Monday, April 25, 2011

Nicholson Baker on influences

One of the books I carried with me on vacation last week, and very much enjoyed, was U and I (1991), Nicholson Baker's attempt to plumb the extent of John Updike's influence on his reading, writing, and life.

Like so much of Baker's writing, U and I is eminently quotable--and bloggable, and discussable. There are sentences on nearly every page that you can't help but want to read to a friend and talk over, even if, like me, you've read barely a word of Updike: Baker's questions about influence and career and style, even as they're firmly rooted in his own neuroses, are broadly applicable.

Tonight I'll focus on the section in which Baker, after confessing to some anxiety about not having read Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence before embarking on this project, sets out a distinction between contingent and chronic influences:
A contingent influence springs to mind as you try to solve the problems suggested by a chosen subject and then it goes away.
He then notes the many contingent influences weighing on him as he works on this project, which include Bloom, Henry James's "A Figure in the Carpet," Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise, and more. (Had Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage existed in 1991, it would surely have made the list.) This, he writes,
is the arrangement of bayonets and blowguns whose hostage I currently am and whose exact middle point, as far from any single peril of encroachment as possible, is what I'm trying to find as I write; and yet when I'm done, the particular threats will tiptoe off as quickly as they came and I will be surprised to remember,w hen I see the shape my essay finally take,s how uncomfortable and beset they all made me feel.
Chronic influences, on the other hand, stay with you:
Unlike contingent influences, who (or which) you are always hoping will turn out to be more different from you than you felt them to be at the time they made themselves known, permanent influences like Updike (and, to a lesser extent, Nabokov), make you very unhappy when they threaten to be more unlike you as human beings than you had thought. . . . Because you are matching yourself constantly against a permanent influence, any divergence between you and him assumes the proportions of a small crisis, any convergence is an occasion to nod as if it were all in the cards. . . . Normally if I read something I think is wrong, I forget it two days later . . . but with Updike, when I disagree with him, there is an element of pain, of emotional rupture, that makes me remember my difference, and as a result I keep returning unhappily to it over the years and checking to see whether the disaccord remains in effect--and because each time I check it I have to find grounds that will satisfy me for my continued refusal to be convinced by what he's said, I am able to refine my opinions in a way I could never do if I did find him universally agreeable.
On the one hand, Baker is expressing a view that I think even he, self-deprecating to the bone, would agree is essentially childish: we want to feel that we know our heroes, that they are like us, and, when young, we have a lot of trouble separating the doer from the deed, the creator from the creation. In adult life, we're supposed to be beyond that.

But with our very favorite writers, the ones whose words have molded ours beyond what we can even tell anymore, that separation remains hard to make--and in that last sentence, Baker comes close to justifying us in our failure to fully break free. It's true: it's not just that the flaw in the beloved makes the beauty stand out, but that the disagreement, worried over and maintained, forces us to look closely at the ground we're holding in opposition, and shore it up against all manner of assault that wouldn't have even threatened us had we not so much at stake.

1 comment:

  1. "even if, like me, you've read barely a word of Updike:" It's hard to believe, given how much you've read, you've not tried to tackle at least the Rabbit novels. Philip Roth recommends the last two as his best novels. Also, much of his literary criticism makes for riveting reading. The Beck collection of stories are also wonderful.