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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

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Entries in ellen copperfield (37)

Thursday
Jul232015

In Which Walter Benjamin's Troubles Possessed Far Simpler Remedies

A Genius of Dwelling

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Walter Benjamin's father Emil was something of a dilettante. His major focus was the Berlin villa he purchased for his wife Pauline and their growing family. It was basically the house in The Royal Tenenbaums with nothing rotten or outdated; the culture it recalled had long since vanished from the earth.

At a very tender age Walter Benjamin was ensconced in a custom of indoor and outdoor living. If there was something to take lessons in - butterfly hunting or ice skating, for example  he joined with all the aplomb he could muster. Each room of his father's house held a different sort of emotion, and could be inhabited completely or discarded with the closing of a door.

1902Emil's favorite place to be was on the telephone  this way a part of himself could be elsewhere, and a part with his family at all times. The self Emil Benjamin sent out, angry and forceful, was often different from the one they got back. His moustache was ranked either excellent or nonpareil depending on the humidity or time of day.

In a new biography from Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Benjamin's younger days are given a reverent kind of attention as though they're depicting a young man either recovering from or developing a psychosis. In reality, Emil's disturbing utopia was all the more perplexing because it anticipated the complete destruction of the German residence, which perished during the war.


Walter's mother Pauline was thirteen years his father's junior. She called Walter "Mr. Clumsy" because he never lived up to her idea of decorum.

His brother and sister were both separated from Walter by age, Eiland reports, so that they each experienced life as an only child. When Walter was finally divested of his private tutors and send to class with other pupils, it may not surprise you to learn that he did not fit in whatsoever. He was sick so often that other arrangements had to be made; it was good to get those illnesses out in the open air.

In a country boarding school called Haubinda, Benjamin found a love of learning that separated him from all else  nothing was closer to him than that pedagogy. Upon his graduation from high school, his father gave him a trip as a gift. The family had already traveled around Europe at their leisure, this was Walter's first trip to Italy on his own, the first where he determined the direction and purpose: Como, Milan, Verona, Vicenza, Padua. Among the masters he never cowered.

This temporary elation passed, a miasma of longing mixed with a desire to survive persisted. At University Benjamin found himself again outside the times, and eventually he returned to the villa to live at home while he pursued his studies. He had one friend of any import, a painter/novelist named Philip, and he steered clear of everyone else.

University, Eiland and Jennings say, was Benjamin's first introduction to his Judaism. Really, it was only his first introduction to Zionism, because although the Benjamin family was entirely secular, the boy's upbringing was hardly divorced from some bare essentials of the European Jewish experience. He now fancied himself the quintessential Jew, and all of his friends were similarly disposed financially and ethnically.

Unsuccessful liasions with women would depress him, but their troubles never superseded his intellectual ones, and indeed possessed far simpler remedies.

His friend Charlotte Wolff wrote of the man he became:

He had not the male bearing of his generation. And there were disturbing features about him which did not fit with the rest of his personality. The rosy apple-cheeks of a child, the black curly hair and fine brow were appealing, but there was sometimes a cynical glint in his eyes. His thick, sensuous lips, badly hidden by a moustache, were also an unexpected feature, not fitting with the rest. His posture and gestures were 'uptight' and lacked spontaneity, except when he spoke of things he was involved in or of people he loved.

He held, always, a part of himself back from those closest to him. Even his first amorous relationships with women never mention his body or theirs, as if he were describing two minds touching at the brainstem. All of Walter's friends felt this dissonance in their relationships with him: from the time he left home, he was far closer to ideas than people.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the life of Jules Verne. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

The Best of Ellen Copperfield on This Recording

Dorothea Lange's Failed Marriage

Sex Life Of Marlon Brando

Lifetime of Threats and Insults

The Onset Of The Western Canon

Entitled To Madonna's Opinion

Barbra Streisand Grows Up In Flatbush

A Sneaking Suspicion of Literature

Anjelica Huston Falls Off The Horse

Prefer To Be Simone de Beauvoir

The Marriage of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra

Elongated Childhood of Jorge Luis Borges

Jokes At The Expense Of Tom Hanks

Which One Is The Gay?

Thursday
Jun252015

In Which We Hurt Each Other With The Things We Wanted To Say

35 Things I Have Done In the Context Of A Relationship And Subsequently Regretted

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

1. attended a production of Hamlet where the voice of the ghost was piped in using a boombox

2. murdered a spider

3. seen a psychotherapist

4. it is a strange thing to be prayed to

5. consumed kale

6. gotten a tattoo

7. gotten a tattoo removed

8. willfully misunderstood when Valentine's Day was

9. masturbated using an issue of Popular Mechanics

10. worshipped Jesus

11. taken a pet back to the point of sale

12. pretended to be invested in the outcome of Friends with Benefits

13. stated the lyrics to Nickelback songs as if they were my real emotions as a test

14. prepared a picnic

15. subtly hinted I was allergic to lingerie

16. cheated at a game of dreidel

17. purchased and destroyed one of those Eyes Wide Shut masks

18. subtly put down the Air Force

19. ran a magnifying glass over a cyst

20. intentionally lost at Taboo

21. read Dance to the Music of Time

22. felt more beautiful than I looked

23. thrown up

24. not flinched when the other party suggested Adele had a "Jewish face"

25. told an orthodontist to go fuck himself

26. repressed my deeply held belief that Mr. Clean is a sex offender

27. worked out

28. feigned that I enjoyed any part of The Avengers

29. purchased Friends with Benefits on Blu-ray as a gift

30. pretended not to know Meatloaf's sexuality

31. suggested a ferret "wasn't as disturbing as I expected"

32. touched what I thought was an erection but was actually a toothbrush

33. had sex without a condom

34. danced to the music of time

35. thought it was always anyone else's problem other than my own

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Heart Won't Stop" - John Mark McMillan & Sarah McMillan (mp3)

"Walk Around My House" - John Mark McMillan & Sarah McMillan (mp3)

Tuesday
Jun242014

In Which Malcolm Lowry Despised New York

Substance Abuse

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Malcolm Lowry's biggest bout of binge drinking began when his suitcases were lost en route to New York in 1954. His wife Margerie was used to dealing with his inebriation; his other caretaker in the city was David Markson, a young novelist who had written a critical appreciation of Lowry's 1947 novel Under the Volcano. Markson later wrote,

The man could not shave himself. In lieu of a belt, he knotted a rope or a discarded necktie around his waist. Mornings, he needed two or three ounces of gin in his orange juice if he was to steady his hand to eat the breakfast that would very likely prove his only meal of the day. Thereafter a diminishing yellow tint in the glass might belie the fact that now he was drinking the gin neat, which he did for as many hours as it took him to. Ultimately he would collapse sometimes sensible enough of his condition to lurch toward a bed, though more often he would crash down into a chair, and once it was across my phonograph.

During a subsequent party held in his honor, Lowry pre-gamed by drinking a bottle of shaving lotion. Markson recalled that during the event "suddenly, cupping his hand to his mouth, he began to make sounds that can only be called beeps."

Lowry's favorite drink was a constantly evolving subject. He was not a mean drunk, particularly, although he was always careless. His constitution was actually state-of-the-art to be able to absorb the kind of damage he inflicted on it and survive. He saw drinking not as an art, or a path to understanding, but an inescapable part of his daily existence. Once Markson opened his eyes in the morning to find Lowry leering, "Do you have the decency to offer me a drink?"

Lowry and Aiken in Spain 1932Through Malcolm Lowry's life, people were always trying to get him clean. If they liked his writing, they were far more inclined to put up with his behavior, which perhaps seems obvious, but the one thing really has little to do with the other. 

When he first arrived in the United States to stay with Conrad Aiken, he carried only a ukelele and a bunch of notebooks.

with conrad aiken 1931

He absolutely despised New York. He wrote,

In my experience odi et amo that particular city it favors brief and furious outbursts, but not the long haul. Moreover for all its drama and existential fury, or perhaps because of it, it's a city where it can be remarkably hard or so it seems to me to get on the right side of one's despair.

Acapulco in march of 1946

In his drunken state, he often wrote letters. He would usually start penning screeds to his friends, agents and publishers just when he had approached rock bottom, so they took on something of a desperate tone. Writing to his agent in 1967, he managed, "Please don't say I'm a shit...for not writing more when you have dealt so kindly with me. It's just that my mind won't work. I am having a lot to contend with right now."

Lowry believed that versions of mescal he imbibed might provoke useful hallucinations, although in reality he was making a common error. The drink had nothing to do with mescaline. 

He was capable of getting in any amount of trouble while under the influence. On occasion he would drink himself under so badly that he resorted to asking witnesses if he had been violated sexually. But for the most part his tolerance was high enough that he did not black out completely.

February 1946

It seems stupid, in writing about Malcolm Lowry, to wonder why he drank so often and so much. Yet in his case, alcoholism constituted such a destructive act it almost demands an answer to a silly question.

Douglas Day wrote in his biography of Lowry that "Orally fixated types are prone to excessive drinking. Sons of austere and autocratic father are apt to express their rebellion against that parent by drinking. Guilt and fear, of sexual origin, are likely to express themselves in drinking. Reaction against a rigidly authoritarian religious upbringing may manifest itself in drinking."

March 1947

Day continues, explaining that "Lowry drank not so much because he chose to, as because he had to: from one source or another, he had acquired, by the age of eighteen, enough guilt — sexual and otherwise — and resentment and insecurity to have made it almost impossible for him to be anything but an alcoholic. He must have been an utterly miserable young man."

what became the Calle Nicaragua in "Under the Volcano"

The protagonist of Lowry's most famous work, Under the Volcano, spends about two-thirds of the novel under the influence. Even the book's most dedicated admirers seem to grow tired of this. The Consul's intoxication, at some point, ceases to be charming. He drinks primarily because he is lonely, but also because he is is afraid of sex, other people and the possibility he may be attracted to men.

Of the book Lowry argued that it was "designed, counterdesigned and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry." If only this did not sound like an excuse for his life rather than a strength of his literature.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Simone de Beauvoir.

"That Old Manhattan" - Julian Velard (mp3)

"New York, I Love It When You're Mean" - Julian Velard (mp3)