I have a piece in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on reading Tim O’Brien in Hanoi. You can read it here.
Jenny Davidson reminds me of Georges Perec’s novel “La Disparition”, translated by Gilbert Adair as “A Void”. The book doesn’t contain the letter “e”. This becomes thematic, with the protagonist trying to figure out what it is that seems to be missing in his life. Beautiful conceit: the reader knows what’s missing in the character’s universe, it’s blindingly obvious to us, but the character can have no conception of it, and this comes to stand for our own relationship to what’s missing from our spiritual lives, which could be blindingly obvious to some hypothetical outside observer. In that way the audience-protagonist relationship works rather like “Memento”.
But the point here is that Gilbert Adair translated this from French to English. And it’s quite readable. Think of the challenge in every sentence. This gets back to my beef with people who too often claim that words, concepts or works of art are “untranslatable”. Certainly some are, but a lot of the time it’s just laziness and a desire to appear mysterious. I think Paul Bowles has a really good line about that sort of empty exoticism somewhere, but I can’t remember it.
Got some more time, so I figured I’d finish it off.
5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. The first truly complete-feeling aeschatological fantasy. I think Tolkien has been enormously influential in shaping people’s subconscious assumptions about history and international relations, and not necessarily in a good way; a heroic epic approach to IR can be pretty dangerous. The main problem being that while Mordor was full of orcs, Iraq is full of people.
6. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit. Compare to #5 for interesting ideas about American triumphalism in the ’90s and ’00s. But Hegel is obviously more interesting than a narrow reading through the Fukuyama lens tends to indicate, and you do have to figure out some way to synthesize your idea of history with your idea of personal moral development if you want to think about politics as a moral enterprise at all.
7. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. I’m really glad I got to reread much of Bakhtin in my late 20s, because I don’t think I got it at all the first time around in college. It was much more powerful to think about how people’s statements emerge in a social process of response and constraint, rather than springing full-blown from the invisible monad of the individual imagination, after I’d been through the experience of having editors and an audience. Also, I reread Bakhtin in order to write an article for Lingua Franca, which was what drew me gradually into journalism. Again, pretty influential.
8. Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. I don’t think it’s his best book, but it has the most clearly formulated vision of America as either meaningless aporia or fiendish conspiracy. That Americans’ hunger for meaning plays itself out in that fashion is an insight I think remains central to my self-understanding of America.
9. Jane Austen, Emma. Guess what? People often don’t understand themselves very well, and their actions are driven by desires they themselves aren’t aware of. Freud explained this in the 20th century, but it’s ten times more powerful when Jane Austen shows you how it works, in an utterly convincing and sympathetic fashion, a hundred years earlier.
10. Chaos, James Gleick. I think this was my first introduction to the idea that even fairly simple systems can have complex and unpredictable behaviors, and that basically things in the world are likely to be vastly more complicated and perverse than you expect, so great big heroic interventions are usually unwise unless urgently necessary.
This has turned into a pretty weird list; I think that’s because much of what I’ve learned that was most influential didn’t come from books, but from magazine articles, movies, and, yes, blogs.
Filed under: Literature
Lists of the 10 books that most influenced you. People on the right are posting ‘em, people on the left are posting ‘em, I’m a hopelessly faddish so I decided I’d post one too. But I ran out of time. So here are four of them, anyway.
1. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. Everybody’s citing it, but you know, that’s the kind of book it is. I remember sitting in a waiting lounge at Dulles International Airport reading this and feeling like I was being personally eviscerated. I was in love for the first time and she was still somewhat involved with her previous boyfriend, who was a lot taller and more athletic than me; that may have had something to do with it. But the idea of examining the value of values, looking at them skeptically as things that had evolved historically for often brute-fact instrumental reasons (i.e. because a certain value was useful to the claims on power of a certain interest group), was incredibly compelling and ruthless. Once you’ve recognized this, you can’t — or shouldn’t — ever be able to uncritically embrace any kind of “first principles”, ever again, without thinking about who those “first principles” serve and whom they enslave.
2. Foucault, Discipline and Punish. This book fell out of favor by the late ’90s and is now back in favor, I think. Whatever. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I found it extremely influential. Basically it did for my thinking about institutions and governance what Genealogy of Morals did for my thinking about values. As a side note, I’ve never understood why people who read Ayn Rand (whose work I’ve always found completely idiotic) are presumed to be more skeptical towards government than people who read Foucault. Foucault is far more brutal and uncompromising in his skepticism towards institutional and governmental motives and incentives. It’s just that, not being childishly naive, he also sees that we’re all formed by and imbricated in the institutions, and the brutal skepticism has to extend to individuals too.
3. Ayn Rand, Anthem. This is acquiring a narrative thread. Anyway, I read this on a bike trip through Cape Cod when I was 15, and found it so stupid and inferior (I’d read Animal Farm the week before) that it put me off Ayn Rand and any form of libertarianism forever. So I’d consider that pretty influential.
4. Neil Sheehan, A Bright and Shining Lie. But this is where I ran out of time, so you figure it out.
Filed under: Literature
Adam Kirsch has a really nice review of a new book by Elif Batuman, “The Possessed”, about her experiences in Russian literature grad school and studying abroad in Uzbekistan. The narrative aspects of the book sound like they pull off the difficult task of drawing life from the classic absurdist tropes of Eastern European literature without descending into patronizing “in Soviet Russia, television watch you!” kitsch (a pitfall I think “Everything Is Illuminated” tumbled into, head over heels). But the most arresting part of Kirsch’s review touches on Batuman’s willingness to admit to something that’s practically taboo in mainstream American letters these days: a frank enthusiasm for Derrida.
What’s really unusual, and challenging, is Batuman’s praise of the most abstract kinds of literary theory.
It is conventional to talk about theorists—especially the dreaded French theorists—as if they were foes of the common reader, draining the reading experience of simple joy. But Batuman shows that, in her own life, the opposite has been true. When she first read Anna Karenina as a teenager, one of the things that struck her—as, after reading her, it must strike us—is the way Tolstoy readily recycles the names of characters: “Anna’s lover and her husband had the same first name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and half brother were both Sergei.” Batuman writes that this kind of casual repetition seemed “remarkable, surprising, and true to life.” Once she gets to graduate school, she finds that the work of Jacques Derrida helps her to understand why: “As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: it always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing. … The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual.”
This is a really strong turn for both Batuman and Kirsch to make. We’ve had a good 20 years now of an attitude towards academia and criticism in mainstream culture that basically amounts to rank anti-intellectualism. I think I first noticed how sick I was getting of that attitude a couple of months ago while reading a blog post by Scott Eric Kaufmann on “Mad Men” and realizing that he was getting some stuff out of the character of Don Draper that was extraordinarily deep. It was about three layers of reference more interesting than anything you’d read in the pages of Slate, and I suddenly remembered it had been about six years since I’d read criticism that benefited from that kind of competence in critical theory.
I don’t have that sort of competence; I opted not to go to grad school in Russian literature, and I’m happy I did. But Elif Batuman isn’t ridiculous to evaluate her emotional responses to the handsomest boy in her program through the filter of “Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire”; living your life as though intellectual interpretation counts is a way of taking life passionately and seriously. I don’t know what Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is, but I wish I did.
Occasionally it’s nice to be reminded that out there in Christendom, there are still people capable of saying this kind of stuff:
The main sin is that masturbation (with minuscule exception) involves fantasy which is a distortion or absence of reality. In other words, it is a lie.
I expect that you know your fair share of the Bible, so it is a no-brainer about what Christianity from the beginning says about lies. They are unbecoming for the Christian because the Lord himself faced the truth of the ugliness and brokenness of life on this earth by hanging on the cross and we are called to be the same.
I, too, have read the occasional fantasy novel that felt like the author was just jerking off, and even some that felt like having nails driven through your palms. But I’d think even extremely literalist religious readers would hesitate to condemn an entire genre that includes, for example, C.S. Lewis.
Filed under: Literature
Katie Roiphe’s terrific piece in last week’s NY Times Book Review on the relative lack of sexual exuberance in today’s young male novelists’ work was marred, I thought, only by its unfounded contention that nobody likes Philip Roth or John Updike anymore. (Roth’s most recent novel got terrible reviews, but apart from that I haven’t heard anyone maligning “Portnoy’s Complaint” or his extraordinary run of work in the 1990s and early Aughts; and the tone in most Updike references I read is pretty reverent.) Apart from that I think it was pretty solid. Basically, she thinks internalized feminist critiques of aggressive, polygynous male sexuality have turned today’s young male novelists into timid, conflicted Prufrocks:
In the early novels of Roth and his cohort there was in their dirty passages a sense of novelty, of news, of breaking out. Throughout the ’60s, with books like “An American Dream,” “Herzog,” “Rabbit, Run,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Couples,” there was a feeling that their authors were reporting from a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes — all of it had the thrill of the new, or at least of the newly discussed…
But our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex. Prototypical is a scene in Dave Eggers’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm”; or the relationship in Benjamin Kunkel’s “Indecision”: “We were sleeping together brother-sister style and mostly refraining from outright sex.”
It’s certainly true that men socialized in the feminist era are more conflicted about the idea of depicting their protagonists’ sexual exploits in triumphal language, or glorifying or romanticizing the outlandish wackiness of their libidos. And Roiphe is right that at its extreme, this self-censorship of politically incorrect male desire leads to Eggers’s ickily repressed moralistic scene, or to the crypto-Christianist sexual phobia of “Twilight”. [It occurs to me that "Twilight" is written by a woman. Duh.] It’s worth considering the extent to which male writers’ hesitancy about male sexual greed may edge them towards pretty dishonesty, or towards the safe cop-out of depicting their characters as nebbishes.
But here are a few things I thought of that may cast Roiphe’s point in a different light. The first is that the sexual revolution ultimately was confined to the unmarried. In the ’70s, when Updike and Roth were at the height of their powers, it wasn’t evident that this would be the case, but ultimately experiments in non-monogamous lifestyles in the US petered out. Many would have needed alternative economic arrangements to the nuclear family, which never materialized. Importantly, it turned out the vast majority of women just didn’t like socially sanctioned screwing around anywhere near as much as men did; it taking two to tango, this put the kibosh on a lot of the fun. And without any sense that society’s preferred arrangements for sexual affiliation might be profoundly changing, it’s very hard to sustain the kind of exploratory excitement that Roth, Bellows, Mailer and Updike put into their depictions of sexual experimentation.
Another point is that while many of the great libido novels of the ’60s are about the explosive experience of engaging in infidelity, we tend to remember fewer great ’60s libido novels as depicting the explosive experience of being cheated on. In fact, many of these novels do both; Bellows’s Herzog, at the opening of his eponymous novel, is lying in a hammock in the Berkshires calling himself crazy because he has just taken a gun to try to threaten his ex-wife and the man she ran off with. In this case, it is the wild and crazy experience of having your wife run off with your best friend that drives the madness and the emotional growth, made the more rich by the reader’s sense that our protagonist, sympathetic and insightful as he may be, richly deserved what he got.
But the most important way that the sexual revolution has influenced today’s writers is that it succeeded so well as to become banal, gross, obvious and commercially corrupt. Roiphe briefly touched on this in her piece, but I think it’s important to note that while this may be the moment of All the Sensitive Young Literary Men, it’s also the moment of the Bangbus. In 1969, Nathan Zuckerman celebrated his daring in whipping it out for all the world to see; in 2009, the guy doing that would be that creepy dude who invented Girls Gone Wild. Young writers today, if they’re avoiding this material, aren’t motivated only by a nice feminist upbringing; they’re motivated by trying to keep their brands distinct from those of widely accepted, commercially mainstream pornography and pornography-influenced advertising. Roiphe begins her piece with an anecdote about a friend hurling Roth’s latest novel into the trash can after reading an explicit MFF sex scene; she notes that the problem is that it fails as pornography. But the problem is also in part that pornography in 2009 is not what pornography was in 1969. Explicit sex scenes are now “transgressive” only in the most exhausted and empty conformist fashion, in the same way that football players believe themselves in some sense to be acting transgressively when they drink large quantities of beer. This is formulaic and de rigueur transgression. (Ross Douthat makes basically the same point.)
One member of Roiphe’s today’s-young-men roster who managed to do this kind of scene successfully and honestly, I thought, was Jonathan Franzen, with the sex scenes from the lesbian-awakening narrative in “The Corrections”. I am, obviously, not a lesbian, and for all I know those scenes were in fact quasi-pornographic fantasy. But they felt to me like a sincere, motivated and successful rendering of the obsessive crystal-meth alternate reality you spend your time in when you’re having new kinds of sex with someone you really, really, ever-increasingly, caution-to-the-winds dig. And, actually, I thought his depiction of the catastrophic teacher-student sexual narrative at the beginning of the novel, and its aftermath, were pretty spot-on as well, and can’t honestly be dismissed as wimpy. The sequences in which Chip circles all the letter “M”‘s in the newspaper and follows it up by masturbating onto a couch that still smells slightly of her were, I thought, appropriately Rothy. I also loved the jump-cut transformation of Miranda in Chip’s eyes from a ridiculous student in his section wearing a very uncool beret to an object of sexual mania.
But anyway, I did think it was interesting that the spot in the novel where Franzen felt free to depict transgressive extramarital sexual engagement as a liberating, uncontrollably irrational D.H. Lawrence-style voyage of the self was as part of the socially condoned (in liberal society, anyway) narrative of gay self-discovery. Which leads me to think that Roiphe is right that the moral strictures governing the depiction of sex, in general, are too tight for this generation of male writers, and that more guys need to start writing about the disgusting shit we’re actually thinking about. Though of course that would mostly just lead to a lot more depictions of lesbians.