Friday, November 26, 2010

Gnostic Nonsense

The answers to most questions lie in history. Winston Churchill once said he could look farther into the future because he looked farther into the past.

An example of the sad condition of today's literary world can be found in this post by Blake Butler at

The essay speaks for itself. I posted a pair of quick responses to bring a contrary viewpoint to the gushathon over Blake's post. I shouldn't have had to say anything. The essay speaks for itself. It's not even an essay-- it's a dissertation. A miscarriage. Dead-on-arrival. Butler writes as if he's pursuing a Phd. A hurricane of words, a mass of poorly written sentences, and at the center of them: nothing.

We've come along way from classic American essayists like Vidal, Baldwin, Mailer, and company, haven't we?

I love it. If the entire intellectual literary community is stopped at an orange-sign roadblock with emergency lights flashing, without the sense to turn around, it leaves open roads which will take the writer to actual destinations.

Who has winning ideas? Which ideas, which writings, will prevail?

There was a flurry of interest last century when a jar was found in the desert in Egypt containing the so-called gnostic gospels-- counter narratives to the four accepted versions of the story of Jesus. Had they been suppressed? If so, why? Politics, surely! I believed this myself. That is, until I started reading the counternarratives. What I found were insular, nonsensical, clearly inferior writings.

The four accepted gospels became popular. They lasted because they contained compelling writing about a real, unique personality moving and speaking in a recognizable landscape. When all is said and done, they're great, moving stories, written simply and with clarity, with simple but effective dialogue. Two thousand years later, the narratives still live and breathe.

The gnostic gospels, on the other hand, are dead artifacts, and were always dead to the world in that they were written for small and narrowly focused communities withdrawing from the world, while their more orthodox brethren were confronting it. Elaine Pagels' book on the gnostic gospels explains this well. Some early Christians were populists who believed their message was for the world; for everybody. Others constructed barriers of nonsense, the Eleusinan Mysteries, making it difficult if not impossible for readers to comprehend what they were saying-- which was the whole idea. Strip away the verbiage and you see they weren't saying anything. They were less-- not more--rooted in humanity and reality.

The followers of David Foster Wallace are contemporary gnostics who write for a tiny minority of readers able to "get it"; those watching the nakedly parading Emperor who convince themselves they see something. DFW is their dead god. His kind of work represents, as I said, a dead end. The task of the new writer is to tear down the System's plaster gods, to offer living alternatives that can reach the general population, and revive the corpse of American literature in so doing.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

Having just read a pretty interesting book of interviews with Sherman Alexie (I put a quote up on my page), I felt a hope stirring that his new book of essays might actually be along the lines of what you speak of admiringly here.

Not academic, not facile, not narcissistic.