April 2010 Archives

Life A User's Manual



The painter and collage-ist Robert Rauschenberg came of age during the heyday of abstract expressionism in the New York scene; and while his own work involves a similar level of abstraction (as, for example, 1954's Charlene, pictured above), he often found himself at odds with the dominant rhetoric of the "tortured artist." "There was something about the self-confession and self-confusion of abstract expressionism," he says, "that personally always put me off."

There was a whole language that I could never make function for myself; it revolved around words like "tortured," "struggle," "pain" [...] I could not see such conflicts in the materials and I knew that it had to be in the attitude of the painter [...] I used to think of that line in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," about the sad cup of coffee. I've had cold coffee and hot coffee, good coffee and lousy coffee. But I've never had a sad cup of coffee.

Elsewhere, Rauschenberg tells his biographer "Work is my joy [...] I don't know anybody who loves work as much as I do."1

I thought about Rauschenberg a lot while reading Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual, and not just because Perec takes the novel to a conceptual height similar to that of the painter's "assemblage" innovations, or because they share a fondness for surprising connections among seemingly unrelated objects and stories, or because they both craft the unusual out of aggressively ordinary materials. No, what really struck me about the two men is the sheer joy they both seem to take in their chosen art form: their ecstatic fearlessness in the face of constraint, or lack thereof. To adopt Rauschenberg's language, I had seen many of the materials Perec uses before: the humorously overdone cataloging of objects, for example, and the repeated obsession with ordering of objects, both appear in the work of Perec's forerunners Samuel Beckett and Julio Cortázar, and his admirer Roberto Bolaño. But seldom have I seen these elements used as tools of sheer delight in the way Perec uses them. In Bolaño's 2666, the forensic cataloging of corpses reinforces the inhumanity of the Santa Teresa killings, and Beckett's characters' obsessive need to catalog the objects and events around them is a symptom of their sinister (yet hilarious) inability to break out of stagnation.

But Perec? It's easy to tell that for Perec, as for Rauschenberg, work—storytelling, word-painting—is a joy. Like his character Bartlebooth, he sets himself a strict yet more or less meaningless structural challenge. In Bartlebooth's case, this challenge consists of an ostensibly zero-sum loop: spend a decade learning to paint watercolors; two decades sailing around the world and painting sea-ports, which are then sent back to France and cut into jigsaw puzzles; two decades, upon his return, solving the jigsaw puzzles, upon which they are reconstituted and returned to their place of composition, dunked in an acid bath, and returned to their original state of pristine white paper. For Perec, the challenge is to construct a novel out of a series of motionless vignettes, each vignette featuring a different room or corridor in the same apartment building, at a moment when one particular event is taking place. Both the author and the character go about their assigned tasks with remarkable vigor, but Perec's performance is more remarkable than Bartlebooth's: whereas the fictioneer is merely competent, the author's narrative expands within his structural framework, flexing and reaching, revealing a tapestry of interwoven stories, all the tales of the current and former residents of the rue Simon-Crubellier as revealed through their rooms: their divans and settees; their crumpled letters lying in waste-paper bins; their traveling trunks stowed in their cellars; their blackened pearls; reproduction wall-hangings; foreign currency; collectible ink-blotters; books and paintings; photographs tucked under arms; all the artifacts of a century or more.

Life seems to me at once a compulsively structured exercise and a mass of undifferentiated stuff. In the face of this dichotomy, it's unsurprising that the book displays an obsession with the different possible ways of ordering things. The passages dealing with this obsession were consistently among my favorites; in addition to being great fun, I think they reflect something important about the book's essence. From a multitude of angles, Perec seems to be asking: "Is there a "proper" order to the objects we encounter? Are some methods of ordering better than others? Are all equally valid?" Here, for example, is Bartlebooth's valet Smautf, fretting over how (or, in the end, WHETHER) to sort the labels from his employer's twenty years of travel:

He wanted, so he said, to sort the labels into order, but it was very difficult: of course, there was chronological order, but he found it poor, even poorer than alphabetical order. He had tried by continents, then by country, but that didn't satisfy him. What he would have liked would be to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else: for example, they could have some detail in common, a mountain or volcano, an illuminated bay, some particular flower, the same red and gold edging, the beaming face of a groom, or the same dimensions, or the same typeface, or similar slogans ("Pearl of the Ocean," "Diamond of the Coast"), or a relationship based not on similarity but on opposition or a fragile, almost arbitrary association: a minute village by an Italian lake followed by the skyscrapers of Manhattan, skiers followed by swimmers, fireworks by candlelit dinner, railway by aeroplane, baccarat table by chemin de fer, etc. It's not just hard, Winckler added, above all it's useless: if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they'll have at least three things in common.

What strikes me about this passage is Smautf's criterion of "satisfaction": his preference for one classification system over another is pretty much purely a matter of aesthetics. By contrast, Western civilization has a lot of angst tied up in arguments over "true" classification: how closely grouped are humans and apes? Should animals be classed by method of reproduction, type of food, outer body covering, number of appendages, or some other factor? Should pagans be considered closer to Christians than Muslims? What is more valuable: a Fabergé egg or a Tiffany lamp? Here is Perec, arguing that all methods of classification are imposed from without, essentially a form of art, and that we are free to choose whichever schema appeals to us personally. Unless, like Winckler's jigsaws, a puzzle has been crafted with the puzzler in mind (which most of life, Perec seems to argue, is not), there is no "right" or "wrong" order.

Obviously, this idea can play havoc with one's idea of propriety and value, but it can also come as a relief, or even be exhilarating. Here, for example, we see the entire apartment building needlessly agonizing over the correct pronunciation of a neighbor's name, spelled "Cinoc":

Obviously the concierge didn't dare address him as "Nutcase" by pronouncing the name "Sinok." She questioned Valène, who suggested "Cinosh"; Winckler, who was for "Chinoch"; Morellet, who inclined toward "Sinots"; Mademoiselle Crespi, who proposed "Chinoss"; François Gratiolet, who prescribed "Tsinoc"; and finally Monsieur Echard, as a librarian well versed in recondite spellings and the appropriate ways of uttering them, demonstrated that, leaving aside any potential transformation of the intervocalic "n" into a "gn" or "nj" sound, and assuming once and for all, on principle, that "i" was pronounced "i" and the "o," "o," there were then four ways of saying the initial "c": "s," "ts," "sh," and "ch," and five ways of pronouncing the final: "s," "k," "ch," "sh," and "ts," and that, as a result, depending on the presence or absence of one or another diacritic sign or accent and according to the phonetic particularities of one or another language or dialect, there was a case for choosing from amongst the following twenty pronunciations:


As a result of which, a delegation went to ask the principal person concerned, who replied that he didn't know himself which was the most proper way of pronouncing his name.

It turns out that the family's original surname was "Kleinhof," a pronunciation nobody would have considered based on the current spelling, and Cinoc himself maintains that "it wasn't at all important whichever way you wanted to pronounce it." Here we have all the humans in the rue Simon-Crubellier attempting to ascertain the "correct" order and combination of sounds to designate their neighbor, when in point of fact there literally IS no correction pronunciation, since Cinoc's name has traveled so far from the original "authentic" Kleinhof (if indeed "Kleinhof" itself was authentic) that it's no longer reasonable to claim that it ought to be pronounced in the old way, but no definitive new way has been settled upon by Cinoc himself or by anyone else. Thus, it seems to me, Perec often shows us puzzle pieces belonging to no puzzle—or, maybe, objects that have a tendency to look like puzzle pieces, but which are actually some quite different object, unless, like the collector of unica who must decide what qualifies as "genuine" and "one-of-a-kind," we can find a way to make them fit into an aesthetically-created puzzle of our own invention.


Life A User's Manual was, ironically, my April read for the Non-Structured Book Group.

Other posts:

Up next month: Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels!

1All Rauschenberg quotes pulled from Robert Rauschenberg, a full-color monograph with text by Sam Hunter, published by Ediciones Polígrafa.

Essay Mondays: McCarthy


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

After the dearth of gush-worthy essays in last week's batch, I was faced with a difficult decision this time around. So, although I decided not to write about him, I must insert this plea: if you haven't checked out E.B. White's essays, get thee to the library and pick up a copy. They're gentle and thought-provoking, and the crispness, the clearness of their language is truly a beautiful experience. They seem to me absolutely measured, with a solidity and leisured-ness that I very much admire. I read the Harper Perennial volume of his collected essays a few years ago, and enjoyed it immensely. He writes with equal calm and descriptive power about life in New York City and on his farm in rural Maine; about working as a crew member on an Alaskan cruise ship and weathering a hurricane with his wife and his dachshund, Fred. He comes highly, highly recommended as an old favorite of mine—and probably yours as well, if you loved Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little as a kid.

The essayist I'm actually writing about today, however, took me by surprise: I'd never so much as heard of Mary McCarthy before Lopate introduced her to me, but her essay "My Confession" impressed me on many levels. Written in 1953, it's a clear-sighted, un-hysterical, self-respecting yet also wryly self-deprecating account of McCarthy's flirtation with and renunciation of the Communist Party during the 1930s. The plain fact that she was able to write such a thing the same year as the Rosenberg execution is amazing to me: even sixty years later, surprisingly few Americans can achieve McCarthy's level of intelligence and fair-mindedness around these issues. (It is, of course, ironic to type sentences like the above given the actions of the OTHER McCarthy, who was decidedly NOT fair-minded about the Communist Threat.) Mary McCarthy writes of herself and her first husband:

It was part of our metropolitan sophistication to know the truth about Communist fronts. We accepted the need for social reform, but we declined to draw the "logical" inference that the Communists wanted us to draw from this. We argued with the comrades backstage in the dressing rooms and at literary cocktail parties; I was attacked by a writer in the New Masses. We knew about Lovestoneites and Trotskyites, even while we were ignorant of the labor theory of value, the law of uneven development, the theory of permanent revolution vs. socialism in one country, and so on. "Lovestone is a Lovestoneite!" John wrote in wax on his dressing-room mirror, and on his door in the Old Civic Repertory he put up a sign: "Through these portals pass some of the most beautiful tractors in the Ukraine."

McCarthy's voice is one I hardly ever hear in conversations about the Communist Hysteria of the 1950s: the vigorous anti-Soviet who was once a Communist sympathizer and remains a political liberal. One is normally presented, when reading about those years, with the false dichotomy of reactionary right-wing black-ballers like those in the House Un-American Activities Committee, squaring off against earnest but misguided/impotent/brainwashed intellectuals towing the Party line. When one ceases to belong to one side of the divide in this imaginary schema, usually through some kind of conversion experience, one automatically joins the other. The idea that someone could be a critic simultaneously of Soviet Communism AND American McCarthyism is very unusual, regardless of how logical such a stance might be. McCarthy belongs to neither extreme: she comes off as flawed yet reasonable, much like the people I actually know in the real world. She was a book critic and her husband an actor in the 30s: they moved in left-wing circles but were, as she puts it, "politically unserious," a phrase I must admit I relate to deeply. If they could be charged with anything, it was not of devious attempts to overturn the American way of life, but of looking on the world with perhaps an overly wry eye, making jokes of too many things, getting drunk at too many parties. Although her sympathies leaned toward the Communists when they stood for socioeconomic equity, she turned against the Soviet model (and its American apologists) when the extent of its repression began to be known in the West—eminently sane and reasonable stances, both. McCarthy writes that

Most ex-Communists nowadays, when they write their autobiographies or testify before Congressional committees, are at pains to point out that their actions were very, very bad and their motives very, very good. I would say the reverse of myself, though without the intensives. I see no reason to disavow my actions, which were perfectly all right, but my motives give me a little embarrassment, and just because I cannot disavow them: that fevered, contentious, trivial show-off in the May Day parade is still recognizably me.

I find it amazingly refreshing to read something that puts this level of humanity back into the question of Communist sympathies. Both McCarthy's self-respect (refusing to disavow actions with which she sees no problem) and her self-criticism (cringing at her still-recognizable character flaws) persuade me to respect her, and the subtle ways she dissects the social currents of the time convinces me of her intelligence. "My Confession" is fascinating on a purely topical level: McCarthy's discussion of the left-wing world of the 1930s, followed by the reactions of her former peer group as she became horrified by, and took action against, the Soviet frame-up of Leon Trotsky, are an intriguing, on-the-ground glimpse into a turbulent period of American history, and one that gives a perspective—the machinations within the political left wing—not often addressed.

But McCarthy is making a larger philosophical point in this essay, as well: that, although an individual's story is often presented as a clear-cut series of decisions, and although people often portray themselves as weighing the consequences of those decisions before making them, real life usually works in a more unpredictable and seemingly haphazard way. Her own path to becoming an impassioned anti-Soviet, for example, hinged on a number of chance occurrences, including: her attendance at a certain party; getting bullied into a conversation with a certain man; that man co-opting a casual remark of hers and adding her signature to a petition; a number of circumstances that prevented her from sending the indignant letter she had written about the use of her unauthorized signature; and so on. By the time she really educates herself about Trotsky's case, she finds that she has already committed herself to his cause. And thusly, she argues, we make many of the decisions that in retrospect come to seem the most important. "Trotsky himself," she writes,

...looking at his life in retrospect, was struck, as most of us are on such occasions, by the role chance had played in it. He tells how one day, during Lenin's last illness, he went duck-shooting with an old hunter in a canoe on the River Dubna, walked through a bog in felt boots—only a hundred steps—and contracted influenza. This was the reason he was ordered to Sukhu for the cure, missed Lenin's funeral, and had to stay in bed during the struggle for primacy that raged that autumn and winter. "I cannot help noting," he says, "how obligingly the accidental helps the historical law. [...] One can foresee the consequences of a revolution or a war, but it is impossible to foresee the consequences of an autumn shooting trip for wild ducks."

A fascinating point, and one I applaud McCarthy for making in a social atmosphere that often naively assumed a black-or-white motivation for every decision.

Up next week: Seymour Krim, James Baldwin, or Gore Vidal.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:



When I noticed, over on the Classics Circuit blog, that the April tours would focus on Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, it seemed like a great opportunity to continue with my pledge to read more literature in French, and expose myself to the father of French naturalism, whose work I had never read. What better starting point than his acknowledged masterpiece, the tale of a harrowing coal-mining strike in the Normandy of the 1860s?

When my edition of Germinal arrived in the mail, however, I was a little shocked: I hadn't really thought about the time commitment involved in reading 600 pages of 19th-century French in less than a month. Add to that the sudden memory that my previous forays into naturalism haven't exactly been favorites, and the bracing unfamiliarity of all that coal-mining vocab, and I was feeling a bit apprehensive. I decided to plow ahead, however, and since then I've been on a strict 20-pages-a-day regimen. I have to say that I've learned a massive amount as a result of the experience. I hope you'll forgive me if I just stop and pat myself on the back for a moment: I actually thought for the first few days that I wouldn't be able to read this novel, but in the end I not only read it, but felt like I achieved a fairly nuanced understanding of it as well.

It helped that Zola's techniques, on the level of plotting, chapter- and paragraph-construction, are so firmly rooted in the old-fashioned 19th-century tradition. His prose has that padded, old-armchair quality of a Dickens or a Thackeray: I could afford to let many words slide by, incompletely grasped, and still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on, even appreciating much of Zola's stylistic power. I think, had I been reading this novel in English, I might have wearied of his blatant metaphors: the mines as monstrous, gaping maws feasting on human flesh, for example, which is a trope repeated MANY times throughout the book. I've been a little put off by extracts of English translations I've read in other posts on Germinal, and I was certainly frustrated with Theodore Dreiser for similar tricks. But, either because of my remedial French skills or because Zola's heated rhetoric comes off better in the original, it didn't bother me as much in Germinal. Actually, I think I was more amenable, both because the conditions Zola was describing were genuinely more horrible, more worthy of overheated prose, and partly...well, partly it was down to Zola's excellent storytelling abilities.

Because, despite the occasional cliché in its language, Germinal is masterful storytelling. Even with my limited French, I found the scenes down in the coal pits amazingly vivid and frightening: the moist, gaseous air; the viscous darkness, the rickety metal cages descending a third of a mile underground on a creaking cable, the miners huddled together with their elbows in each others' faces; the intensely claustrophobic mining veins in which the workers had barely room to swing their tools, the men stripped bare to the waist as the heat rose, coated inside and out with sweat and coal dust. Setting is often the high point of naturalist novels, but few authors I've ever read have captured a sense of place so viscerally, and who used the setting to such great effect. (I don't have an English translation, so I'll be quoting in French.)

C'était Maheu qui souffrait le plus. En haut, la température montait jusqu'à trente-cinq degrés, l'air ne circulait pas, l'étouffement à la longue devenait mortel. Il avait dû, pour voir clair, fixer sa lampe à un clou, près de sa tête: et cette lampe, qui chaufflait son crâne, achevait de lui brûler le sang. Mais son supplice s'aggravait surtout de l'humidité. La roche, au-dessus de lui, à quelques centimetres de son visage, suisselait d'eau, de grosses gouttes continues et rapides, tombant sur une sorte de rythme entêté, toujours à la même place. Il avait beau tordre le cou, renverser la nuque: elles battaient sa face, s'écrasaient, claquaient sans relache. Au bout d'un quart d'heure, il était trempé, couvert de sueur lui-même, fumant d'une chaude buée de lessive.

I've never really agreed with the naturalist idea that, since people are products of their environment/heredity, a well-drawn setting is the better part of character development. It's still not my favorite approach, but I have to say that Zola somehow makes it work. I really cared about his characters, about the whole, tragic-fated Maheu family and their lodger Étienne, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that many of them acted atrociously to one another much of the time. This was partly down to Zola's knack for good, old-fashioned suspense: one scene, in which hundreds of miners are trapped at the bottom of the pits and must climb seven hundred meters straight up the side of a cliff on semi-broken ladders, had me reading well past my 20-page requirement and my midnight bedtime, just to find out what would happen. It's been a long time since I read a book in such a plot-based, almost childlike way, hanging on the edge of my seat for the next installment even though I knew from the beginning that most characters were doomed to tragedy. It was a nice change of pace.

But I think, also, my interest in Zola's characters has to do with a certain unexpected complexity about his depiction of human nature. I went into this novel expecting a straightforward "people are animals" approach, like that Amateur Reader has been finding in Thérèse Raquin. And Zola certainly takes a good, hard look at human animalism in Germinal: plenty of characters are ruled by their lust, aggression, addictions, cowardice, and so on. Others, like Étienne and la Maheude, possess what we might call nobler, more idealistic sides, which duel with their more animal natures. What interested me, though, was how conflicted Zola's narrative seemed about the role of idealism and "nobility." Some of the most appealing scenes, like those at the village feast day, are a bacchanal of undifferentiated—yet exuberant, companionable—humanity. Some of the most content characters, like the Maheu son Jeanlin, seem completely devoid of morality. Scenes of so-called "improvement" on the other hand, such as the evenings when Étienne reads aloud to the Maheu family about his new-found socialist ideals, are often accompanied by a sense of dread. On the one hand, the reader agrees with the young man that the miners deserve a better life than they have. On the other hand, we see clearly that his naive declarations about taking over the mines and becoming the masters can only lead to hardship and tragedy.


Similarly, Étienne has inherited a genetic blood-lust from his Macquart ancestors, and several times throughout the book he comes close to committing murder. Always his civilized, idealistic side wins out, and he lets his rival escape, even when the man has fought unfairly and tried to kill Étienne himself. After these triumphs of his civilized side, the young man is left feeling drained, frustrated, confused—and, since his enemy is one of the least likeable characters in the book, the reader can't help but be a little bit disappointed as well. On the contrary, when events finally conspire so that Étienne can carry out the murder he lusts to commit, he feels a wild happiness:

Confusément, toutes ses luttes lui revenaient à la mémoire, cet inutile combat contre le poison qui dormait dans ses muscles, l'alcool lentement accumulé de sa race. Pourtant, il n'était ivre que de faim, l'ivresse lointaine des parents avait suffi. Ses cheveux se dressaient devant l'horreur de ce meurtre, et malgré la révolte de son éducation, une allégresse faisait battre son coeur, la joie animale d'un appétit enfin satisfait. Il eut ensuite en orgueil, l'orgueil du plus fort.


Here we have the expected "people are nothing but animals" attitude—but it almost comes off as a claim that people SHOULD be nothing but animals, that their evolution into a more thoughtful, idealistic being has only brought them unnecessary suffering. After all, in the natural world, la Maheude's maternal bond with her children would be unlikely to be corrupted with temptation to sell her daughter's sexual favors to the grocer for food, or by frustration that her son's crushed limbs will mean less money for the household. In the natural world, animals fulfill their natural roles without guilt or baggage. In lean times they may starve, and they may kill each other, but at least they do it cleanly. It seemed to me that the idealism in Germinal brought the characters more hardship than any other factor (except the vast Capitalist System), which made the famous final lines, about an army of revolutionaries germinating under the soil, ring oddly false, even sinister, in my ears. Has this story really taught us to pursue an idealistic revolution? Or has it taught us to embrace our animalistic natures and live how best we can in the moment?

Whatever the philosophical outcome, however, reading Germinal was a gripping ride, not to mention a confidence-boost for me: I now feel empowered to seek out other French novels, even ones written in a pre-20th-century style. Big thanks to everyone at the Classics Circuit for motivating me on this one!

Almost No Memory


Between the considerable avoirdupois of Zola's Germinal and Perec's Life A User's Manual I needed to insert some verbal economy into my reading life. Lydia Davis's Almost No Memory was the perfect choice: subtly unlike anything else I have ever read, Davis takes the short story to new heights of concision, and does so in such a distinctive narrative voice that I walked around for days with a Davis-esque internal narrator commenting on my every move. Then I read a selection of these stories over again, out loud to David, and we had entire conversations in which both sides mimicked her tone. Her stories—she calls them stories; I might have been tempted to use the word "pieces" instead—are sometimes as short as half a page; they are crystal-like in their precision; yet they have a movement and a logic which are intensely compelling. I found myself re-reading many of the pieces in Almost No Memory, each time more slowly, to try to elicit their secrets, to figure out exactly how she was doing that—indeed, to discern what it was she was doing. Here, for example, is the entirety of her story "How He is Often Right":

How He Is Often Right

Often I think that his idea of what we should do is wrong, and my idea is right. Yet I know that he has often been right before, when I was wrong. And so I let him make his wrong decision, telling myself, though I can't believe it, that his wrong decision may actually be right. And then later it turns out, as it often has before, that his decision was the right one, after all. Or rather, his decision was still wrong, but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while it was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.

I love how the last sentence here, like the third line of a haiku, nudges the reader into a different, slightly unsettling perspective on what has gone before. The "reality" of the situation here is so contingent, so shifting, and the speaker's insistence that "his" decision was still wrong, just for circumstances different than the ones that turned out to be true, gives me a bit of vertigo when I think of making any decisions at all—territory intimately familiar to many speakers in this collection.

Davis's stories often have to do with perceptual differences and difficulties, and the distance between people who are attempting to communicate. She also seems preoccupied with movement and stagnation, and how attempts at communication affect that movement—or fail to affect it. Here, for example, is one of my favorite stories, "In the Garment District":

In the Garment District

A man has been making deliveries in the garment district for years now: every morning he takes the same garments on a moving rack through the streets to a shop and every evening takes them back again to the warehouse. This happens because there is a dispute between the shop and the warehouse which cannot be settled: the shop denies it ever ordered the clothes, which are badly made and of cheap material and by now years out of style; while the warehouse will not take responsibility because the clothes cannot be returned to the wholesalers, who have no use for them. To the man all this is nothing. They are not his clothes, he is paid for this work, and he intends to leave the company soon, though the right moment has not yet come.

I think this may be one of the most perfect stories I have ever read, although I still don't totally understand why I feel that way. Despite its brevity, it has such flow and texture; the way the long, bustling sentence about the complex shop/warehouse dynamic is followed by the stillness of "To the man all this is nothing," for example. It's as if the ludicrous tension building between the shop and the warehouse, the speaker's (or reader's) incredulity, even anger, at this bizarre situation in which a man is getting paid to transport the same clothes back and forth day after day, suddenly just...breaks. The building frustration of the first sentences is suddenly dispelled: nothing need change about this daily routine, because of the still waters of the man's indifference. The last portion of the final sentence, that the man "intends to leave the company soon, though the right moment has not yet come," deposits the reader softly into a state of stasis which, though indefinite, may nonetheless break at any time.

There are longer stories in Almost No Memory, including one I particularly loved involving a speaker who was once taken with the idea of marrying a cowboy. In some cases these longer pieces feel more like traditional "stories" to me, although in other cases, like the sad and excellent "Glen Gould," they maintain Davis's unique quality of laconically considering a situation while refusing to reach resolution. Several stories, in particular "The Center of the Story" and "What was Interesting" are metafictions (unsurprising considering that Davis was once married to Paul Auster), but, I thought, very successful in managing to carry emotional weight as well as being clever bits of writing-about-writing-about-writing.

Although I began to form an idea of a "typical" Davis narrator by the end of the collection—a female college professor, prone to drink and quietly unhappy in her marriage—her range of subjects is actually much wider. From the grand tour of an eighteenth-century English lord, to more grotesque, fantastical events like those in "The Cedar Trees" ("When our women had all turned into cedar trees they would group together in a corner of the graveyard..."), Davis spreads her net wide. And yet, I think there's a reason I feel surprised at this realization: her odd magic works independently of her subject matter. Even at her most mundane, all her stories seemed a bit unnerving— and likewise, even at her most fantastical, her tone remains wry and analytical, observing well and following each thought through to its logical conclusion, which often turns out not to seem logical at all. One of my favorite examples of this happens in the longer story "St. Martin," in which Davis's speaker describes going for (and returning from) a walk.

We would walk, and return with burrs in our socks and scratches on our legs and arms where we had pushed through the brambles to get up into the forest, and go out again the next day and walk, and the dogs always trusted that we were setting out in a certain direction for a reason, and then returning home for a reason, but in the forest, which seemed so endless, there was hardly a distinguishing feature that could be taken as a destination for a walk, and we were simply walking, watching the sameness pass on both sides, the thorny, scrubby oaks growing densely together along the dusty track that ran quite straight until it came to a gentle bend and perhaps a slight rise and then ran straight again.
          If we came home by an unfamiliar route, skirting the forest, avoiding a deeply furrowed, overgrown field and then stepping into the edge of a reedy marsh, veering close to a farmyard, where a farmer in blue and his wife in red were doing chores trailed by their dog, we felt so changed ourselves that we were surprised nothing about home had changed: for a moment the placidity of the house and yard nearly persuaded us we had not even left.

I mean, how quotidian is that, and how eerie? What a gorgeous scene. What a gorgeous collection.

Essay Mondays: Thoreau


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Well, my friends, here we are. I wanted to avoid another essay-related diatribe so soon after my E.M. Cioran post, but as my other three options this week were simply amusing bits of fluff (though the Thurber one really was very enjoyable), I feel I have no choice but to explain to you just what it is I find so objectionable about Henry David Thoreau. Blog-buddy Richard has poked fun at me on a number of occasions for an old LibraryThing post in which I called Thoreau a "sophomoric douchebag," and while I stick by that comment one hundred percent, I could perhaps outline more eloquently just why he makes my blood boil. And although the particular essay I read this week—"Walking"—is not quite as offensive as the whole Walden boondoggle, it'll do well enough for my purposes.

So, "Walking." From the title, one might expect a description of how the author experiences his habit of going for walks; things he notices; why such a habit has value in his life. Indeed, he does—eventually—work round to all these things. After a short introductory paragraph, however, Thoreau begins thusly:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks...

And again:

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot...Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws.

Here, right off the bat, are two of the things that drive me insane about Thoreau. In the first place, he takes an age getting around to any discussion of his actual experience, because he is so distracted with snide asides designed to reveal how much more enlightened and liberated he is than anyone else in the greater Massachusetts area. It's somehow not enough, for him, simply to describe his relationship with walking; he must define his own virtue at the expense of his neighbors. True, he does occasionally tease the reader into thinking he will speak about himself and his enjoyment of walking, as in the paragraph beginning "My vicinity affords many good walks," but within a few sentences he has regressed into deriding human folly yet again ("Nowadays almost all man's improvements, so called...simply deform the landscape"). When he finally condescends, in the last few pages of this 25-page essay, to describe his own impressions of nature, he is admittedly quite good; I especially liked his description of the shafts of sunlight at Spauling's Farm. There are, however, plenty of skilled writers on the natural world who do not require the reader to slog through twenty pages of self-satisfied, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory claptrap in order to arrive at the payoff.

And what claptrap it is! Why should I be convinced by his professed "knowledge" that his townsmen have spent the last decade confined to the highway, never exploring the woods? Why should I be charmed by his patronizing imaginations of an era when "even" his philistine neighbors had a bit of wildness, or by his dismissal of another man's "half an hour" of connection with nature as insufficient to join Henry David's Little Club of Walkers? I do not, and I am not. It chills my blood to remember that Thoreau was a minister My mistake; he was a Unitarian but not a minister. Which makes me feel slightly better about the state of the Concord congregation: his attitude toward other humans, especially humans whose values diverge from his own, is so condescending and dismissive that I shudder to think what he might have told someone who came to him for solace. Here he is again, continuing to discourse on the soul-dead ignorance he imagines to characterize his townsfolk:

I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, ay, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of,—sitting there now at three o'clock in the afternoon, as if it were three o'clock in the morning. Bonaparte may talk of the three-o'clock-in-the-morning courage, but it is nothing to the courage which can sit down cheerfully at this hour in the afternoon over against one's self whom you have known all the morning, to starve out a garrison to whom you are bound by such strong ties of sympathy.

Moral insensibility. Wow.

Here are two more things that grate on me about Thoreau, and we are not even on Page Four. In the first place, he fails utterly to recognize his own privilege and how that allows him to lead the life he chooses, nor that other, less privileged people have fewer options. This is especially infuriating in Walden, where he seems to think that anyone could do as he does, failing to acknowledge that while he has been invited by his wealthy friend to live rent-free on the friend's property, the mill-hands and mule-drivers of Concord probably don't have this option open to them. But this attitude is equally apparent in "Walking": in the above passage, he wonders how laboring people, shop people, can stand to shut themselves up inside, when for many of them this choice is made easy by the real specter of hunger if they don't. In a similarly bourgeois moment, he goes on to assume that the reason the women of the town don't spend their afternoons meandering up and down the countryside, is that they're all napping. Not, you know, playing with, teaching, or disciplining their children; or feeding or clothing their families; or cleaning, mending, or organizing their households, to name only the tasks expected of a conventional woman in Thoreau's day.

But another assumption in the above paragraph is even more frustrating to me, and it has to do with that line about endurance and moral insensibility. Thoreau has a terrible tendency to identify the things he finds valuable in his own life, and then assume that those who don't value those same things are asleep, insensible, morally backwards, ignorant, foolish, or all of the above. He absolutely does not respect the idea that some people might feel more awake, alive, and stimulated inside their houses than outside in the woods. Because HE feels more alive in the woods, because HE starts to stagnate if he stays inside too long, he assumes that everyone else who stays inside all day must be experiencing a similar feeling of stagnation. He even dismisses the benefits of walking, if a person is not walking in the same way Thoreau likes to walk. It's really quite bizarre.

Let's look at an analogous situation from my own life. Two of my great friends are women I have known since we were all six years old; we grew up within a few blocks of each other, and are still close. The three of us have taken vastly different paths in life: Sara lives in Manhattan and works as a bonds trader for a huge financial company; Leah was just ordained as a Unitarian minister and is now searching for a long-term congregation; and I work an admin job half-time to support my various art projects, on which I also make a small amount of money. If I were somehow required to live either Sara's life or Leah's, I know I would quickly go mad—in the one case from pressure and over-stimulation; in the other, from constant contact with other people and a lack of religious feeling. But it would be a ridiculous fallacy for me to look at my two friends and assume that THEIR feelings about their lives are the same as mine would be were I living them. On the contrary, Sara thrives on the challenge of her high-pressure job and the bustle of the big city; Leah finds great fulfillment in her ministry and in her large community of friends and congregants; I glean meaning from quiet moments of crafting objects with my hands, in getting into the flow of creation. All three of us are doing what we feel called to do, even though those things are very different.

Henry David Thoreau was doing what he felt called to do too, but he assumed that if other people only shook off their "moral insensibility," they would all feel called to do the same thing as him. He is, not so much a male chauvinist or a white chauvinist (though I think he is, to some degree, those things as well1), but a Thoreauvian chauvinist, smirking at the ignorant delusions of the philistine masses. I have known too many people in real life who fall into this same trap—and, more importantly, too many real-life people who successfully avoid it—to want to waste my energy reading another one.

Up next week: F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.B. White, M.F.K. Fisher, or Mary McCarthy. Given the presence of E.B. White on that list, I feel guaranteed a more positive Essay Mondays post next time.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:


1About the theft of the land of the American continent from the people who already lived here, for example, he writes:

I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.

And again:

The very winds blew the Indian's cornfield into the meadow, and pointed out the way in which he had not the skill to follow. He had no better implement with which to intrench himself in the land than a clam-shell. But the farmer is armed with plough and spade.

No white people of Thoreau's generation were likely to know this, but the agricultural sophistication of native tribes on the Eastern Seaboard prior to white conquest far outstripped that of their white conquerors, including as it did the planting of complementary crops, the rotation of fields, and many other techniques that white folks chose not to see because said techniques did not fit in with the white idea of the "savagery" and "ignorance" of the American Indians. Thoreau is simply repeating the casual racism of his day; he is no worse than most on this score. On the other hand, jingoistic passages such as these (he goes on to celebrate the westward expansion of the enlightened United States) do little to endear me to an already-offensive essay.

The literary gross-out



WARNING: The title is not kidding. But it's also a pretty interesting entry, I think.

I know I grossed a couple of people out with my recent post on Sara Suleri. Sorry about that; I probably should have warned you. But I'm realizing that I have something of an intellectual fascination with the viscerally gross, and with how and when authors dwell on it in literature. The more I think about it, the more I realize that while modern literature seems to feel an almost compulsive desire to air the emotionally disgusting parts of our lives—the pettiness, bigotry, lying, cheating, snobbery, hypocrisy, and so on—and to feel that doing so is pretty much a goal unto itself, there is very little corresponding instinct to address the human experience of the physically disgusting. I find that fascinating.

When the physically disgusting is described in visceral detail in adult literary fiction, it almost always serves a specific narrative purpose—often, a political purpose. In a war story, for example, a description of a soldier's gaping wounds is an indication to the audience of the brutality of war. In Emile Zola's Germinal, the swollen joints, hacking cough, and charcoal-blackened phlegm of a 50-year-old miner, ancient before his time, illustrates the way in which the capitalist mining system feasts on human flesh. In José Saramago's Blindness, the increasing grossness of the unnamed European capital (layers of excrement and other waste piling up in the streets) correlates directly with humanity's slide into bestial anarchy, and, significantly, the characters most concerned with maintaining cleanliness are also the most sympathetic. Many authors communicate the heinousness of their villains with gross-out scenes. In other words, it seems to me that in most literature, if something is gross, it is because of a corresponding moral wrong. This tradition extends back at least as far as Milton's Paradise Lost, in which the rebel angels' fall from grace results in Satan's inbred children Sin and Death guarding the gates of Hell, a pack of dogs continuously devouring and being born from Sin's womb (so gross!). One thinks, too, of Shakespeare's gross-out tactics in scenes like Gloucester's eye-gouging in King Lear, which illustrates the sickness and cruelty of Regan and Goneril. With very few exceptions, I am having a hard time thinking of physically disgusting scenes in adult literary fiction that aren't there to prove some moral point.

"And with good reason," one might reply. "Scenes like that are unpleasant!" But this argument is so interesting to me, for two reasons. One, as I've already said, is that modern literature DOES feel compelled to explore our emotionally and morally disgusting behavior. Many authors have built entire careers on delving into the ways in which regular people act in emotionally repulsive ways—marital infidelity; internalized and externalized self-hatred; forced social conformity; rape and murder; petty hypocrisy; the list goes on. Why do we feel the need to dissect emotionally disgusting experiences, but not physically disgusting ones? Some authors (I have heard this is true of both Flaubert's writing of Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's of Anna Karenina) intend their portraits as cautionary tales, helping their readers to avoid the same mistakes made by their characters. But surely writers like Philip Roth, Marcel Proust, Julio Cortázar and John Updike hardly expect(ed) their books to result in widescale social reform. The idea that a novel alone could stop spouses from cheating on one another is pretty laughable, after all. I think the reason we feel compelled to examine our socially/mentally revolting behaviors is just that they are undeniably part of the human experience: we are trying to make sense of our reality. This is no less true, of course, of physically disgusting experiences, but for some reason we find them less compelling...or at least, less respectable.

And respectability is tied to my second point of contrast: children's fiction. If adults think it's somehow natural or instinctual to avoid the gross-outs of life, kiddie lit shows plainly that they are wrong. Many kids LOVE to read (and watch) stuff adults find gross. Flatulent dogs, people vomiting slugs, stories about poop and boogers: they find it all delightful—and, perhaps more important, hilarious. Which leads me to believe that maybe the reason the physically disgusting is less acceptable in adult literature, is that we've socialized ourselves to believe it represents the lowest common denominator, that nothing dwells in that space except cheap laughs or cheap thrills, nothing of wider interest that speaks to the human experience in the same way as a story about, I don't know, the hypocritical self-justifications of a corrupt politician.

Which is fascinating because in the real world, of course, the sensation of physical disgust occurs all the time, and is hardly a reliable indicator of moral degeneracy. I get grossed out looking at those videos surgeons use to scope peoples' internal organs, but that doesn't mean the scopes or the organs are morally questionable—in fact, the organs are necessary to life, and the scopes are amazingly useful tools that help keep the organs working properly. A person unused to babies might find diaper-changing gross, but it's no reflection on the moral qualities of the infant or the diaper-changer.

I think we're misguided to write off the experience of physical disgust as an unsuitable subject for literary exploration; to me, it's a fascinating cocktail of emotions every bit as worthy of examination as, say, romantic infatuation or professional jealousy. Often, I find that mixed in with the revulsion we feel is a strange fascination, even attraction: why else do people pick scabs, or stop, lost in a kind of trance, to examine their broken lips of skin after cutting themselves in the kitchen? I'm sure we've all noticed similar behavior. Charles Bukowski writes about a girlfriend of his that was fascinated by his horrible, chronic acne, and would spend hours popping his boils for him (this is one of the few adult literary scenes I can think of that is both gross and morally neutral, even kind of sweet). There's the subjective element of disgust: why should I find so much food to be texturally gross, for example, when other people don't?

And then there's way in which the grotesque lives uneasily close to the object of desire: as Frances pointed out in a comment on my Suleri post, the English word "disgust" derives from the French for "to taste or sample," which points up the way in which a given experience can hover on the borderline between desirable and disgusting. Peter Greenaway's film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover explores this theme eloquently as it relates to food and sex: the luxuriant opulence of the early portion of the movie morphs with surprising ease into the disgust and fear of the second half, in the same way that those old still-life paintings of huge quantities of food can teeter uneasily between appetizing and nauseating. Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry-Picking" and "Death of a Naturalist" also leap to mind as describing the small shift needed for a coveted object—blackberries, frogspawn—to become sinister and disgusting. (Heaney is another one of the unusual examples where the physically gross seems more or less morally neutral; Greenaway definitely isn't.)

In Norbert Elias's classic sociological treatise The Civilizing Process, he talks about the process by which what he calls "the threshold of repugnance" advanced in medieval Europe, and became basically synonymous with what we think of as "civilization." Reading this book was a huge eye-opener for me, and also unexpectedly hilarious, because Elias points out that things I previously considered instinctual reactions or behaviors, very basic things like not picking up a turd and offering it to your friend to smell, actually had to be socialized into people via, among other things, the first European etiquette books:

It is not a refined habit, when coming across something disgusting in the sheet, as sometimes happens, to turn at once to one's companion and point it out to him.
      It is far less proper to hold out the stinking thing for the other to smell, as some are wont, who even urge the other to do so, lifting the foul-smelling thing to his nostrils and saying, "I should like to know how much that stinks," when it would be better to say, "Because it stinks I do not smell it."
From Galateo by Della Casa, 1609

Gross, right? But how fascinating that there was a time when "some were wont" to do exactly that, when the default reaction was one of curiosity, rather than revulsion! And also interesting that what deterred people was not the disacovery of germ theory and the passage of diseases through the handling of waste (the reason most of us would probably give), which wouldn't be accepted for another three hundred years, but a more class-based social anxiety that pressured the upwardly-mobile into a greater level of delicacy.

In any case, I find this whole nexus of socio-historical and psychological issues around disgust to be quite fascinating, and I'd be interested to read more on the subject, both from fictional and non-fiction standpoints. Any recommendations? Or were you too grossed out to read this far?

Essay Mondays: Suleri


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

As fun as it was to visit, I'm glad to be leaving the land of snarky commentary and returning to the country of hearty recommendations for this week's Essay Mondays post. For Sara Suleri's "Meatless Days," a memoir of family life in mid-twentieth-century Lahore seen through the lens of food, is compelling in all the right ways: an odd but evocative narrative style, anecdotes that are universal in their specificity, and a fascinating strangeness around the edges that kept surprising me.

As I've said before, I'm generally not that interested even in eating food, let alone reading about it, and so narratives about cooking, whether centering around the sensual pleasures of an artisan chocolate shop, or an ancient food critic reliving his favorite meals, or somebody's bawdy grandmother dispensing wisdom from over her soup-pot, or a young woman seducing her lover with curries, are generally not my bag. Suleri, though, takes this trope in an unexpected direction, by talking about just how...well...gross food sometimes is, how alienating and uncomfortable the food/body relationship can sometimes be. "Food," Suleri's sister says disgustedly at one point, "It's what you bury in your body." And throughout this essay she examines the way in which appetite and disgust sometimes dwell in uncomfortable proximity, all bound up with death, reproduction, and bodily waste.

[I did] teach myself to take a kidney taste without dwelling too long on the peculiarities of kidney texture. I tried to be unsurprised by the mushroom pleats that constitute a kidney's underbelly and by the knot of membrane that holds those kidney folds in place. One day Qayuum insisted that only kidneys could sit on my plate, mimicking legumes and ignoring their thin and bloody juices. Wicked Ifat [Sara's sister] came into the room and waited until I had started eating; then she intervened. "Sara," said Ifat, her eyes brimming over with wonderful malice, "do you know what kidneys do?" I aged, and my meal regressed, back to its vital belonging in the world of function. "Kidneys make pee, Sara," Ifat told me, "That's what they do, they make pee." And she looked so pleased to be able to tell me that; it made her feel so full of information. Betrayed by food, I let her go, and wept some watery tears into the kidney juice, which was designed anyway to evade cohesion, being thin and in its nature inexact.

Reading this essay was such an interesting experience for me because, although I have never (thank heaven) been forced into meals exclusively of kidneys, I know exactly what she means by the feeling of being "betrayed by food." Eating is often a challenge for me. I put things in my mouth and chew forever, and they still seem alien and unappealing; my throat doesn't want to swallow them. I am a vegetarian, not particularly because of any moral high ground I've taken, but because the texture of animal flesh squishing bouncily between my teeth has always made me gag. I am often overwhelmed by the physicality of eating, the bodily process of it, which feels so closely allied to other, un-appetizing body processes. In the frequent celebrations of food, eating is often likened to the physicality of sex. But what people don't often mention is that eating food also brings up other body-related anxieties: about death, and the messiness and extremity of reproduction and decay. "Oh," says Suleri's sister at another point, "so a fresh chicken is a dead chicken." "Not too dead," Suleri replies.

Suleri doesn't seem, as an adult, to share my specific food issues—she claims to very much enjoy cooking and eating—but she does examine that uncomfortable body-process aspect of eating, the disconcerting way that "food" and "non-food" categories can shift unexpectedly. In the beginning of the essay, for example, she finds out that kapura, which she had always assumed to be pancreases, are actually testicles: an unnerving discovery, to realize that one has been eating, all one's life, the reproductive organs of another animal, without knowing it. She writes about the newspapers in Lahore reporting on case after case of adulterated food: crows dead in the drinking-water reservoirs, milk diluted with paraffin, instances in which a substance supposedly in the "food" category turns out to be alien. "I can understand it," Suleri writes,

the fear that food will not stay discrete but will instead defy our categories of expectation in what can only be described as a manner of extreme belligerence. I like order to a plate, and know the great sense of failure that attends a moment when what is potato to the fork is turnip to the mouth. It's hard, when such things happen.

Suleri goes on to write about that largest shift in the food-related "categories of expectation": when a woman goes from being the eater to being the food source, in nursing an infant. She relates the discomfort she feels at realizing that, if "food is what you bury in your body," her own body is the place that her mother buried part of herself in nursing her. As she writes of sitting in a time zone eight hours removed from the place of her mother's physical death, yet being in some way herself her mother's burial ground, the strange mix of intimacy and alienation is quite affecting, unusual in my experience of family/food narratives. Her point is not that food is portrayed as appetizing but is actually disgusting, or that family is portrayed as intimate but is actually alienating. Instead, in Suleri's analysis the two sets of qualities exist in an uneasy balance, neither one canceling out the other. Unsurprisingly, as the idea of "uneasy balance" is a guiding principle of my life, this idea appeals to me very much.

"Meatless Days" is part of a longer book of interconnected essays by the same name, and I would VERY much like to check it out.

Up next week: H.L. Mencken, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, or possibly....yes, that's right...Henry David Thoreau.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

A (belated) reading plan


Thing one:

I realized while I was writing my post on Night of the Iguana that I had never posted about who or what my so-called "Non-Structured Book Group," with whom I read that play, actually ARE. Now, I know we're "non-structured," but my failure even to mention our existence is a little bit lacking in organization, even by our low standards. My apologies to my blogging buddies Richard, Frances, Sarah, and Claire, not to mention E.L. Fay, who all deserve much better!

So, for the benefit of anyone who hasn't already found out elsewhere, here is our plan, and please join in for one, two, or all the books in question. We'll be posting about the following, on or around the last Friday of the relevant month:

We'd love to have you read along for any of the remaining books, and my apologies for not posting sooner!

Thing two:

I'm in the midst of reading both the Perec (which is quite hefty) in English, and Emile Zola's 600-page Germinal in the original French; between the two, I probably won't be posting as much as usual during April. Both books are excellent, though, so it's definitely worth it so far!

Essay Mondays: Cioran


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Up until now, all my Essay Mondays selections have been simply my favorite essay out of the four I read in a given week: the one I enjoyed the most, or would consider objectively "best." Well, no longer. This week's "favorite" essay would undoubtedly be Natalia Ginzburg's subtle, clear-sighted "He and I," a portrait of a marriage, expressed as a series of domestic, everyday details. I related to Ginzburg; her tone is understated and well-wrought; I left her essay feeling quiet and a little bit sad, but appreciative of having shared a few pages with her speaker. However. There is no arguing with quantity of marginalia, and judging by the number of scribbled exclamation marks, laughing smiley faces, and hasty, offended arguments scrawled in the margins of E.M. Cioran's "Some Blind Alleys: A Letter," his is clearly the essay I found "most compelling." WHAT it compelled me to, is another question.

I agreed with almost nothing Cioran says in this thirteen-page nihilist diatribe, and what's more, I'm unclear whether he does, either: that may, indeed, be the point. In the course of an ostensible letter to a younger friend who wishes to become a writer, Cioran argues that all ideologies, professions, and avocations are shams, and that nothing, even exposing said shams, is worth the trouble of getting up in the morning. The depth and breadth of his supposed pessimism often makes his arguments confusing—rhetoricians generally make their cases by opposing one thing against another, but for Cioran pretty much everything is equally false and devoid of merit, so the reader is often led down mistaken paths, thinking he is valuing something (such as "wisdom") that he later reveals himself to deride. When he declares

Wisdom? Never was any period so free of it—in other words, never was man more himself: a being refractory to wisdom.

one is unsure whether he feels the lack of "wisdom" in the twentieth century is a compliment or an insult to the age, and whether man's refractory nature is to his credit or detriment, or both. By Cioran's own argument, both "wisdom" and "man" are so full of contradictions that it's hardly possible to form an opinion on either, pro or con—one is paralyzed into inaction as one watches human civilization spiral into the morass.

Where else will I find so persistent a will to fail? I envy the West the dexterity with which it manages to die out. When I would fortify my disappointments, I turn my mind toward this theme of an inexhaustible negative richness.

Oh, me too. I often turn my mind toward an inexhaustible negative richness—it really helps me to fortify my disappointments. Which is a constant struggle, let me tell you. People will try to encourage me, the swine.

Even Cioran's simple definitions double back on themselves and induce vertigo in the reader. For example, he seems to feel that "failures" are those who, rather than holding a grudge and working continually to aggravate their enemies, move on with their lives and later find that their enemies are no longer interested in them—an outcome, he feels "with the gravest consequences." For Cioran, it is our sicknesses, sins, grudges and enemies that we should keep close to our hearts, for without them he seems to feel we would have no remaining selfhood. He even argues against writing about our taints, since the therapeutic effects of the writing might dilute our precious toxicity. (I'm not making this up!) Yet later in the essay, he seems to suggest that even the act of holding fast to our ugliness is pointless, like every other pursuit we might select.

Which points out exactly what I found so hilarious and exasperating about Cioran: namely, that this level of far-reaching nihilism seems completely unbelievable and unsustainable, so over-the-top that I kept wondering to what extent he is making fun of himself. I've read and loved plenty of pessimistic literature, but this really goes above and beyond. I mean, let's listen to a few passages:

Some day, who knows? you may experience the pleasure of aiming at an idea, firing at it, seeing it there, prone, before you, and then beginning the exercise again on another, on all: this longing to lean over someone, to divert him from his old appetites, his old vices, in order to impose new and more noxious ones upon him, until he dies of them; to set yourself against an age or a civilization, to fling yourself upon time and martyrize its moments; then to turn against yourself, to torment your memories and your ambitions and, destroying your breath, to infect the air in order to suffocate all the better...

Cool! Sounds like a good time, Emil. Remind me to wear my black turtleneck when I come over for scones next Saturday. Or this hilarious gem:

Is futility, then, no more than an "ideal"? That is what I must fear, that is what I shall never be resigned to.

The thing about this kind of "I fear that even futility is futile" argument, is that one can't resist wondering why Cioran himself chooses to live such a tortured and pessimistic existence. I mean, if nothing makes any difference and everything is equally worthless, why bother crafting this letter to your friend to dissuade him from writing a book? Why write at all? Why feel miserable? Why not just eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die? Cioran himself argues that his objective, in writing to his friend, was

...to put you on guard against the Serious, against that sin which nothing redeems. In exchange, I wanted to offer you...futility.

If the truly unredeemable sin is seriousness, then how serious can Cioran himself be about this whole futility malarkey? Is his entire essay, his entire BODY of essays, an enormous dark joke? That's the only interpretation that allows me to connect this essay with anything I know experientially about human nature, and has the added benefit of making the entire letter pretty rib-crackingly funny, leaving me free to enjoy such Cioran-isms as "the gangrenes of the intellect" and "pontificate in the anemia of his serenity." So, as long as nothing really matters to Cioran one way or the other, that's the one I'll choose to believe. :-)

Up next week: I was scheduled to read two very long essays next week, so I think I'll break them up. Thus, next Monday I'll be writing about Carlos Fuentes, Wole Soyinka, or Sara Suleri.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography