“My fellow Americans, our entire economy is in danger. This part of it is in danger, and the part over there too, and even those funny parts with the long namesyes, all in grave danger. For a long time now my good buddies at Merrill Lynch have been working their hardest with all parts of our economy, trying to do the right thing for America, but this is crisis time, and I’ll be frankif my good buddies at Merrill Lynch do not receive $700 billion in small bills by midnight tomorrow, they’re going to kill this kitten. Now nobody wants to kill the kitten. It would be too bad to kill the kitten. But that’s where America is at present, with the danger. And the kitten doesn’t seem like a happy kitten. Seems like it might know what’s coming.”
Last night I had one of the worst dreams of my life: an alternate history where the United States developed nukes a few decades earlier and decided to use them on Spain after the U.S.S. Maine blew up. I was in the wreckage of Barcelona, walking around the crater where the Sagrada Familia had been, useless weeping.
David Foster Wallace (II)
The other day I didn’t get at the thing I really wanted to write about Wallace, which is what an ethical writer he was. Strictly I ought to say “meta-ethical”; he was interested in the conditions of possibility for ethics, an interest that I tried to describe as “seriousness” the other day. A compact example is the short piece “The Devil Is a Busy Man,” which is just a little too long to quote in full but ought to work in snippets:
Three weeks ago, I did a nice thing for someone. I can not say more than this, or it will empty what I did of any of its true, ultimate value. I can only say: a nice thing. In a general context, it involved money. It was not a matter of out and out “giving money” to someone. But it was close. It was more classifiable as “diverting” money to someone in “need.” For me, this is as specific as I can be.
It was two weeks, six days, ago that the nice thing I did occurred. I can also meantion that I was out of townmeaning, in other words, I was not where I live. Explaining why I was out of town, or where I was, or what the overall situation that was going on was, however, unfortunately, would endanger the value of what I did further. Thus, I was explicit with the lady that the person who would receive the money was to in no way know what had diverted it to them. Steps were explicitly taken so that my namelessness was structured into the arrangement which led to the diversion of the money. (Although the money was, technically, not mine, the secretive arrangement by which I diverted it was properly legal. This may lead one to wonder in what way the money was not “mine,” but, unfortunately, I am unable to explain it in detail. It is, however, true.) This is the reason. A lack of namelessness on my part would destroy the ultimate value of the nice act. Meaning, it would infect the “motivation” for my nice gesturemeaning, in other words, that part of my motivation for it would be, not generosity, but desiring gratitude, affection, and approval towards me to result. Despairingly, this selfish motive would empty the nice gesture of any ultimate value, and cause me to once again fail in my efforts to be classifiable as a nice or “good” person.
To summarize a couple of already-summarized pages, the narrator’s authorship of the act nonetheless slips out by insinuation over the telephone, leading to precisely that gratitude and affection (perhaps mixed with resentment) which he or she had feared, leading to the agonized conclusion:
And I had, despairingly, in addition, given off these insinuations so “slyly,” that not even I, until afterwardmeaning, after the call was over, knew what I had done. Thus, I showed an unconscious and, seemingly, natural, automatic ability to both deceive myself and other people, which, on the “motivational level,” not only completely emptied the generous thing I tried to do of any true value, and caused me to fail, again, in my attempts to sincerely be what someone would classify as truly a “nice” or “good” person, but, despairingly, cast me in a light to myself which could only be classified as “dark,” “evil,” or “beyond hope of ever sincerely becoming good.”
The obvious technical features are the absence of particulars and the uncanny voice which Wallace tries out in several stories, weirdly phrased with adverbs in unexpected places, generally stiff but occasionally slipping into colloquialism, as if a moral philosophy textbook were trying to impersonate a human being. One might draw a comparison to some of Lydia Davis’s acerbic short pieces, which also work as dry anatomies of social cock-ups, but the key difference is that Wallace is writing without satiric intent. A story like “The Depressed Person,” true, gives a terribly pointed picture of emotional narcissism; but the narrator of “The Devil Is a Busy Man” is trying in the best of faith for the kind of openness that would never occur to the depressed person. And yet it doesn’t help. That’s the important thing; this android speaker, who sets stringent and impossible criteria for his or her own moral worth, who is so uncertain of his or her own insides that any remotely evaluative term appears inside scare quotes, is like a great many people whom we love and we wish could be happier, like ourselves when we’re unable to justify ourselves, and I don’t see the slightest condescension in the portrayal. Only sadness.
Now of course one can say that this skeptical moral philosophy is untenable or misdirected, just like one can say that the skeptical epistemology of Wallace Stevens’s poetry doesn’t amount to a serious philosophical problem. In either case that misses the point. These works dramatize an emotional state, a kind of pain which appears as a cruel inability to stop questioning oneself or the world, analogous to a philosophical problem without being susceptible to any kind of solution. (Wittgenstein’s biography, with his endless agonizing over pecadillos and blindness to real faults, is another example.) I always enjoyed Wallace’s virtuousity, but his understanding of this pain, and its many relatives, is what I’m likely to keep the longest.
History Moves Toward One Great Goal
But there’s no teleology even with dinosaurs, man
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
One wants to think that, should you live one of these lives that are full of suicidal ideation in the teens and early twenties, as long as you later find a stable point from which to reflect back on those yearsto reflect in fiction, eventhen they won’t come back. If suicide is a door that you can open at fifteen, you should be able to close it at twenty-five. One wants to think that.
But I don’t want to Assess his Importance right now. I just pulled Infinite Jest off the shelf, read ten pages at random and found them comfortingly close to what I remembered from ten years ago. Like a lot of gifted people, Wallace wasn’t the best judge of his own output; the stories were uneven, the essays often overreached, and Infinite Jest carries a lot of minor conceits far past the end of the signal. Still I think the fairest thing to do with writers, especially those who have passed on, is to forgive the misses and count the hits. His best work took the dizziness of seventies metafiction more seriously than the metafictionists took it themselves, and made it into something lovelier and sadder. I thought he had time to do more.
I have laughed with the mind, sometimes hard
and with ugly dismissal, how its last conclusions rot out
initial bases or tight lock up the mind
in a cage it cannot escape from and is held there.
But I accede; knowledge is what I am freed
from, as once I was freed from power, not
having any. Knowledge and power are what
we want until we find, at last, they are not.
There is a state outside of me, too, without
these things. Reality? The God? I apply
to it. It has my reverence and awe, my love.
I am content there where I wanted once.
I had some ideas about how it would be, and they were mostly wrong. My net worth is still deep in the red (a lovely shade of debtor’s crimson), and instead of a career, in a couple years I’m going to get a colorful hood and a lottery ticket for a career, and then I’ll probably have to start over. But I have a few good pages tucked under my vest, and I’ve read more wonderful books than I can count; this was what I wanted, better than I thought it would be, and I’d do it again, especially if I could have known that J. was on her way.
My twentieth birthday I spent in the car, by choicefor reasons now hard to remember, I wanted to be alone. I got myself up at six in the morning and found some flowers left for me by someone who was at least half in love with me, and whom I was too unhappy and bound-up to treat with anything like fairness. I was in love too, impossibly, with someone who had been on a different continent all year; so I got in my car and drove down the really dull part of I-5 and the really sunblasted part of I-10, smoking the Camel Reds which seemed that year to confirm my membership in some group. The stretch between Indio and Phoenix is one long glare during the day, and I thought I was approaching the real condition of things.
I made a notebook entry on my twenty-first birthday: “It’s not about resisting, it’s about resenting. Line up everything that has ever hurt you, and lower your slow sad reptile eyes, and glare at them with gentle pain. Happy birthday.” There’s the overreliance on adjectives I got from reading Ulysses all the time, and then the idea that the world owed me something which I wasn’t getting, to which the only appropriate response was a self-pitying passive resistance. I really did think I was cursed by God. I had no idea it could lift if you waited.
When I walk around these days, most of the time I feel a patch of real ground under me. It wasn’t always so.
A Brief and Arbitrary Encyclopedia of Literature in Spanish (3)
Guillén, Jorge. Obra Poética . Let’s bring it home. One more from the Generation of ‘27. They may be soulful Spaniards, but they all can be very funny when they feel like it.
Lezama Lima, José. Paradiso. A poet who wrote a long autobiographical novel which he claimed was best understood as a poem. If I’m going to continue the game of finding correspondents in the English canon, then it’s Nabokov, but Lezama Lima is less suspicious of people and more laissez-faire about everything, including sex, without being all brash about it.
Marías, Javier. Tu Rostro Mañana. 1: Fiebre y lanza. It’s a spy novel, sort of, but mostly it’s just a Javier Marías novel built of Javier Marías set pieces; the best are complete winners, and I will read the other two books in the series, but I’ll probably want to tackle more Benet first.
Monterroso, Augusto. Cuentos. Guatemalan, a very distant second after Asturias in name recognition. The stories are tightly wound and cerebral with a nasty sense of humor, a bit like a less jolly Barthelme. My favorite imagines the blog-o-sphere using the technology of its time: imagine a radio which broadcasts your voice for an hour every day to a small but devoted audience of strangers, who in turn will broadcast their deep and anonymous theories and sorrows to your surprised ears, because all we want, don’t you know, is to be heard
Muñoz Molina, Antonio. Sefarad. One of the few that I didn’t finish. When I complained down in the Bolaño entry about elegant and bloodless moral earnestness, I’m afraid this is what I had in mind; the best thing about it was the Felix Nussbaum painting on the cover, and it also went for falafel money.
Onetti, Juan Carlos. Juntacadáveres. See below.
Rodoreda, Mercè. La Plaza del Diamante. See below.
Rodoreda, Mercè. Jardín Junto al Mar. See below.
Rodoreda, Mercè. Cuánta, Cuánta Guerra. See below.
Rulfo, Juan. El Llano en Llamas. Someone should write a taxonomy of naturalisms. This kind is my favorite.
Valle-Inclán, Ramón de. Luces de Bohemia. He’s weird and a lot of fun. He’s somewhere between Brecht and Wilde. He’s hugely important in the Spanish canon, but they haven’t translated much of him; it’s hard to get a handle, I think. This is a play satirizing artistic pretension in turn-of-the-century Madrid, and it does a fine job of that, but there’s a second level of willful grotesquerie... I don’t know, that’s it for Spanish books and I have to go to bed. Okay cerebrum, welcome back to California!
A Brief and Arbitrary Encyclopedia of Literature in Spanish (2)
Cortázar, Julio. Bestiario. It’s Cortázar. His first collection, eight assured storiesthey’re always assuredwhich seem simplethey always seem simplebut open onto the void. “Casa Tomada” is the justly famous showpiece.
Cortázar, Julio. Historias de Cronopios y de Famas. I’d like to write something up, or see something written up, about this and On Certainty. He’s hit something about twentieth-century life, the idea that when you put on your wristwatch there is a chance that it might bite you with tiny metal teeth. You just don’t know.
Cortázar, Julio. Queremos Tanto a Glenda. A later collection, after more explicitly political material starts to creep in. One story is an oblique take on political violence in Argentina (different from Bolaño’s obliquity) which quite effectively upset me.
Diego, Gerardo. Antología poética. Selection from the copious output of another Generation-of-’27er. Diego was the actual point man for the 1927 Góngora trecentennial. See below.
Donoso, José. El Lugar sin Limites. What is the place without limits? Why, it is Hell; the English translation, Hell Has No Limits, quotes Marlowe’s Mepistopheles precisely. The unstable sexual identities and demonic aristocrats of El Obsceno Pájaro de la Noche are here too, but this is an earlier and briefer work and takes the common Boom strategy of cordoning its weirdness inside an ostensibly realistic account of a rural town. Here that caution is rewarded; like a lot of Donoso’s readers, I get the most satisfaction from his bizarre genius when it has boundaries to work with.
Fuentes, Carlos. La Muerte de Artemio Cruz. For a long time I was wary of many of the biggest Boom authors; they just seemed too popular, and to be publishing too many books, to be trustworthy. While I can’t speak to Fuentes’s later career, this book is completely wonderful. It isn’t much like Pedro Páramo but does take the same tack of centering on an aged jefe and scrambling his life to juxtapose his humble beginnings and ruthless maturity. The reader can then piece together the particulars of his rise and fall; but as I discovered last year while trying and failing to teach Pedro Páramo to a room full of freshmen, this relation of childhood to adulthood is nothing like the North American model which takes adult behavior as intelligible by reference to childhood trauma. Fuentes and Rulfo work with a deeper-running, collective sort of fatalism that frustrates these explanations; it cuts across individual personalities and doesn’t reduce to psychology. I wish I’d found a better way to explain it.
Góngora, Luis de. Sonetos Completos. He’s the master and there is no one like him. Imagine a central figure in the English canon who manages to combine Spenser’s lushness with Milton’s syntax, and that might land you in the ball parkor the hunting groundsthere’s a recent bilingual edition which I can’t look up right now because I’m on another goddamn airplane, observing from above the sublimity of the Midwest’s peopled fields, but I believe the translator makes a good selection and fails honorably at the foredoomed task of Englishing his poet.
Góngora, Luis de. Soledades. The weirdest and loveliest. Unfinished, and I want to say it’s on account of being just too fucking beautiful for its own structure, like Keats’s Hyperion, but actually it’s so difficult that my sense of the structure is pretty vague. Its reception history is a bit like Joyce’s; it wasn’t until the twentieth-century revival that any kind of critical consensus emerged as to what’s actually going on in the poem, and its longevity makes me hopeful for those types of twentieth-century beauty that skirt the edges of nonsense. This semester you may find me playing hooky in the PQ library stacks, trying to find out more.
Portrait of Don Luis de Góngora by the young Velázquez, from a study by Francisco Pacheco, 1622.
Goytisolo, Juan. La Chanca. See below.
The Gongara bilingual edition seemed both inadequate and effective, like a sonnet about the impossibility of paying the lover due homage.