The magic of this broken world, part II

From part I: “But I’m not setting out to quibble with Gopnik in particular so much as I want to use him as a representative of a long line of New York complainers about the same things: the grit’s gone, the rent’s too high for the middle class; that there may have been more crime back in the day, more junkies burning fires in trash cans and more chances to get mugged, but there was more soul too.”

In 1916, in Pearson’s Magazine, the swaggering, butch lesbian journalist Djuna Barnes (or so she’s come to be mythologized, with “swaggering” always a required adjective) had this to say about the decline of Greenwich Village bohemia:

And so people are standing before Greenwich Village murmuring in pitying tones: “It is not permanent, the colors will fade. It is not based on good judgment. It is not of that sturdy and healthy material from which, thank providence, we of the real Manhattan have been fashioned.” There are a few who sigh: “It is beautiful in places!” while others add: “That is only an accident.”

Barnes identifies what I’m calling the nostalgic strain in New York writing: it’s always already over. She writes her essay in part to mount a defense of the Village against those who say its time has come and gone. And though she spends the better part of her piece redirecting visitors from sites that are no longer there, she also resists the impulse toward nostalgia by arguing that her neighborhood has a vitality not visible to outsiders’ eyes:

And so you of the outer world be not so hard on us, and above all forbear to pity us–good people. We have all that the rest of the world has in common commodities and we have the better part: men and women with a new light flickering in their eyes, or on their foreheads the radiance of some unseen splendor.

Marked by the beast, apparently.

Barnes’s overall point, though, is that it’s too easy to indulge in New York nostalgia. It’s harder, then, to preserve the difficulty — and mystery — of the past, even while acknowledging nostalgia’s seductive pull.

This is the move I’ve thought of this week while reading (and watching) and thinking about Wharton’s (and Scorsese’s) The Age of Innocence and Michael Chabon’s (still yet unfilmed) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Each text features an unopened envelope — and I take these envelopes to represent the dispatches from the past that remain possibility only, that bloom and expire before anyone takes long enough notice. Who can write the history of such unread gestures?

shot throught the heart and you’re to blame

In Wharton’s novel, the envelope contains the key Newland Archer sends to Madame Olenska — a key that could facilitate their long suppressed love affair. She returns it to him unopened. In Scorsese’s film, the key is enclosed in Newland’s pocket in a series of unopened papers — almost like Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, one tucked inside the next. Madame Olenska has returned it to him because she has refused to violate the codes of New York society in the Gilded Age: she will not jeopardize the Archers’ marriage and reputations by remaining in New York when most of the city’s claustrophobic society thinks she is Newland’s mistress. Newland realizes this is the case at the first dinner party he and his wife, May, throw — a farewell party for Madame Olenska:

As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless-looking people engaged upon May’s canvas-backs as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right as the centre of their conspiracy. And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers, lovers in the extreme sense peculiar to “foreign” vocabularies. He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin

It was the old New York way of taking life “without effusion of blood”: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than “scenes,” except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.

For all the ways in which Wharton’s post-WWI novel seems to wax nostalgic about the pre-modern Gilded Age of her childhood, this nod toward tribal behavior suggests that premodern society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And by “premodern” I mean the classic definition: a society that exists without a full exposure to the world beyond the valley.

It was a strange resonance I felt between this passage from Wharton and one from Chabon’s Amazing Adventures. All the same, I think the books both tend toward the anti-nostalgic, even as they aim to epitomize a bygone era.

leap over tall buildings in a single bound

In Chabon’s novel the unopened envelope contains a letter from Joseph Kavalier’s mother, fatally trapped in Nazi-occupied Prague, to her son, who escaped to America in the first of the novel’s many daring escapes. (Is it any surprise that the comic book hero Joe helps to invent on arriving in Brooklyn is called the Escapist?)

Though the novel reproduces the text of the letter from Joe’s mother — complete with words and phrases marked out by Nazi censors — the narrator makes it plain that Joe (unlike you, the reader) never laid eyes on these pages. Instead, he tucks the unopened envelope into a pocket and, eventually, loses it, try as he might to retrace his steps and recover the damn thing. Years later, we’re told,

Joe would sometimes find himself thinking about the pale-blue envelope from Prague. He would try to imagine its contents, wondering what news or sentiments or instructions it might have contained. It was at these times that he began to understand, after all those years of study and performance [of magic and escape tricks], of feats of wonder and surprises, the nature of magic. The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew it was only an illusion. The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.

And that, my friends, is a perfect example of what I think of as the anti-nostalgic strain in New York writing. The novel ends, after all, with Joe’s cousin Sammy vanishing without a trace (and with a golem turned to dust arriving in the mail, waiting for the right word). As nostalgic as the novel’s portrayal of the Golden Age of comic books may be — or as nostalgic as Wharton’s novel may seem for the Gilded Age — there’s a violence there, something conspiring against identity and imagination, that makes you glad those worlds haven’t been entirely preserved.

And you, dear reader … what’s inside your missing envelope?

13 responses to “The magic of this broken world, part II”

  1. Rachel says:

    Interesting question, Bryan. For myself, I think I over-idealized the 1970s, the magical decade between gay liberation and AIDS. All that disco and cocaine and consequence-free sex! But the truth is, the scene was often violent and dangerous, STDs were rampant, and the whole decade–while utopic for some–left a lot of others feel used-up and empty. I was watching a documentary on gay NYC in the 70s the other day, and one guy said he had anonymous sex one night at the Chelsea Piers, & the next day he saw the same guy, drowned, at the water’s edge–and nobody could identify him, or even knew who he was. Some”community.”

    Hell, people already get misty-eyed over the 1990s. Where will we direct our misguided nostalgia in ten or fifteen years?

  2. Gale says:


    Chris Castiglia has an interesting article about that very topic — maybe you’ve seen it. It’s called “The Way We Were: Remembering the Gay ’70s.” It’s in a book called The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture.

  3. bw says:

    rach — that’s such a perfect example of what i’m talking about. and gale, how cool is it for someone to namecheck chris castiglia in one of my posts?

    you guys made me realize that part of what i’m trying to get at here is what our friend andrea e. calls “mistalgia”: nostalgia for something you never experienced firsthand. but it’s also the point that sometimes it’s okay not to have been there: as much as i idealize the lower east side in the 70s, i’m not sure i’d want all the junkies and streetfires as a daily part of my life. there’s enough grit left — and plenty of places to search it out. and art too: i saw one of the most compelling performances i’ve ever witnessed last night at mercury, and it was the 7:00 set! samamidon. damn, people, put him on your list.

    more on that later. i’m going home.

  4. Frosted flakes and rain from New Mexico.

  5. lane says:

    I thought about this all day yesterday.

    As someone that, somehow, came to the deeply delusional belief that I could make something that someone, somewhere could and should give a sh** about. And be presumptuous enough to think that that person will keep, and protect, and CHERISH that thing I made.

    One of the unconsidered realities of accumulating wealth and stuff are the deep, deep, deep resevoirs of STORAGE space that people create.

    A whole industry dedicated to making things “disappear.”

  6. swells says:

    I must first excuse my constant silence on such matters by explaining that Mondays and Tuesdays are generally so work-swamped for me that I can barely read the site, let alone comment—something I’ve long wanted to explain to, especially, Dave, Bryan, and Parrish. In other words, it’s never you—it’s me. Your posts are great.

    Now, this post (both parts). Mistalgia is a topic that always fascinates me, and I’ve long been guilty of it myself (see Scott’s comment on Part I about San Francisco–ditto).
    I must confess I have been anxiously waiting for Adam Gopnick’s NY book to come out in paperback because I liked Paris to the Moon so much, bourgie as it is. I even like the face-lift metaphor you quote in your previous post. Should I not bother? What if I don’t mind the whole “Indie bands were so much cooler before they got signed” stance?

    Also, have you read Paradise Alley? (I haven’t so I can’t recommend it either way, and it seems like you would have or at least should. I heard of it the day of your first post)

    Finally, I love how Djuna is always a swaggering butch lesbian, when she would never even admit to it herself (famously, “I wasn’t a lesbian. I just loved Thelma.”)

    Thanks Bryan–I really enjoyed this series. Literary connections and urban appreciation—what’s not to love?

  7. bw says:

    I want to read both of Baker’s books, Swells. Has anyone read them?

    And thanks for saying nice things about such random ramblings. I scramble the middle of Sunday night to make something sound coherent and more often than not find myself second guessing whether I even should have posted it — so it helps to know someone gets *some* pleasure from it, even if you don’t always have time to chime in.

    People had mentioned the new Richard Price before. Last night I read this hilarious review, which is written by one of our grad students — who has, it turns out, a rather enviable alternate career ahead of him in reviewing! he just won the NBCC’s Balakian Award for reviewing for his work as a NY Mag book critic.

  8. lane says:

    i saw richard price up on 50th street when the world wide plaza was still a $3 dollar theater, IN MANHATTAN!

    Get me some “Nostalgisin”!

    – a nuerosupression pill for those afflicted by ‘Mistalgia’ (side affects may include weight loss, skinny jean syndrome, and a slight tilting of the head.}

    funny, at least to me.

  9. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Like Lane, I have been thinking about this post quite a bit–and after your last comment, bw, marveling, too, at how you can post a few late-night “random ramblings” and make them sound so poetic and insightful.

    So, wait, what’s the opposite of nostalgia? I think I tend to romanticize my future much moreso than I wax nostalgic about the past, and in fact I tend to forget about the good old days–unless, actually, you mean the alternate-reality past that I’ve constructed in my head, the one in which I go back to junior high school as a smarter, less-terrified version of myself and become the coolest kid in the school. Is that mistalgia or some combination of being pathetic, delusional, and nostalgic (pathelugia?)?

  10. Godfree says:

    J- In your idealized future do you and (a cloned) Grace Kelly rule over an army of cockroaches that take over Manhattan and ultimately overrun the world? That would be a totally rad future.

  11. NYCounternostalgia update: EL Doctorow’s _Ragtime_ is another perfect example of a NYC historical novel that is, ultimately, counternostalgic. Pull it down and read the opening sequence. Emma Goldman is the disruptive force in what was, at first, a nostalgic glance backward. In fact, that opening sequence thematizes everything I tried (not so successfully) to say here.

  12. Tim says:

    Hey Bryan,

    You might want to check out a song on Steve Earle’s new record, Washington Square Serenade for its expression of a tension between nostalgia and counternostalgia. (Earle recently moved to the Village from Nashville.)

    The song is “Down Here Below,” and opens with an image of a red tail hawk circling over NYC, looking for breakfast. The bird settles on a building and looks up and down Fifth Ave. “from the top of the food chain” and says to himself, “God, I love this town.”

    After the chorus, comes this

    I saw Joe Mitchell`s ghost on a downtown `A` train
    He just rides on forever now that the Fulton fish market`s shut down
    He said `they ain`t never gonna get that smell out of the water
    I don`t give a damn how much of that new money they burn`

    Now hell`s kitchen`s Clinton and the bowery`s Nolita
    And the east village`s creepin` `cross the Williamsburg bridge
    And hey, whatever happened to alphabet city?
    Ain`t no place left in this town that a poor boy can go

    There’s a lot to parse here, because it’s hard to say (from my perspective) where this song falls along the divide you have set up. The image of the hawk suggests a deeper natural order that simultaneously defies and reinforces the human order. Just like the food chain in nature, there’s an economic food chain, but it exists independently and in spite of the city. The hawks will outlive any changes in real estate prices.

    The invocation of Joe Mitchell (a New Yorker writer who glorified ‘old NY’ in articles about McSorley’s and the fish market in the 1940s) as a ghost on the subway is interesting, too. Mitchell is gone in body, but not spirit, and the ghost declares the same for the fish market.

    From what seems to be counternostalgic, the song moves into listing the name changes brought on by real estate agents and claims that there’s no place left for the poor in NYC, seemingly flipping over to an expression of nostalgia.

    Despite this, Earle states in the liner notes, “The city hasn’t changed as much as real estate agents would have you believe.”

    Anyway, I just thought of you and this post when I heard this song for the first time last night and thought you might want to check it out.

  13. Natasha says:

    Bryan, thank you so much for writing this piece I really really enjoyed. My grandma, who was everything in my life, recently passed away along with all of her nostalgia. Somehow she gave these contagious feelings of nostalgia to me and although regrettably enough, I do not feel strongly nostalgic about New York’s past in particular, as I only lived there for a short period of time, I strangely feel nostalgic about many other things in life, which your post so beautifully described. Grandma taught me the old recipe for crapes (blini), which her grandma used (“you have to make crapes that look like lace(tvoi blini dolgni bit” kak ruchnoe krugevo),” she used to say) and that’s exactly how I make crapes today. She also decorated a Christmas tree the way her grandma did back in the mid 1800 and that’s how I do it in 2008. When I got home from my trip to Moscow, I brought back all of her tree ornaments including a lot of chocolates, which she loved to hang on the Christmas tree. Some chocolates go back to 1910. There is this Italian song about Nostalgia which would absolutely give you goose bumps if you listen to it at a high enough volume. It reminds me of all the most beautiful things in life. Here is the link. Please listen to it at a high volume and enjoy.