Daphne Merkin is a cultural critic, memoirist, and novelist. She writes for a variety of publications, from Bookforum to Departures, and teaches in the MFA program at Columbia. Her latest novel, 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2020. (May 2020)
There is more to “looking good” than mere frivolity or the wish to be desirable to men. For many women, feminist or otherwise, making an effort about their appearance is a reminder that they are free to create—to visually dramatize—the particular version of femaleness they wish to convey to the world, whether it involves streaking their hair with gold highlights or having their toenails painted blue. In other words, it is all part and parcel of a ritualized performance. Which might explain why hair and beauty salons were among the first places to open up.
The old-fashioned fuddy-duddy telephone—which once seemed as dated as Dorothy Parker’s short story “The Telephone Call,” in which a young woman waits desperately for a man to call—is suddenly back in style. I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds myself spending hours on the phone with friends and editors I used to converse with minimally, if at all. Surely this has everything to do with the limited and mediated intimacy provided by our more recent modes of communication—email, texting, Twitter direct messages, chat apps, and now the suddenly ubiquitous Zoom—and our longing for a more immediate, audible sense of connection in these harrowing times.
Although all of us sustain losses—of loved ones, friends and acquaintances—at some point in our lives, it is around this time that they begin to accrete, and at an accelerating rate. All losses leave holes in the fabric of life. The one uppermost in my mind today is the end of a distinct period in American letters, when literary culture held sway in this society, commanding respect and bestowing prestige. It was a world peopled by impressive and varied figures such as Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy, and, in its impassioned involvement with the life of the mind, made my contemporaries dream of gaining admission to it. That sense of an ending comes with a melancholic recognition that everything, including what once seemed to be a vibrant and entrenched style of intellectual engagement, is fleeting.