I see Rod Dreher has also listened to Neil Drumming’s piece on Ta-Nehisi Coates for This American Life. I too found the story fascinating, not only because Drumming humanized Coates — the MacArthur genius doesn’t only breathe fire against white America but also knows how to enjoy his success by eating oysters and drinking champagne. Drumming’s own reflections on status, his relationship to Coates, and his thoughts about jealousy of a friend who becomes amazingly successful are the sort of considerations that those with a modicum of success entertain about friends who do much better. It is reminiscent of the sort of rivalry-jealousy on display in The End of the Tour, the movie about David Foster Wallace and the writer who covered him, David Lipsky.
But what I really wonder about is the way that Dreher and Coates both openly enjoy their success as writers. First Coates:
Ta-Nehisi knew we were here to talk about his snobbery, and he wasted zero time getting into character. He told me a story about the other night when he’d had dinner in the restaurant of this very hotel.
Ta: And I was sitting at the bar. And the food was OK. It’s like one of these OK food restaurants. But it was decent. I was having a good time. And there was a couple like down the bar, and they had ordered this big-ass thing of oysters. It might have been 24 oysters. It was huge.
Neil Drumming (narration): Ta-Nehisi was fine with that. He loves oysters. It was what happened next that offended him.
Ta: Then the bartender started making drinks, right? And he makes the woman a sangria and the other dude some sweet something, some red, sweet something-or-other that no one should ever drink. And he took it over there, and I was like, you’re going to drink sangria and eat oysters? Like, we’re doing this now? Like, this is a thing you’re going to do? Oh, come on.
Ta: Come on. Just order a Hi-C. Get the Capri Sun. Just get the Capri Sun with your oysters.
Neil Drumming (narration): See, this is what I’m talking about.
That line of TNC’s about how having money brought out something in him that was latent — a love of good food — strikes me as a basically good way to enjoy your money (unless, of course, it becomes gluttony). People who were raised poor, or who have struggled for a long time to get money, and who come into success — I think it’s great if they use some of it to enjoy things that they never would have been able to otherwise. Maybe you always wanted to go whitewater rafting, but never could have afforded it. Or maybe you have always been interested in working on antique cars, and can now afford to take that up as a hobby. Well and good. Money can also call forth and exacerbate latent character flaws, of course, but one hopes to be moderate and sensible about these things. It sounds like TNC is well on course.
About fame, though, that is something I don’t understand people desiring. To me, the best thing about being really rich would be the liberty to be completely anonymous. Unfortunately for TNC, the nature of his vocation and the source of his fortune means that he will always have to be in the public eye.
The thing is, Coates has achieved his comfort by pointing out the discomfort (put mildly) that blacks experience living in white U.S. Meanwhile, Rod is touring the world and eating well thanks to his own writing about living in harmony with permanent truths as opposed to giving in to passing pleasures. The point isn’t that these guys are inconsistent. It is whether Coates can maintain his West Baltimore attitude while living in Paris and whether Rod can pursue the Benedict option while dining at Huîtrerie Régis.
I would have thought that both men would be aware of the tension between cause and success. So far, I don’t sense that self-awareness.