Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Elizabeth Wurtzel, Spendthrift Heart

Elizabeth Wurtzel. She's rambling. She's narcissistic. Is she the perfect troll? Her latest piece for New York mag begins by bemoaning the mental instability of her landlord, who lets herself into the subletted apartment at odd hours to scream obscenities and steal from Wurtzel,* and works itself into an impassioned condemnation of housewives, long-term relationships, finance guys, phonies, and the year 2012.

Wurtzel's chief lament, though, is that her principles, which consist mostly of a dedication to living in the now, have had a price. She has "nothing" (except an apartment in Manhattan, a Yale Law degree, a job working for one of the foremost constitutional litigators in the country, a kind and aristocratic younger man, and a dog). Tragedy! She lacks bourgeois trappings like husbands and savings accounts and spends much time declaring how much she doesn't want them, but her loneliness, isolation, and precariousness frighten her.

However, if she actually works for David Boies, even part time, there is no reason why she should have "no real estate, no stocks, no bonds, no investments, no 401(k), no CDs, no IRAs, no emergency fund"---except that her identity as someone who lives wholly in the moment would be undermined not just by the temporary sanity of calling an investment advisor or setting up automatic deposits, but by her constant consciousness that even those minor, background steps to some sort of responsibility were occurring.

She claims that being "wiser" in these ways would have meant she'd have been a lousy writer, but this is a lazy copout. She would be a lousy emblem of her philosophy of life, perhaps. But it's the intentional cabining of her talents to depiction of her present inner reality that makes her a lousy writer (although not one who necessarily produces lousy writing; this piece has several lovely passages, as Alyssa Rosenberg notes).**

Her essay does do an excellent job of evoking her peculiar and subtle variety of self-destructiveness. She rejects any situation, romantic or work-related, that might hem her in, favoring instead the freedom of instability. But to do so, she divorces the idea of not being trapped from the experience of being trapped, and then gestures vaguely and impotently at the self-created circumstances that fence her into a barren, depressing inner landscape. The most remarkable thing is how this is utterly at odds with her description of how depression manifested in her childhood, when she clung to the systematic and dogged pursuit of long-term goals as the only hope of salvation from daily misery. Why not set up an emergency fund "like it will save" you, if algebra once made sense to do so?

The present Wurtzel seems to conflate safety with security, and security with imprisonment. She divides her potential paths in two: the "padlock" that comes with family and adherence to convention or a freedom that puts one "in a constant existential crisis." That one might feel secure with one's place in the world while still living an unconventional life is not contemplated. She cannot imagine a relationship of caretaking*** and loving that does not pale into phoniness. Occasionally you have to kiss someone with coffee breath! Horrors. Better to hop to a new fellow before the bloom is off the rose.

So much of what is here is simple rejection of the safety of an adult life, of the contentment that can come with "enough," and an animal fear of losing new sensations. Eventually we become acclimated to what is around us. It no longer strikes us like "flat sheets of hard rain." We must instead perceive subtle currents of life and change. We are not immune to the power of random beauty; we just know that there is sublimity in the experience of a life together. It is more than the sum of its parts: forty years with one is not the same as forty years with forty.

But Wurtzel cannot be bothered to cultivate a palate for the flavors of love and life and day-to-day existence. She wants more, now, again. She wants to be overwhelmed by passion, and has pursued that goal with abandon over and over. Has she become covered in layers of scar tissue? Can she only feel things that batten her with violent sensation? Or is it merely laziness or fear that drives her reluctance to commit to the project of appreciating small variations on a theme of happiness? Calling her shallow chase loving with a pure heart does a disservice to purity and hearts.

According to Wurtzel, this refusal to yoke herself to anyone or anything makes her a free spirit. She is, but in more senses than one. She lacks the ability to connect on the physical plane. She haunts the present with a disregard for past and future that challenges the most single-minded revenants. She is so afraid of being a prostitute or a prisoner or an appliance that she cannot become fully and completely human. She can only be, and for her, being hurts. How, she will explain at great length.

Unfortunately, Wurtzel lacks all creativity and can only mirror herself (which raises a sort of chicken/egg question with respect to narcissism) and is running out of compelling reflections. Her decline is a sad thing to perceive, even if the writing here is sometimes amazing in terms of sheer elegance. Her words fall like water. But we can only watch her slide, like a turtleneck going over someone's head.

* As an initial point, I find her response to the crazy landlady incomprehensible. Wurtzel says she called to cops to no avail, even though "Crazy Maria" stole her Birkin bag. Those bags cost as much as a car. Did she fail to tell the police that Maria had stolen a $10-15,000 handbag? Alternatively, get your boss David Boies to help you file a civil suit. 

** Regardless of the audaciousness and construction of the sentence, I found Wurtzel's jab at David Foster Wallace almost offensive, for its gratuitousness and for the sense that she delights in cutting him down to size now that he can no longer cut back. 

 *** Non-earning spouses are prostitutes; children are proxies for your own self-esteem.
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