by Paul Jessup
Some days you just wake up and conversations float around in the air, assaulting your ears in varying degrees of logic and pressure. You reach out, grasp onto one, discuss it, rationalize it, create discourse from it, release it, set it free.
Sometimes you release them just to have them come back, latch onto your thoughts, stay resident, never go away, never flutter towards freedom. Usually conversations about writing are like this to me; about writing, about reading: they are all residential conversations. Their arguments last, haunting me, never going on, never moving to the after life of my thoughts.
Here is one such conversation that won’t go away:
Him: I’m wondering what the subtext of character X’s interactions in Book Y is.
Her: Oh, that’s bullshit. I don’t think writers do that, you know? I think that’s just pretentious critics. Writers just write what they write, it’s the stupid critics who tend to over diagnosis it.
Cue sound of cars screeching to a fast stop, record needle scoring against a groove, Ren and Stimpy howling ugly noises, all that, all that…
The argument continued onward from there, spiraling out in differing degrees of conversation. But the heart of it, the sticky center of it, is patently false. I mean, it’s easy to prove wrong. Letters from Checkhov, from Charles Dodgeson* to readers and fans discussing their works. Writers of all ages, stripes, nationality, have at some point talked about the intentional subtext of their novels(and usually how most readers don’t see it). Nabokov, Salinger, Gene Wolfe, Kerouac, Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Bukowski, Barthe, etc, etc, etc. You look in their notes, letters to fans and friends, discussions, as well as courses they’ve taught at universities, etc, and you see that all of them intentionally structure and include subtext into their stories.
Easter eggs, hidden jokes, references to other novels, references to poetry, philosophical insights, attacks against current political figures of the day. Hell, one of the keys to understanding Dante is in understanding is contemporaries and the way he includes them and rips them apart in his visions of a gory afterlife.
But, sigh, that same such person (that Her of above) also is of the current opinion that fiction and movies and books and etc, all exist to entertain, period. Nothing else, nothing more, just exist as a sort of slideshow of mind numbing escape. I don’t understand the appeal of this myself, I try to, but I don’t get it. I also don’t get the frame of mind that insists that this is the only way to experience a narrative, and to see it any other way is to embrace some sort of egomaniacal pretension of the worst sort. Oh, the minute you turn to a narrative as a way of being intellectually challenged you are basically setting yourself up in some ivory tower, looking down your nose at *them* that scurry beneath you.
Because, yeah, we don’t get enjoyment out of it. Sure, some people call Finnegan’s Wake or Dhalgren insane nonsense. The rest? They see it as an intellectual challenge. Like a symbolic jigsaw puzzle for the mind. It keeps our brains humming. I read to be affronted, I read to be intellectually charged. I want books that keep me thinking about them long after I put them down. To me, this is entertainment. This entertains me. Reading that requires an active participation in the reader. I don’t want to turn my brain off, I have the internet for that. I turn to books to force me to embrace myself, to see all the emotional contours of my reality. I read in order to feel human, not to escape what humanity has to offer me.
The Her of above, well, she was once a smart cookie. She was once upon a time someone who loved intellectual games, who did some great abstract photography that challenged the viewer to see reality in a fractured, interesting light. Now? She reads and writes fanfiction. Our world is being stripped of the cultural importance of feeling, of being human.
Back in the days of Nazi occupied France, we had a bunch of brave existentialist who wrote plays and books that challenged their occupiers. These people would not turn a blind eye to what was going on around them, and they were a key part in the underground French Resistance. Camus, Sartre, Anouilh, Beckett, Ionesco, etc, etc. Would the current American landscape foster such artful revolution? I’m not sure. I have this sinking feeling we would all just pump out even more Captain America films and X-Men films and we will just devour ourselves in the numbness of our own creation.
Even now, where are our movies, books, television, plays, poems, depicting what we have going on today? Where are the works that speak truthfully about the millions of homeless whose homelife and security were destroyed by the economic crisis? Who had their lives stolen by banks, their jobs stolen by banks, their existence destroyed by banks? Were is this generation’s Grapes of Wrath? Where is this generation’s The Flies, Rhinoceros, The Misunderstanding? I know, we’re not Nazi occupied, but something is happening. We have a class war on an epic scale, we have corporations controlling us, destroying us, creating their own serfdom out of credit cards and mortgage payments. We have unions being stripped of any power, we have a generation being forced into poverty against their will.
And where are we? We are sitting around, watching. Numbly viewing, playing video games, doing nothing.
*Surprisingly enough, the subtext he always talks about is math. Not drugs, not loving children, none of the stuff people claim he was writing about. It was always about math, and discussing math games, and playing with logic and logic games. From this standpoint, not only do the Wonderland books seem less chaotic and surreal, but there is also an overall structure and theme to them that shows maddeningly detail in the chaos.