Tagged: John Milbank

Final Questions without Answers

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

“Sneering and Defiance,” from The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.”


More Daunting than Hegel

Yes, I’m still reading Paradiso. I was bound and determined to finish the thing off once and for all this weekend, but it just didn’t happen. I attempted to summon up and derive inspiration and willpower from a grad-school feat of yore, when, not reading the syllabus with much attention, I was shocked to discover what I thought to be an assignment of 250 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology for the next class. Looking at said course guide the day before the seminar was to meet, I dropped everything and plowed into the tome, succeeding in completing what I thought had been the assignment. My reading, of course, wasn’t very thorough, given its speed– but about 3/4 of the way in, my brain being bombarded by world spirits and theses and Aufhebungen at early hours of the morning, I suddenly had something like a very brief epiphany, where everything came together in one brilliant, cohesive sphere of wonder– and then fell apart almost immediately. I’m still unsure whether I was relieved or not when I got to class the next day, red-eyeball-tired, to find out that we’d really been assigned about thirty pages.*

How Paradiso makes me feel. (NARA)

At any rate, to be honest, I was less hopeful of achieving some ephemeral moment of clarity by doing the same thing with Lezama Lima, and more eager to just be done with the thing. No dice. I’m still fifty pages way from the end of this intolerable labyrinth, and at the rate I’m going, I’ll be lucky if I finish it by the end of the week. If not, I’ve got a lengthy plane ride next week, which should help me knock this particular monkey off my back. (And who’s to say? Maybe high altitudes and the canned air that comes with traveling at such elevations will add some legitimate trippiness to a text that seems far too self-conscious in its attempt to achieve vaguely hallucinogenic effects.)

Maybe my Hegel-coup is just an event never meant to be repeated. (And without the fear of being stared down by a very otherworldly prof who bore more than a little resemblance to Rasputin, it’s understandable that my motivation to undertake such challenges these days is significantly less than it was long ago.) But my guess is that the completion of this present tome will at least merit a brief celebration, coming in a close second, probably, to the elation I felt on finally finishing John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. That, though, is another story.

* I later took a course that focused the entire semester on just the Phenomenology. It was actually a brilliant class that brought me some real understanding of the work– but I’m still unwilling to dismiss whatever momentary insight it was that I’d gained a few years before, even if I’m not sure exactly what sort of insight it was.