Category Archives: Literary Criticism

David Foster Wallace’s “Octet” and the Torture of Writing

One of my most intelligent students last semester told me that he’s always had a hard time getting into David Foster Wallace because he feels like if he fails to “get it,” he’ll feel stupid. Having sat through graduate courses on Postmodernism and Critical Theory, I know the feeling–really–and yet I find Wallace to be one of the more approachable, humanistic purveyors of post-post-whatever meta-fictional experimentation. His stuff is dense, sure, and often deliberately opaque, but in additional to probing and satirizing aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century life in apt and often prescient ways, he in the top 1% of writers who are capable of combining humor with a soul-rending sense of pathos.

“Octet,” which appears in Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, is a story I’ve started assigning both because it’s a great example of meta-fictionality and because it dramatizes right before your eyes the crippling self-consciousness that afflicts anyone who has ever sat down to write something, from a novel to a term paper. Along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it’s a terrifyingly funny and relatable depiction of just how torturous writing typically is–particularly in the era of detached, adultish, post-ironic snark.

Beginning as a set of experimental fictional pieces called “pop quizzes,” Wallace presents a series of stories that conclude with some kind of question that asks the reader to make some kind of judgment about the predicament of the characters in it, questions that are designed to probe something meaningful about the reader herself. We get 4 such quizzes, numbered 4-7 (two are labelled 6 and 6A). Number 8 is skipped. And 9 begins with a direct address to the reader:

You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques and not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as ‘short stories’ (not even as those upscale microbrewed Flash Fictions that have become so popular in recent years–even though these belletristic pieces are really short, they just don’t work like Flash Fictions are supposed to). How exactly the cycle’s short pieces are supposed to work is hard to describe. Maybe say they’re supposed to compose a sort of ‘interrogation’ of the person reading them, somehow–i.e. palpations, feelers into the interstices of her sense of something, etc. . . . though what that ‘something’ is remains maddeningly hard to pin down, even just for yourself as you’re working on the pieces (pieces that are taking a truly grotesque amount of time, by the way, far more time than they ought to vis a vis their length and aesthetic ‘weight,’ etc.

What follows for the next 15 pages is a foot-noted diatribe on the difficulties of writing what the author declares to be “a total fiasco,” a series of pieces that the author insists, for some reason, on calling an “octet,” when it really isn’t, of a series of “pop quizzes,” most of which don’t really function all that well as such. The author asks the reader to consider all of the devices by which one might salvage the whole endeavor, perhaps by “some terse unapologetic acknowledgement” that this isn’t working, which might save face and deflate the pretentiousness of the whole thing but “also has the disadvantage of flirting with metafictional self-reference . . . which in the late 1990s, when even Wes Craven is cashing in on metafictional self-reference, might come off as lame and tired and facile.” The whole thing crawls further up its own ass when the author offers the reader

[A] chance to salvage the potential fiasco of you feeling that the 2+(2(1)) pieces add up to something urgent and humand and the reader not feeling that way at all. Because now it occurs to you that you could simply ask her. The reader. That you could poke your nose out of the mural hole that ‘6 isn’t working as a Pop Quiz’ and ‘Here’s another shot at it’ etc. have already made adnd address the reader directly and ask her straight out whether she’s feeling anything like what you feel.

The hazard of this additional, ultra-meta pop quiz, he warns is that

You’d have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked–more like unarmed. Defenseless. ‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?–this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it’s perilously close to

The whole thing is riddled with footnotes that dramatize the author/reader’s growing insecurity about his/her choices, obsessing over whether the use of the term “relationship” is too touchy-feely or whether the word “palpate” to describe what the quizzes are meant to do is too pretentious. This reaches its climax when he tries to figure out if the verb “to be” as in “to be with someone” carries too much cultural baggage to be taken seriously.

All of this, of course, offers plenty of opportunities to talk about form and authorial choices and to what degree Wallace is just fucking with us. Many of my students think he’s doing quite a lot of the latter and find the whole thing more than a little pretentious and exhausting. This, of course, is what the authorial voice of the “Octet” anticipates, that the reader will be alienated by this excruciating sincerity in the same way that someone “who not only goes to a party all obsessed about whether he’ll be like or not but actually goes around at the party and goes up to strangers and asks them whether they like him or not” is going to terrify and alienate his neighbors. When I teach this piece, I show the Community episode, “Critical Film Studies” and talk about the fact that the terrifying sincerity of the final Pop Quiz shares features with Jeff’s speech to Abed when he confesses to calling up phone sex lines and saying he weighs 300 pounds because he needs to believe that he’ll be loved regardless of what he looks like. It’s something you’re not supposed to say, and because of that, it needs to be folded into layers of mediation and self-reference in order to defuse the horrifying nakedness of it all.

There is one sentence in “Octet” that runs on for three pages, footnoted no less than six times, requiring you, the reader, to decide whether to read the entire thing and go back to the footnotes, break up the sentence by reading the footnotes as they appear, or ignoring the footnotes altogether. If you go with Option #2, it’s easy to completely miss the fact that this sentence is essentially the thesis statement of the piece, which amounts to, more or less, the fact that we all desperately want to be loved and understood on our own terms but are desperately afraid (and rightly so) that we won’t. If you choose Option #3, you miss dramatization of the authorial voice’s excruciating indecision over specific word choices, and if you choose #1, you sort of get that but not with the same immediacy. In other works, both you’re going to kind of miss the urgency of it any way, and the author has designed it as such so that you can be impressed by the pyrotecnics in case you don’t “get” the essential terrifying point that he’s driving at.

The thing is that you don’t have to be a writer of belletristic fiction in order to get this. Every time you post something to a blog or to Facebook or Twitter or even go up to someone and say, “I was just thinking…” you are inviting a kind of rejection and misunderstanding and weighing against that terror the possibility that you might be warmly received, that your interlocutor or reader will say, “Hey, I totally get you.” In an age of endless self-disclosure that was only beginning to spring up when this piece was written, it’s a set of demons we do battle with not only when we sit down to do formal writing but with almost every online interaction.

And then you have to reflect on the fact that the more successful you get at this dance, the more people who are willing to buy what you’re selling, you run the risk of becoming further alienated from the people who provided you with that sense of connection to humanity. One of the demons Wallace seems to be battling in “Octet” is, in fact, “David Foster Wallace,” a literary persona weighted down with a host of expectations:

At any rate it’s not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they’re reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of pre-arranged meaning. Rather it’s going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do . . . more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from back at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.

And of course, there is a degree to which this all just feels too clever, like the whole thing has crawled so far up its own ass that it ceases to be as human or urgent or relateable as it wants to be. The piece acknowledges its own manipulativeness, which in and of itself manipulative. But then you remember that David Foster Wallace killed himself and realize that this crippling self-consciousness and inability to escape the recursive loops of self-doubt might have had something to do with that. Because earlier in this same collection there is a story called “The Depressed Person” that lays out with excruciating accuracy the self-defeating, often fatal cycles of self-loathing that accompany mental illness. Such that the whole thing just spills open for you and becomes either a yawning pit of sadness or a sign that you, writing your blog post or thinking about your term paper, aren’t as alone as you think.

The Pleasures of Narrative

As usual, I’m late to the party and just came across this excellent piece by everyone’s favorite green, be-shortsed film critic on the spoiler conversation following this season’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones (be not afraid, there are no spoilers here). He weaves his discussion of that fallout into a broader argument about the ways in which we consume art, though he is specifically talking about the filmic arts here. To whit, he argues that there are four:





Spoilerphobia, he argues, comes out of the desire to experience narrative in that “childlike” state of wonder and surprise, and in its most extreme forms–someone for whom spoilers utterly destroy their ability to derive pleasure or enjoyment out of something–suggests that the individual is incapable of or unwilling to experience media in any other way.

I liked this piece very much, but one thought occurred to me by the time I came to the end: I only WISH I could get more of the students in my literature classes to care as much about the fate of Isabel Archer or Ellison’s Invisible Man as they do about the Starks (don’t get me wrong: I love the Starks too). Let’s just say that no one is talking about spoilers in a class discussion of My Antonia. A big reason for this, of course, is that “literary” fiction tends to be character rather than plot-driven. But the bigger reasons, I think, have to do with context and the ways in which works–filmic or literary–that students or other readers deem “difficult” reverses the trajectory that Film Crit Hulk lays out, one in which purely libidinal enjoyment passes over the course of maturation and exposure to a mix of the cerebral and the emotional.

What I find in my class is that students who are very apt at picking apart what they think is going on in a text–identifying symbols and figures of speech, even taking apart the gender, class, and race dynamics underlying the text’s surface meanings–tend to treat these things as if they were pure thought exercises devoid of any kind of human meaning. Ok, I know a lot of people with tenure who fall into this category as well.

The truth is that I find Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to be a perfect novel in almost every possible detail, a work of stunning complexity and nuance both as character study and as a book with a cracking good plot. But I also find it emotionally affecting, shot through with an excruciating sense of the loneliness one feels even in human company written by a woman who saw and experienced the most alienating parts of 19th century upper-class New York society. And it’s a work that speaks powerfully to a present moment in which we both worship and abhor those who are famous purely for being rich and conventionally beautiful.

But to appreciate the pathos of the heroine’s fate, you do have to get past a lot of big words. You have to understand a little bit about Wharton’s historical moment, and you have to know enough to get the jokes (it’s a book that’s as funny as it is sad). I have students who can perform a gorgeous close reading of the opening chapter and explain the clear signs of Henry James’s influence on Wharton’s prose and use of realism, but they seem to experience the text with as much emotional investment as a coroner performing an autopsy.  My goal is to get students to be able to pick apart the techniques of Song of Myself and recognize its contributions to American poetry while also just reveling in it.

When it comes to certain very complex works of art–whether it’s a Terence Malick film or a belletristic novel–the achievement of that third level of consumption, that balance of catharsis and intellectual appreciation, often does mean moving past pure analysis in order recapture the ability to experience a narrative in a state of wonder and curiosity.

This is an attitude that contemporary academic culture doesn’t often encourage, and the staleness of the literary survey may be as much to blame as the recalcitrance of students. But the polarization of emotional and intellectual enjoyment is also, I think, something that has penetrated popular culture and criticism where it is often difficult to carve out a middle ground between adultishly detached snark and, well, 95% of Tumblr. It’s a paradigm that so often pathologizes libidinal enjoyment and transference while at the same time enabling it.

Entering a New World

So, grading papers was a little bit of a bummer this weekend.  While one student who struggled with the last assignment worked extraordinarily hard to produce an A paper this time around (after one of the most productive workshop sessions I’ve ever moderated, meetings during office hours, and three complete overhauls of his rough draft), a few of my students who had previously done well took a few steps back, committing some of the same errors that I had previously thought were limited to three or four individuals.  Namely, they are using their chosen texts as excuses to talk about their personal views on a subject rather than producing an analytical argument based on clear evidence from that chosen text.

A few of these students came after me after class to say that they recognized the mistakes that they had made, that they didn’t like the papers that they had written either (which is encouraging) and that they would spend more time on the assignment going forward.  But I do think that a number of my students are laboring under that common misconception that the study of literature is essentially a free for all, that the “subjectivity” of interpretation means that interpretation is essentially personal, that there are no wrong answers, that anything can mean anything.  So, I brought in Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” today in order to talk about what the first task of any reader or observer of a work of art is:  to fully understand what the creator of a work was trying to communicate.  This means setting preconceptions aside and allowing oneself to be transported into a particular world with particular protocols, particular rules and causes and effects that may or may not have direct correlaries in the real world:

If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it.  Nothing is more boring or ore unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie.  We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.  When this new world has been closely studied , then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

For Nobokov and for philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, this is a moral and pedagogical imperative:  art and the effort to faithfully understand what the author is trying to communicate is how we learn to come into sympathy with other perspectives.  Upon re-reading this essay, I was surprised at how much I resist this way of reading, how suspicious I am, in fact, of looking at a work of art as a contained body of meaning, hermetically sealed off from its context.  The good postmodernist in me believes that meaning are unstable, that artists, in many ways, do not control what their works mean for each individual who encounters it.  The feminist in me is inherently suspicious of author’s motives and of the way in which the realities contained in texts are both socially constructed and participate in the construction of contingent knowledge as historically transcendent.  In other words, in my own work, I reflexively attend to everything that comes after “then and only then” in that paragraph and perhaps do a poor job of helping my students master everything that comes before it.  Because while I still hold that meaning is unstable and contingent and that artists are not infallible, I have to get my students to a place where they can see that while there are multiple available interpretations for any given work of art, the number of interpretations is, in fact, limited.  Otherwise, I get papers on why the Will Smith character in I Am Legend is a Christ figure based on a criteria so loose that it could apply to almost any protagonist in any narrative in Western literature.  I also wind up getting papers that tend to read, say, sections of Paradise Lost as an object lesson or a sermon–no matter which character is speaking at any given time–rather than a Milton’s particular entry point into theological and political debates about the nature of freedom and its relationship to both divine and civil law.

Thus, at the moment, I am trying to summon up the good little Formalist in me and disciplining myself to ensure that my students understand, first and foremost, what the author means before moving on to any historicist or postmodernist critique, though this is the first class in six years where I’ve really felt the necessity of doing so.  Either I’m becoming more aware, or I’ve just been dealt a class that is particularly in need of work at the level of reading comprehension.  It’s probably a little of both.


The Political and the Personal: Thoughts on Freedom

(I selected Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as my airplane reading for this latest conference and now feel compelled to write a post about it.  There will be spoilers.  You’ve been warned.)

In my more depressive moments, I used think of myself as sort of a glum, anti-social misanthrope with a penchant for stewing overlong in my own neurotic juices.  Apparently I was wrong.  Compared to many of the characters and, well, the whole narrative perspective of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, I am a happy-go-lucky Pollyanna living a blissfully unexamined life.  This novel, to put it succinctly, made me  feel better and worse about everything.  Yes, my life, my family, and my marriage are pretty awesome compared to those of the people I’ve just spend a week reading about, but that probably means I’m shallow.  Yes, I do, in fact, enjoy periods of contentment and happiness, but probably only because I do not sufficiently reflect upon the dire environmental impact of my very existence.

Ok, I’m projecting a lot here, and I sort of wonder if the novel does that to many of its readers.  In its bleak and relentless examination of the vicissitudes of white liberal upper middle class existence, it dredged some of my neuroses (my fear of being perceived–as a short, blond woman who likes shoes–as shallow and unserious) along with that part of me that insists that no, there is good in people, that things will work out in the end.  Freedom is as misanthropic a novel as I have ever read.  Its moral seems to be that everybody sucks, everyone is complicit, (though as I will discuss in more detail, the scope of that “everybody” is somewhat narrow).  In other words, it announces itself as one of those novels that bravely refuses to take moral stands about how we should live (except when it sort of does) and lets us just wallow in the messy complexity of it all.

But in the end, I don’t really buy it. Yes, there is plenty of rich complexity here, plenty of shades and layers to each of the major characters, but none of that complexity is left remotely mysterious here.  Consider, for example, the cudgel-like irony of Walter’s job in the middle section of the novel.  Mired in familial muck–estranged from his conservative, willful son, not yet aware of his wife’s infidelity even though its telegraphed through her guilty, self-destructive bout with mental illness–Walter Berglund seeks refuge from his family in his work for the Cerulean Mountain Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving land for a bird species that might one day become endangered.  His efforts on behalf of the cerulean warbler mimic his futile attempts to salvage his marriage, enterprises that are doomed by his willingness to cross moral lines and a ferocious paternalistic rage toward the people affected by his efforts.  In saving this one bird species, Walter allies himself with oil magnates, hunting pals of Dick Cheney, surrenders huge swaths of West Virginian mountain range for strip-mining via mountain-top removal, forcibly relocates two-hundred poor people from their ancestral lands and sends them to work for defense contractors.

As if this cruel irony weren’t enough, Walter’s environmentalism and anti-population growth activism prove to be part of a generations-old familial psychodrama that boils down to the following:  Walter grew up among poor people and now Walter hates poor people because they are so polluting and messy and gross and have too many kids because of religion.  Also women, but we’ll get to that in a sec.   In Franzen’s absolutely relentless, often clinical deconstruction of not just his characters and their relationships–a troubled marriage, troubled parent-child relationships, and two love triangles at the novel’s center–but the political ramifications of everything these people do, he almost seems to be resisting a symptomatic reading.  His desire is to expose, not to be exposed, to in some way totally expunge ideology from this novel by revealing ideology and all of its attendant political commitments to be the product of Oedipal drama.

Yet there clearly is ideology at the heart of this novel.  Despite Walter’s inner nastiness–a “nice” man whose niceness conceals a seething core of misanthropic rage–we are clearly supposed to walk away with a message about sustainability and the impact of our middle class existences on the environment.  We are supposed to care about Walter’s birds and the fact that Walter feels deep psychic pain on their behalf.  But even more than that, Freedom is committed to a whole ideology of non-violent political correctness that demands that we dissect every idea, every action for its political content and ramifications,  that we endeavor to examine and root out privilege from every aspect of our lives.  It is in this way that I think Franzen documents a very specific brand of white middle class liberalism of the past decade most accurately.  As Walter considers beginning his own affair with his beautiful young Indian assistant, he ponders the patriarchal and imperialistic overtones such a relationship might have.  Or, I might say, Franzen’s free indirect discourse examines those things for him.

Yeah, the prose is sort of a problem.  Through free indirect discourse, Franzen attempts to lay bear the interiority of each of his tortured characters but with such a clinical precision that it almost feels unreal.  Yes, I know many neurotic white liberals who really do the kinds of contortions that Walter does in the previous paragraph, rooting out the politics of their very feelings.  I sometimes find myself doing this, trying to figure out if my feelings about my gay uncle are sufficiently progressive, sometimes at the expense of allowing feelings to just be feelings, anger to be anger, and just sit with the fact that sometimes I feel ways that I shouldn’t feel because I’m a work in progress and human relationships are messy.  That relentless sort of self-examination is exhausting, and spending an entire novel with a narrator who does this on behalf of the players in his drama is not only exhausting but alienating.  We spend an entire third of the novel reading the autobiography of Patty Berglund (estranged wife of Walter), an autobiography that, for some strange reason, has to be told in the third person, that uses the same free indirect discourse as the rest of the novel.  The writer of this autobiography is so psychologically sophisticated, so self-aware and adept at accurately describing the inner make-up of the people closest to her, so capable of stating with absolute precision the mistakes she made with her children that the autobiographical conceit falls apart.  The person who writes the autobiography is so virtuous and generous in thought, so right about everything and so similar in style and diction to the narrator of the rest of the novel that the character of Patty Berglund–a character who is quite simply a hot mess at every other point in the narrative–strains the bounds of credibility.

To summarize my meandering critique thus far, this is a novel that refuses to allow its characters any real ideological blind spots that can’t be unveiled by an epiphany by the end of the book.  Joey–the Berglund’s son who winds up working for a Halliburton-esque operation right out of college and who strings along his obsessively over-attached high school girlfriend hoping to score some choicer tail in his early twenties–only wanders in the moral wilderness for a few chapters before realizing that his politics and his attitudes toward women are all just an extension of his adolescent rebellion against his father.  Then everything is just sort of ok with him.  The sadistic element in his relationship with Connie is just sort of gone and their problematic marriage sanctified because he gave up his dirty war profiteer money.  It’s a little too easy and yet manages to be excruciatingly painful to read.

This sort of PC-ness tries to masquerade as a kind of non-ideology.  As long as these characters maintain or discover the right sort of politics, everything is ok.  Walter’s love of birds, his staunch environmentalism, is supposed to make him lovable.  Joey’s decision to forsake filthy lucre and pursue a fortune in eco-friendly designer coffee is supposed to endear him to us.  At least I think.  You may have heard that this book is even-handed toward conservatives, but that’s just false.  Yes, liberals are morally compromised and complicit, but conservatives, in this novel, are mustache twirling cartoon villains who merely look at their neighbors’ Obama bumper sticker and think (ok, the narrator thinks for her) that this person is in league with the devil or who blithely sell sub-standard equipment to the DoD for pure profit.  Yeah, those caricatures are grounded in a certain amount of truth, but…

I just sort of wonder if this novel’s enshrinement such unobjectionable liberal values as peace and sustainability as well as its commitment to such brutal dissections of its characters dirty psyches, is designed to sort of protect it from the most obvious bit of criticism that one could make of it:  that as an attempt to document America in the post-9/11 world, this novel is profoundly limited in its scope.  Now, the fact that this book was quite literally (though tongue-in-cheekily) hailed as the Great American Novel probably isn’t a charge that can be laid at Franzen’s feet.  One suspects that he didn’t exactly ask for that, wasn’t even reaching for it, in fact.  But even as an attempt at social realism, this novel is really only documenting the lives of white middle class liberals involved in monogamous heterosexual relationships who have the resources to spend a great deal of time in a therapist’s office, people who have connections in New York City, people who can (or whose children can) get wildly implausible jobs with war profiteers before graduating from UVA, people with connections close to Dick Cheney. Conveniently, these are the people who tend to write reviews for the Times and Salon.

In other words, even while I felt the sting of some of Franzen’s satire, I have ultimately come to the realization that this novel is not really about me.  For one thing, I’m a woman, and Franzen appears to be woefully inadequate when it comes to realistically documenting the lives of women who aren’t slavishly committed to a man.  For another thing, I don’t have access to the ideas and resources for activism that are so richly available to these characters.  But I am not the only person for whom this novel does not speak.  Indeed, this novel seems to have little to say about non-white people (except for one brown secondary character who is barely a person), about queer people, about trans people, even about disabled people, and it is especially condescending toward lower or lower-middle class people.  Franzen has Walter and Patty’s daughter Jessica remind her father that he really shouldn’t air his resentment of ignorant poor folks in public when speaking for Free Space, the anti-growth movement they are attempting to start.  But otherwise, Walter’s belief that poor people are destroying the planet by having too many children, a product of their disgusting ignorance and allegiance to religion, is sort of allowed to remain intact.  In fact, when bringing up the fact that his neighbors use the recession as an excuse not to care about the environment, the novel seems to tacitly suggest that people who complain about hard times these days are just whiners who refuse to give up their ridiculous luxuries.

I might be reading that wrong.  The narrative voice slips between earnestness and irony enough that it can be difficult to tell what we’re supposed to hang onto, whether this little jab at suburbanites facing joblessness or foreclosure really is as devoid of compassion as it seems to be.  Similarly, it’s difficult to tell if this novel is as misogynistic as it seems to be.  In the wake of Franzenfreude, one reviewer for Salon was quick to insist that Franzen writes great female characters.  I’m just not convinced.  Yes, we spend about 160 pages in the consciousness of Patty Berglund, but we also spend time in the minds of three other men:  her husband, her lover and her son.  The rest of the women are flat.  Jessica, the daughter, exists purely to say reasonable stuff when her family members are losing their shit, though her other personality feature is having terrible taste in men.  Lalitha, Walter’s young assistant and eventual lover, is exclusively defined by her slavish adoration of her boss. Similarly, Connie is defined by her slavish adoration of Joey, and Jenna–a young socialite whom Joey dreams of bedding–exists purely to be a bitch to Joey and prompt his political awakening.  I think this novel may actually fail the Bechdel test, but I’d have to re-read it to be sure.  Yes, Jessica and Patty have scenes together, but they mostly talk about Walter or Jessica’s boyfriend.

In other words, most of the women lack subjectivity outside of their relationships with men, and even Patty proves willing to totally abase herself in order to win the affections of two men who are, quite frankly, total assholes:  Richard, a misogynistic hipster indie rock “star” and Walter, who is a classic Nice Guy.  Patty’s entire neurosis seems to be about her quest for a good fuck, and the implications of that quest get decidedly creepy when you consider the fact that she was raped as a teen and finds sexual catharsis in acts with both Richard and Walter that bear an unsettling resemblance to rape.  Later, Walter will blame Patty not only for having a brief affair with Richard but for making him want to have an affair with his assistant by being so depressed and insufferable all the time.  And we’re sort of supposed to feel sorry for him at that point.  And then, after throwing her out of her home and shutting her out of his life for six years, he only takes her back after she nearly kills herself by sitting on his doorstep in the Minnesota winter in a scene in which she is metaphorically compared, I shit you not, to a cat (in a book that deploys that makes “pussy” jokes with depressing frequency).

If the end of the novel makes any recommendations about how to live, it appears to be this:  you should get back together with your spouse who doesn’t really love or respect you;  you should bake cookies for your Fundamentalist neighbors and then educate them about how to prevent their house cats from killing endangered songbirds; and you should bulldoze your vacation home and make it into a bird sanctuary dedicated to your dead former lover.  It’s sort of depressing that this novel, which proves so willing to champion a certain amount of radical progressivism when it comes to the sustainability, winds up being so terribly conventional and, dare I say it, sentimental in the end.


The Dudeliness of Dreiser Studies

Theodore Dreiser

Recently on Tiger Beatdown, The Rejectionist wrote a post on “manfiction” that reminded me of the seminar on Postmodernist American Literature I took in my first year of graduate school, a course that probably should have been called “Bonerfest–the Twentieth Century.” Aside from Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick (of the fourteen books assigned, women wrote two), this course was pretty much a non-stop parade of dudes talking about their dicks. The status of women in most of these works is pretty much summed up by the cover art for Wille Masters’ Lonesome Wife (NSFW). In case you’re afraid to click the link, the cover features a photograph a headless lady’s nekkid boobs, and the central conceit of the book is that the text…wait for it…is a woman. Let that sit for a minute. In the course of embodying “the text” (i.e. William Gass’s brilliant creation), the unclothed female in the photographs masturbates and has coffee stains imprinted on her body, because dudes sometimes put their coffee mug down on the chick *erm* they are currently doing/reading.  The text is essentially all about the male gaze, in which the text–gendered female–bounces around promiscuously between multiple readers–gendered male.

By the time we had gotten to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, I had pretty much had it and went on a lengthy public rant about how dudes seriously need to get a new metaphor for their writerly prowess. Because, PENIS. WE GOT IT THE FIRST 50,000 TIMES. IT’S BEEN DONE. And then I held the entire class hostage while I read Gilbert and Gubar to them. Ok, that last part isn’t true, but shoulda woulda and all that.

This is not to say that I dislike literature by men. Many of my favorite writers are men. But the penis as pen thing really is pretty worn out, and I find it increasingly difficult to get geared up for Roth or Updike or Hemingway or Kerouac or McCarthy because of their inability to portray women as actual human beings.

And that’s why, when it came time to write the Dreiser chapter of my dissertation–because he’s a Writer I Have to Account For–I was prepared for it to be a real drag.  I had always thought of Dreiser as a Dude Writer in the Frank Norris/Ernest Hemingway mold because of when he was writing (roughly 1900-1945) and the fact that most of the critics who write about him are Great Dude Critics in the Walter Benn Michaels mold.

But then I read the actual novels and was surprised. I had read Sister Carrie a while back, but I hadn’t really reflected on the significance of the fact that Dreiser’s first two novels featured strong female protagonists with total sexual autonomy and–here’s a shocker–jobs. In fact, all of the barriers to ladies obtaining sex and/or jobs in Dreiser novels prove to be societal and economic rather than biological. Women do not meet with unfortunate circumstances in his novels because they are in possession of female reproductive systems but because the system is rigged against them and they are oppressed by dude-centered morality. An American Tragedy, widely lauded as his greatest novel is essentially a 900 page argument for legalized abortion. In 1925.

Emma Dreiser, the purported inspiration for Sister Carrie

Here, for example, is the plot of Sister Carrie: Carrie Meeber travels from her hometown to the city of Chicago in search of a better life. On the train, she meets a hot guy named Charles Drouet, who suggests that they hook up sometime. She says “maybe” and goes to live with her sister’s family while looking for a job. Carrie finds a job sewing designer shoes, but her sister and brother-in-law start taking most of her wages. At this point, Carrie has begun dating Drouet, who is just a salesman but can afford nicer things than she can, and seeing her loneliness and economic desperation, he suggests they shack up together. By this point, Carrie has lost her job due to illness, and she agrees, and we never hear from the sister or brother-in-law again. I feel that it is important to mention that most Dreiser novels begin this way, no matter what the gender of the protagonist is. Wide-eyed, ambitious young person arrives in the big city, finds a menial job, struggles on the brink of starvation, and starts screwing someone. Much would be made of Carrie’s economic opportunism (gold digger!), but dating above one’s socio-economic station is something that virtually every one of Dreiser’s male protagonists (including Eugene Witla, Frank Cowperwood, and Clyde Griffiths) does. The same goes for screwing someone whom you later lose interest in, as Carrie does about a quarter of the way through the novel. People falling into bed together and then realizing they are poorly suited for one another is a pretty consistent theme in Dreiser’s works.

Enter George Hurstwood. Hurstwood, like Drouet and Carrie, is an ambitious social climber (EVERYONE in Dreiser’s world is a rank materialist) who has made it to the next rung. He is, essentially, the manager of a high-end bar and even more of a metrosexual than Drouet. Drouet, who is kind of an idiot but who is also probably banging another lady anyway, introduces the two of them. Hurstwood and Carrie get the hots for each other. In the meantime, Carrie gets one job as a stage actress and has proves to be quite good at it. As she and Drouet have begun fighting (namely over her clandestine meetings with Hurstwood), she makes plans to move out of their apartment and try to make it on her own.

Meanwhile, Hurstwood’s wife has begun to suspect something, and because said wife actually holds most of the family property in her own name, Hurstwood is in something of a pickle. So–and this is where things get weird–he gets hammered, steals a buttload of money from his place of employment, lures Carrie onto a train (by telling her Drouet is injured), and kidnaps her. They go to Canada, where the police finally catch up with them and make Hurstwood give all the money back and promise to return to Chicago so he can face justice. He gives part of the money back and then forces Carrie to come with him to New York, promising that he will marry her. Since she is now an accomplice to grand larceny in the eyes of the law and has no way to get back to Chicago, she doesn’t have much choice. The two of them shack up in New York under a different name. Hurstwood temporarily invests in another high-end bar but finds that his stock isn’t all that high in this much fancier town, especially when he can’t trade on his own name.

Hurstwood eventually loses his business, and the two of them muddle through in reduced circumstances for a while. Hurstwood spends some time looking for a job, any job, but he is so psychologically defeated by the whole ordeal that he mostly winds up wandering the city and sitting forlornly in the lobbies of expensive hotels, dreaming of the old days. Then he starts gambling. Once he finally reveals to Carrie–the woman he kidnapped, if you recall–that they are destitute, she decides to go looking for a job herself. She gets a bit part as an actress that leads to full time employment in a theater chorus. Meanwhile, Hurstwood spends most of his time reading the newspaper in their apartment. No longer attracted to him, Carrie decides to move out and get a room with a female co-worker. Her career takes off, and she becomes a major Broadway actress and eventually moves into the Waldorf-Astoria. Hurstwood eventually commits suicide in a flop house.

The thesis (theses really) of Sister Carrie is similar to that of all Dreiser novels: compulsory monogamy is problematic for everybody; affordable birth control is super-duper important; the system is rigged in favor of the already wealthy; a lack of a social safety net results in tragedy; American consumerism supports economic exploitation. In other words, while far from perfect, Dreiser was one of the most progressive authors of the early twentieth century of any gender, really. He was interested in women’s experiences, because, as far as he was concerned, they were human experiences. While he did have a creepy fascination with nubile eighteen-year olds, his novels contained plenty of fully realized older female characters. While his male characters have a tendency to hop from woman to woman, even if that means leaving at least one of them in disadvantaged economic circumstances, he championed birth control and legal, affordable abortion as a basic human right and socio-economic necessity. And he portrayed plenty of compelling female characters who wanted sex but had no interest in marriage, like Christina Channing of The “Genius,” who, upon hearing that her former lover is getting married, promptly gets on with her opera career. In fact, if there is one major way in which Dreiser’s gender politics fail it is in his frustration with the fact that all women aren’t like Carrie or Christina Channing, that many women of his time remained deeply invested in traditional morality and compulsory monogamy, without really considering the fact that except for the very privileged, the sexual license he idealizes would typically mean social and economic death for the average woman. (One might say that this critique actually remains in the sub-text of his work).

So why have I thought for so long that Dreiser was a Dude Writer of Manfiction? I guess it’s because of this:

Naturally, Hurstwood drew more sympathy than Carrie. To many reviewers (all male in this case), Carrie was regarded as an irresponsible shopgirl who got lucky, but Hurstwood drew their empathy.

From Jerome Loving, The Last Titan


See, early reviewers and virtually every male academic critic thereafter have sort of looked at Sister Carrie like this: “So there this chick in this book, and it’s named after her, but she’s kind of gross because she sleeps around and [does all the stuff that typical Dreiser heroes do, but does them while female]. That guy who kidnaps her and implicates her in a crime that she didn’t commit is incredibly sympathetic, though.” In other words, the reason why Dreiser exists somewhere in the zeitgeist as a Dude Who Writes About Dudely Things is because Dudes like that have been in charge of his legacy, and those dudes could not manage to identify with female protagonists who do precisely what Dreiser’s male protagonists do and so attached themselves to a male character who does not appear until page 60 and call him the hero while ignoring the character the book is named after. And what’s remarkable is how this perception has persisted even into the present day. Loving’s biography of Dreiser was published in 2005, the most recent to date, but even he summarizes Sister Carrie thus:

Carrie Meeber […] moves from the country to the city, exchanging her virginity for material comfort. Her successive lovers, Charles Drouet and George Hurstwood, see her, reciprocally, as a symbol of the pleasure money and power can purchase. Carrie abandons the unmarried Drouet for the married Hurstwood, who in turn leaves his family and his position as manager of a post Chicago saloon, steals money from his employers, and flees with Carrie to New York. There, as he eventually fails in his new investment, Carrie abandons him as well, and he soon finds himself homeless, sick, and dazed by fate in the winter of 1896.

Yes, poooooooooor Hurstwood. Except, you know, KIDNAPPING, which Loving doesn’t really mention, because by consenting to romantic relations with him she was consenting to abduction, I guess.  Because women exist in a perpetual state of “yes.” I like how Carrie is only ever allowed agency in this paragraph when she is doing something reprehensible: “exchanging her virginity” or “abandoning” one of her men. Otherwise, she is an object to be traded. Loving goes on about this novel for several pages, talking about the confluences between Dreiser’s own economic insecurity and Hurstwood’s rapid decline:

Dreiser worried about money, as we know, most of his life, and this phobia is dramatized in the increasing shabbiness of Hurstwood’s living quarters.

Forget the far more explicit connection between Carrie and Dreiser’s attempts to make it in Chicago, between their early sexual exploits. In fact, there is a marked similarity between the early chapters of Sister Carrie and the early chapters of the semi-autobiographical novel The “Genius” and probably no small amount of wishful thinking in the way that Dreiser depicts Carrie’s rise as an actress, much in the way, perhaps, he imagined his own rise as a novelist. For most Dreiser scholars, there is just no freaking way that the Beloved Male Author could have identified with a female protagonist, yet there is substantial evidence that he did.

If you look at his photo, featured at the beginning of this essay, you can sort of see that there were ways in which Dreiser did not live up to the standards of hegemonic masculinity at just about any time. I mean really, he was kind of a wiener. He wasn’t conventionally attractive or physically able. He suffered from frequent bouts of neurasthenia (what we might call depression or chronic fatigue syndrome). Despite his early interest in sex, he was often unlucky in love and had difficulties consummating the act as a youth. He was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. He was into all kinds of weird spiritual stuff–like going to astrologers and Christian Scientists and reading tea leaves and performing seances–much of which was associated with women at the time.  His Professional Author friends were often sort of like, “You should really shut up about that stuff, because it DOESN’T LOOK GOOD.” Reading his biography, I’ve come to see that while Dreiser needed the assistance of people like H.L. Mencken to help translate his vision into literary success, much of his legacy has been controlled by a public relations team, a team of literary professionals who were frequently a little embarrassed by his failure to conform.

So, why the hell did I just write all of that? Well, I guess it’s because I’m immersed in all of this stuff right now, this being the chapter I’m currently working on and whatnot. But I’m also trying to point out that the project of Backlash Literature in the twentieth century has not only been about erasing emergent female voices and asserting larger-than-life masculine voices but policing the masculinity of the Great Male Authors of the relatively recent past. One of these days, I will write a great post about a female author that I love that didn’t inspire the title of this blog. But if you want a recommendation, I’d say go for Toni Morrison’s Paradise or Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both excellent books about women’s relationships with women. And for an excellent feminist reading of Dreiser, check out Jennifer Fleissner’s Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism.

Mark Twain Thought Chivalry Sucked Too

A dude who thinks chivalry is terribad

Feminists don’t like the whole idea of chivalry much, no? I mean, ask this feminist, and I’ll probably tell you that yes, you should give up your seat to that pregnant lady, and yes, if you see me walking toward a door with a lot of heavy books in my hands, I would thank you for holding it open for me. But that’s because I would totally do the same thing for you! That’s called being polite! What feminists are really complaining about with the whole chivalry thing is that it’s something dudes sometimes use to prove how studly they are to other dudes by infantalizing women in the process. For example, dudes sometimes feel the need to beat up other dudes whenever the lady they are with is insulted. Now once again, if we are in company together and someone says something offensive about me, or another lady, or ladies in general, it is perfectly acceptable for you to speak up with a “wow, not cool” sort of comment, because again that’s just being polite. But if your immediate reaction to an insult directed at the woman you are with is something more like, “That’s MY woman you’re talking about!11!11  YOU HAVE IMPUGNED MY GENTLEMANLY HONOR, YOU KNAVE!!!1!!11 HULK RAGE!11!1!!1” then I am not so cool with that. As Amanda Hess of the Sexist helpfully explains, when a woman is, say, harassed on a street while in the company of her gentleman associate, she may feel anger on her own behalf because someone thought she was a hooker, but she also feels:

A secondary source of shame, derived from the possibility that someone “may have thought [her fiance] was with a hooker.” Since the woman’s fiance is responsible for her shame as well, he may have a similarly conflicted reaction: (a) anger at the harassers who devalued her based on her gender, and (b) shame that he is associated with a woman who is considered by other men to be valueless. Chivalry encourages him to take personal offense to this, inciting one of two reactions: (a) engaging in a verbal or physical altercation with the harassers in order to compensate for the woman’s shame with a display of manhood; and/or (b) chastising the woman for bringing shame upon him, i.e. “Don’t embarrass me in front of other men”; “Don’t go out looking like that”; “See what you made me do.”

Chivalry has long performed the task of recasting violent oppression as benign paternalism, and you know who recognized this way back in the nineteenth century? Mark Twain. That’s not a name that gets invoked by feminists very often, and for good reason. True to his status as a nineteenth century male, Mark Twain’s gender politics were pretty appalling. I’m trying to think of one female character in one of his novels that isn’t a ridiculous stereotype, and yeah, no. But Mark Twain held many other radically progressive views. He was critical of the American imperial project at a time when the country was clamoring for the expansion of American influence abroad. He was a pacifist, and he hated most organized religion (though I think his own religious views were pretty complex). He also thought that the word chivalry pretty much encompassed everything that was wrong with the United States during his lifetime.  I’m not exaggerating.

See, U.S.-Americans learned about chivalry from Sir Walter Scott, the early nineteenth century author of such novels as Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. In these novels, knightly dudes did knightly things like fight duels (often over women). These knights were always part of a powerful noble class, whose rank was more or less granted to them by God Almighty and whose right to hold that rank was never, ever challenged. Everyone else–i.e. poorer people and women, i.e. a huge percentage of the population of the historical period these novels purported to depict–was pretty much the exclusive property of the male members of that noble class and fawningly served them and existed primarily to provide the picturesque backdrop for the nobles’ heroic pursuits.

The dude Twain blamed for that whole Civil War thing

According to Mark Twain, white Americans, particularly those residing in the South, read about this and said, “This is totes awesome. We totally need something like this right here in the U.S. of A.  And luckily it just so happens that we have a subjugated class of non-persons who can provide our picturesque backdrop built into our society.” In short, Twain argued that the Southern infatuation with Sir Walter Scott-style chivalry was responsible for the perpetuation of slavery and the Civil War. As he says in Life on the Mississippi:

There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it–would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediaeval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

The newer, sexier Old South

While Twain fully acknowledges that slavery predated the influence of Scott, he argues that Scott provided a heroic language with which to describe slavery and violent oppression, a language that continued to be prevalent even after the Civil War. After Reconstruction was disastrously abandoned, there was a market for fiction that presented the Old South in this highly romanticized fashion. Take, for example, Thomas Nelson Page’s short story “Marse Chan,” a piece of dialect fiction in which a former slave wistfully reminisces about the beautiful, long lost time before the war, in which his heroic master was crossed in love and fought duels. The reason this is told from the former slave’s perspective is to convey the not so subtle subtext that those nice white Southerners treated their slaves so well. See?  The slaves actually liked it!  Stories like this were essential in promoting white solidarity throughout the country after the war, by depicting the Southern lifestyle as quaint and picturesque rather than the human rights catastrophe that it actually was.

Twain’s 1890 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was basically a book length critique of chivalry. In that novel, Twain uses various forms of anachronism to remind us, first of all, that our entire understanding of chivalry is based on a set of myths surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, a mythology that is heavily mediated by novelists who were writing a millennium after King Arthur allegedly lived. Entire monologues delivered by the medieval characters are cribbed straight from Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte D’Arthur, which was written in the fifteenth century, in order to mock those who had mistaken mythology for actual history.  The hero of the novel, Hank Morgan, is essentially the surrogate for the white Yankee audience(this dude is from Connecticut and is also totally smug about it). Transported from the late nineteenth century to the “sixth” (the sixth century in this book is essentially just a Sir Walter Scott novel), he spends most of the first act noticing how stupidly the people who inhabit this entirely fictional conception of the medieval period behave, with the implicit message being “HEY SOUTHERNERS, YOU LOOK EFFING RIDICULOUS WHEN YOU DO THAT.” He also observes that the entire system of chivalry seems to exist to perpetuate the completely unearned privilege of a few people, namely the King, his knights, and the Church, the result being that everyone else is essentially a slave.

The violence inherent in the system

Twain’s depiction of “sixth century” slavery in this novel could have been lifted directly from Harriet Beecher Stowe or Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. While this is a comic novel, he is unsparing in his depiction of slavery as a moral outrage. We see couples torn apart, children taken from their mothers, people being savagely beaten. Even worse, Twain shows how violent oppression turns oppressed people on one another. Everyone who isn’t a nobleman or a priest is essentially treated like an animal, but some of them ultimately internalize their own oppression and act as enforcers of the system in order to attain slightly higher status or even just survive. When he witnesses a group of peasants hunting down some other peasants who burned down their lord’s castle in an act of rebellion against that lord’s arbitrary uses of violence, Morgan says:

It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the “poor whites” of our South who were always despised and frequently insulted, by the slave-lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with slave-lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them.

However, the novel implicitly critiques its narrator as well. Morgan’s smug sense of superiority to the sixth century noblemen is analogous to that of the privileged white people of the North, many of whom expressed disgust over slavery and the backward ways of the South but did absolutely nothing about it. In one scene, Morgan watches a young woman being beaten by a slave driver and utterly fails to intervene, because he fears offending the privileged people he is traveling with:

I wanted to stop the whole thing and set the slaves free, but that would not do. I must not interfere too much and get myself a name for riding over the country’s laws and the citizen’s rights roughshod. If I lived and prospered I would be the death of slavery, that I was resolved upon; but I would try to fix it so that when I became its executioner it should be by the command of the nation.

It is worth pointing out that by this point in the novel, Morgan has gone from regarding chivalry with rank disgust to regarding it with a kind of aesthetic appreciation. By virtue of having a nineteenth century knowledge of technology in the sixth century, he has risen to power and privilege and has even begun to see quaint beauty in the system he originally detested, a system that he is now benefiting from. In this passage, we see how that privilege has shaped the way Morgan determines who counts as a “citizen,” whose “rights” are worth respecting, whose “command” matters when it comes to abolishing slavery. I won’t spoil the end of the novel for you. It’s one that you really should go read for yourself, as it’s quick and funny and sneakily profound. Suffice it to say that for all it’s humor, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was sort of shockingly ahead of it’s time (if you read the contemporary reviews, you can see just how much of its subversiveness floated under the nose of Twain’s readers), simultaneously unveiling the role that language and literature play in supporting systems of power decades before Foucault and revealing the horrifying consequences of industrialized warfare decades before the World Wars.

Kids these days

But many of Twain’s other novels contain critiques of chivalry and “Sir Walter disease.” Remember when you read Huckleberry Finn in high school and got to that part at the end where Tom and Huck decide to free Jim but Tom makes everyone engage in this ludicrous role play of a typical captivity narrative (I think The Count of Monte Cristo is his inspiration) and your teacher didn’t really know what to do with that? (Ok, maybe she did and what I’m about to say is not news to you. What I’m about to say did not originate with me). Some people think that final episode makes the entire book a colossal literary failure, but there is a purpose behind it. See, from the beginning of that novel (and in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer is established as the type of kid who likes to act out the scenarios of his favorite books. Absurd shenanigans ensue.  Huckleberry Finn, as a coming of age story, is essentially all about what happens when we forget to put aside our childish ways and use those sorts of games to structure real, adult lives. (I suppose there is also an argument to be made that Huck Finn demonstrates how the systems of privilege and entitlement that structure adult lives begin with childhood play.)  Consider the Duke and the King, two con artists who adopt these sham titles because the Southerners around them will believe in that shit. Then you have the Sandersons and the Grangerfords slaughtering each other over a feud that absolutely no one remembers due to the fetishization of “Family Honor” as a grand, abstract concept.

What Twain is doing with Tom’s little captivity role play is showing how these childish fictions can become serious business. In the process of this little charade, Jim is recaptured, and Tom gets shot. But that episode isn’t just about the ridiculousness of patterning real life after a novel–though that’s pretty much what Twain’s critique of the South and Sir Walter came down to–it’s that enacting the narratives of chivalry requires taking away the autonomy of non-privileged people (Jim and to a certain degree Huck) in order to allow Privileged White Folks (Tom) to live out these self-aggrandizing narratives. Tom’s conception of himself as a Hero is entirely predicated on the fact that Jim has no choice but to play along because his very bodily survival depends on Tom’s benevolence and cooperation, just as the ability of White Southerners to perform chivalry as a class depended upon the existence of a permanent underclass that could be treated as personal property and kept wholly dependent on their masters.

In short, U.S. Americans have a long history of using the rhetoric of chivalry in order to deny autonomy and personhood to certain types of people, and that’s essentially what we’re talking about when feminists critique it. I wouldn’t even begin to argue that the situation of the harassed woman on the street who feels shame on behalf of her partner–because a slight against her is a slight against him, since she belongs to her in some way–is suffering from a form of oppression equivalent to that experienced by black slaves in the American South, or even African Americans in the U.S. today. But it is part of the same cultural logic that says that the performance of Dudely Heroism requires a woman to perform a circumscribed, subordinate role.  Furthermore, it justifies that necessity of that subordinate role by casting it as necessary for her own protection, because in the cultural logic of chivalry, women and other people who are treated as the personal property of white dudes are too ignorant and fragile to take care of themselves. Better they suffer indignities at the hands of one responsible, gentlemanly white man than find out what might happen if they had, you know, bodily autonomy, because dear God, what might happen then?

And this, dear readers, is what chivalry hath wrought.  So saith Mark Twain.

Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar, Part Deux

Yesterday, I wrote a 3000 word post about grammar that some folks seemed to like. The point of that post was that grammatical correctness is often confused for facility with words, that the former is a step toward the latter but not the entirety of it. I argued that it is more important for writers, be they students or professionals, to say what they mean. In that post, I used a sample from Lionel Tiger’s new book–a sample originally posted on The Sexist–to show how grammatically correct writing can sometimes become unreadable. Amanda Hess evidently saw the trackback and liked it, because she devoted a whole post to it! And traffic on this blog has increased by like 2000%! And I’ve had to delete some trolls who didn’t actually read the post, which is, I think, a blogger rite of passage!  So, thank you Amanda Hess!

Today, however, I am going to offer up an example of how language can be used beautifully, how a writer can use sophisticated sentence structures and even non-standard grammar to great effect. I just finished teaching Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to my Literature and Religion class, so I might as well go with that. When students first encounter Rushdie’s prose, they often find it difficult to wade through, but as I will show, the complexity of it–the way he piles images and motifs onto one another–actually enhances the ideas he is presenting without obscuring them. In other words, it’s challenging in a good way. It immerses you in the ideas instead of pulling you out of them.  Let’s start with the third paragraph of the first chapter, which begins with two men falling from the sky:

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohe, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.” At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling headfirst in a grey suit all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his head, pulled a nickname-hater’s face. “Hey, Spoono,” Gibreel yelled, eliciting a second inverted wince, “Proper London, bhai! here we come! Those bastards down there won’t know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. Dharrraaammm!Wham!, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear, splat.”

Ok, first of all, let’s get one thing straight. This is not stream of consciousness narrative. My students are quick to toss this term onto the table, but it isn’t accurate. One of the Amazon commenters on Tiger’s book referred to it as “stream of consciousness,” which has come to mean, I think, “prose I don’t understand.” Stream of consciousness narrative attempts to replicate the thought processes of an individual mind and reads the way it does (not easily) because when we think, our thoughts jump around. Perception and cognition aren’t coherent or linear. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is representative of stream of consciousness because we never leave the mind of the protagonist, Stephen Daedalus. The first two sections of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are stream of consciousness because they occupy the minds of Benjy and Quentin, and they are difficult to read because neither of these two characters are neurotypical.

No, The Satanic Verses employs a straightforward omniscient narrator, and omniscient narrator who turns out to be Satan actually, but we don’t know that at this point in the novel. The terms that best describes Rushdie’s prose are non-linear or surrealistic, though magic realism is the generic name for this type of fiction. Magic realism is where the narrative clearly inhabits the “real world” (i.e. this isn’t Narnia or Middle Earth) but crazy supernatural stuff happens. However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.

In this paragraph, he is introducing the two main characters of the novel and showing us that they are complete opposites, “levity against gravity.” Though Gibreel’s banter and his mode of falling, we get a sense of his exuberance and wonder. Then we see Saladin Chamcha with his buttoned up suit, bowler hat, rigid posture, and hatred of nicknames and immediately understand that he is a grouch. Gibreel is sort of loving this unlikely and surely terrifying experience, but Saladin is clearly hating it. If you got nothing more out of that paragraph than what I just said, you would be perfectly capable of grasping what happens in the rest of the chapter and the rest of the novel. In other words, it is possible to have a purely straight foward, non-symbolic understanding of this paragraph if that’s your thing.  But there is actually more going on here, and one of the beauties of Rushdie’s prose is that it rewards you on the second and third and fourth reading. Having read this book something like five times, I now know enough about what is about to come to appreciate how Rushdie uses these early paragraphs to set up all of his themes.

In traditional sonata format–the compositional structure that informed a lot of the classical music you hear–the first section is called the Exposition. This is where the composer introduces the tonal key and musical ideas he plans to explore in the rest of the piece. That’s essentially what Rushdie does here. For one thing, there is actual music here.  Gibreel falls while singing, an activity that presages the significance of “verses,” namely the verses of the Qu’ran later in the book.  We are also about to learn that Saladin Chamcha, an Indian expatriate who lives in London, has shunned his past and family history. His fractured relationship with his father, his embarrassment about coming from the “third world,” and his desire to impress the British have led him to become, well, T.S. Eliot or something. He has reinvented himself and become more British than the British, adopting a stereotypically “proper” mode of dress (the grey suit and bowler hat). Furthermore, the nickname that Gibreel uses–“Spoono,” which is a play on Saladin’s Anglicized last name, which used to be Chamchawala and is now Chamcha–translates to something like “sell-out.” Saladin’s truncated name is a derogatory word for Indians who collaborated with the British under the Raj, and Gibreel is mocking him for it. Conversely, Gibreel, a Bollywood film star, is the pop culture icon of his nation. He is exuberant in his Indianness, and that is partly why Saladin finds his nattering–so different from Saladin’s, due to his attempts to erase his linguistic past from his speech patterns–so irritating.

But it gets even more trippy than that. Rushdie slyly sneaks in many of the leitmotifs that will become significant in the rest of the novel. The big theme of this book is transformation. He is exploring the way the post-colonial experience has metamorphosed not only individuals but entire cultures, the way in which it is in the process of transforming both colonizer and colonized in frightening and unintended ways. Gibreel and Saladin are about to be changed into the forms of the angel Gabriel (Gibreel adopts “heraldic postures” in the air) and the Devil respectively (there’s that whole magic realism thing) following this fall from the sky. The first sentence of the book is “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'” So after metaphorically “dying” by falling from an airplane that was taking them from India to Britain and was blown up by a suicide bomber, they emerge from the English Channel bearing these new forms, which will symbolize the divergent fates that await immigrants on the shores of a new country.

So this paragraph is laden with images of transformation. Among Gibreel’s many mid-air stunts, he performs a “butterfly-stroke,” and butterflies will become an important metamorphosis image later on. We also have the exploration of liminal space. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshhold and means the space in between spaces or states of being. Victor Turner applied the term to religious rituals he observed in his ethnographic research.  In the space of the ritual, social boundaries evaporated and roles were reversed. One might say that it is in the liminal space of the Eucharist that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Liminal spaces are where things pause on the way to becoming other things, where the magic happens. When Rushdie speaks of “the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn,” this is what he is talking about–the in between time where these people are no longer what they were but not yet what they are going to be, no longer night, but not yet morning.

There are multiple liminal spaces in The Satanic Verses, but the two important ones in this paragraph are water and air. the air part is obvious. That’s what they’re falling through. It is the medium they inhabit between the wreckage of the airplane, carrying their past lives, and the new life ahead with all of it’s uncertainty. Thin air is a dangerous place, but it is also a spiritual place. Gibreel himself refers to “thin air” at the end of this paragraph, and that phrase gets repeated twice in the next paragraph. (Ok, how cool would it be if it turned out that Jon Krakauer’s book title was a reference to this?)  That paragraph also references Mount Everest, the obsession of British mountain climber Allie Cone, who sees ghosts and angels after ascending the highest mountain in the world without supplemental oxygen. High spaces, where the air is thin, are spaces in which we face mortality, in which the barriers between life and death, earth and the afterworld are rendered permeable. This is also true of water, which is the space of birth but also of drowning, the space of baptism and ritual cleansing but also of destruction (later we are introduced to a desert city made of sand, where water represents a threat). Rushdie is playing with these two mediums by having Gibreel literally “swim” through the air as they plummet toward the sea.

These are profoundly religious images. Angels, demons, baptism, rebirth, judgement. Rushdie mines the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism for metaphors and narratives that help him explain how post-colonial migrants experience this new world. In doing so, he is giving that story dignity, but he is also commenting on the role that religion itself plays in public life. Gibreel alludes to this when he mentions “meteor or lightning or vengeance of God.” Rushdie is concerned about what happens when these religious myths and metaphors cease being metaphorical and start structuring our lives in potentially scary ways: when religion is used to justify oppressing people or blowing up planes. Gibreel will ultimately style himself as the instrument of God’s vengeance upon the unfaithful (namely, people he does not like or trust), and that brings him to a bad end.

And all of that stuff is expressed within that one dense paragraph. As I said, even without knowing all that is foreshadowed here, you could get the major point. The complexity adds meaning to the text rather than obfuscating it. It’s difficult to say the same for Tiger’s “enchanted puzzlement.” No words are wasted here.

Yet two weeks ago, one of my undergrads moaned, “Why can’t he just use proper grammar?” This happened. I’m not making it up. It’s at times like these when I wish my classroom came equipped with trap doors under each chair like at Dr. Evil’s conference table. First of all, this student and his ilk clearly did not recognize that most of Rushdie’s prose is grammatically correct. He does deliberately use things like sentence fragments in dialogue because that is how most people talk, and most novelists since the Victorian era have felt free to break that rule. What they seem to be reacting to is the non-linearity and complexity of it. And I’m actually ok with that. Occasionally, good writing doesn’t bottle-feed you. This is why we have English class.

When you were a snotty teenager and first saw abstract art, wasn’t your first reaction something like, “Feh, I could do that.” The truth is, no you couldn’t. Most abstract and surrealist artists had to learn how to do photo-realistic drawing and painting before they moved on to paint splatters and blocks of color. Grammar is sort of like that. You have to learn how to play by the rules so that you can selectively break them when it serves your purpose. As a former Washington Post columnist, Rushdie has proven time and time again that he is capable of writing lucid expository prose. Here is what he says about the stories religion gives us, the stories that inform alot of his fiction, in a 1997 letter to the “Six Billionth World Citizen” and reprinted in the non-fiction collection Step Across this Line:

Many of these stories will strike you as extremely beautiful, and therefore seductive. Unfortunately, however, you will not be required to make a purely literary response to them. Only the stories of “dead” religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you. So you will be told that belief in “your” stories, and adherence to the rituals of worship that have grown up around them must become a ital part of your life in the crowded world. They will be called the heart of your culture, even of your individual identity. It is possible that they may at some point come to feel inescapable, not in the way that the truth is inescapable but in the way that a jail is. They may at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other, properly anointed human beings to order you around. And it’s true that human history is full of the public oppression wrought by the charioteers of the gods. In the opinion of religious people, however, the private comfort that religion brings more than compensates for the evil done in its name.

Okay, I chose this passage on purpose, not only because it speaks to the themes of The Satanic Verses but because it says something rather similar to what the Tiger example says. It’s talking about the intractability of public discussions about religion as an evolutionarily and aesthetically important part of human history because the enemies and champions of religion essentially have nothing to say to one another and don’t want anyone else to talk about it either. But look what we have here: modifiers, some of them even arguably extraneous, but none of which impede the flow of the writing. In addition, we have poignant metaphors, sentence variety, neat shifts from lofty to vernacular language, from “pretexts” to “order you around.” The meaning of this paragraph is transparent and well-said. It’s quotable, even. I can read it out loud to my class (which I did) and maintain their rapt attention.

That’s what language, in the right hands, can really do. Rushdie is capable of using both standard and non-standard grammar because of that fluency thing. He commands the English language. Every word does what he wants and needs it to do.