Category Archives: Pillars

Pillars #7: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

One measure of a book’s influence—perhaps the best measure—is the degree to which that book determines the shape of your thoughts and your sentences. And by this measure, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is undoubtedly a huge personal influence. When I fist read it in 2005, its form was unlike the form of any book I had ever previously read. Though perhaps now there are other books I’ve read that somewhat resemble it, Wittgenstein’s Mistress still stands out to me as an original.

So what exactly is Wittgenstein’s Mistress? It mostly consists of single-sentence paragraphs of just a dozen or two dozen words. (It kind of looks like a big old archive of text messages.) As we read the book, it becomes clear these sentences are being typed down by a person who believes herself to be the last human being alive on Earth. Basically, this book just follows the flow of her thoughts as she recounts what she does as the last person on Earth, as well as any number of random musings she see fit to delve through. I picture the narrator of this book, whoever she is, as striking down a few thoughts on a typewriter, going about her day, striking a few more, falling asleep and waking and striking down a few more, just collecting lines after lines. This is just what this book is.

And the thing about this book, what began to occur to me as I read it, was that, yes, indeed, this is how people think. It captures the feeling of thought very, very well (at least our thoughts that come to us in the form of language). The particular length of each thought, the way that they form little clusters as several thoughts cumulate upon one another, and the way that they digress and wander, eventually interrupted by the eruption of a sudden memory or idea.

So here’s something I’ve wrestles with in the aftermath of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a kind of chicken and the egg” question: perhaps Markson got the drift and punch of thought just right, so that I often think in the manner in which this book thinks because this is just how we think. Or, perhaps I think in the manner in which this book thinks because Markson played some major role in teaching me how to think. I’m not quite sure. Regardless, to this day, a decade after I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I will find an apposite sentence forming in my head, and I will know, this is a Markson sentence. Or, even more often, I will compose a tweet on Twitter, or send off a triad of text messages, or leave a Facebook comment, and I will know, these were written in the mold of Markson.

This is already a huge influence.

The other thing that stayed with me from this book is how, regardless of what exactly the “plot” of this book is, or who it’s narrated by and what her life circumstances are, this book’s true subject is the human mind—that is, consciousness, experience, structural linguistics. At that point in my writing life I couldn’t put it to you the way I’m putting it now. I didn’t know there were authors who focused on things like experience and consciousness, who wanted to understand how language contained our possibilities as sentient beings, and I certainly didn’t understand the philosophical and historical antecedents to these authors. (Nor am I sure I do now, although my grasp of such things is certain much firmer these days.) I had so many authors to discover in this school of writing. Back then, I only knew the sorts of books that would absorb my attention and fire up certain parts of my readerly brain. And this was one of them!

Now, with the benefits of hindsight, I can see how many books I’ve adored in the past decade take as their primary concern human experience, which is to say the workings of the human mind. I can see that this is indeed the central element in my life as a reader and a writer. In other words, to put a slightly fine point on it, phenomenology. I can also see how, over that same span, I’ve more and more come over to the belief that the world as our mind understands it is bounded by language. That is, structural linguistics.

And I would say these two things—phenomenology and structural linguistics—are pretty much what Wittgenstein’s Mistress is about. You’ve got the pure experience of a human mind—processed into these little orations the narrator types into her typewriter—and you’ve got this subtext where Markson is doing everything he can to get you to look at the way this book is mediated by language (more on that in a moment). Essentially, it was as though someone had written an experimental novel that was exactly designed to push all the buttons I was developing as a reader.

As to the linguistics: Markson gets half of his title from the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is a huge tip-off that this is going to be a book about language. When I first read Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I knew a little bit about Wittgenstein. I understood that he had proposed a new approach to philosophy that many would say was one of the first genuinely new things in the two millennia following Plato’s writings based on Socrates’ dialogues. I understood that this approach was based on the idea that philosophical problems were basically problems of language, and his early work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, somehow fixed that. And I knew that he had famously begun the work in which he explains this thesis with the declaration “the world is everything that is the case,” and that it is composed of many, many such short, enigmatic declarations.

So I could see that Markson’s book was obviously patterned on Wittgnstein’s form and ideas to a degree. What must have appealed to me so much about this was the way in which Markson continually reminds a reader of the fraught relationship between the words on his page and whatever objective reality is supposed to exist in conjunction with those words. (To that one might also add the fraught relationships between the words in one’s head to the objective world beyond the skull.) He’ll do this by troubling over things like the spelling of “Cassandra” (or is it “Kassandra”?), or asking if Anna Karenina would still be called Anna Karenina if no more copies of it existed. Or, in one of my favorite examples, by having the narrator state that one of her favorite ways of ignoring the rain is by walking through it. By continually posing questions like this, he keeps putting a reader in mind of the many ways that language constantly fails us when we try to put certain ideas into words. (Another nice thing about Markson is the pithy tone he gives his narrator when she keeps making all of these asides; Wittgenstein’s Mistress would be a very different book if she didn’t have such a succinct, compelling way of putting things.) I knew that these sorts of linguistic games were playing at things that went very deep into the conundrum of what goes on between the mind, the page, and the world, the way the all keep pushing one another along to create the possibilities that we experience as conscious life. I knew that this was striking upon something very exciting to me.

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There is one more strange way that this book has always stuck in my mind. At the time I read it, I was just beginning to make my way as a writer, and I was finding that being an infant writer was a very demoralizing thing. At some point in my reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I came upon the now very familiar story about how Markson was forced to submit this title to something like 80 publishers before at last he found one to take it on—and, then, that publisher was the Dalkey Archive Press, which at the time had only been around for four and was obscure, tiny, and fond of books that would quickly be dismissed elsewhere as not being fit for the market because they were too “cerebral.” So in others words, at once a press that was probably Markson’s ideal publisher, and also a press that was barely one step up from self-publication. And, indeed, this book might have languished and have been completely forgotten had not David Foster Wallace championed in the heady days after Infinite Jest, when he himself had become a sensation.

The truths that hid behind the conception of this book and its existence as a material object were lessons that any writer must absorb—hopefully early on—and finding out about them at this point in my life as a serious writer was a thing of priceless value.

Pillars #6. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

I remember that it was in the winter and spring of 2002 that I began to get very much into Thomas Pynchon. In December 2001 I read The Crying of Lot 49, which at the time seemed absolutely unlike any book I had ever read. (I was 23 and still had a lot of reading ahead of me.) I quickly moved on to Gravity’s Rainbow in January 2002, which was all over the place in terms of how much of it I understood and/or enjoyed. Undeterred, I next moved on to V.

My youthful readings of Pynchon could make a Pillar in their own right (and probably will one day), so maybe I’ll just say one thing here. When I read these books I felt something very, very alive about them, something that seemed entirely essential to understand, but that was far beyond any sort of interpretation I could bring to these books. It was a little like being subjected to the same joke over and over, a joke that you don’t get but that leaves everyone around you laughing. I was dying to find my way into books like these. These were the years when I was very consciously trying to make myself understand this literary world that I had decided to adopt.

On my 24th birthday I was given Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation with some intimation that this would help make Pynchon comprehensible. There was also another P-word that this book promised to reveal to me: postmodern.

There was a certain kind of intellectual thrill of discovery that was possible in those days that doesn’t exist for me any longer. I don’t mean to say that reading doesn’t bring me the thrill of discovery or intellectual engagement any more—it does. But it all feels so different now. So many of the coordinates have been revealed to me that reading feels more like cultivating a somewhat orderly garden than scraping through a dense jungle.

I loved the feel of that dislocation when I read Pynchon and Baudrillard. It felt almost occult. This was reading at its most aspirational. There were powers at work here, a whole other world that I never knew existed. I had no idea of its shape or size, or even if it was actually there or not. Maybe I would never understand it. I trod on because I had some idea that there was something really, really important here, and getting it would gain me access to those conversations about books that I wanted to have. I can still remember exactly where I was when I read this book—it’s a reading experience that is burned into my mind. Out of the thousands of books I’ve read since then, there are very few for which I can find such distinct memories of reading.

There are eighteen essays in Simulacra and Simulation, and by far the longest and most potent of them is the first: “The Precession of Simulacra.” This is the essay containing that most memorable phrase “the desert of the real,” the essay that the Wachowskis must have had in mind when then made The Matrix. Its main idea is that what we now take for reality has itself detached from anything that might be called “real” in a conventional sense. Via a set of technologies and ideologies, the postmodern world has manufactured what Baudrillard terms the “hyperreal”: “a real without origin or reality.” The essay then goes on to argue for phenomena that either helped create or reflect this world order, including the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Apollo moon landings, Disneyland (and Los Angeles as a whole), and, most importantly, nuclear weapons and the logic of mutually assured destruction. Essentially, these and other phenomena have created an economy of signs and symbols where it is the symbolic value of actions that trumps their actual value. This new economy of signs and symbols has introduced a fundamentally new logic to our world, one where the intuitive assumptions about cause and effect, real and fake are no longer correct.

Looking at that list of referents can make the book seem dated—it was originally published in 1981, which accounts for the predominance of ’60s and ’70s motifs. So it says something that after the September 11 terrorists attacks, this was the book that so many people reached for. Or that one of the biggest movie franchises of the late ’90s and early ’00s was built around this ideology. No doubt our politics and economy has moved on since Baudrillard wrote this essay, but it has proven tenacious as an explanation of the world, and the ubiquity it has assumed constitutes an argument in itself.

Beyond the arguments laid out in that first essay, the subsequent essays seemed like something of a road map for intellectual fascinations I would take up in subsequent years. For instance, this book was the first place I encountered (or where I found impetus to finally explore) such personal intellectual milestones as: J.G. Ballard and Crash; Borges’s story “On Exactitude in Science”; Apocalypse Now; a postmodern critique of the mass media; Philip K. Dick; and so many other things that I won’t include here for lack of time and space.

With well over a decade of hindsight, I find it fascinating that this book felt like such a lightning rod when I first tried to understand it. Looking back, the postmodern artistic aesthetic and poststructuralist philosophy that this book was so central to have been constant pre-occupations of my reading and intellectual life since. And the literatures and philosophies of the early and mid 20th century that laid the groundwork for this book were things that I deeply immersed myself in during the years after I had had my fill of the postmodernists.

I think that when you’re young there’s a certain amount of reading you have to do where you really don’t get it, where you’re breaking open doors that are locked to you. This is the way that you break out of the mass culture that everyone who is born in our world is indoctrinated with. This book certainly is one of my most important foundations in that sense. And it’s something that has been a frequent reference point since then, an essay I still regularly go back to and learn from.

Pillars #5. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

I can no longer remember when I first heard the name “Susan Sontag,” but as far as I can remember, that name has always had an absolute omnipresence combined with a weightiness that simply could not be ignored. Even before I really knew who she was of what she did, I knew that she was as important and as intellectual as you could get.

The first thing I read by her was On Photography, which I think was in 2003. I’m sure a lot of it went right over my head at the time, but I got the basics of the book and I remember finding it easy to read and liking it very much.

Around that time I also read In America—the National Book Award impressed me, and I was curious to see what Sontag’s intelligence looked like in fiction. I recall being rather baffled by the book, liking certain stretches but never really figuring out what made Sontag want to write the book or what it was all about.

Through the years that followed, I would find myself renewing my acquaintance with Sontag. She’s such a capacious, wide-ranging author that it seems difficult to read her systematically, so it seems that I just read her as chance and inclination contrived to make room for her.

Perhaps this explains why it took me so long to read what is possibly her best-known, and maybe just plain best work: the essay “Against Interpretation.” This essay hit me like nothing else of her had ever hit me. It was really one of those transcendent reading experiences where it’s like you’re under a spell; and I read it with that energy of true engagement, where virtually every sentence gave encouraged me to continue the argument in my head in several different ways at once. It was an essay that deeply influenced how I wrote, that showed me new ways that I might try to write essays, new techniques and tricks I could try out. I wrote at least one essay in clear imitation of it.

One of the things that I love about “Against Interpretation” is how it stretches back, to the very, very beginning. Its very first words are, “The earliest experience of art . . .” This is such a bold and, frankly, risky way to begin an essay, but it works for Sontag, because what she wants to talk about can withstand that sort of a context. This isn’t some overwrought rhetorical flourish . . . she makes a very good case that the thing she’s arguing goes back to our earliest thoughts about art.

Of course Sontag does not know what the earliest experience of art was like. Nobody knows what it was like. And yet she writes about it. She uses hedging words like “must have been” and “seems to have,” and these are the essayistic equivalent of sleight of hand, ways of saying things that you know to be true, despite the fact that you would come off as laughable and ridiculously pompous if you simply stated them as such.

What is Sontag talking about in this introductory section of her essay? She is talking about the idea that art is mimesis, that it is a representation of something that exists in the world. This theory of art, she tells us, has never seriously been challenged in all of the thousands of years of Western art since the Greeks first proposed it. The reason she brings this up, she says, is that mimesis requires that art justify itself (another sleight-of-hand: she never goes in to why this is, she just casually asserts it and moves on). And once you enter the realm of justification, you begin to talk about benefit, purpose, things like that, and you can never reclaim that innocent approach to art that you had before the discovery of theory. And this is the original sin of the art world: now art must justify itself, it must be interpreted. Sontag is writing against the idea of interpretation. She is trying to write against this experience of art.

Already there is so much that is impressive about this essay. To begin with, in just under three pages Sontag has taken us from the origins of all Western art to the present day, zeroing in on what may be the problem of all art. She has revealed the container that art exists in, and she has implied that there is some way to escape it. She has convinced us (or at least made us willing to consider) that there is a blind spot in all of our experiences of art.

It is said that good fiction requires the suspension of disbelief, and the same is no less true of essays such as this one. These three introductory pages have taken us into the world of the idea that Sontag is proposing. Like a skilled novelist she has given us just enough information to make this world live in our minds, to make her view of art and what has gone wrong with it exist for us. Even if only for an hour of our lives, Sontag’s argument about the original sin of art feels true, and this is essential to getting us to read the essay, to give it the gravity Sontag wants to invest in it, to make us feel why she is so passionate about getting rid of interpretation. There is scarcely a difference between this and the opening incident that proposes a lifelike character whose dilemma we cannot help but be fascinated by. This is when abstract intellectual debates begin to feel emotional and important, the way the ticking time bomb in a Hitchcock movie feels important. And Sontag does it so well here.

Another thing that is essential about this essay are the asides. Here are a few of them: “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art”; “interpretation makes art manageable, conformable”; “our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all”; and, of course, the most famous: “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

It must be said that remarks like these, as brilliant and as inspiring as they are, are not easy to fit into an essay. They often stick out, disrupting the flow of the argument, sounding silly in the wrong context, simply taking you out of this suspension-of-disbelief that Sontag has so carefully constructed. Even reading them in this blog post, so out of context, they sound so less interesting than in the course of Sontag’s essay. Remarks such as these must be carefully fitted into their place, or else they must be abandoned (perhaps to be worked in to some other essay). What I’m saying is, it’s not easy to make these sorts of things work—these are the darlings you’re told to kill. It is impressive that Sontag can get so many into this piece, and that she can make these feel as though they are native to the flow of the essay, a flow that she has be so careful to establish and sustain.

“Against Interpretation” is scarcely 11 pages long, but it took me 45 minutes to read for the first time. (I know, because at the bottom of it I wrote, “45 excellent minutes.”) There you have it: it is a piece that retards your progress, that makes you linger over it, expanding it with your own thoughts, pondering the possibilities, simply reveling in its grandeur. And it is an essay whose main point has always stuck with me, whose question has always remained a question that I take with me when I experience art. How many essays do you remember the last line of? How many essays stick in your mind and condition your experience of art?

Pillars: #4. River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


When I was younger, I had very little knowledge what the modern world was. Like everyone, I lived in it, so in theory I should have been a specialist on this question. Like everyone, I was taught in school about industrialization and the working class, I had been taught to say bourgeoisie, we had even learned a bit about fascism and communism and the great wars that had decided that they would not be suitable forms of government. In theory I knew very much about the modern world, but the fact is that we all are so extremely close to modernity that it is difficult to make interesting observations about it, just as we have to learn to see ourselves with the acuity of a Proust in order to be good observers of our nature.

In those days I still had very little idea what separated my world from the medieval one, other than that we didn’t die of infected wounds any longer and we could get around much more easily. Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows was one of the first things I read that systematically attempted to explain a significant chunk of the ideology governing our world, and where these ideas had come from. It succeeded magnificently, making this explanation into a story that could easily engage a mind, but without neglecting the rigor that such aspirations required. Because of that, River of Shadows was not only a formative intellectual experience for me, it was also a key aesthetic one, pointing the way to the sort of book-length essay I would one day wish to write myself.

So what is this book about? Well, the two inventions at the heart of it are the photograph and the railroad. They are two inventions that Solnit argues have played an outsized role in forming the modern consciousness. Photography allowed us to see the world in ways it had never been seen before. For the first time, humans might know what a horse looked like in mid-gallop, or they might examine the beautiful patterns made by water droplets springing up in the aftermath of a splash. Before photography we did not have the technology to record details that would only exist for a fraction of a second—it was a whole new world opening up for us, a visual, artistic, and scientific revolution. In addition, before widespread photography we did not have the capabilities to record images of moments from our lives, nor to easily see what diverse places all over the Earth looked like: photography began a drastic re-shaping of our memories, and thus our conception of ourselves as individuals that existed over a long span of time within a vast and changing world.

As to railroads, they allowed the mass transportation of human beings and commodities farther and faster than ever had before. As railroads propagated, we began to see that our common understanding of time was not sufficient for the new reality they wrought. Time zones were invented so that there was some logical cohesion operating over where and when a train departed, and where and when it arrived. Similarly, railroads forced the dissemination and orchestration of timekeeping so that railroad schedules could be kept. Never before had such a broad section of humanity known the exact time of day, and never had we been so aware that time as measured by a clock might govern our life. Railroads also forced new conceptions of distance: whereas previously individuals might have lived their entire lives within a radius of a few miles, now it was quite common to travel much greater distances, and it was possible for there to be levels of exchange and interdependence never before imaginable.

It is not hard to see how these ideas would prove pertinent to a reader in 2003, when this book was originally published, or even today. Concepts of time, speed, and distance—mastering them, or fearing being mastered by them—are of course central preoccupations of our conversations. Just look around social media for all the think-pieces about the pace of life these days, or how much time we spend working now that we’re on-call 24 hours every day. River of Shadows attempts to locate the beginnings of these lines of thought, and for me these ideas were transformative in establishing my concept of what this world I lived in was.

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If photographs and railroads are the central inventions in River of Shadows, the central actor in this book is the inventor and photographer Edweard Muybridge: he’s probably best-known for his motion-studies of humans and animals, the most famous of which finally settled the debate over whether all four of a horse’s hooves were ever off the ground during a gallop. Muybridge, an adventurer who was acquitted of the murder of his wife’s lover for reason of justifiable homicide, made possible modern photography and film through the high-speed emulsions that he invented. Prior to Muybridge’s inventions, it would take minutes to made a single photograph in broad daylight; obviously this would not do for the sort of stop-action photography that was Muybridge’s goal, and nor would it have been possible to creation motion pictures with such technology.

What struck me as I read River of Shadows was how Muybridge’s compelling personality let Solnit create an absorbing narrative for her book, and how it also enlivened her imagination and her diction. This compelling figure and his compelling story granted her the narrative momentum to layer her book with philosophical digressions on the nature of the modern consciousness. As I read, I understood that Muybridge was this spine that allowed the book to be a book-length essay, and not a collection of essays on a shared theme. I also saw that it was his compelling story that allowed the book to appeal to a broad audience of readers, and which allowed it to achieve a success that most of her previous titles had not. Comprehending this was a revelation; as I looked around, I began to see that many of my favorite book-length essays had adopted a similar tactic, layering philosophical heft and dense observation on top of what they hoped to be a compelling through-line.

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I think what also appealed to me about River of Shadows was how much original research was in this book. This was an important thing, because I had always known that the university system was not one that I wanted any part of, even though I very much wanted to be a part of the conversation of ideas to which it laid claim. I knew that I wanted my writing to be rigorous, and well-researched, and, if possible, to make an original contribution the world of ideas. I just wanted to do all of this outside of the academy. River of Shadows was exactly this book. It showed me a way to do this sort of writing beyond the university system—it proved that such work could be done independently, and it showed that such an independent endeavor could have a very serious impact (the book was broadly received, sold well, and received a National Book Critics Circle Award).

It was also a very personal book, one in which Solnit allows her subjective passion and admiration for certain ideas and individuals to emerge. And this was a formative thing for me as well, because even then I believed in the importance that subjectivity could make to an intellectual inquiry, and I felt that many of the best and most lasting ideas have come about because certain people allowed their obsessions to gain some influence over their pen. I think it is seeing the value in this sort of passion, and in knowing how to carefully walk that line between the subjective and the objective that allows a person like Solnit to write a book like this. And I think that, ultimately, this is what allows a thinker to be original. Reading this book, I was able to explain to myself why I had been right not to choose the university as the arena in which I would attempt to think original thoughts.

Reviewing River of Shadows for The New Republic, David Thomson wrote, “even if River of Shadows is finally as beyond categorization as it is marred by its very large assertions, still it is a book of enormous intelligence and fascination.” He proceeds to take Solnit to task for claiming too much. Well, first, I find that a strange critique to be lodged by a man who once wrote a very good book about how Psycho changed film forever, unleashing a new sort of passion and horror into our consciousness. Just as Thompson chides Solnit that someone else would have inspired film if not Muybridge, we could equally tell Thompson that there were many people other than Hitchcock working toward inventing the slasher-flick-as-art. In both books, this critique is beside the point. Both of them succeed for the same reason, the grand narratives they create in spite of the nitpicking that can be applied to either. Certainly you could similarly nitpick many great essayists and thinkers who have offered us master narratives. Great ideas are not imagined and propagated by writers concerned that they will be nitpicked to death. Yes, if Muybridge had not invented high-speed emulsions, someone else would have. I do not think it is Solnit’s point that only he could have done it. I think her point is to tell the story of the visionary who did create these inventions, to understand why it was he, and the world that he operated in.

I like that in River of Shadows, as elsewhere, Rebecca Solnit shows the sort of courage and ambition that Thomson unfairly criticizes her for, the same qualities that have made Thomson himself such an original writer on film. It is what gives their writing the quality of vision. Of course, courage and ambition alone are not enough; far too many of our would-be visionaries are nearsighted without realizing it, lacking the kind of perspective and insight needed to make interesting observations about out world. They and their clickbait fodder are easy enough to dismiss. River of Shadows, however, is not dismissible (even Thomson will admit that). It ignited in me untold numbers of thoughts, and it put my thinking onto a new plane. It was certainly one of the beginnings of a true understanding of what our world is.

Pillars: #3. A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne Booth

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


Maybe the best way to start this is by saying that A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne Booth is probably the book that I most often recommend to people. Part of this is due to the fact that there are very, very few people out there that I don’t think could get a lot out of reading Booth. He wrote about some hugely important, hugely complex ideas, but he did it in a way that makes them accessible to anybody. Really. His tone is remarkable conversational, considering the level of his erudition, and he manages to find ways to talk about very complex things in down to earth language.

Probably the other half of why I recommend A Rhetoric of Irony so much is my perception of Booth as a person who has not yet gotten his due, a thinker who is beloved by a certain cadre of readers (I have met many such individuals), but is still not nearly as known as he could or should be. And, in particular, if you do know Booth, it’s probably for his considerably larger and comparably more famous The Rhetoric of Fiction. You may have loved and gained much from that book and have no idea that A Rhetoric of Irony exists—and that many would say it’s the better book.

What I love about Booth as a thinker is that he really, really cares about ideas. I mean really. It’s impossible to read him and not be taken by his passion for the ideas he’s talking about. Booth cares whether or not the ideas he had dedicated himself to are moral, whether or not they’re right or are just dogmas that we’ve been taught to spew. He cares about their lives in our culture, where they came from and whether or not they’re headed anywhere worthwhile. I get goosebumps just writing about how much Booth cares about ideas. He’s that kind of a writer.

In A Rhetoric of Irony he’s writing about one of the strangest concepts out there. In the society that we live in—particularly, a consummerist, cool, post–David Foster Wallace society that many, many people just love to call “post-ironic”—the word “irony” is a term that is grossly overdefined. Everybody knows what it means, which is a pretty good sign that in actuality virtually no one knows what it means. The fact is, except for the most blatant and obvious ironies, to really read well for irony takes a very, very perceptive and experienced reader. And Booth is exactly the reader to school us in it.

In this book, Booth gives us a taste of what irony really is, and what it really is is one of the strangest, most impenetrably bizarre and fundamentally literary ideas we’ve got. Booth manages to demonstrate just how strange and unfathomable irony really is, how we’ll probably never fully understand its depths, and all the surfaces of irony that literary authors have barely even begun to scratch.

So what exactly am I talking about? Well to start off Both posits two main categories of irony: stable irony and unstable irony. He further breaks down these categories with subcategories (more on that in a minute), but the main idea is that the stable ironies are the friendly, regular ones that we’re used to seeing—the protons, neutrons, and electrons of the irony world—and the unstable ironies begin to get into the truly bizarre things, the neutrino and quarks and Higgs bosons of the irony menagerie.

The most basic irony Booth gives us is as follows: stable (they resolve to one clear meaning), intended (there’s some sense behind the irony that the speaker is attempting to communicate), covert (there is data “below the surface” of the remark), and finite (at some point you “reach the end” of the irony). As an example, he supplies the image of an exasperated postal office clear telling an annoying customer: “well, you can take your business and you know what you can do with it.”

From here, Booth investigates various combinations of those four categories (including their opposites), eventually concluding with the truly strange unstable-covert-infinite (he quotes the first paragraph of Beckett’s The Unnamable), and, last of all the (really-really-strange-if-you-think-about-it) “stable”-covert-infinite (because how can something with infinite regress (like, oh, the universe) also be stable?).

This final category may be a little something like this:

escher

The introduction to Booth’s section on “stable”-covert-infinite ironies simply must be quoted at length. Please read this:

We can say that all truths can be undermined with the irony of contrary truths either because the universe is essentially absurd and there is no such thing as coherent truth or because man’s powers of knowing are inherently and incurably limited and partial. We can imagine, on the one hand, a chaos, an order of truth so far beyond man’s powers that any attempt at formulation is vulnerable to ironic discounting. We face two radically different kinds of ironic reading, depending on which of these two grand ironic truths stands above us, laughing of weeping at our hopeless efforts to achieve final clarity. The difference depends on whether “the Gods” . . . laughing “in the background” . . . are real or imaginary.

If the universe if ultimately an absurd multiverse, then all propositions about or portraits of any part of it are ultimately absurd, all stories and poems are in at least once sense absurd, and the “readings” one gives can be infinitely various with no fundamental violations of the text; there is no such thin as a “fundamental violation” of any value. Indeed, the more variety the better, because only in absurd variety can the absurdities of the things be echoed—though again once could ask how one defends the use of a word like “better” in such a universe. . . .

This should give a sense of the weight of the questions Booth is bringing to bear in this book, as well as his capacities as a theorist. And, it must be said, everything that passes on the road from Booth’s charmingly normal “stable” ironies to these cosmos-implicating final one is nothing less than a complete tour de force.

I owe so much to Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony. Truth be told, it was his contextualization of Beckett, his ability to make that first paragraph of The Unnameable feel so completely intriguing and utterly fascinating that finally got me to decide Beckett was worth my time. The book also made me understand completely new ways of looking at a text and attempting to make sense of it—so many new questions could be brought to bear on a single line, so many implication of how I chose to interpret it, things that were completely invisible to before I started reading Booth. His discernment was such a revelation, just to know that you could look so deeply into what seemed like a relatively straightforward statement, you could tie in so many implications that stretched into obscure realms of knowledge. Before I read him I did not know such things could be done.

And also, seeing the methodical and seemingly simple way that Booth reasoned through his questions on the page taught me just how clear and coherent one’s thoughts could be in the written form. I had been taught to believe that complex things much be articulated in confusing language (preferably with lengthy sentences thoroughly separating subject from verb), and Booth showed me how the most inscrutable riddles could be put in plain English—not only that, but then they could be reasoned through in equally plain, but powerful, language. It showed me that these questions could be discussed in such a way that anybody really could follow along, if they had the time and the patience for it. And they really should, because Booth is always careful to show you just how much is at stake and why you should give a damn about the problems he discusses.

I could just as easily recommend other books of Booth’s—you really can’t go wrong with him—but for me A Rhetoric of Irony occupies a certain revelatory place. It’s a book that has always stayed very present in my mind, and one that I return to again and again, always discovering new things. It is absolutely a pillar of the way I try to write about the questions surrounding the books I read, as well as one that is a foundation for how I understand just what a text is and how I can read it.

Pillars: #2. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


 

As a writer and a thinker, Marilynne Robinson sticks out for multiple reasons. First of all, there is the fact that she published her first book, Housekeeping, at 37 years of age (in 1980), and then did not publish another novel for 24 years. In today’s careerist publishing climate, those are in themselves noteworthy choices. The bespeak an author who doesn’t write until she wants to, who is moved not be considerations of fame or status but only by what she must say. In other words, a serious thinker.

Perhaps equally interesting is the fact that in the span between her novels she published two serious works of nonfiction, and, indeed, I would be sympathetic to the argument that in due time she may be seen as a better essayist than a novelist (which is not to slight her fiction). Needless to say, it is rare to see a writer who can so deeply master the competing aesthetics of the two forms, and whose mind is supple enough for its thoughts to fit equally well in different containers.

Robinson is also noteworthy because she loves to stick up for unfashionable intellectuals. She is perhaps the leading (and maybe only?) living proponent of the thought of John Calvin. She is a forceful advocate for the American Transcendentalists. She writes compelling essays about obscure books that probably no one other than Marilynne Robinson has read, and she makes you feel that you must read them. More broadly, she is passionately religious at a time when few liberal intellectuals are. Her writing seems almost custom made to cut against the received ideas of our era, yet she destroys this common wisdom in a way that is as calm as it is forceful, profound, and nearly impossible to argue with. She deeply and energetically believes in the humanist tradition, the gifts of the Enlightenment, the place of wonder (true wonder) in the human experience, and the dignity of all people.

Although I do believe an argument can be made for her essays as her greatest work, I am choosing her first novel, Housekeeping, as my pillar from her.

I happened to read Housekeeping at a time when I needed a book just like this, a book that could show me a different way of viewing the world than I had been viewing it. A book that wold refresh my perspective. Without knowing it, what I wanted was someone like Robinson to be a role model, and to embody another way of being. And reading Housekeeping, that was precisely what I got. Rarely does such a powerful book come along just when you need it, and so it was able to shape my thinking very deeply, and it has remained with me in the years since I first read it.

One of the things I like best about Marilynne Robinson is that as a novelist she talks about an America that exists—or maybe existed—but that is very little-known. It is an America that is conversant with our deepest traditions, our important intellectuals, our artists, the political doctrines we have contributed to civilization, the unique rights and ideals we as a people hold dear—yet, it is also a part of the country that was not widely known even in its time (the 1920s and ’30s), that knew very little of the United States beyond its own parochial limits, and that is all but forgotten now. Somehow, this obscure part of America that Robinson writes about delves into some of the most core aspects of what makes America a nation—that is, those things that transcend the competing and often irreconcilable ideologies, interest groups, and ethnicities that always seem to be on the verge of tearing this nation apart. The people in Housekeeping’s rural village, Fingerbone, feel profoundly American, despite the fact that they are marginalized, even forgotten, and have very little commerce with anything we might recognize as historic or important about the period. They are American characters, expertly drawn by a master with the pen.

In Housekeeping (as in all her work), Robinson talks about religion, but not in the sense of particulars so much as in the sense of the wonder, authority, beliefs, and values that make it an essential part of human society. Robinson’s depiction of religion is always pluralistic, even though her characters have very distinct religious beliefs and are not necessarily pluralistic themselves. She has an effortless way of showing how religion figures into everyday life, how it becomes part of the fabric of human character and social endeavor. In Housekeeping you see how it has crafted and informed human society, why it is essential—and inescapable—even for those who do not believe, or who have found other systems to take the place of religion in their lives. To read Robinson is to see where the practice of religion overlaps with the need for spirituality.

To an extent, these first two things exist in all of Robinson’s novels (although I would say they receive their best treatment here), and the thing that I would say is most particular to Housekeeping is its depiction of feminine difference. The book has women as its main characters, and in particular it centers on two women who will not fit in to society in the ways that women are expected to do so—and who ultimately pay the price for their behavior. In seeing how Robinson constructs their characters, the virtues and ambitions that animate their lives, their shortcomings, fears, needs, you see an image of femininity that stands not just apart from masculinity but also apart from prevalent ideas of what is female and even human. In short, it proposes an alternative, and it makes that alternative compelling and alive on the page. Of course, this vision of difference ties in to the title and the book’s key metaphor—housekeeping—just what it means to you and I, and what it could mean to us, and what it does mean to these strange individuals who see things otherwise that the rest of us.

We can talk about these things, and I do think they are the book’s originalities, but then there is simply the prose, which is unlike anything Marilynne Robinson—or probably anyone else—has ever written. Much of the book reads like a vision, a breathtaking performance that Robinson was destined to only produce once in her lifetime. It feels like a book from another period entirely—if you gave it to someone to read who did not know where it came from, they certainly would not guess the 1980s. There is nothing at all to date it other than the writing, and that itself, with its combinations of the Biblical and the modernist and the pastoral, with its currents of thought from all throughout Western history, is undatable.

Pillars: #1. Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.


 

Most likely the contemporary author who has had the greatest influence on me has been László Krasznahorkai. His books feel more visionary to me than any other working author I’m familiar with, his style more original, his project more unified—yet also profoundly expansive, complex, and elemental. So I could very easily be writing about the influence that all of Krasznahorkai’s books have had on me (his project is very unified, and he has many important works), but I am going to pick Seiobo There Below to write about as the major pillar.

The general consensus of most people who know Krasznahorkai’s work inside and out—as well as my own opinion, based on reading six of his works—is that Seiobo There Below is his masterpiece to date. This is a book that I could imagine us still learning from 100 years from now, a book that will come to seem more and more emblematic of its times and predictive of the future yet to come. It reminds me most of Kafka, in the sense that Kafka was able to divine the irresolvable elements at the heart of modernism, yet was also able to foresee the horrors that would come with the Second World War and the logic that would take hold of Western civilization thereafter. I think Seiobo There Below carries that kind of visionary power, both to comprehend what is at the center of our own era and to create a structure nimble enough to continue to feel profound and precognitive in the decades to come. Although Krasznahorkai’s early books were very powerful, they also came out of the specifically Hungarian, Communist world that he was born in. Seiobo There Below partakes in his travels and growth as an individual, to encompass not just the communist Eastern Europe, nor just that + Western Europe, but those things in addition to the East and Krasznahorkai’s experiences around the world. It feels global in reach, and this is why I would pick it to last longer than many of his other books, powerful as they may be.

So what is this book about? Well, it does not function in the way that we’re accustomed to thinking most novels function. There’s no first-person narrator whom we follow for these 400-some pages, there are no consistent characters, no central incidents, or even locales. In fact, the book is so wide-ranging and diffuse that you could almost call Seiobo There Below a series of short stories, except for the fact that this book is so profoundly unified under thematic lines—as well as by its central conceit (more on that in a moment)—that it simply cannot be looked at as a collection. Reading it, each successive chapter seems to emanate out of everything that has come before, like the movements of a symphony, even though to superficial eyes there will be little to connect them together.

An attempt at plainly stating what Seiobo There Below is about might go something like this: the book uses various individuals and situations to make you feel all of the chaos and anarchy that necessarily exists in the human world, but it also shows how something we might call either art or spirituality has for eons given humans a way to escape the anxiety and loneliness that necessarily come with a world fundamentally beyond our control and understanding.

That summary is the best way I can concisely state what this book does, but it necessarily shortchanges it (as would any concise description of Seiobo There Below), so here is a list to give a sense of the range and newness of this title:

  • the book ranges in era from pre-history (or maybe post/a-history) up through the Middle Ages right to the present, and it also ranges through the continents, always managing to give us an immediately compelling, believable, and forceful portrait of whatever way of life it chooses to convey
  • the book is truly encyclopedia, as it encompasses various disciplines from Noh mask-making through Renaissance art to ancient architecture to mud-sculpting, again always giving us an expert-level account of these disciplines while integrating each item into the book’s core themes at the deepest level
  • the book is stylistically advanced, being composed mostly of pages-long sentences and single-paragraph chapters, a style that references and converses with Krasznahorkai’s previous ways of composing his novels but that also feels new, a style that he has not previously tried before and that feels like an evolution of his art
  • the book seems to be in conversation with some of the most exciting, new, and original ideas of our times (more on that in a sec)

I should now say a few words about the book’s central conceit. First off, the chapters of this book are numbered according to the progression of the Fibonacci sequence, a numerical sequence that is simply generated by adding up its last two numbers: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 (Seiobo There Below ends after 17 chapters, on the number 2584). There is much beauty in the Fibonacci sequence: when graphed, this sequence makes a beautiful, gracefully expanding spiral, and the it has been mathematically linked to the so-called golden ratio, which is found all throughout nature and has been studied by philosophers/scientists and drawn on by artists for virtually all of recorded history.

I think that there are many, many, many ways to read what Krasznahorkai has done by invoking these concepts in the architecture of his book, but surely one idea they raise that is close to the heart of this project is that of some kind of natural order underlying the chaos of the world. This order is a thing that we humans can at times glimpse when we have our most profound moments of what we might call art or spirituality. This idea also syncs up with the book’s title: Seiobo is a minor Chinese goddess associated with the West and prosperity who is known for cultivating a garden of peaches that confers immortality. Placing Seiobo “there below” obviously implies certain ideas about the transcendent touching the earthy plain; I also think it is significant that she is an Eastern goddess of “the west,” given how Krasznahorkai has grown increasingly interested on finding literary ways of combining the realms.

I’d just like to conclude by mentioning one last way Seiobo There Below feels so new to me. I do believe that the book (whether consciously or not) invokes the idea of the “rhizome,” which Deleuze and Guattari attempt to philosophically describe in their masterpiece, A Thousand Plateaus. Wikipedia explains a rhizome as describing “theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.” In other words, it subverts our traditional, inherited ways or ordering the world in favor of something new, something that is fundamentally non-hierarchical. To quote from rhiomes.net:

As a model for culture, the rhizome resists the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the originary source of “things” and looks towards the pinnacle or conclusion of those “things.” “A rhizome, on the other hand, “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (D&G 7). Rather than narrativize history and culture, the rhizome presents history and culture as a map or wide array of attractions and influences with no specific origin or genesis, for a “rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (D&G 25). The planar movement of the rhizome resists chronology and organization, instead favoring a nomadic system of growth and propagation.

To me, this is precisely what Seiobo There Below is about: to resist the simple idea of “beginning, middle, end,” to contradict the claim that civilization is “progressing” toward some culmination. Instead, the book attempts to find new narratives and new organizational principles for explaining the human propensity to seek transcendence over our brutal, chaotic, fundamentally uncertain world. Of course, many writers have written on this subject, but few have attempted to find a rhozomic way of linking it all together. Deleuze and Guattari first published A Thousand Plateaus in 1980 (and the book first appeared in English in 1987), meaning that their ideas are extraordinarily young and are still being assimilated and interpreted. In my opinion, the are among the forefront of the philosophical ideas of our era—they are concepts that are far, far ahead of their time, and we are just beginning to see them comprehend and adopted in the mass culture. The fact that Krasznahorkai, whether purposely or by intuition alone, seems to be conversing with them at the deepest levels (and in the form of fiction) is just one more proof of how new and canonical Seiobo There Below really is.

Thanks to some good luck, as well as the determined efforts of many individuals who believe in the importance of Krasznahorkai’s literary project, Seiobo There Below has developed the beginnings of a sizable and passionate readership. I expect that this will continue, in the mold of many great works before it that started out with a small but devoted readership and slowly grew and grew to become central pieces. Like those other titles (and, indeed, like A Thousand Plateaus) Seiobo There Below is a book that at times demands to be read slowly, a book in which not everything will be comprehended at first glance. Nonetheless, it is a book that, to me, more than anything else feels vital and alive and powerful. I think that any reader who gives it a honest chance will not be failed to be moved—again and again and again—by what Krasznahorkai has achieved.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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