I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET / Dr. Joseph Suglia on “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing.  (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”)  Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer.  Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.

Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write?  Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does.  He copies; he does not write.  He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator.  He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.

Not only does Bartleby never write.  He does not even seem to read.  The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”

And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office?  Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story?  Why not Nippers?  Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.

One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers.  There are indeed references to poeticism in the text.  John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth.  To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.

There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story?  Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing.  What is the story about?

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.

Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee.  He does exactly what he is paid to do.  Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.”  He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.”  He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do.  This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc.  Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.”  Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension.  The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.

One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination.  Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying.  It is a form of “passive resistance.”  It is a slippery slogan.  It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.

The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story.  One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.”  Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office.  Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock.  The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer.  The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby).  One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby.  This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.

Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee.  He hyper-agrees with the terms of the office.  He over-adheres to the policies of the office.  Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus.  Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.

Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby).  Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies.  He copies the office and thus undermines the office.

The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description.  He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness.  The logic of hyper-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity.  Kierkegaard was such a hyper-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being.  Kierkegaard’s hyper-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.

This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office.  Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel.  If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible.  His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.”  Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity.  At the core of his passivity is an active dimension.  He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations.  His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras.  He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”

What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?

The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business.  Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ.  [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.]  The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”)  “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.

Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience.  These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination.  We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”).  Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance.  His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.”  This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.

Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism.  A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington.  This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice).  He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

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An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature.  I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text.  If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written.  The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text.  After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract.  It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.

Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all?  From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect).  Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot.  This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots.  They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic.  There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation.  But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment.  Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.

Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600).  By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot.  I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play.  Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.

The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage.  He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves.  She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man whom she definitely does not love.  The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law.  It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest.  The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest.  Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law.  The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play.  He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen.  Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World.  Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.

There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings.  Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer.  He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon).  The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further.  The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius.  Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower.  The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.

We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia.  Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.

As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander.  When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man.  Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.

The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic.  Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest.  While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice.  Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated.  Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.

The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then, she is obsessed with Ass Head.  After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy.  Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.

Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius.  Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander).  Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.

The forest is a place of disunification.  Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers.  The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies.  Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest.  This concealment allows the fairies–in particular, Puck–to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius.  (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.)  And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine.  This is what I would call “comedic irony”–the counterpart of dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better.  Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness.  Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”

The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen.  The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.

The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth.  The play is adorned with two female characters–one earthly, one ethereal–who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.

Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire.  Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer.  Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles.  Helena to Demetrius:

“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].

Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena.  She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:

“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].

I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent.  This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would have been considered absurd, uncanny, and unnatural.  Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage.  I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however.  Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them.  Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac.  When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.

All of this, the totality of the plot, was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.  Am I the first literary critic to notice that Helena is a borderliner?  Those with Borderline Personality Disorder shift from absolute love to absolute hatred with the velocity of a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing.  They angelize the object of their desires prematurely and rapidly and then diabolize the object of their desires with equal prematurity and with equal rapidity.  A borderliner dismisses all flaws in the beloved in the ‘love’ phase and dismisses all positive traits in the beloved in the ‘hatred’ phrase.  This movement from absolute love to absolute hatred is often typed “splitting,” which is an unfortunate term.  It is more of a switching than it is a splitting.  Though we do not witness her diabolization of Demetrius, Helena pursues Demetrius with such voracity that she does resemble a borderline-disordered person.

*****

The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored.  The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap.  Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies.  The play-within-the-play is interrupted.  Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters.  The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other.  There is the animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom).  Characters are mistaken for one another (to repeat, Lysander is confused with Demetrius).  The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.

In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married.  I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:

  • No more drugs.
  • No more separateness.
  • No more interruption.
  • No more perverse sexuality.
  • No more conflict.
  • No more bestialization.
  • No more confusion of identity.
  • No more bachelorhood.

Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love.  At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander.  The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages.  It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.

Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law.  As Theseus says to Hermia:

“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].

Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State.  As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:

“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].

Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off?  His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower.  Is his desire for Helena now authentic?  On what basis could we say that it is?  In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not.  Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot.  Again, this same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same.  Demetrius:

“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].

He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena.  Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body.  The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self.  Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?

*****

There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.”  Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed.  The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):

Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].

Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].

The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream.  As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding.  This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play.  The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality.  The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) is tamed by marriage.  As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding.  The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.

*****

From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized.  But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

 

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER / David Foster Wallace Was a Bad Writer / A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Four: Consider the Lobster / CONSIDER THE LOBSTER by David Foster Wallace / Is David Foster Wallace Overrated? / David Foster Wallace Is Overrated / CONSIDER THE LOBSTER IS Overrated

 

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

It is said often of David Foster Wallace (or “DFW,” as his ovine fanboys have christened him, as if he were a shoe store or an airport) that he was a genius.  Would it be curmudgeonly of me to ask, “What kind of a genius was he?”?  He certainly was not a literary genius.  I would be willing to allow that he was, perhaps, a mathematical genius.  But a literary genius?  No, absolutely not.

Anyone who reads D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace will recognize that Wallace was a likable, sincere, soft-spoken person who had interludes of mean-spiritedness, and his death is an absolute loss.  At some stage, however, one must put one’s sentimentality aside and examine, coldly and soberly, the assertion that his writing is great literature.

* * * * *

Consider the Lobster is an agglutination of athetic “essays.”  (Athetic = “lacking a thesis.”)  The collection itself lacks a driving thesis, a sense of cohesion, a thread that would bind all of the pieces together.  Not a single one of the “essays”—such as they are—contains an argument, sustained or otherwise.

Because the book itself is disjointed, it might be useful to pause over each individual text.

“Big Red Son”: An appraisal of the pornography industry from which we learn that this industry is “vulgar” [7] (shocking!) and that Las Vegas is “the least pretentious city in America” [4].  It is disheartening when someone who seemed to care so much about English usage abuses the word “pretentious.”  “Pretentious” means “making the claim to be something that one is not.”  It does not mean “upscale,” “upmarket,” or “snooty.”  If we keep the proper meaning of “pretentious” in mind, it could just as easily be said that Las Vegas is the most pretentious city in America.

“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”: Not so much a negative review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time as a negative review of John Updike the Human Being as he appears to Wallace.  From reading the first five paragraphs, one would sort of have to think that Wallace would eventually make a general statement about phallocratic American writers such as Updike, Mailer, Roth or American virility or fading masculinity, etc., but, no, the review has no implications beyond itself.

“Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”: At the beginning of this astounding lecture, Wallace makes the disarming comment that he is “direly underqualified” [60] to speak on the subject of humor in Kafka.  This assertion is correct.  Wallace knows nothing about Kafka or his work.  If you are not qualified to speak on a subject, then why speak on it at all?

“Authority and American Usage”: An “essay” on the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism, ruined by ingratiatory implorations (“DO YOU LIKE ME?”; “PLEASE LIKE ME!”).  I found the piece to be smarmy and bizarrely cloying, and the racist nonsense about African-Americans made me cringe.

“The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”: The most inappropriate response to the September 11, 2001 attacks ever written, with the exception of “Chuck” Palahniuk’s “The View from Smalltown, USA.”  Palahniuk’s response, incidentally, is a plagiarism of Wallace’s.

“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”: A very strange review of the tennis star’s autobiography Beyond Center Court: My Story.  Wallace seems puzzled that Tracy Austin is a skillful tennis player AND a bad writer.  I am puzzled by his puzzlement.

“Up, Simba”: Painful-to-read meanders through John McCain’s doomed campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.  Completely irrelevant since McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.  Incidentally, did you know that Palahniuk considers “meander” to be a “gay” word?

“Consider the Lobster”: From which you will learn, among other things, that the lobster and the cockroach (for instance) are cousins.  I thought that everyone already knew that.  The “essay” is nothing more than a catalogue of facts and is devoid of anything like an organizing thought.  Unless “lobsters exist” is an organizing thought.  As Hegel reminds us in the preface to Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, factual knowledge is not genuine knowledge at all.  It is possible to memorize facts Jeopardy-style without ever understanding anything.

“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”: Wallace did not have a background in classical or modern literature.  He read the postmodernists, and that was the extent of his knowledge of the literary arts.  His solipsism is painfully evident in the Dostoevsky essay.  He doesn’t even seem very interested in Dostoevsky’s work, except to the degree that it affects American readers and writers: “The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves” [271].  A Russian writer is significant only insofar as he has an impact on an American writer or reader, then.  Is America the epicenter of the universe?  Of the multiverse?  Wallace’s solipsism reminds me of the obituaries of J.G. Ballard.  I paraphrase: “Ballard’s short story ‘The Sound-Sweep’ inspired the Buggles’ song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star,’ which became the first music video ever to be broadcast on MTV.”

“Host”: The editorial, annotative remarks will seem original to anyone who has not read Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.

Consider the Lobster is superficial, not radical.  I intend “radical” in its strict etymological sense of the word: “to the root.”  Wallace never even attempts to get at the root, the radix, the core, the heart of the subjects that he pretends to analyze.

But who cares?  No one cares about logic these days.  No one cares about language these days.  No one cares about logos these days.  No one cares about writing these days.

The blind, slavish, uncritical worship of David Foster Wallace represents one of the dangers of ad hominem “thinking.”  An ad hominem attack attacks the musician instead of the music, the philosopher instead of the philosophy, the artist instead of the art, the sociologist instead of the sociology.  But the reverse is also the case: Ad hominem praise praises the musician at the expense of the music, the philosopher at the expense of the philosophy, the artist at the expense of the art, the sociologist at the expense of the sociology, the writer at the expense of the writing.

David Foster Wallace’s fanboys worship the ghost of the bandana-wearing writer, not the writing that he generated.

A DFW follower once explained his worship of the Dear Leader in these terms: “He is a genius, but he says, ‘like’ and ‘whatever.’”  He was a down-to-Earth genius, then.  An interactive genius.  A nice genius.  A friendly genius.  If the Friendly Genius attends your wedding, your son’s Bar Mitzvah, your son’s confirmation, etc., well, then, he is a good writer.  If he brings a casserole, then he is an especially good writer.  The Friendly Genius smiles at you.  The Friendly Genius smiles at you because he likes you.  If the Friendly Genius likes you, then maybe YOU are a genius, too!  Fanboys like writers who are nice and friendly and hip.  Accommodating and accessible.

[For a nice discussion of the competitiveness behind DFW’s ‘niceness,’ see Rivka Galchen’s review of the Wallace biography.]

The Cult of Genius has no interest in the letter.  The Cult of Genius is not interested in writing at all.  The Cult of Genius is obsessed with the appearance and personality of the author, not the extent to which he or she knows how to write.  Fanboys are preoccupied with Writers, not with Writing.  And they want to become Writers themselves, without bothering very much about Writing.  They don’t want their unwritten books to be published and read; THEY want to be published.

A genuine author, however, loves writing for the sake of writing.  This is one the things that Nietzsche might have intended when he wrote, in Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister: Der beste Autor wird der sein, welcher sich schämt, Schriftsteller zu werden: “The best author will be the one who is ashamed of becoming a writer.”

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

DAMNED by Chuck Palahniuk. Critique. Analysis. Chuck Palahniuk: DAMNED. Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

DAMNED by Chuck Palahniuk

The English language contains approximately 600,000 words, if you believe that words are things that are housed in dictionaries.  What of neologisms?  What of inartfulMicrosoft Word underlines inartful in red, and you won’t find it in any dictionary that I’ve ever come across, but President Obama used that word (if it is one) and used it well, and it seems right.  What about sacrality?  Jean-Francois Lyotard used that “word.”  Is it a word?  What of words that are no longer in currency?  What of paleonyms?  What of sireniform and egrote?  What of names?  Are names words?  Is elbow one word or two (a noun and a verb)?  What of plurals and possessives?  Are head, head’s, heads’, and heads four separate words?  Or are they variations of a single word?  On what basis could we say one or the other?  When does a word become a word?  If a linguistic sign is spoken or written, does it then become a word?  Let us say, as a hypothesis, that a word is a word if it is articulated and employed.  If meaning is predicated on usage, as Wittgenstein believed, shouldn’t all words be used?  The English language is rich and various, full of nuance and synonymy.  Why, then, do so many English speakers limit themselves to the most common Anglo-Saxon vocabulary?  When someone employs “too many” words of French-Latin origin, that person will usually be accused of using “big words.”  There is no such thing as a “big word,” however, unless we are talking about morphology.  There are familiar words, and there are unfamiliar words.  The familiar words in English are of Anglo-Saxon origin; the less familiar ones are mostly Latinate.  You will hear simple-minded English speakers tell you that Latinate words should be avoided, as if William the Conquerer’s French Latin were somehow a corrosion of a pure and original idiom.  English, however, would not be English were it not the happy marriage of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and French Latin.

“Chuck” Palahniuk dwells within a micro-subdivision of the ever-expanding multiverse which is the English language.  He “knows” approximately as many English words as a subnormal ten-year-old American boy.  This explains why he writes on the level of a subnormal ten-year-old American boy and why he is beloved by so many subnormal ten-year-old American boys, his dwindling Hitler-Jugend.  His ovine followers are entranced, as was I, by David Fincher’s visually captivating film Fight Club (1999) and mistakenly equate Fincher’s brilliant vision to that of “Chuck” (they refer to the writer by his given name, projecting an imaginary familiarity with the Leader who has bilked them out of their allowance money).  Many of them are failed or failing elementary or high-school students, white, crypto-Christian, reactionary, American, and male.  (Yes, there are chuckettes.  But the chuckettes outgrow Palahniuk more quickly than the boychicks and the boychucks do.)  And many of them, too many of them, think of themselves as writers: “If Chuck can be a famous writer, so can I…”

And this is the most nauseating thing about “Chuck” Palahniuk: He engendered a band of adolescents who think they have facility in literature because they read Choke.  He is a slovenly, lazy writer who has given birth to a band of slovenly, lazy “aspiring writers” who think that fiction is EZ-2-write.

D.H. Lawrence once said of Herman Melville that his weakness as an author was that he felt his audience in front of him.  “Chuck,” non-artist, writes juvenilia to appease a juvenile audience that, as I suggested above, still misidentifies “Chuck” with filmmaker David Fincher.  If he thinks that horror fiction is selling, “Chuck” will read one book by Shirley Jackson and another by Ira Levin and upchuck what he believes to be horror fiction.  If he thinks that young-adult novels are selling, he will read one book by Dale Basye and upchuck a very bad, very inept Dale Basye pastiche.  Damned is such a pastiche, yet another atrociously written, publicly edited novel by the Tarzan of American letters.

* * * * *

Damned, it’s about a girl called Madison Spencer.  Madison Spencer’s a real bad girl.  She, like, uses big words so that people think she’s smart and stuff.  But she’s not really smart.  She just uses big words which is real dumb.  Hell is a place for people who are deluded, pretentious poseurs and use fancy words and stuff:

“Yes, I know the word excrement” [19].

“I comprehend the term passive-aggressive” [17].

“Yeah, I know the word construct” [Ibid.].

“Yes, I know the word absentia [sic]” [3].

At the end of the book, this girl, her name’s Madison, she knows that, like, she’s just like the simple people.  A simple person just like you and me.  And she learns to talk simple just like the simple people later on in the book.  A simple person.  Just like you.  Just like me.  Just like Chuck.  She’s in Hell ’cause she uses big words but at the end of the book she becomes good when she uses simple words like the simple people do:

“Even now, I hesitate to use words such as eschew and convey and weltschmerz [sic], so thoroughly is my faith shaken.  The actual nature of my death reveals me to be an idiot, no longer a Bright Young Thing, but instead a deluded, pretentious poseur.  Not brilliant, but an impostor who would craft my own illusory reality out of a handful of impressive words.  Such vocabulary props served as my eye shadow, my breast implants, my physical coordination, my confidence.  These words: erudite and insidious and obfuscate, served as my crutches” [177].

She just an idiot like us simple people too.  So, like, at the end of the book and stuff, she don’t use big, fancy words anymore and talks real simple and good like the simple people do.  She was bad when she used the big words.  Now that she don’t use the big words she real good.  Just like us.  Just like Chuck.

Groundling “lit.”

Lilliputian “lit.”

Two things in the passage cited above immediately strike the attention:

1.) Palahniuk-Howard believes that insidious and convey are “big words.”

2.) In a paragraph that denounces “big words,” the word illusory is employed–which the non-literate would consider a “big word.”

Sloshing through this slush, it is easy to see why Doubleday delayed the publication of Damned for five months.  Even after Gerry Howard edited (i.e. recreated) the manuscript, it is still unpublishable.  What we are left with is a fetid and fetal scrawl that is far below the level of your neighborhood writers’ workshop.

If Hell were a library, Damned would be burned on the ninth floor.

* * * * *

Why, precisely, is Palahniuk’s Hell a place where The English Patient (1996) and The Piano (1993) are endlessly spooling and screening?  Why are showings of THESE films considered “punitive presentation[s]” [19]?  What exactly do these films hold in common?

The answer: They both limn the elegant bodies of beautiful women.  The lovely, flowing, alabaster skin of beautiful women.  The svelte, exquisitely sculpted, rotund bodies of Juliette Binoche, Holly Hunter, and Kristin Scott Thomas.  Whereas the female body is seen by many of us as a locus of fecundity and as a wonderland of infinite delights, for Palahniuk, the body of a woman is Hell.  I am not exaggerating.  In Damned, “the actual terrain of Hell” [73] is the body of a woman, with all of its creases and crevices and folds, all of its loops and lobes.

Did you hear that?  Palahniuk’s Hell is the body of a woman.

* * * * *

The time has passed when “Chuck” could be taken seriously as a serious novelist, postmodern or otherwise (though phrases such as “attachments to a fixed identity” [179] demonstrate that he still has postmodernist aspirations).  It is now generally recognized that this forty-nine-year-old Average American Male writes insufficient young-adult fiction and that his books belong in the ‘Young Adult’ section of libraries and bookstores, or perhaps in the ‘Special Interest’ category.  It is saddening that D students wasted their youth on hasty fictions agonizingly scribbled out by a dopey yokel.

As I suggested above, the Palahniuk cult is dissolving, though there remain fanatic boys and apostolic Lumpen “writers” who still slavishly cry out their Leader’s given name in the same way that religious zealots cry out the name of their tombstone messiah: “Chuuuuuuccckkk…  I will dress up in a wedding gown for youuuuuuu…!”  At the core of Palahniuk’s die-hard following are rabid mall rats who are ripe for fascist indoctrination.  In general, however, the Cult has moved from proselytization to disillusionment and is slowly shifting toward its eventual decontamination.

THEOREM

We live in a sad society in which opportunistic hacks are hailed as “artists” and genuine art is ignored.  It is time for the intelligent to stand up and denounce these hacks and to show them for what they truly are: money-sucking subliterate robots.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer / RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

 

 

 

RANT (“Chuck” Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Even “Chuck” Palahniuk’s most devoted followers will have a hard time getting through Rant (2007), a book about thrill-seeking that is devoid of a single thrill.  As insipid as they are, at least Palahniuk’s other books are EZ-2-Read.  Rant, however, is not merely stupid–it is also deadeningly, mind-numbingly tedious.  While trudging through its pages, the essence of boredom was revealed to me.

RANT is compacted of endlessly babbling voices.  Each voice narrates a piece of Buster Casey’s life, a Typhoid Mary who has spread rabies across the United States.  But there is nothing new to be learned about Casey after the sixth page (Pages One through Six are titled, imaginatively, “An Introduction”) and what we do know is never vividly or convincingly described.  To be absolutely explicit: The plot doesn’t move. It stagnates. There is no progression.  No motor drives the narrative.  Nothing is narrated between Pages Seven through 319 that hasn’t been narrated in the first six pages.

Anything that seems to be remotely original comes from somewhere else.  The book’s epigraph was pilfered from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), the oral-biographical structure was pillaged from Stephen King (Carrie), the “Party Crashers” narrative was fobbed wholesale from J.G. Ballard’s Crash, a narrative that dominates the book to such an extent that it would have been better titled Ballard for Kindergarteners or Ballard Made EZ.  (Casey is Vaughan from Crash.  Yes, there is repetition in Crash, but it is repetition with purpose, repetition with nuance, repetition with difference.  Here, there is only the infinite repetition of the Same.)  The Tarzanesque pseudo-sentence “How the future you have tomorrow won’t be the same future you had yesterday” (Pages Four and 253) was pocketed from French poet and thinker Paul Valery (“The problem with the present is that the future is no longer what it used to be”).  The illiterately worded statement “History is, it’s just a nightmare” (p. 60) was lifted directly from Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  (Not that Palahniuk has read Valery or Marx, mind you. He has admitted that his information largely comes from talking to those he meets at parties and from his followers.)  Even the rabies motif was thieved.  David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976), anyone?

Rant is littered with pop-nihilistic syllogisms, statements of the obvious that are presented as “deep truths”: “Rant meant that no one is happy, anywhere” (p. 12).  Who doesn’t know that car-salesmen mimic the body language of potential clients?

The subhuman prose is even more galling than the book’s content.  Nearly every other sentence contains a double subject.  For instance: “The flight attendant, she asks this hillbilly what’s it he wants to drink” (p. 2).  A slightly less awkward, slightly less annoying, grammatical way of writing the “sentence” would be: “The flight attendant asks a hillbilly what he would like to drink.”  Palahniuk, however, insists on multiplying the subjects in his sentences ad nauseam, with unbearably irritating results.  Palahniuk’s defendants claim that he isn’t really as dimwitted as he seems to be, that his narrators are merely functionally illiterate.  If that is the case, they must explain why Palahniuk interviews in a functionally illiterate manner, why he writes “essays” in a functionally illiterate manner, and why every character in his universe is functionally illiterate, including those who hold doctorates.  If Palahniuk is merely impersonating a lobotomized orangutan on heroin, why would he write essays and speak in exactly the same simian language?

And so we have the grating misusage of the word “liminal”–over and over and over and over again…  We have Phoebe Truffeau, Ph.D., who uses phrases such as “prohibitions to [sic] bestiality” (p. 82).  We have teachers who say things such as “That Elliot girl, she told me the Tooth Fairy left [the coin] in exchange for a tooth she’d lost” (p. 52) and “Money you don’t work to earn, you spend very quickly” (p. 54).  We have Lowell Richards, teacher, who uses the phrase “indirectly and obliquely” (p. 99).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to write as “the smart people” do, he reveals himself as a half-wit.

And we have unspeakably hideous sentence fragments such as: “The ice melt and disappear” (p. 2).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to revise a cliche, such as Andy Warhol’s overly cited declaration “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” he comes up with a monstrosity: “In the future, everyone will sit next to someone famous for at least fifteen minutes” (p. 5).  Palahniuk’s revision makes no sense: I’m assuming that “everyone” includes “the famous,” which implies, of course, that in the future, the famous will also sit next to the famous.

Perhaps most offensively, Rant croaks out, in a particularly infantile passage, that AIDS is a “disease” that has been “spread” by a single carrier–that it is a “disease” like any other disease–when, in fact, AIDS is a syndrome of diseases, a pandemic, for which no single individual is accountable.

Allegedly, “Rant” refers to the sound that babies make when they vomit.  Now, I’ve never actually heard a baby make such a noise, but perhaps one should take the “author” at his word.  The title seems perfectly appropriate.  Simplistic, stupid, superficial, tedious, and derivative, Rant is the verbal equivalent to chunks of infantile regurgitate.

The same could be said of all of Palahniuk’s “works,” which are not based on the imagination (the “author” seemingly has no imagination whatsoever), but rather on whatever he is leafing through at the present moment.  As I stated above: Palahniuk has admitted that his books are collages of interviews he has had with random people in bars and at parties, as well as the four or five non-fiction books he leases from his local public library every time he sits down to write a “novel.”  The rest of the information is “Googled.”

Regrettably, Palahniuk is an incompetent “borrower.”  There is often the question, in his books, of relevancy. In Survivor, there is a longish passage on lobster-eating that was apparently lifted word for word from a book on dining etiquette.  What, precisely, does this passage have to do with Survivor‘s narrative?  Answer: Absolutely nothing.

Palahniuk wrote Lullaby in three weeks. I’m not entirely certain how much time it took him to disgorge Rant.  My guess would be two weekends.  I don’t say this to praise Palahniuk, as if he were capable of fashioning a well-crafted novel in two weekends with the dexterity of a Picasso, who could toss off a painting in an afternoon.  Rant is writing-workshop trash.  It reads as if it were a live-journal or Web log written by a subnormal high-school stoner, retched out and fraught with galling errors.

Palahniuk’s followers worship their leader as if he were a god.  But God is not an artist.

Neither is Chuck Palahniuk.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

GIRL GONE ROGUE: On Sarah Palin

 

 

 

GIRL GONE ROGUE: A review of GOING ROGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Sarah Palin)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

The title of Sarah Palin’s martyrology, Going Rogue (2009), is richly significant.  “Rogue” can mean “renegade” and thus point to Palin’s illusory departure from the ever-redefinable “political” and “media elites,” as well as from the McCain camp.  Reactionary politicians, these days, like to style themselves as “mavericks”–when, in fact, they represent this country’s most powerful insiders.  They endorse tax cuts for the affluent; they serve the gluttonies of the wealthiest financiers, corporate executive officers, and industrialists in America.

A slight logogriphic substitution would transform “rogue” into “rouge.”  The title, then, could be rendered: The Reddening of Sarah Palin.  (“Rouge,” in particular, recalls a shade of lipstick. Would “rouge” refer to the pig’s lipstick-smeared mouth?).  Red, obviously, is the color of the Republican Party, but it is also the color of passion and evokes rage and lust.  It is, as well, the color of fury, of blood, of rapine and viciousness.  It is the color of ecclesiastics, of cardinals.  In the iconography of National Socialism, black swastikas were emblazoned on red backgrounds.

This is a book that is drenched in red.

There is discussion of the animals Sarah Palin enjoys slaughtering, the caribou and moose she takes pleasure in shooting, the salmon she skins.  A photograph of the Arctic Huntress beaming with the psychosexual thrill that comes from killing game, the bloodied corpse of a caribou under her heel.  “I love meat…  [I] especially love moose and caribou.  I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals–right next to the mashed potatoes” [18-19].  Little commentary is required; what is said is clear.  The only room for animals, even endangered animals, is inside of us.  Kill animals and then interiorize them, kill animals that prey upon those other animals we want to interiorize: “[W]e had to control predators, such as wolves, that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities” [134].

I wish someone would tell Sarah Palin that to decimate means “to kill every tenth being.”

Sarah Palin thinks that animals exist only in order to be devoured by human beings.  That is their purpose, their end, their divinely ordained telos.  As if it were a “red kite” [83], she tells us, her mind is connected by an invisible string to the mind of God.  She has immediate access to the divine understanding: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”

In other words,

1.) Animals can be meat–meat that is devoured by human beings.
2.) Therefore, animals exist only to be devoured by human beings.

We have here both a non sequitur and a teleological argument. It is equivalent to saying:

1.) The human hands may be used for strangulation.
2.) Therefore, the human hands exist only for the purpose of strangulation.

The color red may connote the blood of animals.  It may also connote shame.  One is reminded of the red face of the unnamed Alaskan politician who observes Sarah Palin with horror as she gleefully breastfeeds her daughter on a radio program: “I acted like I didn’t see the shocked look on the politician’s face as he turned red and pretended it didn’t bother him at all” [67].  In a single image, the flocculent creaminess of lactate mingles with the blood that rises to the politician’s cheeks.

Red reappears when Sarah Palin douses herself, Countess Bathory style, in the blood of political martyrdom or of “the popular political blood sport called ‘the politics of personal destruction'” [352].  Seldom has self-imposed victimhood been exploited so meretriciously as it is here.  Sarah Palin bemoans the fact that she was “slapped with an ethics accusation” [355].  And yet which “ethics accusation,” precisely?  There are many.  That she misappropriated her governorship for personal and political gain?  That she used the Alaska Fund Trust to cadge gifts and benefits?  She never tells us.  She merely dismisses all ethical grievances as personal attacks issued by the monolithic Left: “One of the left’s favorite weapons is frivolous ethics complaints” [363].

Sarah Palin’s silence over her ethical misconduct is only one of the many silences that perforate Going Rogue.  She never attempts to wash away the record of her ignorance of Africa, the Bush doctrine, or NAFTA.  Certain things are so shameful that they cannot be erased with lies.  Let me cite one more instance of this studied silence: As Mayor, our gentle authoress called for the banning of “objectionable” books from the Wasilla Public Library.  She claims to have merely asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, “What’s the common policy on selecting new titles?” [77].  And yet nowhere does Sarah Palin, meek and mild, mention that she fired Mary Ellen Emmons two days after this conversation took place.  So many of this book’s pages are devoted to assaulting her critics (169 out of 234, by my count), but those criticisms for which she has no rejoinder, those words and actions that are truly indefensible and cannot be mangled, are consigned to a willful silence.

The name of whoever wrote this book is unknown, but it is attributed to a ventriloquist’s doll, a cue-card reader, a red harpy, a Venus in Carmine.

Dr. Joseph Suglia