In Which We Are Completely Honest With Everyone

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to


I recently got out of a nine month relationship that was really intense and satisfying. Unfortunately she had to move to Seattle for work, and my own job and my family are keeping me here in Boston. We decided we don’t want to ruin what we have by trying to make it work at such a long distance.

A month or two has passed since my ex moved, and she has now been contacting me (we said we wouldn’t do this). She is having some trouble making friends in her new city so she frequently calls or texts if she finds herself alone. I don’t know how to deal with this: I do still have feelings for her, but I was a bit upset she would want to stop seeing me in the first place – she had a good job here and I wouldn’t have done the same thing.

She is locked into her contract until mid-2017, and I don’t know if I really want to go through this until then. There was a reason we decided long distance wouldn’t work, right? How should I handle her apparent change of heart?

Joe P.


We all make mistakes, although some people are more prone to making them than others. The fact that she put her career before you is no big whoop, since it’s not like you sound particularly committed to this woman. If you were, believe me you would be ecstatic, not disappointed to hear from her.

On the other hand, it sounds like you were hurt in this process and you should take some time to get over that pain before arriving at a firm decision about how you should react to your ex’s current behavior. But how to create the space you desperately need to evaluate things dispassionately? Just tell her you lost your phone.

I am kidding, this is the rare time you will ever hear me advising anyone to tell the truth, which is usually painful and nuncupatory. You will have to expose your true feelings and it is best to request a discrete period of time before reporting your findings.

In the end, you will probably find that this angry decision is what is best: you can’t hang around and be the outlet for your ex’s predictable sadsies for the next year. If you want, visit her at some point, have sex, and see if you want to flee back to Boston on the next train. If you don’t, maybe it is worth the occasional drunk dial to keep this person in your life.

NB: The intercourse during your reunion should be tender yet opaque. Afterwards, light incense that smells of rosemary and penitent coquettishness.


I have been dating my girlfriend Kelly for about five months. When she is at home in Georgia, Kelly attends a conservative church with her family. She is new to the city that I live in, and she recently found a church that she is comfortable with here. 

At first it was, “Please come to church with me.” If I did, she was happy. Now, if I say that I don’t feel like or even if I have a plausible excuse, she is very disappointed. I don’t want to make her unhappy but I’m not a believer and I don’t see myself in church every Sunday. Once in awhile it’s fine. 

Is there any way to ameliorate this problem?

 Jean R.

Dear Jean,

Yes. First, start going to church every Sunday. Explain it is not as bad as you thought, and express how much you are enjoying it. Maybe attend a social function; Christians love pot roast as well as a number of vegetarian options. 

Next, you’ll want to firm up an ironclad obligation that will suddenly prevent you from going to church 90 percent of the time. Here are some possible reasons you aren’t available on Sunday mornings for this special time with Kelly: professional development, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, you’re training for a marathon and it’s the only time your team can practice, your mother is in town that day… You see how flimsy these excuses are starting to seem?

You better have a damn good reason. Your next best option is to find a church with a shorter service.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which He Was Iris Murdoch’s First And Last Jewish Boy


Falling In Love With I


Like Socrates, perhaps love is the only subject on which I am really expert?

Iris Murdoch, July 1976

She was an only child. She thought of her little family as “a perfect trinity of love.”

The first sentence she ever copied down was, “The snowdrop hangs its head down. Why?

She wrote, “Jesus: my first (and last?) Jewish boy.” She was the best student in her class; a mother of a friend called her a Botticelli angel. After she died, Harold Bloom wrote that there were no more first rate writers left in Britain. A variation of this escaped his mouth whenever anyone died, so that someone else might say it of him.


Hitler invaded the Rhineland; her Jewish and Indian classmates would go on hikes together, four at a time. Iris’ closest friend was the school’s headmistress. Auden came to visit her boarding school. According to her, he was “young and beautiful, with his golden hair.”

Her first boyfriend was in training to be a dentist; they bonded over Virgil. She had her first drink at seventeen. She said, “the experience comes back to me surrounded by a halo of the purest and most intense joy.”


Her first real boyfriend was David Hicks, three years her elder. He sent her C.S. Lewis’ Allegory of Love, even now known as a strong move. As she grew into a charming young woman, many desired Iris, women as well as men. All the boys she knew at Oxford left to die in the war.

There she was the pet pupil of Eduard Fraenkel, who recognized her talent immediately and would spend countless hours talking to her. He would later call her the only truly educated person of her generation. Others were forced to agree. A classmate described her as having “a lioness’ face — very square, very strong, very gentle.”

Her first real love was a guy named Frank Thompson. Even as she dated someone closer to home, she believed she would marry Frank. A self-described “left intellectual,” he was captured and executed by Bulgarians, with a volume of poetry by Catullus in his front pocket.

In 1980, she had a dream that she, Frank and her husband John Bayley were living together happily. She wrote, “A dream about Frank. I was with Frank and he told me he loved me. (As he did on that day in autumn 1938 in New College.) I was very moved but not sure what I felt (as then). He went away and then I realised I loved him. (As I really did come to love him later.) In the dream, realising I loved him I felt great joy at the thought that I could tell him now, and I sent for him. He appeared at the top of a steep slope, dressed as a soldier, with a black cap on. As I climbed up the slope towards him I felt sudden dismay, thinking I cannot marry him, I am married already. Then I thought, it is all right, I can be married to both him and John. We met and were all somehow very happy and yet awkward too.”

Iris was a prolific letter writer: “When I was younger, I remember I loved writing long letters to all sorts of people — a kind of exhibitionism I daresay.” She often wanted her boyfriends to send her pictures of themselves, under the guise that “I hate to not know what my friends look like.”


She visited Paris and met Sartre. He signed a copy of Being and Nothingness over to her. She was starting to feel like a philosopher again.

She became engaged to a man who showed little to no interest in her work, and confessed “doubts & terrors” towards the prospect of their marriage. In Prague, he left her for a girl named Molly. Even after they dissolved their arrangement by postal mail, Iris still gave him money.

She spoke only French to Raymond Queneau. They went on hikes together. He told her about his analysis. He introduced her to the work of William Faulkner. He never liked to talk about his work, except with her. Queneau described Iris as “Irishwoman. Big. Blonde. Common-sensical. A little bun. A perked cap. A decided walk, somewhat heavy, military. Beautiful eyes. Charming smile. She loves Kierkegaard. Is interested in the problems of blacks. Likes Colossus of Maroussi. She is weary. Her work interests her sufficiently. She skis.”

She thought he “had a very beautiful head.”

When she returned to England, she took up with Donald MacKinnon, in almost full view of his suffering wife. She became more and more depressed. She went to visit the widowed mother of Frank Thompson, which did not help matters. The old woman gave Iris the volume of Catullus that had been returned to her.

She came to Cambridge, where she met Wittgenstein. She thought of him as a handsome but disturbing figure, with “a trampish sort of appearance.” They never connected, but Cambridge was full of romantic possibilities. She took up with a number of men, but none of them for very long. Later she would write, “that business of falling in love with A, then with B, then with C (all madly) seems a bit sickening.”

To break the pattern, she considered a relationship with Wittgenstein’s protege, a woman named Elizabeth Anscombe. The relationship was never consummated, but Iris fantasized about kissing the back of her neck, and the emotional side was very real.

She took a post teaching at St. Ann’s College, where she became the resident expert on moral and political philosophy. Her circle of friends, largely the ethnic misfits of the school, grew and grew. (In The Black Prince she wrote that “most friendship exists in a state of frozen and undeveloping hostility.”) Her skill involved paying her friends exactly the amount of attention they required, but not so much that they lost their desire for being with her. Once, she offhandedly remarked to one of her students that didn’t she agree “that any worthwhile person ought to have at least some Jewish blood?”

Iris became engaged to another man, but cheated on him with the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. A friend described them both as “addicted to love at first sight.” She did not like to ask things of her boyfriends, and she generally hated if they made any demands on her. She contrived an exception to this rule by taking up with a frail Jewish philosopher whose debilitating heart ailment was aggravated by sex. He died.


As a consequence, her next relationship was with the writer Elias Canetti. He was very different from her other boyfriends. Their three year affair was kept secret from all close to them; she was neither the first nor the last of his mistresses. Canetti was the king of flattery, an expert manipulator. He would often read a writer’s entire oeuvre before meeting them so he would know what to say. Behind their backs, he could be extremely cruel. Iris’ friends suspected that Elias was the sort of literary intellectual monster she feared becoming.

Among other things, Iris found him to be the best sexual partner she had ever had. She wrote, “He holds me savagely between his knees & grasps my hair and forces my head back. His power. He subjugates me completely. Only a complete intellectual and moral ascendancy could hold me.” She compared him to Zeus. “He takes me quickly, suddenly… When we are satisfied, we do not lie together, but contemplate each other with a sort of amused hostility.” Her next boyfriend did not like Canetti, and was nothing like him.

Even though I never knew her, I still miss her.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which We Replace Our Phone And Our Prostitute

This Is Heaven


creator J.J. Abrams, Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy

Evan Rachel Wood wakes up at the beginning of every episode of Westworld having slept in her clothes. At some time later, the android she portrays will be questioned extensively by a human being, usually in a droning voiceover. Every conversation with Wood is a Turing test of sorts, and soon it becomes obvious that all the robotic hosts in the theme park of Westworld are coming fully alive. That this happens already in the first episode of the show makes for a long and boring slog to revolution.

Where they pissed away hundreds of millions on this show, I have no idea. If androids could be created that had this kind of flexibility and intelligence, the fact that they could be used in a lifelike recreation of the Old West would be similar to using a cure for cancer on dogs. All of the so-called newcomers who arrive at Westworld are very eager to ejaculate inside of the women and sometimes men, who are both called hosts. There is not a lot of concern as to whether they have been cleaned or anything.

The coming rise of androids seems more of a private matter. Think of all the things Donald Trump could use an android for – it wouldn’t have to be just locker room talk. Androids are actually quite useful in a number of professions besides sex toys. They make wonderful teachers, perfect security guards (they’re a bit expensive for soldiers) and excellent organ donors.

Ed Harris plays a rich patron of Westworld who wants to get involved in the park on a “deeper level.” He scalps one android and finds a weird maze-like map on his scalp that intrigues him greatly. Harris keeps shooting every robot he comes across, alarming some of the park’s staff, who suggests to their director of safety that “He just took out a posse!” I am completely unclear on what significance this could have for anyone.

It all seemed a bit fake and disingenous when prominent Republicans began pretending to be offended by the things Trumper said to Billy Bush. There was a story weeks ago about how the man asked for all the overweight women working at his resorts to be fired. Isn’t employment discrimination a bit more serious than whatever bullshit the man comes up with on a tour bus? Like, really, did you hear any of the things Trump said about Megyn Kelly months ago?

So every time Hillary Clinton doesn’t want to answer a question, is her plan to state that Michelle Obama is her good friend? She sounds nowhere near as authentic as the madam portrayed by Thandie Newton on Westworld, whose number one line to her newcomers is, “In this New World, you can be whoever the fuck you want.” I don’t know who is more likely to be an android — probably Anderson Cooper.

Anthony Hopkins plays the creator of this mess, channeling John Hammond. In tandem with Jeffrey Wright (pretty sure none of these characters have names but I’ll check IMDB later), he is responsible for the programming of the androids. As they usually do, the writers give Hopkins these weird extended monologues of supposed profundity. Listening to him and a Westworld storyboarder argue over the meaning of what the park is actually made me feel like I was losing brain cells.

The androids aren’t controlled by anything as foolproof as an off-switch. They are made to respond to verbal shut-down commands. It is unclear of the what the point of adding all these auditory cues is – isn’t it simply more convenient to have a kill-switch? Engineers and programmers are taught that things are bound to go wrong. Samsung recently replaced a smartphone which regularly caught on fire with another smartphone which regularly caught on fire, and they tried to cover it up.

That’s a phone battery, though. Once an android starts telling you he’s about to make your life a living hell, as one informs Anthony Hopkins, I suspect you would begin to reassess your entire project. In the original Westworld, which was also quite terrible while costing significantly less money, humans had lost total control of the means of production. Androids in some cases were constructed entirely by other androids and human beings simply did not know how they operated.

If we ever actually feared something from living machines, an electromagnetic pulse would probably do wonders. A key moment in Westworld occurs when Evan Rachel Wood murders a fly that has settled on her neck. It seems far more likely she is simply imitating human behavior she has seen. This is how most living things learn how to act.

The casting of Evan Rachel Wood is the one great masterstroke practiced by J.J. Abrams, whose forays into television have not been as financially profitable as his films. Wood’s slightly uncanny looks are made all the more attractive in this context. It is hard to understand why she is not the biggest star in the entire world; she is even a substantially minor part of Westworld, involved as she is in a relationship with another android (James Marsden).

I would watch Evan Rachel Wood do anything. I wish that there still existed extensive tapes of her relationship with Marilyn Manson. What did they talk about? Probably her, a lot.

The only interesting direction Westworld could take is outright war between humans and androids. I am deeply skeptical of this, considering how much the show has already spent on Western sets and costumes. Abandoning that in order to bring the production into a futuristic society is just not on the menu. It is far more likely all the creators of this theme park will be locked inside where they can talk to each other for hours on end, and reveal that, sigh, some of them are actually robots, too.

At that point, Abrams will demand the writers institute his favorite narrative device — the flashback. What will it take to make Abrams retire from film and television, please? I guess I shouldn’t be mad since having him spend most of his time slightly remaking the Star Wars movies with the exact same plots as the originals is like having a sociopathic murderer wandering around a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. How much harm can he really do? I miss Vinyl.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

In Which We Return To Montana For Horses And The Law


Survival Gear


Certain Women
dir. Kelly Reichardt
107 minutes

Screen Shot 2016-10-07 at 9.37.37 AM.jpgThe setting for the new film by Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves) is rural Montana. The landscape in this place explodes with color along a narrow scale. Darkness is almost complete, but there is never any morning – just a freezing day that plops down without warning. There is no music in Certain Women until about ten minutes before the movie ends, when it seems like the farmhand played by Lily Gladstone is on the verge of potentially displaying an emotion. She never does.

Earlier, Laura Dern has intercourse with Michelle Williams’ husband, who is portrayed by James Le Gros. He breaks it off with Dern for reasons we never really understand. It reminds me of when Billy Bob Thornton married Angelina Jolie. “My boyfriend left to do a movie,” Dern explained later, “and he never came back.” Both Dern and Williams do an incredible job making us forget who they actually are. Reichardt has a true gift for bringing natural performances out of famous actors whose notoriety might otherwise be inclined to overwhelm the diegesis.


Dern is a lawyer with a difficult client (the English actor Jared Harris). Like all three of the short stories Reichardt has adapted here from Maile Meloy, the actual events are very slight. The psychology revolves around a similar type of relationship in which one party can’t get away from the other; until she does. Dern achieves this separation by getting her client arrested. He forgives her, even though she does not ask to be forgiven. Reichardt’s moral point is that no relationship can exist unless both parties ask for something from the other.

Along those lines Michelle Williams purchases a batch of sandstone from an old man (Rene Auberjonois). He eventually permits her to take it away; she intends to use it in construction of her new house. We see in her conversation with the older man why her husband may have disrespected her by straying from her marriage. Also, she is a smoker with a teenaged daughter. As she enters her late thirties, Williams has become so much fun to watch – here she is a tightly wound ball of anger and persona, expressed as softly as the character can manage.


Visually, Reichardt always knows the correct angle. She is the master of using walls and confined, normal spaces and turning them into subtle psychological aspects in a scene. The clothing that these certain women wear also tells so much of the story. Certain Women begins with Laura Dern in a bra in bed, and as we watch her slowly accumulate enough professional clothing for her job at the law firm, we see how fabric itself is used as protective gear. I mean, Jesus, Kristen Stewart’s vest.

Certain Women concludes with its disturbing centerpiece, a story about Lily Gladstone falling in unrequited love with a teacher in a night class (Kristen Stewart). Stewart’s lesbian outerwear is truly magnificent, but we get the vague sense that Gladstone is actually the more attractive, complete person as they sit across from each other at the only place in town to get a meal at 10 p.m.

There is one scene where Gladstone’s farmhand is brushing her hair in particular where we see the kind of care she could give herself if she only had the inclination or reason to do so. Reichardt falls in love with Gladstone’s movements, replaying her routines as she takes care of a beautiful group of horses, circling a pasture to drop hay in the snow. It feels like it has taken her the entire running time to find something she really adores.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which Jim Jarmusch Stole From Everywhere


Way of the Samurai


“I still think of myself as an amateur filmmaker,” Jim Jarmusch announces on Tuesday for the thousandth time. Minutes later, he mentions that he smoked cigarettes for most of his life. “I took a week to quit,” he says. Equipped with Allen Carr’s book about smoking, he took a week off from anything to purge himself of nicotine. Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom was his only panacea, he explains to a crowd gathered at the New York Film Festival. He describes the film and shows a piece of it, explaining that it is the most nihilistic movie ever made.

The first clip Jarmusch shows the audience is the bravura opening to Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. It is maybe the best thing Fuller ever did and the opening sequence, where a prostitute good-naturedly batters her drunk pimp for the money she is owed, almost reminds me more of Jarmusch than Fuller. The only time Jarmusch mentions his own films during the evening is in passing, since this event is centered around his own influences in film. It emerges that Jarmusch worked or was friendly with an astonishing number of important directors over the course of his long career.


Jim Jarmusch was Nicholas Ray’s assistant and lived in his apartment while the director was dying of lung cancer. Ray always told him to be a dillentante – someone who had many, varied interests. Some of the interests Jarmusch mentions to the audience are comparative literature and the naming of mushrooms. (You get the sense that Jarmusch did not simply name them.) He describes a talk he did in Washington D.C. where he interviewed Martin Scorsese; one talking slow as molasses and the other’s mouth running a mile a minute.

Of course Jarmusch knew Fellini as well. He never mentions much about the man’s films – Jarmusch draws a subtle distinction between directors who he was interested in as people because he saw them in much the same way he sees himself, and men who are brilliant artists from whom he can learn or take something. (His story about Fellini is how annoyed the director was to be driven to the set.) He shows the audience an incredible sequence from Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, where two Italian men drive around an empty Rome, harassing motorists. He does not explain something I would have liked to know – what he finds so telling about a movie where two mismatched people are on a journey together.


His thoughts about John Boorman’s Point Blank, his amazing version of the Robert Parker novel, are much more in depth. Every time he starts watching Point Blank, he says, he watches it from start to finish because it draws him again. (“It’s the same with Goodfellas,” he says.) Lee Marvin is just Jarmusch’s type of actor: completely solid and nuanced, yet projecting a deep, underlying emotionality. Jarmusch describes the performances he saw during the semester abroad he spent in Paris not studying. At times Jarmusch seems to be straddling two different generations of film: he is between moments, a man who has seen almost too much. Maybe that’s why Ray told him to take from everywhere.

Recently a friend of mine showed me a list of David Fincher’s favorite movies. It was pretty rough and nothing was older. Jarmusch shows off a Buster Keaton sequence from 1924’s The Navigator where he and Kathyrn McGuire search a boat for each other. I’m not entirely sure what Jarmusch likes about Keaton – perhaps the sense of the human being as merely another aspect of larger landscape? Jarmusch’s new film, Paterson, stars Adam Driver as a bus driver in New Jersey.


My favorite of Jarmusch’s films is easily Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai. He shows off scenes from other “hitman movies”, as he calls them, which inspired his version of the same. Melville’s Le Samuraï is at the top of this list, and he explains how Melville came by his career and what he was hoping to achieve as an artist. Melville’s obsessive nature paralleled the illness of his protagonist Jef Costello. Jarmusch pairs that clip with a section of Branded to Kill by Seijun Suzuki, where an assassin shoots his target from an impossible angle. Suzuki is still alive, he claims, and describes talking to Park Chan-Wook about the man. The audience nods appreciatively like a bunch of hipster idiots.


What is not very surprising is that Jarmusch seems like a well-adjusted human being. Especially in his appreciations of Kiarostami and Kaurismäki, he is wonderful at talking about or to people in a way that preserves their humanity and places he himself no higher or lower in the hierarchy of the universe. All of Jarmusch’s important films are by male directors, which is not really too unexpected given that the vast majority of his work explores different types and personifications of a disturbed masculinity. “I was lucky enough to spend time with Samuel Fuller,” he says, “and after, he died, with his family.” Whatever sadness there is in that statement he is properly detached from – the sense that the world is at arm’s length, but at least it is no further.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Drank Too Much You Know What We Are Like

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to


For the first eight months of my relationship with Sandra, everything was perfect. Our first problems emerged then – Sandra complained that I wasn’t as attentive to her as I had been in the past. I have tried to rectify this, but I still don’t think that a relationship is going to be the same at eight months as it is when you are first discovering each other.

It bothers me that I am being held to what I feel is an impossible, or at least difficult standard. I struggle to communicate this to Sandra. What should I say to her?

Mark S.


If the issue is that Sandra’s expectations for you are too much, then the answer is to surely lower her expectations. Casually show her movies where the protagonist’s boyfriend is something of a dick. Offer to compensate a close friend and his wife for striking each other in front of Sandra. Soon she will realize she is with the man of her dreams. 

In reality, what Sandra is explaining to you is merely a symptom of a larger disease. You are not making her happy any longer. You should think carefully about what you may have said or done that would give her this impression, because what you are experiencing right now is the canary in the coal mine. When the canary dies, no one even bothers disposing of its corpse. They just leave the mine. 


How much of yourself show you display to the other person on a first date? 

I have been receiving some completely contradictory advice on this topic. One of my friends says I should just be myself, since if he’s not interested in that, how will we ever be together down the road? My mom advises me to keep it sparse and create an air of mystery and intrigue. 

Who is right?

Nell R.

Dear Nell,

When a plumber selects a tool to repair the waterworks, he never uses the same one for every job. Actually, maybe he does, and I wish a plumber had an advice column. I would have so many questions for him, like where does sewage go, and does he like Ed Sheeran?

My first point was best. Sometimes you meet a guy and you’ll want to be open and honest. Other times it is best to make him work for things. More often you will want to use the latter approach. The problem is that your senses as to when you should employ each method could be very off. 

If you detect your instincts are askew, every so often go against them. Note the results. In either case, you will probably not want to show all of yourself on a first date, which is a very different thing from “being yourself.” You should only be completely honest if you are factually a super-attractive person, inside and out. If you watch a lot of Bravo, maybe don’t lead with that.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which Narration Is Such A Crime At Times


False Positives


Seeing the men in their dirty little tractors spray-paint the lawn green is how you know the tourists are coming. In college, we called any non-student with a camera a “tourist” though I know, in a vague statistical sense, that there must have been a lot of false-positives. I was born near the Galapagos Islands and went to high school in Times Square; I grew up knowing what it feels like to have to dust off the glitter in order to come to terms with a place. Harvard felt like a perfectly organic extension of Times Square, so it took some effort to not resent people who didn’t know the pristine grasses were painted-on. I sometimes played this game where I would spot them by the lanyards around their necks. (I wasn’t very good at this game.)

There’s a biblical sensibility to this resentment, a rallying against the golden calf. It made me uncomfortable to see buses of Japanese schoolchildren swarm around the John Harvard statue in their starched white shirts and navy blazers, rubbing the bronzed booted foot that my douchier friends drunkenly peed on some nights. They loved Harvard because they did not know it, but they could not love it until they did. Luckily, there’s no shortage of people who want to show them around.

The campus novel has been around since the 1950s and has, since its conception, introduced gentiles to the rituals and totems of the ivory tower. There is a lot of tenure-track malaise in these books, but that’s a niche concern. The genre’s real major draw is the sex — and there’s a lot of it. It makes sense. If you want to get to know place vicariously, what’s more fun than entering it through the bedroom door? Illicit sex is a respite from any monotony that the lifestyle might entail; in Willa Cather’s The Professor, the protagonist has a brush with death after a gas stove leaks in his study. I cannot think of a lonelier way to die.


But the genre does more than bring outsiders behind the scenes. It allows insiders to engage in self-fictionalizing. Read solipsistically, “ethical” and “unethical” become null categories replaced by amoral aesthetic designations of beautiful and not-beautiful. If we are all characters in the campus novel, then anything we do can be contextualized, excused, forgiven. Bad behavior, so long as it is written well, is romantically metabolized into a tragic flaw.

Once, in college, a former professor unsuccessfully tried to hit on me by referencing an excerpt from a novel in which the protagonist, a humanities professor (and it is always, or almost always, humanities professors: the genre’s authors rarely place their men in the cold-shower carnal biome of hard science) close-reads what he calls “the podium effect,” a phenomenon whereby the “ugliest and most squalid, horrible, tyrannical, and despicable among [professors] arouse spurious and delusional passions… I’ve seen dazzling women barely out of their teens swooning and melting over some foul-smelling homunculus with a piece of chalk in his hand, and innocent boys degrading themselves (circumstantially) for a scrawny, furrowed bosom stooped over a desk.”

The writer — Javier Marías — is being satirical here, but that’s the thing about satire, isn’t it? Some people don’t get the joke. Still, there is some nuance to Marías. (And an attempt to pretend there are loads of classic academic novels about boys “degrading themselves” for older women in power. There aren’t.) Other novels don’t even invite misinterpretation. Here are titles of the books in Philip Roth’s David Kepesh trilogy: The Professor of Desire, The Breast. You needn’t have read these books to guess what they’re about.

The third book, The Dying Animal, is my favorite. The novel’s protagonist, a literature professor, patronizingly describes a young Cuban-American student’s thinking (he’s already described her “gorgeous breasts”) in this way: “She thinks, I’m telling him who I am. He’s interested in who I am. That is true, but I am curious about who she is because I want to fuck her. I don’t need all of this great interest in Kafka and Velazquez. Having this conversation with her, I am thinking, How much more am I going to have to go through? Three hours? Four? Will I go as far as eight hours?”

Consuela has no interiority. Kepesh fetishizes her because he infantilizes her, and we spend the next couple hundred pages learning to find redemption in his character, because he has found her beautiful, the ultimate pronouncement. He is a professional aesthete and he’s chosen her. She, and I, and you, should feel anointed.

In her review of Elegythe movie adaptation of The Dying Animal, Molly Young writes, “I do not speak for all women when I say this, but in reading the book it is possible to feel vicariously worshipped for nothing more than sheer femaleness.” This is true. Roth’s descriptions of Consuela’s long, black hair made me feel an almost erotic appreciation of my own. This is the power of Roth’s writing (and maybe my vanity, a little bit). But in reading the book — in reading most of these books, The Dying Animal and Herzog and Disgrace and The Gold Bug Variations, it is impossible to not feel infantilized and essentialized and caricatured. It is impossible, in some way, to not feel completely devastated.


F. Scott Fitzgerald once described falling in love as the dipping of all things into an obscuring dye. It consumes. His words have always seemed to me a more accurate description of depression, and I thought about those words often in the days after Javier Marías was used against me. That’s how I remember the episode. The devil had cited Scripture for his purpose, and I was sad as hell.

It was made un-sad by one of my mentors at Harvard, a female professor who’s read her share of academic novels and doesn’t hide behind language to skew reality. She told me about a lot of hard things in the days following Marías’ betrayal, about gender and power and bureaucracy and ethics and responsibility and foolishness and sexism and ego. She also told me some things about narration. She told me this: do not let men in power narrate you to you.

There were moving trucks outside the window when I started writing this essay. Student-led tour groups walk across campus, pausing before important-looking buildings so people can take pictures. My ID swipes me into majestic buildings that tourists cannot access, but on sunny days like this, I like to do my work outside, on the wide, grassy lawn. It is open to the public. It is almost winter now, and the green has faded.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

Photos by Molly Dektar.