Cher Ami, I am depressed. Things are worse here than I thought. It’s a mess and what’s more it’s a provincial mess. But let me go back. A brief history of 20th-century French fiction.
The Intellectual Situation
How absurd was the effort of Robbe-Grillet to make writing into a kind of film! How silly of Tom Wolfe to think the novel should compete with journalism on the one ground—information-gathering—where it can’t! Someone should tell the novel that it is not dying; those death throes were just the shortness of breath that comes with loss of market share.
A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair. Up at the podium is someone who means to believe in his or her work, and instead he’s betrayed by his twitchy body and nervous laughter. The writer looks like his mother dresses him, he has razor burn on his neck, his hands may be shaking.
A history of happiness is a funny thing, since, for a long time, happiness was viewed as merely the absence of history. No one lived for happiness the way we do today. In an individual life, it would have been a lack of catastrophic events. As the goal of an era, or civilization, it would have meant stasis, absolutely nothing happening. If you did hit the blank-time jackpot of happiness, the best thing to do was drop dead.
Was theory a gigantic hoax? On the contrary. It was the only salvation, for a twenty year period, from two colossal abdications by American thinkers and writers. From about 1975 to 1995, through a historical accident, a lot of American thinking and mental living got done by people who were French, and by young Americans who followed the French.
The Hindu nationalists used the folksy symbols of Hinduism even as they struck deals with big businessmen and multinational corporations. They pointed to various terrorist and Islamic fundamentalist threats to India, and promised to restore the national virility that a “liberal and secular elite” had apparently sapped.
The Constitution doesn’t actually describe this system (as it does slavery, or the check on the popular will that is the electoral college). It merely makes “duopoly” inevitable. The framers’ failure to establish proportional representation in America ensured that winners of contests for federal office would be absolute winners, and losers by an inch or a mile lose as badly as if they’d never competed. Among democracies, the US remains singularly unfriendly to the political representation of ideological minorities—“factions,” in Madison’s term of abuse.
“Indeed,” I finally said, “as a six foot tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew.” He nodded: “So you see the problem.”
In this way and others I was assured again and again: no Delgado by way of TMS. No mind control. No social danger. Pascual-Leone had been brainstorming aloud; or he had been attempting innocently to pique the curiosity of a visiting journalist. And yet Delgado’s bull stuck with me.
In this gentle and permissive way we were enjoined to get high on pot and take up oral sex, but not do any favors for Philip Morris. Now I know that when shaggy, Dionysian Allen Ginsberg takes on the role of forbidding father, and you still take up smoking, you must really be on the wrong side of history.
Then there’s the comedy of Dennis Miller, who strings together cultural references into rambling sentences that have the rhythm of jokes but are not, frequently, jokes. He’ll say things like, “I haven’t seen a tax plan this poorly constructed since Tony Orlando did Jager shots with Buzz Aldrin,” and the crowd will, inexplicably, bust its gut.
You could also easily say, how pointless — how uncomfortable I was, how much I disliked that person, how rotten I felt. somehow the experience seems definitive, for better and for worse. What was learned is not unlearned.
Why, after all, must Coetzee be such a gloom-monger? For if he desires to draw attention to suffering, doesn’t the apprehension of such become the more acute when full allowance is made for the possibility of happiness? Or might it be that John Maxwell Coetzee, like so many men, is simply afraid of life?
Fiction and Drama
Dear Beth–I liked your last letter. You are funny. Really. I’ll tell you, mostly there is just a lot of sitting around here doing nothing. I play cards and THIS IS THE REAPER! WHEN I AM BORED I MASTURBATE AND THINK ABOUT YOU. I’m so sorry. Oh my god. I can’t believe that just happened again.
I did not come to Harvard so that my roommate could sleep with, or almost-sleep-with, the Vice President’s daughter. In my secret dreams, or even from past experience, I would have thought that it would be I who slept with, or almost-slept-with, the Veep’s handsome daughter. But to have a roommate who did, that is also something. And to realize this, that it is something, may just be the beginning of wisdom–or almost-wisdom, as the case may have been.
If a hall of fame were established for contemporary book reviewers, Christopher Hitchens would very likely be its second inductee. (James Wood, of course, would be the first.) About an amazing range of literary and political figures he has supplied the basic information, limned the relevant controversies, hazarded an original perception or two, and thrown out half a dozen fine phrases.
The book ends with a promise of direct political relevance, in which the foregoing analysis will help us to intervene in and fix the world. How? Never by restoring the power of parliaments, or the rule of law. It’s too late for that. Rather, by finding a way to return to a “pure” politics—divorced from law, from power, from states—as Benjamin once fantasized a “pure” language and “pure” violence.
It’s true that Roth hasn’t been funny lately. The humor largely went out of his work after Sabbath’s Theater, when he turned to writing historical tragedies. But never has the humor been so sorely needed.
A German friend asked me if graphic novels were erotic. I said, “No, they’re neurotic.” So neurotic they’re even appearing on English-department syllabi. But their graphic nature has been overlooked. Drawing is suddenly making a comeback in literature, where they know their Kafka and Classics Illustrated, but maybe not Daumier or Saul Steinberg.
Naomi Klein, almost unique among political journalists, has struggled to make our post-9/11 moment continuous with the late 1990s. She has looked for the neoliberalism inside of neoconservatism. The degree to which she has succeeded tells us something about whether the movement for greater economic justice—under whatever name—can expect to have a future.
Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise” makes a vivid analogy between the modern gym and the factories of the industrial revolution. But while a treadmill may bear superficial resemblance to a conveyor belt, the two machines (as millions of people who still work with these “vestiges of the leftover equipment of industry” would attest) do not yield similar cardiovascular benefits. According to Greif, the test of modern exercise is whether it “could be done meaningfully without counting or measuring it.” Yoga, the most prominent exercise trend of the past ten years, fails this test. The counting of breaths promotes concentration while distracting the practitioner from her surroundings, creating a meditative state conducive to intellectual problem-solving. The psychological benefits of yoga may explain its popularity at gyms across the country (where, with other alternative exercises like Pilates and boxing, it is replacing the antiquated machines Greif mentions); however, I would argue that an old-fashioned exerciser, a runner for example, might experience similar mental stimulation on her daily route. By measuring her course in advance, she allows her mind to work in a less regimented way than it might were she sitting at her desk.