We have here the post-apocalyptic wanderer, able to go anywhere because there’s nowhere he belongs.
Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young ManPublisher: HarperCollins
Length: 384 pages
Author: Robert Christgau
Publication date: 2015-02
I’ll be shelving Going into the City right next to Wittgenstein’s Mistress in my mental index, because there's something ever so gently apocalyptic about Robert Christgau’s new memoir. This is not to say eschatological, because a human obstinancy toward catastrophe defines the act of apocalyptic writing. Christgau uses his memoir to write against the end of all things; his life project as a critic and a person takes the remnants of society as its fundamental obsession.
After a brief methodological introduction ("I kept dialogue to a minimum" (10), "I first conceptualized my life by isolating the four themes adduced above: religion, popular culture, romantic marriage, and going into the city itself" (11)), the memoir proper begins with Christgau extrapolating the sexuality from a photograph of his parents in their youth. They hold an acrobatic pose that belies the chastity of their context (an Asbury boardwalk, on a day out). The exuberant melancholy into which the book quickly settles hasn’t yet made itself felt, even though this tableau—Christgau sitting at his dining room table with a cup of something hot, noting with a critic’s dispassion that a document of his life must begin with his parents wanting to fuck each other—is hoarier than the wallet-sized photograph carried by every wasteland-wanderer.
Attendant to this cliché is the wanderer’s imminent doom, which Christgau defers by taking the scene of the photograph as something that was never his. It was his parents’ perfect day, and he as a witness is a lifetime and two deaths apart. It’s beautiful of him to give the moment back to his parents; the picture is not his madeleine. Not incidentally, neither is it an occasion for him to wax poetically on his own mortality. He only notes the constraint it places on pleasure.
Going Into the City is inflected with this generosity whenever the situation warrants it. From his earliest recollections to his daughter’s adoption on the final page, the narrative is a coming-to-terms with the unknowability of those things that form our experiences. The photograph is just the first example in the rush of detritus that accrues in society -- the records, the paintings, the movies, the books, the conversations, the bodies -- all of which we can understand only by our limited faculties and limited time.
In the memoir’s first long section, Christgau attempts to conceptualize his world according with the very essence of inconceivability: God. Naturally, he can’t, but not before he tries to actualize God in his life with a test of the sort I remember from my own church-going adolescence: "For my entire lifespan, I decided, my left foot would touch the ground twice as often as my right foot… I figured that when I died I could ask God whether I’d made my quota, and that this would be interesting" (62). Christgau’s immortal soul would probably have other concerns while kneeling at the throne of the Almighty, and the teenager riding public transportation to junior high soon did, too. Namely, girls. And with that, Going Into the City becomes post-lapsarian.
As he sheds biblical doctrine with no small despair, timed to his entrance into Dartmouth and the beginning of his first fully-formed romantic relationship with Miriam Meyer, he writes,
My default substitute for God was women. Hence, Miriam’s imperfections—some of them genuine incompatibilities, some the kind of everyday drawbacks infatuations are blind to, and some her lot as a mortal human inhabiting the space-time continuum—were more than romantic reversals for me. They were existential reversals. (98)
Rightly critiqued for its misogyny by secular commenters and anyone who doesn’t take the Bible very literally, the allegory of the Fall has a desperate truth to its notion that a real confrontation with another human, that moment when a person does something you do not understand, and won’t, can’t access the context of, can’t eat their brain to discover their feelings about it all, is the very moment when mortality in its infinite rapacity begins eating you alive. Regarding existential dread:
The average secular humanist might wonder what I had to worry about. I’ve indicated one answer: the fact that Miriam Meyer was a mortal woman. But… my own mortality obsessed me even more… Christianity’s deal-closer isn’t heaven, where the details are so fuzzy—at least not for those with decent lives. It’s the promise that this, this right here, I mean this, is everlasting. It will never end. I still don’t like the thought of it ending. I still pop out of naps alarmed that my life is a quarter or a half or three-quarters or four-fifths over. Then I get up and get on with it. (100)
Preach. The collapsed temporality of "a quarter…or four-fifths over" while the response remains the same characterizes the relation to mortality throughout the memoir. After all, he’s settled the issue. But as is our human lot not to accept this finitude very well at all, Christgau continues to butt up against it as he pursues the sensible career move of writing about all those transient, ignorable, pressing, and omnipresent objects that make up the texture of late-capitalist life, whether you pay attention to them or not. Included are the bodies of women, given in the sensually finicky detail of a life remembered, rather than experienced. Few events last longer than a historical declarative, including the sex, elusive in the collapsed past tense, as in this already-oft-quoted nugget covering a four-year sexual partnership: "the kissing, the sucking, the licking, the caressing, the moaning, the endearments, the embracing, the simple pressing of flesh on flesh" (164).
Another, for a shorter affair: "She had an exceptionally moist and succulent cunt" (146). (This latter aside would be less embarrassing if you couldn't practically hear our author rebutting the obvious objection of, er, tastelessness with alliterative poesy.) His sexual partners' bodies never supplant in his memory the force of their ideas, their particularity as humans, or even, in the case of Ellen Willis and his current partner of three-plus decades, Carola Dibbell, their greater facility with language. But he reminds you that he could only know them in their physical existence.
The heady rush of music, sex, and radicalization structure the long middle of Going Into the City, as Christgau attempts the impossible task of cohering a life in a '60s US that, in its nostalgic historicization, flew and fell like Icarus. But our author has a more material, and therefore darker, view of the death of the "high '60s". He skirts eschatology recording the years during which privileged idealism kneecapped political action while his second long-term partner, Willis, and he collapsed apart in a metonym that reads as overdetermined until he elucidates densely conjoined personal and political causality.
"As an antiutopian, I had less to lose psychologically in a disillusion that soon turned to panic. Anyway, in a time that felt at least a little apocalyptic to anyone who'd opposed the war long enough to get discouraged, Ellen's hedonism more than counterbalanced her unease" (195); and the brutal sentence "But as the protests got bigger and louder, the hostilities kept escalating, and the counterculture began choking on the cud of its own privilege and drowning in the undertow of its own euphoria" (183).
Through all of this, Christgau finds relief in the distracting pleasure of AM radio and increasingly lucrative newspaper coverage of music and the "youth beat". But there’s always a sense of displacement, of instability. As he drives and hitchhikes all over the country, with one ear to the radio and the other to his companions, a disquieting rootlessness attends the hyper-mobility. We have here again the post-apocalyptic wanderer, able to go anywhere because there’s nowhere he belongs, with the ad hoc relationships that subtend the genre’s literally sublime humanism.
As the book enters it’s third section and Christgau middle age, the world is more stable but worse off. His life solidifies in the Village, he marries Dibbell (still together, and she recently published The Only Ones, a post-pandemic novel that people much smarter than I have been recommending wildly), and establishes if not inaugurates his phoenician columns for The Village Voice; by professionalizing as a music critic, he helps create and live within "a virtual community of shared pleasures" (261) that replaces the contingent communities of political rallies and provisional conversations with truck drivers he’s trying to keep awake. His form of political action becomes strictly journalistic and editorial, no more rallies; and his friends follow his and Dibbell’s lead in monogamous marriage.
In short, the US grows up with him. Which of course is bullshit. It’s a fiction that's really hard to fight, but Christgau gives it his damnedest—seeing as he’s one of the damned. I think he succeeds at least partially by the very apocalypticism of his tone. Part of the capitalistic takeover of idealism was a rupture with and erasure of the past. For idealism to fail utterly, capitalism needs to destroy the idea of historical continuity and the utility of communities.
One method of this is disposable pop culture, seductive and almost literally enrapturing. By the end of the memoir, the great good project on display is a simultaneous exploitation by the consumer of the pleasure pop commodities give, while looking at the long view of that pleasure—forwards, backwards, and at the frustratingly elusive moment of feeling. Pop pleasure usually lasts not very long at all, but it can take you somewhere with everyone else listening along, and that’s better than what the "cynical reactionary moneybags" who "launched a counterattack on idealistic counterculture lazybones that necessitated, among other vile maneuvers, new degrees of corporate integration in the culture industry itself" (9) wanted for anyone.
But he doesn’t end with capitalism, so neither will this review. I’ll leave the progression of the last chapter to Christgau, but know that it’s heartbreaking and beautiful and tests in extremis a not-quite-secular humanism of trying with all of your heart to understand another person whose nearness and mystery, over a lifetime, never ceases to terrify, disappoint, enchant, console and, as much as anything, demystify a rapidly approaching end that feels always more distant because there is so, so much and more to get to know.