Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Benefactors, fairy godmothers, and others

The other day, completing my winter blitz through piles of unread periodicals, I encountered the latest in Jenny Diski's series of essays about her extraordinary relationship with Doris Lessing--which began when Lessing, a virtual stranger, took in the fifteen-year-old Diski after the latter's homelife exploded and she was sent to a mental institution.

Reading Diski's account of her anxious and uneasy adjustment to her new home--why had Lessing taken her in? would Diski ever be clever enough to join Lessing and her friends in convesation?--I found myself fumbling to dredge up details from the previous essay: Diski had nicknamed Lessing "Benny," right, for "The Benefactor?" No: that was what Gary Shteyngart called his quasi-parental figure in Little Failure. And was it Diski who described her fear of seeming stupid in front of her boyfriends and their political and academic families? No: that was the fictional Elena Greco, in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels.

It is, I suppose, a coincidence that several of the things I'm reading right now have some overlapping themes and plotlines. But it isn't such a coincidence that three different accounts of intellectual and artistic self-fashioning should involve similar figures and similar anxieties--even though these stories take place in three different countries and two different generations.

On the surface, Diski's experience seems to be an extraordinary outlier: how amazing for an aspiring writer to be literally (if not quite legally) adopted by a famous novelist! But the young Shteyngart has a similarly complicated relationship with a t.v. writer friend-of-a-friend who takes an interest in him and his work; and though Elena has no single comparable figure, Ferrante's novels show her fixating on various teachers, boyfriends, and classmates as models for the kind of intellectual and public figure she'd like to become.

Indeed, aspects of all three experiences are probably familiar to anyone who has struggled to become anything: how does any of us learn to inhabit a new self, if not in response to others?

Most of us don't have a mentor or a patron, but take our models from among our peers. I sure did: in college, in grad school, and in the interstitial years between the two, I fixated on the people I thought of as truly smart--literary, cultured, whatever--and how they talked about things and moved through the world. I was attracted to but abashed by those who spoke well, who had opinions, who knew stuff about stuff. It amazed me that my peers had things to say (circa 1995, circa age 20) about what Tina Brown had done to The New Yorker, or the politics of senators from states other than their own, or the fortunes of American musical theater over the past twenty years. I studied them carefully and tended to have crushes on the men--perhaps feeling that though I didn't have the requisite talents, maybe I could date my way in.

Self-fashioning is always a complicated and anxious process, but if there's any lesson to be drawn from Diski, Shteyngart, and Ferrante's accounts, it's that it isn't any easier with a fairy godmother (Diski's semi-ironic name for Lessing), or a Benefactor, or any other singular mentor or maestro; the people we model ourselves on are also those we struggle to diminish and separate ourselves from: the erstwhile idol becomes only a t.v. writer or only a high school teacher; not really an original thinker--or simply judgmental, unkind, or limited in all the ways that human beings inevitably are limited.

I was never really friends with any of the people I took as my aspirational models, and I'm not friends with any of them now. They were useful projections and fantasies, but equally useful to be able to outgrow.


Anonymous said...

Great subject, great post. I too have been reading Diski's serial memoir with pleasure & interest--it's all the more powerful since she's lately been diagnosed w. a terminal illness, and her memories of Lessing and her adolescence are interwoven w. a running account of this latest (and presumably final) chapter of her life.

Yeah, aspirational models in youth are hugely important. Were I writing a biography, that's one of the first things I'd want to figure out about my subject: on whom did s/he try to pattern herself at 17? At 20? At 25? In my case, it was mostly writers or intellectuals rather than people I knew, most of them outside of my (our) immediate field: Orwell, Baldwin, Didion, Wittgenstein, Rorty, Empson, DFW, Said. I'd study their lives as well as their work, clutching at superficial points of likeness: hey, if Empson was a drunk, maybe all this grad school boozing isn't so bad! Wittgenstein was tormented by self-doubt--why, so am I! Thinking about your last point, I realize that I really haven't outgrown this list of heroes--others have emerged, of course, and I'm better reconciled at 43 than I was at 23 to the fact that I'll never write nearly as well as any of them, but they're still the ones I'd follow if I could.

Cheers, TG

Flavia said...


I originally had a sentence distinguishing real-life aspirational figures from those we know only at a distance and from their work, because I think that's a crucial distinction. You're right that both are hugely important to our self-fashioning, but our relationship to those we know only as public figures is not nearly as fraught.

It's certainly possible to outgrow or reject early artistic or intellectual influences (I wrote about one of my own discarded influences here), but usually they just slip away from us without a lot of agony or soul-searching. It's the real-life mentors or aspirational models who are hardest to see clearly--or rather, whom we're frustratingly aware of not seeing clearly--because they're real people to us, bound to us by real personal and emotional ties, as well as by our fantasies and projections about them (and perhaps theirs about us).

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I love my aspirational models, and most of them are still close friends.

Belle said...

Thanks for this post. It prompts me to do some serious reflections as I face a new and exciting phase of my life in which I get to - again - reinvent myself. My immediate response to this post is: oh, I still see X as who I'd like to be more of! And Y! Wow, they've been right at the top of that list for decades!

So thank you.

Withywindle said...

This might also be useful advice to people who aspire to be Aspirational Models and Mentors.

Anonymous said...

Right you are--real-life models and intellectual heroes are separate categories, which I conflated in my comment. Cheers, TG

Kate said...

Here's something I liked when I moved back to the UK from the US: whereas US banks and so on tend to have their password questions as "What is your wedding anniversary?" and "What is the name of your first child?" and other stuff that made me cross, my bank here asks "Who is your role model?" - and mine's a wondrous (American) professor with the kind of generous intellectual energy that makes everyone around her smarter.

Flavia said...


Oh, that's really lovely.