|HOME ARCHIVE [Previous entry: "Chamber Music by Darby McDevitt"][Next entry: "Cool by James DiGiovanna"]|
|So Much for Oprah; or, Beyond a Nostalgia for the Self by Eli S. Evans|
I would like to begin with the Don Quixote—an emphasis, of course, on the the, because it marks me, or marks this piece of writing, as a piece of writing that knows that if you really know the Don Quixote you don’t just called it Don Quixote, but the Don Quixote—because it is entirely possible, so I have been told, that it all began with the Don Quixote. But all of what? The novel. Literature as we know it. There are those, I have been told, who would argue that the poem, because of the compression of language that it implies—because it, as Jane Miller argues in her essay “Working Time,” must always aim to honor the “non-sense” of language “while at the same time retaining its emotion”—is the literary genre, par excellence—that is to say, the genre that implies or contains all of the other genres—but I, on the other hand, would argue that is not just fiction but, more specifically, the novel, that is the literary genre par excellence: that, in other words, the novel, or at the very least what Milan Kundera has called the spirit of the novel, is literature itself. It is on these grounds that, if I am going to write about literature in general—a word, perhaps, that in this moment needs to be resuscitated after years, now, of needing to prefer the word text to the word literature, of that distinction being one of the distinctions that marked off the post-modernists and the ironists from the modernists and the literalists, those who were in the know from those who, simply, thought they could know—I would like to begin with the Don Quixote: because if the novel, or at the very least its spirit, is also literature itself, and the Don Quixote is, as many before me have argued, the first genuine novel, the birth of the novel, then where else might one start than there. Of course, I have also heard that Rabelais and his rip-roaring and rollicking Gargantua and Pantagruel—I don’t think we are in the habit of calling this one the Gargantua and Pantagruel—might have been the beginning of the novel, the first novel, the birth of literature as we know it, and if this is the case I might as well start with lists: long lists, incredible lists, beguiling lists, exhaustive lists. These are the games he played, and thereafter follows a list of three hundred different games, only two or three of which I myself am able to recognize and identify, but others of which are simply too fantastic to skim through or over: have at the nuts, for instance, or hind the plowman, a game—the rules of which I do not myself happen to know—bears no queer or homo-erotic analysis but, rather, in fact is such an analysis. Indeed, if there is a lesson to be taken from reading even a small section of Gargantua and Pantagruel—a list of insults leveled, for instance—it is that in the novel, as such—here assuming that Gargantua and Pantagruel, rather than the Don Quixote, is the novel as such, or par excellence—one must never skim even when one could skim—even when one has the idea, as it were, and doesn’t need to read all of what follows to get the idea—because when one skims one always risks missing something not necessarily important but pleasurable and, perhaps even more importantly than that, singular. That is to say, one need to read the list of games that the monster Gargantua played in order to get the idea that he played a lot of games—hundreds of them, in fact—but if one does not read every item on that list, if one does not avail himself of the knowledge of every game that he played when he played all of those games, those hundreds of games, one will miss out on the fact that among the games he played was one in particular called bobbing, or the flirt on the nose. I have to admit that I find the prospect of this game particularly beguiling, to say nothing of blow the coal or, perhaps the most straightforward of them all, stick and hole. If we were to take Gargantua and Pantagruel as the founding form of the form that is literature itself, or as such, or par excellence, we might well suggest that the nature of literature, then, regardless of form or genre or even length itself—whether we are dealing with a two thousand page novel or a five hundred word short short story, or even a poem, the most condensed or compressed form—is, in one way or another, to be exhaustive. Writing of the worthlessness of many, perhaps most, of Gertrude Stein’s sentences, Wayne Koestenbaum points out that even if they are nothing more than pennies, eventually pennies add up. This is true, but to it I might add: even if they are nothing more than pennies, even if we are dealing with a massive mountain of pennies, as Mount Everest of pennies, if we really want to hit the jackpot we are going to need to go through them one-by-one because you never know, in that massive mountain of pennies, when you are going to come upon the mint condition 1885 Indian Head penny that’s worth a hundred dollars down at the corner coin shop; and even then you have to keep going, because you never know when you’re going to come upon that other penny, the one that was the result of mistake of mischief at the mint—one never knows in these cases—and was released only in a run of five hundred before the mistake was caught, and is worth a million dollars, and then you’re rich. You have to read the whole list—and if Rabelais gave birth to the novel with Gargantua and Pantagruel then, proceeding from there, and on the assumption that the novel, or at least its spirit, is literature as such, or par excellence—one might argue that the literary text, in fact, is nothing more than an overblown list not because if you don’t read it you will not understand that Gargantua played very very many games, but because if you don’t read it you risk missing the diamond in the rough, that million dollar rare and mint condition penny in the pile—the mountain, the Mount Everest—of pennies that are, well, worth a penny.
It is funny, of course, what writing, if indeed this is writing, does to the person who does it, or is done by it: until this very moment, it never occurred to me that the reason we refer to a collectible in perfect condition—as though never used, touched, passed around, exchanged—as being in mint condition is that it is in the condition it was in at the moment that it was minted, the way a coin was minted. Strange. On some level, I think, I always connected mint condition with the cool, crisp taste of mint.
In any event, I do not want to begin with the cool, crisp taste of mint, nor do I, particularly, want to begin with Gargantua and Pantagruel, not because it may not have, in fact, been the birth of the novel, but rather because I know more about the Don Quixote—enough, for instance, to called it the Don Quixote—and have even read large chunks of the Don Quixote, and even read them in Spanish, and therefore I have some investment in believing, or at the very least maintaining, that the Don Quixote, and not Gargantua and Pantagruel, constitutes the birth of the novel. In either case, the Don Quixote is also exhaustive in its way—although it does not contain any lists, per se, one could easily make the argument that it is effectively one long list in the form of a prose narration—and so in a sense that argument stands. But it is not simply on these grounds—my own knowledge, my own indisputable authority within certain communities and markets because not only do I know to use the article when referring the Don Quixote and not only have I read large sections of the Don Quixote but I have read those large sections in Spanish, and not only have I spent large chunks of time in Spain but I was even there last summer, for the nation-wide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first book of the Don Quixote, and not only do I have a facsimile of the first page of the first edition of the first book of the Don Quixote with my name, Eli S. Evans, printed in a medieval-style font, but I have even read Azorín’s La Ruta de Don Quixote, written around the turn of the last century, and I have even traveled some of that route myself on more than one occasion—that I am interested in beginning with the Don Quixote. It is on these grounds: James Frey. JT Leroy. These are names that, now, are familiar to me, although I’ve not read any of the books published under them. They were familiar enough to me, anyway, the way that any bit of information traveling in the mass-cultural undercurrent, or overcurrent, becomes familiar to you, even though often you don’t quite know how. They were familiar to me already, although I’d not read any of the books published under them, in the way that Paris Hilton’s name is familiar to me, although I have never gone out of my way to learn anything about her, even to be interested in anything with which her name might be associated. I was familiar with them already in the way that I am familiar today with the fact that yesterday Paris Hilton’s ex-boyfriend, apparently, filed a restraining order against her. I overheard a student in one of my classes telling another student about it. Later, when I sent my web browser to cnn.com to see if anything of great significance—bombs, tsunamis, etc.—had happened since the last time I had sent my web browser to cnn.com, I saw a headline making reference to it. If I had not overheard one of my students talking about I might not have known what, exactly, the headline—meant as a tease, of course—was referring to, but if I had not seen the headline, or the tease, I might not have retained and solidified what was at the time the vague and ephemeral memory of and overheard conversation that did not appear to have any bearing on my life or my class. This is how I was familiar with these names. I could have told you the name of James Frey’s book, for instance: I had seen it in bookstores, taken note of the little candy or pills dotting the hand on the cover, a good looking cover, and later taken note of the insignia identifying it as having been selected for Oprah’s Book Club, perhaps made a mental note that it was, now, or then, having been selected and marked for Oprah’s Book Club, officially and certainly something other than what it once was. As far as JT Leroy goes, I was aware of JT Leroy because a woman with whom I once lived had a JT Leroy book that was, as I recall, autographed by JT Leroy, who we now know does not in fact exist—does this make the autograph more or less valuable, more or less rare?—and by now, years later, now that I know JT Leroy does not exist, things have changed: I no longer live with this woman, but I do have a book—her book—autographed by her. And I am pretty sure that she does exist, and for anybody who isn’t sure the naked photograph on the cover seems to prove it, never mind that the naked photograph itself has certainly been touched up. But this was year ago, already, and now—and this is the reason I would like to begin, although I have already begun without it, with the Don Quixote—I am familiar with these names in a different way, not in the way that I am familiar with other bits of information that float about in the under- or overcurrent of mass or popular culture, but in the way that I am familiar with something I have thought about, something that has been thrust into or at the very least brought to my attention. Because they have been brought to my attention. Because in some of the relatively miniscule worlds that I occupy—for instance, the Los Angeles loft that I lord over and the three roommates, skimmed like fat off the surface of this fetid metropol, who occupy it with me—I am not simply a person who writes things, but the writer, the only one among us who writes things, and therefore the de facto authority and all such matters; for instance, for the former students with whom I still maintain contact, including those with whom I have had sexual relations, which makes a grand total of one, I remain, because I was the writing teacher, the authority on a matter over which they are just a qualified as I to have authority. Which is to say these are names that have been in the news, as it were, for reasons that probably don’t bear too much reproduction at the moment, when they are still very much in the news, and insofar as they have been in the news and insofar as in my tiny little worlds, which are few and populated by few citizens, I am the one to be consulted on such matters, people have been asking me my opinion. What do you think about this James Frey guy? And, as an afterthought, because as a news event it is certainly an afterthought, a poorly-made sequel, or perhaps one of those cases in which the sequel is in fact better than the original but doesn’t manage to generate the same level of interest because it is no longer novel, the same question regarding this JT Leroy guy. Or chick. Whatever.
The obvious answers are, well, obvious. That’s why they’re the obvious answers. One of the obvious answers, for instance, is that I don’t think anything of this James Frey guy. If he was worth anything, he would not have allowed his book to be stamped with the insignia for Oprah’s Book Club. But, of course, that insignia was, I’m guessing, worth a good deal of money. Which is to say that before he allowed it to be stamped with that insignia—and everything that goes with it—he probably wasn’t worth very much at all, but since then, I’m guessing, he’s worth quite a bit, and in any case quite a bit more. So who knows what he’s worth, and anyway, who am I to pass judgment? What would I say if Oprah offered to stamp one of my books with the insignia for her book club? But I don’t have any books. That would be the first problem. The other obvious answer, of course, is that there is nothing remarkable about the fact that despite the fact that, in his memoir, a book about his life, a book that purported to be true, James Frey lied about how many days, weeks, or months he spent in prison. What is obvious, what barely needs to be said, is that this is not even a lie. A text is a text. Any text, from the moment of its inception—perhaps, even, from the moment of its conception if indeed conception and inception are distinct in the case of a particular text—takes on a life of its own, regardless of that in the world to which it purports to connect itself, and when a text has taken on a life of its own it might write three months in place of three days because for it three months is truer than three days: because it sounds better, because it resonates with greater clarity. No, I do not have any books, and during the last six or seven years I have spent most of my time writing novels; on the other hand, I have had a good deal more success—which is, I should point out, basically no success at all, but nonetheless—publishing pieces more or less like this piece, in which I am talking about something that is not fictional, in which I am the one doing the talking, in which author and writer and narrator are all the same, supposedly, and in which one of the things I am talking about, inevitably, it myself, and although nobody, I am guessing, is ever going to care—if I do have books, by the time I have books, this line of reportage will have burned itself out, like the “war” after the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue or September 11th after the buildings actually fell—I would have to say that I have probably lied, said something about myself, posing as myself, said something as a narrator but a narrator who is supposed to be the same as writer and author—that was not, in fact, true, that could not be proven, that would not be upheld by the facts, and there is nothing remarkable about this. There is especially nothing remarkable about this if the novel, or at the very least its spirit, is literature par excellence. The spirit of the novel is, among other things—lists, for instance—fictional, which is to say that even if we are writing literature, or literary text, that purports to be non-fiction, if it is literature, then its spirit will be fictional. Therefore, it is obvious that from time to time, perhaps even more often than not, or in any event as often as not, the text itself will be fictional. There is nothing remarkable about this. That is my answer. Or not my answer. It’s the obvious answer. Anyone could provide it. And regarding JT Leroy, the situation—and I have done the reading up, if only for the purpose of making this piece—seems to be that the person who wrote the books was not JT Leroy, that in fact JT Leroy was a fictional character, a character in a fiction, but that the person writing the books could not drum up any interest in her work and so decided, to assist that work, to pretend that JT Leroy was not a fictional character but a real person who had lived the fictions in the book, and, therefore, vicariously, that she, author and writer, was also narrator, JT Leroy himself. Or herself. Whatever. And the obvious answer is that this woman has done nothing wrong, on the surface of it. The woman with whom I once lived posed naked—although the x-rated parts were covered with text and the like—for the cover of the book published under her name last fall. We do these things, I suppose. I would pose naked if it would help drum up interest in my work. I only have not because nobody seems to be willing to take the picture; because on the basis of this, I’ve been forced to conclude that it probably would not drum up interest but, rather, repulse it. The obvious answer is that obviously these books, these novels, as it turns out, about JT Leroy, were good books, which is why people bought them and read them and recommended them to their friends, who in turn bought them and read them and recommended them to their friends, and so, according to one of the one or two articles I have read on the matter, a “literary icon” was born. And if they were good books, books that people would enjoy reading, books that would mean something to people, books that would give birth to a literary icon, for God’s sake, then obviously the fact that this woman, this writer and author who in fact is not JT Leroy, could not drum up any interest in her work prior to insisting that she was JT Leroy, and that all of these things had happened to her, in her life, was totally unjust, and if it was unjust then she did nothing wrong in rectifying it, in using her wiles and wits to turn it to justice.
These are the obvious answers
But it is, perhaps, on account of the unaccountable failure of these answers—the fact that, though they are obvious and correct, the world seems to be behaving otherwise, and even I, I must admit, seem to be feeling otherwise, righteous and vindicated and even a bit cheerful at these two writers’ respective falls from grace—that I would like to begin, although it is true that I began, now, some time ago, with the Don Quixote. These, then, are a couple of passages from the first chapter of the par excellence of that which is itself a par excellence: “In a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound…Some say his surname was Quixada, or Quesada (for authors differ in this particular): however we may reasonable conjecture that he was called Quixana though this concerns us but little, provided we keep strictly to the truth in every point of this history.” And what did this gentleman do? As it turns out, he gave himself up so wholly to the reading of romances that at night he would pore on until it was day, and days he would read on until it was night; and thus, by sleeping little and reading much, the moisture of his brain was exhausted to that degree that at last he lost the use of his reason. A world of disorderly notions, picked out of his books, crowded into his imagination, and…all the fables and fantastical tales which he read seemed to him now as true as the most authentic histories.” Where does this leave us? Or, rather, what kind of a beginning, what kind of a first is this? I have always been fond, very fond, of Milan Kundera’s answer to that question in his perhaps underappreciated and utterly unaccountably insightful Art of the Novel: “Don Quixote set off into a world that opened wide before him.” It is an incredibly tactile way of putting it. Peel back the curtain. I can picture this happening. I exhort my students. Crack the egg. Better yet, peel back the curtain. Round the corner. Crest the hill and suddenly, there, the valley opens up beneath you, and it is infinite. The novel, yes, should open into the infinite. I believe this. I believe that this is one of the essential characteristics of that spirit which is the spirit of literature itself: that it have the courage to, facing that which could just as well go on forever, set off into it. That standing before that which might go on forever, which makes no promises of not going on forever, it have the courage to take that first step, to go. Or perhaps this a move that requires no courage at all, but doing that which requires no courage at all demands, I imagine, its own kind of courage; the courage to forget about courage. This is interesting to me, and important, but perhaps it is not what I am most interested in here, in what, I suppose, in one way or another, is an attempt to answer the question that has been put to me repeatedly—by no fewer than two different people—in the last couple of weeks: What do you think of this thing with James Frey/JT Leroy? George W.S. Trow, a writer who I think must be underappreciated because I had never read anything by him, or even heard his name, until fairly recently, and I am not that young these days, and certainly not as young as I once was, wrote a book in the Seventies called In the Context of No Context, and although he was, in that book, writing very much about television, I think the title on its own provides a place from which to begin talking about that about which perhaps I have already begun—or, mystifyingly, still not yet begun—to talk. In what context is literature to be read? This, then, is why I would like, here, to begin—where I have been already was, alas, not yet the beginning—with that which I would like to posit as the beginning of the literary genre, par excellence, not just any Don Quixote but the Don Quixote. If it is a beginning, if it is a first, a birth into the world of that which, until it was, still was not yet, then what kind of a beginning is it? I am disposed to share with the students in my creative writing classes, because they are purporting, by signing up for the classes, to want to be writers, that which Milan Kundera says about the Don Quixote, about him setting off into a world that opens wide before him, because I want them, if they are going to write something, to do the same, but when I, in a move that should be pedagogically infallible, try to underpin that lesson by then, in fact, reading the beginning of the Don Quixote, insisting that this beginning is the beginning of the beginning, I always feel foolish, or exposed. This is the question: what kind of a beginning is this? Already, in the first paragraph, our narrator, who either is or is not our writer, who either is or is not our author, informs us that authors, other authors, authors other than this narrator, who is an author but may or may not be the actual author of the book, have differed as to what this man, Quixote’s, name might be. Other authors? Which is to say that, presumably, other authors have written already about this character? That this story, at least within this story, has already been told? What kind of a beginning is that? How can the novel which invented the novel make reference, in its very first paragraph, in that which begins the beginning of the beginning, to the stories and authors that existed already before it? And if, indeed, setting off into a world that opens wide is the novel’s definitive gesture, and Don Quixote—not the book but the character, but also the book, the Don Quixote—therefore, does this, and is the first book and, therefore, character, to do this, what, exactly, is this world into which he sets off, and where does it come from? Is it the world that is contained in the writer’s imagination? Yes. Of course. Maybe. Kind of. Or the world that is contained in the imagination of Don Quixote, our character, he who embodies the setting off into this wide-open world of the novel by quite literally setting off into a wide open world? Yes. Again, yes. But also maybe. Kind of. Because, as it turns out, this wide open world into which we all set at once at the beginning of this book that is the beginning of that which is always beginning again, always turning the corner, rounding the next bend, is the world that is contained in the books that we—or, in this case, he, or, perhaps, they, author and character, or all of them, author and writer and character—have already read. The novel begins, as it turns out, by having already begun. Not just the novel—this novel—but The Novel, the thing itself, the very possibility of it.
This, then—or maybe only perhaps—is where I would like to begin, or where I have begun already, or perhaps not yet begun at all. A novel does have a context, it is something that is to be read in a context, but that context has nothing to do with history or purpose or intended audience: it is, instead, The Novel itself, not that novel, any novel about which we might be talking now, but The Novel, with the capital letters, which is at once non-specific and entirely singular, not a thing but a space or a zone, and moreover a space or zone that can never be marked temporally—this is where it began, in this year and in this place and with these words, and this is where it ended—but, rather, always already exists and is not yet completed. And if the novel, as I have insisted for the mere purpose of insisting, is the literary genre par excellence, the genre that is also not a genre but simply literature itself, then, it seems, one could take what I have said here already and extrapolate it to say that the context for any piece of literature—the only context in which it can possibly be read—is always and only Literature itself, non-specific but singular, not a site that can be located in space or time but a zone that is at once always already there and at the same time still open. That is to say, literature, when it is being literature, does have a ground to stand on—and if perhaps the time has come to move away from the word text and back in the direction of the word literature it is because of t his, because we need to ground it again, rather than ungrounding it, because ungrounding it is a movement that has run out of momentum, that is no longer liberating—and that ground is Literature, which is to say a ground that is infinitely solid because it belies no depth but rather is the depthless and infinitely inscribable laterality of language itself.
It is, I think, no accident that one of the names that has involved with this recent controversy regarding two writers who are not important to me on a personal level is that of Oprah Winfrey, because she is a kind of first in her own right. Hers, I should say, is the television talk show par excellence, not simply the first of the television talk shows as we know them now but that which is the television talk show as we know it, that particular manifestation of the television talk show from which all other manifestations of the television talk show are, in one way or another, derived. On the television talk show—this is the essential gesture of the television talk show, I think, in the same way that setting off into a wide-open world might be the essential gesture of the novel—the person, or the character, says I, and that I is enough. The guest on the television talk show says, I have lived this, and when she has finished saying that, she is done. That she has lived it is a validation of her importance and that it has been lived by her, who is there, in flesh and blood, body and so forth, is validation enough of its important. It bears mention, I suppose, that more often than not, this sentence—I have lived this—can instead be formulated, with a bit more specificity, as I have suffered this, for more often than not—and this does matter—on the television talk show, the experience that we are interested in is one of suffering. My wife has left me for my brother. My daughter has carved a Swastika into her forearm. I was an anorexic. I was kept on a leash by my parents. On television, I suspect, to simply say I is context enough, because television is only insofar as it hardly is at all. This is something that George W. S. Trow, the underappreciated George W.S. Trow, might have said, or at least implied, in In the Context of No Context. On television, the host or hostess turn to another camera, and it is all over; there is that slight pause, that moment of empty space, between program and commercial, and that moment of empty space is more than enough to wipe everything clean again, to clear away everything that has preceded it. This should be said, then: this I of I have lived this, or I have suffered this, is indeed context enough, but it is context enough for that which is nothing to begin with. It is not, on the other hand, context enough for literature, but it has, I think—maybe only in the last decade or so, but the seeds of it go further back than that, to Hemingway, perhaps, and his living it to write about it—become, as well, the context in which we read literature, and when this happens the literature itself disappears; or, perhaps, Literature disappears. What we see when we see the general panic and outcry that has followed the relevation that James Frey did not, in fact, spend three months in jail, and not even three days, but perhaps only a few hours, is the book itself—a book I have not read, will not read—slipping away from the people who have read it, or, perhaps, the ground slipping out from underneath it, but I would argue that the having suffered, or having lived, of a single human being is never a solid enough ground for a piece of literature to stand on—that a piece of literature that stands upon the ground of a single human being’s having lived, or even suffered, is already slipping away from us when we encounter it to begin with, or is not even literature at all, because the only legitimate context for literature is not simply other literature, but Literature itself. I would like, here, to refer to a passage from Arts and Crafts pattern designer and general madman William Morris’s New From Nowhere, a novel, in many ways typical and trite, of his version—also in many ways typical and trite—of Utopia. In it, an elderly citizen of this Utopia is explaining something of how it works to a visitor from a decided non-utopian world: “So it is a point of honour with us not to be self-centred; not to suppose that the world must cease because one man is sorry.” The suffering of one human being is not in itself significant; and to have lived, seventy or a hundred years, is not significant. To occupy one body, living at the same time as some billions of other bodies, for seventy or a hundred years, is, in itself, nothing. A book, a piece of literature—whether it is a novel or some other genre, for instance a memoir—cannot be grounded in the having lived, or even the having suffered—the having suffered or even the having lived—of some human being, not even if that human being happens to be its author, not simply because this ground can slip away—as we have seen in the cases of James Frey and JT Leroy, about whom, perhaps, I am here having the courage to offer some kind of an opinion—but because, I would argue, this ground always and inevitably will slip away, simply because it can, and because time is infinite, and everything that can happen in time eventually will. No book that was written, or published, or has been read, in the context of the experience, whether of suffering or otherwise, or some human being in some place and in some time, with that for the ground on which it stands, will abide, and that is too bad, I suppose, because I can imagine that some of them might be quite good, maybe even James Frey’s or JT Leroy’s, who is not JT Leroy—two that have already floated away, or crumbled to dust. I would, here, like to refer to another sentence from the same novel, and indeed from the same conversation in that novel: “At any rate,” the old fellow says, “one thing I think I can answer for: whatever sentiment there is, it is real—and general.”
A Utopia, one might argue, is not the world as it might be, but, rather, the world as it really is, except that at the moment it is twisted and perverted, unable to be itself. We are interested in a zone: depthless, but infinitely-inscribable; non-specific, but nonetheless singular. This is the only context within which literature is Literature, which is to say, it is the only context within which literature is anything at all.
On the first day of my creative writing class this semester, having read through what poses as a syllabus but is not a syllabus—rather a promise not to provide any grades unless they are specifically requested, and an insistence that the work that is assigned is not the only work the students should be doing, and in fact perhaps the least important work they should be doing—I, because I have mentioned Gargantua and Pantagruel in passing in the text of my syllabus, share with them chapter twenty-two from that book, entitled “The Games of Gargantua,” a chapter that, following a brief paragraph of text, is constituted by a list of as many as two hundred of the games that, on this particular occasion, Gargantua played. Then, while they watch, I read them the entire chapter—the entire chapter, which is to say, all of the games on this list. They do not know me, nor do they know what to expect from me. I am younger than most of their professors, probably, although I’m no longer that young and, I must say, no longer that much younger than all of their other professors, I’m sure. It’s a creative writing class, which is to say academic protocol is in question already the moment they sign up for it. But nobody, I think, expects me to read the entire list. Because it is redundant. Because after the first four you get the idea. Because class time, for instance, is supposed to be—at the very least expected to be—economized, and reading a list of some two hundred items when you could as easily read five or ten and get the idea does not respect that economy. But I had to read the entire list. If I was going to read any of it, I had to read all of it, because if I had stopped at “peenie” we would never have gotten to “bum to buss or nose in breech,” and if I had stopped at “bum to buss or nose in breech” we would never have arrived “the bush leap,” “or jog breech or prickle him forward.” And if I had only chosen to read those which I have identified as amusing or unlikely or even scandalous, they would not have been nearly as interesting, for part of their magic is the way in which they spring up, suddenly, grabbing you by the nose as you read, from the generalized zone of this long and very much unnecessary list of games. At some point, while I am reading, they stop looking at me and start looking at one another, as though the answer might be within the collective rather than that against which—and in respect to which—the collective is defined and closed off. But the answers aren’t there, either. They are, because I have distributed a photocopy of the chapter to everyone in the class, right there, right in front of all of us. They are in the text itself.
Perhaps, then, this is another way of saying what I have said already about literature, by instead saying the following about human suffering: one human being’s suffering does not abide, but Human Suffering, with the capital letters, like The Novel or Literature, does abide, or rather, is abiding: it is always there already and also always still open-ended, still not yet completed. A book—for example James Frey’s or JT Leroy’s, to name two books I have not read and very likely will not read—can present us with the images or sensations of one human being’s suffering, but it cannot value any more than that one human being’s suffering—which is to say, nothing at all—unless that suffering, the suffering of this one human being, manifests Human Suffering in general, and, I would argue, a piece of literature can only make this happen if it, too, originates in what Morris might say is the “general,” in something that is singular but nonetheless cannot be located in any one place or time or person: for example, Literature. The panic that has broken out in the wake of the relevation that this man, James Frey—and I should acknowledge before it is too late that the only thing I really know about James Frey is that he has a beard, and an impressive one at that: a beard that I could not wear, for instance, because I do not have a substantial enough facial structure to carry it without getting lost in it; and this impresses me, even moves me on his behalf—did not spend three months in prison, as his book claimed, and did not throw punches at police, as his book also may have claimed, is, I suspect, overwrought because it is not only a panic at losing his book, this one book, for having lost the ground on which it stood, but rather at losing all of the literature, which is not Literature, that has been written and published and read—overwhelmingly, during the last decade or two—in the Oprah Winfrey context: I have suffered; I have lived this. It is all gone. That which is not gone is as good as gone. None of it ever was. It is the panic at discovering not simply that we will die but—and this, I think, is what really keeps us up at night—that the world will go on, exactly the same as it was, without us. Because it existed, briefly and ephemerally, in the context of his life, of his experience, of his suffering, James Frey’s book is expendable; the world will go on, exactly as it was, without it. But would the world have gone on exactly as it was without the Don Quixote? Would it, today, if the Don Quixote disappeared as suddenly and irrevocably as it appeared; if, suddenly, it never had been written in the first place? Perhaps, but the world would not go on exactly as it was without Literature, or without The Novel, with the capital letters—not some particular instance of these things but rather the zone they define that is neither specific nor closed but nonetheless utterly singular—and to that extent any text, any irruption, which manifests suddenly into space and time that which it both is and is not, which turns The Novel into a novel, is as indispensable as the thing itself. I cannot say whether the world would go on the same it was without the Don Quixote, but I can say, in good faith and with confidence, that one cannot, if one tries, imagine the world without the Don Quixote. It is beyond the boundaries of reality, which themselves are well beyond the boundaries of reality. It is beyond the boundaries of the conceivable.
“Language,” the poet Jane Miller writes in the essay that I have mentioned already, but not simply in passing, “must be able to deform, to honor its non-sense, while at the same time retaining its emotion.” Reading this, I cannot help but think of the distinction that Deleuze makes in The Logic of Sense—a book, alas, that in large part is simply beyond my capabilities, or perhaps marks their limit—between propositions and things. Indeed, language belongs to the realm of the proposition and the world itself belongs to the realm of things, but things become interesting because language, which belongs to the realm of the proposition—which is proposition—is also a thing; and, if we were to argue that it was poem, rather than the novel, that is the literary genre par excellence, that genre that is not simply a genre but the genre that contains all of the other genres, we might very well do so on the grounds that it, of all of the other forms and genres, because of the compression of form without a reduction of meaning, must capture language at exactly that place, or moment, where it becomes not a proposition but a thing. One might say that in the poem every word should be like a name—infinitely non-sensical and arbitrary and also infinitely signifying—and on these grounds one might argue, as I have argued for the novel, that the poem is literature, as such. It might be. They both are. The argument could go either way. If I am most interested in recognizing the novel as literature as such, it is because it is toward the novel that I feel the most affinity and affection, no more and no less. In the same essay, speaking of a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva, Miller says the following: “In traditional perspective, infinity is distant, outside us forever. Here we are a part of it.” It doesn’t matter what genre we are speaking of, nor where we locate the beginning of that which, of course, has no beginning because in the beginning it had already begun, and has not ended because it remains open-ended, indeterminate. A novel, any piece of literature, if it is going to abide, must be more than itself, than any single self, for they will not abide. A book that finds its grounding in the having lived or having suffered of its author, writer, narrator, does nothing more than what Miller, speaking of poetry, calls to “express nostalgia for the self.” It will not abide. To abide, a piece of literature must be Literature—just as the suffering of one human being must be Human Suffering if it is to abide—which is to say it must make manifest and physical here, in this very place and this very time, its place and time, that which is already always everywhere.