Other People: Takes & Mistakes

Other People: Takes & Mistakes

by David Shields


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Other People is something of a revelation: seventy-plus essays that form neither a miscellany nor a memoir but an intellectually thrilling and emotionally wrenching investigation of otherness.
Can one person know another person? How do we live through other people? Is it possible to fill the gap between people? If not, what function does art serve? Whether he is writing about sexual desire or information sickness, George W. Bush or Kurt Cobain, women's eyeglasses or Greek tragedy, Howard Cosell or Bill Murray, the comedy of high school journalism or the agony of first love, Shields sustains a piercing focus on the multiplicity of perspectives, the irreducible log jam of human information, and the possibilities and impossibilities for human connection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804169851
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/16/2018
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 383,077
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Shields is the author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times best seller), and Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, The Yale Review, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

Read an Excerpt

I. Men

Listening to men attempt to talk to each other is like trying to get The Magic Flute on Armed Forces Radio.

—­(second lieutenant) caroline becker

The origin of enslavement is the invention of writing.



Good to get your long and candid letter, Dave. I must say I’m somewhat perplexed by your reaction to your creative writing class. I think you have the accent on the wrong syllable, figuratively speaking. You’re in this class to learn from the teacher, and perhaps from your fellow students. I think if you keep this in mind you’ll loosen up a bit and get a great deal out of the course. All of your classmates are in the same boat; they’re all just as apprehensive about revealing themselves as you are, even though some may be able to camouflage it better than others. I think it’s great you were accepted in the class, and you should think so, too. Relax, and learn from this “famous” writer (though I don’t know his books and had never heard of him before). A certain amount of fear and anxiety at the approach of a new experience is natural and healthy. I don’t know any placid types who are creative people; intensity is what drives them to the outrageous thoughts and ideas ordinary people never think of. But anxiety also has to be ­self-­controlled if it’s not to become the dominant force.

.   .   .

I find Kosinski a good writer, very good. Nobody I’ve read recently writes a better, simpler declarative ­sentence—­no extraneous language, not one extra word or sentiment. With your stuff I’m sometimes so busy untangling the syntax I don’t know what you want to say.

Not to be involved with mankind is not to have lived; join up.

The Roth book you gave me for my birthday (thank you) grew on me. At first I did a foolish thing: I placed my own prejudices ahead of the novel. I wanted him to leave, for good, his absorption with his father and mother and their ­self-­deprecation. I wanted him also to leave the novel told in the first person. Why ­doesn’t he write novels like everyone else? Writing them in the first person is the lazy way, the easier way. I soon realized how utterly naïve and unsophisticated such an attitude was and settled down to enjoy the book, even that very contrived exchange of letters between David and Debbie, and David and Arthur.

I’m hoping that you won’t wait as long as I did to learn how to make dinner, clean house, make sensible purchases, etc., etc. Just because one is a “poet” ­doesn’t mean one has to be a schlemiel. I feel very strongly about this and look forward to talking about it in depth sometime.

The Front? I ­didn’t like it. The blacklistings were serious. I want serious subjects treated seriously.

I went with your ­great-­uncle Hyman to hear Elie Wiesel give a talk at UCLA this week. A very moving experience, comparable only to the talk I heard by Chaim Potok several years ago. Wiesel had been in Ausch­witz as a teenager and so, of course, he spoke about the Holocaust and the baffling faith of the Jewish people in humanity. He opened with a tale of two Russian peasants who were sitting around drinking and talking. Jacob says to his friend Yosal, “Are you my friend?” “Of course,” Yosal assures him. They talk some more and again Jacob asks Yosal if he’s his friend and again Yosal assures him. Then Jacob asks him once more, “Are you ­really my friend?” And Yosal says, “Of course I am. Why do you keep asking?” “Well,” replies Jacob, “if you are my friend, how come you don’t know that I am hurting?” Wiesel closed his talk by quoting from documents that he’d seen recently, diaries and journals written by concentration camp victims who were forced to conduct their fellow Jews into the gas ovens and then later were themselves incinerated. They left letters and notes and descriptions in bottles and boxes in crevices in the ­crematoria—­some discovered only now. If ever there were people who had the right to tell all the world to go to hell, these were such people, but they wanted humanity to know what had happened there, and by sharing their experiences and describing them, they demonstrated their faith in the survival of the Jews and their faith that people would remember and not ever let such horrors happen again. It was a respectful, quiet, and appreciative audience, and there ­wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Hyman went through two handkerchiefs himself.

Don’t stop the world because you want to get off.

A ­play—­even a ­one-­act set in ­seventeenth-­century ­En­gland—­needs some “wasted” moments to make it work. Your protagonist, Lilburne, is alone way too much. Plus, he’s a pompous martyr; he ­couldn’t have been that ­self-­righteous in real life. I want to see him in private, enjoying himself with his family, being witty. So far he’s so serious as to be inhuman. Work it out in emotional terms, not intellectual ones.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you. You’ve done a lot of greening and growing in the fourteen months since you were last here. I think I’ve done some, too. My old habits have been carted off to the dump. You’ll see, I think, when you visit in March, although I thought I detected at the end of our last conversation a very conscious pulling away on your part.

.   .   .

John William Corrington writes in the darkly humorous tradition of a Barth, Donleavy, or Heller. He is concerned with the troubled spirit of this country and writes about it with gusto.

Peace in the world or the world in pieces.

I found that ­toward the end of summer I needed some distance between you and me because I was becoming so conscious of your writing, presumably about me. When you told me that after dinner with Hyman and me, you went downstairs and recorded our sodden trip down memory lane, I was disturbed by it, and after that I felt you were making mental or actual notes any time anything of an “interesting” or curious nature was discussed between Hy and me. I don’t mind that you use any of your observations about me in your writing, but I do mind being made so conscious of the fact that you’re doing it. If other people get this feeling, you may find that they, too, require distance from you, and this ­doesn’t make for close, open, honest relationships. I’ve known quite a few writers and have never had the feeling with them that they were interested in me or observing me just for what grist I could provide for their mill. This is an attitude and approach that I think you will, in time, learn to cultivate.

Some think O’Hara’s stories consisted of an introduction, a little character development, and the rest was dialogue of a most ordinary nature. O’Hara was more than that, much more. He said the lonely mind of the artist is the only creative organ in the world. His advice: inherit money, have a job that will keep you busy, be born without a taste for liquor, marry a woman who will cooperate in your sexual peculiarities, join a church, don’t live too long. Oh, he had his wild and uncontrollable moments. He thought of his work as a personal reassessment against the history of his time. An important writer of the ’20s, ’30s, and the ’40s and clear until the time he died.

.   .   .

I know from your letters and even the things you say to me during our ­too-­brief telephone conversations that a considerable annealing has taken place, and I know it’ll be very much in evidence in what you write.

This blacklisted writer (played by Luther Adler, I think, maybe not), after coming out of jail for contempt of a congressional committee, gets some work in the gray market and then has a chance to do a script on his own. He can’t believe his luck has changed. Then, when he goes over to his friend’s place to celebrate, his friend says, “Well, it seems that somebody has been doing some poking around, and you know how it is, this ain’t the end of the world, times will change, you’ll see, one of these days we’ll look back on all this and laugh, but in the meantime you’re off the picture and we have to put some schnook, a nebbish who can’t carry your typewriter ribbon, on the picture.” Adler looks at him, looks through him, and on Adler’s face is written all of man’s grief from the beginning of time. His friend sees him to the door, arm languidly on his ­shoulder—­feeble gesture of phony friendship, but it’s there. And he asks Adler, “What will you do now?” Adler says three words, and no more eloquent words have ever been spoken on screen, stage, TV, or anywhere: “Survive. I’ll survive.” He closes the door and walks off into the night. The scene haunts me still and I bet I saw it on Playhouse 90 ­twenty-­five years ago, maybe longer. ­That’s real writing.

Why not take the reader into your confidence rather than play a game of wits with him? Illumine the human ­condition—­that’s all. Set it down one little word after another. No tricks or gimmicks.

Did you know I must have tried half a dozen times to get down on paper those stories Hyman told you and me about being a panhandler in New York during the Depression? I never could get away from the plain reportage of it, even though I strove to put in “local color” and the “bums” as Hy depicted them. On my ­now-­and-­then tries, I ­couldn’t get past the obligatory opening ­scenes—­descriptions of the Lower East Side, etc. Rarely got much further. “Fiction is not fact,” wrote Thomas Wolfe (the real Thomas Wolfe). “Fiction is fact, selected and charged with a purpose.” Which is exactly what you ­did—­blending Hy’s memories with your imagination to put together an absorbing story. I can’t begin to tell you how much it moved me, especially the very end, when Tannenbaum says Kaddish. Beyond my poor powers of description. (One minor criticism: Why do you need such a cutesy title? How many people nowadays even know what a dybbuk is? Why not just something simple like “A Boy Grows Up”?)


My father’s birth certificate reads “Milton Shildcrout.” His military record says “Milton P. Schildcrout.” When he changed his name in 1946 to Shields, the petition listed both “Shildkrout” and “Shildkraut.” His brother Abe used “Shildkrout”; his sister Fay’s maiden name was “Schildkraut.” Who cares? I do. I want to know whether I’m related to Joseph Schildkraut, who played Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank and won an Academy Award in 1938 for his portrayal of Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.

I grew up under the impression that it was simply ­true—­the actor was my father’s ­cousin—­but later my father was more equivocal: “There is the possibility that we’re related,” he’d say, “but I ­wouldn’t know how to establish it.” Or: “Do I have definite proof that he was a cousin of ours? No.” Or: “My brother Jack bore a strong resemblance to him; he ­really did.” From a letter: “Are we ­really related, the two families? Can’t say for certain. ­What’s the mythology I’ve fashioned over the years and ­what’s solid, indisputable fact? I don’t know. . . . ​We could be related to the Rudolph/Joseph Schildkraut family; I honestly believe that.”

In 1923, when my father was thirteen, his father, Samuel, took him to a Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side to see Rudolph Schildkraut substitute for the legendary Jacob Adler in the lead role of a play called Der Vilder Mensch (The Wild Man). Rudolph was such a wild man: Throughout the play, he hurtled himself, gripping a rope, from one side of the theater to the other. After the play, which was a benefit performance for my grandfather’s ­union—­the International Ladies’ Garment ­Workers—­my grandfather convinced the guard that he was related to Rudolph Schildkraut, and he and my father went backstage.

In a tiny dressing room, Rudolph removed his makeup and stage costume, and he and Samuel talked. According to my father, Rudolph said he was born in Romania; later in his acting career, he went to Vienna and Berlin. He and his wife and son, Joseph, came to New York around 1910, went back to Berlin a few years later, and then returned to the United States permanently in 1920. (Joseph Schildkraut’s 1959 memoir, My Father and I, confirms that these dates are correct, which proves only that my father probably consulted the book before telling me the story.) Samuel asked Rudolph whether he knew anything about his family’s ­antecedents—­how and when they came to Austria. Rudolph said he knew little or nothing. His life as an actor took him to many places, and his life and interest were the theater and its people. The two men spoke in Yiddish for about ten minutes; my father and grandfather left. What little my father ­couldn’t understand, my grandfather explained to him later.

“For weeks,” my father told me, “I regaled my friends and anybody who would listen that my father and I had visited the great star of the Austrian, German, and Yiddish theater in ­America—­Rudolph Schild­kraut. ­What’s more, I said, he was probably our cousin. Nothing in the conversation between my father and Rudolph Schildkraut would lead me or anybody else to come to that conclusion for a certainty, but I wanted to impress friends and neighbors and quickly added Rudolph and Joseph Schildkraut to our family. I said, ‘They’re probably second cousins.’ Some days I made them ‘first cousins.’ Rudolph Schildkraut, as you know, went on to Hollywood and had a brief but successful motion picture career. I told everybody he was a much better actor than his countryman Emil Jennings.”

In 1955, my parents were living in Los Angeles, my mother was working for the ACLU, and my mother asked my father to ask Joseph Schildkraut to participate in an ­ACLU-­sponsored memorial to Albert Einstein, who had died earlier that year. “After all,” my father wrote in reply to one of my innumerable requests for more information, “Einstein was a German Jew and Pepi [Schildkraut’s nickname] had spent much of his professional life in Berlin and was a member of a group of prominent people who had fled Germany in the years after Hitler and lived in the Pacific Palisades–Santa Monica area”—Arnold Schoenberg, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Max Reinhardt, et al.

Table of Contents

I Men

Comp Lit 101: Advice from My Dad 3

Bloodline to Star Power 9

Mr. Big 17

Father's Day 19

Eulogy for My Father 24

The Groundling 30

Everything I Know I've Learned from My Bad Back 38

Men and Games and Guns 44

Letter to My Father 52

II Women

Motherhood 57

Love Is a Dog from Hell 59

Usher 63

Gookus Explains the Eternal Mysteries 65

Desire 70

Reflection in a One-Way Mirror 72

Satire 79

Ode to the Donner Party 83

Rebecca's Journal 88

The Sheer Joy of Amoral Creation 93

A Brief Survey of Ideal Desire 99

Love Is Illusion 105

Postcards from Rachel, Abroad 107

Economies of Desire 113

Despair 115

Mask of Masks 118

Delilah 122

Karen 130

A Fable 132

III Athletes

Another Fable 135

Words Can't Begin to Describe What I'm Feeling 136

Heaven Is a Playground 144

Life Is Not a Playground 154

44 Tattoos 160

White Bronco 172

Being Random Is the Key to Life 174

Bring the Pain 188

History of America, #34 201

Blindness 212

Everybody's a Winner 216

The Whole of American Life Is a Drama Acted Out upon the Body of a Negro Giant 219

IV Performers

The Same Air 225

Information Sickness 227

Why We Live at the Movies 230

Why We Live at the Movies (ii) 233

Why We Live at the Movies (iii) 234

Radio 236

Problems and Solutions to Problems 238

Radio (ii) 242

The Subject at the Vanishing Point 243

Life/Art 246

Robert Capa, Misunderstood 248

Doubt 251

On the Importance of Getting and Being Stupid 255

The Only Solution to the Soul Is the Senses 256

Almost Famous 275

Stars 282

He Was There; He Wasn't Really There: Dreams about Kurt Cobain 287

Contemporary Film Criticism 292

V Alter Egos

Almost Famous (ii) 295

The Sixties 301

The Smarter Dog Knows When to Disobey 305

The Heroic Mode 323

The Wound and the Bow 327

The Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism 344

Negotiating Against Myself 346

Love This 349

Love This (ii) 355

Remoteness 357

Surviving with Wolves 361

The Unknown Life 365

Life Story 367

Notes on the Local Swimming Hole 370

Love Is Not a Consolation-Love Is a Light 372

All Our Secrets Are the Same 377

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