Looking back at my “friends of the maximum” post of the other day, I fear that I gave in to the temptation of making myself sound more interesting than I really am — posing as some sort of rascally roué emitting a barrelly chortle* as I twirl the ends of my waxed moustache and contemplate my next obliquity. Anthony Bourdain’s does a “punk chef” version of this — his show “No Reservations” goes to this well a little too often for my taste. (OK Anthony, let’s get one more shot of you wearing the Ramones T-shirt . . .) It’s probably impossible to write about this sensibility without taking sides and, so doing, sounding either like Hugh Hefner or the Church Lady. But when we write about sensibilities, and the people who inhabit and embody them, we always end up writing about abstractions, ideal types that allow the type a forensic clarity. When we write about hipness (to choose a favorite topic of mine) we write about hipsters, those “lucifugous creatures of the dark” that Anatole Broyard wrote about in his 1948 “Portrait of the Hipster,” despite the fact that such persons are quite rare — far less common than those who are not hipsters but who have absently taken on something of their emotional coloration. Likewise, the approach to life best summed up by Sir Arnold Bax’s advice to try anything once except for incest and folk dancing seems to demand a concrete embodiment — Hugh Hefner, say — but this raises the bar rather high. Does a general philosophical disposition towards (say) eating unpasteurized cheese mean you have to wear an ascot or something? Hope not.
I’m more of a Fellow Traveler of the Maximum than a Friend of the Maximum. Some of the people I research and write about go way beyond being Friends of The Maximum — these are the people The Maximum had to take a restraining order out on. Which leads to some odd research situations. When I was a postdoc at Stanford I was doing research in the Stanford Special Collections reading room, which had (among many other treasures) a complete run of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, perhaps the most uninhibited of Beat poetry little mags. This caused me a certain perplexity: once the materials had been paged from remote storage, you had to go to the desk and ask for your materials.
Me: Um, I paged . . . a periodical.
Librarian: Which one?
Me: The . . . one with the brown covers.
Librarian: They’ve all got brown covers. What’s it called?
Me: It’s an unprintable epithet.
Librarian: Oh, Fuck You.
So anyway, the other day my friend John Howland, who shares with me a penchant for cold war lounge culture, was telling me about a wonderful new resource: Bondi, the digital publishing company that created a digital archive of the New Yorker‘s backlog did the same thing with Playboy‘s complete 1950s run. You can install the archive on your computer and keyword-search everything Playboy’s first seven years. This is incredibly useful — I’m beginning a think through a project that has to do with pop music and the cold lounge ethos (hint: it has to do with this) and Playboy is just about the most important and relevant publication for what I want to do. I’ve been sitting in the Kinsey Institute library going through the paper issues by hand (it’s easier on the eyes than microfilm), but this is much easier and more thorough. You still need to browse page-by-page, because you never know what you might find that your keyword searches might miss, and anyway there’s a certain meaning in the total arrangement of items within a publication, but still, keyword searching! And Amazon has the whole (slightly pretentious, in the Playboy style) deluxe package for a steal, $20.00, so I bought it and am now wondering where to put it. Putting it on my office shelf next to my Chicago Manual of Style might give students visiting during office hours the wrong idea. But if I put it on a shelf at home, what will the babysitter think?
I guess geeking out about keyword searching in a Playboy digital archive is taking “I read it for the articles” to a whole new level. It’s kind of funny, though, when you do research on the wild Dionysian reaches of human experience, you are inevitably professionalizing them. And this means that your reactions are the furthest thing from whatever the authors of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts were going for. You’re not shocked, you’re not aroused, you’re not angered, you’re not digging the unspeakable visions of the individual, man, you’re just . . . interested. It’s kind of funny — in the Kinsey Institute reading room you’re surrounded by the world’s most formidable collection of erotica, and you and you’re sitting around with your fellow researchers, sober as a judge, thinking “hm, that’s a pretty neat font.”
I’ve quoted the great Jaroslav Hasek saying that those who are well brought-up may read anything. This is one of the consolations of scholarship: becoming professional in your work is a process of becoming well-brought-up. The academic vocation, This Thing Of Ours, has landed us in countless boring committee meetings, but it also gives us license to read anything, listen to anything, entertain any idea. That’s the trade-off.
*stolen from Martin Amis, The Information