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.