Thursday, December 2, 2010

Elizabeth Hardwick - 7/27/16 - 12/2/2007

I was living in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1996 when I learned that Joan Didion would be, on a Sunday afternoon, in the nearby town of Peterborough to accept the MacDowell Medal awarded by the MacDowell Art Colony.  I would drive over to Peterborough and gawk and swoon.  Then, doubling the thrill, it was revealed that the medal would be presented to Ms. Didion by Elizabeth Hardwick.  I loved the essays and novels of both Hardwick and Didion ... and it occurred to me that Hardwick herself was equally worthy of the medal.

I checked the records and learned that, no, Elizabeth Hardwick had never received it, though she had on two other occasions been the presenter of the medal -- in 1984 to Mary McCarthy, and in 1979, to John Cheever.  (If I'm not mistaken the honoree gets to choose whom he/she would like to have as the presenter.)  For Ms. Hardwick to present thrice and receive not once seemed like her being asked three times to be the bridesmaid but never the bride.

Hardwick, who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, could hardly wait to finish school and move to New York  where, she said, she wanted to become a writer, an intellectual, and Jewish.  She accomplished admirably two of the three goals.

Here are some samples of Elizabeth Hardwick's thinking and prose; particularly brilliant passages which I copied onto index cards when reading various of her essays:

From "Domestic Manners": "Sex, sex -- what good does it do anyone to 'study' more and better orgams, to open forbidden orifices, to experiment, to put himself into the satisfaction laboratory, the intensive care ware of 'fulfillment.'  The body is a poor vessel for transcendence.  Satiety, in life, is quick and inevitable.  The return of anxiety, debts, bad luck, age, work, thought, interest in the passing scene, ambition, anger cannot be deferred by lovemaking.  The consolations of sex are fixed and just what they have always been."

From "Militant Nudes": "The nature of sexuality is repetition.  Phallic compulsiveness is an exaltation of repetition and yet a reduction to routine of the most drastic kind.  Still, novelty and challenge never lose their hold on the imagination and in the phallic hell the center of interest will be reserved for the refusing, even for the impotent."

From, again "Domestic Manners":  "... one phenomenon of the seventies -- the demonic acceleration of investments in gurus, encounters, magical healings, diets, transcendencies and transformations that compete, like varieties of aspirin, for the remission of aches of the mind and psyche."

And, finally, in "Thomas Mann at 100," a precise and wonderful appreciation of Mann's genius:  "The description of the young boy Tadzio in "Death in Venice" surpasses in tenderness and lyricism anything in Mann's work.  'No scissors had been put to the lovely hair that ... curled about his brows, above his ears, longer still at the neck.  He wore an English sailor suit, with quilted sleeves that narrowed round the delicate wrists of his long and slender though still childish hands.  His facial tint was ivory-white against the golden darkness of his  cluttering locks.'  When Tadzio smiles, Aschenbach, the aging writer, in a seizure of intense misery and feeling, falls onto a bench in the garden and whispers the 'ridiculous enough, yet sacred too ... "I love you!"'  The catastrophic onset of love is the same damage to the soul that disease is to the body."

And so, on that extremely hot summer day in Peterborough I got to hear Elizabeth Hardwick make a wonderful speech praising Joan Didion, and I snapped a blurry black and white photo of Hardwick while she spoke; and then, after the ceremony, a friend took a picture of Joan Didion autographing my copy of The White Album.

Elizabeth Hardwick died three years ago today.

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