I came late in life, and almost by accident, upon the work of W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn only popped up because a friend– who still doesn’t have that much trust in literature– felt compelled by a piece of scholarship to read the late German great, and then further bound by friendship to notify me that he’d found an exact literary fit for my mode of being in this world. Since then, I’ve read everything of the author’s I’ve been able to get my hands on, and have even watched a documentary on him that somehow managed to make itself as beautifully haunted as its own subject matter.
Just as I was so long ignorant of work so close to my own heart, it’s taken me eons to become aware of Philip Hoare, whom Sebald himself admired. A few days ago, I finished Hoare’s The Sea Inside, an exploration mostly centered around cetaceans and seabirds and the environments they call home. Although not as laden with the spectral as is his German colleague, Hoare seems to absorb in welcoming fashion the sea and the air and the fauna that share it, communing easily not only with whatever inhabits the present moment, but also with creatures whose kind disappeared from the earth long ago– stylish catlike beings and lumbering bird-giants too disturbingly other to our human ancestors for the latter to allow them even to continue existing.
This comfort in dwelling with past and present, near and far, is hinted at early on, when, listening to the weather forecast on the radio, Hoare hears with pleasure announcements about “places I’ll never visit but whose names reassure me with their familiar rhythms, while their remote conditions seem strangely consoling.”(1) I immediately perked up when I read this passage, sensing a kindred spirit. The combination of scratchy radio and the knowledge that there actually exists some mystery destination, close enough to be connected by sound waves, but entirely dependent on one’s imagination for existence in thought: the allure is plain for dorks who spend most of their lives dreaming up true, if not-quite-real, worlds– especially for those of us who every now and then find a hint of transcendence on the AM dial, eerily connected to the other side of the continent, where an ultra-local announcement about farm implements for sale, or the parish news in Cajun French, is going on.
That unpredictable, somewhat neglected band of radio provides its own kind of nostalgia for presently occurring things, or a narrow entrée into apparently closed communities. In its own way, (good) writing should do just that, and more; I get the sense that maybe, just maybe, good writing enables that expansion of empathy better than most other mediated channels of mental and emotional exploration.(2) As a recent article by Tim Parks argues, reading writing we just don’t understand might very well broaden and deepen, if not our outright empathy, at least our willingness to believe that there are entirely other modes of life going on all around us– that we are not the final arbiters of how existence should proceed or be run.
We can’t absorb reading in one quick gulp; in taking the time to move from the understanding of one word to another, and of the connections between and among them, we’re forced to witness something unfolding, one detail at a time, at least somewhat at that something’s own– not our– pace– as opposed to the flash of a complete picture on a screen or a page. As Hoare looks up at a night sky filled with constellations, he wonders at the “ancient patterns created by minds yet to be overwhelmed by the images that fill our waking day.”(3) That consolation he found earlier in the recitation of names of never-seen places: would that feeling still be there, or be any different, if he were still living in an analog world, or one in which television screens hadn’t yet become ubiquitous? Were Hoare not instantly able to pull up photographic images, if not of those exact locations being read out, then something very near and/or similar to them, would his sense of consolation be a bit more tenuous? Would his wondering at the stars be somehow different, were he not able to Google pictures of and detailed information about them at any given moment?
Might the ability contemporary technology has given us to view even the remotest of places, whether the entire length of an unpopulated island or the darkest interiors of our own viscera, contribute to a hasty presumption of familiarity with that which is other? That need that so many of us seem to have to believe “they’re just like us,” from politicians to celebrities to tribal-based societies, erects barriers not only to really knowing those multiple “theys;” it also prevents us from wanting to step outside our own little worlds, to confront possibilities beyond our own or allow those others to speak for themselves. It’s not that reading can’t result in, or even encourage, this sort of willful blindness. (Just look at all the propaganda that’s gotten even the American public where it is right now.) But the instantaneous visual flash of landscape or people may provide us with only a cheat sheet– something that, in being adequate enough for a starting point or surface-level summation, can’t possibly count as robust knowledge. Even Hoare’s real-life glimpse of the constellations in his sky– a present viewing of a collective image– can’t give him the full understanding of their meaning for people dependent on their positions to figure, for example, changes of season or locations at sea.
My allegations are, I know, old hat; I know I keep harping on the absolute necessity of our being able to read our reality for what it is, and to use all the resources we have at hand in order to build and maintain that capacity. As we become ever more impatient, begrudging the time needed to accomplish even the smallest of tasks or transactions, bothering to slow down and interpret words– even as we willingly communicate with each other (think emojis in place of text, as one huge example)– comes to seem like a tremendous burden. And as we lose the capacity to wield our words wisely and creatively– as we allow images of all sorts to replace those words– I worry about the attendant decrease in our capacity to wonder with all the power we’re able. And if that wonder is gone– well, what’s the point, anyway? Maybe that’s what it means for everything and everyone else to be just like us, or for us to be just like everything else: the whole universe floating along in one big sea of visions, watching it all pass by in a daze.
(1) Philip Hoare, The Sea Inside (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014), 4.
(2) Note I said “mediated”– because obviously, there’s probably nothing better than live, face-to-face interaction with another human being for realizing that each I is not a closed world unto itself. For a much fuller, better-articulated rumination on this theme, see Merve Emre’s recent piece on the personal essay in the Boston Review.
(3) Hoare, 36.
Here’s a topic: the literature of exhaustion. That genre may cover numerous varieties of collapse, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual,… Maybe, as in my case, all of the above and more come together into a welter of hopeless confusion that may leave everyone ready to throw in the threadbare towel and creep into a subterranean cranny until the onset of either miraculous recovery or total global destruction.
Whether or not readers feel like tackling these sorts of messes, I’ve known quite a few writers (myself included) who have few, if any, coping skills outside of putting words on the page. Exhaustion is enough in itself to make a person feel as if she’s losing it– but I wonder how or whether that heavy state of fatigue might have contributed and/or been related to the long tradition of substance-induced literary output, from DeQuincey to the Beats to Hunter S. Thompson and more. Sure, sure: we’re all well-versed in the ineffectual escapes many a desperate person will sample in the face of despair– but I’m wondering if, say, the benzedrine that pushed Kerouac to bang out (large parts of) On the Road in a continuous scroll helped induce not only a burst of mind-addled energy, but the editor-killing exhaustion necessary to just let it flow– and in expelling all those words, dislodging as well huge chunks of anxiety and restlessness and complete cluelessness as to how to live a life.
I’ve been pondering the literary uses of exhaustion over the last week, wondering if and when my own interior floodgates will finally burst– when my emotional infrastructure will be unable to bear anything else, and will release in bare, truthful fashion all the words repressed and piled up over decades into some coherent and elegantly executed narrative. With much less sleep than usual and many a stress egging one another on of late, the super-quick long-distance trip I took this weekend was probably inadvisable, where physical health and the resilience of my neurons were concerned. But I’m wondering if the much-needed burst of camaraderie and dancing with old friends, squashed in between transportation flubs, power naps, and an upcoming meeting, might end up providing some sort of trigger that will bring down vulnerable barriers and force me to follow the continual, nagging imperative to vomit out the Platonic ideal of a novel or short story or whatever that’s been staring accusingly at me ever since I learned how to read.
Back in a period that was so dark I resorted to The Artist’s Way as a potential source of well-being, I became sort of convinced that author Julia Cameron might have been onto something when she alleged that the production of great literature does not require drugs or booze or horrible behavior. It’s not that I haven’t held on to that possibility– and I’m certainly not going to dive into some trite underworld of slow destruction in the hopes it’ll make me a Real Writer– but I can’t shake the reality of the related fact that bouts of burnout and inebriation are usually the only times I speak fluently in a foreign language– that the worried perfectionism shuts off, and I can just have a free-flowing (if probably stupid) conversation.
Where writing is concerned, I have become more comfortable over the years letting people read what I put down on the page– a development not synonymous with not caring what my readers think, but rather with a growing conviction that just producing something may be more important than receiving accolades for it. Here’s what may be the rub, then, after all this pondering: getting to a place where the words flow with honesty and freedom may have less to do with heart and brain being under an external influence, and more about attaining the conviction, however that’s achieved, that you have nothing to lose. And when all your defenses are too tired to stand up for themselves, you may be pretty close to that coveted position.
I’m one of those people who need to spend a solid part of the day on foot. When I visit a new city, I pound its sidewalks; I often spend hours on outdoor trails with a group of like-minded people who can’t sit still; my morning and afternoon commutes are longer than they need to be so that I can clear my head via a form of self-locomotion that falls somewhere between the aimless pace of a flâneur and the crazed-hilarious rush of power walkers. And yes, every day– every one– I’m out on the public pavement, I’m reminded that I have to keep my wits about me; the jibes directed at my gendered body range from the pathetic to the comical to the outright threatening, proof that nobody’s entirely free in this world to exist with impunity.
This continual catcalling has nothing to do with me in particular; I don’t know one woman, regardless of her size or age or anything not directly related to her gender, who doesn’t have to put up with this crap. But here’s the thing: I’m well aware that others have to be much more guarded than I– even have to be prepared for disaster– when they step out into the streets. I’ve long grasped and lamented on a factual, even if not experiential, level that walking while black is a dangerous proposition. But Garnette Cadogan’s “Black and Blue,” in the collected volume, The Fire This Time, made clear in a way I hadn’t yet felt it the fraught reality entailed in a black man’s simply walking out the door in the United States.
Had I not had to turn the book back in to the library today, I’d probably be able to offer you more of the specifics, the scenes and turns of phrase, that brought home just how much the avid walker I am had been taking for granted the mere act of placing one foot publicly in front of the other. Thankfully, though, I scribbled down the following paragraph:
Walking had returned to me a greater set of possibilities. And why walk, if not to create a new set of possibilities? Following serendipity, I added new routes to the mental maps I had made from constant walking in that city [Kingston] from childhood to young adulthood, traced variations on the old pathways. Serendipity, a mentor once told me, is a secular way of speaking of grace; it’s unearned favor. Seen theologically, then, walking is an act of faith. Walking is, after all, interrupted falling. We see, we listen, we speak, and we trust that each step we take won’t be our last, but will lead us into a richer understanding of the self and the world.*
This is the author describing his long walks through Kingston, Jamaica’s dangerous streets– an exploration of “a greater set of possibilities” that was severely compressed and penned in in the supposedly safer cities of New York and New Orleans, thanks to dark skin being viewed there with hostile suspicion by the powers-that-be. Reading about that constriction was another variety of the slap in the face I received while in Palestine, learning just how restrictive “restricted movement” could be for entire neighborhoods, entire regions.
I’m not saying that those of us lucky enough to be able to stroll or even hurriedly run down a street without being (for the most part) unmolested should worriedly (and ineffectually) make a show of moaning about our privilege in an attempt to assuage our guilt. But we should at the very, very least understand that there’s something terribly, malevolently wrong about a social structure in which that most natural– and necessary– of human activities somehow acts as evidence against the person partaking in it. And following on that understanding, we should be incensed and hell-bent on figuring out how to make this atrocity and its related cruel idiocies cease, now, permanently. Because until we’re all free to stroll down the block, hands comfortably tucked in warm pockets and just enjoying the day, none of us is truly free to do so at all.
Cadogan’s essay is one that needs to be read, even if you’re well-versed in the situations he describes. Thankfully, you can get a version online of the essay, here titled “Walking While Black.” Don’t stop walking– but whoever and however lucky you are, don’t ever take walking for granted.
* Garnette Cadogan, “Black and Blue,” in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward (New York: Scribner, 2016), 136.
Although things changed in my late teens, before high school, the prudish little person I was created a sharp moral divide between bookishness and athleticism, firmly believing no serious person could maintain both characteristics in any sort of balance (or, really, take up sides at all with the athletic camp). Unsurprisingly, I was spotted at every one of my sister’s games, from softball to volleyball to basketball, book in hand and completely oblivious to what was going on around me. Today, I’ll readily admit I was an idiot– but still have a book or three in tow wherever I go, just to be prepared.
And so I did have Brian Dillon’s Essayism in the front pouch of my purse when I walked into a major-league baseball game the other night. It stayed there the whole evening, until I got back on the train home; I was with a friend, and even had I been alone, I wouldn’t dare have whipped out a book in the midst of a cross-town rivalry. But it did get me thinking about all the good sports (or other genres of) action I missed in my early years, thanks to having snubbed everything that didn’t count as literature– and no wonder I was well aware of being a weird kid. And had I had my nose lodged in my trade paperback on this occasion, I would’ve missed out on a couple of determined rounds of fisticuffs in our section, the horde of security it took to break them up, and the scattered displays of inebriated chest-bumping that made my friend and I believe that the pruning dudes lovingly beating the crap out of each other were just going to have to make out at some point in the future. That is, had I continued ignoring the present world for the crafted word, I probably never would have escaped a very beautiful and very interesting, but very unreal, existence.
All that is not a celebration of stereotypical boys being boys; I can probably handle one live reminder per year of that brand of inanity. And I’m not going to give up quality writing for continual observation of sports-based rituals– but just being part of a merrily tense crowd did remind me that I have to look up every now and then, that there are actual living, interesting things and people beyond the page. A complete chestnut, that– but sometimes, you need to be slapped upside the head by the obvious.
Dracula: it might seem odd to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake plowing through its last hundred pages, but that’s exactly how I came to the end of a tale that’s somehow managed to maintain its place in many a cultural imaginary for the last hundred-plus years. And overall, it was a good beach read (though perhaps better suited to a colder, cloudier time of year), made even more satisfying by the fact that it didn’t reach its climax on Halloween, as I’d feared it would. The only other surprise was the story’s extremely abrupt ending, largely free of the suspense-prolonging mishaps and false turns that populate a lot of horror literature and film.
What the book did make me consider, though, was just how much it had to say in mostly covert fashion about class and wealth, and what the latter especially can make possible. For instance, this group of friends– two doctors, a lawyer and his wife, a nobleman, and an adventurer– don’t even have to think about getting time off from work or making their excuses to employers et al to go on an international chase after the undead and solve what amounts to an unconventional healthcare situation– nor do they have to worry about the ridiculous outlay of cash the whole thing entails. Admittedly, the threatened Mina does mention in one diary entry, “it made me think of the wonderful power of money!… I felt so thankful that Lord Godalming is rich, and that both he and Mr Morris, who also has plenty of money, are willing to spend it so freely. For if they did not, our little expedition could not start…”(1) But the recognition ends there, and we’re plunged right back into the action.
I’d love to see a story where it’s the poor who have to fight off evil(2) – but my guess is, if it had to entail all the travel and vacation hours required in Stoker’s tale, the search for funds would be pretty brief and futile, and instead of being left with a thrilling adventure with which the protagonists could regale their friends after dinner, everyone would quickly end up dead or damned, with not much of a plot worthy of the name.(3)
But that admonition about necessary wealth also applies to the villain himself; in spite of his super strength and cunning, our man had to shell out quite a bit of coin to get all his boxes of earth, as well as himself, shipped back and forth and housed in multiple properties. Had he been some poor street urchin whose transformation into a vampire hadn’t also elevated his financial or social position in the world, I’m guessing an army of villagers or urban block captains could’ve made pretty short work of someone unable to dismiss fears and/or crimes via bribes, much less afford a room for the night.
And the count’s prosperity is important here in another way. We learn that Dracula originally made his name fighting the Turks and going out in battle for territory, both securing and expanding his realm of control. So sure, he had plenty of funds stashed up over the centuries. But all that money and influence weren’t amassed in order to secure a very long and comfortable retirement feeding off forgettable villagers and waifs; nope, Dracula is a weird part of the colonial project, sailing off to London to plant a flag and propagate his own kind from there. The heart of British imperialism finds itself prey to its own practices, to an entirely different sort of colonizing endeavor– a subplot and/or critique I’m not sure Stoker saw or intended. But if we want to look at how empire is built by sucking resources (and hence, life) from others, vampire tales provide a pretty good analogy.
Of course, there’s the question of Christianity as the (one) force able to defend against this sort of evil, a topic or theme that’s been so hashed and rehashed, it’s not really worth talking about– except for some brilliant comedic queries I’ve witnessed over the years. Probably my favorite was dropped into a Mexican vampire spoof, one of those eye-rollingly bad b-movies you somehow find yourself watching on a Saturday afternoon and wondering what you’re doing with your life. But on this occasion, right before total despair set in, the hero, convinced of his victory, shoved a ridiculously large crucifix into the vampire’s face– to which the latter responded in triumph, “Ha ha! I am Jewish!” and advanced without a hiccup. The hour of my life I’d wasted up until then was suddenly redeemed.(4)
Whether in its pulp varieties or not, after dwelling for 400-plus pages in the world of horror, I’m ready to move on to– I’ll say it– more elevated matter. If the couple of wonderfully weird Elizabeth Bishop poems I read last night are an indication of what’s to come, things are about to take a more authentically poetic turn.
(1) Bram Stoker, Dracula, Barnes & Noble Classics (New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003), 418.
(2) I’m talking authentically poor– not (upper) middle class, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Lost Boys. Those settings of suburban comfort may not have been able to draw upon ridiculous wealth, but their locally based struggles were staged within healthy financial situations.
(3) I have a feeling that, had he wanted to treat less urgent subjects, Gil Scott-Heron might’ve done an amazing job with both the question of wealth and race in tales of horror and adventure. Someone needs to take Blacula one step further, under the guidance of “Whitey on the Moon.” But the mere suggestion is sounding offensively frivolous; we’ve got much more pressing matters to address, after all, than fictional creatures’ social arrangements.
(4) It doesn’t have to do with vampires, but in The Muslims Are Coming, Dean Obeidallah’s fantastic skit on ghost-hunting shows is apropos enough to include in a footnote to this piece. A fellow fan of this TV genre, Obeidallah wonders why families burdened by some supernatural presence are always Catholic. After asking why ghosts apparently don’t enjoy dropping in on Jews and Muslims, he goes on to ponder how his own co-religionists would probably have just gone on and welcomed the specter right in.
And so, gentle readers, I have done it: in spite of pillows and comforter and the need for sleep fighting me every step of the way, I completed Pack of Lies last night. Maybe not since John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake before that) have I felt such satisfaction at coming to the end of a collection of words. But while those predecessors resembled intriguing sacks of lead, this prolix head-trip never felt like a deadweight.
After this post, I’m guessing I’ll leave the trilogy’s mysteries to themselves,* maybe wondering at stray moments
1) what the intention was behind riffing on my beloved Ethan Frome. I don’t exactly enjoy pondering the long and ruined lives of Edith Wharton’s couple maimed for love. Maybe that was precisely Sorrentino’s purpose: a smirking way of calling out much literary tendency to give a glimpse of something terrible and let us think we’ve really understood it or absolved ourselves of the necessity truly to grapple with its implications. I can envision the author enjoying our despair at being confronted with logical, if absurd, extremes– especially when they deal with just how sour the plight of sweethearts can turn, and when they’re tossed in among a whole sweep of frivolous humanity.
2) what the weird demons who drop in on the scene every now and then were meant to do, beyond just being included for the hell of it. An update on Greek tragedy’s divine interventions– or maybe the result of being left without heroic (or any overarching) ideals: the gods become as tawdry as the people they toy with?
3) what Buddy and Dick and their caricatured Hardy Boys-type ramblings were meant to accomplish. Parody, sure– but to what end, inserted into this particular crowd of characters?
4) whether there was any real plan behind the alphabetizing that took place in Misterioso. My baseless speculation is that Sorrentino was just trying to see who’d notice it, and at what point– and maybe, who’d go back to figure out what the non-existent hidden message was within this arrangement. Again: tossing in a wrench just to see how the works respond?
5) finally, whether Sorrentino was as hostile in real life to John Crowe Ransom as his digs at the poet would seem to indicate– and/or whether said poet/his poem “Janet Waking” was a convenient foil for one of the book titles, Sheila Sleeping, that keeps popping up throughout the trilogy. At any rate, Ransom would probably have been disgusted by this cast of characters and their antics– and they probably would have laughed at his.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned John Milbank, bless his angry and exacting heart. While having to soak up his thunderings for a doctoral exam, I became convinced he’d imprisoned a closet-full of grad students, hopeful noses to the grindstone and racing to be the first to find the most obscure fact about orthodoxy, along with all of its imaginable variations. I could envision Sorrentino having his own horde of willing literary servants working on Pack of Lies– but in this case, they, along with their chief, would all be high, and just tossing index cards pertaining to the characters they’d been assigned into a pile. Had this weird party taken place twenty years after the actual book’s publication, I’m sure Milbank himself could have made a delightful appearance in all these goings-on, railing against the post-modern mischief he’d never deign to acknowledge.
* To bypass all my queries, just see my reviewlette on Goodreads and/or LibraryThing, viz., “Not a clue how to rate this. Did I get it? Is there anything to get? I have no idea– but I never felt burdened, and often cheered on Sorrentino’s frequent jabs at a variety of cultural/academic/societal/publishing world/literary practices.”
It might be advisable to sit and think for a bit, instead of heading straight for the keyboard after finishing a book. But I just completed Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, and am full of excited thoughts needing further organization, clarification, and exploration. In other words, this extended lecture (given at Pomona and Harvard) has done exactly what a good book should do.
Very basically, Warren argues that African American literature was only an identifiably cohesive category when shaped by, responding to, and resisting the realities imposed by Jim Crow. The Harlem Renaissance, the New Black Aesthetic, work by contemporary authors– they’re something else, not defined by the characteristics of what he calls “instrumental or indexical expectations” (1): producing literature that simultaneously strove to bring down Jim Crow and to prove (largely to white audiences) that said literature was just as sophisticated as the best the Western world had to offer. In a post-desegregation, post-Voting Rights Act United States, the output of black authors no longer contains the “belief that the welfare of the race as a whole depends on the success of black writers and those who are depicted in their texts.” (2)
Warren isn’t trying to deny the uniqueness or worth of black American writing outside this period, nor is he denying that its authors continue to address– indeed, may not be able to avoid addressing– race in one way or another in their work. But he’s trying to grapple with the fact that literature of the period he’s discussing in some sense grounded itself in and simultaneously worked to deny the inherent existential difference of a particular group from others, or at least from the dominant others, in a given society. Once the belief in that inherent difference largely (so Warren) crumbled, what was there to make this body of literature, maybe even black American experience in general, unique?
I can’t possibly cover all the details of Warren’s argument, in which questions of intra-group class and educational hierarchies are prominent. Nor have I reached anything like a point of dis/agreement with his assertions. But in addition to the specific body of literature it addresses, I’ll argue that the book is also relevant to other so-called “minority” groups and their artistic output. What does it mean to be representative of one’s group, to have authority to speak as a member of it? How do you– either as an insider or a dominant (or not) outsider– define that population itself? To be considered authentically part of that collective, must one include in one’s writing themes and characteristics associated with it (history, stereotypes, etc.)? If Louise Erdrich suddenly started writing about life in Paris, or Amy Tan about sledding in Sweden, would people be up in arms that they weren’t authentically “Native American” or “Chinese American”– and to whom would it matter?
And because I’ve gone straight from Warren’s final page to this post, I haven’t done any research that might be able to answer the question of how the author’s argument might have changed since the book was published in 2011. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the heightened awareness among the general public of race-related police brutality and other forms of structural racism, and/or the increasing use of the phrase “New Jim Crow” (especially regarding mass incarceration), might there still be, if in altered form, an African American literature– or a need for it?
While I’m leaning towards his saying yes to the second question, I think Warren would still say no to at least the first, largely due to the recognition that 1) it’s not original, or really controversial, to claim today that racism exists, and pervasively so; and 2) that black elite writers can’t necessarily claim to be representing or speaking for the entirety of a population that has of course never been homogeneous in its tastes or opinions. As evidenced in a pointed allegation about those elite writers holding onto the idea of African American literature, Warren asserts they might write out of a “need to distinguish the personal odysseys they undertake to reach personal success from similar endeavors by their white class peers.” (4)
So, where does that leave us now? I’d be interested to hear what contemporary powerhouse writers such as Claudia Rankine or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Teju Cole or Octavia Butler– and black readers of black writers– have to say about Warren’s argument. I guess that’s my project now– and of finding out whether I could have avoided spewing out at least a few of my questions to the general public before doing my research. Off to the the forking paths, then, left to explore in the wake of a truly engaging book.
(1) Kenneth W. Warren, What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 10.
(2) ibid., 139.
(3) ibid., 6.
(4), ibid., 139.