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On Familiarity

What is present other than all those things--physical, objects, ideas, and sensibilities as well as their traces and fragments--that have somehow persisted into our own time? It is a characteristic, yet peculiar condition of modern life: Even though our world is made up of just these things from the past, more often than not, they have become unintelligible to us, if not invisible. Is there any way to save them from disappearing altogether, let alone to save us from the emptiness that comes from living in a time that is so oblivious to the past that we are unaware of how radically estranged we are? The aim of this column, which will appear as a regular feature of TNR Online, is to attempt some tentative answers to such questions with short reflections--this sort of journalism used to be called feuilletonisme, in the days when journalism kindled to serious writing--on concrete aspects of life as one individual lives it, so as to understand a little more clearly why the world works and feels the way it does. --RG

Reading The New York Times I came upon an article about the surprising popular success of Robert Fagles's translations of the classics ("A Bridge Between the Classics and the Masses," April 13, 2004). Fagles brought out a new translation of Horace, and Bernard Knox, who was his professor of classics at Yale 50 years ago, wrote the introduction to it. The article closes with Fagles reflecting on his relationship with his teacher: "He is very much the professor and I am still the student. It is not his fault. I stand in awe of him. I cherish our friendship." How strange to find such a beautiful sentiment in the Times, I thought. And yet here was one of the premier classicists of our time paying public deference to his teacher and friend. I was deeply touched by the desire of this accomplished master in his own right to continue, after 50 years, to speak reverentially of his teacher as "professor." And I was struck by how rare it has become to have the opportunity, let alone the desire, to acknowledge another person's superior station in life, now that the very notions of superiority and deference are guaranteed to raise the hackles of any self-respecting democrat.

Graduate school is perhaps one of the last refuges (or bastions, depending on one's perspective) of such old-fashioned, hierarchical observances. At least it was in my case. Fagles's sincere avowal of discipleship in the Times unexpectedly called forth in me the memory of the gradual lessening of formality with my mentor during the early years of our correspondence. His granting of liberties came to me in stages, the first being when his initials appeared in the place previously reserved for his full name, though still followed by his formal title. Then, a few semesters later, he signed a letter with his first name alone, which also happened to be his nickname, though he had not yet dispensed with his formal title. And finally, in what seemed to me a subtle, yet momentous, shift, he signed his nickname, but also abbreviated his distinctive closing salutation, "Yours," as "Yrs," and at last omitted his title altogether. Although I made myself use his nickname in my letters to him, I cannot honestly say that I ever felt comfortable addressing him so familiarly in person, though I know that I did.

Like Fagles, I, too, wanted to continue to call my revered teacher "Professor"; and again like Fagles, this was not my teacher's fault, but my own sense of awe and gratitude. Even now that he has been dead for ten years, there are only a few people--mainly former fellow graduate students--with whom I can speak of him so casually.

From this memory flowed another, though one that was rather more discomfiting than bittersweet: the jockeying for position that occurred when the more advanced graduate students nonchalantly called our mentor by his nickname (Kit), while the first-year students, who had not yet been granted that privilege, could speak of him either by using his first name (Christopher), which no one did, or by using his last and impersonal name (Lasch), minus the honorific title. Professor Lasch, Christopher Lasch, Kit, Lasch... The question, by which names we call our teachers--let alone our colleagues, friends, lovers, family members, acquaintances, or complete strangers--has come to have a quaint ring about it, given our world of incessant familiarity. And even though such choices can be used to mark distinction invidiously or to take liberties that have not been legitimately earned, have we now come to the point where no one still desires to pay deference to those few people they respect in the way I wanted always to call my teacher "professor"? What does it mean to live in a world where virtually everyone, with almost no thought at all, calls everyone else--acquaintance or friend, child or adult, student or teacher, employee or boss--by their first name?

It was not so long ago that most people felt the privacy of their home was being trespassed when a total stranger had the presumption to phone at any hour and familiarly address one by one's first name--a practice that is coming to seem almost respectful when compared with the insult delivered by the ubiquitous cell-phone conversation on the street, at tables in restaurants, in check-out lines at markets, in trains, in elevators, in public gardens, in restrooms. This new, mindless familiarity transcends mere rudeness, for such people are irremediably unaware of how much of themselves they are foisting upon perfect strangers. They carelessly violate their own privacy and dignity and that of their phone partner at the same time that they literally come too close to every single person within their voice range. And they do so with the blankest of stares. While it is true that these legions of cell-phone users are nothing more than the latest representatives of the modern cult of familiarity, they have succeeded, at least thus far, in pushing its characteristic practice of relaxed manners and instant intimacy to its furthest and most insolent reaches.

When distinctions marking distance and closeness between people fall away, personal relations become increasingly mono-tonal, and the social landscape increasingly one-dimensional, flat. It is not only that expressions of reverence like Fagles's for his teacher are beginning to feel as if they belong to another world. An even less noticed consequence of the waning of spatial distinctions, but this time in the direction of closeness, is the disappearance of terms of tenderness and affection. Anyone who reads letters (not to mention novels) written during the nineteenth and early twentieth century has to be struck by the many expressions of endearment, pet names, and nicknames that appear in virtually every volume. Even such hard-headed, radical anarchists like Emma Goldman and her ex-lover and lifetime comrade, Alexander Berkman, had intimate names they reserved only for each other and no one else. She called the man who tried (and failed) to assassinate Frick "my boy" throughout their lives, and he called the woman who was known as "the most dangerous woman in America" "my dear sailor girl." Today, such terms of endearment are most likely to be dismissed as signs of condescension or arch conceit. So constricted are contemporary notions about intimacy that when scholars read letters between friends from earlier times, they invariably misconstrue their many terms of tenderness as "homoerotic" and this is because almost everyone has stopped addressing even their dearest friends with such affection. Intimacy is reserved exclusively for lovers, but it is doubtful if even they, having long stopped reading love poetry, have anything to fire their imaginations. Honey, darling, baby, dearest, beloved, soul-mate--who today can speak even these once-popular sweet nothings without the acid of self-consciousness?

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein