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.” . 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)” . 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” , 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” , 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” .
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.
MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia
My favorite music is German, African, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.
My favorite film is First Reformed (2018), directed by Paul Schrader.
My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Martin Amis, Paul Valéry, Daphne du Maurier, Will Self, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, Gore Vidal, John Wyndham, Richard Matheson, John Milton, Ambrose Bierce, Georg Trakl, Witold Gombrowicz, Henrik Ibsen, Georges Perec, Roald Dahl, Elias Canetti, Frank Wedekind, Epictetus, H.L. Mencken, Arthur Schnitzler, Michel Leiris, et al.
WHEN DID WRITING STOP HAVING TO DO WITH WRITING?
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
When did writing stop having to do with writing? Of the many attempts to communalize literature, none is more dangerous than the sway of the current ideology: the consensus, and consciousness, that writing has nothing to do with writing. You will hear readers talk about “plot” (in other words, life). You will hear them talk about the “author.” But writing? Writing has nothing to do with writing. No one cares whether a book is well-written anymore.
* * * * *
Mark Z. Danielewski is not very much interested in language. He cares more about graphics than he does about glyphs. No words live in his House of Leaves. It is a house of pictures, not of words. It is a house in which words only exist as blocks of physical imagery.
Allow me to cite a few not unrepresentative sentences/fragments from House of Leaves:
1.) “A hooker in silver slippers quickened by me” . Danielewski, scholar, thinks that “to quicken” means “to move quickly.”
2.) “Regrettably, Tom fails to stop at a sip” . I convulse in agony as I read this sentence.
3.) “Pretentious,” too often, is American for “intelligent.” It is a word that is often misapplied. However, in the case of House of Leaves, it must be said that Danielewski uses German pretentiously. In a book that is littered with scraps of the German language, shouldn’t that language be used properly? “der absoluten Zerissenheit” [sic; 404 and elsewhere — a Heideggerean citation] should read “die absolute Zerissenheit“–the genitive is never earned. “unheimliche vorklaenger” [sic; 387] should read “unheimliche Vorklänge” and does not mean “ghostly anticipation.” Whenever Danielewski quotes the German, he is being pretentious–that is, he is pretending to know things of which he knows nothing.
It is impossible to escape the impression that Mark Z. Danielewski does not want to be read. Noli me legere = “Do not read me.” The House of Leaves is a book at which to be looked, not one that is to be read. Its sprawling typographies and fonts distract the reader from the impoverished prose.
Words are reduced to images, to pictures.
* * * * *
When did writing stop having to do with writing? When novels became precursors to screenplays. With the rise of mainstream cinema came the denigration of literature. The visual overthrew the verbal. Around the same time, imaginative prose began to be dumbed well down. There are two infantile reductions at work, both of which are visible in House of Leaves: a dumbing-down of language and an accent on the optical (as opposed to the verbal).
Such infantile reductions are everywhere in evidence whenever one picks up a contemporary American novel. We can thank America for the coronation of the idiot and for an all-embracing literary conformism. Even stronger writers, these days, morosely submit to the prevailing consolidation of a single “literary style.” A style that, of course, is no style at all. And these same writers, listlessly and lifelessly, affirm in reciprocal agreement that the construction of a well-wrought sentence isn’t something worth spending time on. Or blood.
How self-complacent American writers have become! The same country that produced Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow has given birth to Mark Z. Danielewski. Nothing is more hostile to art than a culture of complacency.
There was, I’m sure, something very refreshing about Charles Bukowski in the 1970s, when the vestiges of a literary academism still existed. Mr. Bukowski, I am assuming, would be dismayed to uncover the kindergarten of illiterate “literati” to which he has illegitimately given birth. His dauphin, Mark Z. Danielewski.
Weaker students of literature might feel invigorated by the Church of Literary Infantilism, yet even they know that the clergy engenders nothing sacred or profane. This explains their virulent defensiveness when anyone, such as myself, dares to write well or explore another writer’s engagement with language. “Writing doesn’t matter,” you see. They have never luxuriated in the waters of language; they have never inhabited a world of words. Words don’t interest them; people do. And literary discussions have degenerated to the level of a bluestockinged Tupperware party. If you like the main character, the book is “good.” If a book is warm and friendly, that book is “good.” If a book reassures you that you are not a slavering imbecile–that is to say, if you can write better than the book’s “author”–that book is “good.” If a book disquiets you or provokes any kind of thought whatsoever, that book is “bad.” If a book has an unsympathetic main character, that book is “bad.” If a book is difficult to understand, that book is “bad,” and so forth and so on. Whatever exceeds the low, low, low standards of the average readership, in a word, is blithely dismissed as “bad.”
Things grow even more frightening when we consider the following: These unlettered readers are quickly transforming into writers. That would be fine if they knew how to write. And if the movements of language were valued, culturally and humanly, their noxious spewings would find no foothold. The literature of challenge has been supplanted by the litter of the mob, with all of its mumbling solecisms and false enchantments. The problem with mobs, let us remind ourselves, is that they efface distinctions. They do everything in their power to make the distinguished undistinguished. And so instead of James Joyce, we have bar-brawling beefheads (e.g. Chuck Palahniuk), simian troglodytes (e.g. Henry Rollins), and graphic designers / typographists (e.g. Mark Z. Danielewski).
Instead of poeticisms, we have grunts. We have pictures. We have graphic design and cinema.
* * * * *
Someone said to me: “I am a good writer, but I don’t know how to spell.”
Someone said to me: “No writer is better than any other.”
* * * * *
America is responsible for the production of more linguistic pig **** than any other country in the world. There is absolutely nothing surprising about this statement. After all, America is the only country that celebrates stupidity as a virtue. How could things be otherwise?
At the poisonous end of the democratization process, which is indistinguishable from the process of vulgarization, every jackass on the street sees himself as an “author.” His brother, his grandmother, and his step-uncle: they, too, regard themselves as “authors.” After all, they think–inasmuch as they are capable of thinking–“Writing has nothing to do with writing. If Mark Z. Danielewski can be published, so can I!” (Yes, their desire is “to be published,” as if their lives would be inscribed on the page, disseminated, filmed, and thus rendered meaningful.) We live in an age of all-englobing and infinitely multiplying cyber-technologies, where stammering imbeciles mass-replicate their infantile scribbles, but let us not deceive ourselves: If a “writer” is simply one who writes, then they are writers; however, one should reserve the word “author” only for those who are profoundly committed to the craft of verbal composition.
* * * * *
Judging from a purely technical point of view, House of Leaves is consistently faulty, fraught with excruciating Hallmark banalities and galling linguistic errors. Hipster Mark Z. Danielewski is seemingly incapable of composing a single striking or insightful sentence. It astonishes me that anyone ever considered his tinker-toy bromides to be publishable. The House of Leaves is a house that is neither well-appointed nor ill-appointed. It is simply not appointed at all.
* * * * *
Who cares about language anymore? No one in America even questions the assumption that good writing does not matter. And this assumption is no longer limited to America–a horrific logophobia is spreading throughout the globe. The impetuses that motivate this tsunami of “literary” vomit are the following ideological assumptions: The fallacy that 1.) everyone is entitled to be an author (this is a particularly nasty perversion of the democratic principle) and that 2.) the visible improves on the verbal. American letters have been reduced to the gibbering and jabbering of semiliterate simpletons, driveling half-wits, and slack-jawed middlebrows. It’s only a matter of time before the English stop caring about language, as well.
When you live in a culture of complacency, a culture of appeasement, a hypocritical culture that assures you that you write well even if you don’t, there is only one way out. There is nothing for the strong and serious student of literature to do but to write for himself, to write for herself, for his or her own sake.
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.
ANALOGY BLINDNESS by Joseph Suglia
Over the years, I have invented a number of words and phrases. Genocide pornography is one that I am especially proud of (cf. my essays on Quentin Tarantino); anthropophagophobia is another word that I coined, which means “the fear of cannibalism” (cf. my interpretation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It). I would like to introduce to the world (also known as Google) a new linguistic term:
analogy blindness (noun phrase): the inability to perceive what an analogy represents. To be lost in the figure of an analogy itself, while losing sight of the concept that the analogy describes.
The Analogist: Polygamy is like going to a buffet instead of a single-serve restaurant. Both are inadvisable.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: People love buffets!
The Analogist: Being taught how to write by Chuck Palahniuk is like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: A one-legged man who knows how to coach football? That’s great!
The Analogist: You should not have reprimanded her in such a rude manner for taking time off from work. You treated her as if she were guilty of some terrible offense, such as plagiarism.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: But plagiarism is bad!
Derived from Hui-neng: When the wise person points at the Moon, the imbecile sees the finger.