Saturday, March 27, 2010

Literary devotion

{Photo by rocketlass.}

On the recommendation of Ed Park, I've spent the past couple of days laughing out loud on the bus at Christopher Miller's Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank, a novel that takes the form of a reader's guide to the life and work of an imaginary sci-fi writer modeled on Philip K. Dick. The book is jammed with great jokes and absolutely brimming with ideas, primarily ideas (many surprisingly compelling despite their ridiculousness) for Dank's stories and novels--though, as the more skeptical of the guide's two authors points out in the entry for the story "Bacterial Rights," that's not to say the stories are good:
Many of Dank's stories would be better if they were shorter--the shorter the better. Often their very titles exhaust whatever interest their premises hold. "Bacterial Rights" is a perfect example: Dwell on that title for ten or fifteen seconds and it's safe to say you just thought up a better story than the one with which Dank, unencumbered by any real knowledge of biology or sociology, eked out to the length of something saleable (though only, be it said, to a magazine called Twat). "Bacterial Rights" is a cautionary tale about misguided hippies who, convinced that "Germs are Living Beings Too" (their battle cry) break into the R & D wing of "a top antibiotics factory," smash all the beakers and flasks, and are infected with a strain of meningitis so lethal that it barely leaves them time to beg for the life-saving antibodies they sought to destroy. Except perhaps as evidence that when he wrote it in 1972, Dank liked prescription drugs more than he liked hippies, the story is worthless.
I'll have more on this book--and how, if read in too close conjunction with Steve Hely's similarly hilarious How I Became a Famous Novelist, it could induce permanent literary paralysis in any aspiring writer--in the coming days. For now, however, I'll highlight one passage, the moment when the guide's primary author, a thoroughgoing Dank apologist, explains how he came to choose to study Dank in graduate school:
If literary scholars serve a purpose, it is not to count the adverbs in Ulysses or prove that Charlotte Bronte was a hermaphrodite or that the same versatile theory can enshroud both Henry James and Stephen King in jargon so interchangeably opaque as to obscure any reason to reading one and not the other. No--our raison d'etre is to call the world's attention to unnoticed beauties and profundities. I'd had my winter of discontent with Dank because I'd been demanding that he give me what I got from Joyce or Shakespeare (though in truth I've never had much use for either), rather than the thrills that Dank alone can give, and had always given me so generously when read on his own terms. In a midnight of the soul I date to March 18, 1991 . . . I vowed to love my fate, to love my dissertation, and to love the odd niche my advisor was driving me into. In other words, I vowed to love Dank, through thick and thin (and at his thickest--e.g., the 936 pages of Listening to Decaf--he did put that love to the test), in sickness (artistic) and in health, for the rest of my life. I took my vow so seriously that a few nights later I got into a fistfight with a drinking buddy who'd ventured to disparage Dank, though he was just repeating sentiments he'd heard me expressing all winter.

And yes, I know how odd it sounds to vow to love an author, but after all I'd loved him all along, ever since I first encountered his fiction at the age of fifteen. All I was doing now was solemnizing our relationship: putting a sacramental stamp on a teenage crush.
I know that Miller is exaggerating for effect, but even so, he captures some the reluctance that kept me out of graduate school: good god, how could I decide, in my early twenties, to specialize! To whom could I pledge fealty and unwavering interest? What author, or even period, all alone could hold my attention for a career against the ever-tantalizing pleasures of generalization and dilettantism?

The passage also reminded me of the lunatic--if at the same time admirable--devotion of the scholars who populate Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Some of the best examples come from the annual Tolstoy conference at Yasnaya Polyana, where Batuman, having lost her luggage, spends a week wearing the same flip-flops, sweatpants, and flannel shirt she'd traveled in; some of scholars, she explains,
assumed I was a Tolstoyan--that like Tolstoy and his followers I had taken a vow to walk around in sandals and wear the same peasant shirt all day and all night.
Batuman's accounts of the panels and literary arguments at the conference bring to life the pleasantly ridiculous flavor of academic obsession. For example:
At breakfast, one historian had described his experience researching the marginalia in Tolstoy's editions of Kant. . . .

"Were there at least any good marginalia?" someone asked.

"No. He didn't write anything in the margins at all," the historian said. He paused, before adding triumphantly: "But the books fell open to certain pages!"
Then there's this account of a panel discussion:
[A] Malevich scholar read a paper about Tolstoy's iconoclasm and Malevich's Red Rectangle. He said that Nikolai Rostov was the Red Rectangle. For the whole rest of the day he sat with his head buried in his hands in a posture of great suffering. Next, an enormous Russian textologist in an enormous gray dress expounded at great length upon a new study of early variants of War and Peace. Fixing her eyes in the middle distance, consulting no notes, she chanted in a half-pleasing, half declamatory tone, like someone proposing an hour-long toast.
The best, however, may be the reaction to Batuman's own paper, in which she compares Anna Karenina and Alice in Wonderland. This causes some controversy when she is unable to say unequivocally that Tolstoy had read Alice before writing Anna. An argument breaks out:
"Tolstoy had a copy of Alice in Wonderland in his personal library," said one of the archivists.

"But it's an 1893 edition," objected the conference organizer. "It's inscribed to his daughter Sasha, and Sasha wasn't born until 1884."

"So Tolstoy hadn't read Alice in 1873!" an old man called from the back of the room.

"Well, you never know," said the archivist. "He might have read it earlier, and then bought a copy to give to Sasha."

"And there might be mushrooms growing in my mouth--but then it wouldn't be a mouth, but a whole garden!" retorted the old man.
The discussion goes downhill, steeply, from there.

All of which calls to mind the other reason I never turned to graduate school: in my early twenties, I had the good fortune to spend a couple of years working in a scholarly bookstore, where I met grad students from a wide range of departments . . . nearly all of whom carried themselves at all times like dead-eyed inmates of a nineteenth-century prison/mental asylum, as if their souls were slowly being squeezed out their pores--and criticized unrelentingly as they emerged.

It didn't take many cash-register conversations with these forlorn figures for me to realize that dilettantism, with its love of breadth and raffish unconcern for deeper knowledge--neither of which would necessarily preclude the occasional impulsive dive down an interesting-looking rabbit hole (see D'Israeli, Isaac)--was clearly the way for me. And, swagger stick twirling, that's the road I've been traveling ever since, and will keep traveling on this blog next week, and the week after, and the week after--that is, as Batuman's Tolstoy scholars like to say in imitation of their master, "if we are still alive!"


  1. Shades of Vonnegut! Shades of Borges! This sounds hilarious.

  2. "as if their souls were slowly being squeezed out their pores--and criticized unrelentingly as they emerged." This put me in mind of the movie "Wit" where we see Emma Thompson in a graduate tutorial being beaten about the head with Donne's sonnets. I shall watch it again tonight.

  3. Anonymous5:07 PM

    "If we are still alive!"

    Grampa Poon = a Tolstoyan?