9.03.2010

Respondez!

Because the comments post page can only handle 4,096 characters:

Dear Jon Sealy, you wrote in the comments; here is my utterly reckless and unworthy attempt at a response:

It's not metafiction I'm talking about, tho' I think early efforts (Melville's interruptions in The Confidence-Man, maybe? Ch. 33, 44?) were probably motivated by this aim.

As I said, this is really difficult for me to articulate, probably because I'm not a great artist.

So if you're willing to follow along, try to free-associate with me here:

Take zen koans. Why are they? I mean we know, with those, very specifically, right?--that they have an "end" (namely: enlightenment). So, that's part 1. Purposive, ends-driven writing (and keep in mind, this is me "theorizing," speculating).

Part 2 would be what I call the problem of pedagogy. You've taught undergraduates enough to know that particular frustration that comes on a day when you've put together a good lesson plan, but only a few of the students are actually listening. You may have had an impulse, like me, to wonder about if there are ways, techniques, to sort of "trick" them into listening. So that's part two: how can we "teach" the unwilling student? [Incidentally, this is important to me because I have been the unwilling student. Nothing could get me to doubt my assumptions, or to search inwardly, or to be self-conscious, until I read "Billy Budd." And I almost think it was just the onslaught of big words and strained syntax--the Melville style, as much as the content--that moved me like that.]

So step one is: have a purpose--a great one. Ideally, the great One. Y'know? Enlightenment, G-d, whatever.

Step two: find a way (a technique) to hook even those who aren't "readers." [...which, to sort of reiterate, is in my head like finding a way to convert the happy pagan.]

And finally step three: combine steps one and two in such a way that you're teaching your readers about the highest Tr-th without them even realizing it.

Like right now, honestly: I'm under Cormac's spell. As a reader, I have recognized something in his language early on that has gained him my trust. So, he's made me from a skeptic into a believer.

The most dangerous part about this is to wonder whether it's possible to create this kind of literature, but to ultimately offer a false end, a false highest Tr-th. Frankly, I'm nervous about that with McCarthy.

So I guess I want to see his books know that about me, somehow--and to work with that emotion in me. To tease it, tempt it, and ultimately, I hope, bring it to that highest place in "Mind."

---

I have this theory that the final four or five chapters in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun are an effort to actually make it possible for the reader to have a mystical experience. Allow me to not explain what a mystical experience is for now, okay? So here's how he does it: Hawthorne (I imagine) must've had some experience like the one he's trying to communicate. But the experience itself is "ineffable" (see William James on "Mysticism" in Varieties of Religious Experience). So how do you show readers what's it's like? Hawthorne's solution is to bring them to a Carnival: because, I theorize, the person who is approaching a mystical experience will begin to perceive a strangeness about the world itself that corresponds to the normal-perception weirdness of Carnival. Then Hawthorne focalizes through the mystical experiencer, saying thinigs like (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "Kenyon felt as if he were in a dream. He decided to trust that some invisible intelligence would lead him to the place he needed to be...." Now, Hawthorne knows damn well that any normal 19th century reader is going to read that and say, "What!?"

And at that point, the book becomes, for the reader, the Carnival. And the Carnival, remember, was for Kenyon what the strangeness of the world was for an actually existing mystic.

At that point, the choice to simply keep reading becomes equivalent to Kenyon's decision to "trust an unseen intelligence..." And now the reader is following, one step behind, or one level up.

Hawthorne mentions that Kenyon feels a paranoia -- then ends the "book proper" with a kind of red herring paragraph alluding to Babylon and the number 7 and 777 and menorahs and stuff... perfect temptations for the reader to feel paranoia.

---

Obviously, I hate how unclear this all sounds--and I know how unpersuasive it sounds. It's really just a hunch, of course, but when some unseen intelligence made sure I was at the bowling alley that night, and the bowling alley felt like a Carnival, and I was reading these chapters in the Faun: well, it's sort of an experienced-based hunch?

Oooooh. Curse. I'm ridiculous. To steal the epigraph to Gretchen's forthcoming book (it's James Wright): "Here are some fragments of my hammer that broke against a wall of jewels."

I read that thing on Marginal Revolution before you posted it because you tuned me into that website -- it's one of my "Favorites," and one of my favorites.

And lastly: if I knew how to make this kind of experiential fiction happen, I'd write it myself! I like to think simply recognizing it is a virtue. Hawthorne wrote to a friend concerning The Marble Faun: "I somewhat doubt whether your dull English public will quite appreciate its excellencies. It depends upon the view a reader happens to take of it, whether it shall appear very clever or very absurd."

As a reader, I just try to take the right view of it.

Incidentally: as a person, I just try to take the right view of life, too.--y'know, because it'd appear absurd instead of very clever otherwise. Related?

2 comments:

Jon Sealy said...

I need some time to digest this, but I like what you mentioned about McCarthy and the "false truth." Frankly, he's so damned good that it took me a while to get in tune with the truth he was presenting, and that truth actually shocked my liberal senses -- his vision being stark and conservative in the sense that people have something primal in them that you can't change (for instance, just by granting a subsidy). I haven't read THE ROAD TO SERFDOM yet, but McCarthy's vision sounds similar to my understanding of Hayek's.

Two immediate thoughts, though: (1) Check out Franzen's new novel, FREEDOM. There is a strange (unseem) narrative presence, as in THE CORRECTIONS that you just have to go with.

(2) I would strongly doubt an author would intentionally present a "false truth" -- well, maybe someone like Barth or Borges might, if only to prove that fiction can present false truths and is therefore something to be suspect (but in that case, the highest truth is that fiction is suspect, not the second-level false truth they presented to illustrate that point). My sense is that someone like McCarthy is just presenting the highest truth he knows how to present, but it's ultimately up to the reader to accept that truth, right? And if we conclude the author's high truth is false, we'll call the novelist sentimental or frigid.

Side question: What do we do with writers who seem to present high truths, but who live questionable lives? I'm thinking of Heideggar, who was a Nazi for a while. What do we do with his truths? What about Gunter Grass? Do we look at Grass and say his high truths are acts of atonement for his teenage conscription?

Casey said...

I like that you say, "I doubt an author would intentionally present a 'false truth.' " -- because, see, that implies to me that you intuit, as I do, that fiction writing is (or can/should be) a kind of high calling, along the lines of prophet or bard or whatever.

I was thinking today I wish I hadn't used the Marble Faun example because it seems like I was saying writers have to try to present mystical experiences to the reader. It's not that at all: it's just that, as you said, writers have to convey what they know to be the highest truth to their readers. So I had a secondary thought: what if it's just about trying to give a structurally similar experience to the reader? So for example: let's say you fall in love with somebody and it really hurts. And you tell a bunch of people about it, but they're not responding the way you want them to. So you become a fiction writer, to try to make them feel what you felt. Now you have two options: you can 1) write a story about heartbreak which, even at its best, may not make the reader feel what you originally felt, or, 2) you can write a story that, itself, becomes the experience of heartbreak for the reader. Maybe that just means you depict a magnificent landscape and get the reader to fall in love with it only to have the strip-miners show up and ruin it. Then see how the reader sort of "structurally" knows the pain that you originally felt when your girl broke your heart?

The reason I trust that McCarthy's not presenting a false truth is that I want to keep reading--even after The Road, which my conscious mind was telling me was "completely nihilistic," but which, I must have intuited, was really not.

I used to wonder your side-question about Ayn Rand, who spoke lots about moralism and so on, and then had all kinds of cheating sex and seemed very often to make "irrational" decisions despite her love of "Reason."

What's your inclination here?--to not hold them accountable? My hunch is to sort of "blame" them: I think of Heidegger's philosophy as being susceptible to a kind of tyrannous politics... but here's the weird part: I still like it.

Maybe that's McCarthy's insight to: maybe the highest truth would produce something like Nazism? Then what? To hell with it?