A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Three: Both Flesh and Not

 

A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia

Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), Both Flesh and Not (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus.  Both online and print sources are represented.  Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.

The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume.  Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.

Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” [34].  This is innocence and nonsense.  Jugendstil was much different than that.  Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!

Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” [35].  But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.

Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” [165], but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.

Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” [165], but this has only been the case since Gypsy.  An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.

Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” [190].

Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.

Wallace had abysmal taste in literature.  It is good to see Steps on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written.  Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West has interesting content—the sort of content that one might expect to discover in an early- or middle-period film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky—but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner.  I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.

Both Flesh and Not is a disastrous humiliation.  Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does.  Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them.  David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.

Joseph Suglia

 

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A Critique of David Foster Wallace: 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”

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.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

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

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

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Joseph Suglia

GIRL GONE ROGUE: On Sarah Palin

 

 

 

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

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

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

This is a book that is drenched in red.

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

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

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

In other words,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Joseph Suglia