I’ve been reading a lot of books about mental illness, the brain, & madness over the last few months in preparation for teaching a course with my colleague Stephen Casper, a historian, called The Literature and History of Madness. I’ve been reading mostly in the “popular” rather than the scholarly literature, which I will get to soon enough. Most recently, I’ve finished Michael Greenberg’s memoir of his daughter’s crack-up, Hurry Down Sunshine. One is not likely to read a less sentimental and more clear-eyed account of psychosis than this. Told with great sympathy for all involved, especially Sally, Greenberg’s daughter, the story is presented without a trace of sensationalism; but what I found most intriguing about Greenberg’s account is his exploration — almost entirely in asides and very brief digressions — of the the paradox of psychosis: that it is born of the basic human need to make sense of the world, often through language, but that when this drive goes wrong, when it seeks totality, madness results. (I still remember my friend B.A. lying on the couch in my Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle in 1975 listening to the radio because it was telling him the meaning of life & how everything made sense.) Greenberg’s daughter Sally, though “learning disabled” is a verbally brilliant teenager, who ultimately gets tangled up in her own twists & turns of language & meaning. There is a moment near the end of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which is the ur-text of modern American psychosis, in which the wise psychotherapist who has drawn her patient out of hell vehemently insists that there is no connection between madness and imagination, psychosis & creativity; but if there is no necessary connection, there is a borderland across which the two entities regard each other, that’s clear. It is a borderland into which Greenberg’s sensitive account shines a narrow beam of light, revealing a few salient features of the place, which is perhaps all we can ask.
I continue my desert studies at William Vollmann University, but I took some time away from the VU campus to read a couple of short books, each of which deals with one’s relation to the Other (though in very different ways), which is also Vollmann’s great theme. Last week, I finished reading my first Slavoj Zizek book, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, having avoided Zizek up to now because he seemed both too prolific and too trendy. Right after finishing the Zizek, I read Susan Sontag’s long essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. In approaching Sontag over the years, I have often found myself repelled by the coldness of her style & her tendency to argue by assertion. Despite my doubts, both these short books accomplished for me what theory / criticism ought to do — that is, both essays helped me sharpen my own thinking and sense of the world.
The first half of First as Tragedy, Then as Farce presents a flyover of post-9/11 politics & culture in the West — it is what I think would have been called a work of political economy before that term went out of fashion with the rise of economics as a science. Zizek is a fluent, even sprightly, writer who can explain difficult concepts clearly and whose point of view can thus come to feel completely natural to the reader, who, if I am at all typical, adopts the author’s assumptions as if they were his own. This is a very effective rhetoric, if that’s what it is — style as rhetoric — but the reader must be on guard so as to not be swept away on a current of enthusiasm, which, admittedly, can be a pleasant experience, especially with a maestro as charismatic as Zizek.
Two big concepts emerge from Zizek’s essay, which is conveniently divided into two parts: 1. An analysis of the ways in which neo-liberalism & late capitalism effectively subvert & incorporate insurgent political movements. Zizek is particularly interested in the way that movements on the political left suffer this fate, but it would be interesting to see how he’d think about the so-called Tea Party movements on the American right, which will almost certainly be absorbed by the neo-liberal Republican Party. The genius of neo-liberalism is its ability to absorb insurgencies & naturalize them, making them safe for domestic consumption, as it were. 2. A thesis about Human Nature in which the capital letters are appropriate. Zizek sets himself up as a champion of “communism” as a mode of life that depends on the assumption that there is a core set of human values that unites all people across any supposed cultural divides. In this, he directly opposes the position of Theory in all its manifestations over the last thirty years, which has held that human nature is a variable construct. In my view, Zizek’s second thesis consists of a great deal of wishful thinking, but perhaps that is because I have been ensnared by theory. In any case, I have a student who, along with a bunch of Dickens and Tolstoy, has just read The Fountainhead this summer: I have recommended Zizek’s book as an antidote.
Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others came along at just the right moment for me. I have been reading William Vollmann’s big book Imperial, about the California county where my mother was born & where I spent a lot of time growing up & looking, too, at the separate volume Vollmann published, under the same title, of his photographs of people and places in Imperial County. Sontag’s book is an attempt to understand the usefulness of images — photographic images in particular. In this late essay, Sontag revises and even reverses her earlier (more aesthetic?) view of photography as a technology of distancing & comes to an understanding of the photograph – particularly the war photograph — as a necessary, if never sufficient, moral document. The second half of this book strikes me as the epitome of what an intellectual discourse looks like: full of passion & doubt.
I’ve finished Part I of Vollmann’s desert epic & stand in awe of the flexibility and courage of his imagination. The flexibility, I think, is born of desperation & obsession: Vollmann is driven to look at everything about Imperial County (and the geographically and imaginatively much larger entity he calls Imperial), especially his own motives for writing about it and the way writing about it creates an imaginary Imperial; he then worries that the imaginary Imperial cannot do justice to the actuality of the place. All great art calls itself into question, suggests the grounds for its own negation. It is this sort of desperate knowledge of both the power and inadequacy of the imagination that forces Vollmann to bring himself directly into the text in chapters he calls “subdelineations” in order to distinguish them from the more documentary delineations of the other chapters. The courage is both aesthetic & physical. Vollmann dares just about anything in pursuit of the actual, on the page & on the ground. The structure of the book, I think, will be determined — delineated — by the subdelineations, then, where Vollmann brings himself into Imperial & Imperial into himself.
Later: In his second Subdelineation, which comes near the end of Part I, Vollmann presents a long meditation on the difference between fiction and non-fiction & the ability of each to tell the truth. Non-fiction comes out ahead, but not because it is capable in any direct way of presenting the truth, or even, perhaps, a truth. In turning over these ideas, Vollmann actually writes a bit of the novel he might have written had he chosen fiction, then he writes a bit of the novel another character — an INS agent — might have written about the same incident. All this against the background of a sentimental novel from the beginning of the 20th century, set in Imperial, with a heroine named Barbara Worth. For all his hardcore reportorial mojo, Vollmann is throughly pomo.
I think I need to keep a journal of my reading of this book. It is that big a world. I’ve reached page 108, near the end of a chapter Vollmann calls “Subdelineations: Lovescapes (2001),” the first of several chapter titles that begin with the word subdelineations that appear to be more personal in nature than the other chapters that, so far, have functioned, sometimes literally, as delineations of Imperial (the book) & of Imperial County, an arid place in California. The book is both an attempt at knowledge and even understanding of this particular place as well as an admission of the impossibility of anything like the complete knowledge of a place, which would have to be, Vollmann notes, the sum total of all the people who have looked at it or lived in it however long or briefly. This first subdelineation is about the breakup of a love affair: Vollmann tells the reader that his lover of many years has left him. “I just can’t take this anymore,” she says, but we never know what this consists of. The author, wisely, I think, doesn’t say. Vollmann probably doesn’t know either; or he both knows and doesn’t know. What he does know is how it makes him feel and that is what this chapter is about. In order to understand Imperial (To italicize or not? County in California or book?), the reader must understand the author’s life in the place and his life in the book. It takes courage to write this way. This particular chapter is rawly emotional, but that’s only part of what I mean; it take aesthetic courage to believe so throughly in the inclusive principle of literary composition that you include what happened to you as you wrote the book. It’s impossible of course because it leads to an endless recursion, which is one definition of madness. Vollmann courts madness, but is one of the lucky few who are saved by the demands and strictures of his art. I like Vollmann. I admire his impulse toward the exhaustive. Reminds me a little of Norman Mailer, but without Mailer’s brittle machismo.
I bought this novel because it is set very near to places I grew up in Southern California. Specifically, the novel is set in Bombay Beach, next to the Salton Sea in Imperial County, California. The book catches the desolation of the place and of the people who live there in language of Sopheclean directness. My grandfather lived in the Imperial Valley from around 1900 until his death at 94 about thirty years ago & I spent many school vacations baking in the 100 degree heat. No landscape moves me as much as that of western Imperial County, with its bare mountains of tumbled rock descending to the sandy floor of the valley. It is surely among the poorest counties in the state, same as the one I live in now, in Northern New York — both are far from the center, affording people greater freedom (of a certain kind) as well as greater risks than wealthier, more settled places nearer the capitals. The greatest risk, perhaps, is loneliness.
Silver’s novel demonstrates what can be accomplished with the basic materials of realist narrative and style. The story is recounted by Ares, now an adult but recalling events that occurred when he was twelve. The plot is rigorously chronological and the prose limpid and without a hint of authorial narcissism. Ares and his younger half-brother Malcolm, who is severely autistic, live with their single mother in a trailer in Bombay Beach, on the Salton Sea. Laurel, the boys’ mother, has fled the pieties and restraints of a Midwestern childhood and come to rest in the desolation of Imperial County. The novel’s plot is too delicate a machine to summarize, but from the opening pages it is apparent that some terrible event will divide the characters’ lives into a stark before and an after. If the heroes of the Greek theater were doomed by the capricious but implacable decrees of the Gods, the ordinary people in this story are propelled toward their fates by the implacability of mere chance. But Ares, the god of war, discovers comes to rest in the strength bestowed by integrity — his mother’s, his brother’s, and his own.