It is an interesting affair – the affair one has with certain authors, those you read compulsively, and then can’t read. Can’t. Favorite authors. When I was a kid in high school, for instance, I read all the Kurt Vonnegut I could find in great satisfying gulps. God Bless you mr. Rosewater, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan, etc., etc. I thought that this was how to write. I imitated him.
And then one day I couldn ‘t read him.
This moment of turning away – what is it but a betrayal? As with a love affair, it is a moment of heavy psychodrama, with a whole lot of projection going on. That projection is covered, at least in my case, by a critical language, which finds the fault in Vonnegut and the burden of betrayal is unconsciously shifted to him. It is the author’s betrayal, not my own! He led me on. He took advantage of my teen naivete! And it isn’t even that the critical language is false, the negativity misplaced – but there is a fundamental bad faith behind it all.
Anton Chekhov, in a letter to a friend written in 1891, gave an elegant description of this moment of betrayal. In his case, the writer was Tolstoy:
“Perhaps because of my no longer smoking, the Tolstoyan morality has stopped stirring me, and in the depths of my soul I feel badly disposed toward it, which is, of course, unjust. Peasant blood flows in my veins, and you cannot astound me with the virtues of the peasantry. From childhood I have believed in progress and cannot help believing, as the differerence between the time when I got whipped and the time when the whippings ceased was terrific. … But the Tolstoyan philosophy had a pwerful effect on me, governed my life for a period of six or seven years; it was not the basic premises, of which I had been previously aware, but the Tolstoyan manner of expression, its good sense and probably a sort of hypnotic quality. Now something within me protests: prudence and justice tell me there is more love in natural phenomena than in chastity and abstinence from meat. War is evil and the court system is evil, but it does not therefore follow that I have to walk around in straw slippers and sleep on a stove besides a workman and his wife, etc. This howevver is not the crux of the matter, not the “pro and contra”; it is that somehow or other Tolstoy has already passed out of my life, is no longer in my heart: he has gone away saying, behold, your house is left unto you desolate. I have freed myself from lodging his ideas in my brain.”
Tolstoy is, of course, a much larger mass than Vonnegut, but Chekhov’s outburst applies to all the betrayals: first comes the rationalization, which indeed contains a spiritual truth, a truth of authenticity; then comes the desacralization, an energy that goes beyond mere argument; and then comes a more accurate description of what it means to be in love with a writer and then fall out of love.
The authenticity of the experience is rooted in Chekhov’s claim to be of peasant blood, and more vividly, to know the experience of the whip growing up – although this is not the serfowner’s knout, but papa’s belt, apparently. Then comes a sort of mockery of the Tolstoyan agenda, which is easy to cook up – the idea of sleeping with the working man and his wife on the stove is a comic image. Then comes the real reason, and here, it isn’t progress or rationality that dominates, but possession and exorcism.
This corresponds to my experience exactly. The hypnotism affected by a writer, a writer one falls in love with, is an act of possession. It could even be an act of angelic possession. But Chekhov, the Chekhov who claims his peasant blood here, wrote in another letter that he had tried to drain the slave from his blood to the last drop, and this purge counts for beloved writers too.
These thoughts were crystallized by a Hudson Review essay onDavid Foster Wallace’s conservatism. The author, James Santel, guides his essayinto port using three facts about Wallace – that he voted for Reagan in 1980,that he voted for Ross Perot in 1992, and that he wrote a shamefullyhagiographic article about John McCain in 2000. Santel ignores DFW’s campaigning for Kerry in 2004 and the interview he gave to the WSJ in 2008, where he says:
Mr. Wallace: There are some similarities; the ability to attract new voters, Independents; the ability to raise serious money in a grassroots way via the Web. But there are also lots of differences, many too obvious to need pointing out. Obama is an orator, for one thing;a rhetorician of the old school. To me, that seems more classically populist than McCain, who's not a good speechmaker and whose great strengths are Q&As and small-group press confabs. But there's a bigger [reason]. The truth -;as I see it -is that the previous seven years and four months of the Bush Administration have been such an unmitigated horror show of rapacity, hubris, incompetence, mendacity, corruption, cynicism and contempt for the electorate that it's very difficult to imagine how a self-identified Republican could try to position himself as a populist.”
However, I think Santel has a point about Wallace, even if the point keeps shuffling away from him. It isn’t that Wallace is conservative because he thinks “the individual is alone”. What lefty would disagree? And what lefty wouldn’t say that “alone” is an attitude that emerges in the social whole. It is a social construct, which does not mean it is somehow not real, but that it gains its entire value as such a construct. Santel I think confuses methodological individualism with existential individualism. But I think that Wallace did too. From the Ayn Rand fan-dom of his teenage years through the entire body of his non-fiction, and to a certain extent his fiction, he lacked that sense of the contemporary – of the historic moment, and the forces engaged within it – that a novelist like Mann, or Bellow, or Updike – to name some other conservative novelists – had.
It has been a while since I read Wallace like I used to in the nineties and 00s. I’ve never even considered reading Pale King. I do remember thinking Interviews with Hideous Men was a huge comedown from Infinite Jest. But I also remember thinking that the essays – on the AVA awards, on a LA talk radio jock, on whatever – were genius.
Recently, though, picking up A Supposedly Fun thing I’ll Never do Again (ah, that supposedly!) I found myself reacting allergically to the whole of it. The wisecracks, the footnotes, the mix of hesitation and arrogance, of erudition and self-mockery – it seemed so wrong.
Was it wrong? One of my great reading experiences was lounging in my high bed in New Haven and, as the snow fell endlessly outside the window on Mansfield Street, reading hundreds of pages of Infinite Jest at a stretch. It seemed then that finally the novel had come back, after a long sleep in the eighties – with few exceptions. The novel as I loved it – the paranoid codex. Gravity’s Rainbow, J.R., Lookout Cartridge – these were my household spirits.
Now, of course, I think back to things like the schtick with Joelle Van Dyne, the PGOAT (prettiest girl of all time) and wonder whether this was a tell – a crack in the Golden Bowl, a mark of an essential falseness. Rather like Vonnegut’s catch phrases.
However, I know that this is all about betraying DFW, and the reason that I want to betray him isn’t entirely clear to me. The truths of disaffection obscure the truths of infatuation – that is how betrayal is.
Who knows, though. Maybe I should go back and read The Sirens of Titan.