What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, June 20, 2014

James Wood's "On Not Going Home"

Photo of James Wood by David Levenson

One of the most absorbing essays I’ve read recently is James Wood’s "On Not Going Home" (London Review of Books, February 20, 2014). It has some irritating aspects (e.g., Wood’s characterization of his mother as “Scottish petty-bourgeois,” and his reference to “those dastardly school events always held in gymnasiums”); nevertheless, it resonates with me. I relish the autobiographical component in which Wood connects his personal experience of expatriation with his deep appreciation of, among other works, W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. At first glance, this connection appears tenuous. Wood’s voluntary 1995 departure for the United States, where he’s lived for the last eighteen years, hardly compares to the traumatic dislocation that The Emigrants’ four tragic German wanderers experience. Wood acknowledges the incongruity. He says,

So whatever this state I’m talking about is, this ‘not going home,’ it is not tragic; there’s probably something ridiculous in these privileged laments – oh sing ’dem Harvard blues, white boy! But I am trying to describe some kind of loss, some kind of falling away. (The gain is obvious enough and thus less interesting to analyze.)

The description that Wood settles on is “secular homelessness.” I confess that I find this term hard to grasp. Wood mentions that its coinage was inspired by George Lukács’s “transcendental homelessness.” It’s an interesting phrase, but as a description of the mild, privileged, voluntary homelessness experienced by expatriates like Wood, it seems hazy, its meaning even more elusive than the “tangle of feelings” Wood is trying to get at.

But “secular homelessness” aside, my take-away from “On Not Going Home” is, firstly, Wood’s inspired description of the sound of the American train horn (“a crumple of notes, blown out on an easy, loitering wail”), and, secondly, his brilliant, epiphanic conclusion:

What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time; that it has taken years for me to see this; and that this process of retrospective comprehension in fact constitutes a life – is indeed how life is lived. Freud has a wonderful word, “afterwardness,” which I need to borrow, even at the cost of kidnapping it from its very different context. To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done. And that may be all right.

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