Thursday, May 20, 2010

"we seem to require of our art an ironic distance"

Before I start, I confess that I would love to read the Classic Comic of Crime and Punishment! as I've never been able to get past page 10 of the novel of same name (minus the exclamation point).

Last night I read David Foster Wallace's review "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" (1997), in Consider the Lobster; And Other Essays, 2005.

I was pleased to read this because the "ironic distance" DFW talks about is what I named the Voice of the Sock Monkey, a few posts back.

--begin DFW quote--

"The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we––here, today––cannot or do not permit ourselves.

"...Upon finishing Frank's [biography of Dostoevsky]... I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own time and place look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished...

"Franks' bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either makes jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like ...sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization flourish or some such shit.

["sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks" is a reference to what Wallace does in this article.
For instance:

**Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actualy know whether I'm bullshitting myself, morally speaking?** ]

"...Our intelligentsia
[footnote: 'which, given this review's venue {the Village Voice Literary Supplement}, means basically us']
distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level."

---end DFW quote--

I'd say since DFW wrote this 13 years ago, that ironic or flouncy voice has increased as we've seen what disgusting fruit ideological passion can bear.

But I don't agree with DFW's summation that American writers/readers mostly don't deal with weighty themes.

I actually don't read a lot of novels, but I can think of many that do.
How bout, say, Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987)? Or some of Louise Erdrich's stuff. Tim O'Brien. Or Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which is about religious faith (though that's later than DFW's article).

DFW's lament "no one does X anymore" sounds like the petulant "no one understands me" (or "I'm bored... there's nothing to do").

I wish he'd made it more personal. I wish he'd dropped the "we" and talked about why HE has a hard time being straightforward about deep issues.
Because he does. He deflects like crazy, and some of his stuff is a regular sea urchin of precocious flourishes.
Why, Mr. Wallace?
You tell us.

One way Americans took to writing/reading about deeply moral issues, in my lifetime, has been to retreat from the ideological and turn toward the personal: telling us about their traumatic experiences, for instance, in novels about child abuse or addiction and other highly personal concerns.
And then in recent years, a lot of that morphed into memoir, not novels (e.g. Anne Lamott's Tender Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith , 1999--she's a much better memoirist than novelist.)

Maybe DFW would discount those kind of writers as not being part of the intelligentsia? If he does, true, that leaves almost no one...

Dostoevsky's not unique in writing about important stuff. But he is rare in his ability to do it "without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts."

It's one thing to say writers/readers should care deeply "about the stuff that's really important". (We do.)
It's another to say we should write well. (Not so much.)

A lot of modern writers come on like jack-hammers or are otherwise poor writers (Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones--deep topic, crappy writing).

"...The thing about Dostoevsky's characters is that they are alive. ...His concern was always what it is to be a human being––that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal."

Writing well, thinking sharply, and caring deeply. That's a great idea.
But how many writers have ever been able to do that, in any time?
How many Dostoevskys have there ever been, anywhere?

Still, I like DFW's questions: are we/am I writing with all our/my passion, or are we/am I pulling our/my punches?
Why or why not?

I know my tenses get mixed up here, as I'm adressing someone, DFW, who is my contemporary but is dead. I'm leaving it as is.


femminismo said...

You raise great questions here. So much to think about. I will be doing that today. Got to rush off to work very, very soon. I really shouldn't have typed that second "very" because it's cost me valuable seconds. Happy to see the new format. Hope you like it as well.

Margaret said...

Have you read Dosto's "Notes from Underground"?
I only made it a third of the way through before the thoughts presented therein had so effectively paralyzed me, I didn't want to do anything for a while - including read.
There's no distance there, but there is a lot of irony: he asks the big questions and talks about things that matter, then with self-searing reflection mocks himself for thinking about such things. The reader even starts to feel a little mocked for bothering to read it.

I don't know why we tend to do this. It just feels safer.
During discussions in my Religions class, I sense that we are continually on the verge of parody, or like prof is going to end a lecture with "....but really, we don't know shit!" *and laughter*
Maybe it has something to do with "if I didn't laugh, I'd cry."

It's kind of like in Harry Potter, (it's always like in Harry Potter) -
the bogart, who takes on the shape of whatever they fear most, is defeated when you make it silly.
A giant spider!. . . .on roller skates.
Snape! . . . .wearing your grandmother's hat.

ArtSparker said...

I was getting to your final point before you raised it- not everyone is Dostoyevsky. I'm just watching "Wings of Desire" which is all over internal dialogue.

Fresca said...

FEM: I like the new format OK, but it's a little cool (in color and feel) for me--very un-Star Trek.
Still, better than black for now.

MEG: I've not read "Notes..." or really much of anything Russian.
I'd need to know much more about Russian history and culture than I do know (which is almost nothing), and it's just never called to me.

Unlike Japanese literature, for instance.
When I first read Kawabata's "Snow Country" on my own in college, I was so intrigued I signed up for a History of Japan course.

Harry Potter isn't American, of course, but I wonder if the books are so popular here because they do talk about deep concerns (good and evil) but in a shallow, fairy-tale way.
(E.g., the characters never really change, unlike the way real people who live through horror do).

I think the books are much better as movies. Of course, that's all Alan Rickman's doing, IMO.

ARTS: Thank god (not everyone is Dost.)!
"Wings of Desire" is the opposite of American, don't you think?
Though there was a U.S. remake, which I never saw.

momo said...

I don't know enough about DWF to say if this is true of him or not, but in my humble experience, when some guys complain about how "nobody" or "everybody" does something, especially when they are talking about writers or intellectuals, they mean "nobody like me" because they just don't SEE people who are not like them. This became clear in a discussion with a very smart person who was complaining about how there were no more intellectuals anymore, when he really meant "there are no more intllectuals like the kind I aspired to be when I was growing up: white men who live in New York and work in the publishing business." So DWF's lament may pick up on a tendency among a certain group of US writers, but maybe the categorical declaration rests on a similar assumption.

Fresca said...

I don't know that DFW's lament is cultural (the privileged white male) so much as personal (the demons of biology).

That's just the sense I get, having read a bunch of his stuff now, because he's not like, say, John Updike (in fact he writes about what assholes JU's men are).

DFW said something very telling in an interview:
"There's a lot of narcissism in self-loathing"
and while I'm not sure, he seemed to be referring-- ruefully--to personal experience.