Yesterday I had the minorly excruciating and entirely bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of personal introductions on the first day of a nine-person seminar class. The class, which I am considering auditing, is being taught by a Jesuit monk turned professor turned journalist and recently re-turned professor, so perhaps he doesn’t know that most graduate seminars consist of intellectual exchanges between people who, for the most part, don’t know each other very well outside the classroom and form their ideas of one another largely on the basis of how smart they manage to sound when talking about the assigned texts. Most graduate seminars begin with “introductions,” but these take the form of “Hi, I’m Mary, I’m a second year in the English department, and I work on Victorian novels.” This professor, by contrast, demanded that each of us give an account of our relationship to Americanness, to religion, and to poetry (this being a class on American religious poetry), and then proceeded to interrupt each of us numerous times with sincerely interested questions. “Oh, what town in Texas was that?” “Would you say your connection to Catholicism is more cultural, then?” etc. For the nine of us to account for ourselves and answer his questions in sufficient detail took the whole three hours allotted for the seminar, which was on the one hand excruciatingly boring and on the other hand fascinating.
What fascinated me was not the particular details of my colleagues’ stories (though they sometimes were quite interesting), but the process of accounting for myself in this way, and of watching other people do the same thing. My “religion” and my “poetry” stories are both things I have recounted so many times that my telling of them in class today was more like a recitation than a process of self-discovery — but my “American” answer was a little more roughshod, and I ended up feeling dissatisfied with it, like I hadn’t really expressed what I’d wanted to. What happened, actually, was that I recited a couple of things about my parents’ families, but I didn’t really get a chance to think or talk about my own “American” experience, which has far more to do with my growing up in suburban New Jersey than with my mother’s family being Irish potato famine immigrants.
Whether or not it was true, it looked to me that my colleagues’ stories were, for the most part, more “authentic” than my own — they seemed to be answering these questions for the first time, and saying something “real,” rather than just rattling off the stories they’d told to themselves and their friends a billion times before. I realized immediately, even as I was having this thought, that it probably wasn’t true; it was just that since I was hearing their stories for the first time, they seemed more spontaneous.
I began to think, while walking home, that it would be a very interesting exercise to try to write one’s autobiography — or even just bits of it — completely without the help of one’s familiar store of stories about oneself. That is, to try to dig up and put into words the parts of your life that you’d never put into words before, not even to yourself. It may be that I’m an academic and a writer, or it may just be that I’m a human and everybody does this, but I am constantly, constantly telling myself stories about myself. Even as I know that I’m fictionalizing and oversimplifying, it’s helpful and reassuring to be able to trace certain kinds of continuity, to be able to say “I presently feel this way because of these other things that happened in the past” and “I did that terrible thing because I couldn’t help it, that is the kind of thing I have always done, but at least I did it less terribly this time.”
I suspect that, the farther back I tried to reach in my past without the aid of my stories, the less I would find. From my elementary school years, I don’t think there’s a single thing my mind could touch that is not already part of my Grand Narrative. But from middle school, and certainly later, there must be things lurking in my mind that are not crystallized into words in the same way that the more “important” events are.
I recently gave a paper at a conference on excess and obsession, which is one reason why I’ve been driven to think about the above things. In a lot of ways, the most illuminating panel at the conference turned out to be the one I had most snickered about to my friends beforehand: the panel on fandom. What the fandom scholars were able to articulate that the more traditional scholars (myself included) were not was, more or less, that what we are talking about when we are talking about “excess,” in any kind of literary/cultural way, is emotion, and that emotion is embarrassing. When you’re a Trekkie, a Xenaphile, or an emo kid, you are identifying with an emotional attachment that is viewed with skepticism by the rest of society because of its publicness and because of its fervor. It seems to me that we are generally expected, these days, to have our emotions quietly and at home. (And hasn’t this always been the case? With the brief subcultural exception of the Summer of Love?)
Many of the conference participants, in other words, seemed to be coding “excess” as “authentic,” to be buying into the idea that that which is unarticulated is unspoiled in much the same vein as my autobiography speculations above. This was particularly true of the queer theorists, at least two of whom focused on queer reading practice as something that draws on textual possibilities rather than textual actualities to move toward an imagined utopian future that is acknowledged as imagined, and yet still must be imagined.
I found their frankness about possibility very helpful. There probably are parts of my life that I haven’t articulated to myself, but the minute I discover them I begin to articulate them, and they become assimilated into the already-existing Grand Narrative, becoming just more examples of this or that Trend In My Life At That Time. Perhaps the only way these parts of my history can have power is as possibilities, as dark corners that remain dark. One of the keynote speakers at the conference remarked that, as a writer, “one has to hide one’s intent” — when I asked him in the Q&A to elaborate, he more or less said that your intent is not going to sell books; that you have to give readers something they want, and smuggle your “real” message in the back door. I can empathize, of course. Nearly every paper in my academic career has had the secret or not-so-secret message of “please please try to love one another,” and I think I would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, enduring works of art have exactly this message as well. But slapping a sticker on the front of Ulysses reading “LOVE IS IN HERE” would not particularly have helped Joyce sell more copies — because, as I said, emotion is embarrassing. You have to give readers something else to tell themselves that they want: the challenge of the experimentation, the pleasure of the text, the possibility of pornography, etc.
Probably the best readings of texts are the ones that leave some of the dark places unlit. Psyche should not have lit her lamp to look on Cupid’s face, and love suffers in the labeling.
First of all, a confession: I haven’t read the new Pynchon, nor do I plan to in the near future. I am studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and I just don’t have time for “outside” reading on that scale. However, Joe over at The Kugelmass Episodes recently talked me into re-reading The Crying of Lot 49 with him, and has written a very insightful post on it, to which I will now respond. I should also take a moment here to thank Joe for pushing me into the academic blogging world in the first place; I had been toying with the idea for at least a year, but had mostly been too shy.
In my last post, I began with a quote by Dillard that I never particularly explained: “There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.” It’s an interesting line; you realize upon inspection that it doesn’t so much efface the artist as transmute her into light itself, into a force of nature. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon gives us a related image:
If it was really Pierce’s attempt to leave an organized something behind after his own annihilation, then it was part of her duty, wasn’t it, to bestow life on what had persisted, to try to be what Driblette was, the dark machine in the centre of the planetarium, to bring the estate into pulsing stelliferous Meaning, all in a soaring dome around her?
The novel’s protagonist, Oedipa Maas, has been named executor of her ex-boyfriend’s will, and in the process of sorting out his large southern California real estate empire has stumbled across what she believes to be a vast conspiracy involving, among other things, an underground postal service. The “Driblette” mentioned here is the director of a play that Oedipa believes has something to do with all this. Here, Pynchon positions Oedipa the executor and Driblette the director as sources of light: both of their jobs are to sort things out and illuminate them so that others can understand. Unlike Dillard’s artist, their light is artificial, mechanical. But a line of Borges’ comes to mind. In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” he describes a world wherein a forged encyclopedia from a fictional planet slowly begins to infiltrate its way through scholarly channels into legitimacy:
How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön; how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detailed evidence of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read: ‘inhuman laws’) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
The difference, then, is that while Dillard pounds her fists against a materiality that, divinely created or not, will always be mute, Pynchon and Borges find much more compelling the endless complications that arise when we try to communicate. If the light that shines through an artist must be “natural,” it makes sense that the critic/reader/interpreter must be man-made. Perhaps this is what is meant by the designation “post-modern”: Pynchon does not start with the natural world, or even with the “natural” interactions of humans, but with pieces of communication as such. Or rather, with pieces of possible communication. Early in the novel, the layout of the streets of San Narciso remind Oedipa of an electrical circuit: “Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meanings, of an intent to communicate.” Throughout her journey, Oedipa is continually confronting texts, items, and coincidences and continually having to decide whether and what they are supposed to communicate.
Joe, in the aforementioned post, gives the following account of the novel:
So Pynchon became a Robbins for me, one who is not outgrown. What he does is certainly not the only possible function of literature. He has merely created a story about the way narrative functions — the interplay of love and curiosity, the irresistible progress forward through revelations, and backwards through meanings, the re-minting of the world by metaphor, the symbolic death of final closure. In other words, he has created a story about the very peculiar and indispensable reason for prose, for teaching, and writing, and reading it.
While all of the things he lists here are good reasons for teaching literature, I would like to add another: The Crying of Lot 49 dramatizes the eternal problem of the reader. “Am I reading too much into this?” It’s a question they generally train us professional scholars of literature not to ask; if you think it’s there, it’s there, no matter what the author may or may not have intended. Generally I accept both Derrida’s notion of the instability of the signifier and Freud’s notion of the unconscious, but discounting authorial intent entirely seems like much too glib a solution. If literature is supposed to be communication (is it?), what the author intended to say ought to matter, at least a little bit. Oedipa’s fanatical search for authorial intent strikes us as hyperbolic, but poignant; for her, there are no alternatives besides cosmic, grandly-orchestrated meaning and mute, meaningless coincidence. Oedipa can’t see her way out of this problem because she will not allow for the possibility that she, as interpreter, can be more than just a projector, throwing somebody else’s map of the cosmos onto the wall. But her frustration resonates; even though we critics have wised up to our own role in all this, who among us has not wished she could talk to Shakespeare, Melville, Woolf, and find out for sure what they were up to?
The tragedy, of course, is that even if we could have this conversation, we would not really be able to find this out. The search for an underground postal service is a search for honest communication, “a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, and betrayals of spiritual poverty for the official government delivery system.” Oedipa needs to believe in this, that behind the banality of everyday life, real communication is happening somewhere.
The thing is, it is. Every time somebody really listens to somebody else, stops waiting their turn and scripting their reply instead of listening and considering another person’s ideas, real communication is happening. It’s certainly not perfect, and our failures to understand each other will always haunt us as the provocative “cul-de-sacs” that Joe points out towards the end of his post.
Pynchon calls communication a “secular miracle,” and I think it’s a telling phrase. It might be the secular miracle: that humans, whose minds must always be utterly separate, can make themselves understood. God’s miracles are utterly uncommunicative, if Dillard is to be believed — the proof of a miracle is its inscrutability. Rocks and trees are miraculous to her. As Joe points out, one of Pynchon’s characters defines a miracle as “another world’s intrusion into this one;” for Dillard, the created world itself is the mute testimony to this intrusion. But what Pynchon wants us to see is that communication between people can be a miracle too — when do we feel the presence of another world more fully than when we finally understand what somebody else has been talking about?
There is no such thing as an artist; there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows.
–Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
Anyone who loves to read will tell you that certain books are cathedrals. You enter them and are immediately humbled. You are the only one inside. You spend hours in there, examining the stained glass and the grain of the wood on the pew in front of you. Some of these books are ornate, some are spare, but all of them are shot through with a fierce light that seems to be breaking out between the words.
Every reader’s holy books are different. Mine include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Trilogy by H.D., Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard. Dillard was the first essayist I fell in love with, the first person to make me realize that an essay could be a work of art, and so it seemed appropriate to begin this project with a discussion of her book. Bloggers are essentially essayists, after all, if somewhat slapdash ones.
I first got into Dillard because of a boy. Kenan was a sophomore in high school when I was a freshman; he was somebody with whom I loved to climb trees, but he was also somebody who knew The Ways Of The World. He recommended Dillard to me, and I dutifully went out and purchased Teaching a Stone to Talk, selected from among her works probably because of its title. The first sentence arrested me: “It had been like dying, sliding down that mountain pass.” I knew I had discovered an art form that would be a necessary part of life from that moment on. Essays, creative nonfiction, where had you been all those years?
It’s a stern art, grounded mercilessly in reality. It’s like photography: you take a real thing, out there in the world, and you mess around with your aperture, focus, and F-stop until you achieve the composition that communicates, through some miracle, your subjective experience of the thing. To read Dillard is to encounter the world, bright and immanent and baffling, and to realize you are not other than the world. You die, you slide down the mountain pass.
Holy the Firm is almost certainly the book I have read more times than any other. It weighs in at only 76 pages and takes only an hour to read, so every six months or so when I find myself with a particularly lovely chunk of time to kill I will pick it up again. Its opening is ten times more stunning than that of Teaching a Stone to Talk; so much so that I will refrain from quoting it here, because I want you to have the experience of opening the book and seeing for yourself. Dillard intimates in The Writing Life that in its early stages, Holy the Firm was poetry, and only later in the process did she decide to “print it as prose.”
It’s a book about suffering and beauty. Dillard wrote it while living, Thoreau-like, in a one-room cabin on the Puget Sound, one wall of which was glass and faced the ocean. This situation itself is the chief subject of the first chapter. The second chapter is about a little girl whose face gets burned off, and the third chapter is about communion wine. Dillard describes herself in some book, I forget which, as a “Christian mystic.” She is a troubled one– the beauty of the world impels her to worship, but its cruelty impels her to mutiny. Her books urgently ask “one of the few questions worth asking, to wit, What in the Sam Hill is going on here?”. If you take seriously the idea that there is a God, the existence of suffering poses an enormous problem. Theologians have been arguing about it for years, and the solutions they offer are, let’s face it, pretty thin. Suffering exists so we can appreciate the good? Suffering exists so that morality can exist? Suffering is an inevitable consequence of free will? Some of those sound good on paper, particularly the last one, but come now– God bound by the laws of logic, unable to lift the rocks he creates? That has never been a persuasive image. Job’s comforters offer answers like these, but they are futile. God’s answer to Job’s plea is the only real answer: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
The problem is always that God is inaccessible, and we are hopelessly material. Dillard takes her materiality seriously, and sees in it the grounds for a serious challenge against the Allmighty. But she also sees something else:
What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?
The idea that art arises from suffering is a cliche as old as the standard theodicies above, but to my knowledge no theologian has posited that suffering exists so that we can create art. Art is a means and not an end in most religions. Reading Christian theology, one is sometimes struck by how monstrous man seems– made of clay, and yet he speaks. In the middle ages, theologians were so baffled by the idea of how something with no material existence (the soul) could cohabit spatially with something of only material existence (the body), that they invented a third concept, the spirit, to bind the two together. God told them that man consisted only of body and soul, but Plato told them that “it isn’t possible to combine two things well all by themselves, without a third; there has to be some bond between the two that unites them” (Timaeus). To avoid heresy, St. Augustine and Aelred of Rievaulx had to declare this third thing entirely material– they identified it with the “subtler” elements of fire and air. Through manipulating these elements, they claimed, the soul was able to control the body’s grosser elements of water and earth.
For Dillard, materiality is material, the stuff of art. For Dillard, man is not a monster who needs to be explained away, but a miracle who needs to be explored and exulted. Here is her description of the mind-body problem:
It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools– that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet, and those feet likely to fell us over a tree root or jam us on a stone. The joke part is that we forget it. Give the mind two seconds alone and it thinks it’s Pythagoras. We wake up a hundred times a day and laugh.
I resolve, then, never to be Pythagoras. This blog will be a record of wakings up.