09 July 2006

Screaming in the Canoe

I read the first essay in Eric Larsen's book, A Nation Gone Blind last night. No, I devoured it. I started it on the subway and was so excited about it that I did that thing I hate, I attempted to walk on the street and read at the same time. And then I started reading it aloud to Joel, and neither of us wanted to do anything but read it.

You should read it. It's a sharp, precise and wickedly funny grading of the State Department’s Writers On America series of diplomatic essays, and there is so much about what he is saying that is so true. I am willing to take on Eric Larsen precisely because of this truth, precisely because he understands that to find truth is the moral imparative of cultural production.

I wasn't going to write anything until I had gotten through all three essays, but a blog is an expressly serial format and it was all just too satisfying and scary and the one problem I have with Larsen's thinking is too important not to start in on it now. Besides, reading Frank Rich on Sundays always has a laxative effect on my mind, and it was so satisfying to read Rich after spending last night with Larsen.

Larsen and Rich are busying themselves in a similar way: they are doing the hard work of dissecting each lie as it's told, thereby exposing the whole tapestry of lies for what it is. This is the intellectual work that makes sense right now, and both Larsen and Rich are being pretty generous about the whole enterprise, writing some of the most pointed expository writing that I have come across in awhile. Where they diverge, however, and where I am going to pick a bone with Larsen, is that Rich has this infectious optimism that is often tried and isn't always expressed openly, but always lurks in the background of whatever he writes. His dissection of the "perilous time" we live in springs from his faith that he has the power to do something about it. This is true: he can expose it. I have long loved Rich because he is the ultimate optimist. Despite his incredible negative capacity, he manages to be light. He frames every lie he uncovers as more evidence that this government built on lies is structurally unsound, and therefore must fall apart if we can just keep our eyes focused on all three rings of lies that jump through hoops of lies under the big top of lies. His writing is an invitation to do the work with him, to notice and make connections.

Larsen has significantly less faith in his readership, and does not extend the same invitation. And while reading his first essay last night was like having drinks with your best friend, I can't countenance his pessimism. Not because he's wrong. He is delightfully careful and precise in his condemnation of American thought. Rather, his pessimism is inappropriate because he is so right, and because the stakes are therefore so high. The times we live in are too perilous to collapse into pessimism, and there is too little truth going around these days to squander some on a fallacious delaration that truth is a thing of history.

I want to begin with the end of his first essay, Watching America Go Blind, where he quotes Marilynne Robinson:

"The literature of expostulation, of Catastrophe, is taken to be very serious. But among people carried along in a canoe toward a waterfall, the one who stands up and screams is not the one with the keenest sense of the situation. We are in a place so difficult that perhaps alarm is an indulgence, and a harder thing--composure--is required of us."

Larsen includes this paragraph in order to provide continuity, and the larger point is Robinson's choices about language. But this thought, not Robinson's wistful longing for control over language, is at the heart of understanding this larger project of truth-telling and Larsen's role in it. There is a very basic indulgence in the way Larsen structures this Age of Simplification, in the way he dooms everyone under sixty to think in half-truths and to be incapable of more.

Framing this as a historical problem, an Age of Simplification that is merely a byproduct of total power of media to change may seem pretty accurate, but it doesn’t fucking help. Rather than believing in his and others’ power to tell the truth, he wastes his truth on history, delcaring that the State Department essayists who got good grades from him did so because of their age.

I want to be very clear. Larsen argues that there were bad essays and truly bad essays, which are simply evidence of a larger Age of Simplification and that the essayists were obviously doing the best they could. And there are well-written, literary essays, who were written by people old enough to still write well. When turning to the group of essays that received good grades, he writes:

It’s not really surprising that one finds oneself suddenly back among literary people and no longer stifled by the Age of Simplification. The reason for this is--age.

The only thing I can take from this is that I am blind or will become blind, and just as Larsen rightly excoriates Robert Olen Butler for telling him in his state department essay what he (Larsen) thought and felt on 9/11, I resent and reject the way I cannot help but be included in Larsen’s Twilight of American Thought, simply because I was born in 1971 and not 1947. This is absurdly simplistic--as simplistic as Butler’s assumption that because 9/11 was a big media event, we must therefore all have the same experience of it. This utter dismissal of any thinking body under age sixty that is willing to tell the truth in its entirety baffles me. How can someone be so interested in the truth as a moral enterprise, and yet not grasp that nostalgia is an incredibly inappropriate response, that it slams the door on anyone who wants to fucking fix it?

Is Larsen writing to be a part of the solution, or to wash his hands of a problem?

To find the truth is not the only moral imparative of the writer. What one does with that truth is incredibly pertinent. I want to know what Larsen thinks he is doing with the truth he finds, what he thinks the point is in declaring truth to be a thing of the past.

What am I supposed to do with this truth, except join Larsen in giving up?

Let’s get back to that canoe that is going over the waterfall. To stand up and scream is to give up, and giving up means not seeing the branch dangling down, the rock, the rope at everyone’s feet. Eric Larsen may have the luxury of giving up, but I've still got some McGyver in me.


Anonymous Eric Larsen said...

Awful Sinking Feeling
Oy, oy, oy, talk about feeling wonderful and rotten at once! Hello, Deborah Fisher, it’s me again, Eric Larsen. And, man, am I powerfully impressed by you and admiring of you—your writing, your energy, your insight, and even your anger. I’m in heaven that you “devoured” ANGB’s first chapter, even read it on the sidewalk, and then out loud. But I’m also feeling really, wholly miserable at the very thought that the book actually backfires, that it does the exact opposite of what it aims, wants, struggles, and strives to do, which is not to wash my hands of anything whatsoever, not to give up in despair, not to make anything worse rather than better, and, above all, not to alienate or enrage anyone whatsoever like you: intelligent, articulate (in spades), perceptive (add several intensifiers), and passionate (in fact, I actually think, passionate about the same things I am). And then age thing threatens to blow everything out of the water. Gotta clear that up. If necessary, make a profuse apology. But consider this: your 1971 to my 1941 makes you the exact same age as my own grown children—and, believe me, every word I write I write for them and not in abandonment of them, in hope for them and in hope for the world that they, like you, will be living in longer than I will.

I do nothing with despair except fight against it, as I have all my life. And, believe me, I’ve got no “luxury of giving up.” I never have had, and I never will have—or, like Wordsworth says, let me die.

So. I’ve got some serious explaining to do. If I were to lose a reader like you, I’d be losing the very thing, the very kind of person, the exact kind of strong and thinking intellectual I wrote the book for. I pray beyond prayer that that won’t happen. If it does, then the corporate-state wins and all the rest of us lose.

Maybe I can explain, at least a little, by saying something about my education and also something about my temperament. There’s an author interview on my website ( www.ericlarsen.net ), but it’s long and there’s not time to get into it here, though there’s a lot in it about my literary education. For now, though, let me just say that, even as a student, I never understood how or why people could or would recoil from any piece of art or literature on the grounds that it was depressing, and, equally, I never understood how or why anyone could or would prefer any piece of art or literature on the grounds that it was uplifting or “nice.” I loved every comic bit in Chaucer as much as the next guy (though I despise the likes of Broadway musicals), but I also couldn’t get enough of what was dark—not only in Chaucer himself but in Lear, say, and Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, the works. Looking into the abyss was never a deterrent for me. Almost the opposite. I wanted the truth of all the experience of being human and being alive and I wanted all of that truth.

Now, this might have been, or might be, a flaw, but I powerfully doubt it. It’s given me a lot. On the other hand, it may very well lead or have led to a flaw in communication, which, to a writer, is an incredibly painful thing to have to admit. In other words, it may be these aspects of my temperament and thinking are the reason why it never occurs to me to say that even though something I write or say or produce may sound like despair, it isn’t despair. Despair is silent. Despair is doomed. Good books, on the other hand, however despairing they may seem or even be, are great cries, huge appeals, sometimes even urgent whispers that the evil seen, however vile and vast, must be opposed in whatever ways possible.

Now, if I fail to express that idea explicitly because I assume it exists implicitly, and if it that failure brings about any degree or kind of personal disgust or moral revulsion in readers—I can only say that the fault for such misunderstanding is no one’s but my own, that it comes about partly because of the way I was trained and the way I was raised—and that I’m sorry. Really, deeply sorry.

I have loved and spent many years with the English 18th Century satirists, and this fact has a bearing on the matter also. It always seemed to me very clear that although the great satirists may have been driven near madness by sorrow and contempt and disgust and despond, they were, even so, never in despair but evermore fighting against it. If they had been in despair, they’d never have written their satires. And one other thing: however negative the satires, the works were failures if they didn’t imply their own opposites, didn’t imply, that is, some form, that is, of the positive.

And they did. It’s the same with me. I never would have written ANGB if I were in despair, if I had given up, or even if I was thinking of giving up. Here’s how I think of the book, in the same way that I think of the darkest things in art, like Lear: as a huge, urgent, impassioned cry for doing something to make things better.

As for the age thing, I apologize deeply. It doesn’t mean that Deborah Fisher, born 1971, is anything other than brilliant, committed, and filled to the bursting with vision. But it does mean that the later a person is born in the Age of Simplification, the harder it’s going to be for them to end up like Deborah Fisher.
—Eric Larsen

10 July, 2006 13:48  
Blogger geoffrey said...

DF and EL--- wow to both of you. Sending this to my mom right now (who might be the only mother to name her son after Chaucer, lol). But thank you for both of your open and honest posts. This defines for me why and how blogging works (towards your earlier post especially DF re:ethics... here is the model.)

10 July, 2006 14:59  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

E and D - wonderful, really quite wonderful. I have to echo Geoffrey - minus Chaucer of course! Look an ACTUAL discussion! I'm definitely buying a copy now - born in '72, respectfully yours - HLIB.

10 July, 2006 18:21  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Eric Larsen,

I don't want to leave you hanging any longer. First, I accept your apology wholly, and appreciate your honesty, generosity and passion. I understand what you are saying--the difference between negative capacity and negativism is subtle, and gets me into trouble as well.

If your goal was to encite, then you should feel good because you did, and I hope you stick around for essays two and three, and there is more to talk about, much more.

You took some time to explain where you're coming from, and I should too. I call myself a sculptor and not an artist because sculpture is a very specific enterprise, with a relationship to reality that I value tremendously, a relationship to reality that is relevant to the world we are talking about.

Sculptors do not make illusions happen, like painters. Rather, they make things that look like they should be illusions (wrong scale, weight, balance, interesting material choice, not rectangles, etc), but that actually exist in reality. In order to do this jujitsu on reality, sculptors must be in complete posession of two things at the same time:

1. a complete deference to the physical world its laws.

2. an absurdly arrogant faith that the thing inside the sculptor's mind can exist on the outside.

A sculpture is merely the evidence of a conversation between these two sculptural ways of being. You don't always get what you ask for, but you always get something, and can always shape that something somehow. It's negotiation.

So, sculpture is extremely pragmatic and about dreaming at the same time--sculptors dream by solving problems.

I see exactly what drives your argument, and I buy your definition of despair. But I don't see the world this way. I still have tactical problems with your condemnation of the entire Age, because I simply must, in order to do my work, keep every single door open. I have to see the problem, but I can't judge the problem, or it turns into a wall.

Basically, I am completely impressed with the way you've taken hold of the entirety of the problem. My work is to reconcile the hugeness you have splayed out in front of us with the fact that it has to be overcome, and that any one individual has such a small role, can do so little. This is totally impossible, it's the reconciling of two irreconcilables, it's an antirevolution.

So all I've basically got is two good listening ears and a totally arrogant faith that I can do it. I might fail, but for reasons HLIB went into here, I can't not try.

Please keep coming around, please keep helping us try. Your rigor and passion is helpful.

12 July, 2006 08:10  

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