A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught Literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had 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” . 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–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 in A 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” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived 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…” . 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 likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears. 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 (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to 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.
A commentary on “Eveline” (James Joyce)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The opening of “Eveline” (1904-1907; published in 1914), from Dubliners, by James Joyce:
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.
Notice that Eveline is not named at the beginning of the story. Her name is given in the title, it is true, but not in the first sentence of the text. She is a nameless, passive percipient, rather than an agent (an actor). She does not act; she observes. It is the evening that is performing an action; it is the evening that is acting. The evening is invading—Eveline is already paralyzed, immobile, static at the very opening of the story, as she will be at the story’s close.
Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Joyce does not write, “She leaned her head against the window curtains…” He writes that her head was leaned. The head is described as an object, as the object of an action. The head was leaned—this means that Eveline was not leaning her own head; someone or something was leaning her head against the window curtains. The use of the passive voice illuminates Eveline’s own passivity and immobility.
In her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne: The odour of the heavy fabric enveloping the furniture was invading Eveline’s nostrils. Again, an image of invasion, of infiltration, of violation. She was tired: This was Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite of all sentences, presumably because the simplicity of the language is a red herring, distracting the reader from the complexities of the text-web.
Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.
The last house where? Where is the cinder path? Where are the new red houses? It is difficult to locate any of these things. Joyce is generally very good with space and with describing the placement of objects within spaces, but here, he leaves it to the reader to imagine where the last house is, where the cinder path is, and where the new red houses are.
One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it—not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field—the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters.
Notice that Eveline places herself after the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, and little Keogh the cripple. Eveline puts herself at the end of the line. Already we have a sense that this girl has abysmal self-esteem.
Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming.
“In” and “out” are a strange coupling of prepositions. What does it mean to hunt children in out of the field? Shouldn’t the independent clause read: Her father used often to hunt them out of the field? Incidentally: “To keep nix” means “to be on the lookout.”
Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.
If Eveline’s father was not so bad then, just imagine how bad he is when the story takes place.
Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from.
Eveline identifies herself as a duster-of-inanimate-objects.
Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided.
She does not distinguish herself from the static objects that surround her. At the end of the story, when she has the opportunity to realize her human freedom and spontaneity, she imitates the inertia of inactive objects.
And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Beloved of Irish Catholics, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was a French Catholic nun who was the embodiment to pious devotion to tradition—much in the same way that Eveline is piously devoted to her family and her homeland.
He had been a school friend of her father. Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:
“He is in Melbourne now.”
She had consented to go away, to leave her home.
The fact that she describes her decision to escape Dublin as one of consent implies that she does not see that decision as her own, but rather as one that has been made for her and one to which she has assented.
Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question.
Apparently, she assented reluctantly. Her mind has not yet been made up. The reader also is invited to weigh each side of the question: Should she leave? Should she have left? No answer is given. A literary work of art, “Eveline” provokes questions that it never answers; it never gives readers the means of answering these questions.
In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. Of course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”
She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations.
At this point, one has to wonder why any person of sense would want to stay in the Hill household. Her father is abusive; this much is clear. She is treated derogatorily by her employer, Miss Gavan. Her brother Ernest and her mother are dead. She is suffering from violent paroxysms, tremors brought on by her father’s abuse. What is there to keep her in Dublin? And trying her luck in the open air of Buenos Ayres would afford her a new possibility. Though not everything that is possible is positive, at least she would have the possibility of something positive being brought into her life.
[Frank] told [Eveline] the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians.
Now, the bit about the Patagonians makes me wonder if Frank is a liar. A chronicler of Magellan’s expeditions wrote that the Patagonians were a race of giants. Is Frank repeating the same myth of the “terrible Patagonians”? If Frank is telling Eveline such nonsense, this should lead us to question the integrity of his intentions.
He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday. Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.
“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.
Is the father necessarily incorrect? As dour as Eveline’s life is in Dublin, is it not preferable to being seduced and abandoned in South America? There is no way to know with authority whether or not Frank is a reptilian seducer. He very well might be a boa constrictor in human form. Not even Frank might know if he is a seducer, if we consider the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity. Frank is inscrutable to us, and perhaps Frank is even inscrutable to himself. The inscrutability of Frank summons forth the indeterminacy of life itself.
Sometimes [Eveline’s father] could be very nice. Not long before, when [Eveline] had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mother’s bonnet to make the children laugh.
The atypical tenderness of the father only serves to underline his general abusiveness.
Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.
The grammar changes here: Now, Eveline is playing a more active role: She was leaning her head, she was inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.
Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air. Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy.
The song of the Italian organ player conjures the most dominant figure in Eveline’s life. Neither her father, her surviving brother Harry, nor Frank, her lover, but rather her dead-yet-deathless mother. The mother is resurrected, invoked by the organ-player’s song, and reminds Eveline of the latter’s death-bed oath to glue together the unglueable pieces of their shattered family. As if to hook and draw Eveline into the tomb. To save her from life.
The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:
“Damned Italians! coming over here!”
The father’s hatred of itinerant foreigners stands in contrast to the Wanderlust of Frank, an émigré from Ireland who travels to the “good air” of Buenos Ayres.
As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.
Notice the use of the verb to close. Three sentences before, Joyce used close as an adjective. Here, he is using close as a verb. This is paronomasia (punning). An adjective in one sentence is used as a verb in another. The fact that Joyce is using close twice in proximity means something: Close evokes the sepulchral narrowness of the life that Eveline will choose.
She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:
“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”
This is, apparently, corrupt Gaelic for: “The end of pleasure is pain! The end of pleasure is pain!” It is as if the mother were admonishing her daughter from beyond the grave to avoid pleasure—to live in a narrow life of nunnish self-renunciation, to stay mired in the misery in Dublin, to languish in Dublin, to duplicate the self-negations of her mother and the insanities of her mother’s dying. These are irenic words, sibylline utterances. They are necrotic commandments, words spoken from the tomb, words spoken from deathness.
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
And she would not, then, save herself? This passage highlights, more than any other, why Eveline is immobilized. Rather than will to escape, she wills not to have a will. She wills to let someone else make the decisions for her. Her absence of self-determination is the reason that she is likely condemned to the self-negating boredom and insanity that marked her mother’s life.
Through the wide doors of the sheds [Eveline] caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes.
Joyce, again, is very good at describing place—particularly, at describing blockages. A less talented writer would have merely pointed to the existence of the boat. A less talented writer would have merely described the boat. Joyce describes the visual impediments, the obstructions that impede the view of the ocean liner. The black mass of the boat is seen through the wide doors of the sheds—an image of blockage, of separation. The sheds are emblematic of the self-imposed barriers that divide Eveline from freedom.
Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.
It is difficult to believe, but Joyce—one of the greatest literary artists who ever lived—makes a usage error in this passage. Amid, which means “in the midst of,” should only be placed before singular nouns. Seas is a plural noun and should take among.
[Eveline] set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Nothing has changed within Eveline since the opening of the story. She is immobile from the beginning of the story unto its end. The blankness of her eyes—their illegibility, their incomprehensible nothingness—can be interpreted to signify anything. Readers may introject their own meanings into those null eyes.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)
What is one to say when the beloved dies? There is nothing to say. None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate. My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead. “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10). What else is there to say? There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.
A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne. It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated. After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.). The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).
Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).
Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference. Yet Didion is hardly apathetic. She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch. If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough. If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché. If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative. Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.
Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well. Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.” (I deliberately omitted the question mark.) The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life! Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”
Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”
In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement. What is it like to be bereaved? You will never know until it happens to you. Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death. A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him. Self-pity, of course, is inescapable. She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.” She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved. When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes. Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others. Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.
Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss. When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved. Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible. Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being. She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness. Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning. The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name in the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water (226).
This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.” They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything. They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page. Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech. She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable. What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said. She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points. There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death. Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write 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 (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
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 from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
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 likely 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 suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “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, he appears to be implying: “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 write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s 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). Did Wallace never see this film? 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 pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s 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 fictioneer he certainly was not.
I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing. (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”) Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer. Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.
Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write? Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does. He copies; he does not write. He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator. He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.
Not only does Bartleby never write. He does not even seem to read. The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”
And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office? Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story? Why not Nippers? Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.
One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers. There are indeed references to poeticism in the text. John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth. To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.
There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story? Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing. What is the story about?
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.
Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee. He does exactly what he is paid to do. Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.” He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.” He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do. This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc. Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.” Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension. The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.
One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination. Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying. It is a form of “passive resistance.” It is a slippery slogan. It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.
The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story. One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.” Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office. Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock. The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer. The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby). One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby. This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.
Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee. He hyper-agrees with the terms of the office. He over-adheres to the policies of the office. Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus. Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.
Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby). Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies. He copies the office and thus undermines the office.
The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description. He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness. The logic of hyper-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity. Kierkegaard was such a hyper-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being. Kierkegaard’s hyper-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers. Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.
This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office. Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel. If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible. His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.” Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity. At the core of his passivity is an active dimension. He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations. His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras. He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”
What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?
The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business. Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ. [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.] The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”) “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.
Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience. These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination. We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”). Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance. His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.” This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.
Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism. A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington. This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice). He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia