Of mystery there is no end: The Essays of Leonard Michaels


Three years ago today, The Essays of Leonard Michaels (2009) were first published. Raised in Greenwich Village, New York, Michaels’ writing captures the ‘outsider’ motif in not just his fictional works (especially the brilliantly written The Men’s Club, 1981), but also in his journal writing (Time out of Mind, 1999).

I read The Men’s Club twice; the first time I was negotiating with what at first seemed like inferential sexism: tales of wife beatings, the ‘men understand that’ rhetoric, and the woman as the archetype of ‘otherness’. The second time I read it I navigated well enough through the book to find its irony and realistic humour to counteract such perceptions, deriving more warmth and humour out of it through its languid yet detailed prose, especially that of the characters. A group of men, the story begins, gather together at a friend’s house, exclusively for men, and, after preliminary attempts of conversation they decide to spend the entire evening pouring what they can from their souls and hearts about women and life. My favourite line, delivered with a pseudo-poetic twist, was: “Sex wakes women – think of Sleeping Beauty – and puts men to sleep”. Another is, “If men make history, women wear its look in their faces and figures. Fat during the Depression era; slender when times are good.” The latter is particularly hard to argue with.

What links Michaels’ essays with this work of fiction is the concept and often mistaken characterisation of love. In a short essay in his collection titled On Love, originally published in Zoetrope in 2003, the year of his death, Michaels shows how speaking of love seemingly eradicates it. In writing about a William Blake poem on love, Michaels analyses: ‘It seems to mean, if you’re in love, best keep it to yourself; or, maybe it means you can talk about love, but the moment you do you aren’t talking about love. Love is a mystery; otherwise it is nothing.’ Similarly, in The Men’s Club, the narrator attempts to discern between love and what is simply sex and longing:

‘So far,’ I said, ‘I’ve heard three stories about one thing. Cavanaugh calls it love. I call it stories about the other woman. By which I mean the one who is not the wife. To you guys, only the other woman is interesting. If there weren’t first a wife, there couldn’t be the other woman.’   

That The Men’s Club focuses on the practice of talking is an interesting juxtaposition to Michaels’ notion that talking of love destroys it. So the men never truly accomplish what they set out to, to consciously understand what it is that love is supposed to be. What I found particularly interesting about The Men’s Club was, despite Michaels’ brilliant writing and insights, his writing of women remains artificial, or at least pale and disconnected. Whether victims or instigators, he seems to write caricatures of women, to borrow a line from my previous post, though it is undoubtedly difficult to write from the point of view of the opposite sex. It is easy to paint women as victims but even easier to paint them as the victors- either way the male voice still seems to subtly end up winning out.

Often it is said that men make better writers. If this is true, which I don’t entirely doubt, it is perhaps because men were always given more opportunities and chances to write, while women were discouraged, thus the history of writing like the history of many things is male dominated. Yet Michaels opens up strong debates between the sexes that does in fact illuminate the ‘other’ that is woman, as well as the ‘other woman’ complex. When I was recently asked why I don’t write more about feminism, I replied that my sex doesn’t determine my interests, or something to that effect, and that just because I am a woman that does not therefore denote that I must write about women. Ironically, though, I have the ability and fortuitousness to say that, in the wake of the feminist effort, and great writers like Cynthia Ozick and Patricia Highsmith, who have done most of my work for me. But more men should write about women, and more women should just write.

The rest of the Essays, meanwhile, are broken up into two groups: Critical and Autobiographical essays. Michaels quotes a line from a letter from Kafka to the woman he loved, Milena:

Today I saw a map of Vienna. For an instant it seemed incomprehensible to me that they had built such a big city when you need only one room.

Michaels responds:

The incomprehensible city is “relationship,” or what you have with everyone in the abstract and lonely vastness of our social reality. The room, all one needs, is romance love, passionate intimacy, the unsophisticated irrational thing you have with someone; or what has long been considered a form of madness, if not the universal demonic of contemporary vision. The city is also the relationship in the movie Last Tango in Paris, where Marlon Brando says to his lover, “Everything outside this room is bullshit.”

The ‘illusion of possessing something that isn’t there’ that Michaels writes of, echoes Proust and even, to some extent, Derrida, in terms of love, though Michaels is perhaps being lenient to his readers and saving them from excessive theories of deconstruction, negotiating instead with the theories of Heidegger.

While his autobiographical essays are enjoyable to read, a more accessible and insightful approach to his mind is found in Time out of Mind (1999), in which he observes people’s seeming inability to communicate, and his intrigue in the banal that seemed so fascinating to him. He writes: ‘The most banal entry…suggested that something in the moment had engaged me, was actually felt.I couldn’t say exactly what was felt when I wrote it, but the mystery gave value to my journals.’

The Essays carry shades of Barthes analytical powers, akin to Pleasures of the Text, Mythologies and Image Music Text, though without the same artful and often nonsensical navigating that Barthes and many post-structuralists were known for. We also catch a glimpse of Nabokov when Michaels describes the transformation of Lolita in relation to love and reality: ‘Nabokov’s Lolita, whether or not you think it’s a wonderful love story, is pornographic.’ When Michaels refers to the ‘pornographic’, he is not talking exclusively of those works about ‘sex’. He describes it simply as ‘exactly what love isn’t: pornography, or the graphic demystification and annihilation of mystery.’ By first speaking of love as ultimately a mystery that cannot be solved through speech, Michaels turns to the understanding of this destruction of mystery through pornography that instantly morphs one thing into something else:

‘As it happened, during a course at Berkeley when I was enthusiastically lecturing to students about Lolita the novel, a girl Lolita’s age was kidnapped in a nearby town and raped and murdered. It became impossible then to carry on about Nabokov’s fantastic wit, magnificent descriptive powers, and splendid achievement in the realm of lyrical imagination. A real girl was dead. The novel was suddenly nauseating.’

Change and transformation is thus key to Michaels’ work, though whether or not his characters are able to attest this is something more of a mystery. In The Men’s Club, while the men have certainly gone through a transformative experience in relation to their understanding of love, it is still doubtful of whether they are actually changed men. The book was also made into a film in 1986 with Roy Scheider, Harvey Keitel and Frank Langella, directed by Peter Medak who, interestingly, also directed The Metamorphosis, a Study: Nabokov on Kafka, in 1989. Langella, meanwhile, also played the character Quilty in Adrian Lyne’s adaptation of Lolita.

In his works, the main characters often seem to be isolated from their surrounds, as Michaels was himself growing up in Greenwich Village with Polish-Jewish parents. This feeling of being the outsider is constantly apparent in his works, including his collected short stories Going Places (1969). As a result Michaels registers more as a philosopher than as a simple writer, attempting to unmask the mystery of life while not referring to it directly. Both his essays and fiction are testament to this.

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4 responses to “Of mystery there is no end: The Essays of Leonard Michaels

  1. How interesting. In 1986 I had recently relocated to L.A. from Northern California where I had been working as a bartender and bar manager at a blue collar bar called The Alibi in Yuba City. Anyway, I got a job as a security guard at Hollywood Center Studios, a seven-stage rental lot at Santa Monica Boulevard and Las Palmas that boasted a ton of Movie Land history: Howard Hughes shot “Hell’s Angels” there and it was once owned by TV giant Filmways, who shot camp TV shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction” on the lot. In the early 80s,

    Hollywood Center was also home to Francis Copolla’s ill-fated Zoetrope Studios and some of the films shot there were Wim Wenders’s “Hammett” and Francis’s “One From the Heart” until the studio went bankrupt and Francis sold it to the billionaire Alan Singer, who owned the lot when I worked there as security and, later, as a stage manager, and we were home to many indie film productions because we welcomed low-budget, non-union productions. Any-hoo — the day I began working there the movie that was shooting on the lot was Peter Medak’s production of “The Men’s Club”. The producer was Howard Gottfried, who took an office on the lot and, many years later, provided the inspiration for the over-the-hill movie producer, Lewis Hogue, in my play “Last Summer at the Marmont”.

  2. Medak also directed “The Ruling Class” with the great Peter O’Toole, incidentally. The only actors I met from “Men’s Club” while on the lot were Roy Scheider and Richard Jordan, both, sadly, now passed. God, I’m old …

    • Not to worry- I turned 22 yesterday, and the only actor I’ve ever met is Geoffrey Rush. I’m hoping my life will get more interesting from now on…
      I loved Scheider in “French Connection” (but also for Gene Hackman), but “Jaws 2” was a bad career move. “Jaws” was ok, but it wasn’t the greatest film ever made, as the character Carson thinks in your book. I should do a review for it- it was very good. Lewis was a great character, and I’m often ashamed of my generations’ tastes in film, so it was quite close to home in its portrayal of the younger crowds. Not much to envy there, I’m afraid. I haven’t seen “The Ruling Class” yet, but I love Peter O’ Toole. The Irish often produce great actors…

      • Please do review “Marmont”, I would enjoy that. And for the record, yes, “Jaws” is passable entertainment but it is by no stretch of the imagination a great film. Carson reflects many conversations I had in Hollywood with young screenwriters. Off the top of my head I can name any number of films from the era that spawned “Jaws” that are great by comparison … “All the President’s Men”, for instance.

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