My Facebook stream filled today with pictures of and appreciations of the late David Rakoff, who died last night of cancer at age 47, and many of the comments were much like the ones I'm about to make here: I met David Rakoff once, and I can't believe how warm and kind and funny he was, and I felt like we were friends immediately. That's certainly how it was for me. I interviewed David about Half-Empty in late May of 2010, a few months before the book came out. It was the last interview of about fifteen I did in a few days at BookExpo, done not at the convention center like the others but up at the Doubleday offices in Times Square. For David, meanwhile, it was the first he'd done for the book, and the first time he'd talked publicly about the long last essay in the book, "Another Shoe," which is about his cancer, in remission at the time.
Rarely have I talked to an author and had such a strong sense that we were not just talking about the book but having a warm, human conversation. As you can see, David did about 95% of the talking, which is how it should be in an interview like that (and how I prefer all my conversations, interview or otherwise, to go!). But I've had interesting interviews in which I said almost nothing and it really didn't matter if I was there at all. With David, all of his talking and thinking felt intensely engaged with the conversation--in part I'm sure that was because he was new to talking about the book, but I fully expect he was that way all the time. And he certainly was even more curious and friendly after we shut the tape recorder off. I was headed next to reward myself after the expo by seeing Lillian Gish in The Wind at MOMA, and it turned out, of course, that he loved her and the movie but I think hadn't seen it since college. We walked over to the museum together and I nearly convinced him to watch it with me, but I think he was pretty wiped out (he had had surgery just a couple weeks before). But he came into the museum and used his membership card to get my ticket and then said goodbye. I'm still a little taken aback that someone could engage as quickly and openly with a stranger as he did: ever since he's stood as a model to me of how you might live more fully in the world than I often feel like I do.
You can still listen to the interview on Omnivoracious, and I'm glad to see I posted the full transcript there too (I thought I might have to type it in here tonight). My wife and I spent an hour this evening listening to the two interviews with David that Terry Gross replayed today, which are excellent, and I thought that mine wouldn't add too much to them, but I was reminded that though we did talk about his illness in our last exchange, we spent much more time on the rest of the book, talking about the uses of pessimism and, in particular, about one of my favorite words and the way that two cities, Seattle and Los Angeles, embody it. Here's that passage, with my inarticulate questions recorded exactly as spoken:
Amazon: The book itself seems as much a book of cultural criticism, or it's as much an aesthetic philosophy as a personal, self-help philosophy. It's a way of looking at the world that--we used the word "melancholy," which I think is a word that is one of my favorite words and ways of being, and I think it's wonderfully productive just as a way of taking in the world. What does that word mean to you?
Rakoff: I completely agree. Melancholy is ... there's a poignancy about it and there's something very beautiful about melancholy. I mean, you live in Seattle, which has that beautiful gray light which is the light in which I come alive. When the sun goes behind a cloud, I calm right down and I am suffused with this very, very deeply poetic feeling of melancholy.
So melancholy, yeah, it's an abraded emotion. There's some sadness in it but there's a lot of beauty in it. It feels like a very productive kind of state of being. Again, to use the word, it's sort of porous to the world in a way that I think is really fortifying and really important.
Amazon: Yeah. It seems attentive. It's a way of paying attention.
Rakoff: That's exactly it. There are many cultures that have the aesthetic of melancholy. I mean, the Japanese aesthetic has various words, like... It's been a long time since I've been a Japanese major in college, but like, wabi-sabi, yugen. If I recall, yugen might have been an appreciation of the darkness of things, or perhaps it might have been the appreciation of the weathered patina on boards that have been left out in the rain for too long. I can't really remember, but there's all that sort of stuff that appreciates the evanescence and the fact that everything is imbued with its equal and attendant capacity to perish, that makes it that much more beautiful. So yeah, melancholy seems an incredibly important state of being.
Amazon: As a melancholic, do you find Seattle a more interesting subject or, say, Los Angeles, a place you write about in the book, where of course there is no cloud cover but yet seems like an interesting place for you to be?
Rakoff: Well, there is a beautiful kind of melancholy in Los Angeles because of that very chasm that exists between the dream and the reality. I write specifically in the book about Hollywood Boulevard, which is literally a boulevardpaved with dreams. [laughter] It's just so achingly sad and lovely and hopeful at the same time, and you just take it to your heart because the dreams are so outsized and so infrequently realized for people that it really is kind of an amazing place to see.
This stretch of sidewalk is dotted all along the way with these absolute dream palaces. You've all heard of Grauman's Chinese Theatre and we all know about the cement outside, but if you go inside, it is an absolute fantasy inside of Orientalist perfection. It's just crazily beautiful inside and I don't think people really know that. They know it in this very, again, reductive way of, "Oh, it's just a theater for tourists." It's incredibly beautiful.
Or the Max Factor building where he used to sell makeup. Again, it's like a Busby Berkeley number. And the woman who probably came out there to be a chorine in Hollywood movies--she's 90-odd and she's still got a Marcel wave and she makes change for you when you go into the Max Factor building, which is now a museum. So the melancholy of that distance between the dream and the reality seems like an incredibly interesting territory worth mapping, so I do like those kinds of places.