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

 

 

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

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

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

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

* * * * *

CONSIDER THE LOBSTER is an agglutination of athetic “essays.”  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

 

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An analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS by William Shakespeare

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

Shakespeare’s shortest and dumbest play, The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594) concerns identical-twin brothers who are separated in a shipwreck and their servants who, incredibly, are also identical twins.  The shortest and the dumbest play, yes, and also the most infantile thing the Swan of Avon ever composed.  Nauseatingly and horrifically infantile in three senses of the word “infantile”: 1.) It belongs to Shakespeare’s infancy as a dramatist.  2.) It contains scatological humor and slapstick violence.  Only stupid people, infant infants and adult infants, find scatological humor and slapstick violence diverting.  The comedy is designed for those who find something intrinsically funny about a harlequin being beaten by an unforgiving master.  3.) The play lacks eloquence in the same way that infants lack eloquence.

It is also Shakespeare’s most Aristotelian play, slavishly obeying, as it does, Aristotle’s unities of time and place.  The entire comedy takes place uninterruptedly in the span of one day and at a frenetic velocity.  Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus to find his brother and his mother.  There, he is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus.  Hilarity ensues.

The comedy has Plautine origins and perhaps owes some of its buffoonery to the Commedia dell’arte.  The plot is largely derived from Plautus’s Amphitruo, where a master and his servant are locked out of the house while the wife entertains Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as her husband and his servant, respectively, and the Menaechmi, with its two sets of twins.

A second literary source is likely St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  Ephesus was, at the time that St. Paul composed his epistle (circa 100 CE), in the thrall of Artemis (Diana, Goddess of the Hunt).  Shakespeare’s audiences would not have been unaware of St. Paul’s condemnation of the witcheries of Ephesus.  One can hear resonances of St. Paul’s apotropaisms in Antipholus of Syracuse’s words:

They say this town is full of cozenage; / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin [I:ii].

Shakespeare’s revision lent itself easily to stupid Broadway musicals and even sillier off-Broadway burlesques.  The Digital Theatre recently performed a slaphappy version of the play for digital children, and that is the ideal public for this awful play.  Add meows and barks and moos and other animal sounds and kitschy songs, and you have a farce.

* * * * *

A question taxes first-time readers of the erroneous comedy: Why are both of the merchant’s sons given the same name, Antipholus?  And why are their servants, who are also twins, given the same name, Dromio?

Aegeon, father to the Antipholuses, describes the event of his wife’s pregnancy and the double birth of his sons:

There had she not been long but she became / A joyful mother of two goodly sons; / And, which is strange, the one so like the other / As could not be distinguish’d but by names [I:i].

If the twins could only be distinguished by their names, why, then, are they both named Antipholus?  One explanation is that they were given separate names, but were confused in the storm.  Both parents took each twin for Antipholus and Dromio (what the “other” names are, we will never know).

However, this hypothesis falls to pieces when we consider Aemilia’s story in the one-scene fifth act.  She claims that “rude fishermen” from Corinth took “Dromio” and her son from her.  They were then brought to Ephesus by Duke Menaphon, uncle to Duke Solinus.  “Antipholus of Ephesus” and “Dromio of Ephesus” were infants at the time of their separation from their mother.  How, then, does Antipholus know that his name is “Antipholus”?  And how does Dromio know that this name is “Dromio”?

There is an even more vexing improbability: Are we credulous enough to believe that both sets of twins would appear in the same town on the same day wearing exactly the same hairstyles and outfits?

Yet another taxing improbability: Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching the world for his brother and his mother.  Surely Aegeon told Antipholus of Syracuse that his son is a twin.  If the Ephesians greet Antipholus of Syracuse “as if [he] were their well-acquainted friend” [IV:iii], shouldn’t he have been able to figure out that his twin brother is in Ephesus?

The plot is so confusing that it might be helpful to list the confusions:

1.)    In the marketplace, Antipholus of Syracuse mistakes Dromio of Ephesus for his own servant.  The master asks the servant what the latter has done with his money.  The Ephesian Dromio urges Antipholus of Syracuse to come home for dinner and is viciously beaten.

2.)   Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, accuses Antipholus of Syracuse of having “strumpeted” her.  The Syracusan Antipholus is uncomprehending, having only been in Ephesus for two hours, and does not know who she is.

3.)   Luciana, sister to Adriana, commands the Syracusan Dromio to bid the servants to set the table for dinner.  Dromio of Syracuse, of course, has no idea what she means.

4.)   Dromio of Syracuse locks out Antipholus of Ephesus (and his servant) from his own home.

5.)   Luce (also known as “Nell”), wife to Dromio of Ephesus, mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for her husband.

6.)   Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse.  Luciana believes, mistakenly, that Adriana’s husband is flirting with her.

7.)   Angelo, Ephesian merchant, gives a necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who accepts it with bemusement.  Later, Angelo will demand payment for the necklace from Antipholus of Ephesus.  Angelo, as it turns out, is in debt and in danger of being imprisoned for his debtorship.  (Though “debtorship” does not appear in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, it was used by George Meredith.)

8.)  Aegeon mistakes his Ephesian son for the other, etc.

Ephesus is a town in which everyone is strange to Antipholus of Syracuse.  Ephesus is a town in which Antipholus of Syracuse is a stranger to himself.  Doubled, he does not know himself.  The Comedy of Errors is a prototype to The Tempest: Both plays are about self-alienation and self-loss.  Ephesus seems a magical land where no man is his own, where no woman is her own.  The play hints at the impossibility of self-ownership and self-mastery:

He that commends me to mine own content / Commends me to the thing I cannot get. / I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself [I:ii].

One drop of water in the ocean in which he nearly drowned, Antipholus of Syracuse is neither unique nor the master of himself.  This is why Adriana, the wife of his Ephesian double, asks him: “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, / That thou art then estranged from thyself?” [II:ii].

The Comedy of Errors suggests that to be oneself is to be another person, that selfhood is not identity.

Is this why neither Antipholus of Ephesus nor Antipholus of Syracuse seem very happy to meet each other the end of play?

 

Dr. Joseph Suglia