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there and back again

ghost stories

You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.

 Paul Auster, Winter Journal

Solipsistic. That’s the word I’m looking for.

We all experience solipsism at times, and consciously applied it can be a refuge, even if not quite a philosophy. A natural reaction, probably, at the attack on the ego that are shared experiences. After all, if nothing is real, nothing can hurt you. Right? Biographies can bridge the gap, to climb out of the hole, at least briefly. They’re also about ghosts, beyond the more classical definition of the word: the ghosts of who yourself and others were.

Ghost stories. The ethereal presence of past selves that hang around us, unbidden, unshakable.

I’ve been re-reading three this week. Two autobiographies, neither of which, perhaps appropriately, was written in the first person, and one biography.

The first is Winter Journal by Paul Auster. Maybe not his best work, but still worthwhile. Subdued, fragmentary. Nowhere near the power of The Invention of Solitude. Written in the second person, it feels disembodied at times even as he describes the physical in detail: “a catalog of sensory data,” he says at some point, and after all this is much of what consumes life, living, death, dying. The narrative nudges, rather than pushes, forward. It ends up feeling like a meditative exercise.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, the second book, is on the other hand like being thrust into the edge of a tornado. You can see the calm center of the storm, integral to it but out of reach, as you spin wildly on its edges. This is may also not Rushdie’s best, but to place it against works of fiction, however autobiographically informed they may be, is a disservice in my mind. “Life and death” feels real in these pages, and I doubt any one of us could have done better at navigating the choices he faced. Fear is palpable, so is anger: he could have easily borrowed the title from his 2001 book: Fury. Writing it in third person as he did may have been the only way to frame these experiences.

Rushdie’s celebrity status is responsible for a lot of the negative reaction towards this book, but it’s an important work, and I tend to ignore what surrounds the celebrity obsession within the book, wives, girlfriends, meeting Bono… and focus instead on the struggle around the fatwa and The Satanic Verses. Self-publishing is revolutionary and is happening in this area is important and in any case would happen no matter what. But disintermediation can have the effect of, um, disintermediating and therefore exposing bare an artist, leaving them without a support structure. What would happen today, I wonder, if instead of principled editors and publishers all that stood between an artist and a murder proclamation was… the complaints department at Amazon?

I wonder.

This applies more broadly. The very force that gives everyone a voice may be also be empowering those who want nothing but to take our voices away (think China, or Iran, or Syria, or…).


Which brings me to Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D. T. Max, and perhaps the best book I read last year. Here, finally, a biography written in third person about a third person. It could also have been subtitled “DFW’s Battles With Irony And Addiction,” although it didn’t deal exclusively with that of course, and I use the word “with” carefully here, since it doesn’t univocally mean against. What follows is a brief passage that illustrates well not only some of these ideas but also makes visible to different degrees strands that are woven throughout the book and the story, and DFW’s life.

America was, Wallace now knew, a nation of addicts, unable to see that what looked like love freely given was really need neurotically and chronically unsatisfied. The effect of Leyner’s fictional approach to life—mutated, roving, uncommitted—like that of Letterman and Saturday Night Live—was to make our addiction seem clever, deliberate, entered into voluntarily. Wallace knew better. And now he was far clearer on why we were all so hooked. It was not TV as a medium that had rendered us addicts, powerful though it was. It was, far more dangerously, an attitude toward life that TV had learned from fiction, especially from postmodern fiction, and then had reinforced among its viewers, and that attitude was irony. Irony, as Wallace defined it, was not in and of itself bad. Indeed, irony was the traditional stance of the weak against the strong; there was power in implying what was too dangerous to say. Postmodern fiction’s original ironists—writers like Pynchon and sometimes Barth—were telling important truths that could only be told obliquely, he felt. But irony got dangerous when it became a habit. Wallace quoted Lewis Hyde, whose pamphlet on John Berryman and alcohol he had read in his early months at Granada House: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy the cage.” Then he continued: “This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….[I]rony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. That was it exactly—irony was defeatist, timid, the telltale of a generation too afraid to say what it meant, and so in danger of forgetting it had anything to say.”

D.T. Max., Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story

Life. Addiction. Irony. Death. There are no simple, clean, tidy answers, and fragmentary is an appropriately recurring idea.

DFW, commenting on Infinite Jest once said that the novel was “[…] sort of what it’s like to be alive […] really a very pretty pane of glass that had been dropped off the twentieth story of a building.”


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