A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion / An Analysis of A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion

An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)

What is one to say when the beloved dies?  There is nothing to say.  None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate.  My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead.  “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10).  What else is there to say?  There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.

A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne.  It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated.  After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.).  The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).

Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).

Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference.  Yet Didion is hardly apathetic.  She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch.  If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough.  If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché.  If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative.  Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.

Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well.  Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.”  (I deliberately omitted the question mark.)  The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life!  Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”

Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”

In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement.  What is it like to be bereaved?  You will never know until it happens to you.  Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death.  A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him.  Self-pity, of course, is inescapable.  She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.”  She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved.  When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes.  Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others.  Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.

Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss.  When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved.  Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible.  Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being.  She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness.  Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning.  The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name in the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water (226).

This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.”  They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything.  They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page.  Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech.  She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable.  What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said.  She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points.  There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death.  Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.

Joseph Suglia

A Review of MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE: Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard): by Dr. Joseph Suglia / MY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard

An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”

–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”

–One Direction, “Better Than Words”

If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust.  Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius.  Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust.  Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice.  Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”

Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel?  It is completely devoid of novelistic properties.  There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.

The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present.  He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children.  He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities.  All of the pomposities are trivialities.  All of the profundities are stupidities.  All of the epiphanies are banalities.

For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.

We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays.  We learn that raising children is difficult.  Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park.  In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party.  Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party.  His daughter forgets her shoes.  Jesus gets the shoes.  He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.

Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red” [65] of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!”  He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” [66].  He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads.  For some reason, this does not surprise me.

Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.

Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog.  “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says [80].

Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA.  The noise irritates his Russian neighbor.  He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.

In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad.  He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol.  I agree with the author’s self-assessment.  He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter.  She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.

Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce.  “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” [478].

(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s.  Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)

Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet.  And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.

Never before has a writer written so much and said so little.  The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.

Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human.  We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:

Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer?  Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature?  Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue.  It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes].  However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader.  It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.  Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.  Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words.  What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.

The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this.  They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual.  There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do [129-130].

The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words.  Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader.  After all, any idiot can have feelings.  Very few people can write well.

It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature.  He is much more interested in LIFE.  Everyone alive has life.  Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life.  Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.

This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.

“Fictional writing has no value” [562] for Knausgaard.  After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it?  This Thought is at least as old as Plato.  Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing.  Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.

(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology.  He affirmed the uncertainty of things.  Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)

Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard.  He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write.  What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much?  One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.

Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability.  Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore.  People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites.  Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers.  The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care.  We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage?  Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion.  Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise.  An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.

Art is not autobiography.  As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist.  Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.”  It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.

Joseph Suglia

EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer / Is Jonathan Safran Foer a Bad Writer?

A review of EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer

Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Safran Foer have made a living by choosing illiterates and children as the narrators of their commercial fiction.  Such a writerly choice alleviates them of the responsibility of writing well.  Now, in his most recent offering, Eating Animals (2009), Mr. Foer writes in his own language for the first time in book form and still sounds very much like the rather dimwitted narrators of his novelistic fabrications.

Though it never fulfills its promise, Eating Animals belongs to the genre of books that explore the ethics of meat eating.  Foer claims that his research into food production has been “enormous” [14] and “comprehensive” [12].  But from a philological point of view, Eating Animals is the scholarly equivalent to animal compost.  How can the male Foer legitimately write and publish a book on the ethics of carnivory without so much as even mentioning the names of Peter Singer and Charles Patterson?  A peal of thundering silence drowns out these extremely loud and incredibly imposing references.  On Page 258, Foer eschews direct statement, but the point is clear: “It might sound naive to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a veggie burger is a profoundly important decision.  Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.”  Yes, human rights are equated to animal rights, EXACTLY the equation set forward by Peter Singer thirty-four years ago.  It does seem parricidal that no reference to Singer or to Patterson is made.

Even worse, Foer’s handling of sources is suspect.  He name-drops Walter Benjamin, tells us what Benjamin allegedly said, and then neglects to give us the citation information in the endnotes (he is referring to, but does not cite Benjamin’s 1934 essay on Franz Kafka).  He implies that Kafka felt “shame” while visiting a Berlin aquarium merely because Benjamin finds shame as a motif in Kafka’s LITERARY work.  He quotes Derrida twice in the book and gives, first, an inapplicable commentary on Derrida’s argument, and, secondly, dispenses with commentary altogether.  In his end note to the Benjamin-Kafka-Derrida passage, Foer writes: “The discussion of Benjamin, Derrida, and Kafka in this section is indebted to conversations with religion professor and critical theorist Aaron Gross” [276].  This discussion, apparently, exonerates Foer of the necessity of reading Benjamin, Derrida, and Kafka himself–and of treating their works with care.

I would never dream of suggesting that Foer should have expatiated on the groundbreaking inclusion of animality in Schopenhauerian philosophy and the exclusion of animality from the Kantian philosophy–that would be effrontery on my part.

The prose style is not merely bad–it is abusively, appallingly, annoyingly, and aggressively bad.  Foer thinks that to aggravate means “to irritate,” that incredibly means “extremely,” that the plural of food is “foods,” and that inedible is a noun.  To aggravate [etymologically, “to make graver”] should never be used to signify “to irritate” in published prose; incredibly properly means “unbelievably” and only means “extremely” in colloquial language; those who think that the plural of food can EVER be “foods” are semiliterate simpletons and debasers of the English language.  Shall we acquiesce to the mistaken idea that inedible is a noun?  (Edible may be a noun; inedible should never be a noun.)

Is it too much to ask the writer whose second novel was described by The Times as a “work of genius” to pursue his research questions?  And what ARE, precisely, his research questions?  After an unhealthful serving of microwaved family anecdotes (always an easy and smarmy introduction), we get an inkling of what Foer’s point of departure might be, and it is all pretty familiar ground: “I simply wanted to know–for myself and my family–what meat is.  I wanted to know as concretely as possible.  Where does it come from?  How is it produced?  How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter? What are the economic, social, and environmental effects of eating animals?” [12].  Well, what we get instead are heaps of digitalized information copied and pasted from the internet and fictionalized first-person narratives written from the perspective of animal-rights activists and factory farmers, the kind of “I-am-my-own-Greek-chorus” meta-fiction one often encounters when teaching first-year Composition at an art school.  Excise the persona poetry, and you have a pamphlet.

It is only at the book’s premature climax that we come by something resembling a thesis.  Foer endorses “eating with care.”  Despite what he says, Foer does not “argue” for this position.  Nor does he even explain it.  He simply advocates what seems a fairly anodyne stance.  He advocates vegetarianism and “another, wiser animal agriculture” and “more honorable omnivory” [244], without telling us what either of these last-mentioned things might be.  Don’t carnify your comestibles!: That is the extent of the “argument,” such as it is.

There is nothing revolutionary or special about vegetarianism or hoping that animals will be treated without cruelty.  Vegetarianism is surely good for animals, but does it make of the vegetarian a majestic figure?  If this book is distinctive at all, it is merely because of the prefabricated consensus that surrounds it and the writer’s desperate efforts to persuade everyone that he is holier than the rest of us.  One is reminded, in particular, of an anecdote that Foer tells of two friends who are hungry for hamburgers or for “burgers,” as Foer calls them. One man gives in to the hamburger impulse; the other refuses to do so, for “there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment” [74; note the masculine pronoun].  In the end, Eating Animals is an auto-hagiography, the memoir of a sacrificer of hamburgers who becomes holy by refusing to give in to his carnivoracity, the story of one man’s relationship to his own viscera.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

GIRL GONE ROGUE: On Sarah Palin

GIRL GONE ROGUE: A review of GOING ROGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Sarah Palin)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

The title of Sarah Palin’s martyrology, Going Rogue (2009), is richly significant.  “Rogue” can mean “renegade” and thus point to Palin’s illusory departure from the ever-redefinable “political” and “media elites,” as well as from the McCain camp.  Reactionary politicians, these days, like to style themselves as “mavericks”–when, in fact, they represent this country’s most powerful insiders.  They endorse tax cuts for the affluent; they serve the gluttonies of the wealthiest financiers, corporate executive officers, and industrialists in America.

A slight logogriphic substitution would transform “rogue” into “rouge.”  The title, then, could be rendered: The Reddening of Sarah Palin.  (“Rouge,” in particular, recalls a shade of lipstick. Would “rouge” refer to the pig’s lipstick-smeared mouth?).  Red, obviously, is the color of the Republican Party, but it is also the color of passion and evokes rage and lust.  It is, as well, the color of fury, of blood, of rapine and viciousness.  It is the color of ecclesiastics, of cardinals.  In the iconography of National Socialism, black swastikas were emblazoned on red backgrounds.

This is a book that is drenched in red.

There is discussion of the animals Sarah Palin enjoys slaughtering, the caribou and moose she takes pleasure in shooting, the salmon she skins.  A photograph of the Arctic Huntress beaming with the psychosexual thrill that comes from killing game, the bloodied corpse of a caribou under her heel.  “I love meat…  [I] especially love moose and caribou.  I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals–right next to the mashed potatoes” [18-19].  Little commentary is required; what is said is clear.  The only room for animals, even endangered animals, is inside of us.  Kill animals and then interiorize them, kill animals that prey upon those other animals we want to interiorize: “[W]e had to control predators, such as wolves, that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities” [134].

I wish someone would tell Sarah Palin that to decimate means “to kill every tenth being.”

Sarah Palin thinks that animals exist only in order to be devoured by human beings.  That is their purpose, their end, their divinely ordained telos.  As if it were a “red kite” [83], she tells us, her mind is connected by an invisible string to the mind of God.  She has immediate access to the divine understanding: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”

In other words,

1.) Animals can be meat–meat that is devoured by human beings.
2.) Therefore, animals exist only to be devoured by human beings.

We have here both a non sequitur and a teleological argument. It is equivalent to saying:

1.) The human hands may be used for strangulation.
2.) Therefore, the human hands exist only for the purpose of strangulation.

The color red may connote the blood of animals.  It may also connote shame.  One is reminded of the red face of the unnamed Alaskan politician who observes Sarah Palin with horror as she gleefully breastfeeds her daughter on a radio program: “I acted like I didn’t see the shocked look on the politician’s face as he turned red and pretended it didn’t bother him at all” [67].  In a single image, the flocculent creaminess of lactate mingles with the blood that rises to the politician’s cheeks.

Red reappears when Sarah Palin douses herself, Countess Bathory style, in the blood of political martyrdom or of “the popular political blood sport called ‘the politics of personal destruction'” [352].  Seldom has self-imposed victimhood been exploited so meretriciously as it is here.  Sarah Palin bemoans the fact that she was “slapped with an ethics accusation” [355].  And yet which “ethics accusation,” precisely?  There are many.  That she misappropriated her governorship for personal and political gain?  That she used the Alaska Fund Trust to cadge gifts and benefits?  She never tells us.  She merely dismisses all ethical grievances as personal attacks issued by the monolithic Left: “One of the left’s favorite weapons is frivolous ethics complaints” [363].

Sarah Palin’s silence over her ethical misconduct is only one of the many silences that perforate Going Rogue.  She never attempts to wash away the record of her ignorance of Africa, the Bush doctrine, or NAFTA.  Certain things are so shameful that they cannot be erased with lies.  Let me cite one more instance of this studied silence: As Mayor, our gentle authoress called for the banning of “objectionable” books from the Wasilla Public Library.  She claims to have merely asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, “What’s the common policy on selecting new titles?” [77].  And yet nowhere does Sarah Palin, meek and mild, mention that she fired Mary Ellen Emmons two days after this conversation took place.  So many of this book’s pages are devoted to assaulting her critics (169 out of 234, by my count), but those criticisms for which she has no rejoinder, those words and actions that are truly indefensible and cannot be mangled, are consigned to a willful silence.

The name of whoever wrote this book is unknown, but it is attributed to a ventriloquist’s doll, a cue-card reader, a red harpy, a Venus in Carmine.

Dr. Joseph Suglia