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Brace’s Rock, by Fitz Henry Lane (1863)

Barbara Novak begins her book, Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels and Patterns in American Art and Literature, with an exploration of the problematic concept of self:

The idea of self is…an artificial construct…Yet the word is common enough even in everyday usage for a cultural community to agree, to some extent, on a kind of consensus. There is something within every human being that we commonly call a “self.” Loss of that self is generally considered a grievous wound. Its willing surrender, on the other hand, can be considered in religious and philosophical terms, a blessed arrival at another state of being. In some instances the self is conflated with the idea of soul.

With that as her starting point, Novak then charters an unexpected journey. An art historian by training, she has paired writers and artists who share particular similarities. The couplings are in some ways surprising: Copley and Edwards, Emerson and Lane, Whitman and Church, Homer and James, Pollock and Olson, among others. But insights emerge from these partnerings that are fresh, provocative, meaningful.

Novak locks in on a few salient themes that are rooted in the early American experience:

This book came into being out of my initial interest in what I have called the “erasure of self” so prized by the early American Puritan culture and in its visual manifestation in some images from the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. I then discovered that the ostensible erasure of self was not so much a loss as a transfer, at times a transfer into matter or object, into “things,” and through erasure of the artist’s signature, “stroke,”to an ostensible larger self referred to by Emerson as the Over-Soul. So one subtext here might be the role of “things” as they relate to self in American culture.

That’s a compelling theme to me, and one that has a long lineage. Novak rides it out thoughtfully and thoroughly, from Edwards to Emerson, from Dickinson to Olson. A good read for writers, readers and artists.

In the liminal zone…

Rivka Galchen is one of those way too smart, “go to medical school before you finish your undergraduate degree and then get your MFA in creative writing” types. Her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was published in 2008. So it seems apropos that a polyglot mind writes about another—in this case, Galchen on Jorge Luis Borges.

In her recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, she states her view of the unrivaled dullness of literary worship (I so don’t agree!) before continuing her homage the extraordinary mind that was Borges.

More than any other 20th-century figure, Borges is the one designated — and often dismissed as — the Platonic ideal of Writer. His outrageous intellect is cited as proof of either his genius or of his bloodless cerebralism…But perhaps Borges’s most glorious and provocative “fault” was that he lived to be 86 and never wrote a novel. “It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one,” he wrote, in the introduction to a 1941 collection of his short stories, “the madness of composing vast books…The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them…Reading was faith; writing a call-and-response form of prayer. To love a text: isn’t that just to find oneself helplessly casting about for something to say in return?”

He certainly did read vast books, however. For us Borges may be the ur-writer, but he thought of himself primarily as a reader; writing was just among the most intensely engaged ways of reading.

Turns out Borges adored Robert Louis Stevenson. Who knew? In a mirrored discussion of Borges’ favorite Stevenson novel, The Wrecker, Galchen brings it in with this observation: “So why did Borges read and reread “The Wrecker”?… Borges’s readerly attention re-invents Stevenson, just as his writerly attention created those vast unwritten books that Borges chose not to write, but just to imagine and comment on.”

These unwritten books that are only imagined are like the unpainted paintings that live in my mind’s eye like an ambient, perpetually unrolling canvas. They have a power and a presence for me, but it isn’t one I’ve been able to leverage with the grand gesture that was Borges’. Reading Galchen’s essay offered some solace and credence however to the validity of that invisible and imaginary domain.

Falling water: Is it narrativistic or episodic?

An excellent article by Lee Siegel (author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob) appeared in the Wall Street Journal. At first blush it may seem to be yet another Robert Benchley “pick one” dichotomous probe (It was Benchley of the Round Table who made the famous statement, “There are two kinds of people in the world—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.”) but I found the discussion to be of deeper value than a superficial differentiation. Referring to British philosopher Galen Strawson’s controversial essay that differentiates between Narratives and Episodics, Siegel gives these antipodal concepts an American literary tilt.

Here’s a sampling:

This being the 100th anniversary of the first American edition of “Huckleberry Finn,” it is the perfect time to ask an essential question: Are you a Narrative or an Episodic personality? In other words, do you believe that your life tells a meaningful story? Or do you think that you live, like Huck Finn and every other picaresque hero, from isolated minute to isolated minute—episode to episode—and that far from adding up to a coherent tale, your life is “a tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing”?

Hemingway was correct when he said that all American literature comes from Mark Twain’s classic tale of the runaway boy and the fugitive slave. Hemingway’s own “In Our Time,” a collection of interrelated short stories that portray the episodic adventures of a young boy named Nick Adams, is a model of the genre. Picaresque novels define our national literature: Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” William Faulkner’s “The Reivers,” Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” John Barth’s “The Sotweed Factor,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five”—the list goes on and on. Even non-fiction has been influenced by the episodic style. The so-called “gonzo” journalism of a writer like Hunter Thomson, with its adventurous protagonists passing through random events, is the non-fiction equivalent of the picaresque.

But episodic fiction has been dealt a sorry hand of late. Our most popular critically acclaimed novels are pure narratives. Their straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life. In the war between Narratives and Episodics, the former are winning hands-down…

Episodics do seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their “self” to be in a state of continuous flux. What happened to them a year ago happened to a different person than the person they are now—the past has no bearing on present experience. (“I actually said that? I couldn’t have!”) In this view, Episodics are sober, disenchanted beings, alive to the principle of ceaseless change that drives human existence.

Contrast the picaresque novel with the bildungsroman—“novel of development”—a 19th century invention that still influences conventional novels today. In that highly structured genre—Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s “Apprenticeship” is the grandaddy of them all—the protagonist passes through one significant experience after another, suffering, learning and finally growing into the wise sum of the events he has passed through. Though you’d look in vain on for a bildungsroman nowadays, just about every work of contemporary fiction, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Ian McEwan, depends upon characters whose lives are meaningful patterns of behavior—characters who are themselves stories within a larger tale. The attempts of modernist and postmodernist fiction to use Episodic tricks of the trade—fragmentation, montage, stream-of-consciousness—to drive Narratives into the hills have utterly failed.

Siegel sees the definitive turning point in the juggling between these two poles to be 2001—just after 9/11, not coincidentally—and points most notably to Jonathan Franzen’s mega hit, The Corrections, as the signatory narrative work. Other contemporary writers are also referenced including Claire Messud, Joseph O’Neill and Elizabeth Strout.

Siegel’s final view is expressed quite directly:

It does seem that the narrative view of life seems to have little to do with life itself. It’s hardly a coincidence that the world’s great stories were written in epochs when illness and disease were rife, life spans were shorter, and people were surrounded by the dead and the dying. Now that we have protected and extended life to an unprecedented degree, perhaps we can dispense with narrative’s protective shield and open ourselves more honestly to life’s inherent discontinuity. Like the stoics of yore, we might even find that life, if we are lucky enough to live it out to its fullest portion, is easier to bid farewell to if it signifies nothing but the beauty and the miracle of being alive, minute by meaningless minute.

But does that final assessment seem a bit too pat? Whoa, Nelly. From where I sit, these distinctions are not so simple. What about the both/and? I’m thnking about examples of an episodic narrative, or a narrated episodic. I don’t see this as an either/or. One caveat: I haven’t had a chance to read Strawson’s essay. More research needed.

The back page essay in the New York Times Book Review can sometimes be the highlight of my Sunday morning newspaper tussle. And these days, just weeks from the culmination of this all-consuming political season, it is a serious tussle getting through two papers, each the thickness of small pillows.

This past Sunday Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, wrote a very humorous piece that I am including here in its entirety. Every book loving soul could write his or her own personal version of being taken captive in adolescence by books and ideas, but few of us could make it this funny. “The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall.” Priceless.

Cultural observer Lee Siegel

Unsafe at Any Read

Kenneth Burke considered great imaginative writing “equipment for living,” and for Saul Bellow poetic and philosophical words were a “poor boy’s arsenal.” Kafka declared that literature “breaks up the frozen sea inside us.” (What a mess that would make.) We now know, thanks to Allan Bloom, that reading the “classics” is the only defense against the closing of the American mind and that — courtesy of Alain de Botton — Proust can save your life. A modest question arises, however: If great literature is so great, why is it that if you act on anything great literature tells you about life, you’re in big trouble? I mean, big trouble.

Let’s start with a couple of harmless tests. Have you gone looking in your memory lately for Wordsworth’s redemptive “spots of time”? First, try to recall what you had for lunch yesterday. Don’t worry, I can’t remember either. How about D. H. Lawrence’s “blood consciousness”? Once you recover this primal state of being, D. H. tells us, you blissfully obliterate your mental and spiritual condition. Volunteers?

Now, I used to swallow this stuff whole. Don Quixote’s downfall was medieval romances, and Emma Bovary ruined her life with novels, but at least they didn’t get bonked by books until they were middle-aged. They had a few decades to live it up. My undoing arrived in ninth grade in the form of Dostoyevksy’s “Notes From Underground.”

The book fell into my hands the way an innocent person might find himself holding a heroin-filled syringe at a party, thereby sealing his sad fate. I had been involuntarily enrolled in what was euphemistically referred to as an “enrichment program.” This was the official name for a “Manchurian Candidate”-like experiment in which happy-go-lucky boys and girls were whisked away from their favorite television shows into a shadowy world of triple meanings, narcotic generalizations and ambiguous imagery. “Notes From Underground” was our first homework assignment.

What buried flaw in my being responded to this perverse Slavic sham is still a mystery to me. But all of a sudden, I started explaining to my gentle, loving parents that common sense was the collective hallucination of madmen. That the idea that two plus two equaled five was “tantamount” (a word I envisioned as a white steed rising heavenward to steadily beating drums) to a “spiritual” (another fave) rebirth.

Rationality, I informed Mom and Dad, was like a dagger in the soul. I said all this through $40 million worth of hardware on my teeth — instead of sending me to an ordinary orthodontist, my doting parents had actually hired a top civil engineer to work on my mouth. I exaggerate, but you see what I mean. And this is how I paid them back. Week after week, I expounded the cult of unhappiness at the dinner table. Exiled to my room, I consoled myself with Camus, who tells us that to live honestly we must ask ourselves every day whether we should take our own lives. There was no agency, on the local, state or federal level, to intervene on my behalf. The die was cast.

Harold Bloom once wrote that literature’s most precious gift is to teach us to be alone with ourselves. Easy to say when you’re surrounded by adoring graduate students. I began to carry around my solitude like a trophy, cultivating anomie the way some of my friends lavished care on their pet gerbils. It was an unhealthy situation.

This wasn’t just baffled adolescent desire rushing with relief into morbid tales of anger and renunciation. Uplifting writing derailed me, too. When, in 10th grade, Antonia Perella (let’s call her) — the love of my hormone-addled life! — finally chose me as her partner at a square dance, I was so afraid of not rising to the occasion that I refused, ennobling my cold feet by summoning to my mind Plato’s vision of love (see “Phaedrus”) as moist wings sprouting from the lover’s body. I just didn’t feel the wings business, I told myself. Recently, I learned from that Antonia had married a professional wrestler. Can you blame her?

But even Oedipus eventually saw the light (or so Sophocles tells us — you decide). Somewhere in my freshman year of college, my mind, thankfully, began to close a little and the world started to open up. I was on the slow boat to recovery . . . and then calamity struck. A “friend” lent me his copy of Bellow’s “Herzog.”

If ever there was a candidate for strict Congressional oversight, it is this cunning little book. Moses Herzog is a professor in the full throes of midlife crisis who writes countless letters to the famous literary and intellectual dead. These scintillating one-sided exchanges, in which Herzog quotes and spars with the great minds of Western civilization, made me feel that I was mastering life as I read them, just as a budding music historian might have the delusion that he was mastering the piano simply by listening to a sonata by Beethoven.

In fact, as I discovered many years later, Bellow was joking. What he wanted to demonstrate, in the figure of poor Herzog, was the utter ineffectuality of the most potent ideas. Thanks for letting me know, pal. Since nobody at the time bothered to let me in on all the fun, I finished “Herzog” as, well, Herzog. At job interviews, I assured prospective employers of my immunity to distraction by affectionately invoking Artistotle’s observation that copulation makes all animals sad. To puzzled women on dates, I expatiated on Hegel and Sombart. “What’s wrong?” one girl asked me as we stared into each other’s eyes and I smiled ruefully. “Oh nothing,” I said. “Spinoza associated desire with disconnected thinking — that’s all.”

And so it went, just like that, reaching the high point of absurdity when I applied for a job at a publication called The Social Register, thinking that it was a socialist magazine.

I had been reading Gramsci by way of Silone by way of Engels on the Manchester working class. So enthusiastic had I become about the sweeping inexorabilities of dialectical materialism that I neglected to pick up an actual, material copy of The Social Register. Grando mistako. If I had, I would have seen that it was not a socialist magazine at all, but a comprehensive directory of America’s high society. My interviewer, a pleasant, 40-ish man in a rumpled white shirt and tie, sat in his Fifth Avenue office and listened politely, his lip curling ever so slightly, to my reflections on hegemony, slave consciousness and “boring from within.” He even walked me to the door.

I hope you are at least partly convinced by the power of my examples. Somehow, we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how literature empowers us. But the idea that great literature can improve our lives in any way is a con as old as culture itself. The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall. “Willing suspension of disbelief”? Code for: distract him while I lift his wallet. The government regulates drugs, alcohol and (finally) bad lending practices. How long can we continue to allow the totally laissez-faire dissemination of literature? Not even a warning from the surgeon general or the attorney general, or some sort of general, on the back of every book?

It was years before I realized that if life is a voyage of sorts then the best thing to do is to keep busy in the depths of your little boat — your life — polishing, tuning, cleaning, repairing the engine that is your own inborn strength, without regard to extraneous aids in the form of culture. Facing it, always facing it, that’s the only way to get through.

O.K., I got all that from Conrad. The fact is that “facing it” has gotten me into trouble, too. I tell you, these people are hard to shake.