Friday, November 14, 2008

Intellectualism vs. Intelligence

To test my fairness, I began reading a David Foster Wallace book at a chain bookstore, "Interviews with Hideous Men" or such. The writing was hideous. I made it as far as the third piece.

The first "essay" was a cutely written brief piece of nonsense. The second was extended description of a famous poet in a swimming pool. It went nowhere. By the third piece (whose theme, setting, or plot I can't recall) I realized that DFW was the ultimate graphomaniac, producing verbiage in endless sentences that would make Thomas Wolfe cringe in embarrassment.

It reminded me of a man I saw once in a diner in Detroit, a crazy man in a booth talking to himself without pause. The man suffered from some kind of mental disease that caused every thought he had to be verbalized-- and the thoughts never stopped. At first it was striking-- "Look at that crazy man"-- and for a few minutes it was entertaining, but soon enough it became irritating and then maddening, so that I was happy to get away from it. There was a sparkle of words to the thoughts at times but mostly it was disordered nonsense.

I had a vision afterward of the man in a room somewhere on a chair, pontificating to the walls, for hours, forever, without stop.

Unfortunate David Foster Wallace likewise had a mind which couldn't be turned off. (The malady to a greater or lesser extent afflicts many of us who write.) Was there any peace for the man in his waking hours? With such colliding madness in his head, how could he rest? He eventually turned off the spout the only way he knew how.

DFW's writing passed for intellectualism but there was little intelligence to it. His satire consisted of superficial toyings with superficialities. Everything was surface.

We see in today's literary world a ton of intellectualism, but the thrust in fact is anti-intellectual, AGAINST meaning and truth. The posings are an avoidance of logic.

An example of the anti-intellectual trend of the current lit world is the journal N+1, which I've tried very hard to like, and failed at the effort.

Issue #6 for instance was an outpouring of stupidity. There's no other way to put it. The issue showed an ignorance of basic economics. The editors predicted "the end of oil," seeming not to realize (could they be that stupid?) that the supply of oil is a function of the amount of effort and money people are willing to spend to retrieve it. Or, the supply at $100 a barrel is more than at $20 a barrel. If it means uncapping wells, drilling deeper, or in places currently closed off, using new technology, or retrieving shale oil-- at the right price the possibilities are endless. There's an enormous amount of oil left on this planet. If the editors had a sense of history-- remember the 70's?-- they'd realize it. Much of the oil price spike was due not to a lack of supply so much as the devaluation of the dollar (oil is priced in dollars) which occurred to fund an expensive war.

Global warming? A minor, temporary increase in global temperature sends the N+1 gang into hysterics. They become like the out-of-control passenger in the 1969 movie "Airport": "We're all going to die. We're all going to die!" There's a certain narcissism or extreme egoism involved in believing the end days are here now-- that everything will finish in your brief lifetime. Because you're special.

Not only illogic, but contradictions throughout. The most environmentally hysterical of their group, Chad Harbach, was their web editor. It's curious to me that the YouTube generation is so mad about global warming. Do they realize the amount of juice used by the Internet; especially streaming video? Google and Yahoo are moving closer to greater electricity sources. How many power plants will have to be built to accommodate YouTube? Yet these are environmentalists! (Meanwhile the gang jets regularly to Europe.)

As for N+1 fiction, it's beyond stupidity. Try to find a trace of an idea in it. In some cases, intellectualism-- but without exception even when posing as intellectuals the characters are narcissists obsessed with their own glib wonderfulness, with narrow focus, and about as much understanding of how the civilization operates as a hamster-- or as much as the N+1 editors themselves.


Anonymous said...

Do you have any more specific examples of DFW being only surface and not more in depth. I do think that "Brief Interviews" is one of his weaker efforts and that by this point in his career he was having trouble finding a new direction in which to grow, but after a close reading of "Infinite Jest" as well as reading his non-fiction pieces I can't help but think that DFW was trying his hardest to tame his postmodern leanings and write with some good old fashioned humanism, some emotional depth. He said as much in an essay from "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". However, when I first read Wallace I only liked it because of all the pyrotechnics and the flamboyant style, but after re-reading his works I saw much more going on beneath the surface. And DFW didn't really care much for the publishing industry any more than it was a way to allow the most people to read and connect with his work. Anyway, maybe you should try and go back and read his work with a bit of an open mind and you might find some more depth than what you found reading just three stories. And even within those three I still think "Forever Overhead" (the third story) is a very moving and real story. If you disagree I'm interested to know which writers you think write with more authenticity.

Scott said...

Clearly, your reading of BIWHM--though admittedly only 3 pieces deep--was a painfully surface-concerned and superficial affair. Your comments reflect those of someone who reads a page of text in the same way a stone skips across water. It also seems as if your mind was already made-up about Wallace's writing before you scanned the 3 pieces and posted about them. Your blithe dismissal of the 3rd piece, "Forever Overhead", is completely ridiculous. Please do yourself a favor and actually read that story; it speaks more truths in its first two pages than anything I've read on this angry-at-the-establishment blog.

King said...

Correction made: I had "Airplane" when I meant "Airport."
I'll read the rest of the comments I've received in a day or two. No time today.
The polar ice cap isn't melting-- it's moved to Detroit!

King said...

"Forever Overhead"? WHAT truths? Please name them.
I've just re-read the story, and find in it:
a retreat into adolescence;
extreme solipsism;
an obsession with details;
a fixation on existence itself.
In fact it's anti-intelligence; an empty philosophy; an arrival at nothingness. DFW believed in nothing, representing an overanalytical madness. Obviously, this didn't serve him well.
As an aesthetic work, the story is a disaster. It's anti-literature. (Who can it appeal to, I wonder? Thumbsuckers?)
The style is awful, hostile to the reader. The character-less character needs to be kicked in the ass to wake out of his stupor, for his own good, as the author at some point in his life should've been. There is no plot to speak of except the realization of a baby-like mentality on the part of the baby-like protagonist. "Hello." It's a presentation of extreme sensitivity; a celebration of stupidity.
Just as there are laws in the universe, and so for example in economic markets, which are now asserting themselves, there are also artistic laws. Not all is stupidity. The task of the writer is to seek these natural laws out.
I was reading the other night in the gospel of Luke, and came upon the scene in a garden when Jesus, the picture of confidence among his disciples, withdraws "about a stone's cast" from them to pray for the strength to complete his mission, becoming suddenly to our eyes doubtful and weak, and there comes this sentence: "And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were gret drops of blood falling down to the ground."
Do you understand why this is a masterpiece of the literary art?
With a handful of sentences, with hardly any description at all, we're given the stark humanity of the hero of the tale, and at the same time the scene is set in a picture box within a picture box within a picture box, as the scene expands for us in context and meaning. The impact of the meaning opens out. First, the palpable dread of what lies immediately ahead, exemplified by the sweat described to foreshadow, in a striking way, the coming drama. On a narrative level, the scene in the garden is an aesthetic pause which sets up the climax-- like a pause in a symphony directly before a cascade of onrushing, thundering sound. Lastly of course the scene expresses the cosmic significance of the story. The reader is reminded, through this scene, of the point-- that the story Luke is telling has a point.
The example, for my purposes also, has a point. It's that the character Jesus is never physically described-- yet he's one of the most real persons ever presented ina literary work. We know him through his words and his actions; his personality. The settings are minimally described. The description which IS given, an image of "great drops of blood falling to the ground," stands out like red daubs of paint against a dark gray backdrop.
DFW describes everything and in so doing describes nothing. All is the same, a straight line with no highs or lows; mere existence culminating in, and meaning, nothing. I fail to see how this is satisfying to the reader.