Book Review, Circles, Edith Hamilton, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, Freya's Unusual Wedding, gods, Heimdall, Humor, Literature, Loki, MJolnir, myth, mythology, Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology, Odin, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, Ragnarock, Reimagined Narratives, Sexy Norse Gods, story, The Sandman, The World Tree, Thor, Writing
I believe there is a quote that says, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” but that sumbitch never read Neil Gaiman.
I was annoyed and frustrated with myself a few weeks back because Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris were both giving public readings in Dallas this year, and by the time I discovered the where and when of the venue the performance halls were already sold out. This was painful because not only were two of my favorite authors coming close enough to me to actually hear them read and speak in public, but every person attending these events were going to receive a free signed copy of their most recent books with a purchase of a ticket. So probably not actually free, but it feels free. I have no one but myself to blame for this missed chance, and since I already suffer from undiagnosed depression and give myself a pretty hard time I needed something to lift my spirits.
To Amazon I went.
Now I was aware of the fact that Neil Gaiman had started a new book, and once some of the early advertisements started appearing I knew I had to read Norse Mythology. I was originally just going to pre-order it, but then life happened I forgot, but once I started working at the Tyler Public Library and saw that we had ordered a copy I placed the first hold. Ever since I’ve begun working at the library my compulsive book shopping has, no stopped exactly, but at least dwindled to manageable levels. Why purchase a book when I can simply check it out and know that it’s there just a ten minute drive away? The book came in and I just devoured it, but halfway through reading it I realized that I needed my own copy. And so one night while searching through amazon I spotted, not just a hardback first edition, but an autographed copy. I’m a poor man, but also a fool, and so I proved the philosopher correct and divorced myself from 60 of my hard earned dollars. I don’t regret a thing.
Norse Mythology as a book has been a revelation because, like many people who went through the educational system in the United States I assume, I never learned much, or anything really, about the Norse Gods. Going to the school I did I was steeped in the classical tradition. We read The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Aeneid, Medea, Julius Caesar, and in the seventh grade I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s standard Mythology. This book, which still sits in my shelf today, was a great resource and a wonderful opening to the complicated world of Greek Myth, but I noted at the time that there was a small portion in the back of the book that my teacher never got around to assigning to us. In the back of Hamilton’s book is 24 pages (I counted) dedicated to the Norse Gods and their mythos. I forgie Edith Hamilton for the sparseness of this section since hard written records of Norse myth aren’t as prevalent as Greek or Roman records, but something has always irked me about the way this section of myth feels simply tacked on, when an in-depth reading and study of these myths reveals a great bounty of lore and stories.
As soon as my copy of Norse Mythology came in I showed it to my friend TJ, the founder of the graphic novel book club I’m a part of, and we both briefly compared the book, and it’s ambition, to Edith Hamilton’s work speculating that there now exists the possibility that within a few years it could be assigned in schools for a similar purpose. I honestly believe this, and after completing the book my assessment remains. Neil Gaiman has achieved through his efforts a beautiful book which has made me slap my head repeatedly wondering why it took me so long to read, and enjoy, Norse Myths.
To begin with I have to briefly mention “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” which is the story of how the god Thor lost his now iconic hammer Mjolnir. Though Gaiman opens the book with individual descriptions of each god and their affinities and powers, each story on occasion provides some background material. The chapter that covers the “wedding” begins with such a description of Thor’s Hammer.
Thor’s hammer was called Mjollnir. It has been made by the dwarf’s Brokk and Eitri. It was one of the treasures of the gods. If Thor hit anything with it, that thing would be destroyed. If he threw the hammer at something, the hammer would never miss its target, and would always flay back through the air and return to his hand. He could shrink the hammer down and hide it inside his shirt, and he could make it grow again. It was a perfect hammer in all things except one: it was slightly too short in the handle, which meant that Thor had to swing it one handed.
The hammer kept the gods of Asgaurd safe from all the dangers that menaced them and the world. Frost giants and ogres, trolls and monsters of every kind, all were frightened of Thor’s hammer. (109-110).
As it turns out the giants stole Thor’s hammer one night while he was asleep, and Heimdall, the guardian of Asgaurd who sees all, comes up with a plan on how to infiltrate the giant’s keep and steal the hammer back. The gods are discussing how to retreave Mjollnir when the most hilarious passage in the book is related:
“Well?” said Loki. “What about you Heimdall? Doyou have any suggestions?”
“I do,” said Heimdall. “But you won’t like it.”
Thor banged his fist down upon the table. “It does not matter whether or not we like it,” he said. “We are gods! There is nothing that any of us gathered here would not do to get back Mjollnir, the hammer of the gods. Tell us your idea, and it is a good idea, we will like it.”
“You won’t like it,” said Heimdall.”
“We will like it!”
“Well,” said Heimdall, “I think we should dress Thor as a bride. Have him put on the necklace of Brisings. Have him wear a bridal crown. Stuff his dress so he looks like a woman. Veil his face. We’ll have him wears keys that jingle, as women do, drape him in jewels—”
“I don’t like it!” said Thor. “People will think…well, for a start they’ll think I dress up in women’s clothes.” (115-6).
I noted that this passage was one of the most hilarious passages, rightfully so I would argue, and that distinction is important for too often in myth there seems to be an absence of humor. Perhaps it’s just the education I received growing up, but myth seems to be steeped in relentless tragedy, violence, rape, depravity, or anguish. I cannot recall any real humor in the Greek Pantheon, and seeing as how that was the only real pantheon apart from the Egyptians I was exposed to, the fact that a moment of humor could exist in mythology was a breath of fresh air. Thor eventually gets his hammer back after a long series of jokes and gags that rely on the uber masculine worldview of the ancient Nords, and promptly slaughters the giants. Still no word though on whether the catering was good or not.
Gaimans Norse Mythology relates the world and the gods and creatures that inhabit the world of the Nordic mythos, however unlike Edith Hamilton, who seemed to retain a kind of academic distance from her topic, Neil Gaiman allows his retelling of myth to be imbued with a little more character. Gaiman has explored these characters before and so this gives him a great edge. Any and all readers who have ever taken the time to read his graphic novel The Sandman Season of Mist is sure to remember the blustering oaf that is Thor and the sly demonic figure of Loki who would aid the Dream King in a way that would not be made entirely clear until the later Sandman volumes. I’d relate more but I’m preparing myself mentally to review those books one by one by one so the reader will have to be patient.
Now I can hear the contester. By the sounds of it Gaiman is taking a self-indulgent exercise by simply retelling the stories of the Norse Myth, why should I bother with that? If I want the stories of the Norse gods I should just read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda if I hate myself and life in general?
I should first remind my contester that if you hate yourself, you should really be reading the collected works of James Patterson. There’s a great difference between crap and art, and then there is work which tries to be neither because it is really nothing at all.
But as to the real complaint Neil Gaiman himself provides some response in his introduction to the work as he notes the fate of the original written materials and oral tales:
We have lost so much. (14)
He goes on to say:
I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can.
Sometimes details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a time. As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside the small hours, awake in the unending lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight or midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from. (14-15).
Gaiman’s book is not an academic reproduction of the Norse Myths, and if the reader is truly interested in such a work translations exist and are constantly being produced. Gaiman is honest in the fact that he just wants to retell these stories, and that’s all the creative justification he needs. Because he is working with myth, and not a more contemporary story, he can rewrite these stories and incorporate more personality and dialogue into them, and while some might argue that that is “corrupting” the original myths they fail to see that this is a fallacy. Myths by their very nature are fluid beings that have shifted and altered over time. They adapt and change depending on the teller, and while written documents are considered sacred, it’s important to remember that when readers encounter such written documents, particularly ancient ones, the conflict of authorial intent becomes tricky and messy. I’m trying to say, sloppily, is that because these are myths Gaiman doesn’t have to make these a new Prose Edda. Instead he can, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, simply tell the stories that have been told over and over again, but bring a new life or light to them that feels relevant to the age he’s writing in.
That’s what’s marvelous about myth is that it can change.
I was taught in school, briefly, that Norse Myths were dark, gloomy, depressing stories in which every god was ultimately doomed to die. This eventual end, referred often to as Ragnarock, is inevitable and Edith Hamilton briefly describes this reality in her Mythology:
The World of Norse mythology is a strange world. Asgard, the home of the gods, is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. No radiancy of joy is in it, no assurance of bliss. It is a gave and solemn place, over which hangs the threat of an inevitable doom. The gods know a day will come when they will be destroyed. (443)
She continues this gloomy description a few days later:
All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women wh go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism. (446).
This being my only real exposure to these myths at first I honestly thought that Norse Mythology was going to be a dark read of nothing but hopelessness. Obviously, I forgot every Neil Gaiman story I had ever read. Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse Myths can be dark, but each story is told in such a way that the reader is able to see Gaiman’s passion and dedication to these stories and that energy translates into a beautiful story that, even at it’s most grotesque or horrifying, still manages to sound lovely.
But what’s important ultimately is the way in which Neil Gaiman completes his book. Rather than end on Ragnarok, and end with death and destruction, Gaiman demonstrates his lasting importance as a story teller for he leaves these characters not with death, but a circle.
After the final battle in which Odin, Thor, Loki, Heimdall, and all the gods of Asgard are destroyed there is left a small party including the gods Balder and Magni who are looking over the battlefield. Balder spots something:
They go down on their knees in the long grass, the gods like children.
Magni, Thor’s son, is the first to find one of the things in the long grassm and once he finds it, he knows what it is. It is a golden chess piece, the kind the gods played with when the gods still lived. It is a tiny golden caring of Odin, the all father, on his high thrones: the king.
They find more of them. Here is Thor, holding his hammer. There is Heimdall, his horn at his lips. Frigg, Odin’s wife, is the queen.
Balder holds up a little golden statue. “That one looks like you,” Modi tells him.
“It is me,” says Balder. “It is me long ago, before I died, when I was of the Aesir.”
They will find other pieces in the grass, some beautiful, some less so. Here. Half buried in the black soil, are Loki and the monstrous children. There is a frost giant. There is Sutr, his face all aflame.
Soon they will find they have all the pieces they could ever need to make a full chess set. They arrange the pieces into a chess game: on the tabletop chessboard the gods of Asgard face their eternal enemies. The new-minted sunlight glints from the golden chessmen on this perfect afternoon.
Balder will smile, like the sun coming out, and reach down, and he will move his first piece.
And the game begins anew. (280-283).
At the end of this review I think back to the conversation I had with my friend about the future readers who find Gaiman’s book. I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I’ve never gotten rid of my copy of the book, because no matter how many times I’ve tried I’ve yet to find someone who made the Greek myths so accessible. Having a book like Mythology allowed me the chance to actually understand and process the myths that have inspired thousands of years of writers, poets, playwrights, and artists who have shaped our culture. The Norse Myths have often, it seems, fallen upon deaf ears, but in the last few decades I have observed new legions of people discover and invest themselves in the characters and stories of Thor, Loki, Balder, Freya, and the old clever Odin. Gaiman’s book then is a boon to a new generation, and humanity period because it, like Mythology, will expose a generation to these myths which have too often been ignored or written off as hopelessly bleak.
Yes the gods die, and yes their stories are filled with bloody mahem, but the final image reveals, to me at least, a far more final conclusion than the Greek pantheon. Rather than simply live on a mountain and occasionally step down to rape the local girls, the Norse gods are aware of their ultimate end, but as Gaiman reveals it there is no real end. The gods die but are then ultimately remade. Their stories end and then start anew meaning that there is no true end or true beginning.
The stories continue ever afterwards, and there is no better testament to the quality of myth.
All quotes taken from Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman were taken from the W.W. Norton & Company hardback first edition. All quotes from Mythology by Edith Wharton were taken from the Little, Brown & Company Paperback.
For the record Red of Overly Sarcastic Reviews still probably has the best rendition of Norse Mythology after Gaiman and most of what I knew before reading his book came from this video.
While looking up images to include in this article I stumbled upon, what appears to be a sexy pin-up calendar using the Norse Gods, all of them men. I couldn’t find a good place for them in the article, so I included them here. Enjoy…how could you not?
Batman, Benedict Cumberbatch naked sunbathing, Bisexuality, Book Review, Comics, Essay, Evil Bear Man, Gay, Gay Batman Sex Fantasy, Gay Men Comics, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, I Like It Like That, I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire, Justin Hall, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Michael Fassbender, Naked, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Sex, Queer Theory, Sexual Exploration, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Space, The "Fairy", Writing
I’ll admit that I wanted it both ways. And yes, that is a bisexuality pun.
My regular reader will remember, because I won’t shut up about it, that I’m bisexual. My graphic novel memoir I Like Dick, I Like Vagina, I Like Me is still several years away at this point but that’s only because the publishers fail to see my brilliance and so I languish in obscurity. Because I’m married however, and because my wife and I hold to a “No Sharing” policy, exploring my sexuality is often limited to the wonderfully perverted world of Tumblr or else my traditional outlets, books. There’s a problem on this second front because as I said before I want it both ways, and this time it’s not a pun. I have been, since I started reading works about Queer theory, looking for a book which would explore queer male sexuality while also not being ungodly academic.
Surprise surprise this has been difficult.
Most writing about sexuality between men remains rigidly fixed in academic analysis in which case your spending most of your time reading about Freud or Marxian realities inherent to Postmodern identity politics. The other alternative is pornography, and as I stated before, Tumblr exists and seems to do a far better job at it then most erotic male writers I have read. What has always been missing in book after book of male-male erotica is some level of intellectual exercise. Reading about X putting his dick in Y’s mouth and or anus can be fun, but after a while the characters become archetypal nobodies and I wanted to explore sexuality not just scratch an itch. It seemed then that there wasn’t any book out there where I could really get another person’s perspective on their sexuality in a way that was physically and psychological satisfying.
Until Half Price Books. This chain has largely been responsible for whatever emotional development I’ve had with my sexuality because unlike the bookstores in my home town of Tyler, Texas, they carry (unashamedly I might add) an entire section dedicated to gender, sex, and sexuality books. On yet another of my family’s recent pilgrimage to Dallas I headed for the LGBTQ Studies after cleaning up in the dollar section, and my cart filled up within a space of five minutes. Most of my books were studies of queer male sexuality or their history and so when I spotted I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire it was just one of the many books in the pile. It was a few minutes later when I was vetting my pile that I took the time to figure out what I was buying, and after reading just the back cover I knew I had to own this book.
I Like It Like That is not just a collection of testimonials for I’ve read and still own several books like that. Most books about queer men tend either to be outright pornography, or else testimonials about their first time or about their coming out. Books like that are valuable and should be read and studied, but again there was always something missing for me whenever I read them. The way my own mind works I always prefer a work that takes the time to introspect or analyze a condition or situation. The men writing their personal essays are not just describing their sex life, they’re offering assessments and deeper understandings of what sex has meant to them, or how it has changed their life, or shown in what way they have explored or expressed their sexuality. Each essay acts alone and independently from the other, but while reading this book each essay feels like it’s is arranged in reaction to others so at times the book is like reading a group of men talking together about their sexuality. The best part about the collection however is the actual range of sexual expressions that are understood and discussed. One article titles Tom Selleck’s Mustache is one man’s realization that he possesses a fetish for mustache’s in general and therefore kissing men with mustache’s is his favorite erotic act. Another essay, which is in fact a comic strip, titled Amanuensis is a short story about a top who helps two husbands who are both bottoms. Big Black Daddy-Dick, or The Joys of Being Fetishized is really everything the title suggests as a middle aged black man explores the pleasure derived from others who look at him and his dick in a kind of worship. Bathhouse Desires covers the territory of a man visiting a bath house for the first time and feeling lost in lust and desire. Straight Guy Fetish explores a personal essay of a man caught in a one sided relationship with a straight man. And finally Evil Bear Man is a comic strip about a man who works as a fetish escort and has sex with his boyfriend in front of his client dressed up as Batman and Robin.
This last one, for the record, is my favorite only because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading it.
This basic list serves to demonstrate what an odd and wonderful book I Like it Like That really is for the reader interested in exploring libidos. Reading these essays feels so personal because too often the subject of sex is something that is hushed up or hidden. But something powerful happens when a writer opens their secret heart and shows you something. To wit, observe just one passage from the essay The Weight of My Desire:
I like men. And I like that I like men. But more than that, I like that you like them too. […] Sometimes, I think, the only thing greater than my desire for a man is my desire for his hunger. Do you know what I mean? His yearning to touch, or be touched by, another man. His willingness. His lust. His lack of inhibition. The thought that maybe just the book of another man’s smile is enough to get him hard. That perhaps even you might think of me and quiver. That I might hold the power to do that to you. Then I could pull you close, press your forehead into mine, and gaze into your eyes as we fuck. And in your eyes I will see that you like it. I will hear it on your warm breath and in the wet sound of your tongue on my skin. We are not that different, you and I. Your balls ache the way mine do. (207-8).
It’s incredibly painful to me how long it took for me to be able to read the first two sentences and agree with them. For the longest time I hid behind the random imitation of the “fairy” whenever the issue of same-sex intimacy between two men was brought up. Whenever I would discuss Benedict Cumberbatch or Michael Fassbender I would become fay and limp-wristed and raise my voice to sigh dreamily. I still sigh dreamily after Michael Fassbender for the record because…because…Ahem
Ahem. And Jason Moma is…
…well…yeah. The point is though while reading this passage I recognized the similar physical sentiment, “your balls ache the way mine do,” but I also recognized how much I had grown into my own comfort of my sexuality. Being attracted to another man wasn’t funny, or at least wasn’t just funny. It could also be real, and it could also be something to enjoy about myself.
Having said that though humor is important especially when dealing with sex. That’s why Evil Bear Man is without doubt my favorite essay in the collection. The fact that it’s also nothing but comics doesn’t hurt either.
The essay is about a fetish escort who gets paid by one of his clients to dress up as Robin and “break in” to his apartment so his client can pretend to be a villain by the name of Evil Bear Man. Evil Bear Man’s evil scheme? To force Batman and Robin to fuck.
With the help of his boyfriend, who plays the role of Batman, the pair of them eventually play out the fantasy for the client who enjoys a nice, quick wank. The description is enough to make even the most patient and open-minded reader to stop and ask the question: why should I be giving a damn about this. With the incorporation of images this moment sounds like nothing but pornography? But looking back over the essay again I can counter this immediately. Pornography is designed to titillate and arouse the viewer and/or reader of the work. Evil Bear Man works to occasionally arouse the reader, but often Justin Hall, the writer and illustrator who’s work I have appreciated in other books such as Boy Trouble and True Porn, breaks the serious erotic’s to show small moments of humility. His boyfriend complains about the utility belt, on the way over a kid tells him that the Robin outfit looks gay, after the client has paid he hopes the pair of them don’t laugh too hard and of course they do, and at the end the pair of them eventually continue to fuck in the outfits while the onomatopoeias of BLAM, WHAM, and KER-POW pop up between the phrases “Take it.” Anyone who watched the old Adam West Batman like I did surely remembers this and having them subverted, or perverted if you prefer, was funny and charming.
The point is while the reader observes this small tale they explore the fantasy of the client and observe how the escort and his boyfriend eventually perpetuate it, both together, and also to the reader. The individual reading the book I Like It Like That, is most likely someone who will derive some kind of erotic interests from the essays being presented and so there’s an invitation to not only observe the little distractions that can take place during sex (you always wind up placing your weight on their hair for some reason), but also to see if maybe some part of you isn’t also slightly turned on by watching Batman and Robin fuck.
I’ve never had a Batman fetish myself, and I still don’t. However, studies of tumblr have demonstrated that even without my participation this fantasy will continue into the future.
I’ve probably said more than I need to in order to the pique the interest of the reader who’s willing to sink $20 into a nice slim little book of erotic essays, but as always my point in these writings isn’t just to review books. Anyone who wants a quick review should try Goodreads. These essays are about my own exploration and so I prepare for my contester who interrupts me to ask, “Why should I bother picking this book up? I’m not gay, I’ve never had any gay feelings. Why should I waste my time reading about a bunch of gay men having sex?”
To this criticism I really don’t have much of a defense. If you’re a straight guy this book probably doesn’t offer much for you. I’m sorry but that’s where it stands. Though it should be noted that there is a small populace that call themselves straight who engage in same-sex activity, but that’s for a later essay.
Buying the book, and taking the time to write this out I wasn’t really writing for straight men. I wasn’t writing for gay men either. And in fact I wasn’t writing to any men at all, simply myself. As I noted before, my bisexuality is an odd creature because it can only exist in an odd erotic space. Because I don’t want to cheat on my wife, but because I also am unwilling to hide my, what Alison Bechdel calls in her brilliant graphic novel Fun Home “Erotic Truth,” this books is a real gift. It affords me the space to explore my sexual feelings towards other men without violating my marriage or without making me feel guilty.
And, along with helping me find my sexual self, it also affords me a few opportunities to think. Such as the following passage from the essay The Truth of His Nakedness:
It wasn’t about sex. Until it was. But it took me years to realize that nothing had really changed. These days, my nakedness is usually reserved for sexual situations, but that only reinforces the point—the erotic space is the same. The erotic space is the space of unavoidable truth. The erotic space is who I am.
In the end, all there is nakedness: two bodies coming together, sharing their common humanity, their naked vulnerability, the ultimate truth that we are not alone. (184-5).
The essays in I Like it Like That, much like this review/reflection of the entire book, finds its heart in the preceding passage because everything about these essays is about nakedness. “Naked” as a word always suggests vulnerability and by exposing your body, and by extension your desire to another person there is always a risk. Writing these words, and publishing them on the internet for all the world to see is a risk because there will always come those who will reject my desire, and by extension my person in general. I’ve listened to horror stories from some of my friends in the queer community and so I do not write and publish this essay without some reservation. It would be a mistake though to suggest that this was purely about the actual act of sex, because these essays prove sex is not only about the act of inserting something up an anus, into a mouth, or into a vagina. Sex is about a space in which desire is allowed to breath and be and the only way for a person to figure out what they “like” is to find some kind of space in which to work with.
Queer men exist in a wonderful space in which to explore their desire, and I’m happy to contribute to it in any way I can, even if it’s just suggesting a book through this shitty blog.
Looking over these words I’ve reminded myself that the reason I’m able to be and exist is because of the agency and space I possess. Others aren’t nearly so lucky. I’ll probably never have sex with another man, and while there is some sadness in this declaration there is still a happiness in recognizing I have enough “space” to openly acknowledge it’s still something I would like.
And if that “space” should ever include Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch, well, I mean, I wouldn’t complain. Would you?
If I don’t write then I’m not comfortable. I get depressed. I start to whine, at least more than I usually do, and this lack of writing assumes, or manifests as a guilt trip I use against myself, for you see I suffer from intense self-depreciation and I deserve it because….
Because I chose this.
I could be working a job I hate, and living a life that would be unsuited for me, and I would find some way to survive, to pretend to like it, and pretend like all of these years click-click-clicking away at my fucking keyboard didn’t mean or amount to anything. I chose to live life like a goddamn madman, like a fucking loon, like a strange man who doesn’t go to bed with his wife as often as he should, as ever like he should, who doesn’t go out into the world and sacrifice his time to his friends who need him most, or his family that love him want only what’s best for him, and that’s, that’s the sad part.
Being a writer is what I wanted, and I got it, and I hate myself for it but I know now there’s nothing else in the world I want more. I just want to write. I just want to write because that makes sense. It’s the way I make sense of me, and how fucking weird I am, and all of the decisions I made amount to something, or at least make sense.
Mark of a loony is one who sits in a room thinking and talking to himself. Mark of a writer is somebody who writes the conversation down. Mark of a mature writer lets someone else see it. Mark of a real writer let’s everyone see it. Let everyone open up his wounds and see his blood and guts, but before he lets them touch his vulnerable, yellowed beating heart he snaps it shut and shouts “How dare you!” like they’re the crazy ones. But I just opened the door to my heart. I let them in.
I locked myself in my office writing essays and novels and poems about David Foster Wallace and biographies of Emily Dickinson and getting fucked up and wanting a father even though I had one already. Wanting an old man who could teach me what being a regular man is. It’s sacrifice. And haven’t I sacrificed? Haven’t I given up so much just to have a few lousy words on the page? Haven’t I opened up my chest long enough to simply let them see that I am that much of a fuck-up, and that I’m just a normal person who isn’t normal in any way and simply thinks he’s clever but who can write at least one paragraph that isn’t some stupid pointless exploration of emotion and actually contributes something to the collected heaps of cultural grata.
The words are made of bone and they ossify, sinking into the dirt that’s packed with clay and radiation over a hundred years until somebody digs it up and places value on it and sells it to big empty museums or tucks it away in safes deep in the earth. The exact same depth where the words laid in bones of my human spirit rested for a million years.
If I hadn’t interrupted my review of an essay by David Foster Wallace, I wouldn’t have written this, and I don’t think I would have written anything. I would have hated myself so much.
I do honestly love what I’ve written here, even if it’s shit. Because shit on the page is better than shit in the veins. I’m tired. I’ll lay the bones in the earth to rest and snuggle with my dogs and my wife and hope I’m not plagued by lines of dialogue that would have been the stuff of great novels and shallow conversations at coffee shops.
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My little sister and I have this joke.
I’ll send her a text that usually has a long opening, and after that I will simply have to show you how it goes. I’ll think about the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, and the man who helped establish the Teddy Bear into the cultural consciousness. There’s actually a rather fascinating story behind that but I’ll have to put it in later. Because my little sister is a historian, and in fact because several of my good friends are historians, I usually try to learn a little history so that I have something to talk to them about; the fact that Roosevelt is one of her favorite Presidents is also a way for us to bond as siblings. But anyway I think about his administration and what he accomplished or failed at and then I send her a text that could read, “Hey! Who has two thumbs, and pushed for legislation that would eventually lead to the Clean Food Act thus ensuring the health of the American consumer of meat products and ignoring the larger abuse of labor issues affecting numerous amounts of immigrant peoples working in the meat factories of Chicago?” After this I will usually send a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt smiling a wide toothy grin, and then finally send one last text that reads, “THIS GUY!!!”
Obviously the pair of us are nerds to the level of Super Nintendo Boss Battles, but we have fun and that’s what counts.
This personal joke, which as I write it out loud is in fact no longer personal, reveals part of the reason why I picked up the heavy brick that is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, and why I bothered to finish it. Now to be honest I probably would have gotten around to it anyway because the book received a Pulitzer Prize not long after it was published, and having read the book it’s safe to admit that it certainly earned it. Part of the way I’ve found the books is that I have often simply Google searched “Pulitzer Prize winning books,” or “Nobel Prize winning books,” and making notes of the names and authors on these lists I usually go hunting to my local bookstore to find these books that somebody somewhere felt should receive an award. On of the one hand I suspect this impulse is some ego-driven mania to appear educated and sophisticated, but if I can give myself some credit here I also simply like to read great books. And if a book receives a Pulitzer Prize it’s either because it’s brilliant, or else because some author knew where the judge that year went to visit his mistress…or gay lover…or tranfestite prostitute…the point is these lists have pointed me towards some great books.
The Bully Pulpit was at first an opportunity to read and learn about Theodore Roosevelt, but after starting the book twice, putting it down for six months, and starting it up again to have something to read between the grueling snippets of Infinite Jest, I began to focus less and less time on the Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and more time on the staff of McClure’s magazine.
To my reader who has no idea what I’m talking about let me give a brief synopsis. The Bully Pulpit is a biography, however to be more exact it is a chronicle of the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and a man by the name of S.S. McClure who began a magazine, sometimes periodical if you prefer a fancy-pants term with your tea and pretentiousness, called McClure’s which was in vein of contemporary magazines like The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Ms., and Harpers. However rather than simply create an internal culture McClure’s in its time became a Journalistic hub that, while it published the works of great literary figures, impacted the United States’ political landscape in ways that really couldn’t be dreamed of in today’s media environment.
This isn’t just mawkishness on my part, it’s just a legitimate observation. I wrote in a previous article about three contemporary pieces of journalism that noted the current fate of newspapers and in one of them, Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? by David Simon the reader gets an insiders impression of what most casual viewers already know:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simons article can be gloomy, assuming you give a rat’s ass about newspapers, but I quote it here to note that while newspapers today are largely viewed as anachronisms even a century ago their social functions came under fire. The Bully Pulpit follows the Presidency of Taft and Roosevelt the latter of whom accidently created the bias of newspapers as “muckrakers,” and while I was reading one reporter continually held my attention. Sam McClure, the founder of McClure’s magazine was an ambitious man who acquired a top-notch staff and was continually coming up with idea for news stories and themes to explore. One of his writers, a woman by the name of Ida Tarbell proved herself rather quickly writing in-depth articles about Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte. McClure, eager to pursue a new topic, decided to focus his attention on Standard Oil, a large trust (today we might call it a monopoly though it’s not necessarily the same thing) operated by John D. Rockefeller which was one of, if not the, largest company in the United States at that time.
Goodwin explains McClure’s motivation for the piece and then offers an insight into Tarbell’s motivation:
The story of the world’s wealthiest man would beguile the public into the more complicated exposition of his corporation and the hitherto esoteric question of the trusts. No one, McClure perceived, was better situated to engage that subject than Ida Tarbell, who “had lived for years in the heart of the oil region”
Tarbell initially hesitated, though no subject so captured her imagination. As a child, she had witnessed the anguish the “big trust” had caused in its early development, and “the unfairness of the situation” had troubled her deeply. […] If she hoped to write a work of history rather than a propaganda, she would now have to “comprehend the point of view of the other side.” She recognized the difficulties, even hazards, this undertaking would present, for Standard Oil officials were notoriously close-mouthed. Even in her hometown she found that men and women were unwilling to talk, featuring “the all-seeing eye and the all-powerful reach of the ruler of the oil industry” […] Her own father tried to dissuade her “Don’t do it, Ida,” he admonished; “they will ruin the magazine.” Finally, she was tantalized by “the audacity of the thing”—just as when McClure had challenged her to complete the first installment of Napoleon’s life in one month’s time. (330).
I may have given off the wrong impression as I opened this article, for an avid fan of Theodore Roosevelt may be wondering when I’ll get past Miss Tarbell’s Oil reporting’s and get to the meat of the man’s presidency. I will have to disappoint this reader for my effort from the start was to explore the idea of the history of reporting and observe what is the legacy of the reporter in the United States. If you hate me and think I should jump in a dry pit of farts…I think you might have a possible career in politics or else in poetry.
I believe in a free working press and the power it has to influence the citizenry of a republic. This isn’t just flag waving, chest beating, U-S-A chanting patriotism on my part, but simply a real understanding that in order for people to make informed choices about their life they need to actually be informed, so a newspaper’s job becomes absolutely essential when picking someone to vote for. The Bully Pulpit as a history book is not just a biography of Taft, Roosevelt, and Sam McClure, it’s a study on the issue of power and how those who have attained have used it, attempted to hold onto it, and then ultimately lost it. Both Roosevelt and Taft ultimately lost their executive authority to Woodrow Wilson, and McClures plummeted after Sam McClure’s personal erratic behavior chased away most of his reporters including Ida Tarbell. The idea of a bully pulpit is that it is an opportunity to exert influence and ultimately power is fleeting in a healthy democracy because power and influence can only last so long.
To put it in a way most people would recognize I’ll go with a brilliant quote from the movie Ted:
Narrator: No matter how big a splash you make in this world whether you’re Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit.
For Tarbell her prominence came to be after publishing her six part investigation into the behavior of Standard Oil, listing and analyzing its multifaceted series of abuses upon the communities it supposedly served and worked alongside. Goodwin succeeds in presenting Tarbell as a woman of ambition, and reading the passages dedicated to Tarbell’s investigation one almost feels a romantic connection to All the President’s men.
Goodwin describes Tarbell’s beginning:
For Ida Tarbell, McClure’s directive to approach a narrative history of Standard Oil proved that “one hundredth idea”—a true stroke of genius. Her investigations were fortuitously timed. In an era of heightened, yet unfocused, public concern over increasing corporate consolidation, the growth of the first great industrial monopoly provided a dramati blueprint for comprehending how “a particular industry passes from the control of the man to that of the few.” (333).
This quote anticipates my contester who interrupts to ask the question, “why should I read a dense 700 page book just because there’s a few snippets about the Oil Trusts during the 1800s. We’re living in the new Information age and those problems are no longer applicable, so why should I give a shit?”
This is a fair question and worth considering. My review here only covers one chapter of the book because if I tried to write about everything this essay could be in the range of 20,000 words or more and nobody on the internet is going to read that (not that they do now anyway). But the answer to my contester is contained several pages on as Goodwin notes Tarbell’s conclusion after analyzing the business practices of Rockefeller’s industry:
Most important, Rockefeller now had the power to control prices. Rather than use this domination and the efficiencies of scale to reduce costs, Standard Oil sought to maximize profits. Wherever competition was extinguished, Tarbell maintained, the consumer paid more. Under investigative duress Stabdard would temporarily reduee prices, only to jack them up in the same area once the scrutiny ceased. “Humman experience long ago taught us,” [Tarbell] warned, “that if we allow a man or a group of men autocratic powers in government or church, they use that power to oppress and defraud the public.” (338).
I’ll admit part of this essay is largely because of President Trump. Yes he is the President and yes typing that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I find myself hating Facebook mostly because I’m thinking about it all the damn time, which can be frustrating especially because I’m reading The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende right now and it’s frustrating not being able to focus on all the sensual women while you’re busy thinking about what [X] said about the fascists at the women’s march on Washington, or how your friend [Y] is starting the #NotMYPresident which is just as galling. And before the reader thinks this is going to be an Anti-Trump piece I promise you that it isn’t, not entirely. The most troublesome aspect of the 2016 election is not just the results which are already raising problems about women’s health, climate change, and LGBTQ rights, it’s the fact there is now a power structure which is working to reduce the ethos of the press and leave the citizens of a democracy doubtful about whether or not they can trust the news they’re reading.
When the press, who’s job it is to monitor power, is labeled opposition and leaders paint themselves as the font of all real truth and fact that is the origin of totalitarianism and dictatorship.
To put it simpler, you need a free oppositional press to call out a leader’s bullshit.
A Bully Pulpit, a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt, is a platform from which one can push or advocate an agenda. It’s this idea that Goodwin writes about and demonstrates the humanity of these historical figures, and it’s this idea that’s been more and more present in my mind lately. Every person assumes some kind of political position, and even those who profess to have no politics are in fact arguing their own brand of politics. Each person then approaches government with their own philosophy concerning how power should work and operate, and the press exists along this power structure in order to ensure that no leader is not held accountable for their actions.
Through her reporting Ida Tarbell used the Bully Pulpit she had to report that Rockefeller’s businesses were hurting Americans and benefitting only a small handful of people. And such determination is still relevant to this day. Looking at the dedication of her research is enough to see this. Goodwin writes:
Such vigorous inquiry soon revealed that critical memos and reports had vanished from the record. Informed that Standard had destroyed them, Tarbell refused to give up, convinced that if a document had been printed, it would eventually “turn up.” Usually she was right. In the archives of the New York Public Library, she found the sole remaining report of an obscure thirty-year-old investigation; all the other copies had curiously disappeared. […] “Her sources of information,” McClure proudly noted, “were open to any student who had the industry and patience to study them.” (333).
I hoped that when I wrote this I would be able to find a more poetic statement than simply re-stating that “Journalists matter,” but looking at those words in this new era I find myself in that statement assumes its own weight. The fact that I even have to write it speaks volumes. Journalism is corrupted by capitalist interest and bias, and in many ways journalists have always been susceptible to this impulse. But at the same time that makes the job of individual citizens more important than ever, and also the reason why a book like the Bully Pulpit such an important read.
Goodwin chronicles two presidents and a handful of reporters who managed through their own efforts to capture a Bully Pulpit and use it in ways that, often, tried to benefit to citizenry of the United States. These people were not without fault, and in the end many saw some of their achievements quashed or undone, but looking at Ida Tarbell alone there is a real sense about the relevance of journalism.
Power isn’t going anywhere, and when corrupt people acquire their own Bully Pulpits it’s more important than ever to make sure journalists have their own to keep the bullshit from passing by unnoticed.
So, as my sister explains it, Theodore Roosevelt actually hated the name “Teddy” in public because it was actually a private name given to him by his sisters after he “saved” a bear, when in fact all he did was refuse to shoot it.
All quotes from The Bully Pulpit were taken from the Simon & Shuster First Edition Hardback. All quotes from Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? was taken from the article published in the web archives of The Washington Post. If you would like to read Simon’s article for yourself you can by following the link posted below:
"Lost Generation", A Moveable Feast, biography, Book Review, Eraserhead, Ernest Hemingway, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Garden of Eden, Gertrude Stein, Gore Vidal, James Joyce, Kevin Birmingham, Leley M.M. Blume, Literature, masculinity, memoir, Novel, Palimpsest, Paris, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, The "Lost" Generation, The Great Gatsby, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, World War I, Writers, Writing
So, what I told you was true… from a certain point of view.
–Obi-Wan, Return of the Jedi
Memoirs can be damned frustrating, mostly because they avoid outright classification. There’s some impulse to distrust the memoir, because it’s not objective like the biography, likewise there is even more distrust than the kind one saves for autobiographies, for even though these books are largely one sided affairs there is still some level of objective aesthetic goals. This is all just a fancy-pants way of saying that you can’t trust memoirs completely because the writers writing them are remembering impressions and feelings from events in their life rather than trying to write out a purely factual narrative of what was going on in their lives.
A good example of this is when Gore Vidal in an interview on Charlie Rose once remarked on his own memoir Palimpsest, which for the record is a term for a manuscript which original writing has been effaced or scrubbed out for later and newer writing leaving only traces of the original, that his book wasn’t an autobiography because of the way memory works. He gives the example that when you break your leg when you’re younger and look back on the experience at a later age you don’t remember the actual trauma, you just remember your earliest remembering of the trauma and so the writing becomes like a palimpsest stacking upon itself. This idea is intriguing when considering human memory, and I’m tempted to think of the explanation for the foundation of reality where all of existence is really just a disk resting on the back of a turtle which is standing on another turtle’s back till it’s “turtles all the way down,” but that would be getting rather poetic and cosmological and since my focus in this essay is Ernest Hemingway, poetics really isn’t all that necessary.
In fact I’m sure Hemingway would say “Bull to that” and tell me to shoot straighter.
I tried once to read A Moveable Feast when I was still in my Hemingway phase. It was a phase I think every young man who wants to become a writer goes through at some point, because Hemingway commands such respect, or disrespect, and the man has an aura of firm masculinity that I think beckons the young men who are trying to figure out who they want to be as men. You’re told by teachers and Hemingway afficiando’s, and your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving, that Hemingway was a man’s-man, and one of the last “great writers.” For the record I have yet to read anything that gives the model of this species known as “great writers” and have come to the conclusion that they’re like blue whales or the movie Eraserhead. You know it when you see it.
When I was younger I was told that Hemingway was great and so I read him thinking that if I read enough of his “great” prose then maybe I would become great.
Well, I read it. I read The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a few of the Nick Stories, the Garden of Eden, and started For Whom the Bell Tolls. And here I am. Greatness isn’t exactly what happened. Really I’m just a guy who read Hemingway when he could have been talking to girls. Eventually Hemingway’s luster faded and I moved to Stephen King who promised me swear words, sex, monsters, and average everyday people encountering the supernatural.
A Moveable Feast has always beckoned though and so when I had the chance between starting my first teaching job and graduating with my masters I sat down and read about his days in Paris. The memoir is in fact just a small moment of Hemingway’s life, and was written long after he had moved from Paris and had become the writer he became. In 1956 Hemingway was bouncing between several manuscripts and during that time of creative shoots and ladders he managed to retrieve two chests he had had stored in the basement of Hotel Ritz Paris. Both chests contained notebooks which themselves contained notes about the period of 1928 when Hemingway was a young man, newly married (to his first wife, let’s be clear), and working on the manuscript that would become his first novel The Sun Also Rises. During this time Hemingway encountered people who would, in their own right, alter the world through their writing and that isn’t poetics on my part. Again the little Hemingway on my shoulder is jabbing me with his pitchfork whenever I try to be pretty in my writing. In the book Hemingway meets and comes to develop friendships with Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Silvia Beach and Adreienne Monier, and two little unknown people called Francis Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The little Hemingway poked me again for that last one.
I came to the conclusion, while reading it, that A Moveable Feast was the most enjoyable Hemingway book that I had ever read, but that pleasure came after years away from the man. Hemingway, and it’s easy to forget this because of the miasma of chauvinism that surrounds his work, is a damn fine writer and can create beautiful moments that resonate because of their simple quality. A Moveable Feast isn’t just a long series of musings about the power of creativity, it’s about just meeting the odd and wonderful people who were making the art that helped shape the creative literary stage of the 20th Century.
Part of that company were two women who owned a small bookshop called Shakespeare and Company, and while they themselves did not achieve literary greatness, they at least helped the ones who would. Early in the book Hemingway discusses, visiting the bookshop:
I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit anytime I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished. (35)
For the record “she” is Sylvia Beach, the woman who would eventually publish James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Hemingway continues this initial encounter with a bit of dialogue which only further demonstrates this woman’s selflessness
“You won’t be back very soon if you read all that,” Sylvia said.
“I’ll be back to Pay,” I said. “I have some money in thee flat.”
“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You pay whenever it’s convenient.”
“When does Joyce come in?”
“If he comes in, it’s usually very late in the afternoon,” she said. “Haven’t you ever seen him?”
“We’ve seen him at Michaud’s eating with his family,” I said. “But it’s not polite to look at people when they are eating, and Michaud’s is expensive.” (36)
At the start this exchange does not seem terribly important, but I would argue that in fact that it is. The simplicity of the exchange reveals what kind of life Hemingway was living in Paris at the time, and the casual way he asks about Joyce while remarking about the proprieties of eating out only furthers this sensation. I’ve written before about the aura that surrounds authors and writers in culture, and so when A Moveable Feast tries to deconstruct that aura, showing the writers and artists of the day as a group of struggling, hungry people it goes a long way in deconstructing that myth. There is I think a little romanticism going on in this book, and probably in this exchange, but reading it I got the sense of Hemingway as a young man who’s looking forward and looking to a life that could be his.
Paris becomes a creative landscape where a great number of people are trying to build the foundations of a great literary career. This especially becomes apparent when Hemingway briefly discusses his relationship with Ezra Pound:
Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested. He helped poets, painters, sculptors, and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble. He worried about everyone and in time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet. (110)
Pound is the poet who has suffered in recent times because his Anti-Semitism has been made more and more apparent. You’ll note that I’m only furthering this problem by making that my first point about the man. As always when dealing with great artists who have shitty-personal opinions (whether it be John Wayne’s Racism or Christopher Hitchens’s chauvinism) I’ll always defend the art first. If I can at least make one defense for the man, Hemingway certainly demonstrates that Pound was a man who cared deeply for art and artists. I suspect every creative community has a figure like this, the successful father-mother artist who watches out for the aspiring younger crowd desperate to achieve some kind of success. I’ve experienced some element of this character when I was part of a creative writing class, and I understand the importance of having such a person near you. While on one level there is a competition to “out-art” the other person at the same time there is a parental dynamic where you also don’t want to disappoint them.
Pound was not the only guardian and mentor Hemingway had in Paris for Gertrude Stein, a novelist and art collector, helped him, as well as the other writers of his generation, establish their creative locus. Early in the book Hemingway visits Stein in her house and she tells him plainly:
“That’s what you are. That what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death….” (29)
Now before I get to the long lasting social significance of that line I should note that Hemingway later explains part of that problem when he addresses the fact that he wasn’t eating much at the time. He writes,
When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink. (101)
On another side note this partially explains the sensation of reading Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises because the book is largely nothing but people drinking, eating, fishing, eating, drinking, fishing, and eating some more. For that reason alone A Moveable Feast Goes a long way in validating much of Hemingway’s work, or at least his early books when that hunger was both literal and metaphorical.
But if I can return to Stein’s comments it’s worth noting how crucial that line was for generations of scholars and general fans of the ex-patriot American writers. Stein’s dismissal can at first appear to be nothing more than the typical generational disagreements which form between people. The Baby-Boomers complain about Millennials lack of [X] while Millennials complain about Baby Boomers wrecking the [Y] and the passive aggressive shit-fit continues. Moving past this obviousness however Hemingway I think isn’t just recording this moment to make Stein look like a grumpy woman who sees her artistic generational influence passing on, rather, at this moment, Stein is helping Hemingway as best she can.
The phrase “Lost Generation” came about largely because Hemingway used it as an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises, and the term stuck as generations of historians and literary theorists looked at the writing and general atmosphere of the time and realized that it worked as a functional classification. That’s all just a fancy-pants way of saying that World War I fucked Hemingway’s generation hard and left them wondering what anything, or everything, really meant.
It was in this atmosphere that Hemingway would meet one of the most important writers of his age: F. Scott Fitzgerald. And reading Hemingway describe the man after a while I came to the conclusion that there was no creature so pathetic as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I had taken his pulse, which was seventy-two, and had felt his forehead, which was cool. I had listened to his chest and had him breathe deeply, and his chest sounded alright.
“Look Scott,” I said. “You’re perfectly O.K. If you want to do the best thing to keep from catching cold, just stay in bed and I’ll order us each a lemonade and a whiskey and you take an aspirin with yours and you’ll feel fine and won’t even get a cold in your head.”
“Those old wives’ remedies,” Scott said.
“You haven’t any temperature. How the hell are you going to have congestion of the lungs without a temperature?”
“Don’t swear at me,” Scott said. “How do you know I haven’t a temperature?”
“Your pulse is normal and you haven’t any fever to the touch.”
“To the touch,” Scott said bitterly. “If you’re a real friend get me a thermometer.”
“I’m in my pajamas.”
Send for one.” (165).
I deliberated on this quote before using it because some part of me wanted to be fair to Scott Fitzgerald, especially since several long chapters are dedicated to Hemingway describing their friendship and the various events these men experienced alongside one another. But honestly this is perhaps the best quote upon reflection because, as Hemingway describes the man, Fitzgerald becomes a whiney little tool who doesn’t appreciate his friends or else his own talents. This, of course, is everything. Hemingway beat Fitzgerald out in the end, not only by living longer, but also eventually in terms of critical recognition. The Great Gatsby was largely ignored during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, while Hemingway’s work achieved great notoriety eventually earning him a Nobel Prize. Because of this Hemingway gets to write the record of their relationship and so repeatedly during A Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald appears to be nothing more than sickly whiner who doesn’t appreciate the gift he has.
While I’m sure some would take this as an opportunity to explore Hemingway’s possible fear of failure, I prefer focusing on the work as an exploration of writing. Hemingway is writing a book about the people he met in Paris and how those people helped shape those experiences into the writing that would bring him tremendous success.
As a book A Moveable Feast isn’t just Hemingway taking the opportunity to re-write who was and wasn’t nice to him in Paris, instead it’s akin to Gore Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest where Hemingway is reliving the memory of memories while figuring out how he has become the writer he is. And that to me is the far more important relevance of reading this document. Even if the reader does not like Hemingway they cannot, and should not, underestimate the man’s influence upon prose and literature.
I read A Moveable Feast because at one point I went through a Hemingway Phase and wanted to see if Hemingway still had the aura that he originally had for me. While it wasn’t the same, I still felt, while reading, that I was observing an older writer writing his past and observing his own self in relation to others.
And so another small quote about Fitzgerald is necessary. Before Fitzgerald succumbs to his psychosomatic illness he is driving with Hemingway:
I was enthusiastic about the trip. I would have the company of an older and successful writer, and in the time we would have to talk in the car I would certainly learn much that it would be useful to know. It is strange now to remember thinking of Scott as an older writer, but at the time, since I had not yet read The Great Gatsby, I thought of him as a much older writer. (153).
The shift that takes place is everything. A Moveable Feast is written in small exchanges between people, and as the reader observes these people they also observe Hemingway observing himself. This style of writing is what good memoirs, great memoirs, should do. Rather than cold autobiography, which is almost always so much about “settling the score,” the memoir allows a writer a little more breathing room to just reflect on a few experiences and try to understand what they have come to mean to them personally. When Hemingway pauses to reflect on the fact that he once looked up to Scott Fitzgerald, a man he would eventually come to, not despise, but pity at least, there’s a great observable and human growth.
In my own life I’ve seen men and women who I looked up to as if they were gods, but as I’ve grown and come to know them better they’ve since fallen from the pedestal. This is sometimes a tragedy (often in the case of father figures), but often it’s simply part of growing older and recognizing that people are people and trying to paint them as anything else is silly and asanine.
The final impression then I guess is that reading A Moveable Feast is a great book because it affords the reader more than a chance to see Hemingway as a young writer who was about to publish A Sun Also Rises and begin an exceptional literary career, it’s the opportunity to see a great author as a young human being who was still learning, observing, and figuring out what life was. Even if the reader is not a fan of Hemingway’s creative work I do believe they would find a satisfaction in reading his memoir because it might afford them the chance to wonder about their own life, and question some of the experiences they’ve had or known. Life is about such small moments, when we allow ourselves to look back and realize so-and-so really was an asshole rather than a brilliant genius, and whats-her-name could have been great if she had just dumped so-and-so, and my god F. Scott Fitzgerald was such a d-bag and a whiner and I’m not just saying that because he stole my girlfriend.
He did but that’s not the point.
The point is A Moveable Feast is a great work of art, and a wonderful reminder of the miracle of growth. Time makes fools of those people we were and used to be, but in those recollections of people there’s still a burning truth of your own humanity. Those memories of memories are worth keeping, if only for the chance to figure out where you’ve come from and what was possible.
I found the Gore Vidal/Charlie Rose interview, which is actually a memorium for the life and work of Gore Vidal. You can find the man’s remarks about memoirs at about 7 minutes 30 seconds into the actual video, or about that range.
I originally intended to provide a few quotes from these books, because they deal with Paris during the time when Hemingway was writing, but I didn’t get around to them. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kenneth Birmingham is wonderful and Hemingway appears quite often throughout the work (he smuggled copies of Ulysses into America). Another great book which was just released is Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M.M. Blume.
I mention these books because, as I noted several times throughout the essay, Hemingway is writing from his own perspective and as he writes in the Preface of A Moveable Feast:
For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more. (ix).
As such, it might be a good idea to get an outsider’s opinion if you’re looking for a more objective view of the writer’s community in Paris during the 1920s.
My good friend who often writes to me and sends me bits of his poetry was in a rather sour mood several months back, and during this malaise of spirit he felt a burst of creativity that manifested in a rather pathetic Facebook post. He decided to write it down and send it to me, hopeful that I would publish his work. Given the fact no one else will publish it, and because I’m generally in favor of people having some kind of outlet, and because no one I know ever seriously considers my offer to publish their work on this site, I decided to give my friend’s work a chance. Given the fact that I am also trying to find a publisher for my work, I can sympathize. So here it is, my friend’s brief reflective poem on a prophecy concerning the fate of an unfortunate writer.
–Joshua Jammer Smith
Here I am. Ink on my fingertips. Alkaline has chalked crystals on the inside of my stomach. I sat on the corner of Paluxy and Main, holding my book in my hands. Holding it out to any that would pass me by. As my friends and gods passed me by, laughing in their revelry’s they looked to me for a moment. Light reflected on their tortoise shell glasses. Neglected the empty frames.
–Please, I know it’s-.
–Jesus man what happened to you?
My critic, who was once my best friend, passed me by, and I fell back upon the concrete that held me. Begrudgingly it supported my imploding form. Pages fell from my hands. Leaves of empty grass fell through my fingertips. Spirit left. Alkaline bit at me more.
And my pages and words scattered back into the stardust of mediocrity. Not even the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg would bear my failure, and I passed this earth wanting for just—.
9/9/2016, 11:30 p.m.
My friend is a bit of a drama queen, so please forgive his mawkishness.
For the record my friend has, since writing this dreary poem, published two works, so, yeah, he needs to lighten up.
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Two men of little consequence who happened to be friends met at the mall. They hadn’t seen each other for some time. One friend looked at the other and said, “Hey Man(1).” The other friend, overcome with the complexity of his introduction shrugged and they walked off in different directions. After considering it, the second friend’s thought about his friend’s statement, and the next day went out and bought Infinite Jest at Barnes & Noble.
I’m positive that Infinite Jest is about something.
When I asked one of my previous professors, who’s also become a friend in the last few years, if she had read it she said yes. When I asked her what it was about her response began with “uhhhhh…well, shit.” It took a moment but the most she could give me was: “It’s about drugs and tennis and that’s about all I can give you.”
Having read and completed the book for sure it’s about drugs, but it must also be about counter-culture, but what counter-culture exists seems to be really anti-culture because the individuals in third camp seem borderline psychotic, and of course it has to be about drugs, but it could also be about entertainment because that seems to wrap everything together, the title of the book is a film made by one of the character’s great uncle who was supposedly a film auteur, and the endnotes in the back of the book seem terribly distracting from the novel that actually seems to be about something.
There are names of magazines, periodicals, newspapers, and accredited authors all over and inside the introductory pages of Infinite Jest for publicity purposes and they wouldn’t put those names there if they didn’t mean something. Names in or on books are supposed to give a book street cred to the common reader, and if someone from The New York Times slaps their name on a novel that must mean it’s good. If Playboy’s on or in the book then maybe not so much, and if I see the name of authors who are terrible, or else people who I’m told are terrible, or people I’ve never heard of, then maybe not so much. Infinite Jest is covered with names of people and papers, and so it must be important, but after 200 pages I found myself terribly frustrated because I was still struggling to figure out what the damn book was actually about.
So in order to figure out this 1000-page monster I hopped into another David Foster Wallace book which wasn’t a David Foster Wallace book actually but which is often advertised alongside David Foster Wallace books. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is an odd and beautiful book that is fact just one long interview that reads more like eavesdropping. David Lipsky was sent to spend the last few days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest to write a piece about Wallace who was becoming more and more recognized for his work. Lipsky himself was a published author, and reading the book was an experience I had never felt before. I felt as if I was listening to two people I had known, or wished I had known my entire life. Throughout the book Lipksy asks Wallace about his feelings of Infinite Jest, and looking back over the scores of passages I’ve underlined or marked with circles or stars there was one admission by Wallace that seemed important:
I think probably, what I’ve noticed at readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and most moved by it are young men. Which I guess I can understand—I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book, about loneliness. And I remember college, a lot of even the experimental stuff I was excited by, I was excited by because I found reproduced in the book certain feelings, or ways of thinking or perceptions that I had had, and the relief of knowing that I wasn’t the only one, you know? (273).
Looking back upon an experience can be illuminating, I just want to avoid the awful platitude that “hindsight is always 20/20” because it makes me think of a Megadeth song. Reflecting on the sensation of reading Infinite Jest I agree that the book is largely, almost absolutely male in its design and presentation. This is not a weakness just a reader’s, and writer’s supported, observation. Neil Gaiman has a marvelous essay entitled [THE GENDER OF BOOKS] in which he explores this, but the simplest explanation is that certain creative works will have appeal to particular genders over others because of the way the artists constructs the text. But that identification is the most revealing because as I’ve grown older I’ve become more and more accepting, or perhaps more condemning, or my former self and what that young man was all about. He was rather isolated, believed himself to be creative, he didn’t care for too many people, the only real people in his life outside his family were in books he either read or was writing.
This is doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what Infinite Jest as a novel is about however, so I should admit some hesitation to move forward.
I’ll admit I’m terrified to write this this “review,” it’s really more of a reflection, because I’m positive there is somebody on the internet who knows everything about Wallace, or else wears thick glasses and pretends to know everything about Wallace, and who will try and contact me and inform me that he needs to either explain it to me, or else that I’m an idiot and should feel bad. Still Infinite Jest is interesting to me because I didn’t hear about it through friends, family, The Daily Show, Family Guy, or even by stumbling across it in a book fair or hidden chest in the Negative Zone: Section 3-z. I discovered the book through Charlie Rose.
Before I went to work I would eat apples and peanut butter and I would watch an interview on Charlie Rose with some famous celebrity and one day it was with David Foster Wallace. He was promiting A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll never do again and at one point the discussion turned to Infinite Jest and just as quickly it turned to David Lynch. That was it. The title was there in my brain and in that little pocket it was allowed to fester until my intellectual curiosity finally compelled me.
On June 9th 2016 I found the book at Barnes & Noble, bought it, and began reading it. On October 14th at 11:19 PM I finished it. And when I finished Infinite Jest I felt a sensation I had not felt in ages: a tremendous sense of presence in the moment, and perhaps here I’m able to make a real argument for taking the time to read a book like Infinite Jest.
The way I, or any reader, finishes any experimental novel or any 1000 page novel, is through sheer insanity. You have to want it above the pleasure that would come from reading a genre’d novel.
Reading Infinite Jest, much like reading Ulysses or Don Quixote, is like swimming next to a blue whale.
I don’t mean a porpoise at sea World or a beluga whale, or even a humpback, it has to be a massive Blue whale for that animal dwarfs all beings on this earth until we discover those space whales from Dr. Who. A Blue whale is a sublime animal because it possesses such frightening power of being that humans will never obtain, yet still we’re mystified. The reader who approaches the whale will approach a moving animal as well, and so the power is magnified for they are forced to encounter a living breathing being that is oblivious or apathetic to its existence. They will pass the whale, but in fact they will only float in one space, wondering how close the boat still is that will lift them up from the ocean once this experience is done. The whale will approach and the human floating, protected only with their scuba gear and oxygen tank will then feel the whale swimming by them, and while it passes they will start at the tip of its nose and from there it will feel the water pressure change, and their sensations are beyond the rest of us for they will feel nothing and see nothing and know nothing in that observation but the whale. It will take what seems like an eternity for the whale to pass, and while the reader is watching it they will observe only a few details, and that will fuck with them more than anything because they will regret later that they did not observe anything but they couldn’t possibly compartmentalize every last detail of the gargantuan beast. They’ll remember a few details and sensations of the whale as it passed them, and of course they’ll never forget the tremendous sense of accomplishment and closure once it’s tail has passed pushing them further away into the water while it’s seemingly infinite body somehow passes into the haze of empty infinity into the deeper ocean and the blue swallows up every last bit of the creature and the reader finds themselves alone in a great empty space. That they have seen and, in a way, touched this creature that only a handful of people in the world will actually ever even see outside of a Google Image search is humbling. They’ll have a few details that stand out to them, and a few sensations, but trying to describe every last detail of the whale is impossible because it was an experience unlike anything but unto itself.
That is the idealization of the 1000 page novel, but also the reality.
That’s why I can only offer one or two quotes from the massive book because my sensation of the whale will completely different than anyone else’s.
In the research done for this article I found one quote that was regularly repeated by bloggers, writers, and reviewers of the book. The protagonist Hal Incandenza is speaking with someone about the game of tennis, and they discuss the groove of the game, the kind of dance that certain atheletes have been known to enter as they perform miracles,
“But you never know when the magic will descend on you. You never know when the grooves will open up. And once the magic descends you don’t want to change even the smallest detail. You don’t know what concordance of factors and variables yields that calibrated can’t miss feeling, and you don’t want to soil the magic by trying to figure it out, but you don’t want to change your grip, your stick, your side of the court, your angle of incidence to the sun. Your heart’s in your throat every time you change sides of the court.’ (243).
Wallace actually played tennis while he was a live, and one of the essays in the collection A Suppoedly Fun Thing I’ll never Do Again is an actual article about the Tennis player Michael Joyce. Tennis is part of the aesthetic of Infinite Jest and long passages are dedicated to games or practice or following the players. What I personally remember of tennis is always being the last or second to last player to play because I sucked at it. That’s partly the reason why when I read this quote I didn’t think about Tennis at all, but in fact I thought about a good swing of creativity. There are times while writing when the exact right words come onto the page and you’re able to concoct your fiction or essay in just the right way so that the inspiration which compelled you to the word processor in the first place is actually transcribed, translated, and transplanted onto the page in a kind of glory. Every writer has had one of these moments, and when they are writing on a day like this it really does feell like magic, and in those moments there is an intense desire to shut out the world completely because the world will distract with commercials, or social obligations, or house hold chores. And later when youre reflecting on the groove that you rode while writing you won’t want to understand where that feeling came from because that would ruin it. It would take the magic out of the moment, or at least the illusion of magic.
A second quote occurs much later in the novel when Hal is relating about some events in his family history and he stumbles upon an observation of humanity:
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or Philately –the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games to needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of plunging into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was king, in a way. (900).
I’ve remarked in several essays how absurd human existence is, and while many would protest and claim that life is rich with meaning, Hal’s observation seems terribly true. It might just be because I’ve begun teaching and found almost immediately that I don’t have the stomach for it, but looking at some of my fellow Millennials, and those that came before me I see the trend of those who are willing to dedicate what little existence they have to an idea, cause, organization, or path. Their life goals while largely humble, are a dedication. And before I put myself above others I myself follow this “black miracle.” My life is about writing and encouraging others to write. Looking over my life, and the decisions I have made now and for my future there is not component in which writing does not play some crucial element, and so for my own part I recognize that in what short amount of time I have I’ve already selected my “black miracle” which, as I write it out, sounds like a perfect title for a novel.
There’’s one more quote worth mentioning because it’s too important to miss:
Human beings came and went. (972)
It’s simple, and the reader may immediately object “so what?” but looking at the page number they need to remember that the novel is 981 pages long with around 80 pages of endnotes that themselves can be anywhere from a single word to thirty pages long. By the time the reader encounters this small quote in the heavy meat of the body of the novel it’s deceptively simple. Infinite Jest follows the life of Hal Incandenza as he progresses through an elite college and its tennis program, however it also follows the actions of a Canadian terrorist group, and lengthy portions are about the Boston area Alcoholics Anonymous or other Drug related rehabilitation programs. In such moments the reader is offered a glimpse of the people who wind up in such places, or other times they are offered the viewpoint of those people who work regularly in such programs and the truth is human life filters through such halls and while some find peace, often it happens that people don’t make it.
Looking at my teaching right now I have groups of students that I recognize will not make it through college, and some will most certainly succeed, and others will simply pass and enter society. Looking at the time I spent in graduate school working in the Writing Center of my college I would see students come and go, and also fellow tutors who meant the world to me or else people I wanted to strangle with my bare hands. Looking at my life I have encountered a wide crowd of people. And so this simple sentence, while it is directed towards a Rehab clinic becomes far more potent concerning the human experience by the time one has managed to slough through the dense book up to this point.
There is unbearable pain in reading Infinite Jest, for if you try it, as I did, by reading just 10 pages a day, eventually they’ll come to the end of their tenth page and the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of their page will have a footnote, and when they flip to the back they’ll discover Wallace has written twenty pages for one footnote, and while the book is flying through the air surrounded by the shattering glass of the reader’s window they used to own until they cast the book through it, they’ll never be able to mistake the faint sound of David Foster Wallace’s unspeakable laughter cackling in each shard and tingle, and the final onomatopoeic “thlumpul” of the dense tome landing against the concrete or grass will be a temptation to just let the book alone and leave it where it is. These three moments might be a guard against such an impulse because in the heavy lectures about the history of pain prescription medication, or long passages dedicated to the jargon ladened descriptions of failed sexual escapades there are moments where the reader can see the whale. That doesn’t mean they won’t doubt themselves and wonder why they’re bothering with this long book.
But it’s worth it. Damn if it isn’t worth it. And not just for bragging rights.
Any idiot can brag, but if the action is undertaken just to brag then it’s an empty gesture. I was happy when I reached page 500 because it a reminder I haven’t given up on my goal which compelled me in the first place to pick the book up: I wanted to know David Foster Wallace better because he seemed like a person I wanted to know and understand.
In an article published in The New Yorker titled The Unfinished, D.T. Max provides a brief glimpse into Wallace’s dedication to the book:
He was still interested in the warping power of media culture. And he had a new appreciation of addiction and its lethality: it gave him something to warn against. He created a character named Hal Incandenza, who bridged two worlds Wallace knew well—Incandenza is a pothead and a talented high-school tennis player. He goes to an academy run by his family, which his older brother, Orin, also attended. Their father, James, a filmmaker, committed suicide after making a short movie called “Infinite Jest,” recorded in a format called a “cartridge,” which is so engrossing that anyone who watches it loses all desire. Wallace writes of one viewer, “He has rewound to the beginning several times and then configured for a recursive loop. He sits there, attached to a congealed supper, watching at 0020h, having now wet both his pants and the special recliner.” The action is set in the near future: a Qué-bécois separatist group tries to get hold of “Infinite Jest,” copies of which are extremely rare, to use as a terrorist weapon.
Wallace worked quickly in the house that he shared. He filled page after page of grade-school notebooks and then typed what he’d written with two fingers on an old computer. In a letter to Nadell, he had made a promise: “I will be a fiction writer again or die trying.”
It’s becoming more and more apparent, with every essay I write, every book I finish that while the goal of acquiring and maintain the title of intellectual was once the stated goal, the reason I keep reading is to understand people more. The “Wallace Explosion” I’ve ridden over the past few months has been more and more revealing to me because I recognize in the man a similar burning. I want to be a writer, not for bragging rights, but to simply influence someone the way Wallace has influenced me. There’s a strength of will to finishing a 1000 page novel, or a lunacy, but I do believe that like Infinite Jest there is a desire of curiosity. I wanted to see the whale and report back what I’ve found to someone else. So here it is: I have no idea what it was that I saw, but when it passed and was behind me I felt alive and present in the world in a way I haven’t felt in years.
While looking for images I found a link to an article on Buzzfeed I believe you will appreciate. Enjoy:
Here also are some essays about the book, either people’s impressions or…you know I’m not really sure there is another word for encountering Infinite Jest, it just is…
Here is also a link to the D.T. Max article The Unfinished if the reader is at all curious:
Read the book, there’s nothing like it. And if the page count daunts you just remember, 10 pages a day everyday and you’ll be done in just a few months.
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I believe in newspapers and the power of a free working press.
That sentence sounds like it should be immediately followed by “Journalists of the World UNITE” which itself is then followed by a fanfair of trumpets and people dancing in revelry while waving the banners of revolution, but in fact the only response I should, and would hope for, is for the reader to nod their head and agree. Such is the dream, yet not always the reality, and in fact, it seems the last real refuge for real reporting seems to be in cinema or “parody” news programs like The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight. On one side note The Nightly Show is no longer running which is unfortunate because it seems every time Comedy Central puts up a show that tries to present news and information from a black perspective it only ever lasts a few episodes before it gets canceled. That’s an entire article or online lecture by itself, but I’ll have to get to that later.
A few weeks back Last Week Tonight did a piece about the state of Journalism, specifically the Newspaper industry in the United States and the sentiment expressed by John Oliver mirrored Gerald Ford’s now classic statement during his first State of the Union Address. The State of Newspapers in the United States is “not good.” That’s a simple way of saying print news in America is either dying or plagued by bias. The complex way is saying that newspapers in America are on the decline due to the rise of digital news, low sales of printed newspapers, lack of trust by the readers, and the general apathy of readers due to the fact that most people get their “news” via Facebook or Google. There isn’t much, if any money, going into newspapers and this a conflict because a free media is responsible for monitoring for corruption and ensuring that the public of a democracy are informed to what is actually going on in their government.
I recognize immediately that my position can immediately become one of obnoxious preaching or else a nauseating mourning of an industry that possesses an “inherent nobility” and so I’m going to try and maintain a professional distance from emotion. My point in bringing this topic up is not to wail and bemoan the tragedies that are taking place in the journalism industry, but instead to allow these tragedies to illuminate the importance of the media and two articles which shed an revealing light on this subject.
In September of this year, The Atlantic put out an article by Derek Thompson titled Why Do Americans Distrust the Media, and while it’s a short essay it manages to point out several of the reasons why Journalism in general is becoming so suspect to citizens of the United States. Early on in the essay Thompson explains what is happening to that trust:
With these enormous caveats out of the way, the fact remains that Americans’ “trust” in “the media” is falling steadily, according to Gallup. Even if the precise definitions of these terms is debatable, the overall decline is clear and noteworthy.
This collapse in trust is not evenly spread across all demographics. The drop has been most dramatic among young and middle-aged respondents and, most recently, within the GOP. Together, it seems reasonable to conclude that the recent decline in media trust has been concentrated among middle-aged Republicans, a key part of the Trump constituency.
It should be made clear that the article is not Anti-Trump, it simply relies regularly on Trump and Trump supporters denying the legitimacy of newspapers when scandals appear which tends to happen a lot. Still the facts remain that more and more citizens are beginning to recognize or perceive flaws in reporting, and when you take into account that perception tends to create reality far more often than facts it begins to become clearer why so many Americans distrust news. Thompson’s article goes on to list out five reasons why this distrust exists, and the fourth reason, that it’s easier to find news that confirms bias rather than challenging it, he manages to make an important point about how this distrust forms:
Today’s journalists are more comfortable taking strong positions on partisan issues than they used to be. This is often a good thing. But the increased partisanship of large news outlets might feed a public perception that neutral objectivity doesn’t exist, and therefore, people are entitled to scream “partisanship!” about any viewpoint that they disagree with. The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review recently asked Donald Trump Jr., how he felt that the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at PolitiFact found that 70 percent of his father’s claims were false, more than twice the ratio of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s response: “I would argue that PolitiFact is a very liberal organization.” The shocking thing about this claim is that it’s not shocking, at all. It has become acceptably normal for a politician to call a Pulitzer-Prize winning organization “very biased” if it disagrees with him. There is also no risk in saying so.
Several weeks back I wrote about the speech Walter Cronkite gave on CBS news entitled We Are Mired in Stalemate. Part of the ongoing appeal and interest of this speech is that it was one of the first times a newsman like Cronkite allowed his personal opinions or assessments to come through in his reporting. This is not so uncommon today, in fact it’s so common it borders on obnoxious. Watching programs like Hannity, The O’Reily Factor, Legal View with B & B, or even anything involving Keith Olberman that isn’t about sports, one becomes buried beneath the weight of personal opinions of newscasters that it becomes so nauseating one has to change the channel or turn off the T.V. and meditate to Stomp to reclaim one’s sense of composure. Watching these shows in bulk is about the equivalent of a years’ worth of self-inflicted papercuts to the webs between the fingers, yet despite this I still find myself watching the news and reading the newspaper.
At the core of this is always my romantic patriotism.
I worry sometimes that I wrap myself up in the American flag, and that despite my supposed dedication to pure, unfettered reason I am actually an emotional gerrymanderer. In my own defense I tend to read a lot of Walt Whitman a man who also had a rather large hard-on for liberty and the inherent nobility of the American populace, identity, and territory. But if I can strip everything down though, and find the purest kernel of honesty to explain the reason why I believe so much in the importance and dedication to a free press is because I really do believe democracy is the best we, as a human species, have got philosophically.
The ages of man have been a constant effort and experiment to co-exist as peacefully as humanly possible and in our time we have constructed governmental-philosophies which have ranged in form from totalitarianism to a level of republic bordering on hippie communes. At the end of this democracy is the one system that, while it doesn’t make everyone happy, leaves at least a modicum of equilibrium. Before I start to sound like fucking NPR, which I appreciate as a news media source, my point is that by studying history it becomes clear that if human beings want a society in which people are equally protected by the law and from the government which is supposed to execute the law, the republic and democracy have been the most successful in accommodating that environment.
But in order for that to exists there has to be a system which monitors government because, to use an old platitude, power corrupts absolutely, or to put it another way, politicians are butt-fucking cowards and thieves and they need to be monitored and transparent because corruption is easily acquired and can quickly become a comfortable vice.
While I was considering this idea, and watching the Journalism episode of Last Week Tonight, I remembered a consistent impression, one moment in the video which kept gnawing at me because it seemed as best as I could describe as “right.” In the video John Oliver introduces a clip from CSPAN which appeared to be some panel or news coverage over the state and future of newspapers and in the clip a man by the name of David Simon explained that the next decade will be a “Halcyon Error” for local and state political corruption due to the pronounced lack of journalism covering simple governmental activities likes zoning board meetings. It wasn’t the diction that sold me on Simon as an important figure in this particular argument however, it was his level of confidence. Interested in the man I did a little digging, starting on Wikipedia. I know I’m supposed to hate that website because it’s the scourge of academic integrity but in reality it has helped me discover sources I never would have. Including the article David Simon wrote for The Washington Post entitled Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?
I read the article in one sitting, it’s not that difficult to finish in one session due largely to the fact that Simon is a fantastic writer for his ability to weave gorgeous prose without going up his own ass. Simon begins his article with a personal and effective opening:
Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?
Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of “All the President’s Men” and “The Powers That Be” atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.
What the hell happened?
It’s an honest question and after reading Thompson’s article I’m tempted to answer it quickly. The simple answer is the American public became disenfranchised with newspapers and news organizations. While on some level this is largely attributed to people simply believing the news is boring or else just really depressing (for the record I’m almost quoting verbatim a friend of mine here) perhaps the largest reason is because journalism has become subject to the pitfalls of capitalism, or really hyper-capitalism. John Oliver expresses and analyzes this far better than I ever could, and so I would recommend my reader actually take the time to find the video on YouTube, but the simplest explanation is that because newspapers are looked on more and more as, and Simon even calls them such in his articles, an anachronism people are looking more to digital content for information and that’s a problem because anyone can contribute to digital media. And I mean Anyone.
I’m an example of this. The reason I began White Tower Musings was because nobody would publish my creative work and so I began writing “essays,” really a charitable word for my early diatribes about power and freedom and Orwell, and publishing them here on WordPress for free. I pay nothing to host my site apart from internet provider, and my wife pays that bill so in fact I really do pay nothing. I can write whatever I want, when I want, and publish it, and while I personally try to make sure each article is well thought out and well researched and written to the best of my ability the real unbiased truth is I’m just some jackass with a blog. And with that knowledge in hand I remember that there are dozens of jackasses with blogs who can write and say whatever they want about current events without having to worry about any kind of oversight or editorial board to make sure their writings are supported by solid sources and facts.
This isn’t meant to be morbid self-loathing, which is my usual same old song and dance, but instead just an honest reflection upon the institution of the news as a force in this country and how a writer like Simon makes it seem not just important but necessary even as it’s dying. Simon offers a glimpse at the contemporary position:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simon wrote Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? in 2008, and I can already sense the reader’s objection. This seems like a moaning diatribe of whining about American Newspapers that doesn’t reflect reality. Plenty of newspapers are writing material old-school journalists would be proud of. And this is a fair objection which Simon actually acknowledges in his article before pointing out the flaw:
Is there still high-end journalism? Of course. A lot of fine journalists are still laboring in the vineyard, some of them in Baltimore. But at even the more serious newspapers in most markets, high-end journalism doesn’t take the form of consistent and sophisticated coverage of issues, but of special projects and five-part series on selected topics — a distraction designed not to convince readers that a newspaper aggressively brings the world to them each day, but to convince a prize committee that someone, somewhere, deserves a plaque.
Newspapers are not just about heroism and I recognize how I sound writing that out after preaching about their inherent necessity and nobility. Newspapers are first and foremost about community. Simon points out that often newspapers are in the market for young, hungry, and most importantly cheap employees to produce media content and the conflict with this position is the divorce from their reality. If you don’t have any history with a town, it’s going to be difficult to understand the dynamic and history of the city when you have to report on it. There is a local paper in my own home city but I never read preferring instead to read articles on NPR or else the Washington Post and this in itself reveals the larger bad habit of certain readers. I should not say that I represent a microcosm, but I do believe it’s fair to admit that a portion of news readers in this country take a rather abstract view of news because the news that we do receive tends to concern the larger national or international events, and while these most certainly possess real relevance the problem is that the real impact of such occurrences is always felt at the local level and manifests in different ways.
A question emerges and Simon writes it out plainly and perfectly:
What I don’t understand is this:
Isn’t the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium — isn’t an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?
It’s hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity — indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic — was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.
Newsprint itself is an anachronism. But was there a moment before the deluge of the Internet when news organizations might have better protected themselves and their product? When they might have — as one, industry-wide — declared that their online advertising would be profitable, that their Web sites would, in fact, charge for providing a rare and worthy service?
This final point is reiterated by John Oliver in the Last Week Tonight Special, and echoes in my own summation of the “service” I provide my readers for this site (the difference being that what journalist provide possesses a more immediate utilitarian purpose than my intellectual musings). Freedom of the press is not just a given by the first amendment because the individuals who provide the information citizens need to be informed do not work for free. Reporters are working people who need food, living space, and entertainment commodities the same as every and any citizen of the United States and the problem is their line of work is increasingly being dwindled by the hyper-capitalist system in which media too often given away for free.
The reason people enjoy free internet pornography is because people have grown accustomed to having it at their fingertips, but beneath that is a deeper understanding that the media they’re consuming isn’t worth their money. The conflict with the internet is that too often the content being generated is rarely designed to be a valuable physical commodity from which the consumer can acquire some kind of emotional or personal investment. It’s something to be consumed and then abandoned. My reader may argue that newspapers, even when they weren’t purely digital, existed in the same way for after all a newspaper is produced for one day and then would often be thrown away and in fairness that is a fair criticism.
However even before newspapers moved to a digital market, consumers and readers were willing to pay for the paper. Some of them, and I include myself in this crowd, simply read the paper for the comics or the sports pages, but there are consistent readers who are genuinely concerned and should be genuinely concerned about what is taking place in their local government: whether public money is being used for nefarious purposes, whether or not public projects have actually benefitted their community, and simply to figure out whether their elected officials are crooks.
Simon, Oliver, and Thompson have all offered me a chance to decide whether or not my local newspaper matters or not. In all honesty my local paper probably doesn’t because anyone willing to actually write anything negative about local politics or history would either be silenced or exiled, but that shouldn’t be the norm. It may be my clinging to the romanticism of the Watergate-era, but I do believe the news, whether it’s digital or paper-bound, does matter, and should be trusted, and does play a crucial role in our democracy.
I am just some asshole with a blog, but like Simon I know a great newspaper from a good one. And those few gems are worth reading, and more importantly worth paying for.
Below the reader can find links to the sources for this article. The first is Thompson’s article published in the Atlantic:
The second is the Last Week Tonight special over journalism:
And finally here is the article Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? Published originally in The Washington Post on January 20, 2008. I hope you enjoy:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, apples & peanut butter, Author Vs Voice Vs Persona, Book Review, Cetology, Charlie Rose, Consider the Lobster, Conversation, David Foster Wallace, David Lipksy, Derrida, Dostoyevsky, Guys, Imposter Complex, Infinite Jest, Interview, Literature, Masculinity Studies, Moby Dick, Personal Development, Philosophy, Postmodernism, prose, public intellectual, public perception of writers, Reading, reflection, Sentimental Novel, television, Ulysses, Writers, Writing
It started really with Charlie Rose. In the mornings my wife would usually wake up before me, and in fact she still does, in order to get to school and so given the fact that I had no classes to teach and my job wouldn’t start until around 11 or 12, I would usually have the mornings to myself to putter, drink my tea, eat my apples and peanut butter, and watch videos or read before I left. I usually couldn’t read and eat at the same time and so I pulled up YouTube on my phone. However, I really don’t like wasted time, and so these early morning moments seemed like a chance to grow intellectually so I would watch Charlie Rose interviews because Charlie Rose usually hosts substantive interviews. I watched Robin Williams, Gore Vidal, Bill Maher, Quentin Tarantino, Benjamin Netanyahu, and even Mr. Rogers. I can’t honestly say if my brain got any bigger, but watching those videos while I ate my apples and peanut butter reminded me how underappreciated the Interview format is in our culture.
In the queue was a man by the name of David Foster Wallace, a writer I’d read before and largely ignored, and so like most of the choices in my life that lead to books, I picked the video largely because I had heard rumors and speculation and read something somewhere, and even after the interview I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, to be frank, the man bothered me mostly because of the way he discussed academics in a kind of pejorative tone.
I can’t explain the Wallace explosion. Like Orwell before him, and Christopher Hitchens before that, David Foster Wallace just seems to be dominating my consciousness and I honestly believe it has something to do with the fact that I’m beginning to abandon any and all hope that my life will have any real connection to academia. I also wonder why, whenever I have these intellectual storms in which I become consumed with reading the entire works of single author or subject that I can never get myself to dig into the histories of Rome or Ancient Greece. There’s a stack of books with names like Livy, Tactitus, Heroditus, Plutarch, Cicero, and Ovid that sit literally right behind my laptop while I write, yet consistently the books that wind up consuming my time and energy are those written by men, and not enough women, living in the 20th and 21st century.
Perhaps I’m just doomed to be another soulless, shameless Postmodernist. More’s-the-pity.
Still, the name David Foster Wallace buzzed in the background of my head and so when I had coffee with a friend a few weeks later I snapped up a copy of Infinite Jest, ordered two copies by accident of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, bought Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, bought Consider the Lobster, and finally bought a copy of a book that, while it wasn’t written by Wallace, was still half written by the man and largely about him.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, apart from having an incredibly long title, is a book that shook me. I was tempted to write some bullshit about the book shaking me “to the core,” and while the sentiment is accurate I distrust sentiment when trying to convey how much a book can affect you. I was used to David Foster Wallace being a writer who always somehow managed to convey thoughts about society, art, literature, and writing that always left me profoundly altered and adrift in intellectual storms that would cloud my reality until I wrote about my thoughts about his thoughts and how fucking true they were, but David Lipsky’s book gave me something far more shocking and I use that word carefully.
David Lipsky’s transcribing of the various conversations he had with Wallace shows me not only a great writer, but a deep human being who seemed to suffer from most of the same shit I did. Later in the book when Wallace and Lipsky are talking they discuss college.
[Lipsky:]…You said being a regular guy was a great strength of yours as a writer, I thought it was smart, but what did you mean by that?
[Wallace:] I think—I had serious problems in my early twenties. I mean, I’d been a really good student. I was a really good logician and semantician and philosopher. And I really had this problem of thinking I was smarter than everyone else. [Reason for faux] And I think if you’re writing out of place where you think that you’re smarter than everybody else, you’re either condescending to the reader, or talking down to ‘im, or playing games, or you think the point is to show how smart you are.
And all that happened to me was, I just has a bunch of shit happen in my twenties where I realized I wudn’t near as smart. Where I realized I wasn’t near as smart as I thought I was. And I realized that a lot of other people, including people without much education, were a fuck of a lot smarter than I thought they were. I got—what’s the world? Humbled, in a way, I think. (214).
Besides these two paragraphs in my paperback copy of the book is an arrow and above it in cursive is written the phrase “My Life.” It’s a pathetic confession but I admit that I often felt during my undergraduate career this combination of superiority and inferiority, and while part of it is simply growing up and suffering through the necessary reduction of the ego, I recognized early on that the kind of education I had received in grade school as well as home, far surpassed what most of my friends had experienced. As such I enjoyed being the smartest kid in class, that is until a new student came down the pike who understood Derrida, and another who knew what the Sentimental Novel was, and someone else who had actually read Dostoyevsky, and so on and etc. and so I quickly developed what is known as “imposter” complex, the belief that you don’t belong somewhere because the people around you seem to be significantly smarter than you.
Eventually I settled into a comfort with my intellect because I realized that I will never know everything and so it was better to keep growing and be, as Wallace noted, humble.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is written as a long interview between David Lipsky, who is a novelist but also a regular reporter for Rolling Stone, and David Foster Wallace. The book is specifically an interview for the promotion of Wallace’s book Infinite Jest which had just been published and would, in time, become part of the American cultural consciousness as a kind of American answer to Ulysses. This combination isn’t made in jest…bad joke, it’s an earnest assessment having read Ulysses. The book stands at 981 pages long, but throughout the text Wallace has numbered words and sentences that lead back to end notes some of which range from a single sentence, to multiple paragraphs, to, in one unfortunate instance, well over thirty pages. And so the book stands at actually 1079 pages, 98 being endnotes alone. It is considered an avant-garde masterpiece, and one of the great “challenge” books in the American literary canon if not the world. Entire blogs are dedicated to deciphering the book, and scores of essays exist about the book and the myth that surrounds it.
For my own part I am working slowly through it, but while I did I decided that I would read Lipsky’s recorded interviews to see if I could find the man behind the whale. That’s a personal metaphor for long difficult books by the way. The lovely aspect about Although of Course You End up becoming Yourself is that the book does reveal these two men as realistic human beings as one early passage demonstrates:
[Lipsky:]You’re the most talked about writer in the country.
[Embarrassed to hear myself talk that way.]
[Wallace:]There’s an important distinction between—I’ve actually gotten a lot saner about this. Some of this stuff is nice. But I also realize this is a big, difficult book. Whether the book is really any good, nobody’s gonna know for a couple of years. So a lot of this stuff, it’s nice, I would like to get laid out of it a couple of times, which has not in fact happened.
I didn’t get laid on this tour. The thing about fame is interesting, although I would have liked o get laid on the tour and I did not. (11).
It’s hard, as a man at least, to condemn this impulse because I’ve studied biology, and rock stars, and I recognize how fame influences conscious choices. Lipsky immediately after this notes that rock stars certainly get this kind of notice and perks of fame, but they observe that writers tend to miss out on this kind of treatment. There is a tendency on the part of men to enjoy their fame and this translates into having sex with multiple women because that’s a sign that you’re the dominant male or that you possess some kind of power, but looking at this passage what’s important is how human Wallace appears. Most men, if they became famous, might expect the “groupie effect” and so the note of the missed chance reminds the reader that Wallace was every bit a man.
That isn’t diminishing his legitimate genius, I’m just noting the man would have enjoyed getting some while on tour, and this impulse isn’t necessarily crude, it’s just what seems appropriate from a man who tried to be down to earth as he could be.
Lipsky’s book is not just conversations about missed opportunities, or lack thereof, for sex that makes Wallace become real, it’s also for the fact that he, much like myself, grew up in a house that valued education and books. Another passage shows this while he’s discussing his home life.
[Lipsky:] Environment in house? Lots of reading?
[Wallace:] Yeah. My parents—I have all these weird early memories. I remember my parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other in bed, in this really cool way, holding hands and both lovin’ something really fiercely.
And I remember me being five and Amy being three, and Dad reading Moby-Dick to us (Laughs)—the unexpurgated Moby-Dick. Before—I think halfway through Mom pulled him aside and explained to him that, um, little kids were not apt to find, you know, “Cetology” all that interesting. (49).
I legitimately laughed out loud at this passage, because I have read Moby Dick before, and while the book isn’t always dry, the “Cetology” chapter is literally nothing but a taxonomy of the various species of whales known by whalers and biologists up to that time. If that sounds fascinating but painfully boring that’s because it is, and don’t forget it’s Melville. This brief scene by itself wouldn’t necessarily bring out Wallace’s humanity, but a few sentences down he says:
But I remember, I remember because there was some sort of deal about Amy, Amy got exempted from it, and was I gonna be exempted or not? And I remember kind of trying to win Dad’s favor, by saying “No, Dad, I want to hear it.” When in fact of course I didn’t at all.” (49).
I suspect every child has that moment of recognition. Our parents give us so much of themselves and their time and patience and energy and so as kids we recognize this and try to give something back even if it’s just our own time and attention. My little sister and I would sometimes note that whenever dad talked about economics we would smile and nod, but much like Cetology in Moby-Dick we were left rather bored. Likewise growing up my mother read numerous books about spirituality, and not being a terribly spiritual person myself listening was sometimes a bit of a chore. Still I listened to my parents because they gave me so much emotional, financial, and spiritual support it seemed fair on my part to listen to stuff that they found fascinating and important in their life. Regardless there was a moment of recognition with Wallace and this is where I’m able to address my contester.
So what about Wallace? He was a hyper-intellectual avant-gardist who wrote incomprehensible novels and esoteric essays about television, tennis, and David Lynch movies. What relevance does his personal life have to do with me? In other words why should I care?
Well dear reader that’s where I have it. During this essay I’ve repeatedly referred to David Foster Wallace as human, or noted that Lipsky’s book emphasizes this humanity. This is because I believe in some fashion, the man has become an ideal rather than a human being. And if I may take it a step further, writers in general tend to receive this treatment, their works becoming some kind of totem from which people form a kind of abstract intellectual worship. The novels of Ernest Hemingway are not just stories of moody men drinking, fishing, hunting, drinking, etc., they are in fact looked to by some as wellsprings of masculine spirit. Likewise, the poet Emily Dickinson is revered with a passion that is at times inspiring and at others horrifying, but along with her work comes the image of the recluse. Dickinson is not afforded the opportunity to be a human being, she is the cartoon character of the shut-in, a woman who was so plagued by social anxiety that she had to lock herself away in her study writing poems that no one would ever read. The conflict with this image, as well as that of Hemingway, is that it is devoid of real being. Writers are people, flawed people, but people who possess passion and desire, and Lipksy’s book shows Wallace in this way.
Wallace is often painted as my imagined contester paints him, as a hyper-intellectual who was above human beings and solely existed in thought, but reading Lipksy’s book a different image of Wallace appears: a man who wants his passion and ideas to be understood or appreciated while he shares them with others while also trying to be a normal guy as more and more hype builds around him.
In one passage the pair of them are standing outside of an airport in Chicago and David begins discussing the problem of art in this time period:
[Wallace:] We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading—when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making the job harder. You know what I mean? And it seems to me like the harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better a chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that. (71).
On the very next page he continues this idea:
[Wallace:] The old tricks have been exploded, and I think the language needs to find new ways to pull the reader. And my personal belief is that a lot of it has to do with vice, and a feeling of intimacy between the writer and the reader. That sort of, given the atomization and loneliness of contemporary life—that’s our opening, and that’s our gift. That’s a very personal deal, and here are seventeen ways to do it. (72).
Without sounding arrogant, I recognized a similar thought when I first read this passage. Part of that was simply because I spend most of my time reading, writing, thinking about reading, thinking about writing, and wondering what is possible in writing, or, more importantly, what can be accomplished in writing, and sometimes why I spend so much time thinking about writing and not actually writing.
I may sound arrogant, or desperate to sound clever, but I do believe a great many readers read lives of quiet desperation. Novels are mass produced that follow formulas and give the same material, and before my reader believes that I am now about to rail against mass produced paperbacks I promise that I am not. My aim is not to mock readers who willfully ingest such material, my aim is point a finger at the writers. Why is there no desire to play with language and try for something more?
I want to think that perhaps my great collection of essays will actually amount to something accomplished in words. Writing is my solace and my passion, but reading Wallace I was reminded again that it leaves me wanting for an opportunity to find something new. It’s not enough to tell a story about how I discovered a copy of The Stranger in my wife’s childhood bedroom and began reading it before describing its larger significance. The writing has to mean to something or do something that impacts the reader just as much as the material.
I want, and there is the card game. My writings are ever and always words thrown out to some unknown being in the world who stumbles upon this space, and when they read my words they discover that I have written sentences and thoughts not to myself but to others. It’s a cheap trick, but one in which I’ve developed a voice around.
Lipsky’s book could easily become just a long list of beautiful quotes that a casual or superficial reader will ingest to spit back out in conversations to sound smart, but in many ways the style of the book is unlike anything published that I have read because Lipsky manages to present me with the real human being that was David Foster Wallace. The interview format can lead certain writers to just kiss an individual’s ass and then get one or two good quotes from it, but the interactions between Lipsky and Wallace are not just the back and forth exploration of a career. These two men discuss music, publishing, relationships, fast food, movies, smoking, realties of the magazine market, and within every conversation there are moments Lipksy notes that change the dynamic of the text. Whether it’s being interrupted by an announcer three times at an airport, smacking Wallace’s dog when it gets too feisty, sharing a dirty joke, or just noting and reproducing Wallace’s Midwestern accent. These moments coalesce so that the interview becomes two people trying to find and understand one another not only because one needs the other to promote his book and the other needs a publication credit to help his career, it’s about finding each other’s humanity.
Near the end of the book Wallace seems to provide a final summation as they discuss why people are ugly towards one another in this contemporary period:
[Wallace:] It’s more like, if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think its probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. [Spits a mouthful into cup] I know that sounds a little pious. (292-3).
I’ll disagree with the man, suggesting only that pious may be incorrect, but at least virtuous, even if that word has fallen upon hard times. Wallace has secured a legacy as one of the great minds and writers of his generation with only a few essays and a few novels, and while that greatness is certainly one of the reasons I find myself warming to the man it’s this last bit where I really recognized his intellectual ability. The mark of a great mind is not necessarily making grand, sweeping generalizations, but small observations that lead to real insight.
More than any of that though, Lipsky’s book is at the heart of my recent Wallace explosion, for while it was some unknowable serendipity and influence that lead me to Infinite Jest, it was the social connection between a few of my friends that lead me to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and reading this book has helped me revaluate that tenuous connection.
Is it possible to feel another human being so truly and completely, feeling as if you might be so bold as to suggest that you know that person’s heart and soul but for a moment? The end result of Lipsky’s book is the impression of a long conversation that, at the end which seems almost like saying goodbye, you knew another person’s heart.
Few books bother leave such a stamp on a person’s soul, though many try, and we’re all left wanting for such moments.