We’re Only Human

“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human … is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Not only does this quote remind me of my great failure this summer to actually complete Wallace’s uber-novel, it also reflects my state of mind this week, not a state of mind that makes me feel anything close to inner peace, to put it mildly: I’m hoping to cure myself, at least momentarily, with a weekend of sleep, generous sips of whiskey, and mindless dvd viewing of Weeds or The Tudors (or whatever Netflix deigns to send me with their damned “very long wait” fatalism) in between bouts of grading.


A Sunday Meditation on Faith and Fiction

Yes, I should be grading (30something more research papers to go) or Christmas shopping or cleaning, but a girl needs a break, so I drank a little vino and read my new New Yorker last night while in the background Jimmy Stewart did his thing on that movie, you know the one.

I skimmed most of the issue, though I read about Roman Polanski and the rape he got away with for 30 years, which got me thinking about being 13 again, which reminded me of the grad student I’m working with who is writing about teen chick lit focused on teen girls who are psychologically or physically damaged in some way (books with titles such as Cut, as well as that old standby, Go Ask Alice).

So it wasn’t exactly a “light” and “leisurely” night of goofing off.

Then I read this story. This story may be the antidote to my failed attempt at Infinite Jest this summer. David Foster Wallace’s “All That” is in this week’s New Yorker.  A seminary student tells the story of a toy his parents gave him when he was 5 years old, or so, a story that reflects his first recognition of his own religious faith or “impulse” as he calls it. 

Having very shaky, if nonexistent, faith myself, I’m surprisingly a sucker for literary stories that depict characters who struggle with such feelings.  I adore A Prayer for Owen Meany,  the latter stories of Raymond Carver, most of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I’ve read everything Mary Gordon has written since I was a teenager, and then the same with Mary McCarthy and Alice McDermott. And no, I don’t just read Catholics and ex-Catholics: Anne Lamott (her essays, not her fiction) and Marilynne Robinson are my Presbyterian writers.  And don’t forget the Jews: when I was growing up on Long Island I read Chaim Potok’s novels (anyone remember The Chosen?), of course Anne Frank, and later Philip Roth, Rebecca Goldstein, and much later, Dara Horn and Allegra Goodman.

There’s more, but you get the picture.

Most of these writers (with some exceptions) depict young people going through either a crisis of faith, or a struggle with a religious institution or figure, or, less commonly, recognizing the rarity of their own innate belief in a higher power–which puts them at odds with the secular world around them.

What’s so powerful about Wallace’s story (besides its “voice”: the character’s voice, deliberately un-intellectual, is exceptionally affecting) is  the man describing his childhood feelings of ecstasy as physical sensations, analogous to the physical and random but intense moments of love he felt with his parents.  The story ends with two long  nearly unquotable paragraphs (the last sentence of the story is parenthetically rich 25 lines long) that (perhaps not entirely successfully) leave us with two images the young man remembers, images that the reader assumes will restore the faith that is momentarily failing him as an adult. I’ll quote from one of them, since I think this quote can work for those who haven’t read the story yet.  By this point in the story, the reader is well aware that the boy is unusual, and he explicitly tells us that the voices he heard as a child in his head were not a sign of mental illness, but a concrete, physical manifestation of his own religious experience as a child: 

Since I have been known to write such long, parenthetical sentences, I have some affection for them, so part of my reaction to the above is aesthetic and personal.  But for me, the only way I can truly “get” religious belief is to have it explained to me in such a physical, visceral way.

And while it may not be exactly the same thing (depending on one’s definition of belief) that scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag floating, dancing in the wind which controls it, but doesn’t, comes to mind: no, it’s certainly not a film about religious belief, but that empty bag is begging to be filled by something.

Rejection, Failure, and Self Reflection

My first panic attack happened during the summer before my second year (not my first, interestingly) of graduate school and adjunct teaching.  I was walking along 5th Avenue in NY and suddenly stopped breathing: there’s no other way of explaining it.  I responded with the usual Prozac and Psychotherapy, stopping the latter soon after realizing that the Psych Ph.D. was no smarter than I was (intelligence being a key factor in how I chose men, no matter what their relationship, at the time), and stopping the drugs as soon as I discovered that alcohol was cheaper, and quicker.

That was many, oh so many, summers ago, but ever since then I’ve gone through the depths of despair, so to speak, every single summer. Sometimes it happens in August, as it did way back when, but more often it happens in July, and now, it seems, it’s front loading to late June.   

I know other academics go through this, too (see PhD Me, for example): we are so focused on others and ideas (our own and others) for 60+ hours a week, 7 days a week, 10 or so months, that it’s not until the academic year ends that we have the time to breathe.  And while we are breathing we see the now pages long, 10 point font, to-do list we’ve been saving for just this summer, (everything from finishing the painting of the damned hallway, finally, to reading the dozens of books and articles we’ve saved for course prepping for fall term, to the reviews we promised to write, to the dinner invitations we still need to return, to writing up our own half-baked ideas we’ve been jotting down or blogging about informally all year), and naturally panic occurs.

It’s not necessarily rational: I do have more time now that I’m not teaching 15 hours a week, holding office hours 5 hours a week, grading and prepping 20-30 hours a week, and doing committee work several hours a week.  I’m teaching online, which requires only 5-10 hours a week, depending on the week.  I know the problem:  all the free time,  too much time to think, to dwell, to obsess. I must spend so much time working or just DOING STUFF during those 10 months of the year that I am successfully postponing any self reflection, any time for just thinking. 

Clearly, not a healthy way to live.

Thus the panic is happening earlier this summer than ever before, but at least this summer, I can attribute it to two specific events (or, more precisely, non-events).

The first: the rejection I received from NPR. Though they wrote to ME, asking ME to submit a revised “Three Books” essay. They have now rejected the revised essay with this pithy note:

“Thanks so much for your submission.  The essay isn’t really working for us, so we’re going to pass.”

To be honest, I really don’t love what I sent them: I struggled with turning something I originally threw together in 200 words into a 500 word essay. (Here I am writing a 1000+ word blog posting for god’s sake—I simply can’t write 500 words!) In the process, the heart and soul was whittled out of the piece.  But, despite actually agreeing with their pithy assessment, rejection is rejection, right?

And today, I’ve decided NOT to continue reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest even though I wasn’t so sure I’d go through with the whole Infinite Summer thing to begin with. I did read the first 63 pages (as per our assigned reading).  However, Dave Eggers’ 2006 foreword was perhaps not the best way to start the book: in it, he practically begs the reader to give the novel a chance. He starts well, noting that most readers of “literary fiction” like to read both easy to read fiction as well as challenging fiction, rather than either-or:

“These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week.”

Yes, that’s certainly true. I’ve just finished Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (definitely in the “easy to read” category—fast read, stock characters, happy ending) while also reading Infinite Jest and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (the latter two in different subcategories of “challenging fiction”).

But then Eggers compares Infinite Jest to a

 “spaceship with no recognizable components…very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws…It simply is. Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last twenty years. At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”

At this point, I’m thinking: oh great, one of those cult-followed novels that only those who wear black, black framed glasses, and carry their smugness like Linus’ blanket everywhere they go will appreciate this novel.   Then Eggers says that the expected age of a new reader of this novel that captures “the consciousness of an age” is 25.  Oh, he concedes that some more ancient readers, 30 or even 50 year olds, might be condescendingly reading the book for the first time, but basically, he assumes that like he was the first time he read the book,  the reader is a 25 year old English major, and, I assume, male.

So I go into this book knowing that I am not at all the target audience. Not a good way to begin a novel when I have dozens of other novels,  novels that are practically begging a middle aged woman English professor to read them, waiting for me by my bed. 

So even though the novel is fairly easy to read (despite the endnotes, which do seem to be increasing with each chapter, unfortunately), and with characters who (sorry Eggers) DO resemble other characters in fiction, from Holden Caulfield way back to Tom Sawyer—and all those adolescent boys/men in between—and there does seem to be an actual plot focusing on different addictions, I just don’t want to keep reading. I have too much else to read. 

So, rejection and failure in one day.

But it has led to self-reflection. It’s summer. I do have a long to-do list, but hell will not freeze over if I ignore half of it. And while neither my rejection nor my failure will impact my career or my life in any negative way—no job or income depended on either—they have led me to reflect on what I really want to accomplish this summer.  And I’m happy with that.   I’ll let you know if I figure what that actually IS before August.

Infinite Summer with David Foster Wallace

Bitch, Ph.D. linked to this challenge: finish David Foster Wallace’s 1000-page novel, Infinite Jest, by Sept. 22nd.

The website also identifies some warm up readings, including his essays and short stories (including the most recent collection, This Is Waterhis 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, which includes the parable I alluded to in my speech).

Since my summer reading list has grown as large as the stacks of books on the floor in my home office, I’ll probably not participate in the challenge of reading a novel some have called unreadable (though others praise it, or more pointedly, their own accomplishment in having finished it).  But I do recommend Wallace’s essays and short stories: think of them as tapas and engaging conversation for those who don’t want a 5-course meal and an intense, multilayered lecture.