Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel … Oh! There you are. This “Diary” creeps up on you in the most unguarded moments. I recently improved my condition from self-intoxication to self-obsession, and I was just doing some lunchtime exercises—I ate lunch around 1:30 today; my cat Maya poached some salmon from Citarella—meant to bring me to the next stage, which is self-absorption. Dr. von Hoffenshtoffen, whom I mentioned yesterday, devised these “identity calisthenics,” as he calls them. I think they’re helping, but this Diary, with its emphasis on “I,” gave me a “soul hernia” (another Hoffenshtoffenian phrase).
I was supposed to reach self-involvement over the weekend, then waltz my way through self-concern by the end of the month, and you-know-who (Maya has helpfully relieved me of my “I” for the moment and is batting it around with her paws) has fallen behind in his identity-calisthenics schedule. At this rate, Mr. Divorced Single Literary Critic will never get out to the Vineyard, where he plans to stay with Teddy Consuego, by June 1. Teddy has just returned from North Korea with Lee (no relation), his new Japanese bride, who was presented to him by the North Korean government, bound and gagged, in gratitude for the advertising campaign he built around their new Nukes for Light Bulbs program. Anyway, what with all the me-centered distraction of this Diary, someone very special to this writer has to spend an extra few minutes in front of the mirror trying to get out of himself.
You’d think that staring into the mirror and repeating your name over and over would have the opposite effect of helping you get out of yourself, but that’s not the case. The idea is to find a place so deep inside yourself that, with intense concentration, you look to yourself like a stranger. Your very name becomes an alien phrase. Physically, you start to seem imaginary. Spiritually, you start to seem more real. Hoffenshtoffen suggests keeping a packed suitcase standing in the middle of your apartment as a symbolic reminder of that magical fulfillment—self-surrender—when you leave yourself utterly and travel in a trancelike state to pure objective reception of the outer world.
Sounds silly and pretentiously spirituel, I know. But extricating oneself from oneself is the great problem of human life. Buddha’s name for the smothering, clamoring self was “desire”; Plato’s was “appetite”; Rousseau’s was “reason.” (The translations are Sylvester Cointreau’s.) William James, my favorite American writer, wearily wrote to a friend toward the end of his life that the human ego had begun to repel him. I sort of feel like that sometimes. That’s why, more and more, I love the sound of laughter. Not withering, or cruel, or exclusive, knowing laughter. I mean ego-bursting laughter that is like wisdom speaking in slang.
So who is this person staring back at me from the mirror in my bathroom? My lips are small and thin; Maya likes the way the upper lip protrudes slightly over the lower one. Carmencita likes the lower lip—but she also wants me to wear cologne. A certain roundness and softness to my face always bothered me. I wanted to look hard and lean and chiseled, just as I wanted to have that invincible steel will of Central European intellectuals like Arthur Koestler, and not all that moist, tremulous high (and low) feeling I’ve inherited from my Russian-Jewish forebears. Everyone in my family is vibrato; there is not a note blanche to be found in our entire genetic pool. Weeping was a form of communication. One sob meant hello, two sobs meant good-bye, three sobs meant “There’s a call for you,” and so forth. Hoffenshtoffen, who gets bored by lachrymosity, says that I was born with a silver violin in my mouth.
Maya says, not surprisingly, that she sees a strong feline element in my face. How I wish it were so. American male “icons” all have a feline quality. Brando, Miles Davis, Sinatra, Jackson Pollock’s gossamer-veined paintings, if not Pollock himself. Americans might still feel uncomfortable with hybrid sexualities and hybrid racial origins, but they secretly worship hybridity in the actors and performers they adore. In this sense, Michael Jackson’s grotesque parody of hybridity is a reactionary event in American culture.
Time to go. I am off to Barneys Warehouse Sale downtown, on Wooster Street. Talk about hybridity. Barneys Warehouse Sales, the racks and bins loaded with the most beautiful clothes marked down by 80 percent, are some of the most powerful transformative vessels in American life. It’s the only high-toned store in the world where investment bankers fight with gold-chain-bedecked kids from the South Bronx over a Missoni vest. It wasn’t until I first started going to the sales 20 years ago and disguised my humble origins by buying $800 Armani jackets for $40 that I discovered my true self. This time I’m taking my suitcase. Good-bye Lee Siegel, good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.