REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO
WHY THE LYRIC ESSAY IS BETTER THAN FICTION
The world exists. Why recreate it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else? Not me.
Verboten thematic: secular Jews, laureates of the real, tend, anyway, to be better at analyzing reality than recreating it. Recently, for example, Lauren Slater, Lying; Harold Brodkey, most of the essays; Phillip Lopates introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay; Vivian Gornick, pretty much everything; Leonard Michaels, nearly everything; Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere; Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl; Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André; Jonathan Safran Foer, Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease; Salingers later, consciousness-drenched work (I know Ill love the Buddhist-inspired meditations hes been writing the last forty years in his bunker). Less recently, e.g., Marx, Proust, Freud, Wittgenstein, Einstein.
Michel de Montaigne famously asked, What do I know?thereby forming and backforming a tradition. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things. St. Augustine, Confessions. Pascal, Pensées. Rousseau, Confessions. Rochefoucauld, Maxims.
Yeats, though, said, It must go further still: that soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the one activity, the mirror turn lamp. Which could and should serve as epigraph to all of Nietzsche and all of E. M. Cioran; Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain; Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude; Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Leiris: I bear in my hands the disguise by which I conceal my life. A web of meaningless events, I dye it with the magic of my point of view.
Which is what I lovethe critical intelligence in the imaginative position. Nicholson Baker, U & I. Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage. Terry Castle, My Heroin Christmas. Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave. Jonathan Lethem, The Disappointment Artist. Richard Sterns orderly miscellanies. Roland Barthes, S/Z. Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queens Throat. Nabokov, Gogol. Beckett, Proust. Proust, all. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.
Sister Mary Ignatius, in other words, explaining it all for youles belles dames sans merci: Joan Didion, all the essays. Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights. Pauline Kael, all. Renata Adler, Speedboat.
So, too, on another track: Sandra Bernhard, Without You Im Nothing. Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic.
Then the train going in the opposite direction: Chris Rock, Bring the Pain. Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer. Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny. Spalding Gray, nearly everything. Art Spiegelman, Maus. Ross McElwee, all.
What is it about this work I like so much? The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrators use of themselves, as personae, as representatives of feeling-states; the antilinear, semi-grab-bag nature of their narratives; the absolute seriousness phrased as comedy; the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices.
Rhapsodizing about Frank Sinatra, William Carlos Williams said, Look, whether were young, or were all grown up and just starting out, or were getting old and getting so old theres not much time left, were human beingswere looking for company, and were looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that were not alone, and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when were walking or sitting or driving, and thinking things over.
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