately trying to belittle those whom she harried. If I knew she was going to be on the other side of the table I learned to politely refuse the invite.

  • I see your point on the categorization of the essays in terms of "other". I'd be interested to see what you find in terms world essays that would be less American/England centric. I just am so very unfamiliar with the genre.

    I read a different Lopate essay for my essay class. I can't remember what it was called -- something about an autobiography of his body or something -- but also a little obnoxious. It's obviously a very self-centered essay so maybe that was to be expected.

    I do hope you write about essays again. Even when I don't comment, I like to read your thoughts!

  • What a valuable project and certainly inspiring. I used to read tons of essays when I taught Freshman Writing but haven't read many since. I believe I even had a giant Lopate anthology at one point... but where it ended up??? No idea. Moving overseas was bad for my library.

    These days I'm struggling to find any nonfiction that appeals to me as much as all the fiction on my shelf...

  • Ugh, the "joie de vivre" people - are they the same types who tell complete strangers to "Smile!" No, you're not trying to cheer someone up. You just want them to look happy.

    I think I would like this essay.

  • Study Window: Haha, yes! I hope you enjoy your Lopate book when it arrives. And well, I should have said that MOST of the joie de vivre bullies I've known have been well-intentioned...but you're right, not all of them by any means. And whether well-intentioned or no, it's obnoxious to find oneself on the receiving end.

    Rebecca: No worries, I'll definitely keep writing about essays; I've got two collections coming down the pike. Thanks for the nice words! And I'm very unfamiliar with the essay tradition, too, which makes it awkward to look around for non-English-language essayists...but maybe starting with the ones Lopate references & working outward from there would be a good approach.

  • Marieke: I cannot even imagine what moving across the ocean would do to my book collection. My heart simultaneously bleeds for you and envies you. :-) I hear you on the fiction/nonfiction debate, although I found I did like having this little injection of nonfiction into my weekly routine.

    EL Fay: Ha, something tells me you would like it. I agree that those people who command you to smile are SO obnoxious! Notice how they're usually men, and they're usually not commanding other MEN to smile pretty?

  • Yes, there's been actual feminist commentary done on this! Basically, it links to the idea that women are supposed to be sweet and pleasant and pretty all the time.

  • I'm thinking I'd actually consider attending a dinner party if someone like yourself or Lopate were hosting, and I could go off and read a chapter of my book before dessert.

    I've heard arguments that the whole "what do you do (for a living)?" thing is very much a North American problem — North Americans are more likely to define themselves by what they're paid to do, whereas Europeans are just as likely to define themselves by their leisure pursuits. (Haven't been to many European dinner parties so I can't say for sure.)

  • EL Fay: Grrr. :-)

    Isabella: I've heard that about North America vs. Europe as well! (Then there are the parts of the world where the question is "Who are your parents?" which I'm not sure is much better.) Haven't been to many European dinner parties either, but I wonder if that's true. I did go to an epic Australian dinner party, where the main signifier seemed to be how much the guests could drink. ;-)

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography