S03 E01

Sharon Marcus:
Bred for Opacity

Neil talks about air conditioning and sense memory. His guest, literary scholar Sharon Marcus, imagines a daredevil visit to a perfume shop.



Sharon Marcus is editor in chief of Public Books and the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the American Council of Learned Societies, she is the author of Apartment Stories (University of California Press, 1999), Between Women (Princeton University Press, 2007), and The Drama of Celebrity (Princeton University Press, 2019).

NEIL: Okay. So, Sharon, thank you for being on She’s A Talker at this fucking crazy time. 

SHARON: Thank you for having me, Neil. 

NEIL: So, Sharon, if you need to succinctly tell a stranger what it is that you do, what do you say? 

SHARON: I try to avoid volunteering what I do because I’m a professor of literature, and when people hear that 97% of them say, “Are you going to correct my grammar?”

NEIL: Oh my God. 

SHARON: 2% of them say, “Can you recommend something that I should read?” Or, I once sat next to someone in a plane who launched into a, “What would you say the greatest book ever written was? What would you say the five greatest novels ever written were?” After I, like, just looked at him, and I said, “You seem really quite obsessed with lists and rankings. Why do you think that is?” To his credit, he laughed good-naturedly and said, “It’s true. It’s true. I am.” And then 1% get this like deer in the headlights look and say things like “I wasn’t very good at school.”

NEIL: What do you say back to that? 

SHARON: Well, in this particular case, I was on a date and I said, “Yeah, well, you don’t have to be good at school. I do. I’m the one, who’s a professor.” First and last date, as you can probably guess. 

Sharon Marcus, The Drama of Celebrity, Princeton University Press (2019)

NEIL: Yes. Can I ask you, what are you thinking about today, March 21st? 

SHARON: Okay. So I’m just going to be a total fucking pain in the ass and say that the question, “What are you thinking about today?” doesn’t actually resonate with me with how I think or how I get through a day. Like, I don’t wake up and go, “What am I going to think about today?” Or even find myself thinking, “I’m thinking about blah, blah, blah.” Thoughts come in, they go out, I see things, I observe things, but it feels a little more organized maybe than my brain actually is. 

NEIL: Oo, I love it. So how could that question be reframed to more? 

SHARON: For me?

NEIL: Yeah.

SHARON: “What did you do today?” “What did you do today?” 

NEIL: Nah, nevermind. 

SHARON: Exactly! And I can tell you it hasn’t been very interesting, so. 

NEIL: Right, which is different from how it normally is for you, but maybe we’ll get to some of that. Alright. Let’s go to the cards, shall we? 

SHARON: I’m ready! I’m doing some of the moves I learned in my hip hop class to warm up.

NEIL: Great, that’s perfect. First card is: How hugging is meant to express intimacy, but it actually articulates the separation between our bodies. 

SHARON: So apt! Well, it would be really nice to hug someone right now. So, my first response is it doesn’t sound like it’s really about separation. Hugging would be so nice, but I think, you know, that speaks to something very profound, which is you can only connect by acknowledging your separateness from someone. If you think you’re merged with someone, if you think you’re the same person, if you don’t take them in as a separate different person, you can’t really meet them and bond with them and touch them, even. And that does seem related to what’s going on right now, where we have so much difference in how people are responding to the situation. People who are now being really reckless about their ability to be close to other people physically I think are doing so out of a lack of sense of the existence of other people as separate from them. 

NEIL: Mhm.

SHARON: They’re being very self-absorbed. They think they’re the only ones that matter. And so, you know, I think we’ve all seen the huggers who also are hugging to assert a certain kind of power. Not even just like a power to touch you in a way that might not be fully consensual, but a power to have their interest in feeling intimate with you and feeling connected be dominant. You know, there’s like that etiquette of: Do you go in for the hug, but then wait enough that the person can pull back without it being a big deal? Do you actually say, “Can I hug you?” Or, you know, how do you handle that? And that’s all about recognizing the separateness. So I think implicit in that card is the sense that our separateness is sort of sad and that the hug is not aware of the sadness of our alienation from each other. But I would turn that around and say if we can just remember we’re connected, but we’re separate, this society thing can work. 

NEIL: So what you’re saying in part is that there is something paradoxical: That those people who go ahead and hug right now, in a way, don’t recognize a type of connection. Is that right?

SHARON: They’re just seeing other people as extensions of themselves. But that said, I think I would also say that it’s okay that we’re separate from each other and the hug doesn’t overcome that. We’re hugging because we’re separate from each other and so we want to feel closer. I don’t think that the total merger that maybe is implied by the perfect hug is really that desirable or really that merged.

What I’m saying is, to really connect with other people and bond with them you have to respect their separateness from you and your separateness from them. 

NEIL: Beautiful. Next card: The ambiguity of the word helpless. “I feel helpless” is usually said in reference to, “I can’t help someone.” 

SHARON: Right. 

NEIL: And I feel helpless can also mean “No one’s helping me.” 

SHARON: “And I need help.” 

NEIL: Mhm.

SHARON: “I need help so desperately because I can’t help myself.” I’m just trying to think it, how, if those are really different. I mean, I hate the word helpless because nobody’s really helpless.

Everyone can always do something to help someone else. And when someone says, “I feel helpless in this situation,” I think they’re often saying that instead of saying “What can I do to help you?”

NEIL:  Right. Right. Very true. 

SHARON: One of the things that’s been interesting and challenging for me about this situation — And I think everybody has their own particular circumstances that you can’t help but bring to a pandemic and quarantine — is that my wife of 20 years died a year and a month ago of cancer. And she was basically dying of cancer for a year and a half before that happened. And she noticed that the people who really wanted to help her would either say, “What can I do to help you?” Or, even more powerfully, would say, “What can I do to help you? I was thinking I could…” and then they would say some very specific things. They wouldn’t insist on doing those specific things, but they would follow up a general offer of help with ideas that they had come up with that they weren’t imposing on her, but it was a demonstration of good faith. 

And it was also definitely the case that there were people who not only demonstrated their helplessness by being pretty much missing in action but people who would go the extra mile and articulate, “I feel helpless,”  “I don’t know what to do,” “I wish there was something I can do for you.” It’s really annoying. I think in this current situation, it’s probably pretty similar. I think people are saying, “Oh, I feel helpless, I don’t know what I can do to help other people.” You know, it’s like a very quick Google search away.

It is challenging to figure out how to help other people when you can’t leave the house and when the biggest thing you can do to help people is not leave the house. Because we’re used to thinking of health as taking very concrete action and being very direct and present and, also, we like our help to be acknowledged and, offering help at a distance, it’s harder to get acknowledgment for that. But there’s plenty of things we can all do to help right now, the Internet’s full of them: food banks that we can donate to, artists groups that are being set up to help support people who are being very quickly and harshly put out of work. So, you know, it seems like a disingenuous word to me, “helpless.” 

NEIL: Mhm.

SHARON: Whether applied to the help when gives others or the fact that one needs help oneself. Because nobody’s — if you’re talking, you’re not that helpless in terms of your ability to take care of yourself. If you’re breathing and you’re talking, you could probably, instead of saying, “I feel helpless,” again, just make a more specific request. Like, “I could really use help with X.” But then again, I’m not a very empathetic person towards people who would use the phrase “I feel helpless.” So I feel, I should just say that if you’re feeling helpless, stay away from me, go find somebody else, which I think most helpless people figured out a long time ago.

NEIL: But you are a very empathetic person, just not around that issue. 

SHARON: Yeah. The people in my circle who might apply that word to themselves, they don’t usually do it in my presence.

NEIL: Next card: Remembering when headphones first dared to go inside the ear. 

SHARON: I just love headphones. I think I recognize the value of the ones that fit in your ear because then you can wear a hat if it’s cold out, but they really, really hurt my ear. So I have yet to go that route. I like the big kind that sit over your ear and kind of pillow your ear, which also serve the secondary function of sunblock so that the sun can’t get on your ears, which are actually really susceptible to skin cancers, because they’re so exposed and they stick out and the skin of your ear is quite thin. So, public service announcement: when you put on sunblock, make sure to cover your ears. 

NEIL: You know, I knew that! You know what I didn’t know, is to cover your neck! And I’m horrified to learn that all these years I’ve been a dedicated sunscreen-wearer every single day, but I haven’t been putting it on my neck. And I am getting a little bit of a, you know, kind of waddle or something. I don’t know what the word is. 

SHARON: It’s never too late to start. 

NEIL: Right. That’s true. What book was I reading where the answer was “the best time to do it is yesterday?” 

SHARON: Mm, there is a message for our times. 

NEIL: Oh, it was in this book, The Overstory, which I’m obsessed with. Have you read it? By Richard Powers? 

SHARON: Not yet. Are you enjoying it?

NEIL: I finished it. I loved it. It’s not imperfect, unlike all that other perfect art out there, but, one of the characters says “The best time to plant a tree is always 20 years ago. But planting it today is better than planting it tomorrow” or something like that. And that’s a kind of a recurring — that returns in the book.

SHARON: It’s true for some things. For other things it’s good to wait and sleep on it and maybe don’t do it, you know? Like that text you were going to send or that purchase you were going to make.

NEIL: Next card: Perfect Sleeper seems like a counterproductive name for a mattress. Stressfully setting the bar too high. Like what about the, just like, Great Sleeper? I think Perfect Sleeper stresses me out. 

SHARON: As far as I’m concerned, if I’m asleep at all, that’s perfect. I don’t know what “perfect” sleep would be. It’s like a pleonasm, a redundancy. Sleeping is perfect. If I can fall asleep and stay asleep for more than 10 minutes, perfection.

NEIL: Next card: Cathedrals as places that are both inside and outside. My love of them connects to my childhood wish never to leave my home; to be able to drive my house. So when I was a kid, I was always drawing a version of my house, the house that I grew up in, in Hicksville, New York originally, and I would put a turret on it that had a steering wheel so I could drive the house. And it was so comforting. I loved it. And when I go into a cathedral, I kind of get that feeling, how, without a doubt, it’s an indoor space, but there is some quality of the outdoor to it.

SHARON: Because they’re so vast and soaring?

NEIL: Yes. 

SHARON: Kind of like an Airstream?

NEIL: Yeah. Yeah, I did love — Jeff’s parents for a while had an RV. And I loved riding around in that.

SHARON: Hm, I do feel comforted and secure inside pretty much any dwelling that is mine, even if it’s a very small apartment. But I also remember, that also reminds me of the show Romper Room when I was a kid. Do you remember Romper Room?

NEIL: Oh, yes. Miss Something. Miss Pat? Or Miss… 

SHARON: Miss Something. I don’t know. I really liked her. I feel like I can almost picture her and she would do a thing where she would have kids put boxes around them and pretend they were driving. So there is something I guess, about that rectangular — being contained within a rectangle that is house and car.

NEIL: See, for me it was less, at the time, about a pleasure of driving. The predominant thing was not wanting to leave the house.


NEIL: But the idea of being able to move through space while staying inside.

SHARON: Without ever leaving your house. 

NEIL: Yeah.

SHARON: So it wasn’t so much about making your car into a home. It was about being able to make your home into a vehicle so you’d never have to leave. 

NEIL: Exactly. 

SHARON: Interesting. Interesting. Well, we’re all going to get to have some version of that in the coming weeks and months, because we’re leaving our homes less than we ever have. I think it’s, I mean, this is certainly more true for people in a city. I mean, I think that people who are living in less populated, less densely populated, places are still getting in their cars and, for example, going to pick up food in a parking lot, rather than going inside the store to pick up the food. But, you know, most people who live in New York don’t have cars. And what we’re having to learn how to do is be inside, but learn to project ourselves out imaginatively.

Or, by talking to people who are located somewhere else I — One thing that’s been really striking to me, it was just not exactly the same thing as driving your house, but it may be something like flying your computer. So, I stopped going out significantly on March 7th and a few days later, something kicked in where distance really stopped mattering and, in some ways, time did too. That will change because we’re all going to have to get more on schedules to stay sane, I think. But right now it feels reasonable and healthy to just accept that we’ve been very disrupted and it’s going to take us a little while to get into a routine. And so I thought, well, “Let me take advantage of this and see if I can speak to my friends who are, you know, in some cases, in such different parts of the world that I could only figure out what time it is, where they are if I look it up. I have to look it up every single time. Like, I can never remember if Australia is a day before, a day later, like, what’s going on? So, you know, all of a sudden I really do feel like my computer is functioning for me the way a plane ride used to. So maybe, maybe I have figured out a way to drive my house metaphorically, virtually. 

Sharon is the editor in chief of Public Books, a magazine of ideas, arts, and scholarship.

NEIL: Next card: The primal feeling of eating soup; of this liquid from the outside becoming part of the inside.

SHARON: So interesting that you bring up soup because I keep going back and forth on whether I should get a blender, which is the primary way I make soup. I feel like if you want a soup, it should just be liquid you bring up in the spoon. It can be, you know, thick, it can have texture, but if it’s going to be chunky just go ahead and make a stew. So I really need a blender if I’m going to make soup. That’s my “of the moment” response. But you’re actually asking a more — Actually a lot of your questions have been about inside and outside and, you know, are we connected? Are we separate? And I guess the soup one is one as well, but I don’t know if it’s any different from any other food.

I mean, I think about that. I think about how we take a lot. Like, we take food in, we incorporate it into our bodies. Even the stuff that we excrete, like, I don’t know about you, but I feel like my excretions are part of my body even though I let them go. Just like I feel like my fingernails are part of my body, even though I trim them. And yeah. To me, food really feels just like it’s inside us. It doesn’t feel separate. Read the card again. Read that card again, Neil.

NEIL: The primal feeling of eating soup; of this liquid from the outside becoming part of the inside. I guess maybe that comes, also, I think I had read, you know, maybe the fact that we all kind of originated as cells in this kind of primordial soup. I don’t know what it is. Or that there’s something soupy about, I don’t know, something about this. Something from the outside that matches a little bit. Something about what it’s like inside. I don’t know what it is. 

SHARON: I think it’s that the ideal temperature of soup is very close to our body temperature. I think you don’t want your soup to be quite as hot as maybe some other hot foods. And so it does feel like it’s sort of copacetic with us. 

NEIL: I had another thought just as you were talking: I think it’s also that soup is this — like, coffee is a single note and I’m sure that there are tons of compounds in it.

SHARON: Tell that to the people writing tasting notes on coffee. “Oranges, shoe leather, tobacco, bergamot, bubble gum.” But okay. I’ll go with you on that. I only smell one thing when I smell coffee. So, you know, I’m with you. 

Sharon speaking about Public Books at Duke University

NEIL: Yes. And I hear them, but with soup, at least it’s — Okay. What is coffee made of? It’s made of coffee. Let’s put it that way. 


NEIL: Okay. So what is soup made of? It’s made of carrots. It’s made of ingredients that have come together in this thing. Maybe it’s that I’m saying we’re like soup. We’re like soup in a package.

SHARON: Yes. Yeah. We are. We’re just this bag of organs and bones and muscle and blood, and it’s all supposed to be working together until it isn’t. And then you’re drowning in your own bodily fluids internally because your immune system overreacted to a virus. 

NEIL: Next card: Is there a fetish/porn structured around the dutiful sex couples that are having difficulty conceiving have?

SHARON: There’s a fetish for everything. There’s gotta be a fetish for conception sex. Sure. I don’t know whose it would be, but when you’ve been alive, as long as I have, I mean, I think you just have to accept that there’s a fetish for everything. 

NEIL: You just named it conception sex, but there’s a hitch which is it’s, like, infertile conception sex. In other words, these are people who are having sex, it’s not happening, and you have to be kind of really assiduous. Is that the word? 

SHARON: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. My point is more global, which is: is there any sexual situation that is not susceptible to being fetishized? But, you know, in general, people fetishize pleasures they don’t feel comfortable with. So the real question is, is anyone getting pleasure out of… Also, I don’t think it would be the people who actually had that sex who would fetishize it. It would be people imagining it who probably had never gone through it who would fetishize it. On another note, I can’t believe we’ve gone this far and not talked about my cat.

NEIL: I have a segue, a card segue if you want. 

SHARON: Okay, yes, yes. 

NEIL: Okay: Changing the kitty litter makes me think about the possibility of redemption. 

SHARON: I don’t know about redemptive, but a fresh start. I guess that’s what some people’s idea of redemption is, “My sins will be redeemed and I will have a blank slate and be able to start again.” I’m not Christian so I don’t really think that way. 

NEIL: That’s what it brings out for me. Especially scooping. It’s just like, okay. But cleaning the whole thing, it just feels, like, “Okay, this is possible. This is possible.” 

SHARON: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And conversely, there’s always a tug of like, “Is it time to scoop? I should probably go scoop. I don’t really wanna scoop. I guess I better go scoop.” And then when you finally do it, there’s also the satisfaction of doing something that you’ve been procrastinating about. 

NEIL: Right. I don’t procrastinate on the scooping. It’s part of my, like basically morning and evening ritual. And it’s a little bit, uh, truly like a treasure hunt for me because we use, I use this recycled newspaper kitty litter that is kind of brown, and it’s shit-colored basically. So I always feel like a radiologist trying to like find the pattern of her shit in it. And, I don’t know. It also reminds me of like those Zen gardens, those Zen sand — 

SHARON: Absolutely! Right. Where you’re raking and then making little hillocks that are supposed to represent Mount Fuji. Absolutely. Yes. Does your cat ever, when you give her food that she doesn’t like, do the scooping gesture that you normally use to move their litter box around? They do it on the floor as though to say, literally this food is shit.

Sharon’s cat, Fumiko

NEIL: No. I think part of it is we’ve never given Beverly any food that she doesn’t like.

SHARON: You know, for me, her eating habits are a little bit of a mystery to me, but I’ll never really know what goes through her mind. That’s one of the things about living with a cat. I think it’s one of the reasons we enjoy living with pets, especially cats because dogs are easier to project onto and at least imagine we know what they’re thinking. Cats I think we’ve bred to be a bit opaque. 

NEIL: Exactly. I think that that’s true. That’s what people don’t get. It’s like their inscrutability is a feature, not a bug. 

SHARON: Well, Darwin, when he is trying to explain evolution at the beginning of On the Origin of Species, uses the example of domesticated animals and also how people graft plants onto each other to say, “We know we can change species.” We do it all the time, and that’s why he calls it natural selection because, for him, pets are an example of artificial selection. We have artificially selected inscrutability, a certain standoffishness. You know, all of these traits in cats.

NEIL: What’s a bad X you would take over a good Y? 

SHARON: I’d take a bad sweet over a good salty.

NEIL: What are you really looking forward to? What are you most looking forward to after this is over?

SHARON: I am really looking forward to going to a perfume store where all people do is walk around, picking things up with their hands, bringing them up to their faces and noses, and inhaling deeply, and trying a bunch of perfumes. It’s going to feel like, for me, the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest in terms of risk-taking, but when I’m ready to do that I’m really looking forward to it.

NEIL: Sharon, I love you so much. I cannot believe fate has brought us together and here we are living through — I feel like we spent a lot of 9/11 time together. 

SHARON: We did.

NEIL: You came and slept over and here we are with this one. 

SHARON: Yep. So nice to get to live through all this. So great. I feel so lucky. But, we are lucky because we’re here and we’re alive and we’re talking. And so, you know, I’m just going to soldier on. 

NEIL: Yea. Thank you, Sharon, so much for being on She’s A Talker. 

SHARON: Yes. Thank you for having me.

JEFF HILLER: She’s A Talker with Neil Goldberg. She’s A Talker with fabulous guests. She’s A Talker, it’s better than it sounds, yeah!