Helpless Attention


Once I have put time into authors or performers, I tend to stay attentive to them indefinitely, whether their appeal remains or not. Nothing by or about Jack Kerouac fails to attract my attention, for example, though disdain displaced my admiration for his work more than two decades ago. One might say that this is “like following one’s old girlfriends on Facebook,” though this analogy doesn’t work for me because I very much still admire these particular Facebook friends.

I once very much admired Shirley MacLaine, not just for the acting she did in “Irma La Douce” and “The Apartment” but for her writing as well. Her first memoir, “Don’t Fall Off the Mountain,” is charming and vivid and intelligent; her second, “You Can Get There from Here,” is almost as good. When her memoir “Into the Light” helped kick off the New Age movement in North America back in the late eighties, I was ready for it, and ready to like it, too. “Into the Light” was an important book, revivifying fusty late 19th-century occult ideas with technicolor language and action narratives (and with a very appealing narrator). I had already read many of the occult writers — Rudolf Steiner, Madame Blavatsky, Alice Bailey — because some good friends … what is the proper phrase to use here? … because some good friends of mine believed in their visions, or tried to, and I wanted to be able to talk with them about mystical worldviews.

I wrote a sympathetic but skeptical critique of “Into the Light” for Free Inquiry magazine. Within a couple of years I was known around the world as an expert on the New Age Movement, though I had no real interest in the topic. Thank you, Shirley.

MacLaine”s newest memoir, “I’m All Over That, And Other Confessions,” is a disappointment, though I am glad I read it. One can tell that there is not a story in it that she hasn’t told many, many times. The book *did* make me laugh out loud, though, once. MacLaine writes that Nikita Krushchev was not fond her her film “Can Can,” which he attended during a trip to America, noting to an interviewer regarding the movie, “The face of humanity is prettier than its backside.”

After the Soviet Premier saw MacLaine in “The Apartment,” though, he wrote this to her: “You have improved.”

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