An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525

My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature.  His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost (which, strangely, is never called a “problem play”), are his masterworks.  All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematic plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.

One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda.  They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society.  In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.

But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage.  In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.

Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.

The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her.  As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate.  A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer.  She pursues Bertram relentlessly.  As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her.  Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play.  Quite the opposite, as I shall contend.  Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i].  And yet, does obsession ever end?

When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i].  She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.].  Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father…  I have forgot him.  My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.].  All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects her lover’s socks, which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.

Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i].  Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status?  I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated.  I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.

When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii].  Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii].  No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv]  that she pretends to be.  Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii].  Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram?  Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram.  Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him?  Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.

The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram.  As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play.  The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.

And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive.  And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.

Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram.  Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage.  She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].

Why not take Helena at her word?  On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her.  She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart.  On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own.  She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law.  All’s well that ends well.  She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body.  Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]?  She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband.  She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.

It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana.  He is revolted by Helena.  The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea.  Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her.  In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii].  He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].

Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century.  Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign.  However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor.  Again, he finds her physically repellent.

Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent.  Is this not rape?  According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.

And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology?  There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother.  But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother?  They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.

The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v].  Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.

Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv].  Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate.  When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.

Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences.  Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality.  Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors.  The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]).  The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii].  A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status.  One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena.  Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i].  She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays.  Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated.  His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time.  This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii].  The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think.  Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL.  Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.

For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v].  (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena.  Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.)  (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena.  He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].)  Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around.  (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.)  Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.

Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France.  When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more.  The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.

When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition.  It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.].  It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.

The King is revived from the dead.  Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena.  Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram.  In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena.  I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.”  The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision.  Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority.  Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne.  This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.

Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction.  Desire cannot be systematized.  We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.

Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not.  Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection.  Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her.  Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii].  When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.  It is not a statement of resignation.  Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal.  Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.

It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her.  However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy.  Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.”  Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother.  To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement.  She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.

Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him.  The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective.  The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern.  Treachery is circular; treason is circular.  This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:

We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors.  And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].

I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves.  We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal.  As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.”  According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603.  All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605.  If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.

All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves.  We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.

Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.

Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse. Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage.  She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society.  In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong.  Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win?  Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality?  A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else.  No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.

Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself.  He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.

From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case.  In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin.  All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner.  It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii].  And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v].  “Fine” here means “ending.”  The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it.  The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning.  The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.

No one is innocent, and no one is guilty.  Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii].  The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.

One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite.  Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii].  Language kills.  That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean.  When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication.  When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.

Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect.  For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii].  He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.].  He often cannot finish his sentences.  Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis).  And yet there is some sense in his nonsense.  When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar?  When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i].  And yet are they gabbling?  Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest.  Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble.  Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless.  There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning.  Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.

At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii].  In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.”  He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion.  Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father.  The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test.  It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law.  Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.

Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage?  Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition.  But was Kant incorrect?  All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing.  It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.

When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii].  This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.

“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine].  There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending.  Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy.  All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well.  All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well.  All’s ill that ends well.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Slap Something Together: Sixteen Bad Sentences from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD


Slap Something Together: Sixteen Bad Sentences from Chuck Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD
by Joseph Suglia


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” [1].

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” [2].

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**’” [3].

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” [4].

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?’” [5].

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” [6].

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” [7].

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” [8].

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?’” [9].

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” [18].

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” [20].

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” [21].

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” [29].

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***” [29].

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

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: Consider the Lobster / CONSIDER THE LOBSTER by David Foster Wallace

A review of CONSIDER THE LOBSTER (David Foster Wallace)

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.”  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 remarks (“Do you 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 THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, 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: “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 HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN: “The best author will be the one who is ashamed of becoming a writer.”

Dr. Joseph Suglia

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”


I have said it before, and I will say it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible, but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions.

Wallace’s essay-aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema before Lost Highway (1997).

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought.

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1. Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2. Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3. Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4. For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction — in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace — is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is saying (to paraphrase): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again: Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture. That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To say that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting watermelon?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictionist he certainly was not.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part One: OBLIVION

A review of Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

When I was in graduate school, I was (mis-)taught literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and absolutely no interest in eloquence. I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much. I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).

A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.

The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest. A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection. Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” [6]. The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.]. Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language — but this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire — the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.

Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher. I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold. The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement inA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s. Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.

“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” takes its title from Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things). It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure. The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” [183]. The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized. For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight. Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.

The eponymous fiction, “Oblivion,” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.

After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death. His noli me legere also applies to himself. It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out. Because he never read his own sentences, he never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision. It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America). We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness. To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”

Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible. If you accept this premise of my argument, must it not be said that responsible writers ought to ALWAYS recite and revise their own sentences? And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?

The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious. The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death. That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.

One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure. Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.

A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned. He was a coruscatingly intelligent man. My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN and leave his other writings alone. As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

My entire novel TABLE 41 is available on this Web page

My entire novel Table 41 is available on this Web page.

Here is a Table of Contents for Table 41.

Dedication and Acknowledgements

Table One

Table Two

Table Three

Table Four

Table Five

Table Six

Table Seven

Table Eight

Table Nine

Table Ten

Table Eleven

Table Twelve

Table Thirteen

Table Fourteen

Table Fifteen

Table Sixteen

Table Seventeen

Table Eighteen

Table Nineteen

Table Twenty

Table Twenty-One

Table Twenty-Two

Table Twenty-Three

Table Twenty-Four

Table Twenty-Five

Table Twenty-Six

Table Twenty-Seven

Table Twenty-Eight

Table Twenty-Nine

Table Thirty

Table Thirty-One

Table Thirty-Two

Table Thirty-Three

Table Thirty-Four

Table Thirty-Five

Table Thirty-Six

Table Thirty-Seven

Table Thirty-Eight

Table Thirty-Nine

Table Forty

Table Forty-One