February 08, 2007


I had to order the CD update for The Complete New Yorker in order to reread Jonathan Lethem's Personal History essay "The Beards: An adolescence in disguise" (from the 28 Feb 2005 issue, pp 62-69), and found that I remembered bits of it clearly but that I'd missed a lot too. It's a fine piece, especially if you're trying to sort through your own history of interests and ummmm obsessions. A couple of especially juicy bits, in which I don't exactly recognize myself but can see how one might extrapolate:

Attempting to burrow and disappear into the admiration of certain works of art, I tried to make such deep and pure identification that my integrity as a human self would become optional, a vestige of my relationship to the art. I wanted to submit and submerge, even to die a little. I developed a preference, among others, for art that required endurance, that mimicked a galactic endlessness and wore out the nonbelievers... By trying to export myself into a place that didn't fully exist, I was asking works of art to bear my expectation that they could be better than life, that they could redeem life. I asked too much of them: I asked them to be both safer than life and fuller, a better family. That, they couldn't be. At the depths I'd plumb them, so many perfectly sufficient works of art became thin, anemic. I sucked the juice out of what I loved until I found myself in a desert, sucking rocks for water. (pg. 67)

The work I've chosen bears a suspicious resemblance to the rooms themselves [ref: Every room I've lived in since I was given my own room at eleven, has been lined with books]. My prose is a magpie's. Perhaps anyone's writing is ultimately bricolage, a welter of borrowings. But, of the writers I know, I've been the most eager to point out my influences, to spoil the illusion of originality by elucidating my fiction's resemblance to my book collection... My rooms might have been armor, a disguise or beard, but I wanted millions of admirers to peek inside and see me there, and when they did I wished for them to revere and pity me at once. The contradiction in this wish tormented me, so I ignored it. Then I became a writer and it began to sustain me. (pg. 69)

...this in the context of last night's Radio Open Source program The Ecstasy of Influence and the Harper's piece of the same name.

Posted by oook at February 8, 2007 02:08 PM