Saturday, November 14, 2015

Adversaria 2015: Randoom Ruemynations of a Joycean Materialist

In the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 'adversaria' (from the Latin adversaria scripta, 'things written on the side') is defined as "Miscellaneous collections of notes. The kind of things that most writers accumulate in a notebook, day book, journal or diary." As a Joycean materialist who enjoys focusing on the material components of art--the Van Gogh brushstrokes, the Wake-ish weltwords--I'm drawn to the look of the word 'adversaria,' the way it begins like an advertisement then metamorphoses like Mad Men into an aria of aversion, twisting and turning on its sinuous little s, the sibilant snake in this word's garden... It's a word with a rattle on its tail and poison in its teeth, and that's why it makes me think of the South Dakota afternoon when I stepped out of my car at Badlands National Park and heard a rattlesnake in the nearby brush and thought, "That sounds just like a rattler on a movie soundtrack; now I know I'm in the West."

A 'Joycean materialist'? Yes. That's the label I just invented on the fly to signify an angle of vision that privileges the material (i.e., historical, empirical) causes and components of phenomena ranging from Ulysses and  Voyna i mir to the human species and the rock it rose upon. Call it philosophical materialism with a sense of humor and beauty. Call it the intellectual carnivalesque. Call it Ishmael if you're into seafood. Just don't call it a hermeneutic, a word that always makes me think of the censoriously neutered herms of ancient Greece.

While 'intellectual' and 'ineffectual' will always rhyme, there's no need to make them synonymous.

A thought on the progression of James Joyce's art: if Dubliners was conceived and composed at the level of the story, each tale a discrete and complete act of creation, then we can say that the Portrait is composed at the level of the paragraph, Ulysses at the level of the sentence, and Finnegans Wake at the level of the word. Joyce's career can be likened to a microscope that discovers increasing complexity in progressively smaller objects. His oeuvre has a kind of fractal structure.

Malcolm Lowry, sober perhaps and speaking somewhere of Under the Volcano (that beautiful, doomy, sugar skull of a book), quoted Edmund Wilson's description of Gogol as an artist of "the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself." I find this fragment haunting, profoundly haunting.

On possessions and personality: The discourses of consumer capitalism address an ontological emptiness at the core of the capitalist self and offer to heal this wound by filling it with commodities. (And what is religion but another commodity? Give me ten percent of your income and I'll get you out of Hell.) New Age types used to tell people, "You are not what you own." But of course, as the statement implies (for otherwise it need not be spoken), we are the things we own. That's why we bought them. Our impossible consumerist mission is to magic ourselves into the lives of the implied owners of our stuff. We want to be the things we own--or more precisely, we want to be the kinds of people we believe would own these things.

Official American Literature, the effluent of the MFA programs, stands stubbornly stuck in the sole-sucking muck of the damned dead twentieth century. (I like that sentence; I'll leave it unelaborated.)

Literary arguments--genre vs. literary fiction, modernism vs. postmodernism, realism vs. fantasy, moralism vs. play--all seem increasingly like so many Bartleby-esque dead letters in this era of technotriumph where we find it difficult even to imagine a life without screens before our faces and phones clipped to our hips. Whither War and Peace in a world where a 140-character tweet is considered a composition?

The dirty realists of the 1980s--epigones all, to some extent, of the great prose poet Raymond Carver--composed polite, digestible fictions of impolite people and things for a polite, upper middle-class audience. These stories and novels allowed Upper West Siders to feel fine about blinding themselves to the homeless guy pushing a shopping cart along their sidewalks because they had already experienced revelatory transports of sympathy for imaginary lower-class characters in a Carver story. Dirty realism let its readers be altruistic in their minds instead of their lives--a much more cost-effective proposition than actual charity.

One must not live a stupid life. Avoid at all cost the typical, thoughtless, merely nominal existence of those who confuse breathing with living. The things that individualize you, that set you apart, that make you different, these are the things that--to the extent that they are not gratuitously harmful to self or others--you should allow yourself to love about yourself. This is my ethics, briefer than Aristotle's.

The form of adherence that vulgar American religiosity calls 'faith' is often nothing of the sort. American religion values not faith but certainty--certainty of sin, certainty of salvation, certainty that anybody who doesn't love Jesus can go to hell. And certainty, this fanatical fundamentalist certainty that brooks no doubt, is the very annihilation of faith. The certain have no need of faith; they know--or think they do, in their overwhelming pride. True faith, as a self-evident matter of logic, can only exist in the context of true doubt. Doubt is the classic Cartesian matrix from which intelligent, authentic religious belief is born and in which it lives. This type of faith is probably as rare as an existentially authentic self.

Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil calls for a "new species of philosopher" to synthesize the sentimental antitheses of traditional moral philosophy, knitting truth to deception, altruism to selfishness, etc. He calls these transgressive thinkers "philosophers of the dangerous 'perhaps'." (He is, rather obviously, calling forth himself, as Christ presumably did in the tomb.) We could use such philosophers today. Our conformist world needs more imaginists of the dangerous 'perhaps.'

The reduction of literary fiction to the status of contemporary poetry--an academic avocation, something professors write in their spare time--would be a disaster for our cultural imagination. The impulse that pushes punkish life back into letters, if it is to come, must come from outside the academic echo chamber. New voices, genuinely new ones, won't twist their mouths to the received ideas of corporate prose (for academicization is, alas, corporatization). Self-made selves (and what could be more traditionally American than that?) will inevitably have their own ideas. That's the trouble, from a corporate viewpoint, with authenticity; that's why it must be pressed to death under the double doors of poverty and oblivion. The new is always the strange, the weird, the uncanny. Originality is a country without maps; it's a county in the High Plains depicted as blank white space by Rand McNally but in fact a site of sublime desolation, way out, out there in the vastness. It's hard to see the new, literally impossible to re-cognize it. Our difficulty in describing it arises from the dearth of consensus clichés. When new things stare us in the face, we often fail to see them.

Something different, something new.... The new is a wound in the fabric of reality. It is a passage, a door. The new is an event, a bonfire of the mediocrities. True artists warm themselves there and wander home in the crazy shadows cast by its light.

Language is the instrument; prose is the music.

I just stumbled upon my favorite goofy-nihilistic Derridean title: "The Almost-Nothing of the Unrepresentable." Apparently it's an old interview with Derrida (new ones would be seances), but it could've been the subtitle of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. Or most of Beckett, I suppose.

David Foster Wallace was doomed to write late 20th-century academic fiction; that is, he wrote the fiction one would expect from a talented artist enclosed from birth in an academic environment and intellectually formed by the critical theory-delimited world of the 1980s American English department. Infinite Jest is as much an endless riff on Lacan as on Pynchon or DeLillo. It may well be the most Lacanian novel ever written. Wallace tried to break out of the box in his final decade, but his best-known fiction is written from and to an academic trend (postmodernism) that now sometimes seems as quaint and antiquated as a dance card from a widow's hope chest.

John Cheever, in his journal, writing of the men's room at Grand Central Station and its homosexual temptations: "The sensible thing is to stay out of such places." ... The sensible thing is a bore. No one wants to read a novel about people who do sensible things. We want Raskolnikovs and Mickey Sabbaths, vile underground men ranting in Gassean tunnels, murderers, punks, pimps and whores--the whole Ringling Brothers-Jean Genet Circus. We want Nabokovian madmen gunning their doubles down. We want Hazel Motes in his glare-blue suit riding into yet another town. We want William Burroughs probing for a vein, Henry Miller risking clap in a low-rent brothel. To hell with the sensible thing.

Authenticity means living the self you freely create, not fitting your life and mind into the hand-me-down personality that was forced upon you before you had the power to resist.

Comedy is the juice, the electricity, the soulsap, the Sun. It's a shard-sharp counterpoint to tragedy's doomtone, that music of death, Wagnerian and gloomysweet. Comedy is the psychedelic popsong of life, the Joycean cacophony, the blab of Whitman's pave. It's the white noise of blazing static, too many stations and too much information, rock and roll...

In an interview, Jonathan Lethem lists Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, James Baldwin's Another Country, Anthony Powell's massive A Dance to the Music of Time, and Samuel Delany's endless, enigmatic Dhalgren as novels that exhibit a "sprawling, shaggy lifelike-ness...They spill and swell and stagger...They're shaped like bags, which take the form of what's contained" (Conversations with Jonathan Lethem, 44).

One leftist's view of political correctness: Smart conservatives secretly cheer whenever the academic left goes P.C. crazy, because such fads allow them to almost-credibly project their own rightist authoritarianism upon the left. And there's also the not negligible benefit of all that leftist energy expended in ephemeral campus politics while conservatives take over the country--the real country, the one off-campus. As Lafayette remarked when he rode into Paris during the revolution of 1830, I've been here before. The P.C. 2.0 that's currently the bane of American university humanities departments will eventually come to shipwreck, like all illiberal liberalisms, on the rocks of its glaring internal contradictions. This happened to original P.C. back in my day (the early 90s), and I suspect that the current revival of this tiresome, self-defeating claptrap is an ironic result of that most conservative of academic things, tenure. Grad students who conformed to old school P.C. in the 80s and 90s are today mid-career academics moving into leadership roles. They are the bearers of an outdated ideology that exists only on an institutional respirator. Maybe it's time to ask ourselves, What would Dr. Kevorkian do? (This is my first and last statement on P.C., a topic I find approximately as interesting as belly button lint.)

The Frankfurt School and the more mandarin styles of critical theory often exhibit an odd (and sometimes perversely, quirkily appealing) aesthetic masochism. They do not permit themselves to enjoy any cultural artifact that doesn't hurt. Yes, listen to Schoenberg, they tell us, but not the later, beautiful Schoenberg, only the Schoenberg that sounds like 27 cats being electrocuted in a bank vault. This cold Germanic (perhaps, ultimately, Lutheran) anhedonia is the very thing that turns many readers away from Adorno. (For a sharp contemporaneous contrast, consider the Surrealists and their enthusiasm for the Marx Brothers.)

A Twelve-Step Cure for Political Correctness:
  1. The Satyricon by Petronius
  2. The Metamorphoses by Ovid
  3. The Arabian Nights
  4. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
  5. The London National Gallery's collection of paintings by Titian
  6. Shakespeare's plays and poems
  7. The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
  8. The paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery of Picasso
  9. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  10. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
  11. The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany
  12. The director's cut of Lars Von Trier's film Nymphomaniac

There's a natural tendency for 'voice novels'--novels written entirely in the highly distinctive voice of the central character (examples: Tropic of CancerPortnoy's Complaint, Money)--to become one-character pieces in which the narrator is permitted to be complex, contradictory, attractive/repulsive, as round as the globe, while the rest of the novel's world is populated by pancake people. Lolita might be an exception to this rule--maybe.

The vast majority of our contemporary American writers are mere technicians. They apply formulae learned by studying genre novels or by paying for MFA programs. (In most cases, the acronym MFA dilates into 'mediocre fucking authors.') They are, at the higher end, ideologues of one or another stripe penning exemplary tales, ideological sermons; at the lower, more generic end, they are pre-programmed entertainers...The point of writing, too often lost in the academic and commercial smog, is to write novels that haven't been written before. It's as simple and as difficult as that... Literary artists, true artists, are as rare today as they have ever been. Artists are the creators who don't come programmed. Artists write their own codes.

Life is a stuttering progress, a choppy montage. Real life never cuts clean--until it does.

Writers of literary criticism should resist the temptation to slip from description into prescription. Likewise, readers of criticism should resist the tendency to interpret description as prescription. Much misunderstanding would be avoided if people would just follow these two simple rules.

Revolutionaries are the traditionalists of transgression.

There is a disturbing tendency among naïve leftists to make a sort of category mistake by which aesthetic conservatism or traditionalism is equated with political reaction. While this connection arguably held until the late 19th century, the birth of the Modernist avant-garde definitively cut the cord. After Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock, artistic tradition is a tradition of radical aesthetic revolution.

Czeslaw Milosz once wrote, "When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished." In a recent New York Times piece ("Minotaur in His Maze," 9/10/15), Michael Chabon adds his own valuable tuppence to the mythology of the writer as family monster: "It is a proven tendency of families to view an incipient writer in their midst as a kind of monster. Whether they have the blessing or disapproval of their families, writers grow up feeling that they do not belong in the house they were born into. Writers are mutants; some crucial part of their existential DNA is unshared with their parents or siblings.... For the family of a writer, as for the royal family of Crete, there will be always a monster in the house, a creature who remembers things nobody else seems to remember, notices things everyone else seems to have missed, wonders things that no one else would ever bother to wonder; a creature who comes to dwell at the heart of a labyrinth of his or her own making — a labyrinth of words."

Practical nihilism. By this phrase I mean a visceral consciousness of the void of nothingness that underlies all being and underwrites all human freedom. It terrifies us at first, this glimpse of the meaninglessness of human life, the pure contingency of existence. But if we stare long enough into the void, the terror might shift to vertigo--a dizzying, thrilling but still self-destructive impulse--and this might modulate in turn into an exultation at the prospect of freedom, the pure morning and open sea of freedom granted us by this absurd nothingness. Arising out of nothing, possessing no meaningful essence, we bear within ourselves the freedom to create ourselves, to live an authentic life. The fundamental ethical act is to embrace this freedom that nothingness implies. This is the personal heart of my Sartrean existentialism.


Unknown said...

A lovely read.
Now how the heck can I apply what I've learned?!

BRIAN OARD said...

Yes, that is the question--one I've been trying to answer for years... The value of any intellectual or philosophical idea is directly proportional to its practical applicability. This is one of the problems I have with much of 20th-century philosophy, especially French post-structuralism and Anglo-American academic philosophy. Derrida and Wittgenstein wrote interesting books and headbirthed some brilliant ideas, but I don't know what a Wittgensteinian or Derridean life would look like. I'm pretty sure, though, that I wouldn't want to live one.

James said...

Regarding your point about the "philosophers of the dangerous perhaps," I'm curious: have you read anything of Nick Land? His views are wildly unconventional and often terrifying; he strikes me as the kind of philosopher you described.