Medium Heat: The Essays of Leonard Michaels

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Wine enthusiasts and literary critics share a vocabulary on all too many occasions: scintillating, tasteful, nuanced, and so forth. From time to time, though, one comes across an author who cannot be so easily pinned by these petite similes or who evades introduction altogether. Leonard Michaels’ collection of essays provides no formulaic explanation of intent, approach, or process. Michaels, who lived most of his life and wrote in and around New York City’s undomesticated Greenwich Village during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, authored several works of short fiction, including Sylvia, Going Places, and I Would Have Saved Them if I Could. His wife, Katharine Ogden Michaels, notes in her introduction that Leonard had a “tendency to regard writing as an open-ended process in which the same subject might be investigated through a variety of narrative forms… Lenny blur[red] the boundaries between criticism and memoir and even, in a few cases, between essay and fiction.”

A more concise portrayal could not have been granted. Jettisoned into the work by this pithy-though-gracious description, the reader should be prepared to accept a slightly vague project that contains just a few rubies of insight and articulation. His tendency to repeat, repeat, and re-repeat particular themes can feel irksome; the criticism is sometimes cutting and sometimes unremarkable; but the blurred margins where essay and fiction meet are, undoubtedly, the work of an immense writer, and well worth the read.

From one hermeneutical standpoint, this collection could be described as a chronicle of Michaels’ obsessions. Select phrases and images unapologetically reappear with urgent frequency. Kafka’s sentence “A cage went in search of a bird,” for instance, occurs in multiple chapters, each time expressing a slightly different flavor of thought. Michaels’ Jewish upbringing and heritage, movies, the nostalgia induced by the 1950s, sexual or emotional frustration, and guilt are all thematic fixations. At times, the repetition of a single thought feels like the dull replication of memorized verse. In “Bad Blood,” for example, Michaels uses Wittgenstein’s adage “Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent” as a measuring bar by which to evaluate other thinkers. He chooses to repeat the first part of the phrase and affix variations to the end (“Whereof [Beckett] cannot speak, silence discovers a word,” etc.), resulting in six reiterations of the sentence in just one full page. While this systematic approach may be a testament to Michaels as a devoted, zealous reader, it also discredits him slightly as a creative scholar. In choosing thematic reoccurrence, Michaels sometimes elucidates his subject, but other times he betrays a hesitance to say something new. As contestable as its merits are, this approach excels at circumnavigating a thought, expressing it by leaving it latent for discovery or crediting it to other, more familiar authors. For instance, in his essay “Masks and Lies”, Michaels writes “[some] lies make social life charming, polite, cheery, agreeable. Some have said they make social life possible. Dostoevsky wrote a funny essay on the subject….” Michaels often masks his own genius behind the credibility of western “greats.”

In his cultural criticism, Leonard nonchalantly skirts the boundaries of ethics and art, moralizing and exploring in turns. He is sometimes cautious and judicial, as in his careful exegesis of the biblical story of Judah and Tamar. In other cases, he launches wholeheartedly into characterizing modern society, as in the essay “I’m having trouble with my relationship,” in which he writes: “[w]hat conservatives, feminists, Marxists, and other contemporary thinkers have in common is the idea that value has fled the human particular… value went off someplace to vomit and has not returned.” It is in these moments of audacity and descriptive license that is most charismatic. In his essay “The Zipper,” he describes the way movies were watched when he was growing up: “[w]e didn’t so much use our eyes like roots digging into physical bodies for the nourishment of meanest sensation. The ear, more sensuous than sensual, received the interior life of people, as opposed to what is sucked up by the salacious eyeball.” This precise description works to highlight his thoughtful awareness of the connection between thoughts or values and images.

The second half of Michaels’ work is devoted to autobiographical essays. The austere contrast between these essays and their critical counterpart evokes the extensively-scrutinized distinction between subjective and objective authorship—a subject that has been popular since the publication of Robert Browning’s “Essay on Shelley,” which deals with the contrast between the subjective and objective poet.  In fact, this distinction is itself treated by Michaels in his critical essay “The Nothing That Isn’t There,” in which he writes “[t]here used to be selves before there were surfaces.” In this case, he is juxtaposing a name scrawled in graffiti to the private life of an artist or thinker, the internal romance-of-old with pornography and exploitation.

Aware as he is of the potential chasm between social commentary and memoir, Michaels thankfully allows his readers a very clear glimpse into his inner life as Edgar Allen Poe allowed his readers a window to his mind when he wrote “Philosophy of Composition.” Unlike Poe’s cautiously authoritarian voice, though, Michaels conveys his deeply-experienced inadequacies and concerns with refreshing frankness throughout the autobiographical work. He describes intimate feelings for his professor Austin Warren—“[t]o a self-destructive excess, in my adoration of Warren, I drank Jim Beam, his favorite brand of bourbon… I’d adored Warren. Maybe adoration has a dark side, and mine had been too much repressed…”—as well as failed attempts at idealized love and screenwriting, with equally straightforward expression. One gets the sense that Michaels was a self-deprecating man, as when he chides himself: “[y]ears passed before I could ride a bike or catch a ball. In a playground fight, a girl could have wiped me out. I was badly coordinated and had no strength or speed, only a Yiddish mouth.” Admittedly, his personal stories are more interesting for their self-analysis than for their content: his plots are largely uneventful and his narrative tone mildly droning.

But here again, criticism becomes commentary. As a thinker, Michaels is transparent, tasteful, and tenacious, with a hint of brilliance and a dash of wry wit. This is the perfect book for the retired philosopher who—gnawed by the need for critical thought—can’t quite bring himself to pick up a heavyweight like Hegel. If images of combustion stood for literary interest, Michaels’ work would fall somewhere between a lit match and the slow burn of a New York apartment’s gas stovetop burner: harming, provocative, but not dangerous enough to call in the fire brigade.

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