This is an extraordinary interview, and everyone should watch it. I have something important to tell humanity.
This is an extraordinary interview, and everyone should watch it. I have something important to tell humanity.
“Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park” by Joseph Suglia
On Friday, 21 November 2014 at 5:05 p.m., I ordered a cheese pizza at the Lincoln Park location of the Standard Market Grill. The clerk who took my order is named Nicolette. This pizza was “to-go.”
When I arrived home, I opened the cardboard box in which the pizza was contained and discovered to my horror that there was not a single fleck of red on the entire pizza. I looked more closely at the pizza. No, there was not a single lineament of tomato puree on the gobbets of cheese that bedecked the pizza disc. Nor was there any tomato puree on the bready background. I called the restaurant at 5:27 p.m.; Nicolette answered the telephone. I explained to her that tomato purée was absent from the pizza that I ordered, and Nicolette insisted that there was tomato sauce on the pizza, “even if there wasn’t enough for [my] liking.” I insisted, in turn, that there was no tomato sauce on the pizza.
I extracted the web of cheese from the pizza disc. Not a single trace of tomato purée was uncovered. There was no red on the underside of the cheese web, either. I ate a slice–which was all that I could stand, since the pizza was flavorless–and, no, I did not sense the unmistakable taste-datum that had been inscribed into my consciousness, the tangy tomato purée with which the Standard Market Grill has slathered all of the many pizzas that I have ordered in the past. The sponginess of the bread did not compensate for the untastiness of the pizza-complex.
If Nicolette was correct, and she wasn’t, and there WAS tomato sauce on the pizza, then why was the pizza sauce both invisible and untasteable? Again, I have ordered many pizzas from the Lincoln Park location in the past, and all of them were blessed with a tomatoey tang.
I wrote the management on this matter and never received a response. This is the level of customer service that I have come to expect from the Lincoln Park branch of the Standard Market Grill.
444 West Fullerton Parkway is a challenging space for any business to occupy. In my ten years of living in Lincoln Park, I have seen four businesses at 444 West Fullerton Parkway flounder and founder, fail and flail. The Standard Market Grill is struggling, and it will not stand.
An Analysis of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia
A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?” Well, why does anyone hate anyone? Why does anyone love anyone? The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious. Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency. They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind. The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however. We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.
There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:
Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or “ancient.” He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage. Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i]. And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three. Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?
This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii]. Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him. Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.
This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation. If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].
Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i]. This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over. He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.
It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.” Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone. George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”
There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.]. Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed. Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii]. He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness. He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.
Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself. While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.
Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation. A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].
Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello? Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?” In other words: Who are you in relation to me? Are you similar to me? Are you different from me? To what degree are you different from me? How do I measure myself against you? In the case of the stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility. This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.” Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello. If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed. This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.
Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being. There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self–which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being–and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit. In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself–how he exteriorizes himself as Othello–and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.
Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences? This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd. However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.
Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?
My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona. He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello. Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him. From the third scene of the third act:
OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.
Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions. Iago is reactive, not active. It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:
OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO: Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO: What does thou think?
IAGO: Think, my lord?
OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?
The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s. Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time. It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches. It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago. Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.
It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism. One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady… This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels. ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].
The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s idea, not Iago’s. Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind. Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end. Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.
Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation. When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon. She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence. Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals. She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death. As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii]. Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s differentness and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii]. Is Iago wrong? As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday? The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other. Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.
In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be. By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being. Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is. When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself. Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is. From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.
THIS IS MY BEST INTERVIEW!
A review of Tell-All (chuckpalahniuk) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
chuckpalahniuk’s followers have grown older and are now turning against the one they once adulated as their master. How could they not be insulted? They have been treated with contempt by a writer who dumbs everything down for them. They read more widely now and have come to recognize that the idealism that they once saw in their leader is false, and they despise him for his blatant opportunism. This is a man who has no interest in knowledge or language, but who merely wants to make as much money as possible. (chuckpalahniuk said: “I don’t care what they do with my book, as long as the f****** check clears.”) They resent him for simplifying ideas that he has stolen from more sophisticated writers–and from his own fan base. chuckpalahniuk writes under the heads of his sixteen-year-old target audience. Sadly for him, those sixteen-year-old sheep are now twenty-four. chuckpalahniuk is irrelevant, and the responses to his most recent work demonstrate this.
* * * * *
Those who write according to deadlines inevitably generate dead lines. It should surprise no one, then, that chuckpalahniuk’s tired, labored contractual offering, Tell-All (2010), is a concatenation of lifeless sentences. I’ve always felt–and clearly I’m in the minority these days–that words should bleed from the page, that one should write with one’s blood, as Nietzsche would say. Well, Palahniuk’s pages don’t bleed; they suppurate. A genuine writer composes electric prose, nothing but electric prose. There is no electricity here, no artfulness. But to claim that chuckpalahniuk writes artlessly would be to say too little. Every sentence, every phrase, every word in this book is spoken by a voice from the grave. Consumerist fiction is never vivacious. You don’t believe that Palahniuk is a “literary” entrepreneur? Here is his advice to a young poet: “Don’t expect to make any money off [poetry].”
The “plot,” such as it is, regurgitates All About Eve (1950), with Hazie Coogan reassuming the role of Eve and Katherine Kenton reincarnating Margo. Every name is embossed in bold type, which makes the book as appealing to read as a telephone directory. The weakest elements in Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction are his lists. One needn’t know how to write in order to compile lists of indiscriminate items. Here, the entire novel is a list–a list of proper nouns. Reading this drivel is exactly like being jabbed incessantly in the ribs by an idiot savant who recites name after name in a narcotizing monotone, giggling after each jab.
The prose is irritatingly incompetent. Should we forget that all German nouns are capitalized? Are we supposed to think that “bile-ography” , “fossilidealized” , “laud mouthing” , and a “jury of sneers”  are clever neologisms? Should we forget that hipster Dave Eggers popularized self-reflexivity (though he did not invent it–such a practice can be found in Ludwig Tieck and Shakespeare, to cite but two names) and that the use of it is no longer particularly “experimental”? Should we ignore the fact that the phrase “name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome” is used no fewer than four times in this novel [on pages 3, 79, 129, and 177] and that such mindless repetitions are excessively fatiguing?
[After writing this review, I learned that the terms “bile-ography,” “to fossilidealize,” “to laud-mouth,” a “jury of sneers,” and “name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome” (not capitalized?) are not of chuckpalahniuk’s contrivance.]
chuckpalahniuk’s knowledge of his subject is as limited as his vocabulary. “That vast wealth of 50’s [sic] film info comes from my editor, Gerry Howard,” chuckpalahniuk announced to Amazon. Silliness abounds. Are we to allow that Samuel Beckett was a “celebrity”  who attended opulent parties at Hollywood mansions? Beckett recoiled from the entertainment industry as if it were a cancerous polyp (though he was not entirely indifferent to fame: See Stephen Dilks, Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace). Are we credulous enough to believe that folk singer Woody Guthrie composed music and lyrics for Broadway shows when he never did–and would have probably found the very idea of doing so repellent? Should we be persuaded that the great French filmmaker Alain Resnais “saddled humanity”  (with what, precisely?), when he has given us so many strikingly beautiful, provocative, and groundbreaking works of art–something that chuckpalahniuk has never been able to do? Though Resnais opened up a new way of seeing, most of humanity has ignored his oeuvre. Muriel (1962), his masterpiece, is almost completely obscure.
chuckpalahniuk’s opera minora belong to a genre we might term “moron fiction,” fiction intended for readers who hate books. One suspects that chuckpalahniuk hates books himself, given how little effort he invests in reading and creating them. Tell-All is a nonliving entity, a throwaway, a trifle, a triviality, a little slice of nothing.
Being taught how to write fictionally by chuckpalahniuk is exactly like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.
An Analysis of The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson) by Joseph Suglia
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003) is an unclassifiable book. It seems to tolerate no generic distinction. Yes, it is a work of history–there are copious end notes and a substantive bibliography; its research seems historiographically sound (though it is not; read Adam Seltzer’s book H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil); every direct quotation is taken from an imposing armature of sources. And yet it reads as if it were a novel.
The book is concerned with two figures who are said to be diametrically opposed to each other: Daniel Burnham, one of the chief architects of Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, murderer of young women (despite Larson’s claims, Holmes was a serial failure; he even failed at being a serial killer). Both are said to be emblematical of the Gilded Age, that is, late nineteenth-century industrial America. And both are said to have converged at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
The book’s premise seems to be that, in America’s Gilded Age, two polar energies were at work: that of technological construction and that of destabilization, the grandeur of architecture and what erodes stability and what reverses progress. Larson further qualifies this opposition in his introductory “Note”: “[I]t is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
But are architecture and destructuring, “good” and “evil” parallel oppositions? Where can “good” and “evil” be seen in the Gilded Age outside of these two isolated figures? Are architecture and destructuring indeed opposed to each other? Where else was this vague disassembling at work in the Gilded Age? Outside of a description of what Holmes and Burnham did and said, Larson does not provide answers to these questions.
The “voice” of the work is that of the grandfatherly storyteller. Nearly every sentence is bloated with hoary bombast. Patiently, bombastically, the author recounts the stories of the murderer and the architect. And yet what is the meaning of it all? Does this book have a clear and defensible thesis?
The Devil in the White City never affords its readers access to the killer’s mind. In the section of book entitled “Notes and Sources,” Larson concedes, “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known.” He defers to “what forensic psychiatrists have come to understand about psychopathic serial killers.” But should forensic psychiatry be given the last word? Is the dossier then closed after they have spoken?
What, exactly, is the relationship, for Larson, between the architect and the murderer? Is Larson suggesting that Holmes’s desire for “dominance and possession” was also the desire of Burnham? Does Burnham merely wear a more socially acceptable mask? Do they represent two variations of the same impulse? Regrettably, Larson never pursues any of these questions.
A review of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
You know the rumor already: Queen Elizabeth commanded Shakespeare to write The Merry Wives of Windsor (circa 1596) in two weeks. Well, not The Merry Wives of Windsor specifically, but a play in which the fat old knight Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most developed creations, falls in love. This rumor was first set down by John Dennis (1702), over one hundred years after the play was composed. For three centuries, Shakespeare scholars have debated the question: “Did Queen Elizabeth ever issue such an edict? Did she command the poet to write his play in two weeks, for Her pleasure?”
The answer is, who cares? You may either buy the royal-command hypothesis or reject the royal-command hypothesis. Either way, the play seems to have been written for money, and it seems to have been written in two weeks. As every conscientious writer does, Shakespeare reserved his genius lines and genius staves for his stronger plays. The wordplay here is less than dazzling; there is not a single memorable line in the entire play (though the play does have the virtue of having contributed to Orson Welles’ masterly Chimes at Midnight (1965)).
Whenever he wants to make fun of one of his characters, Shakespeare has that character make fritters of the English language. Clearly, Shakespeare valued English more highly than he did anything else. It is a pity that his love for English isn’t particularly legible in this work. There are some amusing countrified insults: “cony-catching rascals” [I:i]; “Banbury cheese” [ibid.]; “Let vultures gripe thy guts!” [I:iii]; “jack-a-nape” [I:iv]; “his guts are made of puddings” [II;i]; “mechanical salt-butter rogue” [II:ii]; “your cat-a-mountain looks” [II:ii]; “jack-an-ape” [II:iii]; “Jack dog” and “John ape” [III:i]; “Jack-a-Lent” [III:iii]; “polecat” [IV:ii]. Characters liken one another to animals and food products. Contemporary readers of the play might begin insulting their irritating neighbors by calling them “Banbury cheese.”
Shakespeare seems to have disobeyed the queenly command (if one was ever given). Falstaff doesn’t actually “fall in love” with anyone. He has a purely financial interest in the merrily sadistic wives of the title, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. He attempts to seduce and exploit both of the women for money–unsuccessfully, of course. I write “seduce” but should qualify that Falstaff appears to have no erotic desire for the wives, nor for anyone else. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford quickly disclose Falstaff’s scheme and dispatch the fat old knight.
In the Arden edition, the editor makes the incisive claim that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a humorous comedy at all. I partially concur with this assertion. Approaching the text as a black comedy is probably the best way of going about it. A “black comedy” in the sense that Andre Breton defined the term (in relation to Jonathan Swift): a comedy that provokes the audience to laugh, even though the author is never laughing.
The play has the shape and the style of an erotic nightmare. If you know the early films of Peter Greenaway–particularly, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and Drowning by Numbers (1988)–you have some idea of what to expect. The resemblance between these two excellent films and The Merry Wives of Windsor is uncanny. To truly appreciate what Shakespeare is doing, I would recommend viewing both of these films before reading the play.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford gang up on poor Falstaff. He is thrown into a laundry basket and tossed into a river. He nearly suffocates in the laundry basket and nearly drowns in the river. He is dressed up as a woman–feminization is a classic form of humiliation in the vocabulary of sadism and perhaps also in the vocabulary of masochism, though not in the writings of Sacher-Masoch–and beaten with a cudgel. Antlers are mounted on his head. He is pinched and burned. He becomes a sacrificial figure.
This last form of torture and humiliation does fascinate me, I must confess. The antlers give to the play an even darker valence. In at least three ways: 1.) We learn that Falstaff is a deer-stealer in the first act–the antlers thus create a cosmic irony. 2.) What Falstaff said he would do to Mr. Ford (literal cuckoldry) is done to Falstaff instead (metaphorical cuckoldry). 3.) Falstaff is an Actaeonian figure.
The myth of Actaeon is alluded to implicitly and explicitly throughout the play. The name ‘Actaeon,’ in fact, appears twice in the text: “Like Sir Actaeon he, with Ringwood at thy heels” [II:i]; “divulge Page himself for a secure and wilful Actaeon…” [III:iii].
The myth is simple and powerful. Actaeon spies on the naked bathing goddess, Diana. Since the goddess is not containable in any human form, Actaeon stares at an empty appearance, a simulation. A rustling in the bushes reveals all. Diana raises herself in her divine nudity and screams at the voyeur: “Tell that you saw me bathing here naked–if you can tell at all!” The hunter is transformed into a stag and ripped into pieces by his own hounds.
What we are given here is a sadistic fantasy, a masochistic fantasy, or a sadomasochistic fantasy. The play culminates in a ritual persecution in which a human being is sacrificed.
Of all the many attempts to ideologize Shakespeare and to press him into the service of a sexual-political cause, this might be the best play to use as a vehicle. And yet the play has been strangely ignored both by specialists in Gender Studies and Shakespearean scholars in general. An Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Literature wrote a book entitled Shakespeare on Masculinity without ever so much as mentioning The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The play does have a great deal to say about disgraced masculinity. Every full-grown man in this play is a puddinghead–even Mr. Ford, who is cuckolded without being cuckolded and who commits adultery with his own wife (prefiguring All’s Well that Ends Well). The women are the crafty ones. Whether this vision of hell is making an ontological claim about the differences between men and women is ambiguous; whether this vision of hell is misogynistic, misandristic, or both is non-obvious. Reading the play is rather like watching two cackling little girls flinging apples at an old lion in the zoo.
Reading over what I have written so far, I see that I am making the play appear more interesting than it actually is.
On the Distinction between the flâneur and the boulevardier
1.) A boulevardier drinks in the fashionable atmospheres; a flâneur drifts like a ghost through fashionable spaces, which are less remarkable to him than emptied factories.
2.) A flâneur takes pictures in the mind of landfills; a boulevardier takes pictures of tourist attractions.
3.) A flâneur is a seer; a boulevardier is a sightseer.
4.) A boulevardier strolls down prescribed paths; a flâneur is a mapless wanderer.
5.) A boulevardier walks to be seen; a flâneur walks to see.
A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught Literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had absolutely no interest in eloquence. I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach Literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much. I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (Mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).
A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–-not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.
The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest. A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection. Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” . The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.]. Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language–this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire–the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.
Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher. I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold. The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s. Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.
“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things). It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure. The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” . The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized. For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight. Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.
The eponymous fiction “Oblivion” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.
After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death. His noli me legere also applies to himself. It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out. Because he likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears. It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America). We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness. To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”
Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible. If you accept this premise of my argument (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to recite and revise their own sentences? And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?
The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious. The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death. That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.
One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure. Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.
A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned. He was a coruscatingly intelligent man. My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and leave his other writings alone. As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.