Thursday, October 2, 2008

Don't Look Behind The Literary Curtain

I was hit hard by the suicide of David Foster Wallace. Not because I knew him personally -- I didn't -- and not because I was a big fan of his books or anything. I've never actually read any of his books. I started Infinite Jest, and wasn't in the mood for it, and been planning to try it again soon.

I guess the suicide hit me hard because he's roughly my age, and because he seemed to have everything a thinking person could want in life.

He was a respected writer, with a good teaching job, where by all accounts his students adored him. He was married. He was obviously talented and intelligent. He had accomplished a lot.

So I guess I found it destabilizing to remember that even with all those things, life can just seem really empty and hollow if you're looking at it in a certain way.

I say "remember" because this is something I know. It's something I try not to think about too much, because it's frightening.

The short New Yorker "Postscript" about Wallace in last week's issue quotes Wallace as having said that great literature made him feel "unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually."

I was like, "Yeah! Me too! I know exactly what he means."

Indeed, reading novels is one of the main sources in my life for keeping at bay the bad feelings of emptiness and hollowness. In this I contrast reading novels to other kinds of thinking. Some kinds of thinking encourage a kind of up-from-above perspective on life, a perspective from which it's easy to get a kind of vertigo.

You look, and you think, What is the point of all this exactly?

Now, reading a novel for me is like the opposite of that feeling. There's a basic level of "Ooh! What a scoundrel! What's going to happen next?"

But there's also a more complicated set of feelings, that I hadn't really thought to articulate, but you know, Wallace pretty much sums it up. "Not alone." Right. Uh-huh.

Now to me, thinking about literature, rather than just reading it, can sometimes give me the bad, vertigo, feeling rather than the good, unalone feeling. It's just such a reflective activity somehow.

I want to be in front of the literary curtain, being all amazed and entranced, not behind the literary curtain, thinking about how it's all put together and what it all means.

From what I can tell, Wallace's books are the books of an novelist who spent a lot of time reflecting on how it's all put together and what it all means. Maybe all novelists have to do this; I don't know. But I could see how all that thinking would make a person prone to despair.

All this reminds me of an image (from a novel!) that I think about all the time. In Philip Roth's excellent book The Anatomy Lesson, the main character, Zuckerman, is a novelist, and he writes about how tough novel-writing is. Day after day, alone with the typewriter and your own brain, pounding your head against the wall and tap tap tapping on the keys.

Zuckerman says something like, If there were a monkey doing this, and people were looking in at him, in his cage, obsessed, day after day, with the same activity, they'd probably say, "Gee, isn't there something someone can do? Can't we at least get him a companion"?

It's one of my most favoritest things in literature. Makes me feel deeply, and totally, unalone.


APS said...

Yeah I completely agree that thinking about the meaning of things can be a dangerous waste of time. The following is an article from the magazine Psychology Today, .
I think you will find it interesting. Feeling alone in today's world is such a paradox, we are after all more connected through technology than ever before. As I grow older I discover more and more people that suffer with reoccurring thoughts of loneliness. That raises the question, What does it say about our society that we are concerned so much about educating our citizens on sex education but fail to offer opportunities to inform us of emotional problems we might face?

Noko Marie said...

Hi aps, I checked out that link, and it says you can determine whether you are happy but it doesn't say how. I guess you have to read the book.

I guess I agree, too, that thinking about the meaning of things can be dangerous, but I don't think I'd say it's a waste of time. I think reflection is an essential part of our humanity; you just have to find ways to reflect that aren't too troubling. Maybe.

And yeah, you're right, especially these days, no one tells kids "hey! you're going to be sad and lonely! It's OK! It's just the human condition!