The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else? Not me.
Verboten thematic: secular Jews, laureates of the real, tend, anyway, to be better at analyzing reality than recreating it. Recently, for example, Lauren Slater, Lying; Harold Brodkey, most of the essays; Phillip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay; Vivian Gornick, pretty much everything; Leonard Michaels, nearly everything; Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere; Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl; Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André; Jonathan Safran Foer, “Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”; Salinger’s later, consciousness-drenched work (I know I’ll love the Buddhist-inspired meditations he’s been writing the last forty years in his bunker). Less recently, e.g., Marx, Proust, Freud, Wittgenstein, Einstein.
Michel de Montaigne famously asked, “What do I know?”—thereby forming and backforming a tradition. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. St. Augustine, Confessions. Pascal, Pensées. Rousseau, Confessions. Rochefoucauld, Maxims.
Yeats, though, said, “It must go further still: that soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the one activity, the mirror turn lamp.” Which could and should serve as epigraph to all of Nietzsche and all of E. M. Cioran; Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain; Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude; Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Leiris: “I bear in my hands the disguise by which I conceal my life. A web of meaningless events, I dye it with the magic of my point of view.”
Which is what I love—the critical intelligence in the imaginative position. Nicholson Baker, U & I. Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage. Terry Castle, “My Heroin Christmas.” Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave. Jonathan Lethem, The Disappointment Artist. Richard Stern’s “orderly miscellanies.” Roland Barthes, S/Z. Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat. Nabokov, Gogol. Beckett, Proust. Proust, all. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.
Sister Mary Ignatius, in other words, explaining it all for you—les belles dames sans merci: Joan Didion, all the essays. Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights. Pauline Kael, all. Renata Adler, Speedboat.
So, too, on another track: Sandra Bernhard, Without You I’m Nothing. Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic.
Then the train going in the opposite direction: Chris Rock, Bring the Pain. Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer. Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny. Spalding Gray, nearly everything. Art Spiegelman, Maus. Ross McElwee, all.
What is it about this work I like so much? The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrators’ use of themselves, as personae, as representatives of feeling-states; the antilinear, semi-grab-bag nature of their narratives; the absolute seriousness phrased as comedy; the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices.
Rhapsodizing about Frank Sinatra, William Carlos Williams said, “Look, whether we’re young, or we’re all grown up and just starting out, or we’re getting old and getting so old there’s not much time left, we’re human beings—we’re looking for company, and we’re looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that we’re not alone, and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when we’re walking or sitting or driving, and thinking things over.”
Every artistic moment from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art. Braque’s goal: “To get as close as I could to reality.” Zola: “Every artist is more or less a realist according to his eyes.” Whitman: “The true poem is the daily paper.” Cf. Chekhov’s diaries, E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book, Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, Cheever’s posthumously published journals, Alan Bennett’s Writing Home, Edward Hoagland’s diaries.
Steve Martin told an interviewer, “That person over there? He’s doing one thing, thinking something else. Life is never false, and acting can be. Any person who comes in here as a customer is not phony, whereas if a guy comes in posing as a customer, there might be something phony about it, and the reason it’s phony is if he’s really thinking, ‘How am I doing? Do they like me?’”
Jonathan Goldstein: “Life isn’t about saying the right thing, and it’s certainly not about tape-recording everything so you have to endure it more than once. Life is about failing. It’s about letting the tape play.” Boswell, Life of Johnson. Jean Stein, Edie.
The Autobiography of Henry Adams. Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot.
Eliot: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces. Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America.
Walter Benjamin: “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one.” V. S. Naipaul, A Way in the World. Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s.George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context. Brian Fawcett, Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow. Jean Toomer, Cane. Edmund Carpenter, Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! Gilbert Sorrentino, “The Moon in Its Flight.” James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip. Genre is a minimum-security prison. Dylan: “I may look like Robert Frost, but I feel like Jesse James.” Suzan-Lori Parks: “I don’t explode the form because I find traditional plays boring—I don’t really. It’s just that those structures never could accommodate the figures that take up residence inside me.” You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back. The indivisibility of the varieties of expression.
Ben Marcus: “The lyric essayist seems to enjoy all of the liberties of the fiction writer, with none of a fiction writer’s burden of unreality, the nasty fact that none of this ever really happened that a fiction writer daily wakes to. One can never say of the lyric essayist’s work that ‘it’s just fiction,’ a vacuous but prevalent dismissal akin to criticizing someone with his own name. ‘Lyric essay’ is a rather ingenious label, since the essayist supposedly starts out with something real, whereas the fiction writer labors under a burden to prove, or create, that reality, and can expect mistrust and doubt from a reader at the outset. In fiction, lyricism can look like evasion, special pleading, pretension. In the essay, it is apparently artistic, a lovely sideshow to The Real that, if you let it, will enhance what you think you know. The implied secret here is that one of the smartest ways to write fiction today is to say that you’re not, and then to do whatever you very well please. Fiction writers, take note. Some of the best fiction is these days being written as nonfiction”—e.g., Hilton Als, The Women; Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss; W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants.
Sebald: “There is so often about the standard novel something terribly contrived; you can always feel the wheels grinding. My medium is prose, not the novel.” What the lyric essay gives you—what fiction doesn’t, usually—is the freedom to emphasize its aboutness, its metaphysical meaningfulness. There’s plenty of drama, but it’s subservient to the larger drama of mind.
Hamlet is, more than anything else, Hamlet talking about a multitude of different topics. I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective—a lens, a distortion effect. Hamlet’s very nearly final words: “Had I but the time… O, I could tell you.” He would keep riffing forever if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.
The real story isn’t in the drama of what happens; it’s what we’re thinking about while nothing, or very little, is happening. The singular obsessions, endlessly revised. The sound of one hand clapping. The sound of a person sitting alone in the dark, thinking. Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.
I’m not interested, though, in self per se; I’m interested in self as theme-carrier, as host.What I want is the sound of a person sitting alone in the dark, thinking about life—e.g., Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”; Borges, Other Inquisitions; Stendhal, On Love; Baldwin, the early essays. The sound of one hand clapping.
One of my favorite things anyone has ever said about something I’ve written was, “It’s all about you and yet somehow it’s not about you. How can that be?” Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” Emerson: “He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
John D’Agata: “The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems.” Berryman, The Dream Songs. Vonnegut’s prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five. Philip Larkin, all. Anne Carson, pretty much everything. Annie Dillard, For the Time Being. “Maybe the works succeed, maybe they fail, but at least what they both do is clarify the problem at hand. They’re both journeys. They’re both pursuits of knowledge. One could say that fiction, metaphorically, is a pursuit of knowledge, but ultimately it’s a form of entertainment. I think, at least, essays and poetry are more directly and more urgently about figuring something out about the world. Fiction may do that, too, but not in the fiction I’ve read.” Which is why I can’t read or write novels anymore, with very few exceptions, the exceptions being those novels so meditative they’re barely disguised essays. David Markson, This Is Not a Novel. J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Michel Houellebecq, pretty much everything. E. L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel. Benjamin Constant, Adolphe. Lydia Davis, pretty much everything.
Cioran: “Only the suspect artist starts from art; the true artist draws his material elsewhere: from himself. There is only one thing worse than boredom, and that is the fear of boredom.And it this fear I experience each time I open a novel. I have no use for the hero’s life, don’t attend to it, don’t even believe in it. The genre, having squandered its substance, no longer has an object. The character is dying out; the plot, too. It is no accident that the only novels deserving of interest today are precisely those novels in which, once the universe is disbanded, nothing happens.” Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy. Thomas Bernhard, pretty much everything. Camus, The Fall. Marguerite Duras, The Lover. Barry Hannah, Boomerang.
Hannah: “I love biography because there’s not the veil of ‘let’s pretend.’ That’s the thing that’s wrong with art. I don’t like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances. Fancifulness is just not for me. The never-never lands of the imagination have not interested me that much. The thing that puts you there, but puts you in a special space that you cannot get anywhere else but the page—that’s what I’m interested in. This is what Beckett is all about: he decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs, with its formulas. And yet he wanted art. But he wanted it right from life. He didn’t like, finally, that Joycean voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down. And he bores the hell out of a lot of people because he wants to talk about desperate individual existence. But he made a kind of joy out of depression. I find him a joyous writer; his stories read like prayers. You don’t have to think about literary allusions, but your dead-on experience itself. That’s what I want from the voice. I want it to transcend artiness. I want the veil of ‘let’s pretend’ out.”
When I was eighteen, I wanted a life consecrated to art. I imagined a wholly committed art-life: every gesture would be an aesthetic expression or response. That got old fast because, unfortunately, life is filled with allergies, credit card bills, tedious commutes, etc. Life is, in large part, rubbish. The beauty of reality-based art—art underwritten by reality-hunger—is that it’s perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) “life as art.” Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like—can be—art. Art suddenly looks and is more interesting, and life, astonishingly enough, starts to be livable.