Coming September 6, a sequel to "Seven Pleasures."
A previous volume, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, catalogued Spiegelman's enjoyment of activities highly recommended also to the reader, to wit reading (preaching to the choir there?), walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing. His latest collection, Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead covers much of the same ground, this time from the perspective of a self-professed "senior eccentric," happy at 70 in hearing he judges excellent (take it on faith), undiminished zest for walking (on one occasion from end to end of Manhattan in a single day, peeking in on a talk by the Dalai Lama in passing), and an unquenchable appetite for exotic cuisine haute and not so haute (but unlikely, after consuming one ear from a taquería on wheels, ever to order a second). He no longer devours big books but picks up volumes old and new, dips in, puts them down, and drifts off to sleep. Facebook and Twitter have no hold on him. A German might call him a Lebenskünstler: one who has mastered the art of enjoying life.
Born in Philadelphia, Spiegelman was educated at Williams and Harvard, where he skimmed the cream of available honors. Straight out of graduate school, he joined the English faculty of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he remained, accumulating kudos, until his recent retirement as Duwain E. Hughes Jr. Distinguished Professor of English. For the most part, he lived alone and liked it; domesticity with his partner of several decades, a fellow academic on the East Coast, was never in the cards.
Happy days come easier to Willard Spiegelman than to Winnie in Beckett's play.
In Senior Moments, as in Seven Pleasures, bits of personal history are forever jostling aperçus on art of all kinds, very much including the visual. Edward Hopper thought Nighthawks, that surreal and enigmatic scene in a diner, a representation of "the loneliness of a large city," but Spiegelman argues otherwise, to persuasive effect. More often, though, he draws his references from poetry, which is his principal research interest. (Winnie quotes poetry, too.) Don't be surprised to find living (or recently deceased) poets wandering through his pages, large as life, indistinguishable from lesser mortals.
From an estimable list of academic publications, it is the titles The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry (Princeton Legacy Library, 1989) and Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art (Oxford University Press, 1995) that give perhaps the strongest hints of his sensibility. Fittingly, he has recorded a pair of lecture series for the Teaching Company's "Great Courses" catalogue: How to Read and Understand Poetry and The Lives and Works of the English Romantic Poets. Among the luminaries he quotes for the continuing-ed audience (or possibly misquotes, just a little) is Marilyn Monroe, who is said to have said she read poetry "to save time" (the very reason, be it noted, that people give when they've taken an instant dislike to someone).
The instructional—didactic, often donnish—strain is both Spiegelman's forte and his Achilles heel. Banality, he would have us know, has a lot to recommend it; habit, he adds eight pages on, has a great deal to recommend it; and the list goes on. He splits hairs distinguishing talkers (good) from monologuists and epigram makers (less good) from speechifiers (terrible). He likes to clinch paragraphs with bits and bobs from the poets or pop tunes. "Here is God's plenty!," Spiegelman exclaims at a high-end mall, pinning Dryden's enthusiasm for The Canterbury Tales on Gump's, the department store. He ponders, as if for some tourist from another planet, the ideal number of guests at a dinner party—no gods please!—and the annoyances of other people in art galleries. I imagine that his malapropisms in foreign languages landed more merrily viva voce than on the page.
What emeritus looks like: Willard Spiegelman, Hughes Professor of English, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
Of course, exactitude—truth, actually—is seldom the point of what amounts to a topic sentence. The thing is to get the ball rolling. "The eyes are always open abroad," Spiegelman claims in a chapter on Japan. "So are the ears." Maybe so, maybe not, but his sparkling observations of a culture in which students "equate professionalism with tedium and expect their teachers to maintain a pomposity appropriate to their venerability," go a long way towards proving his point.
Not that his senses are less acute at home. Years after the fact, he conjures up two ladies who lunch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the entrance to a special exhibition they eyeball (Spiegelman's apt word) a pair of bronze Ming vases that stand four and a half feet high.
"Gorgeous," said the first.
"But where would I put them?" asked the second. This was the entirety of their exchange.
"For these ladies and their like," he goes on to say, no butter melting in his mouth, "all art aspires to the condition of the living room." Touché.
Among Spiegelman's finest pages, I think, are those devoted to family members of his parents' generation, in particular his mother, who looked like Vivien Leigh, didn't need a dog because she had three children, and declared of a snobbish acquaintance, "The next time I see her, I won't know who she is before she doesn't know who I am." An arc on preventive building maintenance on the baked clay soil of Dallas builds step by inexorable step to the epiphany, "We watered our houses."
Nighthawks. Is urban life as lonely as Hopper thought?
"Talk," Spiegelman insists in closing, "is our essence." Thus it is down to the final flicker of consciousness, when all that remains—and these are the very last words of the book—is "the poet's ongoing, gently garrulous babble." As a summation of Spiegelman's ordinary, happy theme and method, that last phrase speaks volumes. What is it Winnie tells us? That the time will come when words must fail.