SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia
Table of Contents
THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES
THE SHAKESPEARE ESSAYS
VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS
VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES
MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM
SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia
Table of Contents
THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES
THE SHAKESPEARE ESSAYS
VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS
VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES
MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM
Three Aperçus: On DEADPOOL (2016), David Foster Wallace, and Beauty
by Joseph Suglia
Deadpool (2016) is capitalism with a smirking face.
David Foster Wallace was not even a bad writer.
Beauty is the one sin that the Average American of today cannot forgive.
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 who 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 be considered absurd 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 was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.
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 animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom). Characters are mistaken for one another (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:
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. 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
MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia
My favorite music is Psychedelic Rock and Progressive Rock (1969-1979), especially from Germany, from England, from the Bahamas, and from the countries of Africa.
I have never seen a film that satisfied me.
My favorite authors include Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, J.G. Ballard, Jacques Lacan, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl, and William Shakespeare.
Slap Something Together: Sixteen Bad Sentences from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD
by Joseph Suglia
1.) MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD
Every work of fiction is, by definition, something that is “made up.” The word fiction is derived from the Latin fictio, which means “to fashion,” “to craft.” If psychoanalysis has taught us anything, its lesson is that nothing that has been read can be unread. The title of the book contains a redundancy and a statement of the obvious. Or a statement that would be obvious to even a slightly educated person. The book would have been better titled SLAP SOMETHING TOGETHER: STORIES NO THINKING PERSON SHOULD EVER READ.
2.) “My old man, he makes everything into a Big Joke” .
Elementary-school children learn that double subjects are bad grammar. chuckpalahniuk, who is fifty-three years old as I write these words, is still unaware of this fact. There is nothing wrong with appositives, but this is not an appositive: “My old man, he” is a double subject. The use of the double subject is not merely ungrammatical; it is irritating and unnecessary. And why capitalize “big joke,” if it is preceded by an indefinite article?
3.) “Me, I didn’t get it” .
No literate person begins a sentence with a double subject. Nor does he or she begin sentences with objective pronouns.
4.) “Me, my teachers still haven’t covered long division and all the multiple-cation tables so it’s not my old man’s fault I don’t know what’s ‘c**’” .
One might claim that the narrator is a child and would not know the proper spelling of multiplication, but the narrator is identified as a “grown-up son” on the fourth page.
5.) “This Stage Four cancer guy forces himself to laugh nonstop at Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy and those Marx brothers, and he gets healed by the end-orphans [sic] and oxy-generated [sic] blood” .
Even though the misspellings are purposeful, only someone with brain damage would write in such a manner. There are purposeful misspellings in the writing of Anita Loos, but none is witless. chuckpalahniuk is capable of nothing but witlessisms.
6.) “The bartender smiles so nice and says, ‘What? You don’t like Michelob no more?’” .
That should read “so nicely,” of course; the Chuckies and the Chuckettes have the tendency to confuse adverbs and adjectives. “So nice” is chuckpalahniuk’s ham-fisted way of trying to make his narrator (and himself) appear charming. Unhappily, chuckpalahniuk is not merely charmless; he is uncharmable. This sentence, incidentally, occurs toward the end of a rape joke. I would defend to the death the right of writers to describe whatever they please, but anyone who finds rape amusing is either a sociopath or a psychopath. The unenviable readers of BEAUTIFUL YOU already know that chuckpalahniuk finds rape a fit subject for humor. chuckpalahniuk’s approach to the sexual violation of women is both slapdash and slaphappy. It is a distasteful quality in the writer and not a little insane.
7.) “The old man’s gasping his big toothless mouth like he can’t get enough air, crying big tears down the wrinkles of both cheeks, just soaking his pillow” .
While it is the case that to gasp may be a transitive verb, the mouth is what is doing the gasping. People might gasp, but they do not “gasp their mouths.” “Like” is used conjunctionally, and the sentence is a non-parallel construction. A less analphabetic way of writing the sentence would be: “The old man is gasping through his big toothless mouth, as if he couldn’t get enough air, crying big tears that stream down the wrinkles of both cheeks and soak his pillow.”
8.) “And he’s STILL dying, the old man’s leaving me not knowing the answer to anything. He’s abandoning me while I’m still so f***ing stupid” .
Ignorance is not stupidity. Ignorance is the absence of knowledge, whereas stupidity is the inability to process ideas. chuckpalahniuk thinks that stupidity and ignorance are interchangeable and that “stupidity” comes and goes. In the case of chuckpalahniuk, however, stupidity is a chronic condition.
9.) “The old goobers stop chewing on their tobacco” .
Educated people know that to chew means “to bite on” and that “to chew on” is therefore an analphabetism. The sentence should read: “The old goobers [if one must use that idiotic pseudo-word] stop chewing their tobacco.”
10.) “And finally one old barbershop codger, he says in barely a tobacco whisper, so soft you can hardly hear him, he asks, ‘Who’s there?’” .
While it is true that smoking can degrade the vocal system, “tobacco whisper” is an asinine coinage. Perhaps one of chuckpalahniuk’s disciples could write a teleplay entitled TOBACCO WHISPERER, modeled on the Jennifer Love Hewitt vehicle GHOST WHISPERER. Notice that two subjects are not enough for the pseudo-author chuckpalahniuk. He adds a third.
11.) “In grocery stores or department stores, Monkey offered cubes of sausage skewered with toothpicks” .
To whom, precisely, did Monkey offer cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks? Does the narrator not know in which realms Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks? The phrase should read, “grocery stores AND department stores,” not “grocery stores OR department stores,” unless the narrator is unaware of the kind of spaces in which Monkey offered cubes of sausages skewered with toothpicks.
12.) “Monkey offered dollops of apple pie served in tiny paper cups, or paper napkins cradling sample bites of tofu” [Ibid.].
This is a railway accident of a sentence. A dollop is a small amount of soft food, and yet the crust of apple pie, as every infant knows, is hard. Commas should not be used to separate dependent clauses, and “sample bites” is tautological.
13.) “Monkey hadn’t noticed at first, perhaps her nose had been blunted by selling perfume and cigarettes, but the cheese smelled disgusting” .
If Monkey’s actual nose had been blunted, this could mean that Monkey had an aquiline nose that had been flattened in the act of selling perfume and cigarettes.
14.) “Yet all night Monkey lay awake in bed, listening to Rabbit doing it with Mink in the next motel room, and fretting that, despite her advanced degree in Communications, she’d be stuck below a glass ceiling, getting sniffed by Moose for the rest of her career” .
Though I suppose it is possible that rabbit couple with mink, it seems unlikely, given that rabbit are lagomorphs and mink belong to the weasel family. Do I really need to point out that “glass ceiling” is a mind-deflating cliché?
15.) “In Miss Chen’s English class, we learned, ‘To be or not to be…’ but there’s a big gray area in between. Maybe in Shakespeare times people only had two options” .
chuckpalahniuk appears to have stumbled into someone else’s interesting idea that being is not an absolute concept. Indeed, transitional forms between being and nonbeing are thinkable. Perhaps holograms and other forms of virtualization exist between being and nonbeing. After this ill-worded yet provocative suggestion, chuckpalahniuk, predictably, writes about something entirely different: “Griffin Wilson, he knew that the SATs were just the gateway to a big lifetime of b*******.” chuckpalahniuk is like a stupefied bumpkin who gapes at an idea that is too profound for him and then quickly diverts his attention to the Chick-fil-A across the street. “Shakespeare” is a dolt’s only reference point to “the past,” as “Hitler” is a dolt’s only reference point to “evil.” chuckpalahniuk’s condescension is astounding. The difference between chuckpalahniuk and Shakespeare is analogous to the difference between a puddle of fermented wolverine urine and the Atlantic Ocean.
16.) “The problem with being Talented And Gifted is sometimes you get ***too smart***” .
To unmuddle some of the confusions of this utterance: “Talented” and “gifted” should not be separated, and there is absolutely no reason to capitalize “and.” In the squalid wastelands of Mr. Palahniuk’s Planet, intelligence is regarded as a vice and stupidity is regarded as a virtue. This explains the writer’s appeal to high-school stoners of all ages.
17.) Every book by chuckpalahniuk is a frognado of idiocy.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.
THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy
by Joseph Suglia, Ph.D.
“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”
—Gertrude Stein, LECTURES IN AMERICA
Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN is something of an undergraduate exercise. It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic. Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art.
We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term. (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)). They scavenge for food and tools. They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.
And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present. It is a theological allegory about a world from which god is manifestly absent. Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.
We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless”  and “coldly secular”  and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” .
“On this road there are no godspoke men” .
What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become a rich and compelling novel with author McCarthy. The most distinctive feature of THE ROAD is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative. He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.
It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel. He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.
Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words. But does language not slip away from us? Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader? And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?
Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences — sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal. We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.
And the non-punctuation makes us feel. If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing. We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated. We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.
The absence of standard punctuation in THE ROAD is a fruitful, productive absence. It is a writerly, stylistic choice.
I hope I have convinced my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized. It most certainly is not unnecessary. One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship. If we adhere slavishly to the conventions of punctuation, our writing will resemble our speech. Our writing will no longer be writing in the strictest sense of the word. Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation. If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me. However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent? Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”). Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning. Commas articulate, determine meaning. The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language. Its absence opens the doors of language.
As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author. The narrator eschews commas because he fears the past. I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape history (a desire that he shares with Joyce, Artaud, and innumerable other writers) — a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.
“[E]ver is no time at all” .
The ephemerality of the instant. Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements. A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future. What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation? Commas do not merely articulate a sentence. Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping. A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to awaken from the nightmare of history. McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath. This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.
The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that THE ROAD is also a book about time. More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.
The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him. Will the son survive? Will he be bred for cannibal meat? An infinitude of possibilities… And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his extraordinary novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period. And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within like a vicious monster fungus.
Postscript: Re-reading the novel in 2013, I am less inclined to recommend it. With THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy has given us a sappy religious allegory. Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST:
“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand – a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”
I would say of McCarthy’s THE ROAD:
The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand – a phoney gloom which does NOT pervade Faulkner’s work.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace
The writings of Voltaire and Lessing are the magna opera of neo-classicism. The paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the symphonies of Schumann, and the works of Novalis and Schelling are the magna opera of German romanticism. Joyce’s Ulysses is the magnum opus of European modernism. The poems of Trakl, the paintings of Kirchner, and the dramas of Wedekind are the magna opera of German expressionism. The films Un Chien andalou (1929), L’Age d’Or (1930), and Viva la Muerte (1971) are the magna opera of surrealism.
Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace is the magnum opus of American hipsterism.
What is a “hipster,” you ask? A hipster is one who has what Hegel described as an “unhappy consciousness”: He is a self that is at variance with itself.
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Anyone who has spent any time in academia will instantly recognize Wallace’s pedigree upon opening this book. Wallace was an academic writer. Unhappily, all connotations of “academic” are intentional. That is to say, the book is both fantastically banal and seems to have been composed, disconsolately and mechanistically, in a registrar’s office. It is not arbitrary that the narrative begins in the Department of Admissions of a tennis college. The language here recalls the world of registration and withdrawal forms and the world of classrooms where works such as this are spawned, dissected, and pickled — the world of the academic industry.
Wallace: “Matriculations, gender quotas, recruiting, financial aid, room-assignments, mealtimes, rankings, class v. drill schedules, prorector-hiring… It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible…” .
I wonder if anyone besides Wallace has ever found these things interesting.
Since no one else has taken the trouble to encapsulate the narrative, permit me to attempt to do so here. The novel seems to have two diegetic threads and a meta-narrative. The first thread concerns the incandescent descent of Hal Incandenza, teenager and tennis student, into drug addiction. (Well, no, it isn’t quite incandescent, not quite luciferous, at all, but I liked the way that sounded.) The second outlines the shaky recovery of Don Gately, criminal, from Demerol. The “woof,” I imagine, details the efforts of a cabal of Quebecois terrorists to inject a death-inducing motion picture of the same title as this book into the American bloodstream. All of this takes place in a soupy, fuzzy future in which Mexico and Canada have been relegated to satellites of the onanistic “Organization of North American Nations.” Predictably, and much like NAFTA, America is at the epicenter of this reconfiguration.
It is hard to care about any of this. If Wallace had written fluidly, things would have been otherwise. It is not that the book is complex, nor that its prose is burnished (if only it were!). The problem is much different: The sentences are so awkwardly articulated and turgid that the language is nearly unreadable. You wish that someone would fluidify the congested prose while struggling with the irritation and boredom that weave their way through you.
There is literary litter everywhere. No, “nauseous” does not mean “nauseated.” No, “presently” does not mean “at present.” Such faults are mere peccadilloes, however, especially when one considers the clunkiness of Wallace’s language. A few examples:
1.) “The unAmerican guys chase Lenz and then stop across the car facing him for a second and then get furious again and chase him” . I am having a hard time visualizing this scene.
2.) “Avril Incandenza is the sort of tall beautiful woman who wasn’t ever quite world-class, shiny-magazine beautiful, but who early on hit a certain pretty high point on the beauty scale and has stayed right at that point as she ages and lots of other beautiful women age too and get less beautiful” . It would take more effort to edit this see-Spot-run sentence than it did, I suspect, to write it.
3.) “The puppet-film is reminiscent enough of the late Himself that just about the only more depressing thing to pay attention to or think about would be advertising and the repercussions of O.N.A.N.ite Reconfiguration for the U.S. advertising industry” . This is a particularly representative example of Wallace’s heavy, cluttered style — a sentence larded with substantives.
4.) “So after the incident with the flaming cat from hell and before Halloween Lenz had moved on and up to the Browning X444 Serrated he even had a shoulder-holster for, from his previous life Out There” . So… Lenz moves “on and up” to a knife… “from” his previous life? If this is a sentence, it is the ugliest I’ve yet read.
To say such a thing would be to say too little. Nearly every sentence is overpoweringly ugly and repellently clumsy. Not a single sentence–not one–is beautiful, defamiliarizing, or engaging. I am sorry to write this, but Infinite Jest is a joylessly, zestlessly, toxically written book and the poisonous fruit of academic bureaucracy.
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A few valedictory words: It would be tasteless–raffish, even–to malign the literary estate of a recent suicide. Wallace was nothing if not intelligent, and his death is a real loss. Had he lived longer, he might have left us books that impress and delight. Let me advise the reader to avoid this plasticized piece of academic flotsam and pick up and at instead Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his true gift to the afterlife and the afterdeath.
Dr. Joseph Suglia