Friday, July 04, 2008


Out of It

I once saw someone wearing a Remo Germani Fan Club t-shirt with the motto "Out of It and Proud of It." The Oxford English Dictionary, under out of, prep., includes the following definitions:
15. to be out of it.
a. Not involved or included in an action or event.

b. Removed or distant from the centre or heart of something; isolated; uninformed.

c. slang (orig. U.S.). Confused, stupefied, or unconscious, esp. after consuming drink or drugs; (also) unable to think or react properly as a result of being tired.
I'm out of it in sense 15.b.

Sometimes, when I read something, I get the odd sensation that I'm looking at myself in a mirror. So it was when I read Joseph Epstein's essay Nicely Out of It, published in his collection With My Trousers Rolled (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995). T.S. Eliot wrote, "I grow old...I grow old...I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled." I actually do wear the bottom of my trousers rolled much of the time. Here are some excerpts from Epstein's essay:
As best as I can date such an event, I believe I began to feel out of it roughly in 1966. Around that time the curtain fell, dividing the country between the young and the not-young, and I found myself, even though only twenty-nine, on the not-young side of that curtain. The student revolution had begun, and I—in taste, in temperament, in point of view—had ancien régime so clearly written all over me that I might as well have worn a powdered wig.


I nowadays steer clear of all talk shows and am proud to report that a number of currently famous people are at least still obscure to me. Nevertheless, by osmosis of a mystical kind, I know rather more than I wish I did about people with no possible relevance to my life and whose minds I find more than a jot less than fascinating. I feel I would be leading a better, a more elevated life if I didn't recognize the names Burt Reynolds, Marv Albert, Madonna, Connie Chung, Willie Nelson, David Gergen, Regis Philbin, and Dan Dierdorf. But, alas, I do.


I feel I am progressing nicely when, standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, glimpsing the grocery-store press (our version of England's gutter press), I don't recognize the names of the people involved in scandals, or when I haven't a clue about the person on the cover of People. Yet there is no gainsaying that I do know the names Dolly Parton, Loni Anderson, and Tina Turner (not to speak of Keena Turner, the former San Francisco 49ers linebacker). So many, after all, are the old names I do not know enough about: Callimachus, Hypatia, Erasmus, Palestrina. I know, I fear, altogether too much about the Barbarians and not nearly enough about the Hellenes.


If I lived to be eighty, there was no telling how far out of it I might eventually go; perhaps I could slip all the way back into the eighteenth century, which has always seemed to me a nice place to visit.


A decade or so ago, for example, I discovered that I had ceased to read much contemporary fiction. Faster than you can say Italo Calvino, I had fallen two Malamuds, three Roths, a Bellow and a half, four Mailers, and five or six Updikes behind. I had let John Irving pass me by. So, too, Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, Gabriel García Márquez. Every book you read is a book you don't read, by my reckoning, and there were too many important non-contemporary books I had not yet read.


I prefer being out in the cold with my own well-worn but comfortably out-of-it notions. These include: that there are a number of unchanging ideas—none of them particularly stylish—worth fighting for; that honor is immitigable; that so, too, is dignity, despite the almost inherent ridiculousness of human beings; that one's life is a work of art, however badly botched, which can be restored and touched up here and there but not fundamentally changed; that, in connection with this, integrity includes coherence of personality; that elegance, where possible, is very nice, but there are many things more important than style, loyalty and decency among them; that a cello is a finer instrument than an electric guitar; and that a man ought to start out the day with a clean handkerchief. I hope I speak for others who are out of it when I say that we take these truths to be self-evident. And, as those of us who are out of it have learned, when it comes to the really important truths, no other kind of evidence is usually available.

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