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How Literature Saved My Lifeby David Shields
IN WHICH I DISCUSS ANOTHER BOOK AS A WAY TO THROW INTO BOLD RELIEF WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT.
All criticism is a form of autobiography.
I’ve never met the poet Ben Lerner, though we trade email now and then, since we’re interested in each other’s work. In my case, “interested” is a bit of an understatement. I’m obsessed with him as my doppelgänger of the next generation. Both of us went to Brown, have lived in Spain, are Jewish. I wasn’t born in Topeka, as he was, but growing up in a northern California suburb felt as far removed from Oz as Kansas. Both of us are writers and “critics.” Both of us have/had accomplished mothers and dreamier fathers. Above all, both of us are in agony over the “incommensurability of language and experience” and our detachment from our own emotions
Ben’s most recent book, Leaving the Atocha Station, is nominally a novel but thick with roman à clef references to his childhood in Topeka, his undergraduate and graduate years in Providence, his Fulbright year in Madrid, his essay on the Library of America edition of John Ashbery’s poetry (which includes the poem “Leaving the Atocha Station”), his poet friends Cyrus Console and Geoffrey G. O’Brien, his psychologist parents (his mother is the feminist writer Harriet Lerner). I’m going to go ahead and treat the novel’s narrator, Adam, as if he were Ben. Ben won’t mind!
His book—as what serious book is not?—is born of genuine despair. Adam/Ben wonders if his poems are “so many suicide notes.” If the actual were ever to replace art, he’d swallow a bottle of white pills. If he can’t believe in poetry, he’ll close up shop. You and me both, pal.
Leaving the Atocha Station “chronicles the endemic disease of our time: the difficulty of feeling,” a perfect phrase a reviewer once used to describe an imperfect book of mine. Ben never lies about how hard it is to leave the station—to get past oneself to anything at all. He incessantly wonders what it would be like to look at himself from another’s perspective, imagining “I was a passenger who could see me looking up at myself looking down.” He wants to take everything personally until his personality dissolves and he can say yes to everything. Ben has never come anywhere near such an apotheosis. Neither have I. When I was a little kid, I was a very good baseball player, but I mostly preferred to go over to the park across from our house, sit atop the hill, and watch Little Leaguers, kids my age or younger, play for hours. “What’s the matter with you?” my father would ask me. “You should be out there playing. You shouldn’t be watching.” I don’t know what’s the matter with me—why I’m so adept at distance, why I feel so remote from things, why life feels like a rumor—but playing has somehow always struck me as a fantastically unfulfilling activity.
What is actual when our experiences are mediated by language, technology, medication, and the arts? Is poetry an essential art form, or merely a screen for the reader’s projections? I’ve lifted these two sentences from the flap copy (surely written by Lerner). The nature of language itself is a major part of Adam’s problem: he’s unable to settle on the right word in English, unable to understand Spanish, revels in mistranslation as a bottomlessly rich metaphor for all miscommunication. An unfortunate fact about stuttering—the subject of my autobiographical novel, Dead Languages, published when I was the same age Ben is now—is that it prevents me from ever entirely losing self-consciousness when expressing such traditional and truly important emotions as love, hate, joy, and deep pain. Always first aware not of the naked feeling itself but of the best way to phrase the feeling so as to avoid verbal repetition, I’ve come to think of emotions as belonging to other people, being the world’s happy property, not mine except by way of disingenuous circumlocution.
About the 2004 Madrid bombings—three of the bombs exploded in the Atocha Station—Ben says, “When history came alive, I was sleeping in the Ritz.” He wonders if he’ll be the only American in history who visits Granada without seeing the Alhambra. While Spain is voting, he’s checking email. Easy enough to judge him. Harder to acknowledge the near universality of such lassitude. In the fall of 1974 I left the Bay Area to go to college in Providence, Rhode Island, which I imagined as, quite literally, Providence—a heavenly city populated by seraphic souls. I imagined Rhode Island as a literal island, the exotic edge of the eastern coast. And I saw Brown as an enclosed, paradisiacal space in which strong boys played rugby on fields of snow, then read Ruskin by gaslight in marble libraries too old to close, and girls with thick dark hair, good bodies, and great minds talked about Goethe (which I thought was pronounced “Goeth”) at breakfast. The first month of my first semester, black students occupied the administration building and demanded increases in black student enrollment and financial aid. These seemed to me laudable goals, so I went over to become part of the picket line outside the building and marched in a circle, chanting, for a few minutes, but the whole event felt like a really weak imitation of all the demonstrations I’d been going to since I was six years old, and I wanted to get away from groups and the West Coast and my former milieu for a while. A few people from my dorm were tossing around a Frisbee on the back side of the green. I left the picket line to go join them.
If Ben cares about “the arts,” it’s only to measure the distance between his experience of the actual works and the claims made on their behalf: “The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.” He’s “unworthy.” Profundity is “unavailable from within the damaged life.” And yet he’s willing to say, somewhat begrudgingly, that Ashbery is a great poet: “It is as though the actual Ashbery poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading. But by reflecting your reading, Ashbery’s poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. It is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: ‘You have it but you don’t have it./You miss it, it misses you./You miss each other.’ ”
This is a lot. Still, is that the best art can do now—be a holding tank/reflecting pool for lostness? Maybe, maybe. Life’s white machine. The words are written under water. Ben has nothing to say and is saying it into a tiny phone. Why was he born between mirrors? Twentythree years older than he is, I’m in exactly the same mess. The question I want to ask, in the book that follows: Do I have a way out?
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